After gutting a furniture shop in one of the seediest areas of metropolitan Detroit, Dicksons Bible Bookstores, Inc., recently opened a huge Christian bookstore. Atop the store is a 50-foot sign that battles for attention with the strip-joint marquee across the street.

“We believe God wants us to be here to minister to people,” says Irene Wanner, co-owner of the Detroit chain of stores. However, urban depravity may not be the only challenge to Dicksons’ ambitious venture. Some fear tough times lie ahead for retailers of Christian books.

Sales have leveled off after lucrative years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Fewer blockbuster titles have come forth to excite mass demand. And some big publishers are wrestling with internal and external difficulties, due in part to the tough times (see sidebar below).

Figures vary widely among the handful of organizations that track trends in Christian publishing. But experts generally agree the unlimited growth scenarios of a decade ago have been largely supplanted by more moderate expectations.

C. E. Andrew, executive director of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA), estimates combined revenues of the 33 ECPA members will grow only by about 6 percent in the current fiscal year. He predicts revenues will grow by about 8 percent in each of the next few years. This is down from increases of more than 13 percent in 1983 and about 9 percent in 1984.

Explanations

Put simply, sales of Christian books and Bibles over the last few years have been flat. The modest growth seen in publishers’ revenues is due mainly to a general increase in book prices. Many publishers have moved away from so-called mass paperbacks and toward higher-priced “trade” paperbacks.

Jeffrey K. Hacker, an analyst for Knowledge Industry Publications, Inc., a White Plains, New York, publishing/research concern, cites such factors as a glut of publishers, competition from cable television, and a shrinking foreign market.

Some observers see more basic trends at work. “The evangelical movement is running out of steam just a bit,” suggests John P. Dessauer, a University of Scranton (Pa.) professor recently commissioned by three Christian publishing organizations to study relationships between religious trends and book buying.

Sam Moore, president of Thomas Nelson Publishers, one of the industry’s “Big Three,” adds: “The church is growing at a slower rate than it had been. We’re sort of digesting all the [previous] growth.”

Some in the industry believe the general economy may be playing a role in the slowdown, although, they disagree over exactly how. David Dykhouse, vice-president of sales and marketing for Spring Arbor, a major distributor of Christian books, said that in these relatively good economic times, people are less inclined to buy inspirational books.

In contrast, Robert G. Burton, president of the Capital Cities/ABC division that operates Word, Inc., asserts that the plateauing of Christian book sales is part of a cyclical leveling off in overall book buying. Burton said this is due to slower growth of the nation’s disposable income.

A Brighter Side

Major staff cutbacks, organizational streamlining, and consolidation are among the ways publishers are responding to the lean days.

Observers generally agree such trends will continue, at least in the short term. Nevertheless, the Christian publishing industry as a whole is expected to grow.

This is due largely to small companies that have succeeded by carving out niches in the market. Bethany House Publishers, for instance, has produced a popular line of Christian fiction, and Harvest House Publishers has attracted a mass paperback audience with David Hunt and T. A. McMahon’s controversial The Seduction of Christianity. Some larger publishers are tapping new areas, including books on tape and products targeted for Hispanic or black Christians.

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Also, well-known authors such as Robert Schuller, Charles Swindoll, and James Dobson continue to score hits with nearly every book they write. And Zondervan is encouraged with the lasting popularity of its New International Version, which is battling the King James Version for honors as the best-selling Bible.

Others see enough opportunity in the market to risk starting entirely new ventures. Dobson’s Focus on the Family organization has begun a book publishing outfit that is promoting its wares through the organization’s radio show and magazine.

And two former top executives at Thomas Nelson, Robert Wolgemuth and Mike Hyatt, have established their own concern, saying they want to produce low-volume, high-quality books on Christian approaches to business, politics, and other issues. Said Wolgemuth, “We believe there’s still a mission to be accomplished in Christian publishing and that there’s still money to be made.”

