Chip MacGregor

May 28, 2017

Where Did All the Christian Fiction Buyers Go? (A Guest Blog)


Steve Oates is the VP of Marketing for Bethany House Publishers. Recently, after I had blogged about the significant changes we’ve seen in Christian fiction, he contacted me with some thoughts. I invited him to send me a blog post to use — and here is his initial response…

Hardly a week goes by without another announcement from someone that they are getting out of the Christian fiction market, or another retailer is going out of business or shutting down. So, is it time for all of us working in Christian fiction to quit and find something else to do?

Before we all leave town, let’s check on the data and see what we can actually know about this market. I recently did the second year of a study of what is selling in all markets under the Christian and Amish fiction categories as reported by Bookscan (these are the data folks behind the ECPA bestseller lists). What I found is surprising: While there is a lot of upheaval in what is selling, what is remarkable is that both unit and dollar sales of fiction actually rose slightly from 2016 to 2017. And we are not talking digital here, this is just print, and just in the trade paperback and hardcover formats.

So if sales are growing rather than declining, why so much pain in the market? The pain is real, and there is consolidation taking place. What we are seeing is a migration in the market out of the “C” level books that is going into the “B” level books. By this I mean a movement out of the bottom tier (based on sales of less than 7,500 copies) in to the next tier — let’s say books that sell in the 7,500 to 15,000 range. The shrinking shelf space has harmed stocking of these lower-potential books, stores simply can’t put them all out there, and their marketing budgets are so low or they are from publishers who don’t have a strong enough focus on fiction to create discoverability for them, so consumers shopping where most books are sold (surprise—it isn’t bookstores) simply are unaware of them.

Usually when we think of migration in a market, we see the smallest players gobbled up by the largest. While this is happening at the publisher level, as the two largest players (Bethany/Revell and Nelson/Zondervan) have gained market share, what we are seeing as a publisher is that for authors it is the middle of the market that has the most growth. This makes sense, as avid readers are already aware of the top authors and have tried them or are currently reading books by them, but they are finding new favorites in the middle sales tier. This type of consolidation is exactly what we would expect to see in a mature market — some of the froth and speculation that was evident over the past years (like the rush into Amish fiction) is now working out and we have a more sustainable market for the stronger competitors who are dedicated to Christian fiction with full-time staff devoted to the genre.

So yes, there is a migration underway with a lot of displacement for publishers, authors, and those working in the market. However, the overall size of the market is slowly growing and the readers purchasing these print books are still out there. If you are an author who has made it this far, I’d say that the future looks pretty good from here.

In my next post, I’ll note that there is a recent, largely hidden, giant competitor in the Christian fiction market who makes up 40% of the units sold in print. We will see who it is…


My thanks to Steve Oates for his thoughts on the changing CBA fiction market. More from Steve in a couple days. 

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