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Bethany House Publications: Q & A with Steve Oates, VP of Marketing

Katherine Ryder Published: January 1, 2011 9:20 AM

Q: Tell me a little about the business history. How did the publishing house get started? Main branch is located in Grand Rapids, is that correct? How did you come to your position and where are you located in Minnesota?

A: Founded in 1956, Bethany House was established as a publishing ministry of Bethany Fellowship International, a missions training and sending organization in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with a focus on mission and deeper-life books.

The company's first million-copy seller was "The Christian Family" in the mid-1970s.

But in 1979 Bethany House changed the course of Christian publishing with the release of Janette Oke's "Love Comes Softly."

One of the first entries in the modern era of Christian fiction, this simple tale led to sales of more than 30 million books from Janette Oke and opened the way for Christian fiction to become one of the fastest-growing and influential book categories over the next three decades.

In 2003 Bethany House was purchased by Baker Publishing Group, based in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Baker has established itself as one of the top four publishing houses in the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA).

BPG is comprised of six divisions including Bethany House, Revell, Baker Books, Baker Academic, Chosen Books, and Brazos Press.

Together, these six divisions cover the entire spectrum of Christian publishing, from academic to inspirational.

I came to my current position at Bethany House through Christian bookselling and distribution.

Out of college I took a position doing buying and inventory control for the Moody Bookstores chain, and eventually moved on to Spring Arbor, the largest distributor of Christian books.

From there I went to Riverside, another large distributor of Bibles and Christian books, and then on to Bethany House to do key account sales, and then over time took on managing marketing.

Q: What types of books (Christian and Amish) does Bethany House mainly focus on? Why that particular focus? What other types of books does the house publish?

A: Bethany House has a focus on fiction, and in particular historical fiction.

However, until recently, over half the books we published were not fiction, but practical Christian living books on prayer, devotions, theology, ministry, parenting, and so on.

Our historical fiction focus comes from our background.

The modern era of Christian fiction came about with the publishing of Janette Oke in 1979 with her first novel "Love Comes Softly."

Out of that success we published Bodie Thoene, Gilbert Morris, and later Michael Phillips and Judith Pella.

Most of the bestsellers from that early era were in the historical category.

Later Frank Peretti brought us allegorical contemporary fiction and from there the many publishers have brought out new titles in all genres.

Since we were the first publisher with a real focus on historical fiction, we have continued in that category with the most titles and authors reaching that reader.

Q: Explain to me a little bit about your specific day-to-day operations. Or more typically the steps in getting a book published.

A: For us, the publishing process begins when an acquisitions editor finds a manuscript they wish to publish.

They might find this author at a writer's conference, or from an agent, or from another of our successful authors recommending a writer to us.

We used to go through manuscripts sent in to us, but after awhile there were too many and it was taking up too much time to read them for how many good ones we were finding.

They will then call together a meeting where marketing, sales, and the publisher will all join together to review and make a forecast for how many copies of that book we think we can sell.

If the whole package looks like it will work out financially and fits with our publishing program, we will contract the book and begin the publishing process.

From there marketing gets the book in a catalog, we create a cover, the editors work with the author to shape and edit the manuscript, and we meet with the sales teams to tell them about the new book coming.

As we approach the release date we will send out manuscripts to reviewers, prepare for publicity and advertising, and the book will be typeset and printed.

Once the book is out we will work with the author on interviews, social media, web presence, and advertising.

Q: What has been the company's biggest success over the years?

A: Our biggest success has been publishing Janette Oke, we have sold over 25 million copies of her books.

Q: What are some current goals that you may have (or Bethany House as a whole) for the coming year? Long-term goals?

A: Overall we want to maintain our position as the leading publisher of Christian fiction.

It is important for us to be seen as the leader in this category.

We are working hard not just to do the historical fiction that we are known for, but also to have a strong presence in other categories, like romantic suspense, contemporary romance, and Amish fiction.

In marketing, we are working to develop social media tools to connect readers to their favorite authors.

Q: How do you think Christian- and Amish-related material is received? Most popular demographic for these novels?

A: Christian books have long suffered from a bias on the part of secular bookstores, which has led to the rise of the Christian bookstore.

We find that there are many Christians who want to read our books but simply are not aware that they exist, or they have trouble finding much selection.

The online stores and eBooks are leveling the playing field and we are doing very well in these venues.

The core reader for Christian fiction is a woman in her 40's or 50's, usually married and with children.

We think that the tremendous popularity of Amish fiction is due to the longing these women have for a more family-centered home.

In that way the Amish stories are aspirational for them, it is family life and community life in a way that is appealing to them.

Bethany House Publications is located in Grand Rapids, Mich. (PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516). For more information visit www.bethanyhouse.com or call 1-800-877-2665.

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