Dec 31, 2012

E-books & the changing market for Christian fiction

The data on digital books, the market for e-books and e-book readers, is kind of conflicted at the moment. Prognosticating the future of reading is for the most part futile, anyway, but the tea leaves right now are especially mysterious.

Sales of e-readers dropped by about 36 percent, apparently due to the popularity of tablets and devices that do more than reading, leading some industry experts to predict the waning of the Kindle moment.

The rate of e-book buying has also slowed. The market's soft. About a third of those who read e-books haven't bought one in the last 12 months. This might be because they haven't read the ones that are already on their digital devices. An analyst talking to the New York Times called it the "overloaded night stand" effect: "someone isn't going to buy any more books until they make a dent in reading the ones they've already acquired."

On the other hand, the percentage of Americans owning an e-reader went up in the last year, from 10 percent to 19 percent, and the percentage who owned any kind of device that can be used for reading digital books increased by 15 points, so now more than one third of Americans could read e-books if they wanted.

Which they do: as of November 2012, about 30 percent of people who read had read an e-book in the last 12 months.

I don't know what to make of that. What's happening or what's going to happen. It's not clear whether the whole trend has crested or whether, as others say, the digital book future is just beginning.

The market, however, has already changed the way people read and what people read. The effects can be seen in the market for Christian fiction, which looks different now than it it did in 2007, and different in ways that can be directly linked to digital books.

For one thing, in the last five years, the sorts of Christian fiction that are available, the genres and sub genres, has dramatically diversified. The market has opened up so that, for instance, a novel about Reformed Christians on an alien planet in the future fighting a guerrilla war to defend "New Geneva" against invading Khlisti, a new religion described as "incorporating revamped Marxism, Islam and a dash of New Age spirituality," can now not only get published, it can reach number nine on Amazon's chart for science fiction sales. As the author of that book said, "The advent of e-books changed everything."

For another thing, in the last five years, the sorts of people reading Christian fiction has diversified. Where once only a dedicated customer could have found Christian fiction at a special store devoted to evangelical products, now people are stumbling across these books, picking them up (virtually speaking) on a whim, reading them without knowing really what they are or what they are about. This can be seen in the backlash against Christian fiction's lack of a label, though presumably not everyone who found themselves surprised to be reading Christian fiction was angry about it.

Both of these changes -- diversifying readership and diversifying genres -- can be traced the change in the ways e-books are sold.

As NPR's Zoe Chace reports:
The price of an e-book isn't fixed the way it is with physical books. Ten years ago, a publisher would have sent out its books to the bookstore with the price stamped on the cover. After that, it was done — the publisher couldn't put it on sale to sell more books.

'The exciting thing about digital books is that we actually get to test and price differently,' [Sourcebook President Dominique] Raccah says. 'We can even price on a weekly basis.' Once publishers have this tool, the ability to adjust prices in an instant, they can do whatever they want with that tool — like use it to get publicity. That's what Little, Brown did with presidential historian Robert Dallek's book on John F. Kennedy, An Unfinished Life.

In the middle of November, Little, Brown dropped the price from $9.99 to $2.99 for 24 hours — the digital equivalent of a one-day-only sale. 'That sparks sales; it gets people talking about it,' says Terry Adams, a publisher with Little, Brown. 'You've just expanded the market.'

Dropping the price of An Unfinished Life did get people's attention. 'Here, we had an opportunity to increase the audience,' Adams says. The book — originally published in 2003 — launched itself back onto the best-seller list. And because Little, Brown could raise the price again, it wasn't stuck with a money loser.

This kind of promotion leads to discovery, something that used to just happen in brick and mortar bookstores. But with fewer of those around, publishers are using price to create discovery.
That strategy has been very popular with Christian fiction publishers. It's not uncommon to see whole lists of evangelical novels being sold on Amazon for $2.99, $.99, or even being given away in a promotional blitz.

Such strategies have changed the shape of Christian fiction, as the genres adjust to the market and make use of the market that's there. In the past, the Christian fiction market has taken the specific shape it had because of other developments in how books are produced and distributed. Christian romance emerged as a distinct genre only after a distribution network of retail outlets was organized, catering specifically to evangelicals, and especially evangelical women. Christian fiction only breached bestseller lists and broad cultural recognition after big box retailers such as Wal-Mart began carrying Christian fiction titles such as Left Behind and The Shunning, embracing the idea that buying such books was act of cultural identification that left customers more strongly allied with the cultural politics of the corporation.

Digital books, Kindle and Amazon, have likewise transformed the market, so what Christian fiction is, and who reads it, and how many, have been changed by how books are sold.

These latest developments to the market may well also determine the shape of the Christian fiction market in the future. How, of course, remains to be seen, but then, even the ways that market developments of the past have already had an influence on the markets for Christian fiction is only very poorly understood.