The Message, published in 2002, is still the ninth best-selling Bible translation, according to the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. But that wasn't enough to save NavPress from downsizing this September.
Gary Cantwell, chief communications officer for the Navigators, the ministry behind NavPress, says The Message's success was "not a problem." NavPress "is still a thriving publisher. [Tyndale House Publishers] will just be handling distribution and marketing."
NavPress announced a partnership with Tyndale in September, ostensibly to "grow the influence and impact of the well-established and respected NavPress brand." But NavPress itself isn't growing: the publishing house laid off 24 of its 29 full-time employees who worked in production, sales, and distribution. The remaining five to seven editorial positions will continue business as normal, said Cantwell.
The new setup is similar to the way Tyndale has worked with Focus on the Family for nearly 20 years. That successful partnership informed NavPress's decision to pursue a similar relationship, Cantwell said. (Meanwhile, Focus cut another 40 positions this fall and added 11.)
In today's publishing world, such a partnership was the right move for NavPress, says Lynn Garrett, senior religion editor at Publishers Weekly. "Profit margins in publishing are razor-thin," she said. "They make their financial projections based on sales, and if they have a best-selling product that falls off, it changes everything."
Similarly, InterVarsity Press associate publisher Andy Le Peau said runaway growth can lead a publisher to cash-flow problems and bankruptcy if the company overestimates a book's future sales. But Christian publishers have traditionally relied on a few hot titles to support a variety of others, especially important books that may not sell well.
What is the takeaway for publishers? "It's counterintuitive, because you'd think success is good, but the problem is too much success," Le Peau said. "Every product has a bell curve, and all bell curves have a downslope."
Such was the case for Multnomah Publishers, a small, Oregon-based publishing house. In the early 2000s, the company went under due to "bad business decisions" after sales for its breakthrough book The Prayer of Jabez leveled off, Garrett says. Multnomah later merged with Random House's WaterBrook Press after its purchase in 2006.
Multnomah's bankruptcy was "ironic, given the message of the book," Le Peau said. "The key [to managing success] is to ask what would happen on the other side of the bell curve."
But publishers also can make business-savvy decisions when sales skyrocket, says Jeff Johnson, chief operating officer of Tyndale House. "When you see that one series is making more than the rest of the company, then you know you can't plan on that staying," he said.
Such was the case in 1998, when Tyndale released the Left Behind series. Sales quadrupled between 1998 and 2001, but when Tyndale saw numbers drop in 2002, the company started to pull out of its Left Behind–related products. Doing so kept them from getting stuck with inventory in reserve after sales leveled off, Johnson said.
Bibles present less danger, says Johnson. "It's less likely that a Bible will be a grand slam," he says. "[Yet] having a Bible line gives you a lot of stability because the Bible in its various forms sells year in and year out."
And Tyndale's success in both arenas looks good to small publishing houses looking to partner with an expert in Bible publishing, Garrett says. "Consolidation is the name of the game," she said. "It's a survival thing these days."
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