A response to the chatter
Recently there was a blog post and subsequent discussion on the current state of Christian fiction. While there was much truth in the post there were moments of chastising retailers for what they do and do not carry; LifeWay being the main one discussed.
What is the current landscape of Christian (or CBA) fiction? Well, it’s changing and it’s oftentimes hard to navigate. It’s so different than when I started buying books, let alone selling them as an associate in a store many years ago. There has been a decline in sales of print books in our market for a few years now. Many novelists are leaving traditional publishing houses and choosing to go the self published route. Retailers have no way of knowing about the self published titles and more often than not, there isn’t an easy way for them to get those books into their stores if they had interest because our distributors do not carry most of them (something that CBA is looking at). And of course eBooks have certainly taken a bite out of print book sales.
However, there are many exciting things happening in fiction as well. I’ve seen the successful launches of debut novelists who bring a fresh perspective to our industry and many of those have well established writing careers now. The fiction customer is, for the most part, still loyal to their local store for buying their books (and we’re grateful to you!). Powerful, life changing stories are appearing on bookshelves for customers to discover and share.
We’re seeing all of this at LifeWay.
I’m the senior book buyer for LifeWay and have been buying books for over 11 years. Much of my time is spent with Christian fiction. It’s a big part of our business and the fiction customer is extremely important to us. There are many titles published each month and I’m constantly finding ways to promote them while discovering new authors, and helping to grow our favorite, bestselling writers. I also spend a lot of time talking with publishers about what is working and what’s not and what types of books we could use in the Christian market. And finally, I just love to read fiction!
As the book buyer, I have the responsibility to make sure the titles we carry at LifeWay fit within our beliefs as Christians as well as within our company’s parameters of what we do and do not carry. LifeWay is owned by the Southern Baptist Convention and because of that, there will be times that we choose not to carry an author or a particular book. For instance, with nonfiction books, there are authors who have different theological views than we do at LifeWay so we choose not to carry their titles. If we decide to not stock a fiction title, it has historically been because of vulgar language, using the Lord’s name in vain, or explicit descriptions of sex, abuse, or violence.
And as with all retailers, there is no possible way we can carry all of the tens of thousands of books that are published each year so we have to be selective.
We recognize that we will disappoint pockets of customers by what we do not carry as well as by what we do carry.
Let me tell you what we do carry, especially in Christian fiction!
Right now on our shelves in our 184 stores are books for the avid teen reader, the busy mom looking for a quick escape, and for the business traveler that wants to enjoy a great read while on the road.
There are entertaining and humorous stories of people figuring out life and love. There are stories set in regency England, a concentration camp during World War II, a small town in West Virginia in the 70’s, and in a quaint southern city full of crazy characters.
There are gripping court cases, sweet romances, futuristic tales, and suspenseful crimes.
There are powerful stories of lives that are messed up, where people doubt the faith that they thought they could trust, and where life just isn’t what they thought it would be.
No matter the setting, genre, or story, can you relate to any of those books?
I certainly can. Life is full of beautiful and blessed moments but it can also be hard and messy. It can be full of difficult questions, ones that we are sometimes too afraid to ask ourselves, let alone God.
What if a reader can catch the faintest whisper of truth or a gentle reminder that makes them feel less alone in a novel they got from our stores? I must say, it doesn’t get any better than that.
So yes, we do guard what goes on our bookshelves. We want people to find entertaining and trustworthy reads. Books that will have them laughing one moment and maybe stopping to reflect on a biblical truth along with the story’s character the next. We want story lines that are realistic to today’s world. It isn’t pretty out there and it’s okay if the stories reflect that. Falling in love can be messy before it’s wonderful. Struggling to offer forgiveness to the person who has forever altered your life can seem impossible. Life doesn’t always get wrapped up with a nice bow. And people don’t always live “in Andy Griffith Land, and in the end the characters will fall to their knees and accept Christ so that all life problems will be resolved.”
All of that and more can be done within a frame work that sets those books apart from what one finds in general market bookstores. We have the power of grace, mercy, and unconditional love on our side. As Christians, we are called to be in the world but not of it. That applies to what authors choose to write, what retailers select to sell, and what customers decide to read.
Is it easy? No. I’m the first to admit that it can be a challenge. There are times when I struggle with it because I fear that I’m possibly leaving a good book off our shelves due to the parameters that I work within. But, I am honored to work for a company that has a clear vision for how we want to serve our customer and the church. As an employee, I’m a steward of our God-given mission and it’s something that I work hard to do well.
Whether the future of Christian fiction is one of doom and gloom or brighter days (I feel our best days are ahead of us), I for one am grateful to the dedicated authors, publishers, and editors who are striving to bring their talents and ministries to us. Let’s leave the future safely in the Lord’s hands and continue to work hard with what He’s entrusted us to do today.