13 minute read

Zondervan Publishing House Business Information, Profile, and History

5300 Patterson Avenue, S.E.
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49530

Company Perspectives:

ZPH publishes general and academic books, with the intent to meet the spiritual needs of people at all ages and all intellectual and interest levels. ZPH seeks to express its commitment to God's truth with a philosophy of acquisitions, writing, editing, producing, marketing, and selling that is consistent with biblical faith, practice, and ethics. ZPH determines a book's worth by its content and contribution, the goal being not only to confirm readers' faith and understanding, but also to challenge and stretch their thinking.

While ZPH publishes books within the historic evangelical mainstream of Christian faith and practice, it does not hesitate to publish books that represent the various currents within that mainstream.

History of Zondervan Publishing House

Zondervan Publishing House (ZPH), a wholly owned subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishers, is one of the largest Christian publishing companies in the world. Its products range from the best-selling New International Version of the Bible, to inspirational fiction, self-help, reference, biography, history, and textbooks, to gift products, audio- and videotapes, and multimedia software programs. Since becoming a subsidiary of HarperCollins in 1988, Zondervan has concentrated its energies on its traditional focus of religious book publishing, while extending its reach beyond the evangelical market with best-selling memoirs of Christian celebrities such as Oliver North, Colin Powell, and Dan Quayle. With problems involving hostile takeover attempts and financial improprieties now well in the past, and having divested itself of a chain of bookstores and a music company, Zondervan appears to have properly found its niche and is again doing what it does best.

Founded in 1931

Zondervan was started in 1931 by brothers Pat and Bernard Zondervan, in their mother's Grandville, Michigan farmhouse as a religious book-selling company. In 1932 the brothers opened their first bookstore in neighboring Grand Rapids. The following year saw the first two books published under the Zondervan imprint. The company's home base of West Michigan was a particularly religious, conservative area, and was a perfect locale for such a business. Grand Rapids, known as the city with the most churches per capita in the United States, was home to a number of seminaries and church-affiliated colleges, and was the headquarters of The Reformed Church in America, the Dutch Protestant sect founded on the principles of John Calvin.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, the company continued to expand. In 1959 Zondervan bought a religious music company, Singspiration. The following year the company took over publication of Halley's Bible Handbook from a private concern, eventually selling over four million copies of the title. Zondervan's bookstore operation had over the years expanded to a number of locations, and in the early 1960s the first outlet was opened in a shopping mall. The success of this store led the company to open in other malls, eventually placing all new outlets in such locations. In 1966 Zondervan purchased the Bible department from the larger Harper & Row publishing company, which brought to Zondervan a number of specialized Bible textbooks and Bibles, including the popular Harper Study Bible. That same year cofounder Bernie Zondervan died, but brother Pat continued to lead the company. Zondervan's publishing efforts included a somewhat broad range of material, not always books with a strictly conservative, religious bent. Titles such as The Act of Marriage by Tim and Beverly LaHaye from 1959 and Sexual Happiness in Marriage by Herbert Miles from 1967 were published alongside more typical fare such as biographies of missionaries, discussions of theological issues, Bible encyclopedias and concordances, and tracts on the evils of tobacco or communism. Zondervan also occasionally published religious titles with mass appeal, such as Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth from 1970, which eventually sold some 10 million copies.

In 1971, Zondervan made an investment in the financially ailing International Bible Society's translation of the New International Version of the Bible, a move that would later repay itself many times over. The New Testament of the New International Version was published in 1973, with Zondervan given exclusive rights in the United States. The entire Bible was ready in 1978, and it was a sensation, quickly rising on the best-seller lists to second place behind the King James Version. Zondervan was suddenly vaulted to the front ranks of religious publishing houses. The NIV, as it was known, was a scrupulous translation from the original languages into contemporary English, and it appealed to many Christians of different branches of the faith. Within a few years it had been adopted as the Bible of choice by a wide range of churches, from Baptists to Episcopalians. With the NIV also came the opportunity to create many derivative works such as concordances and study materials, all of which found a ready market.