Some even believe God will mandate a new boom in the industry. “The harvest is there, and it will create a great interest in and hunger for God,” says Wanner, of Detroit’s Dicksons chain. “I don’t think we’ve even begun to tap the market.”

By Dale D. Buss.

The Problems At The ‘Big Three’

The Zondervan Corporation, Word Inc., and Thomas Nelson Publishers are known in the Christian book industry as the “Big Three.” Their combined sales account for more than 20 percent of the $1.3 billion industry.

However, each has struggled over the last year or so for different reasons. Some theorize the companies are experiencing normal growing pains. All three started as small, privately held Christian companies. Not only have they grown immensely, but they have become publicly held companies, accountable to stockholders.

To varying degrees, their problems are related to an overall slowdown in the industry and a general lowering of expectations. The need to improve financial health has led to some major changes.

The Zondervan Corporation

A little more than a year ago, executives at Zondervan believed they were at an exciting threshold. A new management team was in place, and some recent financial problems, caused by major deficiencies in accounting procedures, were largely behind them. The company was beginning to streamline operations, and its trailblazing New International Version was setting Bible sales records.

Then, early in 1986, investors began buying up large blocks of Zondervan stock. They viewed the company as undervalued in an industry with plenty of growth left, despite stagnant sales. One investor, British financier Christopher Moran, organized a bloc of shareholders, presumably to try to take over Zondervan or force the sale of the company at a price that would enable shareholders to make a quick profit (CT, Oct. 3, 1986, p. 47).

Moran suggested that Zondervan’s avowed corporate mission of spreading the gospel conflicted with shareholders’ interests, citing among other things the company’s refusal to open its bookstores on Sundays.

Moran continued building support and threatening a takeover, leading Zondervan’s board of directors to its decision to look for a buyer. In the meantime, Zondervan is trying to adjust to a tougher marketplace. It has laid off several dozen workers, partly by closing its Kentwood, Michigan, printing and binding operations and farming out the work to lower-cost suppliers. The company has also consolidated its music operations, and sold its Fleming Revell and Chosen Books divisions.

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Thomas Nelson Publishers

Faced with a net loss of $5.3 million for the fiscal year that ended in March 1986, executives scrapped their strategy of diversification. “It had become simply a matter of too many folks in the boat and not enough food for them all to eat,” said a source close to Nelson.

So Nelson sold its Dodd-Mead unit, a small publisher of secular books it had purchased in 1982. It has also been trying to sell off some of its other operations.

The trimming of costs has entailed laying off several dozen employees. Some 35 in Nelson’s book division alone (more than half of the work force) lost their jobs during 1985 and 1986.

The company has also abandoned fledgling efforts in certain new markets, such as Christian romance novels, archaeology books, academic works, teaching cassettes, and film series. It has returned to staples, such as reference, trade, and children’s books, along with Bibles.

Said Sam Moore, the company’s president and chairman: “We expanded too much. We tried to push a five-inch water supply into a three-inch water line.” At one point last spring, there were even merger talks between Nelson and Zondervan.

But with Nelson’s streamlining accomplished, Moore maintains 1987 will be “the best year we ever had.”

Word, Inc.

At Word, Jarrell McCracken, under pressure, left the company he founded in 1951(CT, October 17, 1986, p. 48). Executives at Capital Cities/ABC, which owns Word, cited the need for more discipline in running the unit’s operations.

Charles Jordon, executive vice-president of Word’s publishing division, characterized last year’s changes as a move “from a free-form approach, where some fairly significant things could fall through the cracks, to a more structured approach.”

Jordon said the new emphasis would be on controlling costs and boosting productivity. He said the company is now “practicing more rigorous stewardship,” which includes “examining each of our business units.” Jordon assured this process will not result in Word’s departure from any major product area such as films or music.

Overseeing the transformation at Word is Robert G. Burton, president of ABC Publishing. Apparently a supporter of Word’s mission, Burton has built his reputation at ABC by streamlining the entire ABC publishing unit and turning it around financially.

By Dale D. Buss.

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