Skip to main content

Features

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 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.

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.

Authors too are getting swept up into the new religious market. Though writers are of course essential to the publishing process, they often complain of being neglected, exploited, or-in an industry highly dependent on ghostwriters-invisible. But those Christian authors who do sell well, like their secular counterparts, increasingly use agents to negotiate mega-deals.

Ever since Chuck Swindoll used an agent in 1989 to negotiate a 45-title, 10-year contract with Word, the most popular Christian writers have been offering their services to the highest bidder with the help of agents. Publishers Weekly last year recounted how an agent scored a five-year, 11-book contract for historical novelists Brock and Bodie Thoene in a bidding war finally won by Nelson for a reported $3.5 million.

Though such arrangements are clearly good for superstar writers, use of agents changes the relationship between author and publisher into a purely financial one, as opposed to the personal and collaborative relationships that sometimes occurred in the past. Another consequence, lamented in writers' conferences, is that new, less-established authors find it harder to get published, as many editors grow dependent on agents and refuse even to look at unsolicited manuscripts.

(Most such manuscripts, publishers note, are not worth their reading. But what happens to the rare exception? Even a bestseller-such as This Present Darkness, Frank Peretti's first supernatural thriller-can occasionally be fetched out of what book companies call the "slush pile.")

Most Christian publishing companies, including the Big Two, began as family-owned ventures, closely tied to a ministry or to a church body. Many of the smaller to medium-sized publishers continue in that manner and are organized as nonprofit or church-related organizations. But today, through their own policy decisions or out of necessity, they are having to function in the tough world of big businesses.

Though many publishing companies and editors are still working out of a strong Christian commitment and are publishing valuable Christian books, competing in today's religious marketplace poses special challenges and temptations.

Surely the free-market economy is a good thing. America's prosperity and freedoms are tied to marketplace competition and disciplines. But while consumerism, the profit motive, and survival of the fittest are good for the realm of economics, they should not rule theology. Jesus, who drove the salesmen out of the temple, warned about the impossibility of serving both God and money. The prophets strenuously denounced religious leaders who told the people pleasant words from their own minds rather than the unsettling truths of the Word of God.

The apostle Paul could have been describing today's religious marketplace: "For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear" (2 Tim. 4:3). A free-market economy, catering to consumer desires, gives us convenient supermarkets and shopping malls. But a marketing approach to religion requires "suiting desires" that because of the Fall are innately evasive of God. Religious consumerism involves "scratching ears" by telling the customers only what they want to hear, instead of the Word of God they need to hear.

The Christian marketplace thus follows the lead of the world's pop culture. A common saying in the industry is, Whenever a trend emerges in the secular arena, wait six months and a Christianized version will appear in the religious bookstores. Romances, horror novels, management books, and other popular genres that are essentially written according to easy-to-follow formulas rather than original insights all have their counterparts in Christian bookstores.

Our culture's obsession with physical beauty gives rise to Christian diet plans and Christian exercise videos. Even when it comes to religion, Christian publishing often follows trends rather than leads, as in the rash of books on angels and near-death experiences inspired by New Age books on the same subjects.

One phenomenon of America's pop culture is celebrity worship. Books by sports stars, entertainers, or other icons of the pop culture-a significant number of which are ghostwritten-have become big sellers for Christian publishers. While testimonies of conversion have long been staples of evangelicalism, sometimes the mere fact of celebrity seems to justify publishing an individual's life story.

One editor offered the example of the autobiography of hamburger mogul Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's. Though the book, co-published by Zondervan and HarperCollins, is generically inspirational and has a first-rate title-Well Done- it has almost no explicit Christian content.

Some celebrity authors-the Billy Grahams and the Chuck Swindolls-have a strong track record in ministry and teaching. Others, however, are motivational speakers or positive-thinking gurus whose works may be uplifting but are at best only remotely connected to the biblical worldview. Such writers are entitled to their say and may be worth reading, but the question, again, is why are they published by presses that claim to be evangelical?

Self-help is another popular category for evangelical publishers, despite the irony that "self-help" would seem to be the opposite of the historic evangelical emphasis on the grace of God. Many of these titles-such as Thomas Nelson's Don't Let Jerks Get the Best of You-are little more than pop psychology, with the standard secular bromides of self-esteem and assertiveness training. Others approach the Bible itself as a self-help manual.

Here again, the publishers are merely following the market instead of attempting to teach. Polls have shown that many Americans are interested in the Bible insofar as it can give "practical principles for successful living." Christian publishers, instead of finding ways to show that the Word of God has the power to save, sometimes domesticate it into a rule book for a contented, prosperous, middle-class lifestyle. Thomas Nelson offers titles such as The Management Methods of Jesus and The People Skills of Jesus: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Business.

