Pioneer Printers: The first press as it stood in the Review office in Battle Creek, Michigan, with the same men who, when young, worked in the office at Rochester, New York. From left: George W. Amadon, Lewis O. Stowell, J. Warren Bacheller, Uriah Smith. The photo was taken in the 1890s.


Stephen Chavez

Coordinating Editor, Adventist Review

​Whither Publishing?

Printing responds to changing demographics.

One of the signs of the end surely has to be the closing of the Review and Herald Publishing House plant in Hagerstown, Maryland. Very few people saw that coming.

But if you have any interest in reading—whether books, magazines, or newspapers—you’ve been aware of a seismic shift in the way people receive their information. And this change is one of the factors that likely contributed to the end of printing activities at the Review and Herald.1

And the Review and Herald isn’t the only casualty of the changing face of publishing. In early October the Nazarene Communication Network announced the closing of the Nazarene Publishing House in Kansas City, Missouri, after 102 years of operation. Other publishers, both religious and secular, are feeling the pinch.

Rest assured that the shuttering of the Review and Herald plant in Hagerstown does not mean the demise of Adventist Review. The Review and its sister publication, Adventist World, along with many other Adventist periodicals, will continue to be printed at Pacific Press in Nampa, Idaho. But these two periodicals, and many throughout the industry—both religious and secular—face huge, almost insurmountable challenges as they look toward the future.

That Was Then

When those who were founding what became known as the Seventh-day Adventist Church imagined communicating a global message to as many as possible as quickly as possible, the only logical technology was printing. In one of her earliest visions Ellen White wrote: “At a meeting held in Dorchester, Massachusetts, November, 1848, I had been given a view of the proclamation of the sealing message, and of the duty of the brethren to publish the light that was shining upon our pathway.

“After coming out of vision, I said to my husband: ‘I have a message for you. You must begin to print a little paper and send it out to the people. Let it be small at first; but as the people read, they will send you means with which to print, and it will be a success from the first. From this small beginning it was shown to me to be like streams of light that went clear round the world.’ ”2

Ellen’s husband, James, was a visionary who saw the potential of the printed word. One of the movement’s first capital investments was in a printing press. Fourteen years before the incorporation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, James White’s Present Truth was reaching hearts and homes sympathetic to the Advent message.

Within a few years of its incorporation the Review and Herald was doing business worth hundreds of thousands of (nineteenth century) dollars. Imagine: In an age of oil lamps and limited entertainment, reading material—any reading material—was extremely valuable. The printing press had been around for centuries, and in spite of a relatively low literacy rate among the general population, it was still the most effective way of reaching the masses.

At nearly the same time the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald was beginning publication, Adventists began publishing the Youth’s Instructor, a tacit admission that reader interest varied with age and subject matter. Soon Adventists were publishing periodicals designed for nonbelievers. And many of us can remember when our homes were filled with Adventist periodicals for every age demographic.

We can also remember when a host of other magazines vied for our attention at newsstands: Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated, Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic, Reader’s Digest, etc. Chances are, we subscribed to one or more of these magazines. The 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were probably the heyday of magazine and newspaper publishing. That’s because radio and television were not as available as they are today, and they weren’t portable. If you wanted to watch TV or listen to the radio, you sat in the room where that appliance was located; anywhere else in the house or yard, you read.

This Is Now

Then came personal computers and the Internet. American business magnate, investor, and philanthropist Warren Buffett wrote, “Simply put, if cable or satellite broadcasting, as well as the Internet, had come along first, newspapers as we know them probably would never have existed.”3

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine life without information at our fingertips. Everything is so accessible, so convenient, so portable. Sure, books and magazines are portable, but today’s portable devices can hold thousands of pages of books and magazine articles, plus access the Internet and stream music and video.

Nothing has so revolutionized communication as its becoming digitized, leaving purveyors of traditional forms of communication—radio, television, and the printed page—scrambling to keep up. For many, that means establishing a “Web presence.” Posting content on the Internet is a relatively simple, inexpensive way to communicate with the public. The challenge is turning a profit.

With so much free content available, consumers are often reluctant to pay for a subscription or service. Why should they? There are so many writers vying for their attention, and so little time to absorb it all.

