Publishers adapt to a changing market

May 12, 2014 by and

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In December, megachurch pastor Bill Hybels preached a sermon introducing the peace framework from John Paul Lederach’s book The Journey Toward Reconciliation to his congregation of more than 24,000 people.

MennoMedia director Russ Eanes holds a copy of The Journey  Toward Reconciliation. “I think there is a spiritual hunger for values of peace and community and commitment,” he said. “Hopefully we’re the go-to publisher for those people.” — Kelli Yoder/MWR

MennoMedia director Russ Eanes holds a copy of The Journey Toward Reconciliation. “I think there is a spiritual hunger for values of peace and community and commitment,” he said. “Hopefully we’re the go-to publisher for those people.” —
Kelli Yoder/MWR

Hybels is the senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill.

His recommendation sparked renewed interest in Lederach’s 1999 Herald Press book, said Russ Eanes, director of MennoMedia.

MennoMedia is a media resource agency for Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. Herald Press is the book imprint.

“We are revising the book, and it will be out in August,” Eanes said.

Herald Press will release the update, with a foreword by Hybels, under the title Reconcile.

“When you have someone who’s moving in the same direction as us now who’s influential and we can then respond so quickly and with relevance, that’s exciting to me,” Eanes said.

After overcoming debt, economic downturn and merger costs, MennoMedia has a slimmed-down operation in place to reflect a vastly different publishing environment than existed 10 years ago.

“We’re able to be more responsive than we once were,” Eanes said. This fiscal year, for the first time in a decade, they’re on track to break even.

MennoMedia is emerging from its hardship in time to join other Anabaptist publishers in a digital frontier offering hopeful possibility along with new challenges.

Financial issues

Mennonite Publishing House’s longtime financial problems came to light in 2001 when the publishing agencies of the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church merged as Mennonite Publishing Network. As a result, MC USA and MC Canada loaned $4.5 million to MPN.

In 2007, those debts were paid off, thanks in part to selling MPN’s bookstores. But struggles continued with the costs of moving from the old Mennonite Publishing House headquarters in Scottdale, Pa., to Harrisonburg, Va., where MPN merged with Third Way Media in 2011.

“No sooner had we paid off our debt than the big economic crisis hit and we suffered losses,” Eanes said. “So rebuilding after all that in 2009 and ’10 and having a merger and move has made success a constantly moving target.”

Labor of love

Cascadia, an Anabaptist book publisher run by Michael A. King, dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, also experienced a decline in sales with the economic crisis.

“After the recession, Cascadia sales picked up but not to pre-recession levels,” King said. He thinks major changes in publishing, such as print-on-demand and ebooks, are partly to blame.

“Amid [those] variables and as a publisher who has a full-time job as seminary dean, I’ve shifted Cascadia from a make-a-living operation more to a labor-of-love operation,” he said.

Kindred Productions, the publishing agency of U.S. Mennonite Brethren, based in Winnipeg, Man., and Goessel, Kan., has had to slim down its production and focus its goals, according to manager Elenore Doerksen.

“Now almost 100 percent of our projects are done in conjunction with a church, conference department or board, or MB ministry,” Doerksen said.

The publishing industry’s challenges were partly to blame when Good Enterprises Ltd., a Lancaster County, Pa.-based Mennonite-owned company famous for its best-selling Fix-It and Forget-It cookbook series, filed for bankruptcy in December.

“Our industry has changed significantly over the past few years,” president Merle Good said shortly after the filing. “A lot of small publishers have encountered hard times. Book publishing isn’t what it used to be, unfortunately.”

Technology that helps

The digital age actually expanded the business of Scroll Publishing Co., an independent publisher and media distributor serving conservative Anabaptists based in Amberson, Pa.

Many of Scroll’s customers don’t use the Internet. As a result, manager Andre Bercot said, they saw only a small decline in sales as digital publishing took off.

“We’re kind of a niche market,” he said. “It’s mostly the conservative Anabaptist Mennonites who do a lot less on the Internet to begin with.”

But their decision to go online in the 1990s has helped them reach a broad range of conservative Christians. Most sales now come through the website.

Most other publishers for conservative communities do not have websites. Scroll is able to distribute their books online.

“Some of our customers would be very negative about the Internet, but we made the decision we want to be able to reach people, and not everyone is willing to use postal mail,” Bercot said.

Scroll has ebook versions of 10 books they’ve published, and most of the a cappella music they sell is available in digital formats.

“We’re just doing our best here to try to get material out,” he said. “We’re just muddling through with some of the digital stuff.”

Kindred Productions is experimenting with digital opportunities too. It doesn’t yet produce ebooks, but staff are considering it. Sometimes they offer a digital copy along with the purchase of a book, Doerksen said.

“We are also trying to make more of our resources available at no charge, even if just sections or samples of them,” she said. “It is a form of advertising and increasing exposure and interest.”

Some new technologies have similarly worked to MennoMedia’s advantage.

Print-on-demand allows books to be printed as few as one at a time after an order is placed.

“Before we couldn’t afford to do small book runs,” Eanes said.

Now it finds itself with a new nimbleness, able to rejuvenate out-of-print titles. Ebooks accomplish the same thing.

“We have finally caught up with all that technology,” Eanes said. “Every Herald Press book that you would ever want to buy is available on the ebook channels.”

Herald Press ebook sales increased 50 percent last year.

King believes Amazon’s Kindle ereader is the most important device for ebooks. But, he said, “Readers expect such a significant price break on Kindle books that it’s difficult to maintain the revenue structure of traditional publishing based on ebook sales.”

Spiritual hunger

All the publishers find there is still a place for their products, especially in light of a growing awareness of Anabaptism beyond Mennonite churches.

“I think there is a spiritual hunger for values of peace and community and commitment,” Eanes said, even among those outside Anabaptist circles. “Hopefully we’re the go-to publisher for those people.”

MennoMedia will market its new Sunday school curriculum, Shine, to this wider audience. Shine is co-published with Brethren Press. Eanes hopes sales will grow outside the Mennonite and Brethren churches as many small denominations can no longer afford to print their own Sunday school curricula.

King said Cascadia is sustainable by fostering a partnership between the publisher and authors who are prepared to operate within Cascadia’s model of “valuing soul as much as sales.”

For Kindred Productions, the MB emphasis on church planting fuels the need for new denominational resources.

At MennoMedia, Eanes feels positive in spite of the challenges.

“My hope is that we’ll be a ministry of the church that expresses significant Christian and Anabaptist values,” he said. “If we see that as our mission, I think we will really strike a chord, and I think it will cause us to be successful.”


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