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    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Publishing's New Paradigm

Christian organizations, media companies and readers confront the digital revolution

By Steve Rabey
June 6, 2010

Christians have embraced printed books and periodicals ever since Gutenberg first printed Bibles five centuries ago.

In the 20th century, Christian book and periodical publishers flooded the North American marketplace. But in the early 21st century, the market is changing. Many Christian publishers are struggling to adapt to a digital revolution pioneered by Internet companies such as Google, social media technologies led by Facebook and Twitter, and consumers who are overwhelmed by information.

In recent years, book publishers have been releasing fewer titles, and many popular Christian magazines have ceased publishing paper copies, including Discipleship Journal, CCM, Brio, Christian History, Today’s Christian Woman, Pray!, New Man and SpiritLed Woman.

Publishers hope new business models will arise, but so far “digital publishing” isn’t paying the bills. Right now publishers are discovering what record companies have realized in the past five years — digital downloads aren’t making up for lost income.

“Normal is gone, and now publishers are trying to figure out the new normal,” says Mick Silva, an editor for WaterBrook Multnomah. “Christian publishing has become the land where total chaos is the new norm.”

Andy Butcher, editor of Christian Retailing magazine, says publishers face many challenges as Christian book sales are down. Butcher says the bad economy has played its part. But most publishing insiders acknowledge that the high tide of Christian publishing has passed. Publishers are cutting back on the number of titles they release, and many retailers have closed their doors.

CBA, a trade association representing many Christian retailers, claims that mega-retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and online seller have engaged in “illegal, predatory pricing.” The association has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate.

“As the larger publishers reduce their title counts, they concentrate more on their established brands and names, which makes it harder for new names to emerge,” Butcher says. “At the same time, with the digital developments there are more opportunities for self-publishing, with some publishers offering these kinds of options as a sideline.”

WaterBrook Multnomah Editor Mick Silva says companies have become risk-averse. That means fewer big advances or marketing campaigns for the next big author, and instead more repackaged or reissued bestsellers from yesteryear.

“Publishers, retailers and parent companies are taking losses, so they’re backing off making bets,” Silva says. “Now we need to figure out the new normal, and conservatism is the default setting until that comes along.”

Doug Trouten, executive director of the Evangelical Press Association, thinks trends in Christian publishing are mirroring developments in the mainstream world.

“In the general market we’ve seen a long-term move away from magazines that target a very broad audience, and we’ve seen that in the Christian field as well,” says Trouten, who is based in Minneapolis. “On the other hand, we’re seeing the continued growth of specialized titles for Christian motorcycle enthusiasts, Christian nurses and Christian military officers.”

Christian publishers are looking into digital or online publishing, but so far the income doesn’t add up.

 “Even without printing and postage costs, it still costs money to generate quality content for a Web site,” Trouten says. “When print advertising dollars turn into online advertising dimes, publishers find themselves struggling to pay the bills.”

Trouten understands why some nonprofit organizations and denominations have canceled print magazines, but he is concerned about unintended consequences.

“They figure they can lose the press bill and the mailing bill, but they don’t stop to think that they’re also going to lose a lot of their audience,” Trouten says. “Readers spend more time with a printed publication than they do with a Web site they have to remember to visit. There’s a level of engagement that just isn’t there in the online environment, which is designed to entice you to click one thing after another.”

Despite this challenging market environment, the Pentecostal Evangel continues to print on average more than 160,000 copies a week in its 97th year of publication.

And Gospel Publishing House remains a leading supplier of church resources.

“We’re researching and learning to adjust to the market trends,” says Sol Arledge, GPH general manager. “Our long history of serving and the dedication of employees is going to lead us into this new digital world.”

What about blogs? Trouten estimates there are more than 100 million blogs available online. “But a lot of this is fairly pointless stuff about something cute the cat did or what somebody is planning to cook for supper,” he says. “Still, there are also some real gems out there, including sites that are of special interest to Christians.”

The growing popularity of tablet-sized computing devices such as the iPad (which went on sale in April) and Amazon’s Kindle create another publishing avenue. These portable devices allow people to read books and magazines, and they generate revenue for publishers and authors. Trouten says some Christian publishers are examining the “micropayment” systems such devices utilize.

“Each user pays a few cents to read an article,” he says. “With a large enough audience, that could pay the bills. Somebody has described Google’s business model as ‘a billion dollars, a nickel at a time.’ Christian publishers may have to adopt that philosophy.”

Meanwhile, people are still buying books, and some genres are bucking the downward trends.

“Amish fiction is succeeding,” Silva says. “Supernatural romances similar to the popular Twilight series, stories with angels or historical and/or biblical heroines, stories of people rising above their meager circumstances are providing people with escapist reads. In nonfiction, it’s almost exclusively big names and previously successful authors.”

Christian Retailing’s Butcher says the charismatic/Pentecostal category remains strong.

“What was once considered divisive has been mainstreamed,” he says. “Even churches that would not categorize themselves as charismatic or Pentecostal embrace elements of these movements, including worship resources. Charismatic books have gone from being a ‘special interest’ to a major part of the mainstream ‘Christian living’ category.”

STEVE RABEY is a freelance author who lives in Colorado.

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