Publishing Houses: CBA vs. ABA

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So after I was hired assistant editor, it was all downhill from there. Seriously, you don’t want to know what it’s like in that position trying to figure out which end is up and just trying not to mess up all the time. You mostly work on keeping a low profile and not being singled out for anything. And if you make it past the first year, you figure you’re doing alright. I made it, and now I’m proud to be an Associate Editor (for another couple of weeks anyway, until I get promoted to Editor/Writer. Yippee!)

But on to more important things. What exactly are the differences between the CBA and ABA markets?

In a talk at the 2003 ECPA conference, Dean Merrill shared what I think is the key difference between publishers that serve the Christian Book Association and publishers that serve the American Book Association. As opposed to the larger American market, he said, most religious publishers have a love/hate relationship with money. They make a distinction between positioning messages to have impact and make money, and scheming or peddling the gospel to make money. The first is a market reality, the second is clearly sin. “Thoughts of financial gain are corrupt when they come before Godliness and holiness.”

It’s a very fine balance CBA publishers have to strike, like anyone in ministry who must make a financial return to remain in ministry. In many ways, secular publishers have the “luxury” of not being unencumbered by the concern. And not that all ABA publishers are, but they can be crass and commercial and driven by bottom lines as much as they like, and no one expects any different. It’s business.

But Christian publishers are to have a different motivation. The money is for ministry and never the other way around. A CBA publisher’s mission statement generally won’t say “we’re after the money,” and it is true that businesses do not have souls and it should not be a moral issue for whether or not publishers should expect to be pain for their books. But this position just feels dangerous to us when we think of it in relation to the bigger issue: how can we be sure we’re serving God or money?

Publisher’s Weekly consistently reports that religious publishers are aggressively moving to general trade, while being largely supported by their religious categories’ breakout hits, like Tyndale’s Left Behind, Multnomah’s Prayer of Jabez, and Zondervan’s Purpose-Driven Life. Christianity Today has printed many articles about this same thing. Christian publishing is branching out and building into more and more shaky ground.

It’s a new world for publishers and to survive, they must, as Merrill pointed out, accept the numbers and learn from them to be leaders in this world. Money is the tool to getting the message heard and serving God. There is no choice but to swim with the sharks as it were. J. Wendell Forbes said, “the purpose of publishing isn’t to make money, but to be of amazing use to the reader.” The hope of Christian publishers is that with eternal value, money follows.

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3 thoughts on “Publishing Houses: CBA vs. ABA”

  1. The CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) serve a niche market of Christian readers. They serve conservative evnagelicals. They’ve not bothered to make the distinction to the general market and so the general market, (who BTW doesn’t know better) assumes CBA affiliated publishers represent ALL that Christian authors have to over.
    I call for them to change the name of their affiliation. ECPA doesn’t have this problem. Their name speaks for itself.
    Those of us who write for the general Christian market need the distinction to be made. :)

  2. How do I join the Christian Booksellers Assoc? I have published a book, which is being edited for a 2nd print, and wish to market it on a limited basis at a local level. Can this membership be of help in opening the door to a bookstore like Barns & Noble, or my local church? Please furnish this information. My book is WHO IS THIS MAN? about getting to know Christ on a day to day basis. It can be of definite help to anyone trying to reinvent their life. Thank you, Irene Ferguson 281-681-9149

  3. It’s very expensive to join the CBA. Most individual authors can’t afford it. They instead look for a CBA affiliated publisher.
    To get a CBA publisher, you simply find a CBA agent. Then you go through the same regimen that you would to get any other kind of publisher. Just know that the CBA market is highly conservative and does not represent the genreal Christian market which is a much broader audience. :)
    I noticed that The Shack was listed over on your sidebar. Nice example of how CBA and the general Christian market serve two very different markets. William Young is self-published. Couldn’t get a CBA publisher to look at him at all,(or any other publisher for that matter.)
    He took out a loan, did his own promotion and soon after selling enough books, CBA publishers contacted him to sign on. He kindly said, “no thanks” and is at the top of CBA’s best-sellers list. How about that!!

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