Eerdmans Publishing Company has always flouted convention. The press, founded in Grand Rapids, Mich., on August 16, 1911, by Dutch emigrant William B. Eerdmans Sr., who led it for 52 years, remains family-owned: William “Bill” Eerdmans Jr., the son of its founder, has served as the company’s president and publisher since 1963. While three other presses headquartered in Grand Rapids—Zondervan, Baker Publishing Group, and Kregel Publications—explicitly identify themselves as Christian publishers, Eerdmans isn’t so easily characterized.
The company was founded as a religious press specializing in theological textbooks by European scholars. It’s still best known for publications targeting the academic and theological markets. Today, however, besides those titles, Eerdmans publishes books examining Judaism, Islam, and other non-Western religions. It also publishes regional and children’s titles for the trade, plus books for educated lay readers exploring spirituality and social issues from a variety of perspectives.
The second title the company ever published, in fact, had nothing to do with religion: it was a book about the Titanic, written in Dutch and released a month after the ship sank, titled De Ramp de Titanic [The Wreck of the Titanic]. While its top adult bestseller, historically, is the Eerdmans Handbook to the Bible, and its top children’s bestseller is the Child’s Story Bible, a regional title, Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals, also ranks high, with more than 150,000 copies sold since its release in 1989. Of the approximately 125 titles Eerdmans publishes annually, about 20%—excluding children’s—are sold into the general trade market. Its children’s list of 15–20 titles a year is 25% religious, 75% trade.
Anita Eerdmans, the company’s marketing director for the past 25 years and wife to Bill Eerdmans, has worked there since 1974. She describes the Eerdmans company culture as a “throwback to old-fashioned publishing.” “We’re still driven by the book, by content. Everything follows from that,” she said. “We make money so we can publish books.” And books often stay in print for decades. Of the 1,500 titles currently in print, 40 were first published more than 50 years ago.
The Eerdmans’s acquisitions committee consists of the Eerdmans; editor Jon Potts, who’s been with Eerdmans for 43 years; and CFO Claire Vanderkam, who’s been there for 41 years, but both company executives and an outside observer noted that acquisitions often reflect Bill Eerdmans’s quirky and esoteric tastes. For instance, in 2003 Eerdmans published Storms, Ice, and Whales: The Antarctic Adventures of a Dutch Artist on a Norwegian Whaler, because, explained Larry Ten Harmsel, the author of An Eerdmans Century 1911–2011 (Eerdmans, Oct.), “Bill likes to publish things that appeal to him. They don’t always sell very well.” Storms, Ice, and Whales barely sold through its 5,000-copy print run.
Bill Eerdmans freely admits that it’s true that market share is secondary to his desire to publish books that personally appeal to him. But it’s even more essential to him that any book with the Eerdmans name on it endure the test of time. In an e-mail, he wrote, his goal “is to honor the paradox of the one and the many, the wide, wide world in all its multifarious goings-on under the all-seeing, inscrutable, blessed eye of eternity.”
Like every other book publisher, Eerdmans focuses more than ever on marketing. Although Bill Eerdmans declined to disclose company revenues, he did note that they are “down a bit” this year from last year, due to the “general soft picture of the market.” It’s no surprise that sales of religious titles have dropped in recent years: seminary bookstores are closing; print media have cut back drastically on their religion sections; there’s been a decline in the market for multivolume reference books; and sometimes, books aren’t reviewed in academic journals until years after their publication.
In response to such trends, besides expanding its trade list, Eerdmans no longer attends industry shows and has halved its sales force, from six field reps to three phone reps, while building up its marketing department, which now has 17 employees out of a total of 55.
The Internet, Anita Eerdmans maintained, has offset much of the negative impact of changes in the marketplace. Eerdmans is using Edelweiss to reach booksellers who might not consider ordering books from a company perceived as a religious publisher. The press is also searching for and finding its audiences through social media. The company is in the process of converting print files into digital formats: to date, 1,000 titles are available on Amazon’s Kindle and Google Editions platforms.
Although it’s a vastly different industry from the one in which William Eerdmans Sr. began publishing books a century ago, executives express confidence that the company will continue to weather challenges and stay in the family. After all, Bill Eerdmans contended, nothing’s really changed in the past 100 years, except that “more of the world [is] addressed under the eye of eternity."