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The future of Church House Publishing (1)

Church House Publishing

This time last week was not a good day to be working in Christian publishing. In the United States, the Episcopal Church announced a number of job losses at Church Publishing Inc, a company and work colleagues that I very much enjoyed dealing with in my own work at Church House Publishing.

Closer to home, my former employers Church House Publishing were also announcing news. Framed as ‘an outsourcing’ rather than job cuts (although that may be part of what happens), the CofE announced that the Archbishops’ Council were going to be ‘buying in’ services from Hymns Ancient & Modern in order to continue the work that Church House Publishing does.

It’s taken me a while to blog about it because I’ve been trying to work out what was happening, what I thought about all this and, at the same time, my first and foremost concern was with some very good friends who, in some cases, I worked with hand-in-glove for seven years. They face a very testing future. If you are the praying sort, please remember them – both those in this country and in the USA. They are good people, talented people, good at what they do and with tremendous experience that the Church should be sorry to lose, if indeed their expertise is to be lost to us.

I want to talk primarily about CHP though because I know their situation pretty well and because it has more immediate concern to me as a clergyman now in the Church of England. I am one of their consumers now.

I am going to have to split this into two posts, I think, because the concerns go in two directions. I am also trying to do this somewhat objectively, as objectively as I can be, and without including the thoughts of some of my former colleagues who I’ve spoken to this week. It’s not fair to drag them into what I choose to write and it may be compromising for them… so this is all me!

Firstly, some explanation on what is happening for the uninitiated, as best I see it as a former employee and keen church watcher.

Church House Publishing has long been charged by the Archbishops’ Council with the target of breaking-even or making a profit. That’s fairly common knowledge – particularly to those who read their Synod papers carefully. Generally speaking that has failed to happen, although each year the losses have not been huge and one could argue that for those losses CHP provides great value for money.

When you compare the situation with SPCK bookshops, for example, and all the trouble there (and we must remember there was big financial trouble there before the Brewers arrived otherwise they’d never have been sold off in the first place), the losses CHP have made pale into insignificance. In addition, one might also want to bring into account the general state of the economy and, more specifically, the Christian book industry which has been suffering for quite some time when one considers the small losses CHP have made.

The Archbishops’ Council’s recent Financial Strategy Review (PDF download) notes on the final page of that report that CHP’s net cost to the Archbishop Council in 2009 is budgeted to be £33,433. By way of comparison, Mission & Public Affairs net cost was nearly £1.3 million. I don’t mean to criticise MPA who also do valuable work, I am just drawing a comparison of cost. Anyway, my point is that if you want to add up all the books, software products, booklets and electronic resources that CHP produce each year for the benefit of the wider Church, £33,000 sounds like money very well spent to me.

Nevertheless, a loss is a loss and when you’ve been charged with break-even and failed to manage it, there was always the possibility that alternatives would be considered.

So, what’s happening? Well, it looks from the press release that CHP will continue to exist and continue to publish materials for the Church of England with some sort of command structure at Church House in London. The cynic in me might be tempted to suggest that the favourable VAT position that CHP provides for the Archbishops’ Council (worth something near £750,000 a year) might well be a big part of that. I would hope, however, that the reason they will retain a command structure is because the leadership of the Church of England still has a desire to communicate; that they think it’s important to have a group of people tasked with helping the Church to get its important message out there into the marketplace and providing valuable resources for people, like me, who are at the coal-face in the parishes. In short, I hope that the AC thinks it’s important to publish.

However, beyond the command structure, the press release indicates that the process of actually producing and selling the products will be outsourced and thus save considerable amounts of money in salaries etc. Crucially for the AC such costs would only need to be paid if a book (or other product) is published. They are no longer ‘fixed costs’. And so, it seems that the various phases of a book’s production – editorial, production, marketing and sales all look as if they’ll be heading out to Hymns Ancient & Modern.

The one big thing that all this probably doesn’t cover is the New Media aspect of CHP’s work and I’ll cover that in the second blog post since it is really a very different area with very different questions.

