Thinking Out Loud

March 21, 2019

America’s Last Significant Christian Bookstore Chain, LifeWay is Shutting Its Doors

On January 6th, 2018 the iconic James Draper Tower of the LifeWay complex in downtown Nashville was demolished. Thursday’s announcement of the closing of the retail chain sends even bigger shock waves. [Source: Tennessean – see below]

Yesterday, Religion News Service reported:

LifeWay Christian Resources announced Wednesday (March 20) it will close all 170 of its brick-and-mortar stores this year.

That comes as LifeWay, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, shifts its resources online.

Local news media The Tennessean reported:

The company plans to shift to a digital strategy as consumers increasingly rely on online shopping, a challenge that retailers face nationally. LifeWay resources, such as online Bible studies and worship plans, will be offered at LifeWay.com, through the LifeWay Customer Service Center and through its network of church partners

“LifeWay is fortunate to have a robust publishing, events and church services business. Our retail strategy for the future will be a greater focus on digital channels, which are experiencing strong growth,” [CEO Brad] Waggoner said. “LifeWay is moving into a new era with a strategic digital focus that will prepare us for the future and allow us to better serve our customers.”

At LifeWay’s Facts and Trends website, more details:

…The timing of store closings will vary depending on local circumstances. LifeWay expects all brick-and-mortar stores to close by the end of the year…

…In one month, LifeWay interacts with five times as many people through its digital environments as it does through LifeWay stores…

Unlike the 2017 closing of another Christian retail chain, Family Christian Stores, this is not a receivership. The FCS closing affected over 3,000 employees and also devastated publishers, music companies and giftware suppliers who were also sent reeling with the closing of Send the Light, a large wholesale distributor. FCS closed 240 stores in comparison to LifeWay’s current 170. In contrast, the website for Parable explains that, “Parable Christian Stores are locally owned and operated franchise stores run by people who desire to resource their community with Christian products.”

But there is no doubt the LifeWay decision will have an impact on authors, musicians, and a host of other creatives who make the products that Christian bookstores sell. It will also have ripple-effect repercussions on everything from how Christian products are marketed and promoted to Christian music concert tours.

But not every author, musician, or film producer is affected as the RNS story reminded us that many had their products outright banned by the chain:

[Rachel Held] Evans said Wednesday that she doesn’t rejoice over any bookstore closing and she is mindful that LifeWay’s closing means many people will lose their jobs.

But, she said, “for too long Lifeway’s fundamentalist standards have loomed over Christian publishing, stifling the creativity and honesty of writers of faith.

“I hope this news reinforces to writers, editors, and marketers across the industry that we don’t have to conform to Southern Baptist doctrine and culture to sell books. Readers are hungry for literature that embraces the complexity, nuance, and ragged edges of real-life faith and for bookshelves that reflect the diversity of the Church.”

Other people on Twitter responding to the closure didn’t share Evans’ compassion and were outright gleeful that the chain, long known for its restrictive practices was shutting down. “News we can celebrate;” said one, while @SBCExplainer, an official SBC account, countered with, “[L]et’s band together to dispel any notions that LifeWay is ‘going under’. LifeWay will continue to be the largest Christian resources provider in the world.” 

Patheos blogger Jayson D. Bradley, who himself once worked at a Family Christian store, observed, “Without intending to, LifeWay and Family Christian Stores helped create an evangelical ghetto. By choosing what was orthodox enough to sell and then only carrying what sold, they helped create the hyper right-wing political evangelical culture we all get to enjoy now.”

As the story broke last night in local markets where the company has locations, several reports indicated that store management knew their closing date was coming at the end of May. SBCExplainer also noted that outlets on seminary campuses would also be closing. Also included in the closing is the new flagship store built less than a year ago in the new LifeWay building after the first property was sold and demolished. (See picture above.)

More information was being posted on the store’s FAQ page.

 

This is developing story; check back for updates.

