In the religion category, evangelical Christian authors dominate as moneymakers, racking up impressive sales and commanding top dollar. Lately, in the midst of a faltering economy, many top evangelical authors have been in play, leaving their longtime publishers for new houses. Chuck Swindoll, Frank Peretti, Philip Yancey, John Maxwell, Dave Ramsey, Charles Stanley, John Eldredge, Beth Moore, David Jeremiah, Ted Dekker—all are marquee names in the Christian market, the kinds of authors no publisher would want to lose. So why the big moves?
Jonathan Merkh, publisher at S&S Christian imprint Howard Books, says, "In the past five years, successful authors and their agents have been asking whether there are bigger opportunities with houses that can take them to the broader market." Rolf Zettersten, publisher at Hachette's FaithWords and Center Street imprints, agrees, saying that trend accelerated in the flaccid economy. "The religion category has suffered in the past couple of years along with publishing in general, and when the market is suppressed, authors want to try other options," Zettersten says.
Howard and FaithWords are two places many of these authors have landed. Both publishers have deep pockets and offer authors the prospect of a higher profile in the general market, where sales of Christian books have increasingly migrated over the past 15 years.
Howard's Merkh is focused on building a strong list for the almost-four-year-old unit and solidifying its presence in the general market. (S&S bought Howard from founder John Howard in 2006, but has shifted away from its former emphasis on gift books.) FaithWords's Zettersten got a head start on Merkh when Warner Books launched the Christian imprint in 2001 as Warner Faith to go after that lucrative market. FaithWords now has a strong backlist that includes powerhouse franchise Joyce Meyer. "We've increased our acquisitions as we've seen the opportunity to acquire majors," Zettersten says.
Many of these authors were formerly published by Thomas Nelson, leading to the perception that Nelson is bleeding top authors. Zettersten notes obliquely that "the recession and financial straits of certain competitors" gave FaithWords the opportunity to sign marquee names.
Mike Hyatt, former CEO and now chairman of the board at Nelson, disputes that view. "A lot of smaller publishers for strategic reasons are willing to pay a premium to gain visibility," he says, noting that house-switching is not a new phenomenon: "I've seen [that strategy] off and on over the years. It's a shortterm solution, but the long-term result can be un-recouped advances."
Meanwhile, other Christian publishers continue doing what they have done successfully over many years. Tyndale Books' copublisher Ron Beers (his title, along with Doug Knox, is senior v-p, group publisher) pointed out that the house was in its 32nd successive profitable year. "We do bid on these authors," but also bow out when the numbers get stratospheric, he says.
Of course, Beers would like to acquire more blockbusters, and he says the house uses every strategy it can, "but when those come they are a matter of grace and luck." They must be doing something right—this past spring Tyndale had five PW and New York Times bestsellers.
Jack Kuhatschek, Baker Publishing Group executive v-p and publisher, attributes some author movement to internal changes at some of the top Christian houses. "Authors have relationships with their team at a publishing house, and then those people are gone. So there's less reason to stay," he says.
Baker is in the bidding for top-echelon authors, Kuhatschek says, "but when they want top dollar, we have to analyze risk vs. reward and ask, ‘Is it worth it?' "
Authors leaving one house to sign with another might be less an exodus from any publisher than a high-stakes game of musical chairs, with authors and their agents looking for the best seat. About that, there's nothing new.
The State of the Religion Category
Now that the recession has receded some, e-books are growing like e-topsy, and acquisitions editors are again spending money, PW surveys the religion category. Major authors are playing musical chairs, and the quest for the grail of good data continues, with new measures in the offing. Self-publishing gains currency and trendy topics are as evergreen as heaven. The news is modestly good: partly growing, with a chance of success. —Marcia Z. Nelson