What the Zondervan & Thomas Nelson merger means

We’ve seen the music industry crash, then rise again in digital streams. The TV-and-movie industry is betting its future on streaming video into our hands. (Amazon just announced free TV streaming to its Prime customers’ iPads, for example.)
Similar forces are transforming book publishing and—for anyone who cares about religious publishing—there is major news this week.
Zondervan and Thomas Nelson are merging, the completion of a deal that began last year. The combined operation is headed ….
That’s the point of this ReadTheSpirit story:
What does this historic merger mean to everyday readers of religious books? Read on!


Merger mania may seem strange in an era when millions of Americans want go-it-your-own-way spirituality—what Harvard’s Robert Putnam and others are calling the Church of One. (For more on this cultural shift, read our interview with Diana Butler Bass.) While lots of Americans are splitting from their traditional religious affiliations—publishers see no problem in serving widely divergent audiences from a single big company. That’s a historic shift. Five hundred years ago, the Reformation was fueled by dueling pamphleteers across Europe. For centuries, a doctrinal dispute over beliefs about the Bible or communion, racial diversity or social issues could touch off a schism. A new religious publishing house could arise overnight.

Last week, we reported on Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove who is reaching into Christianty’s roots to re-shape current ideas about the vitality of congregations. He is crossing boundaries by publishing with both the largely Catholic Paraclete Press and the evangelical Zondervan. From Wilson-Hartgrove’s perspective: Catholics and Protestants should work together.
From the perspective of merging publishers: Bigger is better in keeping up with worldwide digital distribution. If the authors themselves see fewer doctrinal bondaries—then who’s to quibble in the board room over such distinctions?


Collaborative deals are par for the course.
The gigantic German-based Bertelsman, for example, now owns: Random House, Doubleday, Knopf, Ballantine, Anchor, Schocken, Vintage, Del Rey, Fawcett—not to mention the Book-of-the-Month Club, History Book Club and Mystery Guild. Plus, other companies depend on deals with Bertelsman. For example, we’ve recommended children’s books by Candlewick (see our coverage of The Fairy Circle). Candlewick is owned by the mid-sized Walker Books, but its distribution in the U.S. is handled by Random House, which circles back to Bertlesman.

IN FACT, publishing mergers are bigger than most readers realize. For example, people still talk about Simon & Schuster as a major American publisher as if it still was independent. The CBS Corporation actually owns that publishing house along with the CBS network, Showtime, Westinghouse, CNET online, plus other publishing houses including The Free Press and Pocket Books.

Most readers think of Macmillan Publishers Ltd. as an independent. In fact, it’s now part of the Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. Never heard of it? You’ve certainly heard of its divisions, including: Times Books, Henry Holt books, St. Martin’s Press, Tor and Forge books, plus Nature and Scientific American magazines.

Penguin anyone? That’s now a part of the UK-based Pearson—which includes Berkley, Dial, Dutton, Plume, Puffin, Viking. Ready to hit the road? Pearson owns Rough Guides, too.


If those mergers surprise you, consider the ominous giant: Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which now owns: HarperCollins, Zondervan, Nelson, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones, plus Fox TV and movies. There’s also the controversial matter of the British media holdings—and Murdoch’s media blanket over Australia. A year ago, News Corp took over Nelson and the Zondervan-Nelson deal was finalized in July 2012.


What Is Thomas Nelson? In the late 1700s, Thomas Nelson was a bookseller in Endinburgh, Scotland. Then, flash forward to today: Look around Protestant churches and you’ll see lots of Nelson books—mainly Bibles and educational materials, plus children’s books and church music. Nelson is far older than Zondervan. Nelson was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first publisher, so that’s another connection with this week’s coverage in ReadTheSpirit.

