May 1 is the formal date for Baker Publishing Group's big transition—Dwight Baker concludes 43 years working in his family-owned company and Jesse Myers, age 43, assumes his mantle as the president and CEO. But no one actually waited for the official handoff.
Myers is already deep in the role that will draw on his years of experience in sales, marketing, finance, and the content side of Christian publishing, most recently with Lexham and Faithlife. Meanwhile, Baker, long a leading independent Christian publisher and former chairman of the ECPA, is now spending more time outdoors than in, sliding out of meetings for long rambles with his camera, focused more on marshes, forests, birds and bugs than books.
PW talked with both men about the challenges BPG has—and will—be facing, their hopes for the future, and the new directions both are taking.
Myers acknowledges that for him, "it is a big step from leading a department in a company to leading an entire company. How do I sustain Baker's legacy and heritage, keep what BPG has stood for, and still speak to the next generation? That is what I will be chewing on for all my tenure here."
So far, so good, he says, anticipating "a steady year. I don't see huge disruptions and, so far, sales are up from last year." That said, he still has a full plate of issues to address. "The economic ripples we are in now will keep coming. Inflationary pressure continues. We have narrowing margins. We don't even know yet all the implications Covid will have on our society. There are always the challenges of finding readers and sourcing the best talent. And I am concerned about the balkanization of our society and the way trust has been eroded between groups of people and institutions. Publishers have to build bridges to the audience and help them to see other perspectives. You can close doors as quickly as they open."
To take all this on, Canadian-born Myers brings a background of experiences in many dimensions. He completed a masters in theology and then went to work in banking while supporting his wife, Marilyn, for her doctorate in mathematics. Eager to work in Christian publishing, he found a spot as field sales manager at Eerdmans. In 2014, he moved to sales and marketing at Lexham and Faithlife, makers of Logos Bible Software, then shifted into editorial and acquisitions and on to be named publisher and director of original content in 2021.
"Publishing excites me because the written word is such a powerful and effective thing. Our job is to find the voices who can speak to the faults and fissures of our time, to address what has worked and what has been catastrophic. One thing we at Baker do well is that we are nimble enough to speak to general needs with books and products that bridge the mainstream audience, that are needs-based and timely," he says. He wants to expand the product line as well. Perhaps, says the father of two, Baker Publishing might add a vibrant children's book line like those at Eerdmans and Lexham.
Even so, Myer's ability to launch new initiatives is stymied in the short run. The worst might be in the rear-view mirror — the supply chain snarls, the body blow of the Covid pandemic ("a 'business disruption' that could also kill you!" says Baker) a 2021 malware attack that shut BPG down for two weeks, and a sales dip in 2022 blamed on "a managed reduction in Amazon book inventory levels," Baker says. Thus, a new and very aggressive five-year growth plan to reach $75 million in sales revenue across all departments —up from their steady hum of $60-to-$65 million—is shelved for the time being as cost controls set in. "We have a sound executive team, that the hard decisions have been made" says Baker. Among his last acts as CEO was letting go of eight employees in March, because, "I didn't want that to be on Jesse's watch."
One initiative both want to continue is the Diversity Action Council, which Baker started and Myers asked to take over as executive sponsor. Perhaps digging into challenges suits Myers' personality outside the office as well as in it. "I call myself a tinker. I repair and fix stuff. I have a shop full of tools," Myers says, whether it's refinishing a room or maintaining the family cars. He also enjoys playing video games with his kids, fishing, and hiking. He has a leg up on the best parks near their Grand Rapids home because Baker, the inveterate outdoorsman, scouted the Myers' new neighborhood on cross-country skis and drew him a map.
Baker might have skipped out of a meeting to do it. "I love the people of Baker, but I don't ever want to be in an office anymore!" Baker says emphatically. "I loved the excitement of watching a writer emerge and reach a wider audience, whether it's the kids joke book we did in 2010 that has now sold 2.5 million copies or The Bible Recap by Tara-Leigh Cobble. Released in 2020, her book is closing in on 250,000 units sold across all editions and spinoffs "because it found a way to make the Bible accessible to anyone at any level," he says.
Baker foresees a bright future for Myers and the "commitment, faith, and talent of the next generation of Christian book publishers. The most significant new voices of the Christian faith tradition are out there somewhere, undiscovered and preparing for a wider readership. The pursuit and cultivation of their message of hope is an enduring and richly rewarding profession."
As he steps off the publishing stage, Baker continues with his many civic and conservation commitments, serving on several boards such as BioLogos (committed to bolstering understanding between faith and science) and with the Land Conservancy of West Michigan. One thing he most emphatically will not do, he says, is to write a book, not even one about nature as a conversation with God. "I have brought 350 books into existence every year. Why would I write another one?!"