Quick to Listen/Episode 166 |50min

How a US-China Trade War Threatens Christian Publishing

Why proposed tariffs could significantly increase the price of Bibles.
How a US-China Trade War Threatens Christian Publishing
Image: Mike DuBose / UM News

China is home to some of the worst religious repression in the world. But it also prints more Bibles than any country, thanks to the Nanjing-based Amity Press, which has printed almost 200 million Bibles since 1988 in partnership with the United Bible Societies.

So when the Trump administration recently announced that the latest round of tariffs would include books, Christian publishers were alarmed. Last week, several leaders in the industry made their case before trade representatives to exempt Bibles from these proposed economic measures.

But how did an industry that just decades ago was operating like a family business become a global one? And what makes China uniquely capable of printing millions of Bibles and other Christian books?

Stan Jantz, the executive director of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss how globalization transformed the Christian publishing industry, why China is such a crucial place for Christian publishing, and why he hopes his testimony can help the book industry overall.

This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you by Classic Christian Thinkers, the new book by author and theologian Kenneth Samples. It highlights the lives of some of Christianity’s greatest historical figures. Get your copy today here.

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Highlights from Quick To Listen: Episode 167

In the United States is trade war against China, the weapon of choice has been tariffs. For its next round, the Trump Administration has proposed a 25% tariff on 300 billion dollars of Chinese goods. This would include Bibles and Christian books. What many listeners may not realize however is that despite its deserved reputation as a place of religious repression, China is also the world's largest Bible publisher thanks to Nanjing-based Amity Press, which has printed almost 200 million Bibles since 1988 in partnership with the United Bible Societies.

According to the story CT published last week, the world's largest Christian publisher HarperCollins Christian Publishing incurs more than three-quarters of their costs in China. In a hearing before the Trade Commission on Tuesday, CEO Mark Schoenwald argued that the proposed tariffs would force HarperCollins Christian Publishing to increase its prices, reduce its sales volume, and discontinue some Bible editions. A recent podcast guest and CEO of Tyndale House, Mark Taylor, also testified before the Trade Commission, as did our gest today, Stan Jantz. After making the case for a religious exemption, Christian publishers now await the decision of the trade representatives who may announce their decision before this week's G20 Summit where Trump is expected to personally discuss a trade deal with China's president Xi Jinping.

This week on Quick To Listen, we want to discuss how the American Christian publishing industry became a global business and how China became the country of choice for Bible publishers. Our guest today is Stan Jantz, who is the executive director of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA). He's worked in the Christian book industry for his entire professional life and he's co-author of some 60 books, many of which have become bestsellers.

Many American goods are made in China, but when did this start for American Bibles? And why is China the country of choice for Christian publishing?

Stan Jantz: Well, there’s a slight distinction here. The word “publish” simply means to make public. So whether it's a printed book, an e-book or even audiobook, you’re publishing content. What they're actually doing in China is printing or manufacturing the Bibles for us. Amity Press is a huge, huge printer there that does that. Specifically with HarperCollins Christian, they work so closely with these printers in China and have developed as this ongoing relationship that probably started in the 80s.

I know Mark Schoenwald said they've been actually working very closely for two decades to develop not just the technique of printing Bibles, but also the packaging and the whole process that goes into the final product. So using printers in China is a really big part of Christian publishing, especially in the Bible world. But also any 4-color work that is done in the general publishing market also gets printed in China. So that’s children's books, which is probably the fastest growing and the most robust right now because Millennials having children. And the books that are being produced and printed are colorful, they sometimes have stickers and other things that attract kids, and that's a complicated procedure. And China has developed techniques and have the skilled labor to pull off the quality we want. There's a lot of hand work that goes into these types of books. For instance, if you have a Bible that's a special edition, all that stitching on the leather covers and the pages are very thin. So they have developed these special techniques, the right technologies, printing presses, and also the skilled labor. Here in the US, we lack the capacity to do that and to do it at the economy economic scale that China has been able to do.

