With an audience in the millions, Focus on the Family's radio broadcast is a prime promotional venue for Christian publishers, and its stable of 10 magazines (2.3 million subscribers) and Web site form an additional powerful platform for reaching Christian consumers.
But a recent policy change has some publishers wondering whether they will be locked out of the Focus marketing machine as Focus looks to emphasize its own authors through its media outlets. Some Christian publishers, who declined to be named, have even characterized the new policy as acquisition by "intimidation."
In a letter dated November 26, 2001, sent by Focus founder and president Dr. James Dobson to some CBA authors and literary agents, Dobson states that Focus is looking for ways to "further our publishing and promotional efforts, while diligently keeping in mind the professional responsibility we bear to Focus-published authors." (The organization used to have its own publishing program, but now licenses Focus-branded products to various publishers.) Dobson goes on to write that Focus plans to focus its media apparatus on its own authors.
The letter states, "As of December 10, 2001, all authors who submit their manuscripts for our review and whose books align closely with our mission will be granted serious consideration for an appearance on our daily broadcast." But for those authors who do not publish with Focus, "It is less likely they will be featured on the broadcast or given the promotional support made available to our own authors." In other words, the letter continues, "we feel it is only fair to give priority to our own products."
Focus on the Family Resource Group v-p Kurt Bruner told PW the reason for the letter was to "address an expectation among booksellers and authors that those working with Focus on a book will be interviewed on our broadcast and/or featured in our various publications. We wanted them to know we intended to honor that expectation in a more intentional manner than has been the case of late."
Although this will mean fewer slots for non-Focus titles, Bruner noted that "it has been and will continue to be the case that the vast number of titles we offer for sale, promote through the author interviews and [offer] as premiums for contributions via radio and print media are non-Focus books."
Almost every Christian publisher PW contacted for comment refused to speak on the record, citing fear of retaliation. Response to the new policy was mixed. "This strikes me as an implied confession that the mission of Focus's radio ministry is now secondary in importance to the ambitions of a few book editors," said one publisher. "Any viable publishing company should be sufficiently attractive to writers without leaning on a technique of acquiring manuscripts through intimidation." Another said, "We have appreciated our partnership with Focus, and it would be unfortunate if this new policy not only ended these partnerships, but created serious conflicts between publishers and authors that would weaken the breadth of Christian publishing in the area of family ministry."
Doug Gabbert, associate publisher of Multnomah, said he supported the decision to give primary emphasis to authors in partnership with Focus.
Rick Christian, president of Alive Communications in Colorado Springs, Colo. (a literary agency that counts Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye among its clients), said he understood the "shifting realities" within publishing houses. "On the other hand, we would hate for any of our agency clients who are family specialists to miss the opportunity of being invited under what has traditionally been Focus's 'big tent.' "
The Focus "branding model" includes multiple partners who publish certain categories of books under the Focus imprint. Among them are Tyndale House, Zondervan, Tommy Nelson, Cook and Bethany House.