As online sales threaten their bottom lines, booksellers are also being told that an internet presence is crucial for their future. Marketing strategists are encouraging them to record videos on their phones and post them to Facebook, to develop a social media following.
For a lot of the bookstore owners, the emphasis is new and uncomfortable. On another side of the evangelical book industry, though, it’s just part of the business. Take Christian authors, who are competing for fewer bookstore spots and Amazon rankings with the already-famous: reality stars like Chip and Joanna Gaines, the Duck Dynasty crew, and breakout Instagram influencers like Rachel Hollis.
Elizabeth Newsom is publishing her first novel at 21, a young adult romance called Captive and Crowned. A few days before its release, Newsom wakes up in her dorm room at the University of Texas at Tyler to write before class. She’s already at work on her next title. But first, Newsom gets her prayer journal. She dreams of her future, but puts it down in the present tense: I’m a bestselling author. I am a TED talker. I have inspired one person with my novel.
After class, the young author tackles social media. She spends as much time marketing the book as she does writing. Newsom is on Facebook, Instagram, and she has a blog. Plus, she has about 30,000 followers on Wattpad, a social media site for fiction writers.
Suzanne Kuhn, who owns the author-services company Brookstone Creative Group, is coaching Newsom on marketing. Kuhn says a lot of Christian authors find self-promotion uncomfortable—too much emphasis on building their celebrity, not enough trust in God. For Kuhn, though, building an online following isn’t any different than advertising a church service or planning a revival.
“It’s not about you. If your motivation is devotion to Christ, you’re not going to feel so icky about the marketing stuff,” she says. “If we understand that it’s about Jesus, then we see platform not as a necessary evil, but as a necessary resource.”
It’s a sign of how the business has changed, though. The Christian romance writers of the past certainly spent time connecting with their audiences. But where Janette Oke and Francine Rivers responded to handwritten letters of readers moved by their stories, Newsom feels like she has to become a minor internet celebrity to launch her career. She’s also footing the bill to publish her first novel.
“Honestly, I’m okay with losing profits on several books,” says Newsom, who has settled on a marketing major to bolster her writing career. “This is what I’m supposed to do. I have side jobs. My parents are helping. Worst-case scenario, I take out a loan. I’m going to use everything I have and everything I can get to push this vision forward.”
Over her summer break, Newsom was also at the expo in Murfreesboro, trying to line up independent Christian stores to carry her YA release. Even just a year ago, Newsom could have imagined her books available at a national chain like LifeWay, which had 23 stores in Texas, where she lives. But those are gone now, or holding closeout sales, leaving authors like her to seek other outlets to sell books.
LifeWay’s books have also ended up in independent stores: hundreds have signed up to carry Bible studies in special LifeWay branded sections. That’s just the beginning of what has to be a new era for LifeWay, a reinvention.
“My greatest fear is we would not accept the reality of this new age,” says Ben Mandrell, the new CEO and president of the Southern Baptist publisher, hired after the decision to close the brick-and-mortar stores.
“We’ve always been good at celebrating the past. There’s something very godly about laying down stacks of stones and remembering what happened back there, but the real goal of LifeWay has to be forward-thinking. We have to live in the future.”
Mandrell left a church he and his wife planted in Denver because he felt called to take this job. He now leaves his Nashville home at 4:30 a.m. wearing workout clothes and heading to the company’s headquarters. He puts on his Spotify playlist of worship music. First up is Steven Curtis Chapman, singing, “My Redeemer is faithful and true.”
Before he took the helm, LifeWay’s stores lost nearly $50 million in five years. The publisher tried a bunch of different plans to turn the losses around, at one point running 40 different tests, experimenting with technology, marketing initiatives, and customer engagement strategies. Nothing seemed to work. The stores just kept losing money.
According to an official company report, the board became concerned that if trends continued, not a single store would be profitable. The losses could grow so large that they would threaten to bankrupt the entire company. The report said a chain of any size was not sustainable in the modern market. A follow-up question has not yet been answered: If a chain of evangelical retailers can’t make it, will any Christian bookstores survive?
Mandrell can’t worry about the entire industry. He’s focusing on LifeWay. LifeWay produces well over 100 brands of products, and he thinks the company might be doing too much. In the car listening to worship music, he talks to God: What is it you’ve uniquely wired this ministry to do? Where are we involved in things where other people are better than us and you don’t need us to be doing those things?
He pulls up to the LifeWay building at 5 a.m., a new location the company moved to two years ago. “The 700-plus employees in this building, they know we have to change,” he says. “They feel the burden to become innovative and that’s exciting. The world is changing and we have to change with it.”
After he’s done in the LifeWay gym, Mandrell goes to his office. This morning, he spends the first 90 minutes looking at different products LifeWay has created: first a teen devotional, then a study Bible. It’s LifeWay’s Ancient Faith Study Bible, with notes and commentary from the first 400 years of church history. He thinks about how he would have loved this back when he was preaching every week. He doesn’t know what all the changes at LifeWay will look like, but he wants to sell more Bibles like these.
“The Bible is where everything else in the store comes from,” she says. “If people don’t have the Word of God as their literal daily bread, then we’re doing it wrong, and I think that’s how things get out of whack in our personal lives, in our homes, and in our country.”
A woman walks in the door looking for a Bible. Her daughter is getting married and the couple has decided, instead of a guest book, to have a family Bible. People will highlight important passages and write notes in the margins to encourage the couple when they read
Trost sells her a New Living Translation Filament Bible. It has a single column of text, with generous margins for the wedding guests. The Bible pairs with a smartphone app, which provides scholarly notes, interactive maps, and study questions to connect the Bible to daily life.
But the numbers tell a different story. Bibles account for just 15 percent of Trost’s sales today, not enough to make ends meet, especially when competing with Walmart, Costco, Amazon, and now smartphone apps.
“It’s interesting who God calls into this,” she says. “It’s people who are like, ‘I don’t know how this is going to work, but I’m going to do it.’ You get comfortable with letting the Holy Spirit take over.”