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