God Moments (11): Entering the World of Book Clubs

[This is the eleventh article in the series of God Moments in My Publishing Life.]

When you are leaving a publisher for another one, what kind of farewell should you expect? I was obviously not going to a competitor of Moody Press, since the Christian Herald Association was known for its magazine and its book clubs, not its book publishing program. Despite that it came as quite a surprise when I was invited to have lunch with Dr. George Sweeting, president of Moody Bible Institute. Even though I had been acquiring editor for several of his books, I wondered what was on his agenda.

We met in a private dining area reserved for meetings of special people. After prayer we tackled our meal and began small talk. Then I discovered Dr. Sweeting’s agenda. As best I remember it he said, “I understand why you are leaving. If I were you, I would also be leaving.” I was stunned. He explained that he disagreed with the decisions made by the Institute executives regarding Moody Press, but that as their president he felt duty bound to support the executives’ decisions. He wished me Godspeed and gave me his blessing as I moved on to my new opportunity at Christian Herald Association. His taking the time to have lunch with me gave me a new level of respect for him. What he as a former pastor would have appreciated is that my transition to Christian Herald would put us in a place where God could use my wife and me in an exciting new church adventure.

God’s Moment in Finding a Home

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A photo of our home years later in 2013

Our search for a new home with a large living room for hospitality landed us in Danbury, CT, then already a high tech center and home to executives commuting by rail to New York. Shortly after we arrived, an international company, Union Carbide, moved its headquarters to Danbury, bringing thousands of workers with them.

We had attended a local church for several months when in another God Moment Rita was told about Black Rock Congregational Church in Fairfield, CT—and we began driving 21 miles to it. While we quickly got involved in leadership positions in Christian education and music, our home came alive with social events and a Bible study. Two years later a phone call from the chair of the elder board changed our focus.

“We know you have wanted us to start a new church in Danbury. Our church office has had five calls from families in Danbury asking us to begin a daughter church there. Would you get these families together to check them out?”

God’s Reason for Being in Danbury

He did not know that I had a degree in pastoral theology, that I had been acting pastor, done a lot of pulpit supply, had been on several elder boards. All that experience now became a God Moment as we began a Sunday evening Bible study in our home. Several months later the group, which contained executives in leading companies, including a vice president at Union Carbide, approached the Black Rock Congregational Church elder board for permission to organize as a daughter church. They not only approved the move, they let us have three elders as representatives of the sponsoring church. We eventually presented our plans to the congregation at Black Rock Congregational Church and received a near unanimous vote in favor of completing the organizational process.

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2013: The sanctuary of the church we helped plant

The leadership team projected the new church would grow to 125 members in five years. Yet the first Sunday morning meeting in a Ramada Inn brought out a full house, 125 active Christians—and five months later the church had grown to 200 and had a full-time pastor. Today the church has 2400 or more in several services and five church plants. Unfortunately, Rita and I were not part of that growth because an unexpected job change sent us to California.

A Learning Experience

Meanwhile I was commuting 35 miles to Christian Herald Association offices in Chappaqua, NY. The editors and design team were doing a great job of selecting books for The Christian Herald Family Bookshelf and two subsidiary book clubs in the heart of America, as well as Christian Women’s Book Club. My focus turned to my other assignment, expanding the book list of the small book publishing arm, where I learned a most important publishing lesson.

Before I had arrived, the leadership had been ecstatic over acquiring the memoir of the wife of the treasury secretary in the government of President Jimmy Carter. It had been released to the public and seemed destined to be a bestseller when the unthinkable happened. The author’s husband was involved in a scandal and released by the president. Just as I arrived the wife’s book was being boxed up and returned by booksellers. More than 35,000 books showed up at the warehouse and had to be destroyed. This confirmed a truth I had been told by a British book packager, Angus Hudson, who said, “It’s not how many books you sell, but how many books are returned by booksellers that determine profitability.”

The reality of that came alive soon after I joined Here’s Life Publishers when we released a book by Richard Nixon’s personal lawyer. He had come to faith in Christ after Watergate, like Chuck Colson. Orders came in thick and fast—only to result in 38,000 coming back in returns when the author only preached when on radio or TV instead of telling what it was like to be a part of the Watergate scandal. This confirmed that radio is an entertainment media with a voracious appetite for people’s unusual experiences, with little interest in authors who prefer preaching to telling stories.

A Strange Meeting

Early on at Christian Herald Association I had a surprise—another strange meeting. A long-term executive of the Christian Herald Association invited me to accompany him to New York City, where we were ushered into the posh offices of a key executive of a major player in the finance world. He happened to be Chairman of the Board of Christian Herald Association. After small talk he said the board was considering releasing the president of Christian Herald Association. Did I consider myself prepared to take that position? I had had a similar meeting with an executive vice president and the head of personnel when I was hired for Moody Press—and nothing had come of that, so I was wary. This time I was asked to report instances of malfeasance that could present an opportunity to replace Christian Herald’s president. I listened but in my heart I knew I could never do that. Rat on a new boss who had bent over backwards to hire me? I left that meeting knowing I absolutely could not do that.

I thoroughly enjoyed my relationships with staff I worked with. We offered a main selection and a secondary selection 15 times a year in both the Family Bookshelf and Christian Women’s Book Club. Members who signed up received four free books. Then we prepared a promo for two books that members could purchase at a discounted price, but since we were a negative option book club, they had to respond negatively to the promo, or we mailed them the two selections with an invoice. Fifty percent of our selections were overtly Christian books licensed from publishers and fifty percent were “clean” selections from general publishers, with a lot of them coming from regional publishers. One of my major contributions was a discovery at the Post Office in Washington, DC that as a Christian book club we could ship our books at a reduced rate—over the next near it saved us $125,000, which significantly increased our net profit.

One of my perks was to visit Mont Lawn summer camp for inner city children operated by the Association in the Pocono Mountains. They also had a full-time person following up the children during the rest of the year. Another perk was to occasionally visit The Bowery, the New York City rescue mission operated by the Association. More than 100 years old, it attracted volunteers from as far away as Mennonite country in Pennsylvania. When the Mennonites came, they always brought a truckload of produce for the kitchen.

Time for another God Moment

While the Family Bookshelf was the key income producer, the Christian Women’s Book Club failed to reach profitability—nor did the book publishing enterprise, even though we acquired numerous books by leading authors. We had not reached what every business needs to reach, a critical mass. One book we had a chance of acquiring could have put us on the map in publishing—Kevin Leman’s Sex Begins in the Kitchen. I was laughed at by the team when I presented it and forced to turn it down, so he went with Regal Books and it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Eight years later one book, Building Your Mate’s Self-Esteem, by Dennis Rainey, put us at Here’s Life Publishers on the road to profitability—but that story is for a later installment.

The real loser at Christian Herald Association was the Christian Herald Magazine, for which we had celebrated 100 years of publishing soon after I got there. The magazine would become a casualty of bad publishing decisions and of the encroaching digital age. These factors—and a change of ownership at our printer/distributor—combined  to make it necessary to sell off something.  The book program was selected for that.

Our president felt I was valuable enough to package me with the book program as sales bait. I knew that would not work, so realized God would have to open up another door. An editor I had used as a writer of books turned out to be God’s tool to open a surprising door that triggered a move across country to southern California. The next installment will get us into a remarkably difficult but interesting publishing period for me, where God Moments abounded—and a fascinating opportunity for my wife Rita emerged in another God Moment.

Copyright, 2014, Les Stobbe

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