A Higher Calling
On July 31, HarperCollins Christian Publishing (HCCP) turns one year old. According to Ted Olsen of Christianity Today, a leading voice of the evangelical movement, HCCP controls 50 percent of the Christian publishing market, making it by far the largest player in the segment. Led by President and CEO Mark Schoenwald (above), the first year of HCCP has been a "mission" of sorts, one of uniting the two similar but distinct missionary directives of its constituent parts, Zondervan and Thomas Nelson. As Schoenwald and his team have transformed the organization, their mantra has been "One + One is greater than Two."
The First 100 Days
Schoenwald was named the head of the new division after nine years at Thomas Nelson and just three weeks after HarperCollins closed on its acquisition of the venerable publishing house. From the outset, he was committed to making sure that the major elements of the new organization were in place and that all employees would know their fates within the first 100 days. Working with consultants from Booz & Company, he formed 12 teams representing all the functional areas; each
included a representative from Zondervan, Thomas Nelson and HarperCollins. Every team had three charges:
- Define the business area as it operates today to understand how the business or function really works.
- Taking into consideration digital and the other forces disrupting the business, decide how you would build it in the future.
- Start to envision the structure of the new division, creating an organizational chart and putting names into the boxes.
On Sept. 5, 2012, HCCP announced its new divisional leadership team consisting of 14 leaders drawn from both Zondervan and Thomas Nelson. One hundred days after the division was formed - as promised - the last of the functional areas announced its infrastructure, future plans and leadership. The teams had exceeded the expected amount of synergy-related costs savings, had been able to identify and inform employees about their personal futures, and managed to keep the business on track.
Throughout this initial phase and continuing today, HCCP's communication plan has been an essential element of the integration. The leadership team conducted town halls, company meetings and made sure to have lots of face time with the employees. Written memos from Schoenwald were plentiful. The corporate communications team developed House Work, an in-house magazine, published three times a year that goes to both internal and external stakeholders to give a face to HCCP and update what each of the different business areas are up to.
"We always said we'll be very transparent in all of our decisions, even the tough ones, and we have been," Schoenwald said of the process during a wide-ranging interview with Book Business at the New York City headquarters of HarperCollins.
Defining Their Mission
The division's new leadership team went to work figuring out how it would achieve the goal of having Zondervan and Thomas Nelson continue to publish their respective brands and maintain their own editorial focuses. Brian Murray, President and CEO of HarperCollins Worldwide, had stressed this when he announced the formation of HCCP.
One of the first things the leadership team did was formulate a mission statement for the new division: "We inspire the world by meeting the needs of people with content that promotes biblical principles and honors Jesus Christ."
Once Schoenwald got the leadership team around the table, they quickly learned that these former archrivals were pretty similar. "In fact," recalls Schoenwald, "Stan Gundry [SVP, Editor in Chief of Zondervan and Publisher of its academic textbooks for seminaries] leaned back after his 35 years at the company and said, 'I am really amazed by how close these companies really are in terms of their mission and their values.'"
The team decided that they would collaborate where possible, share best practices, and take the best of one and apply it to the other. The recent announcement of the formation of Zondervan Gift Books - led by Laura Minchew, SVP and Publisher at HCCP, who is also in charge of Thomas Nelson Gift Books - is one example of this philosophy at work.
Understanding the history of both Thomas Nelson and Zondervan has also been important. The first time Schoenwald met with the Zondervan employees he referred to the fact that the company's founders, Pat and Bernie Zondervan, were an acquisitive duo, so buying and assimilating companies was part of the culture. By working with, instead of against, Thomas Nelson, their mission would become easier to fulfill.
"We don't have the Coke/Pepsi thing going on," Schoenwald remarked, "We really have the fact that people believe that there is a greater mission than them, so you can get to resolution or alignment pretty quickly."
Similar, But Different
In reality, the imprints' editorial identities have always been quite different. Zondervan Book Publishing, led by SVP and Publisher Annette Bourland, has a very strong academic program and focuses on transformational, educational and vocational resources. Meanwhile Thomas Nelson Book Publishing, under the direction of SVP and Publisher David Moberg, has a broader list that features books in the biography, business, cooking, personal finance and gift categories. Both groups publish Spanish-language books under, respectively, the Vida and Grupo Nelson brands; a wide-ranging children's list in the Zonderkidz and Tommy Nelson imprints; and fiction, where VP and Publisher of Fiction Daisy Hutton now oversees both brands' fiction lists.
Since the formation of HCCP, several new imprints have been launched or re-launched as well. In March, Thomas Nelson announced that it would restore Nelson Books and W Publishing Group as two distinct imprints focusing on nonfiction. Both had been shuttered, along with more than a dozen others, in 2007 when the company decided to only publish under the Thomas Nelson name. At the time, the strategy addressed the cost implications as well as the consumer confusion over the myriad imprints. After spending the past six years distinguishing its brand in the Christian publishing industry, the decision to reinstate these imprints was a recognition of the strength and variety of the nonfiction groups within Thomas Nelson as well as the talent of Brian Hampton, SVP and Publisher of Nelson Books, and Matt Baugher, SVP and Publisher of the W Publishing Group.
