ECPA's newest board members discuss challenges in Christian publishing and retail
Friday, July 1, 2011
Vision Amidst Publishing’s Changing Landscape
ECPA’s newest board members discuss current
and future challenges for Christian publishing and retailing
Baker, President, Baker Publishing Group; Bob
Fryling, Publisher, InterVarsity Press; Jeff
Johnson, COO, Tyndale House Publishers; Jerry
Kregel, Executive VP, Kregel Publications; with Mark
Kuyper, President/CEO, ECPA
The ECPA voting membership has approved four new executives
to the ECPA Board at the recent Executive Leadership Summit and Member
meeting. They are:
- Dwight Baker, President of Baker Publishing Group
- Bob Fryling, Publisher for InterVarsity Press
- Jeff Johnson, COO of Tyndale House Publishers
- Jerry Kregel, Executive Vice President of Kregel
These four men join a vibrant board of directors that
provides vision and direction for the Association. Their new voices will help guide ECPA in providing the most
valuable services to its members throughout a changing publishing landscape,
yet amidst a solid core vision to strengthen the industry in order to make the
message of Christ more widely known.
We invited them to discuss with ECPA President/CEO Mark
Kuyper the challenges that face publishers today, how content delivery will
change in three years and ECPA’s current and future role.
Mark K: First, I want to welcome each one of you
to the ECPA Board and I thank you for your time in discussing these issues for
our member readers of E-Link. As an Association serving Christian
publishers, we are constantly monitoring the pulse of the challenges publishers
face, in trying to equip them best to meet those challenges. Different publishers, of course, face
like to first ask what each of you believes is the greatest
challenge facing publishers today?
Bob F: The
biggest challenge facing non-fiction publishers is being able to publish
authors and topics that successfully capture the buying and reading attention
of Christians. Because discretionary and thoughtful reading time is rapidly
shrinking due to the proliferation of blogs, tweets, apps, podcasts and
expectations of short (and free!) content, publishers face the dual challenge
of being counter-cultural in not only what we publish but how we publish it. We
need to be relevant in a digital age without unintentionally adding to
unhealthy digital addictions.
Jeff J: Yes, it
is clear that we are
going through a revolution within our industry as a result of digital
opportunities. While on one hand it is exciting to see the possibilities to
carry out our corporate mission, it is also requiring us to reinvent ourselves
at almost every level of our organization. I believe managing this change in
light of many unknowns will be our greatest challenge.
Jerry K: I believe our greatest challenge is the need to
adapt to this change. There has always been the need to adapt to change,
but the rate of change is much faster today than it used to be, and the need to
adapt more quickly is that much more important for surviving and
And to further what Bob has pointed out, I think the
greatest challenge facing publishers "tomorrow” will be the decline of
readership, due in large part to the tremendous continuing increase of
multimedia communication. In addition, the continuing tremendous growth
in access to free information that may or may not be valuable but is also
time-consuming for readers takes away from reading information that publishers
publish that is both valuable and costs money. A further challenge, then,
will be to continue to find creative ways to monetize our content to compete
with so much free information.
Mark K: How do you see this change, and others, affecting
the role of the physical bookstore?
Dwight B: Based on these changes in consumer
behavior, an abundance of bookstores are now competing for a smaller pool of print
book browsers. Traditional book retailers are entering an unfamiliar phase of
adjustment, and for the near future this transition will present us all with a
major publishing challenge. As has been mentioned by my colleagues here, many
of the most active book consumers are migrating to digital formats, and this
shift in sales revenue will result in contractions across the physical retail
channels. Many retailers are now overextended, with too many storefronts and
shelves of unsold books. The highly reported bookstore closures of last year
are a foreshadowing. Both publishers and retailers face a long and
uncomfortable round of further adjustments. We are operating on borrowed time
Mark K: What
will these "long and uncomfortable round of adjustments” entail?
Dwight B: This contraction will not impact the
retail channels evenly. We are most oversold in the general market, both in
bookstore chains and particularly in big box retailers. Publishing sales teams
and the retail buyers are growing aware of this fact, but we are adjusting too
slowly to keep pace with consumer changes. All publishers, including me, can’t
resist a hefty frontlist advance order. I’d sooner skip my morning coffee, and
that’s saying a lot. As a result, we continue to print and ship just as we did
three years ago, but that sales model is obsolete. It is based on habit rather
than on actual demand.
For publishers, the challenge is growing obvious: we need to
accommodate to less retail exposure of our printed works, but as professionals
we are disinclined to accept that fact willingly.
