IVP - Behind the Books - Is Christian publishing a business, a ministry or both?

September 7, 2007

Is Christian publishing a business, a ministry or both?

The previous post got enough comments musing along these lines that I thought it deserved a post of its own. Is Christian publishing a business or a ministry? Some hybrid of both? Neither? Let me answer this way. I don't think anybody goes into Christian publishing for "business reasons." Book publishing is a low-margin industry. If you want to make a lot of money in business, you wouldn't pick books. You'd go into electronics or technology or financial services. (Once several colleagues were discussing how administrative assistants at a financial services firm make double or triple what they do in book publishing. I observed, "Well, that makes sense. We make books. They make money.")

Basically everybody who works in Christian publishing does so for ministry reasons. We care about ideas, we are passionate about the gospel, we want to change lives through Christian literature. That being said, we all quickly learn that financial concerns and marketplace issues necessarily impact everything we do, from acquisitions and design to marketing and distribution. We are thrilled to be in the work of publishing and distributing Christian books and resources, but because it's a commercial enterprise, the bottom-line realities mean that if the books don't sell and have marketplace viability, their ministry effectiveness is decreased.

IVP's publisher, Bob Fryling, has often quoted a saying that "Book publishing is like shooting a gun in the air and hoping a duck flies by." Publishing professionals have long said that publishing is mostly a matter of throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. You publish a bunch of books, and there may be no rhyme or reason as to why some books catch on, sell well and are profitable, while other books--which may be just as good in terms of editorial content and ministry value--don't find an audience and end up going quickly out of print. It's a mystery.

So publishers do what they can to minimize unknown risk factors and publish books that are more likely to work for them. If a particular kind of book succeeds, we'll do more like it. If readers respond well to a particular author, we'll ask for a follow-up. But if a book bombs, we're not likely to do more books like that or from that author.

As a result, every publisher tends to develop its own brand identity and constituency. Some publishers have a strong core identity as conservative or Reformed or charismatic or devotional or academic or whatever. Some have a track record with biographies or self-help or biblical studies or fiction. All this leads publishers to continue to acquire and publish books in those veins, and readers come to know them for those kinds of books.

In terms of the development of the Christian publishing industry as a whole, this means that it has become increasingly difficult for new, first-time, unknown authors to get published, because on the whole, publishing a book by an established author is less risky and more likely to find an audience and be profitable than publishing a book by an unknown. This fuels the bestseller mentality, the search for big-name A-list authors, and squeezes out many good books by thoughtful authors. (It also weeds out a lot of lousy books by writers who might have noble ministry intentions but have bad writing, bad content or both.)

All this is to say that Christian publishers do what they can to publish missionally edifying Christian books with the best potential for ministry value within their particular business constraints and parameters. It's not an either/or; it's a both/and, necessarily so. It's a dialectical tension, or a paradox, like God being three in one or Jesus being fully God and fully human. We could similarly say that ideally, Christian publishers should be fully ministry and fully business at the same time. Working out the implications of all that is tricky, and leads to all sorts of interesting discussions when our publishing committee meets to decide what books we publish or don't publish.

What's interesting to me is that the market has shifted. Thirty years ago, IVP's editorial director Jim Sire could publish books by Hans Rookmaaker or about existentialism or Kierkegaard and they would sell just fine, primarily because there were a lot fewer Christian books and publishers out there. So the market sustained niche books and they worked in the general trade. But now, there's much more competition (some 200,000 books published in the English language each year, with at least five or six thousand directly published by Christian publishers), so those kinds of books don't tend to make as much of a splash.

We publish a lot of books that are not going to see huge commercial returns because we want to serve an underserved market or publish on an important issue or topic. We might do a book for Asian American women, or a survey of the literature of Second Temple Judaism, or something else that is by its nature for a very niche audience. Fortunately, as Chris Anderson has detailed in The Long Tail, online technology and infinite virtual shelf space means that such niche books can be financially viable, as long as people can hear about them and find them. So we are not quite as bound by the bestseller demands of the marketplace now as we might have been before the advent of Amazon and Google.

I'll leave it to others to develop a full-blown theology of Christian publishing (which would necessarily require analysis and intersection with the role of the parachurch, marketplace ministry, Christian understandings of commerce and economics and all the rest). The best I can say at this point is that in the daily trenches of working out our praxis, we in Christian publishing are doing our best to be faithful to the gospel and the mission and ministry of Christian literature through the commercial resources and business structures available to us.

Posted by Al Hsu at September 7, 2007 8:50 AM Bookmark and Share

Comments


Hi Al,

I appreciate the risks that Christian publishers take. I appreciate that determining the demand or market for a book is difficult. It costs money to find a market and the publisher has to sell volumes to finance the research. Catch-22!

FWIW, from a confessional Reformed perspective (not that everyone in my circles agrees with this view) it seems to me better to describe the work done by that institution established by Christ (the visible, institutional church) as "ministry."

We need to find another word to describe what publishers do. How about "vocation"? Publishers are fulfilling an important and honorable vocation by providing reading material. How should Christians fulfill their vocation? To the best of their ability, to the glory of God. It seems to me that we agree on this part of the equation.

I worry that the dumbing down (Marva Dawn's word) of worship and ministry is facilitating the "dumbing down" of the publishing business. One executive said recently that they have to publish "Christian novels" because that's what people want.

I'm grateful for the good books IVP has published (Stott and Packer have been particularly helpful, but my shelves are lined with IVP titles) and that IVP continues to produce high-quality literature for the Christian public. I only hope that the Christian public continues to demand good books from their publishers.

Scott

Comment by: R. Scott Clark at September 8, 2007 5:58 PM

Scott -

Thanks for these comments. Stott and Packer's books were extremely formative for me in college and probably the main reasons I wanted to work at IVP.

I like what you say about "vocation." I've written and blogged elsewhere about Christian publishing as a vocation and calling. You're right that the word "ministry" has been so diluted that almost anything can pass for "ministry" these days. I'm not quite as sure about restricting ministry to the work of the local church, as I think ministry is legitimately done by parachurch organizations and mission organizations as well as Christians apart from direct connections to their institutional local congregations. I suppose it depends on your ecclesiology - some folks would argue for a broader umbrella understanding of the institutional church to include the parachurch and other manifestations thereof.

I have often considered publishing to be one of many "guilds" or "orders" within the larger church. Just as historically there have been various orders dedicated to preaching, service, medicine, etc., so too there has been a long history of scribes, scriptoriums and "keepers of the books." And modern-day Christian publishers in many ways continue the work of these guilds of scribes, producing and preserving Christian literature for the benefit of the church as a whole. I like the original sense of "publishing" as "to make public," like in the King James's "publishing good news," which makes a direct connection between the work of Christian publishing/print media and the kerygmatic ministry of heralding the gospel.

Whether we call that a vocation, a calling, a ministry or something else, it is in many ways a legacy that we have been entrusted with that we need to be good stewards of. So we Christian publishers should never be content to give readers merely "what they want." We are called to publish what they need - and to do so in ways that readers can find accessible.

Comment by: Al Hsu at September 10, 2007 8:52 AM

Al,

What would your advice be to first time wanna-be authors? Is self publishing, like say through createspace, the way to go or should they just keep trying to plug away at traditional publishing houses?

Comment by: Nate at September 10, 2007 11:45 AM

Nate - The topics of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing and advice for first-time authors are huge, so I'll try to post on those in separate entries. Watch this space!

Comment by: Al Hsu at September 10, 2007 12:19 PM

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