In April, Zondervan announced the debut of a new YA imprint designed for the general trade market. Dubbed Blink, the first titles will appear this fall. Blink books will explore issues that teens face such as cutting, relationships and dieting, while remaining inspirational and hopeful. By publishing all of these books in Blink, the publisher can focus its marketing efforts as well as clearly communicate to consumers, librarians and educators that the content is appropriate for secular readers.
In addition to the two core publishing groups, Westbow is a self-publishing entity that provides another source of author discoverability. The imprint is a strategic partnership with Author Solutions and an example of Schoenwald's belief that HCCP doesn't have to do everything by itself.
Building in a Time of Change
The challenge for HCCP's leadership is not only shaping the new division, but also addressing the many changes in the industry as a whole. Digital has had a lower penetration in the Christian publishing segment in large part because Bible-reading is not a linear experience as well as the strength of physical gift books in this market. Nonetheless, the digital sphere is expanding, so HCCP is emphasizing two things: innovation and execution. Schoenwald says it's important to "take a chance and learn. It's okay to fail, you're going to learn as you go, but you've got to tell people what happened."
The separateness of the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) market has allowed HCCP to try new promotions and merchandising, concentrating on how to add value rather than use giveaways. They have shared their learning with HarperCollins and in turn benefited from the results of HarperCollins' own experiments with dynamic pricing in the digital space.
Leveraging existing online platforms is another initiative. An example is BibleGateway.com; with 15 million unique visitors every month, it is the world's largest website dedicated to Bible research. Although it does sell books and related products, the site is religiously neutral, allowing users to read and research the site's nearly 200 Bible translations. As a way to bring some of BibleGateway's audience to a destination where they can discover and connect with HCCP content and authors, the division's eMedia and marketing teams developed FaithGateway.com. Now in beta, it is an online community of top Christian authors that provides all kinds of information - from tips for Christian parenting to laymen's bible study guides - in the form of blog posts, book excerpts, videos and newsletters. The site's e-commerce platform will allow visitors to buy directly or discover a local retailer. In February, FaithGateway launched the e-newsletter Devotionals Daily that already has more than 42,000 subscribers and exemplifies how HCCP is using digital content to drive discoverability and build a community.
Another way HCCP is leveraging its print and content business is with the live events business Women of Faith. These one- or two-day gatherings feature music and inspirational speeches by HCCP authors; books are sold in the concourse, making them akin to pop-up bookstores.
Schoenwald is positive about the division's domestic book sales. While CBA sales have followed the results of the channel as a whole, with growth at the strongest retailers, the ABA is very hit-driven. One area of focus is augmenting backlist sales, especially in the ABA stores. Currently, backlist represents 65 percent of HCCP's business and is a strength of its partnership with the CBA. After retooling its sell-in and carefully controlling returns, the division is seeing increases through the mass merch channel.
Now that the structure of the new division is in place, the concentration is on growth. In terms of products, the division has identified four areas:
- Bible engagement (particularly for teens and young readers), bible study and devotionals.
- Children's publishing.
- Selling directly to churches and ministries, so pastors and ministers can be brand ambassadors for HCCP's authors and products.
- Getting the right digital/print mix and growing digital so that it enhances print publications.
The international marketplace is a long-term growth opportunity for the division both in terms of export and partnering with foreign-language publishers. It is another area where HCCP is leveraging its connection with HarperCollins, working with the parent company's Australian, Canadian and U.K. teams, which are much bigger players in those markets than HCCP could ever be on its own.
Spanish-language publishing, both domestically and internationally, is another source of growth. The division is expanding its Thomas Nelson presence in Mexico to encompass all of HCCP, and a joint venture in Brazil is doing extremely well.
Closing the Books on Year One
As a leader, Schoenwald believes you have to embrace change even in an organization whose foundation is decades, even centuries, old. Agility and growth are essential, but so is focus. "We are in the content business, long-form narrative content is our business and our core competencies are editorial and marketing. Marketing with a big M, meaning sales, marketing etc."
HCCP is applying its resources and attention to those things and working strategically with others for everything else. He points to HarperCollins' moving all of its print/paper/bind functions to Donnelly as a strategic partnership in this vein.
As Schoenwald reflects on HCCP's journey thus far he says, "now it's a new day with HCCP and going forward we're building on the strength of each" part of these former rivals. The results confirm that "One + One is greater than Two." He expects that HCCP will exceed its budget in its first transitional year. The success is "a reflection of people we have. We've got incredibly dedicated people [and] for a lot of them this is their mission."
Jane von Mehren is a writer and editor. She spent many years both as a publisher and an editor at several New York publishing houses, including Penguin Books and Random House. This is her first piece for Book Business magazine.