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How I learned to love media conglomerates PDF Print E-mail
Written by Dwight Baker   
Wednesday, 03 September 2014 08:04 AM EDT

What goes around comes around in the global sphere of Christian publishing

DwightBakerThe heathens are storming the gates of our profession, and from the standpoint of the church, this is a reason to celebrate. Before I explain further, let’s consider a time when the Christian book business faced a shortage of helpful heathens.

Upon the occasion of our company’s 75th anniversary this year, I was curious to learn more about the publishing landscape when my grandfather, Herman Baker, launched his new business. During this process I noticed that while great changes occurred in publishing during the 20th century, the beginning and end of the century form a mirror image of each other.

Herman Baker’s enterprise was one of a pack of publishing startups that appeared inside the perimeter of the West Michigan community: Kregel (1909), Eerdmans (1911), Zondervan (1931) and the new kid, Baker (1939). Operating at various profiles, all four businesses established solid positions within the landscape, and collectively we are referenced now by Publishers Weekly editors, with polite and sardonic wit, as the “Michigan Moguls.” However productive our region might be, West Michigan was not alone as a Christian publishing base. The early 20th century witnessed the launch of numerous self-identified Christian publishers, independent and ministry based. Many of these publishers continue operations to this day.

The founders of these publishing houses—men and women—acted boldly and with a strong personal mission. Their skills are undeniable, but talent alone doesn’t explain their success. A setting had been prepared for them.

LITTLE HOUSE—BIG MISSION

Prior to the arrival of Christian publishers, the established industry leaders had shifted their focus to new directions, and this shift generated a gap for newcomers to enter. Mostly of the East Coast, these large publishers forfeited their dominant role in the religious category in a pattern that mimicked the secularization of American culture in general.

Until the turn of the 20th century, most major publishers produced religious books as a standard category, steadily providing Christian books for the church. Penguin Group imprint Dutton, for example, celebrates its 150-year anniversary in 2014, and the company’s website reports that its first best-seller was The Life of Christ by Frederic Farrar (1874). In spite of such achievements, Dutton later shifted its attention to nonreligious categories. This movement provided a gap that was soon filled by emerging publishers with missions that were, fittingly, explicitly missional. Baker Book House—a retailer and publisher at the time—was one of them.

The church requires literature to thrive, and it will seek new books with or without the assistance of New York publishing executives. Innovators such as our founder Herman Baker eagerly accepted that responsibility, and Christian book retailers thrived on a parallel track. By midcentury, the volume of Christian book publishing and retailing was extensive. Two significant organizations, the Christian Booksellers Association, now CBA, and the Evangelical Christian Publishing Association, were launched during this time. This was a period when the Christian book business and the general (“secular”) book business were thriving, but they operated at some distance from each other. To paraphrase Tertullian’s timeless inquiry on the secular-sacred divide, what has New York City to do with Grand Rapids?

The self-imposed isolation of the Christian book business was the standard setting when many of us began our careers in this profession, but our comfortable territory was destined to face a challenge—not from our failures but rather the opposite. As the previous century drew to a close, Christian books were generating far too much success to remain an overlooked corner of publishing and retailing. When now-famous Christian writers first appeared on the New York Times best-seller lists, the East Coast recognized a significant business opportunity. Their spiritual “awakening” reversed a 60-year business trend.

CORPORATE RAIDERS FOR JESUS

Beginning in the late 1980s, the business headlines for Christian publishing reflected a new pattern:

  •  HarperCollins Christian acquires Zondervan (1988)
  •  Random House launches WaterBrook Press (1996)
  •  Hachette launches FaithWords (2001)
  •  Random House acquires Multnomah (2006)
  •  Simon & Schuster acquires Howard (2006)
  •  HarperCollins acquires Thomas Nelson (2012)
  •  Amazon launches Waterfall Press (2013)

To summarize that list, five multinational media conglomerates have launched or purchased seven Christian publishing imprints, and all transpiring in about a quarter-century. It is doubtful that this trend is predicated on the personal spiritual revival of New York executives. Whatever their personal religious affinities might be, these savvy business leaders recognized a viable opportunity when it appeared. Even Dutton reconnected with the faithful, launching the writing career of best-selling Christian author Timothy Keller. We’ve all made a wide circle, and it feels a bit like we’re back in the 1800s.

