Christian publisher SPCK is harnessing the power of apps, data and old-fashioned fiction in an attempt to further boost its sales and secure its future.
With a history dating back to 1698, SPCK is one of the oldest publishers and c.e.o. Sam Richardson, who once ran 1,698 miles to raise money for the registered charity, sees its focus as having changed throughout that long history, from missionary work in the 18th century, schooling in the 19th, and bookshops in the 20th. “The 21st century is very much about publishing and we’re still working on what that looks like,” he said.
Starting in the trade through the HarperCollins graduate scheme, Richardson dipped in and out of religious publishing before heading to Hodder and, eventually, bagging the top job at SPCK five years ago. It was a period when the religious publisher was just coming out of a long- running legal dispute over the handover of its bookshops to St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust. He explained: “The trust at SPCK had gone through a very difficult time, what with the bookshops closing down, and the trustees were quite keen to send a message of change. I guess having someone who looked relatively fresh- faced—though I’m not sure I still do—was one of the things they wanted, along with [someone with] experience of working with the bigger publishers who would be able to bring some of those ideas about how they do things.”
Richardson said the bookshop saga meant “confidence was quite low” when he arrived.
“It was a real opportunity to say, OK, that era’s behind us, we’re now very much in a publishing era in the 21st century, what does that need to look like? The response of the team in rising to that challenge has been a real encouragement, and has proven what I saw when I came in, which was that we had some really strong people in the organisation who understood the market really well.”
What followed has been healthy growth, with TCM sales up from £1.14m in 2014 to £1.55m last year. Under Richardson, the company merged with troubled evangelical publisher Inter-Varsity Press (IVP) in 2015, made strides into the digital market, sold its Sheldon Press health imprint to Hodder and launched Christian fiction arm Marylebone House. But the era of SPCK running bookshops is over. “The trustees would punch me if I came back and suggested bookshops, although one should never say never,” he joked. “But I think we’re very much focused on the publishing. That’s where our strength is. There are other people who are doing a very good job with Christian bookshops in a pretty tough environment.”
Apps have been a particularly bright spot for SPCK. An audio Bible programme has been used 100,000 times, while “Thy Kingdom Come”, a prayer programme for the 10-day run-up to Pentecost, has been picked up around the world and was downloaded 5,000 times on its release day. A partnership with the Clergy Supporter Trust, to provide an app for anyone training to be ordained, has also had 1,500 users.
Richardson said: “The percentage of digital is still increasing. The uptake of e-books in the Christian market was a lot slower than in the general market, so we are still seeing that tick up. The licensing income from digital sources is continuing to grow really strongly and apps are now a strong six-figure income line as well. We haven’t yet passed the point where half our income is digital but I think we’re heading in that direction, and direct sales through our own website is an increasingly important income line as well.”
With a website for home groups [small gatherings of people who meet to study or pray] launching later this year, the digital focus fits into a strategy of helping grow the church in the UK—something SPCK also needs to survive. “Older Christians are very worried that Biblical literacy among younger Christians is weaker, but there are also some pretty scary statistics in terms of the number of younger people who are attending church, full stop,” he said. “So we’re looking to do books which will help people to share their faith as well as strengthen their own faith, and we are looking to see what we can do to support the church in its own thinking.”
Following January’s sale of Sheldon Press, Richardson said the company was now “in an acquisitive phase rather than in a selling phase”. He said: “We feel we have quite a broad coverage of a lot of the Christian market, but any businesses that came up with really good consumer data we would definitely be interested in. It wouldn’t necessarily be another publisher that we might be interested in working with next; it might be someone who can do more to accelerate our drive into the digital space.”
With its long history, the backlist also provides a rich seam of revenue, contributing around 80%–85% of IVP’s sales and 60%–65% of SPCK’s. Here, too, digital innovation is paying dividends. A recent free online video course based on IVP title God’s Big Picture had the effect of doubling the title’s sales. Meanwhile, SPCK can also rely on big-name Christian authors such as Paul: A Biography writer Tom Wright, Richard Rohr and Rowan Williams.
Glimmer of light
Through Marylebone House, the publisher now also puts out six fiction titles a year, with a subtler approach than the Christian publishers in the US where, as Richardson put it, “lots of Amish people fall in love with each other in a very wholesome way”. New title The Light Keeper by Cole Moreton has been endorsed by writers including Matt Haig and Jeffrey Archer. The imprint is also a way of trying to get SPCK titles on to fiction shelves of bookshops, rather than being banished to the Christian section.
There are still challenges ahead, with Richardson wanting to trim SPCK’s 120 titles a year down to 80 or 90. But three consecutive IPG awards for Specialist Consumer Publisher of the Year, and a nomination at the Nibbies in 2018, shows the company is competing outside the Christian market. Richardson said: “We don’t really see Christian publishers as our competition. We feel we have a shared goal with them. What we want to do is take Christian ideas into the general marketplace. So being recognised as doing that really well is helpful. Also, as a charity you can’t go around making stonking profits every year, so you have to think about how else you measure success.”