There are printers in the US, and American publishers do have relationships with them. But because of their design and complexity with pages and maps, and study Bibles with all the running notes and commentary, the covers get a little fancier, there’s just more and more to producing a quality Bible. So the expense goes up and over time all the publishers found that in China there were printers that could do this and were very amenable to the different techniques that publishers were bringing into the Bible publishing. They're still a lot of Bibles printed here in the US, but China can offer better scale and the cost.

One of the questions that came up from the US trade representative was, what about the working conditions in these printing houses in China? And Mark Schoenwald made it very clear that HarperCollins Christian does monitor and see the kind of conditions Amity Press has. He said they actually are paid higher in the Chinese printers than other industries that would be parallel to them. So they feel comfortable that the working conditions with these printers in China are very fair and equitable.

The irony is of course is that few, if any, of those Bibles end up in China. They are exported mostly to the US, but also all around the world. But then we want to get Bibles back into China, so they have to come back through different agencies—whether it's a Bible Society or a publisher.

When did Christian publishing begin to grow to a point where scale became something that needed to be considered?

Stan Jantz: The Living Bible, which was published by Tyndale House in the early seventies, was probably the first popular Bible that everyone seemed to have a copy of. And the reason The Living Bible even took off—and this was before it was an entire Bible—was when Billy Graham featured Living Letters in one of his crusades and interest just exploded. And a little bit before the whole Bible was finished and printed around 1972, there was a little blue book called Late Great Planet Earth that was among the bestselling books of the decade. This was the first time you're seeing book selling in the millions. So that really started this modern era of Christian publishing. And so you had the independent family-owned businesses that then started discovering writers whose books became very popular and found a wider and wider audience. And it really just continued to grow through the 80s, 90s and 2000s. Also in the 90s, Amazon came along which brought all books to an even greater audience, even though it kind of undermines Christian brick-and-mortar retail. So you had a load of adjustment there. And then you had big New York houses buying some of the smaller family-owned publishers, too.

It seems that Amity has a corner on the market with regards to working with Christian Publishers. Could give us a brief history of how that came to be? And were there once other rivals or businesses that Christian publishers worked with in China or in other countries?

Stan Jantz: I don't know the details of how that relationship formed. I know there were there have always been ministries that had strong connections in China and were printing there. To publish in China, the government controls all the ISBN numbers. These are used to identify the book and keep track of it in various ways. And in China, they regulate and control every book that’s published. So you already had this printing and publishing that goes on there. But it’s a little different with Amity because they're not exactly publishing in the sense that they aren’t distributing the books they print in China. They are just printing them for us.

How that came about, I’m still learning about. I do know that HarperCollins Christian has been working with Amity for about 20 years. I don't know if they use other printers besides Amity, but Amity is certainly the biggest partner. And I think it just came about because people were going over there and seeing what they were doing. China is enterprising and the Chinese government has allowed kind of a free enterprise capitalistic system that’s controlled by the government but has taken the country from almost a third-world country to a first-world country. And I think the printing presses are part of that, they help bring in revenue to China and help raise the economic conditions of its people.

You’ve got to think that maybe God has a bit of a sense of humor in this. But you've got this country that basically an atheistic country, and yet Christianity is the fastest growing religion in China over atheism or Buddhism. According to Pew Research, by the year 2035 there will be more Christians in China than here in the US. So there's this paradox of control but yet God is doing a work in this country and there is great desire in that country for the gospel.

How would these increase in tariffs impact the relationship between US publishers and printers in China?

Stan Jantz: For a lot of publishers in the US, especially the Bible publishers, it's a business proposition because they can get great work done at a price that then enables them to sell a beautiful Study Bible with color and a nice cover for about 50 bucks. And even if you can find a printer that could do that here in the US, you probably double the cost for that level of quality.