Mark K: In light of these shifts in strategy and
business models, how do you envision what Christian publishing will look like
in three years compared to what it is today?
Bob F: Publishing will continue to grow
in its diffusion of content distribution. Customers will increasingly expect
our books to be available in not only print but also on whatever electronic
readers and mobile devices they might have at the moment. More and more time
will be spent on anticipating and meeting these needs which means that
publishers will be managing an increasingly hybrid business model of both print
and digital publishing.
publishing in three years will likely involve more short-form publishing, more
less-expensive content, and more direct-to-consumer marketing, sales, and
connection. Quality content, which always has and always will be
paramount to successful publishing, must be differentiated that much more from
so much free, lower-quality content. I also believe the publishing
process will need to shorten for many types of books.
Jeff J: The percentage of our digital
business will be greater, our reach around the world will be greater, and we
will be publishing in formats in ways that we can’t even see clearly today. I
believe this makes for an exciting time to be involved in Christian Publishing
because of the potential ministry impact.
Mark K: Good point, Jeff. I agree with you.
I’m curious, Dwight, how you see this migration to digital
affecting Christian bookstores and general market retailers?
Dwight B: I see an
irony in our situation regarding digital migration. For instance, Christian bookstores – which we tended to
dismiss as retrograde – are the least vulnerable
retail segment to this new threat. The steady decline of the CBA retail
category has refined the enduring Christian bookstores into more realistic and
cautious managers. Unlike their general market competitors, CBA stores have not
aggressively overbuilt themselves and they no longer invest their resources on
growth models. Two decades of growing competition has prepared them well for
Secondly, CBA bookstores long ago embraced product
diversification as a business strategy. (This was the threshold when the
initial B in the name CBA officially ceased referring to books.)
Diversification is now the very strategy that general bookstores consider as
their salvation. Printed books will forfeit shelf space to non-book products in
the general market, much as they did in the CBA sector decades ago.
Mark K: My last
question involves the continued and future role of ECPA. ECPA’s defined strategic goals are to
provide our members with networking opportunities, access to information,
and advocacy of their products and interests in order to strengthen them
individually and the industry as whole.
can ECPA continue to help its members meet the challenges we’ve just discussed for
the present and for the future?
Jeff J: ECPA can
continue to keep us
abreast of the viable digital opportunities that are developing, legal issues
in this changing landscape, and encouragement as to how digital opportunities
are having a greater ministry impact.
Dwight B: At its best, ECPA provides publishers
with a forum to learn and interact on a level above our individual company
interests. During most of the year, we practice routine competition that
refines our skills and services. In other situations, such as the application
of copyright laws, we benefit from facing our challenges as a collective
profession. ECPA allows us to develop the aggregate wisdom of our individual
houses. In addition, I believe
that the CBA bookstore provides a glimpse of the future as well as the past,
and for this reason the interaction of our two business associations, ECPA and
CBA, will become more relevant for our collective welfare than it has been in
Jerry K: ECPA can
and does help its members through educational forums, like this past ECPA
Executive Leadership Summit, to help educate its members on developing
technologies and changes in the publishing industry in general beyond just our
specific part of the publishing industry. ECPA can also be instrumental
in researching and connecting players outside our industry with its members.
Mark K: Good point, Jerry. We have seen a tremendous growth in the
number of ECPA
| Solutions providers these past few years as companies are
developing and expanding to help meet these changing needs of publishers. We are constantly vetting industry
service providers to develop ECPA member programs, and plan to continue to grow
this list of qualified providers.
Bob F: ECPA can help publishers be successful
in this hybrid business model by both facilitating and helping publishers
navigate the growing digitalization of our industry but also in keeping our
vision focused on more than just content delivery systems. Data does not save -
only Jesus saves! Consequently we need to make sure that what we are publishing
helps provide spiritual leadership and transformation to our readers and
churches and the world around us.
Mark K: Thank you,
Bob, for concluding our discussion with this over-arching vision that we all
share. I think we all agree with
what Jeff said earlier, that this represents one of the most exciting times to
be involved in Christian publishing.
I have to say that one of the most fulfilling aspects of my role in ECPA
is to work with the current leadership in our industry: true visionaries and wise business
leaders that embrace these changes and challenges individually, while being
collectively confident that God is ultimately directing it for His kingdom.
I thank each of you for your time and for sharing your
expertise. I am so grateful for
each of you, for our entire ECPA board, and the ECPA community. I look forward to working with you in
strengthening our industry and preparing it for the next phase of Kingdom work!