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ECPA Wire: Industry Issues

Disappearing Bookshelves

Tuesday, February 27, 2018  
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This article was submitted by LifeWay leadership with the hope that addressing these topics at this time of reorganization would be of value to ECPA members.


by Jennifer Lyell, VP, Books- LifeWay Christian Resources


I can remember standing in a Waldenbooks with a $40 gift certificate. I was nine years old and I remember looking up at the bookshelves that seemed to go to the ceiling. To the best of my recollection, there were nine rows of shelves. It was a library-like environment where books dominated. That nine year old girl would have been overwhelmed with joy if she’d known that one day she would actually make books and have the opportunity to serve the third largest bookstore chain in the United States. She would have been saddened and confused, though, to know that those bookshelves before which she stood at Waldenbooks would one day be in a garbage dump . . . along with those from countless other bookstores.


I’ve always been a nerd and developed the publishing strategies I’ve managed through a blend of missional conviction and pragmatic data analysis. If you share my interest in POS data, SKU count trends, retail turns, and pricing strategy, you’ve likely noticed unhealthy trends in aspects of each of these categories over the past several years. Much has been hypothesized, written, and debated about the causes and potential solutions for these challenges. It’s certain that customer behavior, content proliferation, and culture shift are all components of the challenges the book publishing industry faces, but I believe we can’t allow the breadth of the problems, the nuances of their expression, or the uncertainty of solutions to paralyze our response. We cannot be passive, merely hoping that the books published across the industry come together in a marketplace that is conducive to their connection with customers through business metrics that will sustain them and facilitate the ministry at their heart.


As we enter a new season at LifeWay, there are two key strategies we are pursuing relative to the books we sell that I hope will encourage and motivate publishers, authors, agents, and other retailers.


First, we must reestablish the value of the book. We have been part of a movement that has devalued the book in an effort to utilize overly aggressive discounts in an attempt to stabilize traffic. This has not worked and, in my view, has escalated the commoditization of books. We have responded to a populous that consumes content on their phones at stoplights by trying to make everything shorter, faster, and cheaper. We haven’t done enough, though, to shape the story of why books deserve a deeper investment of time and resources. We will attack this perception gap through our marketing messages, merchandising selections, product messaging, and pricing strategies.


Second, we must be realistic and transparent about the number of distinct books that can be supported in today’s brick and mortar retail environment. We have never been in a time of greater elasticity in publishing avenues and pipelines. Yet, this comes at the same time that shelves are disappearing as bookstores close and turns decline. A potential conclusion would be to give up on brick and mortar bookstores, follow the trend of author platforms, online promotion, and the predictability of stock management through online sales. Yet, this abandons the discovery opportunity a brick and mortar bookstore can be and the important role that plays in the life of individuals who don’t know where to turn for spiritual needs.


If we recognize that we cannot compete with the breadth of an online retailer when bound by the physical reality of walls, then we must seize and shape the solution-based value a missional bookstore environment can provide for its customers. This requires multiple publishers who bring multiple strengths to the solutions that LifeWay’s customers need. This also requires buying strategy and discipline that is willing to say no to some possibilities in order to fully actualize the opportunities customers need.


I was saved eighteen years ago and had no idea how to walk with God. I just knew I had become a Christian and needed to figure out how to read and understand the Bible. I was unchurched, like most of the people we encounter every day. I went to the LifeWay Christian Store in Carterville, IL because it was the entry point to the church that was most easily accessible to me. It was in that store that a believer introduced me to the Bible, showed me how to use a study Bible and a Bible dictionary, and set me on my course of discipleship. That happens every day in our stores. We want it to be sustainable. We want it to go deeper. And we are excited for you to join with us as we help believers navigate their faith journey.


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