Publishing House adapts to market changes
Feb. 6, 2007
NOTE: Photographs and audio available at http://umns.umc.org.
A UMNS Report by Kathy L. Gilbert*
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UNMS) - Declining sales, fierce competition within the Christian publishing industry and changes in church attendance have hit a staunch United Methodist institution where it hurts-in the bottom line.
The United Methodist Publishing House has seen sales slip due to declining membership and attendance in Sunday school, among other reasons, says Neil Alexander, publisher and CEO. Curriculum sales - the largest part of the agency's business - have declined since their peak more than 35 years ago.
"Long-term changes in attendance patterns have caught up with us and they've caught up with every denominational publisher that is part of the Protestant Church Publishers Association," he says.
Despite sagging sales, the publishing agency of the church has "absolute confidence in the importance of quality literature that helps people uncover the truth that's revealed in the Bible," Alexander says.
Sometimes sounding more like a pastor than a publisher, Alexander believes in the mission of the Publishing House: "To serve The United Methodist Church, the wider Christian community, and all seekers by providing quality services and resources that help them know God through Jesus Christ, love God, and choose to serve God and neighbor."
"What keeps us pumping and going is the Spirit of God at work to help us fulfill the mission," he says.
The United Methodist Publishing House was established in 1789 in Philadelphia as the Methodist Book Concern. Three branches of Methodism united in 1939, and Nashville was chosen as headquarters for publishing operations. In 1954, the building on the corner of 8th and Demonbreun was built in downtown Nashville and has been home to the Publishing House ever since.
A self-supporting agency, the Publishing House publishes and distributes curriculum and resources for clergy and laity.
According to its executives, sales peaked most recently in 1989-90 when the United Methodist Hymnal was published, then dipped before steadily climbing to another peak in 2002. Another downturn followed, with sales falling 5.5 percent below budget in 2004; 4 percent below in 2005; and 2.5 percent under in 2006. Total sales from 2006 were $108 million.
"The Publishing House is not losing money," says the Rev. Judith Smith, associate to the president with the Publishing House. "Even though our gross sales have declined in recent years, we have managed our expenses very carefully and consequently we have achieved our budgeted net operating revenue nine out of the last 10 years."
Such stewardship has enabled the agency to continue to contribute to clergy pensions and invest in future growth throughout the last decade, Smith says.
The agency supplements the United Methodist clergy pension fund through annual contributions from net revenue and has contributed more than $10 million to clergy pensions and more than $5 million in benevolence publishing projects.
Declines in curriculum sales remain a challenge for Christian publishers. "We have had reports from publishers that they have had a 30 percent decline in dated children's curriculum in the last six to eight years," Alexander says.
One Publishing House response has been to offer a wider variety of resources-currently seven choices for children's Sunday school including a new interactive curriculum called L.I.V.E. Big!
More resources also mean more expenses, however.
Sales in adult Sunday school Bible studies have declined from 2 to 4 percent for the last dozen years, but "we still have about 500,000 people each Sunday using our material," Alexander says.
"There is a much greater willingness among classes to pick and choose, to use different materials in different weeks. Sometimes it is a book, a video or a television show," he says. "Customers are going far afield."
Competition has increased both on the retail and publishing side of the business.
"In almost all of our churches the number of people who report being members of another denomination in recent years is very high and that is a pattern that is true across the Protestant churches," Alexander says. That translates into less denominational loyalty and more openness to "other sources" of curriculum.
"For example, thousands of United Methodist churches have used Purpose Driven Life resources developed by a Southern Baptist preacher," he says. "At one time this would have been unheard of and now it is taken for granted."
Because people are choosing from a greater array of products, they also are choosing from more vendors such as online book sellers and "big box" stores such as Wal Mart.
"In the trade, products are sold at a suggested retail price by the publisher to the retailer with a standard discount to the retailers that allows them to earn a return," Alexander explains. "However, you cannot control the final retail price to the customer." For instance, Wal-Mart sold The Purpose Driven Life at below market value in order to draw customers into the store.
Strategies for the future
At a Publishing House board of directors meeting last fall, a committee developing a market and industry study reported that "the environment in which the United Methodist Publishing House lives is dynamic, shifting and, in many ways, unpredictable at this stage."
The board voted to allow the Publishing House to initiate a strategic research and development program financed with 8 percent-or $3.2 million-of an average of the last 16 quarters of the market value of the total long-term investment fund.
The Rev. Deborah L. Pritts, a board member from Windsor, N.Y., says the agency must stay flexible to develop products for the future.
"I think that is why we recommended a funding mechanism that allows us to be experimental and flexible rather that locking us into a particular approach," says Pritts, a member of the strategic review and directions team. "Christian publishing is very important to people and will continue to be a very strong industry."
The program's purpose is to "experiment, discover and craft methods for developing and delivering resources customers will choose, use and value for the ministries of United Methodist and other Christian congregations, their leaders and those who seek to know, love and serve God."
Alexander calls the challenge of discerning what congregations and their leaders need to help people grow in faith "a wonderful puzzle."
"It is the most wonderful calling," he says.
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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