In light of the success that general publishing has achieved with Christian books, it is a safe prediction that they will not lose interest in this category. Faith-based and general publishing have joined forces in serving the kingdom of God.

From the perspective of an independent business such as Baker Publishing Group, this observation is neither a lament nor a complaint. Some of us might grimace at the growing competition—and I often do just that. Yet we all have a reason to celebrate when the resources of multinational corporations are enlisted to serve the church with literature. As Christian readers, we must be selective with books from publishers that also represent non-Christian viewpoints, but there was never a period in our history when reader discernment was unwarranted.

The major publishers invested in the religion category because the Christian independents were unable or unwilling to accept the full burden of that task directly. Our caution provided a gap for corporations to enter, just as surely as corporations provided a gap for Herman Baker and others long ago. This is spiritual quid pro quo.

Even so, there are signs that the corporate pendulum has reached its full arc. Recently NavPress and Regal Books were brought under the respective care of Tyndale House Publishers and Baker Publishing Group. The proprietors were determined that their legacy would continue within independent and Christian-owned companies, and two qualified purchasers promptly accepted that challenge. These are modest adjustments when viewed against the larger trend, but it does show a determination of independent Christian businesses to invest fully and to face the associated risks.

BACK AT THE READING CHAIR

How is the Christian book reader impacted by all this backstage activity? It means that by one method or another, fine Christian books will continue to reach the believers who most need them.

The significance of this blessing cannot be overstated. The hand of God is at work in all this frenetic activity, and His hand is predictably steadier than all of ours. Fine Christian books continue to appear. No matter what period we investigate and no matter who the participants may be at the time, God has unfailingly provided His church with Christian literature. His church will be faithfully served by one means or another.

We have reason to celebrate when New York executives invest their substantial resources to generate good Christian books. Meanwhile, our faith-based publishers remain as determined as ever. Independents may not duplicate the resources of corporate giants, but they do possess experience that is based on decades of participation within Christian communities. These faith-based publishers will discover and introduce most of the emerging Christian writers of the next generation.

As an independent Christian publisher, we have clarity in our mission and an uncompromised connection to Christian readers. That obligation provides us with plenty of reasons to celebrate, whatever challenges we might face.

 
Retailer Bio: Bill Ballou PDF Print E-mail
Written by Production   
Tuesday, 06 August 2013 11:13 AM EDT

BillBallou-TheSolidRockBill Ballou owns The Solid Rock in Kearney, Neb., with his wife, Ila. In 2012, CBA presented the store with the community outreach award for efforts that included supporting relief projects in Haiti and raising funds to enable a disabled teen to attend college.

How long in Christian retail: Since 1974, I owned a store. I was also in retailing with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and with Word of Life.

How you first came to Christian retail: In the year I came to know the Lord, 1963, that fall I went to Bible school and took a job with BGEA working in their book department, mainly in mail order and retail, in Minneapolis.

First job of any kind and your age then: Besides working on a farm, I worked in a grocery store in Rapid City, S.D., sacking groceries, then I was head of the candy department.

Describe yourself in three words: Fun-loving, encouraging, networker.

Favorite hobby: I am a professional yo-yoer, and I enjoy woodworking and flower gardening. 

Favorite place: I am so adaptable, so it’s really where I am at the present time. I’ve had many wonderful experiences traveling.

Favorite verse: Several in Galatians 5 reminding us of our freedom in Christ. Verse 1 says in part, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

Pet peeve in retail: Somebody who doesn’t stand behind their products.

Mission in life: I want to be a positive example of a Christian and not to bring a reproach to Christ and the gospel by what I say or do.

Mentor or role model: Randy Alcorn, for a positive stand on Christian issues, and Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, for his humanitarian efforts. In general, people who have a positive influence.

