The Information Superhighway to Heaven
“It’s quite a different world for Christian publishers than it was even just a few years ago,” Barbour Publishing President and CEO Tim Martins says.
Uhrichsville, Ohio-based Barbour began in 1981 as a small remainder-seller of other publishers’ excess stock, known as Book Bargains, and evolved into a publisher that has shipped more than 100 million books in its 25 years in business. Now, it’s developing supplemental methods of getting its inspirational books to an ever-growing readership by leading the faithful online.
One of the biggest challenges Barbour and other Christian publishers are facing is the consolidation of the sales channels—the big-box mentality of larger booksellers dominating the retail market. Martins, a 19-year Barbour veteran who took over the reigns in 1999 when founder Hugh Barbour retired, says the growing market share from sales by larger-sized retailers makes it a very difficult environment for independent retailers, which has historically been the mainstay for Christian publishers.
With the backing of a growing number of Christian bookstores in the 1980s, Barbour—known as Barbour & Company before opting for its current name—had its first big hits: Oswald Chambers’ “My Utmost for His Highest,” and Barbour’s first original title, “The Bible Promise Book.” The two remain on Barbour’s best-selling backlist.
As larger retailers like Barnes and Nobel and Borders began to dominate the retail side of the business in recent years, the religious book publishing category began to reach a far more mainstream audience. Despite the increased attention on the genre, book publishers, like Barbour, began to see more attention being paid to fewer titles at the detriment of their backlists, Martins says.
“[Big-box retailers] have opened up the world of inspiration bookselling in the last decade. It’s a phenomenon. ‘Left Behind,’ ‘The Prayer of Jabez’ and ‘The Purpose Driven Life’ don’t happen without the technology and the big boxes,” he says. “There are more people exposed to Christian books today than ever in history. At the same time, from a publisher’s standpoint, we want to insulate ourselves.”
Barbour decided to increase its Web presence and its ability to offer content for sale, and in turn, its ability to market directly to its readership.
“We used to joke, 15 and 20 years ago, in the Christian industry, that we’re about 10 years behind general trade,” he says. “I suppose there are few areas where that is true, but technology is not one of them. In terms of workflow, even the smallest publishers have benefited from technology. Technology has been a great accelerator for growth. Most of that has been forced on us by the market.”
The company’s Web site has come into focus during the past year, Martins says. A relaunched site with information about the publishing company’s history, authors and available books came online in January. The new BarbourBooks.com also includes the option for those interested in Barbour to receive RSS news feeds about the company’s top-selling titles, upcoming releases and press releases.
“It has become an important strategy,” he says of the company’s Internet presence.
With plans to launch an e-commerce-based Web site—HumbleCreek.com—by year’s end, Barbour Publishing is taking control of digital technology by taking control of what titles its readers will have direct access to buy. Currently, the publisher’s direct-to-consumer sales is 12 percent of its sales volume.
Barbour frontlists nearly 200 impulse and value-priced books a year. In 2005, it shipped 17 million units.
“The strategy is to move that sales mix to about 50 percent, while continuing to grow the wholesale market,” Martins says. “Our focus is on publishing that will be continuity-driven and marketing directly to consumers.”
Once HumbleCreek.com goes online, it will serve as a community of 25,000 active club members. The company has operated Heartsong Presents book club, a Christian romance book club, for more than a decade. It included more than 200,000 members during that time, Martins says. The club offers its members both historical and contemporary romance novels written by Christian authors. Four novels are mailed out each month, along with The Official Newsletter of Heartsong Presents!, a newsletter for club members.
“That site is about selling product, but its also about community and about delivering content to members of the community,” Martins says of HumbleCreek.com.
The next step after rolling out the site is to build traffic with its current membership before attempting to drive business growth by attracting new members to the club and other clubs the publisher has in development. Barbour publishes 52 new books a year for Heartsong. According to Martins, about 95 percent of the books in that series are sold directly to the consumer.
“It’s always been a vision to duplicate that success,” he says. “It hasn’t been a big focus for us until this year. We’ve stepped it up in terms of focus. But it’s been a long-standing vision that we’ve had.”
A new Heartsong club that will specialize in Christian mystery novels is on the drawing board. The initial plan is to publish 36 titles a year starting in January 2007.
“We’re optimistic for continued growth,” he says. “We think there’s plenty of opportunity for us to grow.” BB