However, thinking just of the books and other printed literature that CHP does, if this move goes ahead (as it seems to be at the moment) and trying to be dispassionate and simply assessing the impact on me as a clergyman and for the Church of England in general, my big question is this:

Who decides now what will be published?

CHP has always had to publish a number of books that commercially are just not viable. They are very worthy. They are very valuable. It’s a good thing for the Church of England and the wider church that CHP have published them and that these books exist and are available for people to buy and use. However, they haven’t made money and they won’t make money. They are too specialist. Publishing them, if you like, has been part of the ‘service’ that CHP has provided to the church and a very valuable part of that thirty grand spent that the AC is budgeted to put into CHP this year.

However, Hymns Ancient & Modern are a commercial publisher. They can’t publish stuff just for the worthiness of the material. It has to make money. So, my big question is, does the AC still control the publishing decision through their CHP imprint or will Hymns Ancient & Modern make the decision?

If it is the latter, then the Church of England at large needs to sit up and take notice of what is going on here. Synod questions ought to be asked. Such a move essentially means that the message the church wishes to spread is subject to commercial concerns. If we have something to say on euthanasia but it won’t make money, I’m sorry but you won’t be able to say it. If we have something to say on working with children with disabilities but it won’t make money, I’m sorry but you won’t be able to say it. If we have something to say about stonemasonry and old church buildings but it won’t make money, I’m sorry but you won’t be able to say it. We all stand to be sorely impoverished in how we are resourced as a church if this is the case.

If it is the former, if the AC retain control then there’s a different question. If the AC can still say to Hymns A&M, we want something published. Hymns A&M will probably say – well that won’t make money so you’ll have to subsidise it if you want us to do it. So, the AC will be subsidising their publishing activities. Hmm, sounds familiar – oh yes, that’s what they are doing right now. If such subsidies crept over thirty grand (which they may well do so fairly quicky), then the big question has to be why are we farming it all out in the first place?

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There are one or two other issues.

Firstly, no publisher has a crystal ball. Sometimes they get it wrong. When Mission-shaped Church was published, no-one at CHP thought it was going to skyrocket in the way that it did. I think the initial print run was 2,000 copies. Last time I heard, it had sold over 20,000 and rising. Going back to the issue of who makes the decision, who is to say that Hymns Ancient & Modern won’t reject something that they don’t think will sell, only to find that if they had sold it, it would take off? The freedom to publish, somewhat free of commercial concerns, is very often a considerable blessing to the wider church.

Secondly, CHP have built up a reputation for some excellent books in recent years which are not ‘core’ areas of publication with, dare I say it, higher standards than some of the other publishers out there. They’re not liturgy or reference works like Crockford etc and so what happens to them? It sounds, from the press release, that such things will just cease in the future. Titles like Hope for the Church, The Future of the Parish System, The Healthy Churches Handbook, Hit the Ground Kneeling and Do Nothing to Change Your Life would all come under this banner. I bet the other publishers are rubbing their hands in glee if CHP do cease to publish into areas like these ones.

Anyway, enough already! I’ll say more when I look at the New Media side of things at CHP which is another kettle of fish entirely, but it all seems very sad to me and I suspect this is probably not a great decision for all of us concerned with the Church of England, not just my friends at CHP at the sharp-end right now who are facing possible redundancies.

Comments

Dave Walker
Reply

David. Really difficult for me to comment on this, but just to say thanks for writing it. Very helpful. the debate around this needs to happen.

Bob Chapman
Reply

If they had just told everyone at CHP that if they took one or two days leave without pay, would they had made up the deficit? This has been a common way in the current economic downturn for many US companies and government bodies to help tide things over. (Or, does English/British/EU law prevent this?)

Nick Baines
Reply

Maybe you are too close to people involved. I know them too and am sorry this is happening to them. But you have to be able to offer a business case – an alternative – and not just regret the change. I am about to publish a book with CHP and so am also an interested party. But some hard questions have to be asked in a business that is changing fast. I don’t know all the details, but I do know this is not a decision that has been taken either quickly or lightly.

