Cover Story
Krieg Barrie

Unequally yoked

2014 Books Issue | Can Christian publishers owned by secular companies maintain their Christian distinctives?

Issue: "2014 Books Issue," June 28, 2014

When WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group published Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian in April, Jerry Johnson had a problem.

Johnson is the new president of National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), and WaterBrook Multomah was an associate member. The ethics statement of the NRB is clear: Members must adhere to a broadly evangelical statement of faith that applies to the material the members produce.

Johnson later wrote in a memo to his board that WaterBrook Multnomah had a “good record of publishing … evangelicals that share the doctrinal commitments of NRB. While acknowledging that positive track record, the question remains, ‘What role, if any, did Waterbrook Multnomah have in this pro-homosexuality publication?’”

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After conversations with Waterbrook Multnomah’s leadership, Johnson presented the publisher with a choice: “I told them that if they wanted to remain NRB associate members, I would have to refer the matter to our Ethics Committee for review, or they could agree to resign their membership. They agreed to resign immediately.”

The story of Waterbrook Multnomah’s resignation from NRB is a case study in the complicated issues facing the Christian publishing industry. To begin with, consider this: Neither Waterbrook nor Multnomah published Vines’ controversial book. The newly formed Convergent Books published God and the Gay Christian. However, for Jerry Johnson this distinction made no difference. “Steven W. Cobb serves as the chief publishing executive for both groups. This issue comes down to NRB members producing unbiblical material, regardless of the label under which they do it.”

‘A nonprofit company is responsible to the Lord. A for-profit company is responsible to shareholders.’ 
—Marvin Padgett

Was the issue further complicated by the fact that Multnomah, Waterbrook, and Convergent are all a part of Crown Publishing Group, which is a part of the publishing giant Penguin Random House? And that Penguin Random House, which had revenue of more than $3 billion last year, is owned by the privately held German company Bertelsman, which did more than $20 billion in revenue last year, with more than $1 billion in profit?

Whatever the answer to those questions, they could easily apply to almost the entire Christian publishing industry. The consolidation began in 1988, when Zondervan was bought by HarperCollins, which is itself owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. HarperCollins also bought the largest bookseller in Christian publishing, Thomas Nelson, in 2012.

Marvin Padgett is a longtime Christian publishing insider. From 1997 to 2005 he was editorial vice president at Crossway Books and then filled a similar position at P&R until his retirement in 2012. He came out of retirement to lead Great Commission Publishers, which is a nonprofit publishing venture of the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

“I attended the Christian Booksellers Association convention in 1988 when the hot news on the floor was the acquisition of Zondervan,” he said. “We were asking the same questions then, so this is not new.”

But—especially given the Multnomah Waterbrook situation—are the answers different? “No place I’ve ever worked would have dared do anything remotely like what Multnomah did,” Padgett said. “We had bedrock principles that governed what we published.” All three of Padgett’s employers are nonprofit organizations governed by a board of directors and a Christian mission. “A nonprofit company is responsible to the Lord,” Padgett said. “A for-profit company is responsible to shareholders.”

Padgett admitted, though, that the gloomiest predictions about Zondervan have not come to pass. “I think Zondervan had the sense to put safeguards in place that allowed them to control their own fate,” Padgett said. “And Rupert Murdoch had the sense not to tamper with the goose that is laying a golden egg.”

Padgett noted that “profit” is not a dirty word even to so-called “nonprofit” publishers. Padgett says that while the mission comes first for a nonprofit organization, “getting at least to break-even is what allows us to keep doing what we do.”

Bob Fryling of InterVarsity Press (IVP) said the biggest changes the large publishers have had on the industry has been the “greater competition for [brand name] evangelical authors and agents who are being wooed by the greater resources of these companies.” Fryling said that also means “it is getting harder to publish either first-time authors or those who don’t have a large public platform but have important things to say.”

Such innovations as self-publishing and print-on-demand have theoretically made it easier for first-time authors to get into print, but the proliferation of books that these technologies enable makes it all the harder to break through. The Shack sold 1 million self-published copies before publishing giant Hachette picked it up and sold 10 million more. 

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