An earthquake hit CBA this past week. You may not have noticed it, since the news was buried on the back pages, but if you’re an author who sells into the Christian market, it’s going to affect you — possibly in a huge way.
If you haven’t heard, Family Christian Stores (FCS), the largest Christian bookstore chain and easily the largest seller of religious books and merchandise, is in trouble and has filed for Chapter 11 to reorganize their debt. They have 266 stores, did $230-million in business last year, and are facing a real crisis. They are in debt $127-million, much of that in store leases and rents. They owe publishers about $14-million, nearly that much to card-and-gift vendors, and even more to consignment companies. So the owner, Richard Jackson and his team, made a bid to creditors to keep the company in business. (If you don’t know about any of this, you can read about it in an earlier blog post that I wrote here.)
Jackson is a difficult guy to root for among authors, since he and his partners own FCS, but they also loaned money to the company and have been trying to repurchase the company for a lower price, paying themselves back but cutting out many of the publishers and vendors who are owed huge sums. Another group submitted a higher bid, but that group, Gordon Brothers and Hilco Merchant Services, exist only to take over the locations, liquidate all the assets, and close up the stores. All the employees would lose their jobs, all the stores would eventually shutter, and, most significantly for authors, all the books would be sold without any money making its way back to authors. The books and other products would be considered surplus inventory to be sold as quickly as possible, with the money used to pay off the largest lenders (Credit Suisse holds $34-million of secured debt, and is pushing this idea). Even worse, all that shelf space that has focused on Christian novelists and nonfiction writers would simply disappear.
Those with a memory of Borders Bookstores, Coldwater Creek women’s clothing stores, the Bombay Company furniture stores, The Sharper Image, Circuit City, Wolf’s Camera Stores, or dElia’s Clothing will know the Gordon Brothers and Hilco names — they are the people that stepped in after the crash of 2008, pushed the inventory out the doors, and closed all the locations of those stores. And that’s what is very likely to happen to all the FCS stores.
Book publishers and other vendors would like to see FCS remain open, both in order to receive some of what is owed to them, and because of the loss of bookstore selling space that would happen if FCS completely shut down. If you’re writing books to a CBA audience, you know there aren’t a lot of retail outlets for Christian books, so the closing of all the FCS stores would be a huge blow to Christian authors. There are the independent stores, which are great and have seen a bit of a resurgence of late, but indies aren’t everywhere, are hard-pressed by Amazon, and tend to focus on blockbuster titles. Barnes & Noble, while a wonderful retailer, tends to stick religious books onto some shelves hidden away in one corner. With the closing of Cokesbury stores and other small chains, it would mean LifeWay would be the largest remaining Christian bookstore chain. And while nobody wants to say it, that’s problematical. LifeWay stores are run by the Southern Baptist Convention, meaning most charismatics, Catholics, Anglicans, novels that offer much beyond historical romances, and anyone not holding to the far-right-wing branch of conservative evangelicalism are basically not welcome. (I’m not anti-baptist, by the way — but I’ve watched all sorts of troubles occur when publishers go to LifeWay with books that were thoughtful or challenging. There are some hilarious stories of novels being turned down because certain words were used, and frustrating stories of nonfiction books being rejected because the writer dared to question some dogma.) Frankly, the news is bleak for authors.
The court decided to give FCS more time — until October 9 to reorganize and get creditors to agree to the new plan. It also pushed out the mediation talks with vendors over consignment inventory, linking those results to the overall bankruptcy. But all of that is being challenged by companies intent on swooping in and shutting everything down completely. The story isn’t done yet, but it isn’t looking good. And that’s a shame for publishers who are owed money, small mom-and-pop vendors who were cheated out of consignment products, and for CBA authors, who are about to see even fewer places to sell their books.