Juan Prestol, undertreasurer of the General Conference, observed: “Take the Bible commentaries, the entire printing of Ellen White, the whole shebang. Who’s buying Ellen White books when you can actually have it all on one CD; when you can have the Bible commentary, together with 30 or 40 versions of the Bible with Bible concordance and Bible dictionary, as a standard resource for any electronic library?”4

All this is changing the way book and magazine publishers are doing business. With subscriber circulation falling almost 2 percent last year (single-copy sales almost 12 percent), some magazine publishers are throwing in the towel and producing content that is “online only.” Digital content is growing, but is still less than 4 percent of total circulation. Some publishers charge for the content they provide; others rely on ad revenue. Very few have discovered how to monetize content to the level of previous generations’ print-only publications.

Book publishing is just as dynamic and just as unpredictable. Evan Ratliff, a cofounder of Atavist, a digital publishing software company, predicted, “Things are moving so quickly in the area in which our outfit operates—the intersection of technology and publishing—that it’s generally a fool’s errand to make trend predictions. Either they are so obvious as to already be happening, or revolutionary enough that almost no one will see them coming.”5

Dan Jackson, president of the North American Division and chair of the Pacific Press Publishing Association, remembers when he was growing up that he and his family bought books during the summertime, when they went to camp meeting. “The other day someone told me that Dwight Nelson is reading such and such a book, and it’s a great book,” he said. “So I went on my iPad and bought it in a minute. It was in front of me in a minute.”6

“I just had a book offered to me last week,” said Prestol. “The paper version of it is almost $20. The electronic version is $5 or $7. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where people are going to go.”

To meet the need for more digital content, Pacific Press has developed, a site with more than 1,300 titles by Adventist authors, and more being added.

Looking Ahead

We Adventists may be guilty of operating under some faulty assumptions when it comes to publishing. The first is that we have a captive audience—that Adventists will line up to buy Adventist books and periodicals because they are Adventist books and periodicals. “Unfortunately,” says Jackson, “those we thought were a captive audience were not as captive as we thought.” Adventists are just as likely to buy books by such Christian authors as Max Lucado, Rick Warren, Philip Yancey, and Lee Strobel.

Another faulty assumption is that we believe we have a message that is life-changing—indeed, essential—for the salvation of the world. That much is true. But some have taken that to mean that a ministry has a sacred duty to operate on a shoestring budget, or even at a loss, to produce as much literature as possible, as cheaply as possible, to reach as many homes as possible.

The problem is that the profit margin in today’s print publishing industry is already razor-thin. Most publishing firms make a profit by running three shifts a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. And many of those are located in countries in which labor costs are a fraction of what they are in North America.

But, some would say, it’s a ministry, not a business. True enough. But a ministry that can’t support itself financially is a charity, not a ministry. Books, magazines, and periodicals come at a price: paper, ink, salaries, utilities, and costs for postage and transportation are part of the cost of doing ministry. When you can’t cover your expenses, you stop having an effective ministry.

The future of Adventist publishing has less to do with platform than it does with content.

“We’ve poured money into businesses that should have been allowed to die,” says Jackson. “We should have celebrated them, let them go to their rest, and redesigned the future.”

Then there’s changing reading habits: Gone are the days of general-interest magazines and periodicals. Magazines are becoming more specialized and reaching narrower audiences. Where a generation ago Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report vied for subscribers by offering detailed news and analysis of national and international news, medicine, religion, the arts, science, sports, and entertainment, today’s reading population is becoming more segmented. Of those three magazines, only Newsweek and Time continue to offer print editions.

If you really care about sports, you don’t read Time, you read Sports Illustrated or ESPN the Magazine. If you care about entertainers and entertainment, you read People or Rolling Stone. Even publishing titans such as Time, Inc., which publishes Time, Sports Illustrated, InStyle, and Health, among dozens of other titles, are seeing a general, gradual decline in print circulation.

What of the Future?

While the circulation of print publications faces an inexorable decline, books, newspapers, and magazines are increasingly moving to a digital format. It’s not just a matter of survival; it’s where today’s readers are. News junkies can read the New York Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and USA Today without even leaving their kitchen.

A Google search can lead to a dozen articles (on the first page) from several news and information sources about practically any topic. Digital is clearly the platform of the future.

Another trend is cross-platform communication. Rarely do we hear radio or TV news reports without hearing the words: “For more information [photos, resources, etc.], visit our Web site:” And almost every knowledgeable media source has a Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, or Pinterest account connected to it.

The purpose is not just to collect “friends,” “likes,” or “followers”; those who are truly effective in data mining—think Amazon, Netflix, or Facebook—are out to find out as much as possible about those who visit their sites. Where do they live? What do they search for? What do they buy? How much are they willing to spend?

