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ECPA's newest board members discuss challenges in Christian publishing and retail

Friday, July 1, 2011   (0 Comments)
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A Focused Vision Amidst Publishing’s Changing Landscape

ECPA’s newest board members discuss current and future challenges for Christian publishing and retailing

Dwight 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 Publications

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 different challenges.

So, I’d 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 thriving.

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 and capital.

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.

Jerry K:Successful 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 encroachment.

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.

How specifically 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 recent years.

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!

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