Further Expansion in the Late 1970s and 1980s

Zondervan had gone public in 1976, issuing stock on the NASDAQ exchange. Following the success of the NIV Bible, the company began to acquire other businesses. In 1980 the John T. Benson company, a religious music publisher, was purchased, making Zondervan the second largest producer of religious recordings in the United States. In the early 1980s other acquisitions included religious publishers Chosen Books, Francis Asbury Press, and Fleming H. Revell Co., as well as Zondervan's first foreign subsidiary, Marshall Pickering Holdings Ltd., a United Kingdom-based religious publishing, printing, and music company. A specialty bindery, Tapley-Rutter Co., was also purchased at this time.

Zondervan's business, while based on the apparently steady and predictable religious book market, was actually more tenuous than appeared on the surface. In 1979 there had been difficulties related to the bookstore chain, resulting in unexpected losses. Though sales and profits had more than doubled within the next five years, with annual revenues in 1983 of $93 million, in 1984 it was discovered that the company's books had been incorrectly kept for several years running, with previously unreported losses of several million dollars. These were ultimately attributed to poor inventory control and unanticipated expenses such as unrecoverable publishing advances, but the company's chief financial officer was dismissed, and Zondervan was sanctioned by the Securities and Exchange Commission. A lawsuit from a disgruntled New Jersey investor followed, eventually being settled out of court in 1989 for $3.6 million.

Just before the discovery of its financial problems, Zondervan had chosen James Buick as Chief Executive Officer, replacing Pat Zondervan's successor Peter Kladder, who had been with the company since 1956. Buick, previously an executive at bowling and marine equipment company Brunswick Corp., immediately had his hands full, and things continued to get worse. Zondervan posted losses for the next several years following the bookkeeping debacle, and in 1986 a hostile takeover attempt was organized by British investor Christopher Moran. After some months of wheeling and dealing, including a visit from Moran to Pat Zondervan and an emergency prayer session held by employees, the company's board reached an agreement with its stockholders to seek a third-party buyer. Not long afterwards, Moran began quietly selling off his shares. The stock price, which had been driven up by the takeover attempt, plummeted when Moran's sell-off was discovered. Many investors were angry, and when the company was finally sold over a year later for $56.7 million to Harper & Row, other lawsuits were initiated on behalf of investors who felt the board had accepted an unfairly low price. During the course of the takeover attempt, Zondervan had also sold off its Revell and Chosen Books subsidiaries, and had closed a Grand Rapids-based printing operation.

Smoother Waters Follow Purchase by Harper & Row in 1988

Harper & Row (which soon merged with Collins Publishing, a British religious book company, to form HarperCollins) was owned by The News Corporation Ltd., a conglomerate headed by Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch's other interests included the Fox film and television studios, and several tabloid-style news publications. Zondervan employees and the company's chairman emeritus expressed concerns that the publisher's traditional religious, evangelic focus would be changed as part of a more aggressive pursuit of profits, much as they had also worried about Chris Moran's intentions several years earlier. Fortunately for Zondervan, there was no apparent downside to the change of ownership, as the company's editorial policy was not altered. In fact, there was an enhancement of Zondervan's ability to cross-market titles into the mainstream. Successful books such as the memoirs of Dave Dravecky (a baseball pitcher who had lost his pitching arm), Oliver North, Colin Powell, and Dan Quayle were co-marketed or co-published with HarperCollins, enabling them to reach a larger audience. In some cases, they were from authors that Zondervan might not have been able to attract on its own, but were brought in due to the association with the larger HarperCollins. By 1991 the company's estimated annual sales were $175 million, up from $106 million just four years earlier. The publishing division was issuing an average of 130 new titles a year, with 1,000 titles in the back list.

Though its business had been on a much more even keel since the sale to HarperCollins, Zondervan management still seemed to have its doubts about the relationship remaining amicable. In mid-1992, the company's management announced it was seeking investors to help it buy the company back from HarperCollins. At around this time the rival Word publishing company came up for sale. Zondervan soon began to court Word and put the buyout plans on hold, but after Word was sold to America's top religious publisher Thomas Nelson, the company announced that the buyout plan had been abandoned. Apparently satisfied that it could remain editorially independent, Zondervan now concentrated on streamlining operations and developing new products. Sales had slumped early in 1992, with layoffs in February, and in November the company sold its Benson Music subsidiary and left the music business completely. A more major change came almost a year later. In September 1993, the company split in two, with the publishing operations retaining the name of Zondervan Publishing House, and the Family Bookstores chain becoming a separate entity (though still owned by HarperCollins, and with its offices in the same building as Zondervan). CEO James Buick, who had directed the company for almost ten years and had been instrumental in the breakup, had reorganized himself out of a job, retiring and leaving the management of Zondervan to publishing division chief Bruce Ryskamp.

