Niches Within Niches: Judson Press Serves Segments of the Christian Market
by Linda Carlson
Selling to a niche market has many advantages, Kim Shimer says, and this marketing director ought to know what she’s talking about, because she works for the oldest publishing company in IBPA, and probably the oldest U.S. publisher.
Now entering its 185th year, Judson Press is a Baptist publishing house that got its start in 1824 as the Baptist General Tract Society. Today it has a backlist of 350 titles and its materials cover three dozen topics, ranging from aging and Baptist history to music and drama, family life and marriage, grief, evangelism, and worship. Judson’s primary market comprises the clergy and lay members of the American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA), which Shimer describes as diverse professionally, geographically, racially, and theologically.
In fact, she says, “we sell to niches within the Christian niche. We have the practical church resources niche, the Baptist niche, the African-American niche, and more recently we’ve ventured into the Hispanic/Spanish-language niche.”
Judson Press also issues materials for ministry to Asian Americans, and for those working in multicultural and multiracial congregations. Judson even focuses on congregations where some members are descendants of immigrants from tropical countries and other members are descended from immigrants from northern regions, with books such as Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures.
Filling a Need for African Americans
Overall, Shimer reports, Judson’s greatest success has been in the African-American Christian market. “We started publishing for this audience in the early 1970s under the leadership of Milt Owens, then director of special projects at Judson, who responded to the needs of the growing number of African-American churches within the ABCUSA,” she explains. “He guided our efforts for more than a decade, even after he no longer worked for Judson Press, continuing to recommend authors to the Press and to promote its books within his denominational and ecumenical networks.”
Laura Alden, now Judson publisher, adds: “Dr. Owens contacted me regularly with advice and encouragement when I was managing editor in the 1980s, and he encouraged his friends and colleagues to support us—to submit manuscripts, to buy our books. He was on a mission: he saw a huge need for ministry resources for the African-American church written by African Americans that no one was filling.”
In the past 10 to 15 years, Judson Press has received widespread recognition for its expertise in this market. One example: Publishers Weekly said it “has long been the publishing authority on the lived experience of African American Christianity.”
Within that category, Judson has been “blessed,” to use Shimer’s word, to be Gardner C. Taylor’s publisher. Newsweek has called Dr. Taylor, now 90, “one of the twelve greatest preachers in the English-speaking world,” and Time described him as “the dean of the nation’s black preachers.” He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000.
Judson Press has sold more than 45,000 copies of Dr. Taylor’s sermons as well as audio CDs, and a preaching library on CD-ROM. It is currently working on two new collections of his sermons. They’re popular in the African-American church market, especially with pastors and preachers, who are reached via direct mail and black denominational events, particularly those where Taylor speaks. Other target markets are seminaries and the readers of such publications as Gospel Today, Precious Times, and The African-American Pulpit.
Not that serving the African-American church market has been without challenges, especially in a presidential election year with an unprecedented focus on race.
Backlash re Rev. Wright
In the 1990s, Judson had published two books of sermons by Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, who attracted national attention early in the presidential campaign as Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s former pastor. Judson decided to promote these books as a means of providing more information about Wright and Africentric Christianity in general. Book orders from Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com increased, and so did media requests for review copies. But there was a backlash when ABC News reported that Wright had preached racially and politically charged sermons.
“Several customers and American Baptist pastors demanded we denounce Wright and stop selling his books,” Shimer says, “and one bookstore refused to order one of our new books because Wright had written the foreword for it.”
Deciding that it would be prudent not to provoke any more comment, publisher Alden replied only to those customers and pastors who asked for responses. “There was no way to have a debate on this at the individual level,” Shimer points out, adding, “What has happened is that National Ministries (of which we are a part) has been focusing on issues of race and reconciliation in the church as a means of getting at the bigger issues behind the reaction to Wright. In fact, we just started distributing Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism, which was produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics.”
One Million Copies and Counting
Another niche market where Judson has marketed successfully for decades comprises traditional Baptists, with about 75 percent of the sales to clergy and church administrators, who buy guides and manuals.