Share a recent idea or event that has worked in your store: One idea that worked was offering to be the source for patriotic fan banners for the 100th Anniversary Celebration of the Lincoln Highway that was held in Kearney, Neb., from June 28 through July 3. I was on the planning committee and suggested the banners to dress up the main street for this historic event, one that USA Today put in their top five for the summer as a “event to see.” We sold about $2,000 worth of goods (150 banners approximately) while offering fellow merchants the quantity discount that the manufacturer offered. We gained a good sale and good will with our business associates—many of whom are seldom in our store.

How about one that hasn’t worked? One thing that didn’t work was a coupon offer in two neighboring newspapers offering gas money of $5 for a $15 sale and $10 for a $50 sale. Christian bookstores in the two areas had closed within the last two years and we want to try to bring people in—at least for the “first time.” Once they visit our store we feel they will come back. We had three $5 and two $10 redeemed. We are going to try another approach with the same intent. It may have just been bad timing as we felt it was a fair coupon offer. 

Which soon-to-come product are you most excited about? I am excited about the plethora of new study Bibles the suppliers are offering with some exciting features. Several would tie for my top appeal. Also, Barbour has a new author, Lance Easley, who wrote Making the Call. In our football-crazed world, this might generate some sales.

How can our readers pray for you? That I would be a mentor. My wife, Ila, and I want to represent Christ daily with our employees, customers, community and family, to be a positive influence for Christ in all areas.

Store website: www.hisrock.com.

 
Should the Christian retailer sell romance novels? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Kristen Heitzmann   
Tuesday, 06 August 2013 08:38 AM EDT

KristenHeitzmannChristy Award-winning novelist believes romance is an ‘essential’ genre for believers

Some may think the term “Christian romance” is an oxymoron. Not at all. While for some, the word romance conjures steamy covers and pages filled with less than edifying prose, committed readers know that that stereotype is a gross misrepresentation of the genre. As a writer of Christian romance, I can assure readers and retailers alike that this genre is not only appropriate, but also essential—and it’s important that Christian retail stores “buy in” and support the category.

In brick-and-mortar or online stores, a great percentage of books that sell fall into this category because they have the relational elements readers want. That does not mean all romance novels follow a single formula, however. Considering only the categories that fit the Christian market, there are historical, Amish, dystopian, comedic, legal, medical and suspense—to name a few. Each category brings different aspects to the experience that attract readers with various interests and preferences. That said, the core of the romance genre is the relationship between the characters.

Whether it is falling in love, rekindling love or restoring love—what every Christian reader of romance wants and expects are a man and a woman whose love story will be the driving force of the fiction experience. In great works like Gone With the Wind, with its sweeping scope of the Old South and the Civil War, the most burning (forgive the pun) issue was not Atlanta, as in the great cinematic event, but whether Rhett and Scarlett could ever find happiness. For most women and a surprisingly high number of men who read this genre, the relationship of the characters is the foundation around which the plot and setting and theme occur. In this way, the love story is the avenue for everything else the author wants to convey. 

‘MAKE IT MESSY’

Unlike secular versions, Christian romance novels include faith elements. With other writers, I have discussed what part faith plays in our novels and to what degree it is, or should be, included. For some, if the expressions of Christianity, i.e. prayer, church attendance and discussion of beliefs were taken out, the story would not stand. In others, the story provides a clean reading experience with no overt Christian lingo or practices that might offend non-believers while offering a wholesome alternative to less edifying reads. Both serve a purpose intended by the author and appreciated by the reader.

In between those two, or maybe on the edge of both, I like to make it messy. Life happens in relationship. In my writing, I find it important to incorporate the grit of living a Christian life in a fallen world. For some characters, there may be a yearning for meaning. For others, life events have made it hard to believe in or trust a God that lets bad things happen. Some characters might be embittered or afraid, or are my personal favorite—the rogues. What makes a reader want to journey with these people? The love story. Even if both characters are damaged, as so many in our real world are, they find hope in opening themselves to each other and to God. 

