SPCK and IVP unite: Does evangelical publishing have a future?

Publisher SPCK has taken over IVP.Reuters

Two giants from opposite ends of the Christian publishing spectrum announced a merger last week. SPCK, one of the oldest publishing houses in Britain and doctrinally relaxed, has taken over the fiercely conservative evangelical Inter Varsity Press (IVP). But will it prove a marriage made in heaven, or are there inherent contradictions in the union of such diverse operations?

Christian booksellers, like the rest of the trade, have had to cope with huge pressures in recent years because of the onslaught of the internet with its oceans of free text. Some haven't managed it: WesleyOwen bookshops disappeared from the high street in a drawn out retreat following the failure of STL-UK, its parent company, while SPCK went through its own moment of crisis: its bookshops were taken over by the American-owned St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust in 2006 in what proved to be an ill-fated and short-lived venture.

SPCK's publishing arm survived, however, and is reasonably prosperous. Its heavy hitter is Tom Wright, whose commentaries and learned academic works are deservedly popular, but it is prepared to take theological risks in what it publishes, making its appeal quite broad. It publishes fiction, liturgical studies and resources, books on healing, church history, ministry, prayer and theology.

IVP's range – and its theology – is more limited. Originally the publishing arm of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF), IVP became independent in 2005. Its imprints include Apollos, Crossway and Tyndale, and its well-known authors include Alec Motyer, Michael Green, JI Packer and, notably, John Stott.

During the last few years, however, IVP has struggled and this summer it became known that it was facing financial difficulties. The two organisations announced that it would "come under the management" of SPCK and that SPCK had "agreed with the current IVP trustees on a comprehensive plan to refinance IVP". 

According to IVP chair David Vardy, "IVP is no longer viable as a stand-alone entity and is pleased to be able to utilise SPCK's financial strength, state-of-the-art technology and best-of-breed infrastructure to benefit our customers, authors and the Christian community at large."

Chair of SPCK Bishop John Pritchard said: "While SPCK is committed to promoting the Christian faith in all its rich diversity, in looking at our position in the marketplace it became clear to us that we had an IVP shaped hole in our attempts to do so. IVP's evangelical focus, which we are fully committed to retaining, is a good fit with our existing broad SPCK list.

"Both the SPCK and IVP imprints will retain their separate identities, and will continue their good work as charities committed to the production of quality Christian literature."

The merger does, however, raise questions about the long-term viability of IVP even as an imprint of a larger organisation – and it is quite suggestive as a canary in the coal-mine of the modern evangelical scene.

Interviewed by Phil Groom for his Christian Bookshops blog, SPCK's CEO Sam Richardson admitted that it was an "unlikely partnership". Challenged over whether it was possible for IVP to retain its evangelical distinctiveness without authors simply walking away rather than cooperate with the broader SPCK, he said that there were "contractually enshrined" systems in place to allow both to remain true to their roots. IVP's publishing director and commissioning editors will sign the doctrinal basis and there is a separate IVP publishing board which has a complete power of veto over any IVP title – "so in other words, the same people who have been responsible for safeguarding IVP's theology until now will remain responsible for it going forward". These safeguards, he said, were "permanent arrangements" which would be "around longer than you or I". He also said that there would be a continued IVP-badge presence at Word Alive and at Keswick, two events defined by their conservative evangelical stance.

These are serious commitments which there is absolutely no reason to believe aren't sincerely meant. However, while IVP may have dodged a commercial bullet in securing its continued existence, even as part of a larger organisation in a relationship which may not in fact always be very comfortable, it is still left with some questions to answer.

One of these is what has led it to this step in the first place. It produces material for conservative evangelicals, and if it is not selling enough books to this market it might be because the market itself is shrinking. If fewer Christians identify themselves with this particular brand, there are fewer people to buy its books. A publisher's theological stance acts as a sort of kitemark to readers who want to be assured that what they're buying is 'safe'. But with the fragmentation of evangelicalism, this has arguably become less important.

On the other hand, another problem, alluded to by Richardson in his interview with Phil Groom, is the tribal nature of conservative evangelicalism. Some of those readers and writers for whom a particular kind of theological correctness is important might see IVP as being fatally compromised by its new association.

Another bump in the road ahead may be a result of its own success. It has published Bible commentaries on every book of the Bible at both popular and scholarly levels and these have made a significant contribution to its bottom line. But how many commentaries does the average conservative evangelical actually need? It may be that most of the people who were going to buy its commentaries have already done so.

Yet another is the loss of one of its big gun authors, John Stott, who died in 2011. A revered Christian scholar and theologian, Stott's books were guaranteed big sales. While it has several highly respected authors on its books, Stott stood alone.

Judging by the press release and by Sam Richardson's remarks, there is plenty of good will on SPCK's side and a determination to make the partnership work. However, it is the relative weakness of IVP that has driven it to this point, and the financial savings from sharing back-office functions will not suddenly turn it back into a publishing power-house.

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