Business models boost global ministry.

Ask any Christian product publisher or distributor why they do what they do, and many will likely say their business is a ministry. With good hearts and a sense of calling, the “ministry” side is firmly established. But what about the “business” side?

Some experts believe both are equally important—however, lack of understanding of many publishing basics, from contracts to distribution, continues to be a concern almost everywhere in international publishing.

“I often see inexperienced publishers printing huge quantities of a title because they’re just sure it will be a best-seller, only to face the hard reality that almost no one wants to read it,” says CLC European Regional Director Gary Chamberlin.

The reasons could vary widely, he notes. “It could be because of the wrong topic, an unattractive cover design, poor translation and editing, an unknown author, or the inability to distribute effectively.”

Lack of business savvy means that entrepreneurs can end up shooting themselves in the foot.

Integrated Business Strategy

“One of the greatest needs is for well-intentioned ministries to understand that they must work with a true business model,” says Chamberlin. “I see many times that a ministry will produce a book or a product and then not want to give an adequate discount to a wholesaler or a bookshop,” he adds. “In many cases they will give the same discount to a church or even a private customer that they give to a bookshop.

“Or a publisher will sell his products on his own website or in his own bookshop at high discounts and will not offer sufficient discounts to Christian bookshops. Often they simply don’t have the basic understanding regarding channels of distribution and how it needs to function.”

A sound business model is not just important, it’s vital, says ECPA’s Stan Jantz. “Even if a global ministry depends on donations for sustainability, any business venture such as publishing needs to follow sound business principles.”

A business start-up team he has been mentoring is developing children’s books written by authors in Kenya that will be produced in the U.S. for domestic and foreign distribution.

“The team knows that in order to achieve their ministry goal, they will need to build a financial model that demonstrates profitability,” Jantz says.

Funding the Mission

For publishers in countries with few Christians, however, it’s sometimes impossible for projects to be self-supporting, says Harmat founder, Kornel Herjeczki. They may have to be underwritten by reduced retailers, profits from other titles, or some kind of subsidy. “These companies are basically driven by mission conviction and not for making profit,” he says.

For Hungary and countries like Bulgaria, Italy, Romania, and Russia, the transition from a ministry to a business model is going to be hard, Chamberlin believes. “Unless one happens to produce those products that become truly best-sellers—which is very unlikely—the need to subsidize will continue for many years.”

In areas where the Christian market is small, subsidizing the work “has been and will continue to be an essential part of the financial strategy for Christian publishing,” says Tyndale Director of International Publishing James Elwell. What that looks like can vary: “For some it may be enterprises that are complimentary to publishing, others have involvement in unrelated fields, some have corporate sponsors or benefactors who help supply funding, and still others find grants from foundations.”

To help newcomers overcome some of the hurdles, Ramon Rocha III, director of publisher development for Media Associates International (MAI), is working on a book drawing from MAI’s years of international training experience, A Global Christian Publisher’s Guide Toward Financial Sustainability. The premise: “Book publishing is inherently a ‘cash-poor’ business. If a general book publisher finds it hard to be profitable, how much more for a Christian book?”

— Andy Butcher