Home > Uncategorized > HarperCollins to Acquire Thomas Nelson

HarperCollins to Acquire Thomas Nelson

Blissfully unaware that the Christian publishing story of the year was breaking, I shut my computer off early Monday night, and aside from a 5-minute stretch the next morning, was continuing to enjoy a peaceful 20-hour offline existence until 6:00 PM yesterday, when I returned to emails asking me what I thought of the latest news.

The idea of Thomas Nelson being part of HarperCollins is major to those of us in the business, but at 11:00 PM a quick check of aggregator pages Alltop Church and Alltop Christian revealed a total of zero Christian bloggers — including Michael Hyatt — concerned about this story; it just doesn’t grab bloggers the way a revelation that the Pope is not Catholic might.  A 24-hour Google blogs sweep revealed either seven or twenty-five links last night depending on the search, most of them parroting a story from CT.

But yes, the story does matter to us.  Here’s how:

The acquirer has been acquired — The story of the NCV Bible begins with the purchase of Sweet Publishing by either Nelson or Word (which was acquired by Nelson) and is typical of the recent history of Thomas Nelson where authors, products lines, brands and entire imprints have been swallowed up by the giant from Nashville.  But suddenly, the company that acquires is acquired itself; though really, that story goes back to 2006 and continued in 2010. Maybe this one is simply highlighted because of NewsCorp’s own newsworthiness.

The acquisition was unforeseen — While some of my contacts will tell me that they knew this was coming, for those of us in the trenches, this comes as a complete surprise.  TNI is currently experiencing a healthy run of bestsellers and didn’t appear to be a company needing the underwriting resources of a giant like HarperCollins in the way that Zondervan has been able to undertake ambitious projects knowing the working capital is available.   So was this an amicable transaction? Perhaps its current investment-group owner didn’t have deep enough pockets for expansion, or to ride out the slower quarters when the bright yellow book about heaven is in remainder bins; or conversely, if more A-list Christian authors flee to Howard (Simon & Schuster) or Faithwords (Hachette).

The two companies represent a clash of corporate cultures — Every company has a corporate culture, even your six-employee, small-market Christian bookstore.  Nelson has its tentacles into the business book market and the health market and the children’s entertainment market; but Zondervan doesn’t even have so much as a general market imprint, in the manner that Baker has Brazos or NavPress has Think.  The Zondervan name assures a certain degree of Christian spirituality, while you have to look twice at a TNI title to make sure it’s not one of their broader market releases.  You can probably think of other dis-similarities to list.  Clearly, each company marches to the beat of a different drummer.

The companies are each too big to merge — While Harper itself represents the merger of Harper & Row and Collins; we shouldn’t expect to see Nelson-Zondervan stamped on book spines anytime soon.  These companies have been competitors, and keeping the competitive edge is probably in the best interests of both. Harmonized book binding, distribution, and sales representation might be another matter.

The issue of ‘secular’ ownership is somewhat irrelevant — Invoking Rupert Murdoch’s name in this discussion is no different than what happened when Zondervan itself was purchased; but today the company enjoys complete autonomy.  True, this is the company that also publishes Marcus Borg (and worse), but a quick look at the artist roster at EMI Music reveals musicians that are no doubt offensive to many Christians, but it doesn’t stop most bookstores from carrying EMI-CMG (Christian Music Group) artists such as Steven Curtis Chapman, Switchfoot, or Chris Tomlin.

The ownership of Bible copyrights is significant, but not alarming — NewsCorp doesn’t actually own the NIV, that honor belongs to Biblica, aka The International Bible Society.  But it would, in fact, take ownership of the NKJV, which Thomas Nelson developed.  Is that a problem?  We just celebrated 400 years of the KJV, but for the first 100 years, the copyright was held exclusively and vigorously by the Crown Printer of the UK.  I don’t foresee changes to The Sermon on the Mount coming anytime soon.  Even the Roman Catholic Church, which teaches a modified version of The Ten Commandments in its Catechism doesn’t dare tamper with the text as found in Exodus 20 of the NAB, or NJB. 

Stores should focus on the product — If Christian retailers can be compared to worship leaders, then the titles we carry are the individual songs.  The rules of discernment and good judgment we’ve used heretofore to make product selections in our stores should continue to apply.  Zondervan has one of the best catalogs available anywhere, and I would hate the think that any booksellers bases inventory decisions on ownership issues (or hearsay), especially when many of those same stores are currently, for all intents and purposes, owned by their bank.

So then, is this truly the Christian publishing story of the year; or non-story of the year?  As long as TNI and ZDV operate autonomously, it should be business-as-usual for both brick-and-mortar and online sellers.  But it will be interesting how the puzzle pieces fit together a year from now.

  1. Lando Klassen
    November 2, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Over the years it’s been interesting to see who acquires who in the publishing field. enjoyed your take on these current events. I hope Zondervan and Nelson each remain strong divisions of Harper Collins-

  2. T.P. Campbell
    November 3, 2011 at 10:28 am

    I was totally shocked. I see this as a real travesty for the Christian publishing industry where the bottom line is all that matters. It began when Word was bought by ABC thus opening door to secular investments into this religious market.

    My fear is that they will still market and produce solid evangelical authors, but more and more shallow and heretical books will be in the mix if they support the bottom line. Doctrine as a criteria went out the window years ago with all the big boys….Zondervan, Baker, Eerdmans, TN.

    Good news is in the day of ebooks and smaller publishers, solid books will still be published. The difficultly will be competing against this corporate behemoth that can distribute mass copies to Walmart, SAMs, Costco, etc. This makes this problem even more of a challenge.

    The world is not coming to an end with this. I suppose I was naive to expect “more” from those in Nashville at TN. While they have become a mixed bag, the culture of TN and HC could NOT be more far apart…but then again…maybe not.

  3. Brian
    November 3, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Challies picked up this story. Check your traffic stats Paul!

    • paulthinkingoutloud
      November 3, 2011 at 1:06 pm

      Thanks Brian. Had already noticed, since I’m a reader of TC. And a big welcome to everyone here for the first time. This is an industry blog, you might enjoy reading my general one, Thinking out Loud, at http://www.paulwilkinson.wordpress.com

  4. November 6, 2011 at 8:37 am

    I do think Zondervan and Thomas Nelson will be merged, and right away, but the two names will probably stay as separate imprints, so we’re probably in agreement here.

    Nice analysis. Thanks!

    -Robert

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