People of the (Christian) book

On December 1, 2009, CBA (which was formerly called the Christian Booksellers Association, back when Christian bookstores sold more books than gifts and other merchandise) asked the Department of Justice to investigate alleged predatory pricing by big-box stores and online retailers that threatens the very existence of the nation’s dwindling number of Christian retailing outlets.

On January 7, 2010, Adelle M. Banks of Religion News Service (for which I occasionally write) published a news story on CBA’s complaint: “Christian retailers seek federal probe of competitors.”

Since then, I’ve been waiting to see who would publish this story or add an interesting local angle. Mostly, I’m still waiting.

Among the very short list of those that have, either in print or online: The Houston Chronicle (NPR.org and businessweek.com linked to the article there); christianitytoday.com; and timesunion.com (in Albany, New York).

Among those that haven’t: publications here in Colorado, where CBA is based.

Banks spelled out the issues in her RNS piece:

“Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, and Target are using predatory pricing practices in what appears to be an attempt to control the market for hardcover best-sellers,” the CBA board of directors wrote in the letter to the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division.

Eric Grimm, business development manager at CBA…said Christian retailers have long been concerned about competitors’ pricing strategies, and called the letter a “pre-emptive” action before the competition for Christian books grows even more challenging.

“What we want to do is establish that this is an unfair practice so that when the next big blockbuster comes out of a Christian book that they won’t do the same thing,” he said.

Christian booksellers are not alone:

The CBA letter follows a similar request for a Justice Department investigation by the American Booksellers Association, which cited deeply discounted pre-sales of new books by [Stephen] King, former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and novelist John Grisham by the same three retailers.

Banks also got a quote from one of the industry’s biggest agents (with whom I have worked):

…CBA supporters like Rick Christian, president of the literary agency Alive Communications, also worry that the pricing by competitors is leading to fewer new voices entering the marketplace as publishers rely on popular authors who are more likely to generate big sales.

“In the short term, consumers will get too-good-to-be-true deals,” said Christian, who has represented titles like the “Left Behind” series and “The Message” Bible, in the letter to the Justice Department.

“However, the broad river of titles now available to readers will ultimately be reduced to a trickle, and the vast publishing industry we know will become a relative wasteland.”

But based on an article in Sunday’s New York Times, Christian retailers may need to look at the practices of Christian publishers like Zondervan, which is giving away e-books in an effort to spur sales of e-books.

In the Times article, “With Kindle, the Best Sellers Don’t Need to Sell,” Motoko Rich, reveals an interesting secret about the bestseller lists of titles for Amazon.com’s Kindle reader:

“That’s right. More than half of the “best-selling” e-books on the Kindle, Amazon.com’s e-reader, are available at no charge.”

…Earlier this week, for example, the No. 1 and 2 spots on Kindle’s best-seller list were taken by “Cape Refuge” and “Southern Storm,” both novels by Terri Blackstock, a writer of Christian thrillers. The Kindle price: $0. Until the end of the month, Ms. Blackstock’s publisher, Zondervan, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, is offering readers the opportunity to download the books free to the Kindle or to the Kindle apps on their iPhone or in Windows.

Will Justice investigate CBA’s claim? I’m still waiting for some reporters to follow Banks’ lead and tell us where things stand. Meanwhile, Christian retailers may be facing challenges that are bigger than predatory pricing by the big mainstream retailers. They may be facing a cultural tsunami.

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  • Jerry

    I don’t see how Christian-themed small bookstores are any different than the general small booksellers who have gone out of business in droves. I’m not really up on that business but I would be a bit surprised if such an issue had not already been raised earlier.

  • http://www.biblecritic.com Qohelet

    On the internet, Christianbook.com sell religiously-themed books competitively against Amazon or BN, often with better prices on items and shipping. I haven’t bought from a secular online shop in over a year, but I’ve just purchased six books from CB last week.

  • Bob Smietana

    We had a piece on yesterday’s front page here in Nashville. No sign yet there will be an investigation.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Jerry is spot-on. My parents ran an independent book store for 20 years and watched the “big-box stores and online retailers” drive most of their compatriots out of business. My parents’ store survived because of innovative marketing, loyal customers, and a Rust Belt economy that kept most of the big boys out of the area.

    CBA is crying wolf about 15 years too late.

  • Brian

    Qohelet gives a good counterexample in ChristianBook.com (which also does a strong mail-order business). WTSBooks.com, the online bookstore of Westminster Theological Seminary bookstore, also manages to have very competitive prices. There probably wasn’t room in this piece, but I would like to see some analysis of how different Christian organizations are using different strategies to stay competitive–and possibly how the new digital paradigm helps niche Christian publishers (Lancelot Andrewes Press comes to mind) reach more customers than they previously could.

    There’s a lot going on in Christian publishing besides the latest evangelical bestseller.


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