In our continuing series of Thought Leadership conversations with eminent members of the publishing community, knk Software recently talked with Beth Lewis, Executive Director of PCPA (Protestant Church-Owned Publishers Association), an association of about 35 publishers with a common mission.

Ms. Lewis has enjoyed a distinguished career in the publishing industry. She started as an English Literature major at the University of Kentucky, and armed with a love of books, she managed a bookstore in her senior year. She was promptly hired out of school by Little Brown, selling textbooks. She went on to work for over 20 years at several publishers, large and small, including Time Warner, McGraw Hill, and Times Mirror, ending up as Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing. In the 90’s, she felt that she was finally done with publishing and bought a small computer and technology school, to teach underemployed individuals and retirees how to use computers and the internet.

However, it appears that publishing wasn’t quite done with Beth, and she moved to Minneapolis to become CEO of what was then Augsburg Fortress, now 1517 Media, the publishing company of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

During her tenure with Augsburg Fortress/1517 Media, she became a member (and later, President) of PCPA, and led 1517 Media for 16 years before retiring in 2018. She thereafter moved to Seattle and consults with publishers and faith-based not-for-profits, on transformation and governance issues. She somehow found spare time to become Board Chair of a large Credit Union, and in June 2020, was asked to take over her current role at PCPA. Clearly, Ms. Lewis is not someone who lets grass grow under her feet!!

Beth cares deeply about the PCPA members, the member companies and their mission, and although the position is theoretically part time, she has made valiant, almost single-handed efforts to raise the bar on PCPA offerings by adding new members, new categories of membership, monthly webinars, referrals, advertising, a newsletter, and a revamped website.

Given her experience throughout the publishing industry, Beth sees big differences between trade and religious publishers, especially the denominational publishers in PCPA. Most of them are directly or indirectly affiliated with a particular denomination but also sell to anyone, including customers, outside of their own churches. They are not just book publishers. They almost all publish curricula for most age groups, as well as hymnals, Bibles, and other worship resources, and like the rest of the industry, have migrated to a greater or lesser degree, to digital products, including podcasts, ebooks, SaaS, and videos, for example.

The members are mostly small to mid-sized companies, although there are a few larger publishers that enjoy larger markets for their products and have a certain cushion in the tough times we are now experiencing.

But at the smaller companies with smaller niched products, there is not a huge degree of bandwidth for innovation. They use most of the common channels of distribution, however, Beth sees an increasing commitment to Direct-to-Consumer. This was especially so when the pandemic closed churches, some for most of the past two years, and this decimated congregational sales – traditionally, one of their core sources of income from books, Bibles, and hymnals. In this way, the pandemic has really hurt the entire religious sector much more than general trade publishing. Sales have recovered only slightly since the pandemic eased, but the silver lining is that they are all a little wiser and more nimble now than in the past. The move to D2C is testimony to that – they just had to do it or go under. This was a massive undertaking to transform what were basically B2B websites to D2C, but some did it and they’re still doing it, with or without outside assistance, and developing creative new business models along the way.

D2C wasn’t the only area that demanded drastic change. Like the rest of the publishing sector, members had to streamline their operations to change fixed to variable costs, driven by the lower revenues.  Some of this had already been ongoing prior to the pandemic (changes such as outsourcing fulfillment, warehouses, presses, and closing their own bookstores for example), and some of these hard business decisions were not popular in the faith community. They have investigated outsourcing marketing, developed new imprints, in addition to all kinds of innovative ways of preserving sales and reducing costs. The pandemic simply heightened the urgency of all these activities for many of the members.

The other threat that her members face is based on general societal trends. The numbers of people who are active in a faith community (almost regardless of religion) are in decline. Congregations have dwindled, and the pandemic has accelerated the decline. Those that do attend worship go less often. So, they are less likely to purchase the output of the religious publisher communities such as the PCPA members.

So, the challenge is to publish material that is both faithful to their beliefs, but which is also authentic, appealing and engaging to people who may rarely or never again set foot inside a place of worship. The numbers are not encouraging. More data will be available to members soon enough. One of the keynote speakers at the upcoming PCPA Annual Conference is from the Hartford Institute for Religious Research. They are sociological researchers currently engaged in a review of the impact of Covid on church communities, and the PCPA audience will be one of the first to hear the results of their study. This is clearly important information for members.

These have been hard years for most of the membership, with tough decisions and adjustments throughout, including layoffs, sales of buildings, reduced footprints, and work-from-home.  And yet despite all that hardship, they are still invested and investing in their businesses, and in technology.

In this, they are like the rest of the publishing industry. They are concerned about metadata, cybersecurity, and sustainability, they are moving to the cloud, and implementing ERP systems. They are resilient. And as much as anything, they are concerned about passing the baton from boomers to the younger generation who will be the life blood of their communities in the years to come. They are not standing still.

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash