Cover Story

Whatever happened to Christian publishing?

Visitors to the Christian Booksellers Association convention in Atlanta, July 14-17, will walk into the ultimate trade show. The latest T-shirts, plaques, CDs, and software will all be on display. Celebrity authors will sign autographs. Bookstore owners will be feted at hospitality suites. Publishing insiders will schmooze and make deals. Last year's convention attracted 13,663 attendees, including 2,801 store representatives and 419 exhibitors from what has become, according to published reports, a $3 billion industry. But such dramatic material success is not without its price. Today the largest Christian publishers are owned by secular corporations or have shares held by Wall Street investors. As ministries turn into big businesses, theological integrity can easily give way to marketing considerations.

Issue: "Taking the Bait?," July 12, 1997

The attendant cut-throat competition, coupled with theological looseness, can lead to promotion of a new, watered-down, pop Christianity.

The trend concerns many Christians who work in book publishing. Although one source was willing to be named in this article, all the others spoke only under conditions of confidentiality, because they legitimately fear a kind of excommunication from the tightly knit industry. Information for this story was gathered from trade publications, published articles, and dozens of interviews, conversations, and e-mail correspondence with editors, writers, and other industry insiders.

Christian publishing in America has a long and distinguished history, but the contemporary story begins five years ago, with two buyout offers.

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Thomas Nelson Publishers generated one of the buyouts, purchasing Word for $72 million in cash, according to Business Wire. Nelson/Word is now the largest player in the Christian publishing industry. Though the two companies retain their separate names and catalogs, many of their operations have been combined. This year, Word is moving its corporate headquarters from Dallas to Thomas Nelson's offices in Nashville. The merged companies make up a single corporate entity, owned by stockholders.

Zondervan Publishing House employees tried the other buyout. Their company had been purchased in 1988 by Harper-Collins, a publishing segment of Rupert Murdoch's empire. (The Australian billionaire also owns the Fox television network and has just purchased the Family Channel). Four years later, a management-led group of employees tried to buy the company back. James Buick, then president of Zondervan, told The Grand Rapids Press that the group's purpose was to "return the direction and control of the company into the Christian community." But according to the Grand Rapids Business Journal, the effort failed and HarperCollins solidified its control.

Opinions differ on whether that is a problem. In today's byzantine world of corporate conglomerates, a company can theoretically have absentee landlords while retaining considerable independence. Secular ownership poses special problems, though, for Christian publishers. Church-related companies can ask questions about an employee's faith, but publicly held or secular operations are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion. Christian ministries are often concerned for evangelism and doctrinal fidelity, but secular corporations are motivated mainly by the bottom line.

According to Len Goss, a former Zondervan editor currently with Broadman & Holman, HarperCollins and Mr. Murdoch at first adopted a hands-off policy. The religious commitment of its employees was delicately taken into account and the company was allowed to do as it had been doing. But after a few years, he said, the corporate owners did interfere.

Mr. Goss told WORLD that HarperCollins handed down a dictate that Zondervan publish more big sellers and cut down on the rest. As a result, the academic line on which Mr. Goss worked was scrapped, and the focus shifted to mass-market titles, to books that could meet sales thresholds by appealing to the broadest possible audience. Spokesmen for Zondervan did not return WORLD's calls seeking comment.

Thomas Nelson and Zondervan now are the Big Two of the Christian bookselling industry, an industry that is going through some introspection after a highly successful first half of the decade. Between 1991 and 1994 sales of religious books jumped from 36.7 million to 70.5 million, according to Christianity Today, a 92 percent boost that moved religious books from a 5 to 7 percent market share.

The lucrative growth of the religious market pleased investors, but it added to the pressure to focus on big sellers. This pressure was accentuated by other changes in the religious marketplace that forced even the smaller publishers to adapt to the ways of big business.

Christian bookstores have long been the main retail outlet for the industry. The same consolidation that was taking place with the publishing companies was taking place with Christian bookstores. Family-owned and ministry-related local businesses were giving way to chain stores and retail franchises. One advantage of such franchises is that they can buy books en masse and supply stores with sharply discounted product. The priority, however, is on stocking fewer titles, often only those with big sales and high turnover, according to a John Armstrong article in Viewpoint: A Look at Reformation & Revival in Our Time.

Here's another obstacle publishers face: In a typical Christian bookstore today, books now make up only 28 percent of sales, according to Publishers Weekly. T-shirts, CDs, videos, inspirational plaques, greeting cards, and knickknacks take up two-thirds of the shelf space, leaving little room for the display of books that are not bestsellers.

Big wholesalers that supply the bookstores are also contributing to the new market considerations. Retailing insiders note that many booksellers take seriously the task of selecting the books they stock, but it is far easier-and often more profitable-to take advantage of their supplier's offer to ship only those projected to be the top-selling titles. This sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy, as books that might well have turned out to be strong sellers never make it to the shelves, while the books given special favor by the publishers and wholesalers are the only ones available for customers to buy.

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