 

August 27, 2015

Wow Series Celebrates 20 Years

Wow Hits 2016Christian bookstore shoppers have made this item a staple for two decades now, and in many of them, it is the top selling CD of the year overall.  The WOW CDs were patterned after the NOW CDs which were sold in the general market. The idea behind the compilations was to present the best available songs, but without the label restrictions usually associated with CD samplers. To accomplish this, The WOW Partnership was created involving the major Christian record companies. Additionally, bonus cuts allowed the participating companies to introduce newer artists.

The CD series has its own page on Wikipedia:

WOW is a series of annual compilation albums featuring contemporary Christian music. The birth of the WOW record project can be traced Grant Cunningham, A&R Director at Sparrow Records. In November of 1994 Grant made a business trip to EMI Limited in London, at the time was the parent company of Sparrow Records where he noticed that several British record labels were issuing an annual CD of top-rated songs, known as the NOW series, containing collections of pop songs. Grant brought the idea back to Sparrow. Sparrow executives suggested a similar project be developed for Christian pop music and Grant was assigned the task of getting the project off the ground. The WOW franchise represents the most successful collections of Christian music ever issued.

Released in late 1995, “WOW 1996” was the first in the WOW series and the first recording put together by the three major Christian record companies of the time: Word Records (now Word Entertainment), Sparrow Records (now part of EMI Christian Music Group), and Reunion Records (now part of Sony’s Provident Label Group). Still today, after each submitting label agrees to a reduced master royalty, the final decision on the tracks to be included is made by committee. Production, marketing, and distribution for the “WOW Hits” series is handled by EMI Christian Music Group.

Wow Worship LimeThe Wikipedia page has two more paragraphs,one of which I added this morning, and deals with the huge popularity of the more recent WOW Worship series. That series began in the fall of 1999 and are named by the color of the cover, possibly in a nod to the timelessness of some worship songs. There have also been hymn collections and Christmas collections, and in the U.S. the WOW Gospel series highlights the best of urban and mass gospel choir-inspired music.

With WOW Hits 2016 due to release mid-September, I found it interesting that one writer has already suggested ten songs that didn’t make the cut. (If you’re looking for some tunes to listen to, he has the videos embedded in that post.) Furthermore, just to show what a coveted prize getting on the Wow complications is, Josh Andre also offers twenty songs that he feels should be considered for WOW 2017. Somebody takes this really seriously!

These albums always make a great gift. For the the recipient, they represent an instant commercial-free playlist, especially for people who live on the fringes of Christian radio reception or are completely foreign to the contemporary Christian music genre. The 2-CD sets are now usually made available in both a regular and deluxe edition, the latter containing more bonus cuts, but the standard minimum is usually 30 songs, making this a great bargain.

Happy Birthday to WOW!

December 16, 2013

Christian Radio Stations and the True Meaning of Christmas

Christmas Banner 2

Because I spend part of my week in a Christian retail environment, I hear a lot from customers about their frustration trying to buy Christmas cards that contain anything even remotely resembling the Biblical Christmas story, and as I mentioned here a few days ago, the birth narrative from Matthew or Luke is just the beginning of what we, as Christ-followers, would want to convey.  Fortunately, the Christian bookstores — and their online equivalents — are able to offer products that aren’t about Rudolph, or Frosty, or one-horse open sleighs.

So now that we’re into the final countdown to Christmas, I’m at a total loss to understand how it is that the customers who so decry the secularization of Christmas can handle what Christian radio is offering during the final weeks of December. Biblical narrative? Idea that Jesus came to save us? Concept of God incarnate? Some songs, yes; but in many others that are sucking up valuable Christian radio airtime, it’s just not there to be heard.

Now let me say at the outset there are two realities present here.

The first is that successful Christian music artists either feel compelled or are compelled contractually to make a Christmas album. This provides them with extra visibility, extra radio airplay and extra revenue. And I’m sure that these artists really do have deep personal memories of song of these songs from their own childhood years.

