Amazon Launching New Christian Publishing Imprint, but Will Believers Buy?

Danielle Kurtzleben

Amazon can't seem to stop making big, bold moves lately, partnering with the USPS, delivering groceries and even talking up drones as the delivery vehicles of the future. But on Thursday the company announced a less ambitious enterprise: a Christian book imprint.

The new imprint, Waterfall Press, is Amazon's 15th publishing brand and will publish "faith-based non-fiction and fiction," according to a Thursday press release from Amazon. The press already has several books it plans to publish in 2014, including a Bible-based guide on choosing a place to live and "The Quiet Revolution," a book about presidents' volunteering habits by Jay Hein, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives during the George W. Bush administration.

The question is whether Christians will buy. Amazon thinks so, of course, as does the head of one major Christian publication.

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"The breadth of Amazon's opportunities creates a dynamic bridge between the author and reader that can move the content conversation to a growing global audience," said Harold Smith, president and CEO of Christianity Today, in a statement released by Amazon. Christianity Today will be a publishing partner on several of the press' initial books.

One advantage of moving into Christian publishing is a broad potential audience. Fully, 77 percent of Americans identified as Christian in a late-2012 Gallup poll.

Then again, not all of those people have an appetite for overtly religious-themed books. One Christian consumer organization, Faith Driven Consumer, estimates that around 15 percent of Americans, or around 46 million people, lets their Christian faith guide their purchases. Amazon may face a particular hurdle with some of these customers, as people who are strict about their faith might disagree with Amazon's corporate policies, according to Chris Stone, founder of Faith Driven Consumer.

"They have a corporate policy that favors issues that are divergent from the worldview of the orthodox Christian consumer," he says. Faith Driven Consumer rates companies on their adherence to Christian values, and gives Amazon a low rating overall, of 1.5 stars out of 5. Among the company's so-called sins are the sale of pornographic content and its support of "the homosexual, bisexual and transgender political and social agenda." The company famously featured a gay couple in an advertisement last year. These facts might give some consumers reason to pause, says Stone.

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"That doesn't mean you can't do business with them, but given a choice between two equals you may form a preference for someone who is more like yourself," he says. (Amazon has not yet responded to a request for comment.)

While some consumers might shy away from Amazon out of principle, still others may stick around out of convenience. A shopper who wants a new Christian fiction book might find it easier to buy online -- especially while shopping for other goods they would normally purchase on Amazon -- than to find the nearest Christian bookstore.

In addition, the tastes of people who purchase Christian-themed entertainment are changing. According to one Christian book industry expert, the share of Christians who stick to religious-themed books is dwindling.

"There's a shrinking population of people who would only read Christian fiction -- who would only read Christian theological books, who would only read Christian inspiration," he says.

However, investing in Christian publishing is still a smart move, he says, because there is a growing population of crossover readers.

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"There is a vast population who will on one hand read the 'Divergent' book series or the popular 'Catching Fire' [Hunger Games] series. At the same time, they'll read C.S. Lewis, and they'll read whatever popular Christian fiction is out there," says Vaughn.

Amazon might be able to overcome resistance from some Christian consumers, but one other hurdle it may face is that the Christian book publishing market has a lot of competition for a limited set of eyes.

"When I hear about them entering the Christian market as a publisher, part of me says, 'Get in line, good luck, people a lot more experienced than you have tried and are still trying to figure this thing out,'" says Holt Vaughn, CEO of the Eastco Group, a marketing and communications firm, one of whose brands, Vaughn Street, helps Christian authors publish and promote their books. He adds that "tons and tons and tons" of Christian books are published every week, including the many that are self-published, and authors and promoters alike are still trying to understand the perfect formula for turning those books into dollars.

But Amazon does have one key advantage that smaller Christian publishers don't have, he notes: size. "The other side of me says, 'It's probably a brilliant move,' because they have such infrastructure."