Lessons for Publishers from the Loss of Family Christian Stores
Last month brought sad news that another national bookstore chain went out of business. This time, Family Christian Stores, the largest U.S. retailer of Christian books and merchandise, closed all of its locations. Executives throughout the industry, both mainstream and religious, hated to see another big brick-and-mortar chain go under. The sting of Borders closing its doors in 2011 is still fresh. Now, another 240 bookstores across America, along with 3,000 jobs, have disappeared.
Family Christian Stores initially filed for bankruptcy in 2015, but many people anticipated the company had a difficult road ahead. Even though, it’s a hard pill to swallow when that road finally reaches a dead end. The company cited “changing consumer behavior and declining sales” as the main contributing factors. From my perspective, it’s just another example of Amazon’s continued dominance over the entire retail industry.
Publishers now have one less national chain to sell their books. Plus, more power consolidates to remaining retailers, which gives them more leverage over shelf space and selling terms. In addition, analysts are still concerned if Barnes & Noble will figure out how to get their sales growing again.
The loss of Family Christian Stores provides a critical reminder to publishers of every type. It is essential to grow your direct-to-consumer (D2C) marketing and sales channels. Relying solely on retailers to move your inventory is like relying solely on a truck with a leaky gas tank to ship all of your goods. Reaching readers on a direct basis allows publishers more control over influencing book sales.
Even though modern publishing is over 75 years old, the industry still depends on distributors and retailers as middlemen to reach a national audience. Yet, a D2C approach is commonplace in other industries, especially now that sophisticated e-commerce can be conducted by companies of all sizes. The Family Christian tragedy is a wake-up call to all publishers. Now is the time to master essential D2C skills in-house.
When publishers adopt a D2C strategy, it doesn’t mean their relationships with retailers must become antagonistic. Publishers can build their audience and still choose to drive sales to their retail partners. But, publishers must prioritize the need to attract a large-scale audience of their own.
For example, I know of only a handful of publishers with over 1,000,000 subscribers to their email list or Facebook page. Most publishers have less than 100,000 total subscribers, which is too small to move the sales needle when desired. In addition, most publishers don’t connect with their audience frequently enough to drive purchase behavior. They build an email list but allow it to grow cold. Effective execution is critical to success.
Recently, I consulted with four publishing houses to introduce D2C best practices into their business model. In most cases, clients were able to add thousands of new email subscribers using free content and low labor intensive promotional tactics. Also, one client revived sales of a two-year-old backlist book by attracting over 10,000 highly-targeted email subscribers in less than 21 days. As those consumers responded to a follow-up email campaign, Amazon noticed the sales effects and quickly began ordering the book in larger quantities. The publisher was ecstatic with the results. D2C campaigns generate immediate benefits when implemented correctly.
The closing of Family Christian Stories means publishers can no longer ignore the importance of expanding their D2C marketing and sales efforts. Even though another national retailer is gone, it can have a positive impact if it causes publishers to take more control over their book sales. By doing so, the industry will be healthier for readers, publishers, and retailers.