Editor’s note: Today marks the debut of a new column from publishing veteran Jim Fletcher, who examines the intersection between our culture’s most important issues and the people who write about them.
On the eve of the secret Oslo talks, as the fateful 1990s began, Israel enjoyed a sunny relationship with American evangelicals. This support coincided with dramatic breakthroughs in the Christian book publishing world, an industry that was overwhelmingly pro-Israel in those days. Books by such publishers as New Leaf Publishing Group and Harvest House advanced the platforms of several pro-Israel authors.
The Christian book industry has also, in the last two decades, enjoyed unprecedented success, even reaching new markets. Tyndale’s “Left Behind” series, from prophecy teacher Tim LaHaye and writer Jerry Jenkins, even made the secular world sit up and take notice.
And while pro-Israel support is still strong, cracks are appearing.
The evangelical left has made inroads into conservative circles, advocating for Palestinian positions in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Books and blogs by folks like Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo have opened up attack lines on Israel and her Christian supporters: Bible prophecy enthusiasts and Christian Zionists.
A war of words, of sorts, has erupted between the major advocacy positions both for and against Christian Zionism.
McLaren’s blog contains an unusual amount of negative commentary about Israel and her friends, under the guise of concern for the Palestinians:
“They [Christian Zionists] create bigotry and prejudice against Muslims in general,” writes McLaren, “and in particular against Palestinians, many of whom are Muslim, but many of whom are Christian too.”
McLaren and many of his friends on the left are published by “the trade,” those large Eastern houses that have little in common with millions of American Christians. And while traditional Christian publishers are not thoroughly secularized yet, there are signs that this very thing is taking place.
At last summer’s International Christian Retailing Show in Orlando, several attendees were surprised by the shift in worldview from publishers who in the past promoted a conservative view of the Bible.
Baker Publishing Group, once the home of the late Creationist icon Henry M. Morris – who was also a strong advocate of Bible prophecy – unveiled two new titles from “old-earth” advocate Hugh Ross. For long-time observers of the Christian book industry, Baker’s shift is a watershed event. Not surprisingly, Baker President Dwight Baker doesn’t see it that way:
“If you read our mission statement carefully, it says a great deal,” Baker said. “When we talk in that statement about being ‘irenic,’ it refers to the fact that Baker Publishing Group has always published the best thinkers on a topic in order to add to the diversity of thought and make for a fuller conversation about the issues people wrestle with. Each generation faces a new set of challenges, but our service to the reading community as a whole and the larger community of believers is best applied by not remaining frozen in time. What is seen as forward and new in one generation can be the conservative traditional approach in the next generation.”
Michael Hyatt, the innovative head of Thomas Nelson Publishers, the book juggernaut based in Nashville, chose his words carefully when asked if books on Bible prophecy are passé in the book industry.
“No, I don’t think they are on the decline. Our third bestselling book in the last 12 months has been David Jeremiah’s ‘What in the World Is Going On?’ I do, however, think these books are cyclical.”
Hyatt keeps his ear to the ground and understands the cyber-future of publishing. His fiscal responsibility has kept Nelson viable in a down economy. Still, his comment on books that advocate for the validity of Bible prophecy is technically true. Jeremiah’s book is everywhere, from big-box retailers to ministry e-stores, and has had a wide hearing on prophecy message boards. Yet the pastor of Shadow Mountain Community Church in San Diego (where Henry Morris attended) surely represents a fading dynamic from the pulpit: conservative.
One Christian Booksellers’ Association publisher who is comfortable on the front lines of Christian Zionism is Stephen Strang, a mogul whose Florida empire includes books and magazines. Strang is heavily involved with Christians United for Israel, and promotes a variety of pro-Israel initiatives.
As to the question of whether the CBA market is turning away from Bible prophecy, Strang answers in his typical independent style:
“I have not noticed the same trend that you mentioned” Strang said. “You may be right, but I did not personally notice that the convention was flooded with books supportive of Israel, nor that they’re shrinking.
“If there is a trend, we’re going the other way because in the last couple of years we have published several books supportive of Israel including ‘Jerusalem Countdown,’ which sold over a million copies,” he added.
Strang went on to reveal why he supports these topics:
“The reason I’m supportive of Israel as a publisher is that it’s an outgrowth of my life,” Strang said. “I have considered myself a Zionist most of my adult life. I’ve visited Israel five times and I’ve been aware of the interest in Israel, the need to publish, and it’s all just kind of worked together. It was not a difficult decision to make.”
While long-time publishers seem to be shying away from topics once dominated by the likes of LaHaye, Dave Hunt and Lindsey, others are cementing their reputations as maverick independents.
WND Books’ new release by Jerusalem correspondent Aaron Klein, “The Late Great State of Israel,” is finding a warm reception from Israel supporters. Klein’s eye-on-the-scene reporting has created the kind of platform that is vital in keeping a title in front of the public.
With 200,000 titles being published annually, many of them mediocre or published solely for the revenue value, an author must establish and maintain a viable platform for promotion. The famous competition in book publishing comes from the sheer number of titles available to a finite audience. Titles like “Late Great” separate themselves from the pack through clever marketing techniques that drill deep into niche markets.
Another independent experiencing real success in a fragile market is Tom Horn, president of Defender Publishing in Springfield, Mo. Two years ago, Horn brought his marketing background from the West Coast and settled down in the heartland, where he found many authors frustrated with traditional publishing options.
“Over the years I discovered many authors had a passion to write, had labored over an important work, but couldn’t get a full-service publisher to financially risk publishing their book,” Horn said.
Horn’s efforts have paid off for several authors, including Bill Salus, whose “Isralestine: The Ancient Blueprints of the Future Middle East” has created a sensation in the Bible prophecy community.
Many thousands of authors have discovered too late that most mainstream book publishers don’t do any real promotion; they rely on the author’s platform for that, or, even better, a lightning strike such as an appearance on “Oprah.” Horn saw the folly in that years ago. Defender does issue standard royalty-based contracts, but the partnering method, in which authors purchase a set amount upfront, has paid off handsomely for both authors and the publisher.
Bob Hawkins, Jr. of Harvest House is continuing his father’s strategy of publishing for Bible prophecy students. The publisher just released Terry James’ new effort, “The American Apocalypse: Is the United States in Bible Prophecy?” It helps that James, co-founder of the largest prophecy website, RaptureReady, has a huge built-in audience and is a “go-to” guy for this community.
All these independent voices ensure that a pro-Israel/Bible prophecy advocacy will endure, even if traditional homes are shutting their doors. As it stands now, only a few CBA publishers still promote product to this still-strong audience.
As the culture continues to “evolve,” look for the publishing wars, amid competing worldviews, to heat up.