Publishing to a Higher Power
Dwight Baker, president of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Baker Publishing Group—the third-largest publisher in the Evangelical Christian publishing market—arrived in his position from a different starting point than most publishing company presidents, and he’s using that fresh perspective to put his own personal spin on religious publishing. His approach seems to be working. The company’s annual sales in 2006 surpassed $50 million, four of its publishing divisions saw double-digit growth, and it has a current New York Times Best Seller on the market with 1.4 million copies sold.
The family business was founded in 1939 by Dwight’s grandfather, Herman Baker. When Dwight was a teenager, he worked part time at the business’s retail store. He began working as a graphic designer in the art department of the company’s publishing division while pursuing a fine arts degree in college. After graduation, he remained in that position for 14 years. When his father, then president, retired, Dwight stepped in to fill this challenging role, almost 10 years ago in August 1997.
“The art department is an unusual starting point toward larger executive responsibilities, but it does carry some distinctive advantages,” Baker says. “Most significantly, it trained my mind to function comfortably on instinct. While in the art department we could not, for instance, use hard data to effectively quantify a favorable response to a book cover. If a cover works well, it does so upon a mere glance and within a fraction of a second. With any cover image, we either react favorably or not; no verbal explanation is required or welcomed,” he explains. “After so many years of acting by intuition in the art department, my mind became accustomed to that environment.”
Twila Bennett, senior director of marketing for Revell, Baker Books and Chosen Books—all divisions of Baker Publishing Group—says Baker has grown into his role as president and has become one of the most respected presidents in the industry.
“He’s definitely not afraid to tell you what he’s thinking,” Bennett says. “He allows his employees to make their own way and have the freedom to make decisions. He cares deeply for his employees on a personal level and knows every single employee by name—from executives to the warehouse employees.”
David Lewis, director of sales and marketing at Baker Publishing Group, says that Baker is both very intelligent and humorous. “He cares deeply not just about books, but also about the people who work for him,” Lewis says. “He’s fair and accessible, and always has an open-door policy. The fact that Baker has one of the lowest turnover rates in our industry speaks to me about the fact that many of us here at Baker enjoy working for Dwight and the Baker family, and truly do respect him as well.”
Baker seems the most proud of his employees’ job satisfaction.
“Our complete publishing division, with 189 people, maintained 98 percent employee retention in 2006,” he says.
Sales and Success Stories
At Baker Publishing Group, however, it seems there are many reasons to be proud.
The publishing company consists of six divisions within the group. It includes Bethany House, Revell, Baker Books, Baker Academic, Chosen Books and Brazos Press. According to Baker, in 2006 Baker Publishing Group surpassed $50 million in annual sales. This number has been steadily rising with the company bringing in $45 million in 2004 and $49 million in 2005.
“Curiously, our fastest-growing division is also our oldest,” Baker says. “Founded in 1870 and purchased by Baker in 1992, Revell has experienced 14-percent average annual sales growth since 2003.”
According to 2006–2007 fiscal YTD (10 months), Bethany House leads the divisions with 43 percent of the company’s total publishing sales. Revell makes up 25 percent.
Revell’s title “90 Minutes in Heaven” has sold 1.4 million copies since 2004. As of March, it still held the top sales position on the Christian Retailing best-seller list.
“This book has also appeared on The New York Times Best Seller list for 19 consecutive weeks. [The New York Times] currently ranks ‘90 Minutes in Heaven’ as No. 6 for nonfiction paperback ...,” says Baker. “... The book ships from our warehouse at an average pace of 4,000 copies per business day.”
In 2006, 14 Baker Group titles were recognized for Christian book awards, in four distinctive competitions, according to Baker.
A somewhat unique accomplishment, the company’s first published work, “More Than Conquerors,” which was acquired by Baker’s grandfather in 1939, is still in print and actively selling.
The Religion Bandwagon
It is the nature of publishing that when larger publishers see the success that a title like “90 Minutes in Heaven” can generate, they instinctively want a piece of that pie.