Kevin Harper
Reply

I have found that buying direct from Church House Bookshop, even with the International postage applied, is up-to 50% cheaper than ordering the same title from local Christian book suppliers in Australia. Will this decision have any impact on the function of the Bookshop?

David
Reply

Bob – nothing in English law to prevent it as far as I know but I’m no expert on that.

Nick – I am close to this, I know that and I think I’ve recognised that, but I think I’ve tried to be fairly objective in what I’ve said. I can see the business case for the move, but I guess my ‘business case’ is that an investment (a subsidy) of five figures each year is good value to the AC for what they and the whole church get out of it in return.

It may be that can be well achieved with the move, but my big question about editorial and publishing control remains. If CHP/the AC don’t have the control, then I think that’s a bad day for the Church – regardless of business concerns.

There’s more to say on this on the new media side too, so watch this space! 🙂

David
Reply

Kevin – No. CHB is unaffected. They were sold off a year or two back (to Hymns Ancient & Modern) and operate separately now from CHP (although obviously they work with each other in the book trade).

Pam Smith
Reply

Received wisdom in many organisations is that to keep your budget increasing you should overspend slightly to show you need more, whereas if it’s a separate business it’s a loss not an overspend.

When you get to the year end a loss is a loss not an overspend if the dept is set up as a separate business.

The issues of how new theological thinking should be encouraged and disseminated, and good people losing their jobs when they have been doing a good job, are both issues in which the wider church should take an interest, but unfortunately the ‘bottom line’ is what counts when you’re looking at things on a purely financial model and those decisions both at Diocesan and national level usually seem to be taken in closed session.

Which is understandable and necessary in many ways – you can’t discuss all possibilities fully if you have to do it in public – but it means the thinking by the wider church needs to be done before the private discussions if it’s going to have any influence.

I’m not sure how much opportunity there is for thinking in a more conceptual way as a church when we seem to have slipped into crisis management mode as a default where money is concerned, but ideas can come up to General Synod from deaneries so maybe that’s where people should start to raise questions.

Phil Groom
Reply

Similar concerns. My three penny worth:

1. Does the Church of England need an independent voice for its publishing division? (yes)
2. Is it right to concede so much control of the Church’s voice to the Church Times? (no)
3. What provision — pastoral as well as financial — is being made for staff who now face the very real possibility of redundancy? (My Lord Bishops??)

Richard Greatrex
Reply

As a full-time bookseller and house-for-duty priest who has found Vis Lit from versions 1 to Live invaluable and who has sold thousands of CHP books over the years I echo strongly Phil Groom’s comments. Will Hymns A & M have the courage and foresight to publish a ‘Faith in the City’? Would it be financially viable for them to publish the Ordination Services? To be fair Hymns A & M have been a hugely creative, professional and thoughtful publisher over the twenty years I’ve been in bookselling and most of me feels that CHP is going to be in good hands however, I do hope that the excellent CHP staff will be treated with integrity.

But what worries me is the loss of an official voice for C of E publishing and the concentration of the religious book trade into the hands of a few conglomerates. This does not strike me as a very ‘Fresh Expressions’ move. How is this going to help foster a diversity of Christian expression? What will be the impact on the smaller publishing houses whose work is no less valuable?

Sheridan James
Reply

I would love to know how many people who are currently training or recently ordained went forward thanks to the impact of reading Mission-shaped Church. I know quite a number (myself included). How many priests were re-energised by that book? What is the worth to the church of the passion and commitment that book inspired – a lot more than CHP’s deficit.

As Joni Mitchell famously sang “You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone, take paradise and put up a parking lot.”

David
Reply

Sheridan – thanks for commenting. Well between me and thee, Mission-shaped Church certainly had a big impact. Reading that book and being inspired by it was a major reason in why I started to explore the possibility of ordained ministry.

[…] What I thought was interesting in the announcement is that CPI’s overseers clearly still see that Church Publishing is, in their words, a ‘mission-critical’ service. How different to the Church of England’s treatment of Church House Publishing. […]

[…] away for free) were amongst the reasons why CHP always found it hard to make money – and why the decision to outsource their function was so poor. Anyone seen anything like Mission-shaped […]

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