An Open Letter to Books & Culture
When I read Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s post last week about the funding crisis at Books & Culture I had two immediate and opposite reactions. First was the saying I keep on the wall over my desk “When The Horse Is Dead Dismount.” Second was “Too Good To Fail.” I’ve bounced back and forth between them all weekend. It’s not quite like the tension of conflicting opinions about whether or not to bomb Syria but in my mind it is an important moment.
While I might agree in part with Gregory Wolfe’s analysis that “the religious culture of North America is playing a role in the current financial challenges faced by serious Christian journals and magazines” I don’t agree with his conclusion that “Christians in particular have always been lured by the siren song of pop culture.” Yes the Christian consumer makes choices that are not always what more serious and thoughtful people would make. Yes there is (and always will be) the outrageous merchandising of religious kitsch and the exploiting of evangelical superstition that keeps some publishers and book stores in business. On the whole though there is something genuinely healthy about a product, a publication, a conference, a college or university being dependent on its ability to create a paying customer. Without that, as unfair as it may seem at times, there are few ways to know for sure if you have value. And if you are charging for that product you are subject to the natural laws of enterprise. If the customer is unwilling to pay for what you produce then you should and you do go out of business. I have several more signs around me. Another one says “When The Mission Becomes Survival It Is Time To Shut The Doors.”
Is that the case with Books & Culture? Has the mission become surviving and this last desperate gasp on social media hoping to rescue it through crowdfunding is futile? Should this have been addressed years ago and not waited until the deadline was three days away?
When I joined the Board of Christianity Today, the parent publication of Books & Culture, my opinion was exactly that. We were subsidizing an extravagance we could ill afford. As well, underwriting a publication like Books & Culture that could not pull its own weight and develop a paid subscription base of readers was sending a signal to every other publication in the house that Books & Culture was not subject to the same rules as everyone else. It was a pet project kept alive by a few well-intentioned but hopelessly naive aficionados and academics. There never was a time when Books & Culture made a profit or even came close to breaking even. For me at the time that was a clear signal to admit our tastes were not the same as the paying customer. Yes, there were many readers in “the academy” and students who enjoyed getting free copies but for whatever reasons those customers and fans were content to ride for free. They loved it – for free. They read every issue – for free. They did not value it enough to buy it. This was not a difficult decision in my mind.
The magazine survived on internal subsidy. It never did thrive. It’s numbers remained atrocious but everyone seemed so taken with the content and the responses from “the academy” that it appeared to offset some of the embarrassment around the advertisements for inflatable churches, sanctuary furniture, and last-minute preaching aids. I thought Books & Culture might have given an organization whose roots were formed in youth crusades, blue collar religion and retail gospel some sense of acquired respectability and a little pixie dust of academic standing. Those are my roots as well so I understood the temptation and the desire to belong to a little higher class of religion. Nothing is as insidious as wanting to belong.
Somewhere around my 10-year mark on the board I began to change my mind. Yes, some of the necessities of business and making a profit were humorous. Yes, there was no doubt every publication that was not eventually profitable was eliminated while Books & Culture stayed but something changed for me. I read some of the earliest documents about the birth and formation of the magazine. I reread Billy Graham’s own account of his early morning dream for a Christian magazine that would reach business people, pastors and intellectuals, and be a credible conservative counterpoint to other publications. I studied the writings of the first editors – especially Carl F. H. Henry. I pored over the original statement of mission. “Christianity Today has its origin in a deep-felt desire to express historical Christianity to the present generation. Neglected, slighted, misrepresented—evangelical Christianity needs a clear voice to speak with conviction and love and to state its true position and its relevance to the world crisis. A generation has grown up unaware of the basic truths of the Christian faith taught in the Scriptures and expressed in the creeds of the historic evangelical churches.” It slowly dawned on me that Books & Culture may well be the inheritor of that early vision and not simply a way of proving to an educated and sophisticated world that evangelicals were peers and intellectually formidable.
When I retired from the Board I had come completely around to the other side. Books & Culture was not only worth keeping but it may be the actual legacy of Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry. No, it will probably never be self-sustaining but I know for a fact Billy Graham never intended Christianity Today to be that either. The financial problems of the early years are well known and without the business and editorial acumen of Harold Myra and Paul Robbins it would have closed the doors not long after opening. It was the business model of “every boat on its own bottom” that saved the publication and then some. It became the envy of a publishing world that saw scores of well-respected but financially strapped publications go out of business. Obviously, things have only changed in that the dynamics are even worse and quicker to produce failure.
There is a place for good business models but also for benefactors and patrons. There is no doubt that Christianity Today can no longer support Books & Culture with the funding it has for all of its life. Perhaps Books & Culture should not be part of Christianity Today at all. There are other examples of Christianity Today selling low performance magazines to other houses. As well, there are excellent examples of Christianity Today buying struggling magazines and turning them into profitable ones. Clearly, this is a hinge point for the executive leadership of Christianity Today and the editorial leadership of Books & Culture. There will likely be no long-term rescues from social media and crowdfunding.
What is needed is either an appropriate business model that includes major and painful adjustments in the staff and operations of Books & Culture or a group of benefactors and patrons who will provide a platform for something that is too good to fail. I don’t know which way they will choose. However, I will offer to host a group of interested investors along with the editor of Books & Culture, John Wilson, the Publisher of Christianity Today, Harold Smith and Chairman of the Board, Dr. John Huffman, to see if there is a future for Books & Culture or if in the words of one more sign in my office they should “Shoot The Wounded And Ride.”