‘INVOLVE ALL ELEMENTS’

The beauty of the Christian romance is that we have the freedom to involve all elements of the human experience. The emotional element—with all those great feelings that get tweaked and tugged—engages the readers’ own sympathetic responses. Readers tell me they laughed and cried, cheered and raged, and even found themselves praying for the characters because the story evoked such a powerful response. They went without sleep, left the house messy and read straight through to the end because they felt so much for the characters that applied to their own lives. 

In the stories Jesus told, he engaged the crowd by triggering their emotions, often by shocking their foundations, but always by touching something personal to them. In a similar way, a Christian romance can impart a message of hope and healing between the characters that translates to the reader. It can present a call to perseverance for those in difficult circumstances, to forgiveness for the wounded or to trust and belief that God is essential. All these things can penetrate by the engagement of the emotions in a way that a didactic lesson might fall short.

The second part of our human experience is physical—yes, Christian characters are flesh and blood. They experience temptation and desire. They feel the pleasure of touch and the joy—and angst—of attraction. God built us to delight in each other. Portraying that realistically in a Christian romance lends credibility to all the other aspects. In the words of one reviewer: “Heitzmann is one of the best at depicting sexual attraction between characters in Christian fiction—and the women are as capable of passion as the men” (FaithfulReader.com).

The spiritual aspect threaded through and underlying the other elements is the third and pivotal reason that Christian romance is sought by readers. A character’s relationship with God, even if it is adversarial, brings a depth to the love story that secular novels lack. Within the context of the male and female characters seeking and finding love for each other, there can be spiritual impediments or connections that either threaten or enhance that process. Readers often tell me that going through this process with the characters brought them to a better understanding of the impact of faith in their own relationships. 

‘ATTACH TO AN AUTHOR’

In creating the fabric for my stories, I include subplot relationships that readers want featured in new novels. This brings up another element in Christian romantic fiction that is the potential for sequels or series. As retailers know, one book that leads to another is a good thing, though I think it is important to remember that readers really want the continuum available. 

Whether in historical or current time, Christian romance deals with real-life aspects of relationship that lend themselves to book club discussions. 

One consideration for bookstores is to encourage these discussions on their websites or through in-store handouts. When readers attach to an author, book or series, there is a great potential for continuous relationship between the author, the retailer and the reader.

 
Industry Forum: Are you taking the road-less-traveled for Christmas? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Lorraine Valk   
Monday, 08 July 2013 03:06 PM EDT

LorraineValk2010Thinking differently can make this holiday season a big winner for your store

As retailers, we have all seen the traditional list for getting your store ready for the biggest retail season of the year, so here are some ideas to challenge you to think differently.

Display products in an unusual way. Today’s society is accustomed to fresh and outlandish ideas. Showcase your store this year by giving shoppers the gift of the unexpected. Pinterest could be your new best friend when looking for display ideas. Shop garage sales and pick up poinsettias and an extra Christmas tree (yes, this time of year is perfect to find bargains) and figure out a way to wow your customers with limited funds. Create excitement so your shoppers can’t wait to come back next year! Use your old props in different ways. Use color creatively. Who says Christmas can’t be lime green instead of evergreen? Put up an extra tree and decorate it uniquely that people can’t help but stop and look. Entice them. Follow up their “This display is great” comment with “Wait until you see what we are doing for Valentine’s Day and Easter!” I’ve added an old-fashioned wood sled, antique ice skates and a unique wreath this year—what’s in your attic or at your adult child’s house that you can use?

Change your thinking. Be intentional about markdowns. We all purchase items that don’t fly off the shelf, so give them a helping hand. Move them, mark them down or bundle them with something else. If your calendars aren’t moving, start at 10% off, then 20% off fairly early in the season to get them moving, depending on how you purchased them. If you take markdown credit from the vendor, this doesn’t apply. If you purchased at higher discount, the object is to have few remaining in January, same with boxed Christmas cards and ornaments. Minimize what needs to go 50% off the day after Christmas and protect your bottom line. Think ahead by taking notes and photographs of leftovers for next year so your ordering is more accurate. Try a two for $10 or two for $19.99 specials to get multiples to move. We only had 12 calendars that we had to mark down to 50% off this year; the rest sold at 25% off. We ran a 20% off special for all ornaments several weeks before Christmas because we felt we had too many.  Much better to sell them at 20% off than 50%!