Secondly, I realize that for Christian radio stations, they are most likely to attract new listeners at this time of year with a playlist that is more recognizable to the average listener. Maybe some of those new listeners will stick around in January, and hear the Good News in a way they’ve never heard it before. One of my favorite radio ministries is 96five in Brisbane, Australia. They play a mix of Christian and secular family-friendly songs that has earned them top ratings in their market.

Despite both of these realities, I believe there is an expectancy on the part of regular listeners, who are also in many cases financial supporters that the station will take the opportunity to communicate the message of the Gospel at this time of year. Furthermore, I think the broader community feels that in many ways they own lyrics like “Joy to the world, the Lord is come” in a way that they don’t relate to “How great is our God,” and are therefore quite content to stop tuning across the radio spectrum and allow their car radios to stop at any station that’s playing the traditional carol.

I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning names of artists or song titles here, but the one which grates on me (and others) most this year is a recording of a new song called “Merry Christmas, Baby.” Sorry, but there are so many better uses for that three minutes. I realize the song goes into what we might call vertical ‘worship-inclined’ lyrics — lyrics that can be taken two ways — but that isn’t clear to listeners in the context — and title — of the larger song.

There is also an argument for the radio formula where only one song in three is a Christmas song, and listeners traveling to the mall or to family events get to hear the kind of Christian radio that is broadcast the rest of the year, instead of re-branded “Christmas” format that disappears on December 26th. That strategy, is something my Christmas card customers would support. Right now they’re just bewildered.

What’s your relationship to the whole Christian Christmas-album genre?

July 29, 2013

Where are the Book Reviews? Where are the Books?

The scene a year ago as Borders bookstore locations closed.

The scene a year ago as Borders bookstore locations closed

Sunday night, and I’m looking around for a new book to start. Normally there is a stack from publishers and authors. Not so anymore.

I’m also realizing that around this time last year I wrapped up a two-year flirtation with Christian fiction. My reading of doctrinal and Christian living books still had a four-to-one lead, but I got quite taken with the writing of James Rubart, Andy Andrews, David Gregory, Paul Young and one-time authors William Sirls and Michael Neale. My bookshelf actually needed some space devoted to fiction.

But while the second book in the James Rubart series is due out any day now, I haven’t signed up to review it. I think you get on a roll with certain types of books or certain subjects and then when you fall out of where that current had been taking you, it’s hard to jump back into the stream.

However, that doesn’t explain the lack of non-fiction reviews here over the past few weeks. I’ve finally reached the point where the blog has enough clout that I can bypass those blogger sign-up things where they offer you free books simply because you have a blog, even if you only have a handful of readers. Plus I have publishing connections.  “Ask me if there’s anything you want to review;” I was told last week. I said what I really, really wanted was the full text of The Voice Bible. Maybe that wasn’t what they had in mind.

There is a shortage of books.

On June 19th, Evan Hughes wrote an article for Salon titled Here’s How Amazon Self Destructs.  Yeah, they had me with that headline. You can read the whole article here.

Basically, Hughes is noting that while Amazon is category killing its way to a 60% market share of books sold, it only accounts for 6% of the “discovery process;” the way we find out about books and choose to want to acquire them. In fact, online “discovery” generally is only 17%. Hughes writes:

…The brick and mortar outlets that Amazon is imperiling play a huge role in driving book sales and fostering literary culture. Although beaten by the Internet in unit sales, physical stores outpace virtual ones by 3-to-1 in introducing books to buyers. Bookshelves sell books. In a trend that is driving the owner of your neighborhood independent to drink, customers are engaging in “showrooming,” browsing in shops and then buying from Amazon to get a discount. This phenomenon is gradually suffocating stores to death. If you like having a bookseller nearby, think carefully before doing this. Never mind the ethics of showrooming — it’s self-defeating. You’re killing off a local business you like…

The occasion of his article is growing concern about the long-term stability of Barnes and Noble. Yes, you read that right. First Borders, now Barnes and Noble? There have been layoffs, and store closings. Hughes notes:

By defeating its competitors, Amazon is choking off some of its own air supply. Barnes & Noble and independents are in one sense competitors for Amazon, but in another sense they are functioning as unwilling showrooms and sales agents for the online giant. As David Carr has suggested, Amazon should want them to survive, if only out of self-interest.