While the Christian church has been in the communication business for nearly 2,000 years, it doesn’t begin to match the sophistication with which publishing in general goes after its customers. We can’t be satisfied with just “putting something on the Internet.” A Google search of “Seventh-day Adventist Church” yields 6.5 million entries (in less than a second). But not all the entries are supported by the church. A recent Google search of “Seventh-day Adventist Church” turned up a link to on the first page.

The future of Adventist publishing has less to do with platform than it does with content. Ray Tetz, communication consultant with Mind Over Media, suggests that along with other publishers and producers, Adventist media in the past were typically governed by those who owned them. Since the church sponsored publishing and media ministries, editors and ministry leaders, along with people on their governing boards, decided what the content was going to be. In many cases those decisions were basically educated guesses, sometimes supported by focus groups and audience research, but often not.7 The question was not What are people looking for? It was What do we want them to read?

The paradigm for the twenty-first century revolves around consumers: what kind of content attracts their attention? For this model, it doesn’t matter what the platform is—people will gravitate toward material that speaks to them. It might be a book, a magazine article, a Web page, a blog, a Facebook page, or a tweet. A Google search might turn up a Web page dedicated to Sabbathkeeping, but it might or might not be sponsored by an Adventist ministry.

An Amazon search for a book about prophecy may or may not yield an Adventist book on the subject; the same with health, families, Bible studies. In that case, it’s useless to have a warehouse full of books about prophecy when nobody’s asking for them, or if they want them digitally rather than in ink on paper.

“In the next three to five years we are going to go through a redefinition of our publishing work,” says Prestol. “It’s going to be a time of trial and error. We’re going to be seeing a lot of introspection and a lot of conversations. If we’re going to revive [Adventist publishing], it’s going to take good thinking, logical minds coming to assist.

“But if we think we can continue to produce materials that just appeal to ourselves, I don’t think we’re going to make it.”

According to Dale Galusha, president of Pacific Press Publishing Association, Adventist publishing “serves to unite the church, make it stronger, and equip it to be the witness to the world that God has called it to be.

“Times change, cultures evolve, and technology grows. . . . [Adventist] publishing will advance the mission of the church by making the message available in many forms and formats,” he said.8

“I believe we have a five-year window,” says Jackson. “I have to be honest: We have to engage our young minds in doing this, because they are the ones who will engage the future.”

Members as Publishers

What makes publishing Adventist? Does it have to come from an Adventist publishing house? Does a blog about the blessing of the Sabbath by an Adventist pastor or lay member qualify? Seventh-day Adventists have received a fair amount of positive, unsolicited publicity in the form of books and magazine articles (The Blue Zones, National Geographic) and documentary films (The Adventists, The Adventists 2, The Blueprint: The Story of Adventist Education). Is anybody blogging about them? What is being shared on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube?

What are we doing to share our passion about healthy families, the Sabbath, financial and emotional security? We should be part of the larger conversation. And today’s media platforms make that more possible than ever before. Every believer who tells of being loved and saved by God’s amazing grace is a content provider.

We don’t have to wait for the New York Times or the Washington Post to write an article about Seventh-day Adventists. We can use an article that appears in the Post as a launching pad to write an essay about health, morality, equality, even grace and forgiveness, for the Huffington Post or Adventist Review Online. The more we write (well), the more we will be noticed. Social media platforms make formal publishing less important, since each of us can share our faith with friends and friends of friends on any number of digital media platforms.

Will we stand out among the millions of books, Web pages, blogs, posts, and tweets? Maybe not; but at least we’ll be part of the conversation. And when we write something credible that is forwarded or retweeted, we force readers to reexamine their perceptions, and some prejudices, about Seventh-day Adventists.

Reading is not going away. Indeed, there is more to read now, from many more voices, than ever before. When, in 1848, Ellen White urged her husband, James, to “print a little paper and send it out to the people,” printing was practically the only mass-media game in town. What would she say today?

  1. Because the Review and Herald Publishing Association predates the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Review and Herald name will live on as a General Conference institution, and will be involved in the publication of magazines and periodicals already in production. Pacific Press Publishing Association will do most of the actual printing.
  2. Ellen G. White, Life Sketches of Ellen G. White (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1915), p. 125.
  3. John Morton, “Buffeted: Newspapers Are Paying the Price for Shortsighted Thinking,” American Journalism Review, October-November 2007.
  4. Interview, Oct. 20, 2014.
  5. Accessed Aug. 4, 2014.
  6. Interview, Oct. 22, 2014.
  7. E-mail interview, Aug. 11, 2014.
  8. E-mail interview, Oct. 19, 2014.
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