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Changing Lives Is Multnomah’s Main Goal

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It’s mission, not money, that drives the Christian company Multnomah Publishers Inc., based in Sisters, Oregon. “Our competitive strategy is born out of what we think that we must do and is a reflection of who we are as people,” says Don Jacobson, president and publisher.

That means, adds Brian Flagler, vice president, that Multnomah emphasizes “life change as a measurement of our success. Multnomah has been blessed in that the Lord has used books we have published to influence millions of readers’ lives.”

Fulfillment of its mission has also led to monetary success. Multnomah produces more than 70 new titles a year, has more than 300 titles on its backlist, employs roughly 80 people, expects sales of more than $24 million for 2005, and reports that profits for the 2005 fiscal year ending in June are running 105 percent above forecast.

Flagler credits that increase in part to Multnomah’s ability to reduce returns–which are currently 43 percent below last year’s level for the same period–and partly to the simple fact that sales are up.

The company’s financial performance is even more remarkable because profits take a back seat to doing what it sees as right. Its books must have a Christian life-changing message, and its authors must be passionate about their topics, not just out to make a quick buck. Both executives and authors say Multnomah won’t publish a book just because it will be a big money-maker, and it gauges its impact by looking at the number and content of letters it receives from readers as well as by looking at sales figures

Fueling Sales of 40 Million Units

Since its inception in 1987, Multnomah has sold more than 40 million copies of its books. When the Christian Booksellers Association reported on the top 100 Christian backlist titles in 2003, Multnomah had 19 slots on the list, more than anybody else. It fields its own sales force, but up to 20 percent of its sales go through “key ministries, churches, and affinity groups,” says Kevin Marks, group publisher. Its Feeding the Fold division publishes titles specifically for churches and their congregations and sells them at discounts of 40 percent or more.

The company’s managers–who say they rely more on their own intuition than on the invisible hand of commerce to decide what books to publish, how to market them, and generally how to operate–hold a prayer meeting every morning. “We look to the Lord for guidance,” Flagler says.

But in keeping with its overarching principle of changing peoples’ lives for the better, the prayer meetings are not just dedicated to asking for guidance in running the business. “We pray for every individual in our company on a rolling basis,” Flagler says. “We have a list of everyone in the company, and we go through it four or five people a day.”

The company professes to have no firm or fast rules about how it should be run. However, Multnomah does have a list of core values that employees are supposed to embrace. As listed on the Multnomah Web site, they include many that other publishers–secular as well as religious–would embrace:

 

  • Integrity in all transactions and relationships.

 

      “How we do business is just as important as the business itself and the results we achieve,” the Web site says.

 

  • Incomparable service in all relationships.
  • Product excellence.
  • Enjoyable work environment.

 

    “Where employees may flourish in their personal lives. Where employees are empowered, fulfilled, respected, and valued.”

Unlike its major competition, Multnomah is privately held. It doesn’t have to answer to a secular parent company or shareholders. This gives it the freedom to practice what it preaches and also provides flexibility for tackling difficult subjects (such as homosexuality, in a title like Sense and Sensuality: Jesus Talks to Oscar Wilde on the Pursuit of Pleasure by Ravi Sacharias) and for looking “at fresh ideas, ideas that are outside of the box,” in the words of Robin Grossbier, book merchandiser for Berean Bookstores, a chain of Christian bookstores headquartered in Cincinnati.

Grossbier says Multnomah is much more willing to experiment than other publishers are, and that it often has a “personal” involvement with booksellers, as was the case with a promotion for Hope Rising by Kim Meeder, a title about a ranch for abused horses and the abused children who work with the horses. “They were very interested in sponsoring and working with us to have a competition” within the Berean chain, Grossbier reports. As a result, “in a period where we would have sold 60 copies, 2,500 were sold.”

Multnomah is also known for forging close relationships with its authors. “For example, we believe that life is too short to work with people you don’t enjoy, so we seek authors we feel a sense of shared mission and values with. It’s not uncommon for our people to have deep personal relationships with our authors,” publisher Don Jacobson says.

Author Shaunti Feldhahn can attest to that. Not only was Multnomah supportive when Feldhahn decided to move from nonfiction into fiction, but Jacobson flew to Atlanta, where Feldhahn lives, to attend a book party thrown by one of Feldhahn’s friends. “How many presidents of a publishing house will fly across the country to a party for one of their authors?” asks Feldhahn. “And it wasn’t like he was coming here anyway. He flew in to the party and flew out the next day.”

It’s also common for Multnomah to fly authors in to speak to its staff in Sisters so the authors can share their message with the publisher’s employees.

Trying a New Team Approach

According to Jacobson, the biggest challenges facing Multnomah today are increasing access to markets and responding to changes, including consolidation in the Christian book retail market, orders from mainstream booksellers for a wider selection of Christian books, and aspects of business with the big-box accounts.

To help handle current challenges and opportunities, the company recently reorganized, creating four Strategic Publishing Groups: Christian Living, Church Resources, Fiction, and Next Generation. “Perhaps the most distinctive feature of these groups is that the line between editorial and marketing has been erased,” Jacobson says. Teams “sit together and choose which books they are going to publish.”

“Quite a bit of vision is lost in the handoff” each time a book is passed from acquisitions to editorial and then from editorial to marketing and onto sales, Flagler explains. “By transitioning to a team approach we’ll have marketing, editorial, and others working together to develop a vision drawn with the author on where to take a book. It’s owning a book for life.”

Another way that Multnomah is unifying its departments is by bringing them all under one roof. Since 1997, its staff has been located in as many as four buildings. In April, the company moved into a new facility with 10 conference rooms to encourage collaboration. Four of those rooms are equipped with overhead projectors and wi-fi so staff can display presentation and multimedia content from their laptops. Bringing everyone “back together under one roof has already greatly improved communication across the company,” Flagler says.

Flagler also credits employees for helping make Multnomah successful. It advertises locally, nationally, and on its Web site for employees and finds many people through personal contacts in the industry. Each potential employee, no matter what position the applicant is suitable for, meets with publisher Don Jacobson for an interview.

First Things First

Working at Multnomah is a refreshing change for Flagler, a lawyer who used to work at a secular Fortune 500 company that produced “cups of coffee” as its product. “Clients would often ask their attorney to take a certain position that might be, as we shall say, ‘gray’ from an ethical perspective,” he recalls. “That doesn’t happen here. It’s refreshing to be honest with the parties we are working with and look for a win/win situation.”

Publisher Don Jacobson sums it up: “When we see our books selling beyond forecast we get excited. Why? Because we know that life change is happening and our revenue goals are being surpassed–and this is in the right order. We read letters from readers at company gatherings. They always remind us of why we’re here.”

Jenny C. McCune reports regularly on publishing and publishers for the PMA Independent. A business writer based in Bozeman, MT, she began her career in book publishing. She can be contacted at jennymccune@imt.net.

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