What Are the Roots of Zondervan? Zondervan is a relative upstart. Founded in 1931, the original Zondervans were relatives of the Eerdmans family, who ran their own publishing house. To this day, Eerdmans still is independent and produces an impressive and eclectic list of Christian books. Here’s the Wikipedia page for Eerdmans if this sparks your curiosity. And, here’s the Eerdmans website, too.
Go on! Buy an Eerdmans book today and support indpendent publishing. Our first choice would be Hannah’s Child by Stanley Hauerwas, which we earlier discussed with the famous theologian.

The Zondevan brothers, Pat and Bernie, started small—literally at the family farm—and focused on inspirational books in this deeply religious corner of Michigan. Nelson had been famous for publishing new translations of the Bible—including the American Standard Version and the Revised Standard Version for a while. Zondervan got its big Bible in the 1970s: the New International Version.

Zondervan’s list of best-selling authors has included Rob Bell, who returns to ReadTheSpirit for an interview on Monday. Rob now has switched to another division of News Corp: HarperOne. Among Zondervan’s all-time top authors are Hal Lindsey, the former Mississippi tugboat captain who scored a huge success with The Late Great Planet Earth. That racked up sales in the tens-of-millions-of-copies range, only to be topped by Zondervan’s work with Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Life.

Nelson’s most famous authors include Billy Graham, Max Lucado, John Eldredge (a friend of ReadTheSpirit) and Charles Stanley.

This new merger makes sense. Both publishers produce tons of Bibles. Both sell books by and about Billy Graham. Max Lucado’s name shows up in both lists. And both have promising new niches: For example, both are trying to market Amish-themed fiction. Nelson has an Amish-romance genre, while Zondervan has Amish murder mysteries. (For readers who understand Amish culture and faith—we must add: No, we are not kidding. Amish romances and mysteries are in vogue.)


If you are part of a small publishing house—as we are here with our own ReadTheSpirit Books—recognize that we are colleagues, not competitors, in our quest to thrive today. Thousands of small publishers produce books on spirituality, religion and cross-cultural issues each year. Many have close ties to religious groups. Some are nonprofit groups like the Alban Institute’s book division.

Most of these publishers are struggling to find cost-effective ways to produce ink-on-paper books as well as the ever-growing array of e-books. When ReadTheSpirit Books was founded in 2007, our first book was just a paperback. Today—thanks to a unique software system developed for small publishers by our Publisher John Hile—we produce a wide range of e-editions. Our cost-effective publishing system moves seamlessly in a single source file from Microsoft Word through all versions of the final book—print and all e-editions. Adaptations for short runs of books and other kinds of new editions are easy for us to produce. Most small publishers don’t have such powerful, rapidly flexible, in-house tools, so e-publishing is an expensive bottleneck.

Small publishers still can score a best-selling success now and then—but the actual business-and-software development involved in publishing becomes ever more challenging. If you’re involved in small publishing and want to talk more with ReadTheSpirit, email us at [email protected]


Our prediction: Tennessee. Nelson’s annual sales are bigger than Zondervan’s. Zondervan’s staff is half the size of Nelon’s. Zondervan announced last year that it plans to move out of its sprawling complex near Grand Rapids into a smaller site. Why? News Corp is centralizing book distribution.

Also, Zondervan’s top figures are bowing to Nelson’s leadership. Scott Macdonald, the head of Zondervan, is stepping aside into an advisory role. The new head is Thomas Nelson CEO Mark Schoenwald. He remains based in Tennessee, but is assuring staffers that he will spend time in Michigan.

Executives are saying, for now, that both famous brands—Nelson and Zondervan—will continue. That does make sense for the company. These days, giant publishing houses seem to be expanding the way they use brands to highlight segments of readers. For example, the publishing giant Hachette is pouring millions into three new imprints: FaithWords, Center Street and Jericho Books. All three produce inspirational books, but each one is trying to serve a different segment of readers. Stay tuned! In early September, ReadTheSpirit welcomes back Brian McLaren for an interview on his newest book to be published by Jericho Books on 9/11.

Care to Read Even More? The best news coverage we have seen of the merger is Publishers Weekly’s New Harper Christian Division Head Schoenwald Says ‘Everything Is Under Review’.

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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