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VOL. 37 | NO. 3 | Friday, January 18, 2013

Cokesbury rides trend away from bookstores

United Methodist publisher moves to online, phones sales, shutters retail stores

By Linda Bryant

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The Internet age is forcing a big change at the United Methodist Publishing House, a historic Nashville-based religious publisher that dates back to 1789.

UMPH announced in November 2012 it would shutter all 59 of its Cokesbury retail stores and transition entirely to sales via an online platform and call center operation.

Chief Administrative Officer Amy Campbell Smith says the publishing house is responding to changes in the way customers buy religious merchandise, which is increasingly via phone sales or by shopping online. Annual sales from August 2011 to July 2012 were $86.1 million.

Smith says she doesn’t anticipate a decline in revenue from Cokesbury’s diverse sales channel, which sells Bibles, small-group study materials, theological texts, books for pastors and other professionals, Christian living and Christian fiction and non-fiction, and Sunday school materials for all age levels. Cokesbury sells a wide spectrum of choices, including some titles that push the Christian envelope, including Rachel Held Evans’ “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.’’

“Our fiduciary duty is to assure that the ministry thrives and remains self-sustaining, so serving our customers in other ways is a necessity,” Smith says, adding that UMPH received many calls from grieving customers who said they’d miss the bookstores.

We asked Smith about how the organization is dealing with another key challenge of the Internet age— reaching the young Christian consumer.

Do you think younger Christians, 18-35 year olds, are changing the face of Christianity or evangelism?

“Every generation brings a fresh perspective to the historic faith because the march of change in culture and technology creates ever new and different contexts. Offering works and authors who understand the realities of people’s lives and their challenges and aspirations and can speak to them while drawing upon the resources of Christian tradition is a wonderful opportunity.

“We look for authors and contributors of all ages and social situations who have solid understanding of the essential teachings of the faith and the pressing realities and needs and day-to-day struggles of all groups of people. We find that young people both contribute to and look for an authentic faith, grounded in scripture, reason and tradition and want to engage in robust and honest dialogue that helps answer the question – “How then should we live?”

Do younger active Methodists and/or Christians have different tastes in material or respond to different or more inclusive themes and writing styles? How do you reach or market to a younger audience?

“We see younger Christians demanding authenticity from leaders, writers and institutions – a desire for knowledge but also the need to see faith turned into action and purpose.

Studying scripture for information isn’t enough without the questions of what does it mean for how I live my life, how will this change me, what will I do in response. There also seems to be a greater sensitivity to exclusion and a need to see demonstrated openness to all God’s children.

“In a recent book by Adam Hamilton, “When Christians Get It Wrong,’’ his research with young adults showed a great distrust of churches that appeared to be excluding and negative.

These young adults wanted to see the authentic gospel of Jesus lived out in the world – reaching out to the sick, hungry, and discouraged with love. Books like, “Seeing Gray,’’ also by Hamilton, and “Christmas Is Not Your Birthday,’’ by Mike Slaughter have strong appeal to younger audiences as they address these themes.

“Other examples of products well-suited for younger readers include the Common English Bible – an accurate and scholarly translation that uses contemporary vernacular to tell the ancient/future holy story of God’s work in the world. Other examples include Christian fiction titles like “Undead’’ by Clay Morgan, and “Sandwich with a Side of Romance’’ by Krista Phillips, and Christian Living books such as the newly published, “The Christian World of the Hobbit’’ by Devin Brown. Jessica LaGrone’s “Namesake’’ women’s Bible study also has strong appeal for younger women.”