Amazon adds a little faith to its publishing portfolio

by Andrew Branch
Posted 2/06/14, 02:33 pm

Online retail giant Amazon is getting into the Christian publishing business. Announced Jan. 23, Waterfall Publishing will become Amazon’s 15th imprint, and it already has a major client: Christianity Today.

Amazon got its start in books, and its traditional publishing arm has been slowly growing. Its Brilliance Publishing has produced a wide range of Christian, spiritual, and self-help books for 12 years (Brilliance Audio includes more than 200 Zondervan and Thomas Nelson titles). Waterfall, though, will become Amazon’s dedicated Christian publishing imprint, and several of its 2014 offerings promise to appeal to evangelical audiences. For example, The Quiet Revolution, set for a June release, is written by former George W. Bush staffer Jay Hein on the community volunteering lives of U.S. presidents.

It’s not hard to understand why Amazon wants to appeal to Christian readers. The Christian publishing industry is worth about $1.4 billion annually—about 10-15 percent of the market. Think of the Left Behind series in a growing fiction genre and The Purpose Driven Life in the Christian nonfiction realm. With that kind of money at stake, this kind of partnership between secular publishers and Christian authors isn’t new.

Hunter Baker, dean of instruction at Union University, a Christian college in Jackson, Tenn., has several books published by Crossway. Amazon’s new venture is just a continuation of a trend started by major publishing houses, he said. Large secular publisher Random House has a Christian imprint in its WaterBrook Press. HarperCollins took over Zondervan in the late 1980s and Thomas Nelson in 2012, capturing 50 percent of the Christian publishing market. Collins also runs the popular online resource Bible Gateway.

“Most Christian publishers were founded not so much as a business as they were founded to propagate the gospel and to get certain needed messages and ideas out there,” Baker said. “So, you know, a churchly and non-profit sort of a motivation. Once a Christian publisher is housed within a large secular publishing operation, then it’s basically going to be strictly a business proposition as to whether or not you publish something.”

And that’s where worldview, profit, and theological motives can sometimes clash. In a 2002 New York Times report about Christian publishing, HarperCollins made sure to stress Zondervan operated with “complete autonomy” out of separate headquarters. HarperCollins had to address similar concerns of secular influence in its Christian efforts again after it acquired Thomas Nelson.

Mark Schoenwald, the former CEO of Thomas Nelson, is now the head of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, created to oversee both Nelson and Zondervan. He stressed both Nelson and Zondervan will maintain their historical brands and missions: “Both will continue to acquire and publish books specific to those missions, competing as they have in the past, but collaborating where appropriate.”

HarperCollins’ Christian mission statement is pretty specific, too: “We inspire the world by meeting the needs of people with content that promotes biblical principles and honors Jesus Christ.”

Amazon, though, doesn’t yet have a track record of adhering to biblical principles. Waterfall’s new leader is Tammy Faxel, whose 30 years in Christian publishing includes Tyndale House Publishers. But Amazon’s new Waterfall rhetoric isn’t quite as explicitly Christian as Collins’: “Waterfall Press non-fiction will aim to provide spiritual refreshment and inspiration to today’s Christian reader, while fiction will include stories in the romance, mystery, and suspense genres.”

Marvin Padgett is a former editorial vice president for Crossway Books with more than 30 years of experience in the Christian publishing industry. He told me that for his three employers—Crossway, P&R, and now the Presbyterian Great Commission Publications—making money never overruled a focus on the “content of the books and an evangelical zeal to present the truth of God.”

Amazon, on the other hand, has an obligation to make money for its shareholders—and what sells and what’s true aren’t always the same.

Andrew Branch

Andrew is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C. He was homeschooled for 12 years and recently graduated from N.C. State University. He writes about sports and poverty for WORLD. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewABranch.

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