Amazon has made attempts in recent years to get better at “discoverability” — with  the “Look Inside” virtual browsing feature and with recommendation algorithms (“New for You”), and through highlighting bestseller lists and editors’ picks. In a bold step in March, Amazon acquired Goodreads, the leading “social reading” website, where readers recommend and review books for one another. Many observers saw this move as a grab for more customer data. The stronger motivation may have been the desire to secure a discovery engine that would funnel customers to Amazon.com, thus protecting against the loss of stores. But so far Amazon has not cracked the discovery problem. Sometimes the site makes a recommendation that no sentient human being would make, which is telling. Even if Amazon gets better at this, it may run up against a wall: Some people want to literally get a feel for the book before they buy.

Barnes and Noble dates back to 1886. Their retail stores are visible, but they operate almost as many textbook stores on college and university campuses. [see Wikipedia article for a complete history]  Hughes writes:

Already in a distant second place [to Amazon], Barnes & Noble has recently seen its woes deepen significantly. The company has been closing stores and announced in June that it would close still more and stop making Nook color tablets. It reported net losses of more than $1 million per day.

But is Hughes being sensationalistic?  In the current issue of New Yorker magazine, James Surowiecki writes:

But the hastily written obituaries left out some important facts. To begin with, B. & N.’s retail business still makes good money, and, though its sales fell last year, its profits actually rose. Its operations, thanks to better inventory management, are more efficient: it can make more money while selling fewer books. The Nook is the only part of the business that’s losing money. Being a book retailer isn’t easy—thanks, above all, to Amazon—but Borders’ bankruptcy, in 2011, left B. & N. without a major national competitor. “In this market, you could actually pick up market share simply because you’re the only major bookseller left,” John Tinker, a media analyst at the Maxim Group, told me. And B. & N. has generally avoided the expensive, long leases that can drain a retailer’s cash flow; many of its leases are short—which gives it flexibility in terms of moving or downsizing—and, since its stores generate foot traffic (which is good for surrounding stores), it has considerable leverage with landlords…

So maybe the sky isn’t falling. Not yet. Surowiecki continues:

For many people, as a number of studies show, reading is a genuinely tactile experience—how a book feels and looks has a material impact on how we feel about reading. This isn’t necessarily Luddism or nostalgia. The truth is that the book is an exceptionally good piece of technology—easy to read, portable, durable, and inexpensive. Unlike the phase-change move toward digital that we saw in music, the transition to e-books is going to be slow; coexistence is more likely than conquest. The book isn’t obsolete. Barnes & Noble just needs to make sure it isn’t, either.

So we see that while some people have speculated how the Amazon empire could possibly implode, others are dismissive of the idea. A few months ago I wrote here about how the values of Amazon’s founder might be quite opposite those of many people who read blogs like this one, and yet despite this, many conservative Evangelical churches are happy to cede all their book purchasing to Amazon because of better pricing. In the average church office, when values are in collision, stewardship trumps principles.

The publishing industry has been hit hard by various factors, and while the long-term good might be better served if everyone didn’t have all their eggs in one basket, a collapse of Amazon isn’t necessarily good news. If the company did go down, some publishers’ entire fortunes are hitched to the Amazon star, and there would no doubt be ripple bankruptcies across the publishing spectrum.

But if Amazon is choking off its air supply, it explains partly why it seems to me there are so few books to review right now. Maybe I need to be more aggressive about asking music companies to service social media with review copies to fill the gap.

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