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Secular companies take over Christian publishers

With news that HarperCollins Publishers has purchased Thomas Nelson – the biggest Christian publishing company in the world – we see the biggest assault yet on the Christian industry.

Harper, which owns Zondervan, a major competitor to Nelson, is adopting the strategy that began in the ’90s: We won’t join Christian publishing, so we’ll beat it.

What I mean is that (and this column will use generalizations; please understand there are still good things being done in the Christian book publishing industry) a couple decades ago, when large New York houses began to see the money made from Christian publishing, they decided to buy good-sized companies, usually ones that had grabbed the brass ring in sales with a hot title or series (“The Prayer of Jabez”; the “Hugs” series).

This meant that Christian companies like Howard and Multnomah became imprints of large, “secular” companies. They still function and produce Christian books and present at Christian trade shows … however.

It doesn’t take a shuttle scientist to see that once a Christian company becomes the property of a secular company, the Christian entity is no longer independent. There used to be a few independent publishers out there, and no one compromised their messages, and no one told them to steer clear of certain conservative authors.

I remember once bringing all this up at dinner with some publishing friends; we were at the big summer Christian trade show, sponsored by the Christian Booksellers Association.

I said something that sounds off-the-wall to anyone but a Bible-believer. I said that if we were indeed living in the last days (someone else had brought it up), then we should be able to track compromise in Christian publishing. In other words, if the writings of Paul and the other apostles are true, we would arrive at a time when people would not put up with sound doctrine.

I immediately understood that most of the people at the table now thought they were having dinner with a dodo bird. There was an embarrassing silence.

Yet I know others in the industry who feel as I do. The news of the Nelson sale is but one more piece of evidence.

Ever since the Chicken Soup books were allowed into CBA, there has been a steady movement towards books that are not orthodox. I was almost amused this week to read a blog from a CBA person pretending to be objective over “The Shack.” She was gauging reaction from retailers who carry the book by Paul Young, thought by many to be a universalist.

Most of the reader comments were positive and aligned with her position, until she answered one dissenter. Her tone changed to condescension and scolding.

This is what happens when Christian bookstores justify stocking heresy in order to make money. Many independent stores have disappeared, and that was long before the economy tanked. Christian retail independents have suffered for a very long time.

Back to Nelson.

All the usual positive comments have been launched, as I knew they would be. While Nelson has not exactly been a bastion of conservative belief (under Michael Hyatt’s leadership, especially, the book selections have been more eclectic), at least the company remained independent of a pagan giant.

No more.

Thomas Nelson will now belong ultimately to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which also bought Zondervan in 1988. A private equity firm, Kohlberg and Company, acquired majority ownership of Nelson in 2010; former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman became a board member.

So the stage was set for the transfer of the largest independent Christian publisher to a publishing goliath that will publish anything spiritual, including Buddhists and other religions.

The spin has already started.

Mark Kuyper, CEO of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Assocation, has said that while there is some concern about the transfer of Nelson to HarperCollins, “We can acknowledge and appreciate the potential synergies and efficiencies this represents in our common goal of moving more Christian product to more people.”

He went on to say, “In spite of the twists and turns in consumer behavior, technology and the economy, Christian publishing is a dynamic, innovative industry bursting with potential and impacting lives for Christ – whether operated as independents or as large public corporations.”

I disagree.

Nelson will go the way of others, in that the company will be controlled by leadership that, while perhaps not openly hostile to orthodox Christianity, will certainly take the company to the left.

I will be writing more about this in the coming weeks. The Nelson sale is a big story, and a watershed moment in the history of Christian publishing.

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