Friday, September 12, 2014

Signs of Life in Christian Publishing (and Good News for Lutherans)

Christian publishing is changing about as fast as the publishing industry more generally, and for similar reasons. Access to resources has shifted on-line, and although publishing new media remains a layered endeavor (think of the St. John’s Bible in comparison to the NET Bible, as just one example of how publishing continues to employ both ancient and modern techniques), figuring out how to be profitable in a shifting media market is anything but simple.

What’s the joke? There are three ways to make money in publishing these days, and none of them work.

The Christian Century recently included an appeal to readers for contributions to keep the journal afloat. In the same editorial, the editor analyzed its decision-making process for how much of its content to provide free on-line before a “gate” goes up for paid content. He writes,

We have thought a lot about a question that all journals, from the New Yorker to the New York Times, must ponder: How much of the magazine should appear online, without cost to the reader? Currently, readers can freely access any three articles per month from the print edition. Our hope, of course, is that this taste of the magazine will be an inducement to read more and to subscribe, either in print or online. 
The Christian Century is unusual among print publications in that subscriptions account for 60 percent of our revenue (with advertising bringing in 19 percent of the total). Other publications depend on a much higher percentage of ad revenues. Many publications also rely on institutional financial backing or wealthy benefactors. We rely on you, our readers, to keep this enterprise viable by your contributions over and above the cost of a subscription.

In the midst of all of this, I was pleased to read this update from Augsburg Fortress:

A few weeks ago, Publisher’s Weekly noted that bookstore sales (all categories) were down 7.9% in the first 6 months of the calendar year as compared to the same period in the year prior.  By comparison, Fortress Press sales through June were approximately 17% up as compared to the same period in the prior year! This is truly remarkable performance against the general retail book industry.  While not all of our FP sales go through retailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, independent bookstores, etc.) the vast majority do.

Anything about publishing ends up being about Amazon, because, for example, Publisher’s Weekly estimates a whopping 41% as the share of Amazon in total US book sales! Fortress Press matches the national total fairly closely.  

The publishing industry knows that building community around what they publish is an essential marketing strategy in a digital, social world. Look up any book on Amazon, and you learn this, with reader reviews and stars prominently displayed next to the books. 

One strategy Fortress Press implements includes building relationships with their customers by creating community around their titles.  They gather people into conversation about shared interests like teaching and learning or religion and theology. If you haven’t explored them recently, take a look at some of these creative Fortress Press community-building endeavors (if you are an advocate for another Christian publishing house, share some links with us of community-building resources these publishers are implementing):

• Seminarium blog (
• Fortress Press Forum on Facebook (
• An active Twitter account (
• Video interviews with FP authors and editors distributed via YouTube (
• And, behind the scenes interviews with FP staff (


These are not the only signs of life in Christian publishing. There are many more, although the level of profitability remains to be seen. Podcasting has really taken off, with spectacular programs out there like Homebrewed Christianity and White Horse Inn

Patheos has positioned itself as a leader in on-line religious publishing, while prominent traditional Christian journals like Christianity Today and First Things continue to roll out excellent on-line content that supplements, replicates or expands their print issues. 

Then there's the bleeding edge in Christian publishing, the global app market. It's hard to filter down to the best, but some favorites include Accordance bible software, the Youversion Bible, and Prayer Notes Free

The largest traditional Christian publisher, by a considerable margin, is Thomas Nelson. Some readers may find this surprising, as the "big" name in Christian publishing is Group. However, Thomas Nelson has a unique history of acquisitions in the last century (Word Inc. etc.), plus the development of a self-publishing arm, not to mention the release of incredibly popular books like Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back and Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence that put six of its books on the New York Times Bestseller list the same week early in 2012. 

Then that same year HarperCollins acquired Thomas Nelson. It is intriguing the extent to which developments in Christian publishing go hand in hand with larger shifts in the industry as a whole (remember, for example, that Zondervan is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns HarperCollins). 

A development somewhat opposite of these mergers is the spin-off of subdivisions of publishers to create space for diversified creativity and to reach new markets. Two of my favorite publishers of this type are Sparkhouse, and Brazos Press. Sparkhouse, part of Augsburg Fortress, publishes faith formation resources for children, youth, and adults, but in a way that sparks new life in Christian communities, especially through unique design and product development. Brazos, an imprint of Baker Academic, fosters the renewal of classical, orthodox Christianity by publishing thoughtful, theologically grounded books on subjects of importance to the church and the world. They serve authors and readers from all major streams of the historic Christian tradition, recognizing that the renewal of Christian orthodoxy transcends many traditional boundary lines and polarities.

One could argue the same is true of publishing more generally--the renewal of publishing will like transcend many traditional boundary lines and polarities. It's really a grand adventure.


  1. Fascinating. It's beyond my competence to do so, but you barely touched on the realities in Catholic publishing!

  2. That's beyond my competence also, I think. I know a bit about the Liturgical Press and First Things. Other than that, I'd love to hear more, but would need guidance.