God Moments (13): Tackling a Financial Crisis

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

Les Stobbe and Josh McDowell

With Josh McDowell at a recent apologetics conference.

How can God turn an overwhelming debt load at a publishing house into a series of God Moments? At Here’s Life Publishers we were a for profit subsidiary of Campus Crusade for Christ, with the chairman of the Board the executive vice-president of Crusade. What I did not realize when I arrived as editorial director was that Here’s Life Publishers was being kept afloat by regular draws on a “slush fund” at Crusade, that our losses would be half a million on sales of just over two million the year I arrived.

Our product line consisted basically of Crusade’s evangelism and discipleship materials—and Josh McDowell apologetic books, like Evidence that Demands a Verdict. I put my book acquisitions hat on and began reaching out to possible book authors. But as a small publisher we were not in a position to compete against the much larger publishers, so we published what God gave us.

One day the current president took me for lunch and told me that over the next year he would prepare me for taking over as president. David Orris kept his word. He left for another publisher mid-year of 1985 and turned leadership over to me—I was confirmed as president by the Board after proper vetting.

Discovering Financial Reality

While this was going on I discovered financial reality. We were hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to two printers—and had a killer credit rating. Any printer we approached demanded cash with each printing order. But the formerly ready cash from the Crusade “slush fund” was no longer available.

My first of a series of God Moments came when an accounting executive of an international firm retired and volunteered his services to Crusade. I was stunned when he was seconded to us for six weeks. His analysis of our bookkeeping revealed everything in good order, though he had a couple of suggestions on how to earn interest on overnight cash deposits. Then he suggested he and I visit the printers to whom we were indebted. His background helped us work out a two-year payment plan for each. Then we tackled what Crusade carried on their books as our indebtedness to them—the withdrawals by the previous president of Here’s Life. Working with the Crusade corporate lawyer, we got the Crusade Board to turn the debt into company shares. With that our credit rating dramatically improved and we could get credit with much more cost effective printers in the Midwest. We also changed our production manager.

We moved into different offices in a Crusade office complex, switching to a warehouse/shipping service, ditching our badly programmed computer for fulfilling orders. Wayne Hastings, who I had asked to be executive vice-president, had a background in computer sales. Through a local computer assembler he got every editor and marketing person a computer on their desk. He found a software developed for small publishers that took only three days to become operational—another God Moment. He got us hooked up by computer with the shipping services of Appalachian Bible Distributors so that at the end of every day we could transmit our orders for next day order picking and shipping. Other software gave our editors the capability to do the page design that is usually a significant cost factor. Pages were transmitted via computer to a laser printer, which delivered pages ready for the printer. We were now leaders among Christian publishers in initiating desktop publishing, giving us a major cost reduction in book production.

A Charles Swindoll God Moment

But we were still not profitable, even with an expanding book list. I was waking up at 3:00 a.m. in a cold sweat, facing a most unattractive reality—our publishing house declaring bankruptcy. Then God launched another God Moment. Driving to work one morning I heard Charles Swindoll on radio quote Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope” (NASB). I met Wayne Hastings arriving at the office

“Did you hear Charles Swindoll read Jeremiah 29:11?” I asked him. He said he had and I invited him to join me in my office. Together we claimed that promise for Here’s Life Publishers. At home that evening I opened my Bible to the passage, put it on my prayer chair, knelt and prayed, “Lord, Here’s Life Publishers is not mine. It is yours. I turn it all over to you. I am claiming Jeremiah 29:ll for Here’s Life Publishers.” That night when I woke up I repeated the verse and went back to sleep, as I did often after that.

In his foreknowledge God had already started a series of publishing events that would fulfill the future we believed he had promised us. After years of effort to enlist Dennis Rainey, head of Family Life Ministries of Crusade, as author it became reality. He and his wife wrote Building Your Mate’s Self Esteem. After extensive rewriting, it was accepted as a giveaway on James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” broadcast—and they eventually bought 39,000 copies. Pre-orders had piled up, so that it was “all hands on deck” in the shipping area—and I spent hours packing books. With Dennis appearing on the radio broadcast of “Focus on the Family” our first year sales totaled over 130,000 copies. We had our first big winner and praised God for his response to Jeremiah 29:11!