“We publish classics by Robert Torbett and William Brackney, and more recently, Bill Leonard’s Baptist Ways, the new standard in Baptist history,” Shimer goes on, noting that there is one book that every new Judson author hopes to outsell.
“Probably no one will ever outsell our very best seller of all time, The Star Book for Ministers,” Shimer says. “The oldest copy we have was published in 1896, and we know the book has sold nearly 1 million copies. Every year it sells more copies than any other book on our list—in 2006, it outsold its closest competitor by 6,000-plus copies. In 2007 it was the top seller by a margin of 5,000-plus. And by September of this year, we knew that it would outsell other 2008 titles by at least 4,000 copies. This 4-by-6-inch black hardcover is simply a classic—the one book every pastor seems to have in his or her library for traditional wedding and funeral services.”
Winners About Sports
That doesn’t mean Judson has stopped seeking new niches and new potential bestsellers. The Press’s newest territory: sports devotionals.
In 2006 the company published Steal Away: Devotions for Baseball Fans by Hugh Poland, with a foreword by New York Yankee Mariano Rivera. By year’s end, the book is likely to have sold 15,000 copies. Another Poland book, The Master Carpenter: Devotions for Woodworkers, was released last spring and sold 1,500 copies in its first six months. Next March Judson will publish Poland’s second volume of baseball devotions.
In the same niche, some 10,000 copies of a devotional for NASCAR fans will have been sold by year end, Shimer reports. Written by Dale Beaver, formerly a chaplain for the Sprint Cup series, Before the Thunder Rolls has three marketing advantages: Beaver was able to get forewords from Ryan Newman, who won the 2008 Daytona 500, and Jimmie Johnson, 2007’s Nextel Cup champ. And the book is part of the NASCAR Library Collection, which allows Judson to use NASCAR’s logo on the cover. “Based on Beaver’s merits as a trusted insider, we were the first religious title to receive official licensing from NASCAR,” the marketing director points out.
The publicity for Beaver has been Judson’s best ever, says Shimer. He has appeared on NASCAR Live on the Speed Channel, which has international viewership, as well as on several Sirius radio and television interviews, Fox News, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ radio station. Key to sales have been Beaver’s appearances at races and such events as Speed Week, often with Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman.
This is the level of exposure that Judson now seeks, given its modest advertising budget and the increasing cost of ads.
“I’ve focused my marketing efforts on the same specialized publications in which we used to advertise: I seek interviews of the authors and feature articles about them, try hard to get the magazines/journals to review the book and have the authors submit articles related to their books. It’s free and it’s more effective,” Shimer declares. “If authors can lead a workshop or be featured as a speaker, we can definitely sell more books.”
Besides Beaver, authors who have benefited from Shimer’s guidance include James Perkins, author of Playbook for Christian Manhood, who has been interviewed on PBS, Black Authors Network Internet Radio, and The Harvest Show, as well as on local Detroit Public Radio and a local Philadelphia station. In addition, he’s kept himself visible in his niche by speaking at conferences, conducting workshops at bookstores, doing book signings, preaching at several churches, and speaking at an International Christian Retail Show event for African-American booksellers. Other authors have done what Shimer calls “a great job all on their own,” arranging radio and television interviews and placing magazine articles about their book topics.
Shimer’s conclusion: “Because media today is really geared to niches, it’s easier to sell a niche product.”
Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independent from Seattle, where her own most recent book, a company town history, also requires marketing to niches.
A Buyer You May Not Know
NASCAR (NASCAR.com) has a Library Collection it describes as providing “a level of authentication and quality to NASCAR-licensed books. Representing a range of books as diverse and varied as the NASCAR fan base, the NASCAR Library Collection captures the NASCAR lifestyle from all angles.
“The NASCAR Library Collection includes books in a number of categories, including drivers and personalities, cookbooks, history, children, fiction and romance, and statistics, facts and reference.”