Running Heads

From the editors of Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock Publishers

Overlapping Publishing Models

Publishing has been going through rapid changes in the past fifteen years, and the speed of that change seems to be increasing. Some of the things that have affected these changes are: the internet, email, blogging, e-publishing and e-book readers, self-publishing, on-demand printing, the closing of so many brick-and-mortar bookstores (including Borders/Walden), the rise of Amazon (the new gorrilla), the consequent weakening of Ingram (the old gorrilla) and Barnes & Noble.

In the world of religion publishing, several other changes have affected the landscape. Hendrickson sold off its backlist to Baker, WJK has reduced its editing staff, Fortress has shifted focus to emphasize reference and textbooks, and Abingdon seems to be going through its own changes. Continuum Books merged with Cassell & Co., and they in turn acquired numerous other houses, including Athlone Press, T. & T. Clark, Trinity Press International, and Sheffield Academic Press. HarperCollins has purchased Thomas Nelson after having previously acquired Zondervan, all under the aegis of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

One of the things that many readers and authors do not understand is that there are multiple models of publishing and each of them works quite differently.

Most of the books one sees in a local bookstore, grocery store, Wal-Mart, Costco, or airport originate from the “Big Six” publishing corporations: Random House, Penguin Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette Book Group. They in turn are all owned by even larger conglomerates. And each of these book companies has multiple imprints, so the six themselves are often invisible. For example, the Penguin Group not only publishes under the imprint Penguin, but also other well known imprints: Dutton, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Viking, and Riverhead Books. Because these are all multi-billion-dollar corporations, they are able to acquire the biggest names in fiction (e.g., John Grisham) and nonfiction (e.g., Martha Stewart) with large advances ($50,000+) and large print-runs (50,000+ copies). The downside of their acquisition, marketing, and printing strategies is that they have to grant huge discounts (often 70%) to retailers such as Wal-Mart and Costco and absorb large returns (sometimes tens of thousands of copies). Each imprint chooses very selectively in order to only publish works that can produce strong financial returns for the massive investment they make in each title. They also generally accept manuscripts only through agents, who act as their defacto sifting system. One noteworthy anecdote told by Schiffrin (a long-time New York editor) recounts how Nancy Reagan was given a $3 million advance for a memoir that didn’t come anywhere near covering that advance. (See André Schiffrin, The Business of Books [New York: Verso, 2000] for a revealing look at the Big Six model of publishing.)

Another type of publishing is the university press. Some of the largest of these are Oxford University Press (approx. 5,000 new titles per year), Cambridge University Press (approx. 4,000), Yale University Press (approx. 450), and Harvard University Press (approx. 220). There are 125 member presses in the Association of American University Presses, and 95 of those are operated by universities. These are nonprofit organizations, and some of them are heavily underwritten by the university, while others are committed to providing income to the university. (OUP provides 12 million euros to the university annually!) While they publish on the basis of scholarly merit, their book prices are relatively high because they do small print-runs (500 to 1,000 copies). As I noted in my last blog post, the practice of peer review (sending manuscripts with potential to outside readers for evaluation) is also distinctive of these presses since their in-house editors generally do not have degrees in all of the diverse fields they are editing.

Some publishing houses are associated with or owned by religious denominations or orders. Abingdon Press (UMC), Westminster John Knox (PCUSA), Fortress Press (ELCA), Paulist Press (Paulist Fathers), Orbis Press (Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers), and Chalice Press (Disciples of Christ) are some of the most visibile in the U.S. While most of them do not draw their authors solely from their own denominations, they usually have a specified theological range or focus. Most of these publish a mixture of scholarly and popular works, but they tend to have relatively high financial hurdles since they only publish between 25 and 65 titles per year with print-runs in the range of 2,500 to 5,000 (with very few titles at the top end of that spectrum). One of the things that most folks don’t know about these houses concerns the financial connection to their denominations: it varies from house to house, from fully integrated to no financial connection at all, and very little underwriting of losses at any of them.

That leaves a number of for-profit publishers that publish in the field of religion, both scholarly and popular works. Several European houses (e.g., E. J. Brill, Walter de Gruyter, Otto Harrassowitz, Peeters, Van Gorcum) function very much like university presses. They publish scholarly works (including revised dissertations, Festschriften, and reference works), most often in hardback, in small print-runs (400 to 600 copies), and at extremely high prices ($150 to $450 per volume). They see their primary market as libraries and small circles of specialists. Of course, the larger houses (especially Brill and Harrassowitz) do not just publish in the field of religion, but quite broadly in the arts, humanities, and sciences. Another type of these for-profit religion publishers (e.g., Wipf and Stock, William B. Eerdmans, Baker Publishing Group, and Eisenbrauns) are privately owned companies that publish widely in the field—Baker more heavily on the popular titles, Eisenbrauns more heavily on the scholarly titles, and Eerdmans and Wipf and Stock with a real mixture. These vary quite a bit in terms of their size, theological diversity, number of annual titles, and print-runs. Wipf and Stock differs from the others in choosing projects solely on the basis of merit, without running a financial. But we also do all of our printing on-demand.

One of my friends is fond of asking: “What do I know if I know this?” It is the “So what?” question. Well, one thing this illuminates is why Big Six publishing is so different from the other models. I have friends and colleagues who spent years trying to get published at the Bix Six to no avail. Other questions this answers are: Why don’t Brill and de Gruyter discount their books more heavily at conferences? And why don’t they publish more of their books in paperback at reasonable prices? To answer both: they don’t care very much about retail sales; their primary market is libraries. They are at conferences primarily looking for authors. Moreover, this illuminates that each publisher is a bit different in terms of its size and number of new titles each year, as well as corporate, university, denominational, or private ownership; and these differences affect everything about the way they do business: acquisitions, author diversity, marketing/advertising, sales, discounts, print-runs, advances, and pricing.


  1. What about the models of publishers like Tyndale, Crossway, Harvest House, Kregel, IVP? Also, how do you see publishing and retail adapting to a changing marketplace? What sort of publishing models might be in the best position to move forward considering changing reading habits?

  2. Titus, I am not sure what KC would say to your questions, but I can give you my two cents on your first one. When it comes to audience, those publishers you listed I see as similar to the denominational presses KC described in his post. Although they may not draw exclusively from authors who self-identify as evangelical (most of the do, however), “they usually have a specified theological range or focus.” When it comes to business model, those publishers are much the same as the second type of for-profit publishers KC described. So you might say there is a third category of for-profit publishers, or maybe a sub-category of the second group: privately owned companies that publish across several fields but with a more narrow theological focus. There may be other distinctives about them that someone else could speak to.

  3. Thanks, Chris. That makes sense.

  4. KC

    do OUP really publish 5,000 new books each year? And CUP 4,000? Surely not! Can you clarify what you mean?


  5. Thanks for a really interesting overview.

  6. Robin,
    Thanks for your comments. I used “5,000” as an approximate because Wikipedia listed 4,500 to 6,000 new titles per year. After your comment, I checked the OUP website. They say they publish 6,000 new titles per year in 40 languages in virtually every field of research. This includes both print and digital titles.

  7. Thanks, KC, for this interesting post ‘from the inside’, as it were.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


© 2023 Running Heads

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