The God Moment in Action

The following spring we released A Door of Hope, by Jan Frank, which sold 16,000 copies the first year, with increased sales in subsequent years. We also released Roses in December, by Marilyn Willett Heavilin, a book for parents grieving the loss of a child that sold 25,000 the first year and stayed in print for decades. Both had been turned down by other publishers and were brought to us by Florence Littauer after I had lunch with her and her husband Fred.

But God had another surprise for us. Since early the previous year Josh McDowell’s team and we had been working on books for a massive “Why Wait?” campaign by Josh, focusing on stemming pre-marital sexual activity among Christian teens. As the result of a survey by Josh’s team we together developed the book What I Wish My Parents Knew About My Sexuality, with Josh as author. Released in May, 1987, it sold 75,000 copies the first year. Then in July we released the centerpiece for his crusade entitled simply Why Wait? With Josh as author it was purchased by “Focus on the Family” for a giveaway, Josh was interviewed on “Focus on the Family,” and we sold more than 140,000 copies the first year. Suddenly we were a profitable publisher. And God had delivered on his promise in Jeremiah 29:11.

Around this time we were invited to help Bill Bright write a one-year daily devotional book. Working closely with him was our veteran editor Jean Bryant. The book had a strong evangelistic and discipling thrust, satisfying a long-standing desire on Bill’s part.

Marriage Secrets Revealed

Next came a request from Bill for a book on marriage, to be written by Bill and Vonette. Our writer and I spent hours interviewing them, digging for realism on what it meant to be an international couple. Stories we heard included a time when the Crusade director for an Indian sub-continent country arrived for a visit. Bill had a special affection for shirts he had bought in South Africa, though Vonette did not particularly care for them, so he went into the closet for one of them. They had not yet been ironed. Vonette was not at home, so he set about ironing one, but only the front and sleeves, since the jacket would cover the rest. The director arrived on a warm day and shocked his host by quickly taking off his jacket. Bill as host had to join his guest, displaying a partially ironed shirt to Vonette’s huge embarrassment.

Vonette told us a story Bill would not let us put in the book. They had a serious argument about some phase of reconstruction at the hotel Crusade had purchased as headquarters. Bill was not giving her the attention she felt she deserved in remodeling plans. To end the argument he decided to take off in their car for an appointment. Vonette stormed out after him and placed herself in front of the car—and made her point.

Later we worked with Vonette on her idea for a book entitled The Greatest Lesson I’ve Ever Learned, with chapters contributed by well-known women friends. One of the contributors was Dale Evans Rogers. Our editorial director, Dan Benson, had been a huge admirer of Roy Rogers as a boy and decided we would try for a book by Dale. We met her for lunch and asked her what kind of a book she might like to write.

The Dale Evans Rogers Opportunity

“I’d like to write a book on humility, because that’s in short supply in Hollywood, but no publisher I’ve given the idea is interested,” she replied. In one of those God Moments I asked, “What if we focused on a biblical image, that of God being the potter and we being the clay? Wouldn’t that reveal dependency on God, which reflects humility?”

She responded, “I don’t know anything about pottery, but if you do, let’s do it.” What she did not know was that some years earlier we had lived next to a potter who had her own kiln. She signed a contract for the book. When we were sold to Thomas Nelson the contract went to them, as did Dan Benson, our editorial director. When the editorial team at Thomas Nelson reviewed the unfulfilled contracts at Here’s Life Publishers they asked Dan about the Dale Evans Rogers’ one. He suggested that since Dale was over 80 and had already had a heart attack, she was not likely to write it, but I was unemployed and could write it with her. That’s how God gave me another God Moment—the delightful experience of spending four two-hour periods interviewing Dale and two hours interviewing Roy Rogers, then interviewing several of their children, reading out of print Dale books. Then I wrote the book manuscript, including biblical content to make the book suitable for a Bible study, which Dale warmly approved. When Thomas Nelson invited Dale and Roy to their sales conference they were a huge hit—and they went out and sold it strongly, achieving sales of 40,000 copies within the first three months and No. 17 on the bestseller list.

In the next installment I’ll reveal more about how Here’s Life Publishers furthered the evangelistic ministry of Crusade college staff and Josh’s apologetic ministry—and how a Bill Bright ministry desire resulted in the sale of Here’s Life Publishers over Board member objections.

Copyright, 2014, Les Stobbe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *