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Publishing in a digital age
March 19, 2010
WINNIPEG, Manitoba — For Mennonite Publishing Network (MPN), the ministry of publishing is growing ever more complex.
The mission for the publisher of Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA remains the same – providing materials to equip the church to experience and share the gospel of Jesus Christ from an Anabaptist perspective. But coping with the impact of the internet and readily available free digital media is changing the face of business. The economic downturn of 2009 has compounded that challenge.
On March 4,at Mennonite Church Canada’s Spring Leadership Assembly, Ron Rempel, Executive Director of MPN, told Christian Formation Council that business has improved from six or seven years ago, but MPN is still not where it needs to be.
“We were hoping for a break-even year, but we didn’t quite make it.” There was a shortfall of approximately $149,000 – about 5% of MPN’s budget. That shortfall will temporarily be covered by a line of credit until marketing initiatives and expense reductions in the current fiscal year generate enough revenue to compensate for last year’s loss.
Rempel noted the importance of running a sustainable operation to prevent financial liability that would eventually fall in the lap of the partnering denominations. In addition, the recent Yutzy report commissioned by Mennonite Church USA recommended that MPN re-examine all of its “unfunded mandates” – activities required by but not directly funded by the denominations. The study by consultant LaVern Yutzy is a sweeping review of denomination-wide operations and agencies in MC USA.
“We want to build a business that can support itself primarily through sales, with only a modest amount of fundraising for donations,” Rempel said. Finding out how to do that is particularly challenging in a digital climate. “Which activities can continue to be funded by sales?” he asks. “What will we need to do to find other sources of revenue?”
He referred to several ways in which MPN is responding to the digital challenge. A growing list of Herald Press book titles are now available by print on demand. A number of books are being converted to files for Amazon’s e-book reader, the Kindle. Also, MPN has a growing list of downloadable items, some for a fee and some free, on its own web site at www.mpn.net/downloads.
Rempel praised the Mennonite Church Canada Resource Centre for coordinating volunteer resource advocates who promote MPN materials in Mennonite Church Canada congregations. At the same time, he recognized that Resource Centre loans of MPN titles may compromise MPN sales. The degree of impact, if any, is unknown.
At the Area Church level in both the US and Canada, staffing for Christian education is decreasing, thus changing the model of Area Church partnerships with MPN. Mennonite Church Canada’s Director of Christian Education and Nurture position which is currently held by Elsie Rempel is a rarity, Rempel added. “Now MPN has to produce the material, promote it and educate those who use it.”
Rempel pointed to the example of retiring Editorial Director of Faith and Life Resources, Eleanor Snyder, who runs a Vacation Bible School (VBS) workshop in Ontario to teach congregations how to make the best use of MPN’s VBS material. “But it’s an unfunded mandate,” Rempel said.
“I don’t think we can go back to the good old days when MPN published the material and Christian educators in the church did the training,” Rempel said. “They’ll never come back. We have to rethink how we do all of these things.”
Sidebar: Changing marketplace
Ron Rempel said that Mennonite Publishing Network (MPN) materials such as hymnals, curriculum and periodicals are collectively more profitable than books.
However, he noted that within Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA congregations, graded curriculum use is falling. The current MPN produced curriculum, Gather ’Round, is used by about 50% of congregations, while the previous Jubilee curriculum was used by 70% of churches. Before that, the figure was about 90%. Rempel noted that Gather ’Round is made profitable by the 10-15% of sales that go to non-Mennonite denominations with whom MPN has a variety of partnership agreements.
Rempel said that MPN generally serves a niche market. “How do we appeal to those outside of our churches who are interested in Anabaptism?” he asked.