“Our biggest challenge lately is to overcome the perception within the Christian-author community [that] New York publishers [are] the ideal vehicle to reach their readers. …” Baker says. “Our company has been dedicated exclusively to this task since the Great Depression, so we’re disinclined to forfeit our home territory to a larger house with fleeting or exclusively commercial interest.”
Baker Publishing Group, although at the top of their segment of the industry, finds itself constantly competing to hold on to its valuable authors.
“The rising competition in Christian book publishing is an easily predicted outcome of our visible progression; the inspirational category has developed in recent years from a quaint bookstore sideline to a central position. Therefore, we find ourselves competing for manuscripts with the largest general-interest publishers in the business,” Baker says. “Manhattan executives do not necessary now all love Jesus; they simply recognize good business opportunities when they spot them. For example, one of the finest independent Christian houses, Multnomah Publishers, went up for sale in 2006. The most determined bidder for Multnomah assets was not within the Christian publishing community. It was Random House, the largest English-language publisher in the world,” he says.
Meanwhile, Baker says his company competes regularly with large houses for contracts with quality authors and often loses.
“When I’m in a magnanimous frame of mind, I must concede that the intense competition is actually a sign of health in our industry, a signal that the value of Christian books is recognized broadly,” he says.
He says that some small, faith-based publishing houses also have advantages over his company in this competitive marketplace.
“... We also lose prime authors to small, well-focused houses. These specialty publishers provide a community affinity that Baker, for all our breadth, apparently can’t duplicate,” Baker says. “Some writers make a priority of this affinity, in the same manner as they may select a home or a church.”
These niche publishers can’t compete with the sales muscle and marketing services of larger houses, however. Baker also can promote its divisions individually to offer the appeal of a smaller, niche publishing entity. So, it sometimes can tap the best of both worlds.
“We do so [compete] by taking either advantage of our cumulative strength, or we promote one of our six unique divisions. This depends on the setting. We promote our size when we’re compared with smaller publishers; we can surpass them in services,” he says. “On the other hand, we promote our division identity when required to serve a particular market, such as Baker Academic to the academic community or Bethany House to the fans of Christian fiction.”
Keeping an Eye on the Internet
Baker seems fairly certain that his company isn’t losing many readers because of the Internet. He says he doesn’t feel threatened by e-books and that they are unlikely to either supplant book publishing or significantly enhance it.
“With all the fanfare around new media, we overlook the capability of the printed book to outlast other trends. There is nothing particularly sacred about wood pulp; this is a reflection of human behavior more than [medium],” he says. “By nature, book buyers are tenaciously loyal to the printed page; other media has only marginal impact on this preference.”
However, the company has been increasingly using the Internet successfully as a marketing channel, and Baker says a shift was necessary.
“We noticed that traditional methods, particularly consumer catalogs, produced weaker results with each passing season. We had to respond creatively or risk losing access to our readers,” he says.
Baker’s divisions—Revell in particular—have been taking advantage of marketing opportunities on the Internet in the form of webcasts. (You can view a free webinar featuring several of Revell’s efforts, among others, at BookBusinessMag.com.)
It also just launched in March a new blog site, Emersionbooks.com—the first blog site among Christian publishers, according to the company. The blogs introduce Baker’s partnership with Emergent Village on emersion: Emergent Village Resources for Communities of Faith, including a line of books.
Through the blog site, the company aims to engage the audience in conversations about the books, and encourage them to share information about their faith and lives—in other words, to develop communities.
“Book publishing is a service of community-building between authors and their readers. The use of technology … may brilliantly serve that purpose, but not supplant it,’ says Baker. “Publishers who generate books would do well to keep that focus. The readers who continue to buy books, in spite of other media options, are the group that we most need to impress. Poor writing in a sophisticated electronic format is still only that: poor writing. If we produce good quality books, the rest of our activity here is simply support.” BB