Can Christian publishers owned by secular companies maintain their Christian distinctives?
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When WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group published Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian in April, Jerry Johnson had a problem.
Johnson is the new president of National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), and WaterBrook Multomah was an associate member. The ethics statement of the NRB is clear: Members must adhere to a broadly evangelical statement of faith that applies to the material the members produce.
Johnson later wrote in a memo to his board that WaterBrook Multnomah had a “good record of publishing … evangelicals that share the doctrinal commitments of NRB. While acknowledging that positive track record, the question remains, ‘What role, if any, did Waterbrook Multnomah have in this pro-homosexuality publication?’”
After conversations with Waterbrook Multnomah’s leadership, Johnson presented the publisher with a choice: “I told them that if they wanted to remain NRB associate members, I would have to refer the matter to our Ethics Committee for review, or they could agree to resign their membership. They agreed to resign immediately.”
The story of Waterbrook Multnomah’s resignation from NRB is a case study in the complicated issues facing the Christian publishing industry. To begin with, consider this: Neither Waterbrook nor Multnomah published Vines’ controversial book. The newly formed Convergent Books published God and the Gay Christian. However, for Jerry Johnson this distinction made no difference. “Steven W. Cobb serves as the chief publishing executive for both groups. This issue comes down to NRB members producing unbiblical material, regardless of the label under which they do it.”
‘A nonprofit company is responsible to the Lord. A for-profit company is responsible to shareholders.’ —Marvin Padgett
Was the issue further complicated by the fact that Multnomah, Waterbrook, and Convergent are all a part of Crown Publishing Group, which is a part of the publishing giant Penguin Random House? And that Penguin Random House, which had revenue of more than $3 billion last year, is owned by the privately held German company Bertelsman, which did more than $20 billion in revenue last year, with more than $1 billion in profit?
Whatever the answer to those questions, they could easily apply to almost the entire Christian publishing industry. The consolidation began in 1988, when Zondervan was bought by HarperCollins, which is itself owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. HarperCollins also bought the largest bookseller in Christian publishing, Thomas Nelson, in 2012.
Marvin Padgett is a longtime Christian publishing insider. From 1997 to 2005 he was editorial vice president at Crossway Books and then filled a similar position at P&R until his retirement in 2012. He came out of retirement to lead Great Commission Publishers, which is a nonprofit publishing venture of the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
“I attended the Christian Booksellers Association convention in 1988 when the hot news on the floor was the acquisition of Zondervan,” he said. “We were asking the same questions then, so this is not new.”
But—especially given the Multnomah Waterbrook situation—are the answers different? “No place I’ve ever worked would have dared do anything remotely like what Multnomah did,” Padgett said. “We had bedrock principles that governed what we published.” All three of Padgett’s employers are nonprofit organizations governed by a board of directors and a Christian mission. “A nonprofit company is responsible to the Lord,” Padgett said. “A for-profit company is responsible to shareholders.”
Padgett admitted, though, that the gloomiest predictions about Zondervan have not come to pass. “I think Zondervan had the sense to put safeguards in place that allowed them to control their own fate,” Padgett said. “And Rupert Murdoch had the sense not to tamper with the goose that is laying a golden egg.”
Padgett noted that “profit” is not a dirty word even to so-called “nonprofit” publishers. Padgett says that while the mission comes first for a nonprofit organization, “getting at least to break-even is what allows us to keep doing what we do.”
Bob Fryling of InterVarsity Press (IVP) said the biggest changes the large publishers have had on the industry has been the “greater competition for [brand name] evangelical authors and agents who are being wooed by the greater resources of these companies.” Fryling said that also means “it is getting harder to publish either first-time authors or those who don’t have a large public platform but have important things to say.”
Such innovations as self-publishing and print-on-demand have theoretically made it easier for first-time authors to get into print, but the proliferation of books that these technologies enable makes it all the harder to break through. The Shack sold 1 million self-published copies before publishing giant Hachette picked it up and sold 10 million more.
But such well-publicized self-publishing success stories hide the fact that lottery wins and lightning strikes are more likely than landing a self-published book on The New York Times best-seller list. In 2013, more than 1 million self-published titles came out. According to self-publishing guru Robert Kroese, the overwhelming majority of these books sold fewer than 100 copies. Indeed, about the only people making money are the publishers themselves. In 2012, Penguin acquired self-publisher Author Solutions for $116 million. At the time of the acquisition, Penguin reported Author Solutions had generated more than $100 million in revenue the year before and was growing at 12 percent per year.
And for the reader, self-publishing provides even fewer safeguards of theological orthodoxy. Most of the major Christian publishers had an opportunity to publish The Shack but turned it down in part because of its theological problems. Such evangelical luminaries as Al Mohler, Chuck Colson, and Norman Geisler warned evangelical readers away from The Shack—but only after it became a publishing phenomenon.
All of this points to an unsettled future for the book publishing industry, especially for Christian publishers who maintain fidelity to Scripture. That’s nothing new. The English printer and publisher John Day endured prison from 1554 to 1558 for refusing to “cease and desist” his printing of Protestant material, including what we know today as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Also not new is the practice of Christian publishers being “unequally yoked” to secular business partners and products. In the 19th century, for example, Thomas Nelson published all manner of non-Christian material, including some of the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes’ fame.
Here’s what is new: Today, in the modern era of publicly traded companies, maximizing shareholder value now, rather than down the road, minimizes long-term thinking. In such an environment, as Marvin Padgett noted, there is an “inescapable disconnect” between a company “whose sole end is profit and that of a Christian ministry.
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