With sales of personal computers beginning to surge in the late 1980s, the company had created a software division, marketing computer-formatted Bibles and study aids. Other divisions had been founded to create video and audio products, and these operations were merged in early 1995 to form ZPH New Media. Products included BibleSource for Windows, macBible, several series of religious studies and children's videos, and audio versions of some of the company's books. The products were primarily distributed to Christian bookstores.

The Mid-1990s: Bible Sales Hit Peak, Then Stagnate

The NIV Bible, which had been Zondervan's crown jewel since 1978, had remained a consistent best-seller and in 1986 had eclipsed the King James Version as the top-selling Bible. The company continued to capitalize on its success, issuing many derivative works and variant versions. Increasingly, Bible sales were being targeted to specific niche groups. One method of repackaging the NIV was to create a "Devotional Bible," which added numerous prayers and commentaries directed toward a specific audience, such as mothers with young children or retirees. In late 1994, the Christian Booksellers Association's sales chart of best-selling Bibles, which had already for some years been topped by the NIV, saw Zondervan products holding down all 10 slots. It was estimated that 45 percent of all Bibles sold were NIVs. The company continued to seek new markets, purchasing in August 1995 Editorial Vida (known in the United States as Vida Publishers), a distributor of Bibles in French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Zondervan also announced a new version of the NIV called the New International Reader's Bible (or NIrV), which was written at a third grade reading level. The audience for this version was people with poor reading skills and new immigrants with a limited command of English. It was an instant success.

With so many different niche Bibles on the market (from Zondervan as well as its rivals), it was hardly surprising that Bible sales had begun to slump by 1996. Several newly published translations did poorly, and Zondervan's former chain of bookstores (now owned by its management following a 1995 buyout) reported shipping more than $200,000 worth of King James Bibles back to their publishers. Despite the industry-wide sales slowdown, Zondervan was only slightly affected, and unveiled plans for Devotional Bibles targeted at college students and African-Americans. Another Bible project embroiled the company in controversy, however.

In the years since it had been introduced, the NIV had been subject to occasional revisions, as new discoveries of ancient sources were made, or new Bible scholarship was published. In the spring of 1997 a committee of scholars was looking at making changes to a number of gender-specific terms in the translation, removing references to "man" and substituting gender-neutral language when a particular passage actually referred to all of humankind. This was not an especially radical move, as the committee was composed of respected, conservative scholars, and changes of this type had already been incorporated into several Bible translations including the recently published NIrV and the United Kingdom version of the NIV. However, a report in a Christian publication that implied the changes were being made as a sop to feminist radicals stirred up a great deal of anger among fundamentalists, and Zondervan decided to cancel the revision. The International Bible Society, which was responsible for the NIV and NIrV, also announced that it would revise the NIrV back to the older NIV language standards.

Despite this setback, Zondervan's business continued to do well, with the successful publication of The African-American Devotional Bible in the fall of 1997, and the scheduled rollout of The Collegiate Devotional Bible in mid-1998. The company was releasing 150 books, 80 gift products, 50 Bible products, and 50 new media products per year, with a total of 2,000 publications and other goods available. Zondervan had also, in 1995, renewed its contract with the International Bible Society to continue to publish the NIV through the year 2023, giving it almost certain continued dominance in that market. As the millennium approached, the future looked bright for the company's continued prosperity.

Principal Operating Units: Bibles, Books; New Media, Gifts; Vida Publishers.

Additional topics

Company HistoryFilm & Audio Production

This web site and associated pages are not associated with, endorsed by, or sponsored by Zondervan Publishing House and has no official or unofficial affiliation with Zondervan Publishing House.