A discussion has broken out in the Jesus of Nazareth combox below on Catholic bookstores (and by extension any independent brick-and-mortar bookstore.)
It's a conversation we've had here quite often, and the challenges are real. The one thing I have to add, aside from all that can be more ably said by people like Ian of Aquinas and More (who has chimed in on the comments) is that in this moment in time, speaking in terms of the Catholic book market, no one knows how to sell books - not publishers, not authors, not bookstores. And I don't mean that in a disparaging way - I mean that we just can't figure it out. Business models are changing, reading tastes are shifting...everything. I really don't want to get into a long post about this because I feel as if it would be repititious on my part, but it all comes down to this:
How do you get the word out about books to the people who might want to buy them?
In this era of niche marketing and the Long Tail is there any hope of any common book culture among Catholics any more?
Points I've made before and will boringly repeat:
1) Gatekeepers are key. Or, in Long Tail terms, "filters." Institutions, individuals who are trusted, well, filters of what is good and worth reading. In Catholic terms, the primary filters today are EWTN and the small galaxy of professional conference/workshop circuits, from catechists to teachers to priests to lay ministers, two "forces" which diverge mightily on the books that will be impacted by their support, but which explains why a typical Catholic best seller's list will have, on the one hand Ron Rolheiser, and on the other, Scott Hahn. A filter that's on the rise, in my opinion, are the burgeoning Catholic family, women's and men's conferences. But there is really not any cohesive, integrated filtering force that most literate Catholics would look to, no matter where they fall "ideologically."
2) There are - what - about 50 million Catholic in the United States. Most Catholic publishers are delighted by a book that sells 10,000 copies and consider that a best-seller. Really. This is disappointing enough, but even more so by contrast with the CBA market (Christian Booksellers' Association.), in which 100,000 copy sales are not unusual - even of fiction. The question that drives Catholic booksellers and publishers to distraction is trying to figure out that disparity.
Catholics, do, buy books however. A figure I heard a couple of years ago, I think at a CBA meeting, was that 40% of Christian (CBA, not Catholic) bookstore customers are Catholic - which makes sense, considering that is consistent with the Catholic proportion of the Christian population. Yes, Catholics buy religion books. They bought the Left Behind books, they buy books by Rick Warren, Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer. In greater numbers, I would guess, than they buy books by almost any Catholic writer.
3) All of which doesn't really bring us directly back to the bookstore issue. There are many reasons bookstores struggle, and it is not just for lack of customers. They struggle because of unhelpful policies regarding shipping and returns from publishers, as well as other issues.
But here's something to remember about Cathoilc bookstores, and it is something I wish people who worked in parishes - mainly priests and religious ed personnel - would remember. During the course of any given day, I'll bet your average Catholic bookstore owner does more catechetical ministry than you do. He or she is in contact all day with folks, on the phone or in person, who have questions about the faith and are seeking answers. It seems to me the only way that Catholic bookstores can really survive and flourish is if more parishes were to recognize this, partner with these stores and really work to promote Catholic reading among their people - regularly and consistently.
Well, I didn't mean to do this post at all. All I meant to do was to link to this article from the Cleveland paper, sent to me by long-time reader Kevin about the pressures on Christian bookstores. This has been brewing for a long time and is the consequence not only of online issues, but of big box stores like Wal-Mart and so on, selling Evangelical-themed, CBA type books in a big way. They just can't compete, and unlike the Catholic stores, they don't have the small boost that First Communion and Confirmation bling gives. (Because it is my understanding that bookstore profits are not primarily in books anyway. It's in other stuff, something the people who ran the Logos chain years ago figured out in the 70's - not that they're still around, but if you recall, that was the first "Christian" bookstore to pull you in with the cute and sentimental geegaws, as well as greeting cars in the front, hoping you'll find a book or two on your way to find the new Amy Grant record.)
Oh, and a BEA update - I certainly hope MIchael blogs on all of this at length because it was very entertaining. He really feels that Hitchens could be taken down pretty easily in a debate by a knowledgeable person because well, he...didn't seem to know much about religion, conflating categories, misstating facts constantly. His basic thesis: you're either a fundamentalist or you're not really a believer, even if you go to church, synagogue or mosque. With a cigarette in one hand, glass of water in the other, shirt unbuttoned down to his chest, he was really just like some blowhard Brit spouting off superficial bon mots in a bar. The room wasn't full, either (which surprised me).