Margin of Prophet

How many of you remember Christian bookstores? There are still some around, of course, and the big chains only collapsed in the last few years, but it’s been a while since they were ubiquitous. I want to talk a little about the decline of Christian bookstores and the subsequent change in Christian publishing, and what that might mean for genre publishing in a post-Covid world.

Keep in mind that I’m not an industry analyst, or a publishing insider. I’m a writer who has been publishing traditionally in the genres for a little over a decade. Before that I worked in various bookstores, and my father has been involved tangentially in publishing for the last forty years. I’m just a guy with opinions. None of this is a divine proclamation.

So. Let’s begin.

I was a child of the 80s, living in a part of the country very heavily influenced by American Evangelicalism, and so Christian bookstores were a foundational element of my early life. I was a fantasy fan from the outset, but my parents distrusted the genre. This proved difficult. My early reading was carefully curated by their concerns and the recommendations of people they trusted. I only got to read Terry Brooks because my seventh grade English teacher (at my conservative Christian school) had a reading closet that you got to borrow from if you did well in class. There was a battered copy of Sword of Shannara in there, opening the door to a lifetime of Shannara related joys. I read Anne McCafferey, because a pastor my parents respected mentioned reading the Pern series in a sermon. And of course I had Lewis and Tolkien. It wasn’t until high school that I had better control of my reading, simply because I had a car and cash in my wallet. But that’s not the point of this post.

The point, dear reader, is that all of this restriction created a market for Christian fantasy and science fiction, and publishers filled that need. I won’t go through the books I picked up at the enormous Christian bookstore my family frequented, because they were largely cheap imitations of better books. But I was a kid who didn’t know any better, and I ate them up, hook, line, and awkward conversion story shoehorned into the narrative sinker.

But Christian bookstores have largely collapsed. Family Christian and LifeWay shut down in the last few years, victims of the same headwinds that killed Borders, with the additional difficulty that their most profitable products were appearing in Walmart and Costco at lower prices. Traditional Christian publishing has mostly abandoned the genres (with the exception of Romance) and focused on celebrity authors who bring their audience with them from another channel. I heard an interview with the head of a major Christian publisher recently. The core message of that interview was that they make acquisition decisions based entirely on the notoriety of the author; how famous are they, how many followers do they have on social media, how likely is that audience to convert into book buyers, etc, et al.

It’s kind of a horrible thought. You can’t get published in that space unless you’re already famous in that space. You have to be something else first, and then maybe you can be an author. There is no midlist. There are only celebrities signing their first contract, and aspiring writers who simply can’t get signed, regardless of talent.

Why is this relevant to non-Christian publishing? Because this is what happens when markets narrow. There used to be a captive (ha!) audience for Christian fantasy, now there isn’t. Christian publishers are forced into more and more narrow catalogs focused on celebrity rather than quality. What’s the aspiring Christian fantasist to do? Become a ghostwriter, I guess. Or write well enough to make it in the traditional markets.

How does this relate to post-Covid publishing? Simple. The market is narrowing. There’s been tremendous financial disruption in retail. For years, bookselling has been an anemic performer in the retail sector, losing ground or making slight gains during periods of broad economic growth. When the overall retail environment craters, booksellers are going to face the greatest losses, with the least financial buffer in their bank accounts to compensate.

Major retailers have pivoted to address this. B&N is making sweeping changes to its stores, carrying fewer titles and focusing on books that sell. The stated aim of the changes at B&N is to reduce the number of returns. Publishers depend on the churn of selling titles that will eventually be returned to fund their operations, keeping a lot of plates in the air in the hopes of finding their next big hit somewhere in the midlist. If B&N cuts back on that churn, publishers will have no choice but to reduce their midlist. It’s inevitable. It’s just math.

What does that mean for authors like me? I think a lot of us are going to be forced into the self-publishing world. That’s where Christian fantasists mostly are these days, especially those intent on message-fantasy. I used to belong to an informal internet group of Christian fantasy writers, with hundreds of members. All of them were aiming for sustainable self-publication. None of the talk in that group was on how to break into traditional publishing, or how to get an agent, or what conventions to attend to meet publishers. There are advantages and disadvantages to that, but this isn’t a post about indie authors. It’s about the future of traditional publishing and what it’s going to look like in the near future.

Narrowing markets, fewer titles, stricter gatekeeping. That’s the future. That’s what’s happening today. Booksellers are pivoting, and publishers are going to be forced to keep up. There are a lot of changes they can make, but publishing is a nostalgic business. We cling to dead models because we’re all pursuing dreams in here. Our name on a cover. An office in New York. An award on our mantel. But dreams don’t pay bills, and the margin for error is shrinking by the day.

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