Build on the family shopping experience. Suggest additional items that go well together. For instance, if mom is buying dad a Bible, suggest that son or daughter pick up a Bible cover or marking pens. If dad is buying a necklace for mom, suggest a music box from their son or daughter to go with it. Get creative. Our No. 1 suggestion for elderly relatives who don’t really need anything is a box of cards or fancy notes. Suggest a personalized or scriptured pen to go with them. Suggestions are big this time of year, so practice with your staff to make sure they embrace the concept—and feel comfortable using it. Suggest books in a series and recommend that they return for the next title for Valentine’s Day. Plant the seeds for a return trip! 

Showcase departments to optimize sales. The status quo isn’t working, so I am using this slower time of year to reset my store into more of a lifestyle setup. Stagnant sales may be due to a lack of energy focused on refreshing my store. My favorite grocery store took out a huge area of tall fixtures, replacing them with more fresh produce crates that have a lower profile.  It’s fun to shop, so why not carry that into my business as well? As they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and I think this concept holds true for our stores as well. Repurpose, reuse, repaint and refresh for more impact! It’s amazing how many people think you have new product, when all you’ve done is moved it to another location. A side benefit to shifting items around is that they get cleaned better and look fresher. The time to do it is now, not once the season is upon us. I’ll be glad to share pictures if you share yours.  I love getting fresh ideas from others!

Make a flexible but thoughtful plan. What can you do to generate new customers? My No. 1 technique has been to place a sideways or upside-down tiny ad in our local coupon booklet. Note the key words for these kinds of ads—inexpensive and large demographic. At Christmas, I place an ad for a “FREE GIFT FROM BENEATH OUR TREE.” Then I watch with amazement at how many people stop in to pick up a freebie. I purposely purchase closeouts for promotions throughout the year, and the leftovers are wrapped during the year and tossed in our Christmas box. Everything from promise books, bookmarks, necklaces, notecards and CDs are wrapped and ready. These items cost under 50 cents each, but result in goodwill and new customers. Yes, you get a few that stop by only for the gift, but it’s a win if they come into the store. I’ve even had people thank me with tears in their eyes because they didn’t have anything to give a loved one at Christmas. Lavish the love without breaking the bank! Think also of those vendor dollars available for advertising and how to use them. Research now how much is available, and make a plan to use them.

“Let us wrap it for you!” Consider offering gift wrapping for free. We move gift wrapping to the front of the store and offer only one type of wrap at Christmas. Men, especially, love to do one-stop shopping! I’m not sure anyone else in our town still offers this service; does anyone else do it in yours? Make your store stand out as the top place for gifts. Online won’t offer free gift wrap, and neither will Wal-Mart. Buy a huge roll in the off season, so for about $100, tape and a little labor, you can add the grand finale to your customers’ shopping experience. Be sure to get inexpensive adhesive bows. Hopefully you don’t have a lot of time to mess with tying ribbons! This is a crowd-pleaser. Free wrap can make even the discontented shopper smile!

Have gift cards at the ready. They’re a popular and easy gift when a shopper is uncertain what to choose. Be sure to stock them in a prominent location near your checkout. Having a nice little folder to put them in adds to the perceived value.

Focus on the true reason for rejoicing! What we do does make an eternal difference. Be light and salt in this dark world. We are here for a purpose. Let’s do our job well and bring glory to God by having stores that are welcoming to those who haven’t yet found Him, and embracing and encouraging places to those who have. My prayer for you is that God will provide everything you need this coming season, so that He is glorified. 

 
Industry Forum: Gift and lifestyle offerings build profits PDF Print E-mail
Written by Randy Maricle   
Wednesday, 29 May 2013 09:41 AM EDT

Maximize your store’s profits in order to boost and broaden your mission field

With sales of music and books trailing off in today’s Christian retail store, we must face reality. In that light, there are two approaches we can take—give in or continue to serve our communities, but in a new and different way. 

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