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Future of Christian publishing industry remains uncertain

NASHVILLE (BP) — Two recent Christian books arguing that not all homosexual acts are sinful have left industry observers wondering whether evangelical publishers — especially those owned by secular corporations — will produce more material outside the bounds of traditional orthodoxy.

“Publishing houses are going to have to wrestle with what their starting point is,” Selma Wilson, vice president of the B&H Publishing Group at LifeWay Christian Resources, told Baptist Press. “If your starting point is to make money or your starting point is to be a New York Times bestseller, you’re going to do different things” than publishers focused on faithfulness to Christ.

In April the WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group’s sister imprint Convergent Books released Matthew Vines’ “God and the Gay Christian,” a book arguing that the Bible permits monogamous same-sex relationships. In October Howard Books is scheduled to release Christian singer Jennifer Knapp’s book “Facing the Music,” a memoir recounting, among other things, her coming out as a lesbian.

WaterBrook Multnomah and Howard are among the Christian publishing houses owned by secular companies, with WaterBrook Multnomah falling under the Penguin Random House umbrella and Howard under Simon and Schuster. Both the Thomas Nelson Publishing Group and Zondervan are owned by HarperCollins Publishers.

Among the independent Christian publishers are B&H, Moody Publishers, Tyndale House Publishers, Harvest House Publishers and the Baker Publishing Group.

In response to “God and the Gay Christian,” the National Religious Broadcasters — an association for Christian broadcasters and communicators — confronted WaterBrook Multnomah, resulting in the publisher’s resignation from NRB membership. NRB President Jerry Johnson said it made little difference that the book was published under the Convergent label because “this issue comes down to NRB members producing unbiblical material, regardless of the label under which they do it.”

A ‘marketplace of ideas’

Mark Kuyper, president of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, told BP that ECPA will not take action against WaterBrook Multnomah because the Convergent imprint is not an ECPA member and therefore not subject to the organization’s guidelines. He added that he considers arguments for homosexuality a matter of varying biblical interpretation rather than a departure from orthodoxy that should provoke ECPA action.

Kuyper said Christian books representing non-traditional theological positions likely will increase as the culture explores those positions.

ECPA is a trade organization for groups that publish various types of Christian content. All member organizations agree to only publish materials that align with the ECPA statement of faith, which expresses belief in the inspiration of Scripture, the Trinity and the bodily resurrection of Christ among other doctrines.

“The publishing community is responding to what’s going on in the culture,” Kuyper said in an interview. “As we address some of these topics that we had not been pressed to address before, you are probably going to see authors and publishers bring those ideas to light. How the Christian community will respond [to new topics raised in the culture] will vary greatly.”

One goal of Christian publishing is to create a “marketplace of ideas,” Kuyper said, and Christian publishers do not expect every book to be profitable — though publishers must make a profit to stay in business. The decision to publish books that depart from the ethical or theological mainstream, he said, generally stems from the publisher’s desire to advance conversation more than the demands of the market.

“When you’re talking about a book that is focused on homosexuality and Christianity, it’s not the same as a Duck Dynasty book,” Kuyper said. “There’s a much broader audience for the Duck Dynasty book than for that kind of a book.” Controversial books “are primarily driven by wanting to be a part of the conversation.”

David Shepherd, a literary agent, formerly vice president of a Christian publishing house, told BP that departing from orthodoxy is not yet a broad trend among Christian publishers. In the future, however, Christian publishers owned by secular corporations may be more likely to publish questionable material than houses that are closely held by evangelical owners.

“As the church more and more reflects the culture … I think some Christian publishers will begin to also reflect that,” Shepherd said. “The most recent indication of that perhaps is the WaterBrook book. But I don’t know that there will be a huge wave of Christian publishers doing that kind of thing.”

Demand for orthodoxy

Widespread publication of unorthodox material would represent a departure from the heritage of Christian publishing, Shepherd said. Although there have always been some authors “on the edge of orthodoxy,” Christian publishers generally “are aware of who their audience is and have editorial guidelines that will more often than not keep them in the orthodox fold,” he said.

Theologically liberal authors have tended to publish with academic houses that have reputations for airing progressive views or with religious publishers without evangelical faith statements, Shepherd said.

That trend appears to be holding, by and large. For instance, Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton’s recent book “Making Sense of the Bible” — which argues that mass killings reported in the Old Testament are inconsistent with God’s character and suggests that biblical condemnations of homosexuality do not apply to monogamous same-sex relationships — was published by HarperOne rather than one of HarperCollins’ Christian imprints. Emerging church leader Rob Bell also has published recent books with HarperOne.

Still, Christian publishers want to produce material that Christian bookstores will buy, Shepherd said. The demand for biblically faithful materials is likely to keep much Christian book publishing within the bounds of orthodoxy, he said.

“Generally speaking I think publishers are going to be sensitive to delivering products to bookstores that bookstores will trust to put on their shelves for their readers,” Shepherd said.

Wilson said Christian authors, like consumers, likely will partner with companies that align with their values. There is no trend yet of conservative authors leaving publishers who produce unorthodox books, she said.

Defying the market

Wilson said publishers like B&H, whose editorial guidelines demand that all books reflect evangelical theology, will be faithful to Christ regardless of what book buyers want.

“Our starting point is not to give to the market what the market wants,” Wilson said in a June 3 interview. “We’re a confessional publisher. There are things we believe and believe very strongly. It’s all centered on the Gospel. So for me, being an evangelical Christian publisher means that you start with Christ and you end with Christ.”

Meeting all the market’s demands “doesn’t give life to anyone,” Wilson said. “In fact, it brings death. It’s going to destroy lives and destroy families, and that’s why we’re so committed to being the best in our space — because we know what gives life.”

Michael Hyatt, former CEO of Thomas Nelson and a popular blogger about the publishing industry, declined BP’s request for an interview. In a 2013 interview with Leadership Journal, he said Christian publishers “face challenges” in the years to come.

Publishers “are going to have to get very clear on the value they bring to authors, especially as compared to the plethora of self-publishing options available today,” Hyatt said. “Beyond that, the biggest challenge will be to find the capital to invest in growth. Overall, their business is stagnant. Their owners (mostly secular) are loathe [sic] to make additional investments in an industry segment where there is so little upside potential. Unless they can attract capital, they will have to get by with smaller royalty advances, fewer marketing dollars and less expensive staff. I expect increased consolidation in this part of the industry.”
David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).