The desire for market share, the yearning for acceptance by mainstream American culture, and the overweening goal of many Christian publishers to cross over into the bigger secular market, sometimes result in even bigger doctrinal compromises. Word's Searching for God in America, based on a PBS series that gave Islam and Buddhism equal time with Christianity, portrays the different faiths as equally valid paths to God.

Some smaller publishers resist the pressures of commercialism and continue to publish serious theological books-but some of them nevertheless have drifted away from biblical orthodoxy. InterVarsity Press for many years was a lifeline for Christians engaged in the intellectual battles of the universities and the secular culture. IVP still publishes books such as Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial, a work that broke through into secular circles to ignite fresh debates about evolution. But IVP also publishes "megashift" theology, as in The Openness of God and other works by Clark Pinnock, which maintains that God changes, that he condemns no one, and that salvation is possible apart from faith in Christ.

William B. Eerdmans for many years was one of the relatively few publishers to specialize in solid, scholarly research from the perspective of conservative Protestantism. Eerdmans still publishes on occasion important evangelical books such as David Wells' No Place for Truth, but it also puts out books from the perspective of contemporary liberal theology, Roman Catholicism (including hagiographic lives of saints), and even Judaism (including a book on anti-semitism that argues, in the words of the catalog, that "the New Testament itself expresses a deep distrust of the tradition into which Jesus was born").

Both InterVarsity and Eerdmans are interested in postmodernist theology, with its assumptions that theology in our "post-foundationalist" age is "constructed" rather than revealed. Again, such books may deserve to be printed, but why by the few publishers available for conservative Christian scholarship?

What has gone wrong in the Christian publishing industry can perhaps best be illustrated in the career moves of Mr. Peretti, the million-selling author. Word lured Mr. Peretti away from Crossway, the company that launched his career, for a reported $4 million and a plan to turn Mr. Peretti into a crossover hit, helping him to break into the coveted secular market.

According to a veteran publishing insider who spoke on condition of anonymity, Word took the first manuscript Mr. Peretti delivered, The Oath, and hired a secular editor from the New York publishing establishment to make it more acceptable for the tastes of the non-Christian market. As might have been predicted, The Oath has failed to win the big sales of Mr. Peretti's first novels. Apparently, it has not attracted the attention of Stephen King fans, for many of whom overt evil is what is titillating. Nor has it won much favor from Peretti fans, who find that it lacks what attracted them to his writing in the first place. Spokesmen for Nelson/Word did not return WORLD's calls seeking comment.

The irony is that, in all of the attempts by the Christian publishing industry to reach the secular world by emulating its values, it is failing to do so. Despite phenomenal sales and a dramatic growth of market share, Christianity is not exerting an increasing influence on the culture. It is the other way around. Some Christian publishers tend to think that being too explicit about issues of faith is the main barrier to crossover acceptance. They forget that the Christian writers who have won the greatest reputation in secular circles-such as T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and Flannery O'Connor---have been in-your-face about their faith, winning attention by the power and originality of their writing.

Judging by the buzz at past conventions, conversations with practically anyone at this year's CBA convention--authors, editors, marketers, booksellers--will uncover a host of frustrations, bitter experiences, and disillusionments. Most of the individuals committed to the industry still have a strong sense of Christian vocation and hope to publish books of genuine value. But if past conventions are a guide, insiders will swap tales of ruthless competition, ghostwriting in high places, and regrets about things they believe they had to do.

One insider even ruefully observes that in some ways, Christian publishing is more cut-throat than its non-Christian equivalent, since federal and state laws provide remedies for such conflicts as contract violations and intellectual-property disputes. Christians in the industry, to their credit, usually continue to follow the scriptural injunction not to sue fellow Christians. The apostle Paul's warning against lawsuits was not intended, of course, as a cloak for shady dealings. Rather, it was predicated on the fact that Christians should be above the concerns of mere worldliness. It also assumed the accountability of church discipline.

The revival of Christian publishing must be, above all, a spiritual revival, for which Christians should be praying. In the meantime, the church can still hold the publishers of its Bibles and its ideas accountable. The power of the marketplace can exert a positive as well as a negative influence. Christian retailers can become more selective about what they stock. Christian book buyers can be better stewards, spending their money not on spiritual junk food but on what is true to the Bible.

Christians, after all, are people of the Book. Since God reveals himself by means of a Book, some of those at the CBA convention next week will be praying not for the opportunity to surf the newest big wave, but for God to safeguard and renew the acts of writing, publishing, and reading

Gene Edward Veith

Gene Edward Veith