So that's the dilemma. With these tariffs, we're going to either add costs to our production, or publishers will have to look elsewhere. And they've already tried to do that. In fact, at the hearing Mark Schoenwald said that HarperCollins Christian spent millions of dollars to develop a printing relationship in Columbia for two years. And they just had to abandon that project because they couldn't get the right workers and the right technology and process to produce the kind of Bibles they want. And I’ve talked to the Printers Association here in the US and there's a real there's a shortage of skilled workers in the printing industry here in the US. You might think it’s all machines, but you need you need people who know what they're doing and have that dedication and skill. It really is an artistry in some regards to print something that is going to be a beautiful result. We have a shortage of that here in the US, but China does.

Also, HarperCollins publishes the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, which is the world’s most popular version of the Bible and 72% of their Bibles are printed at Amity Press in China. The rights to the NIV is held by Biblica, and I actually gave testimony on Biblica’s behalf in Washington last week for them, the issue with tariffs is not just about having to increase prices. They give every Bible away, so for them to have a 25% increase means they have to give away fewer Bibles if they’re going to maintain the budget that they currently have so. So this issue goes beyond publishing companies and goes to ministries and Bible societies that also use these printers in China for the Bibles that they distribute.

The Association of American Publishers also made a really compelling case for literacy and the place that books play in a nation's health, especially for children. We start reading quite young and a lot of what attracts kids to books is the way the book looks and feels and the features it has. So many of those are printed in China. There's not the capacity here and one publisher who represents a large children's book said it would take us five years to get back to where we were and then they don't even know if that would be enough time just to get the presses and printing companies here in the US going at the level we need.

After the hearings last week, I think there's great hope. I, along with Mark Schoenwald and the representative from the Association of American Publishers was there. Representatives from Penguin Random House where there. And we were all really making a case for books. And the representatives on the trade committee were they were informed and asked really strong questions, and we got the sense from the trade representative and the committee that they were very interested in what we had to say. During the break, they asked personal questions, Mark brought samples of Bibles that are printed in China and one in the US to show that there was no comparison in quality. And there seemed to be a real receptivity to what we were saying and our request for an exemption on behalf of books and Bibles.

What is the goal of the trade representatives? How are they supposed to weigh in? And who's where do their loyalties lie?

Stan Jantz: They're representing Industries. From metals to clothing to books or other goods that are produced in China imported to the US. So a variety of groups are being represented and they are having these hearings for two weeks. The US trade representative will then make a recommendation to the administration regarding which, if any, of these products should be exempted from the tariff, which they can do. In fact, the US has a history of exempting books and Bibles from tariffs. It's kind of part of the fabric of America. So we believe that the administration will have a sensitivity to the fact that Bibles are included in this. In fact, Mark used a really good phrase that's been picked up by a lot of the news agencies. He called it a Bible tax. I think it's a very smart way to phrase it and one that may get the attention of the administration. So we are we are hopeful that there will be a response and that that these items will be exempted.

Why was it so important for you to give testimony on behalf of Christian publishers? What effect do you think your testimony will have?

Stan Jantz: My dad had some great sayings and he said, “Every movement needs materials. Even God wrote a book.” So you have the Author of the Ages, God himself through the Holy Spirit, utilizing about 40 different writers to produce a book that is one of the most beautiful books ever produced. And everybody should read it because they’ll learn about what beautiful writing is all about. So this amazing book, or really collection of books, is the best-selling book in the world.

I think if the Bible angle or the Bible category is a way to lift the whole book category, that’s fantastic. As Christians, we are called here to serve the common good. When Nehemiah was in exile, it was like “What can we do to serve Babylon and to create the benefit for the whole country?” and I think there's a sense in which we've lost that as Christians. That really, we’re here not just for our own good, but we're here to serve and to help people. And really economically too, not just in a sense of the spiritual.

I think there's a real noble cause that God has given us as Christians. Our role in this world is to help whether it's in helping the poor and clean water, but this is another way to do that. So if we can have books be exempted, and if it was Bibles that does it, I would be so proud of that. That this book of God helps the entire book industry. Maybe I'm dreaming, maybe I'm overly optimistic, but that's been my prayer quite honestly is that the Bible would be used to help the entire publishing industry to be exempted. That would be something that would just give me great joy.

July/August
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