ATLANTA It was a sign from above that the Christian book industry is changing.
Large banners reading ''New York Times Best Seller'' greeted bookstore owners and publishers at their industry's annual convention in Atlanta this week.
The signs promoted ''The Purpose-Driven Life'' and ''The Maker's Diet'' just two of the Christian-perspective books that have successfully crossed over into the mainstream market in recent years.
Soaring sales have obviously meant greater profits for some, and publishers are keeping a sharp eye out for authors who have the potential to become the next best seller. But success has also meant greater competition for store owners, who can't match the deep discounts offered by big retailers that now stock some Christian books. So, many of the 11,000 people at the meeting of CBA International were looking for their own niche.
Christian bookstores, a term generally referring to shops run by evangelical Protestants, will ''never be able to sell as cheaply as Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, Costco or Barnes & Noble,'' said James Dion, a Chicago-based retail consultant. But they have a small advantage over those competitors customer service and product knowledge, he said.
''The business is first and foremost a ministry. The good news: It's a wonderful thing, it can become the most powerful customer service strategy you can develop,'' Dion said. But store owners often ''put business not even second, but third and fourth. They're wonderful ministers but not really good businesspeople.''
Better marketing and merchandising is key, said Sherri Litza, owner of New Covenant Christian Supply in LaPorte, Ind. Sixty percent of the stores have less than $500,000 a year in sales, a relatively low figure, she said.
''We have to find a way to compete,'' she said. ''We have to develop our niche by customer service, customer loyalty and by becoming more efficient in what we do. All the stores are being challenged.''
Gifts with a Christian motif are one niche, as is music, Dion said. Bookstores also are banking on sales of earlier books by now-popular authors, such as Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye of ''Left Behind'' fame, along with Bible commentaries and works by established names such as prison evangelist Charles Colson and theologian Francis Schaefer.
Other stores are opting to open on Sundays which, despite being the Christian day of rest, is a time they know their customer base will be out after church services and lunch.
Chuck Wallington, owner of Christian Supply in Spartanburg, S.C., said he's seen more customers looking for some of the older titles. He's also worked to grow his church supply business, selling communion plates, tithe envelopes, church bulletins and coloring books for Sunday School classes.
''When you connect with the churches, you tend to connect with people in the churches,'' he said.
Browsing a new product display at the convention, Claud Efird said customers may buy a best seller from Wal-Mart, but if they want to know more about that author or to find similar books, they will visit a Christian store.
But Efird, who attended his first booksellers gathering in 1973, said he's glad that Christian books are now showing up on other shelves. At his daughter's store and cafe in Wilmington, N.C., the biggest sellers are books, Bibles and upscale gifts, he said.
''I really feel that the popularity of those Christian books have created more interest,'' he said.
Association president Bill Anderson said stores should look at themselves as Christian lifestyle department stores, offering a wealth of titles to choose from and knowledgeable staff.
''They're specialty stores that offer the breadth and depth rather than just cherry picking,'' he said. ''They have the full orchard rather than just a handful of cherries.''
When it comes to book genres, some think Christian fiction is due to grow in popularity, thanks to more realistic characters and edgier story lines.
There's still no sex and cursing, but characters have a beer now and then, and there is more violence, attributable to the multimillion-selling ''Left Behind,'' said Jana Riess, the religion book review editor at Publishers Weekly.
Chick-lit and lad-lit, novels for 20- and 30-something young women and men, respectively, also are growing categories, Riess said.
''The only major fiction crossover has been 'Left Behind,''' she said. ''That's definitely going to change.''
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