As he gets ready to retire next April after 43 years in the Christian publishing industry, Baker Publishing Group’s president and CEO Dwight Baker believes the next generation of publishers will face a different set of issues than those he and his contemporaries did. High on Baker’s list of challenges is reaching younger readers whose faith is in decline.
"Younger Christians use different standards to express their faith commitment, and I anticipate that the Holy Spirit is guiding them to confront the moral blind spots of the historic church," he says. “The social ethic of the emerging generation is acute and inspiring.”
This is a departure from the "orthodoxy and dogma" of Baker's generation, and publishers must start turning their attention to these emerging interests in order to reach younger audiences, he adds. “Although we are stable enough in the short term, Christian publishers will drift toward the margins if we fail to connect with future generations."
Baker Publishing, which publishes around 300 books a year across six divisions, is already focusing on these areas, especially through its Brazos imprint. Additionally, the company's bookstore, Baker Book House, is still open, lending the publishing house a direct link to consumers for both book sales and in-person connection opportunities.
Over the past 80 years, Baker Publishing has witnessed even greater changes to the religion publishing landscape, including consolidation among major publishing houses, the mainstreaming of religion books into the general marketplace, the loss of thousands of Christian retail outlets, and the return of corporations to the market, which was perhaps the most important change of all. “Multinational media corporations reengaged in the Christian book business during the past four decades, and the importance of that transition cannot be overstated,” Baker says.
Nevertheless, he adds: “Our corporate rivals have raised business standards to a higher level, and that’s the irksome benefit of good competition.”
Baker is the grandson of the Christian publisher’s founder Herman Baker, who opened the press in 1940—one year after opening the Baker Book House bookstore in the Dutch settlement of Grand Rapids, Mich. Looking back on his career, Baker, who was named president and CEO in 1997, highlights the acquisition of Bethany House Publishers in 2002 and Regal Books in 2014, as well as a number of smaller acquisitions as milestones. “I trust that our acquisitions have generated a lasting gift to Christian writers and readers,” Baker says.
Also among his accomplishments, in 2020, Baker Publishing Group became the leading independent publisher of Christian books, based on market share of consumer sales. “That accomplishment demanded two decades of steady effort,” Baker says.
In addition to working with “so many gifted professionals” in the book industry over the years, Baker remembers an encounter with famed televangelist Billy Graham and his wife Ruth in 1996.
“Technically, my colleague and I were not even supposed to be there, but Mrs. Graham whimsically invited us over for a visit,” Baker recalls. “Dr. Graham, who was not informed beforehand, discovered us lounging is his living room, although he was gracious through the whole episode and eager to chat. He had just finished consulting on the phone with President Clinton about a visit to North Korea, so we all held a pleasant conversation about the looming nuclear apocalypse.”
Offering a final thought on his career, Baker says he cannot improve upon a quote his grandfather gave Publishers Weekly during an interview in the 1970s: “We love to sell a good book. There is no better business to be in. In books we have the richest treasures on earth, the output of the best minds of the ages.”
Jesse Myers was named Baker's replacement as president and CEO on December 12, and he will assume the role on May 1. Myers' appointment followed a six-month search by an eight-person committee. Dwight Baker kept a “healthy distance” between himself and the search: “It’s a different impulse—to extract yourself from the process; to start governing by your absence, not your presence,” he says. “My succession plan is to leave and no one notice.”
Despite these efforts, it will be hard to find another top-ranking publishing executive known for engagement at every level of the business and who keeps crayons on his desk. He will be missed across the industry.