Zondervan Corporation History

5300 Patterson Avenue, S.E.
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49530

Telephone: (616) 698-6900
Fax: (616) 698-3223

Wholly Owned Subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
Incorporated: 1931
Employees: 400
Sales: $160 million (2005 est.)
NAIC: 511130 Book Publishers; 511210 Software Publishing; 511199 All Other Publishers; 512120 Motion Picture and Video Distribution

Company Perspectives:

To be the leading Christian communications company meeting the needs of people with resources that glorify Jesus Christ and promote biblical principles. Zondervan is a leading international Christian communications company, producing bestselling and awardwinning Bibles, books, children's products, software, audio, video, multimedia, and a broad line of gift products.

Key Dates:

Zondervan is founded by Pat and Bernard Zondervan in Grandville, Michigan.
The first Zondervan bookstore is opened in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Two books are published under the Zondervan name.
Zondervan buys an inspirational music company.
Zondervan acquires the Bible division of Harper & Row.
The company invests in the International Bible Society.
Zondervan publishes the New Testament portion of the International Bible Society's New International Version (NIV) of the Bible.
Zondervan goes public on the NASDAQ.
Zondervan publishes the entire NIV.
John T. Benson, a religious music company, is purchased.
Zondervan fights off a hostile takeover attempt.
Harper & Row buys Zondervan in the aftermath of the takeover attempt; Zondervan ultimately becomes a subsidiary of HarperCollins.
Zondervan publishes its first e-books.
Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life is published by Zondervan.
A gender-neutral edition of the NIV causes controversy.
Rolling Stone magazine causes a media firestorm after refusing a Zondervan ad.

Company History:

Zondervan Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishers, is one of the largest Christian publishing companies in the world. Its products range from the top selling New International Version of the Bible, to inspirational fiction, self-help, reference, biography, history, and textbooks, to gift products and a wide range of multimedia products. Since becoming a subsidiary of HarperCollins in 1988, Zondervan has concentrated its energies on traditional religious publishing, while extending its reach beyond the evangelical market with such bestsellers as Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life and the Veggie Tales books for children. Having divested itself of a bookstore chain and a music company, Zondervan has found its niche as the nation's leading Bible publisher and continues to develop products for its evolving Christian market.

A Family Business: 1930s-60s

Zondervan was created in 1931 by brothers Pat and Bernard Zondervan, in their mother's Grandville, Michigan farmhouse as a religious bookselling company. In 1932 the brothers opened their first bookstore in neighboring Grand Rapids. The following year saw the first two books published under the Zondervan imprint. The company's home base of western Michigan was particularly religious and conservative, a perfect locale for such a business. Grand Rapids, known as the city with the most churches per capita in the United States, was home to a number of seminaries and church-affiliated colleges, and was the headquarters of the Reformed Church in America, the Dutch Protestant sect founded on the principles of John Calvin.

From the 1930s through the 1950s the company expanded. In 1959 Zondervan bought a religious music company, Singspiration. The following year the company took over publication of Halley's Bible Handbook from a private firm, eventually selling over four million copies of the title. Over the years Zondervan's bookstore operation had expanded to a number of locations and in the early 1960s the first outlet was opened in a shopping mall. The success of this store led the company to open in other malls, eventually placing all new outlets in such locations.

In 1966 Zondervan purchased the Bible department from the larger Harper & Row publishing company, which brought the company a number of specialized Bibles and related textbooks, including the popular Harper Study Bible. During the same year cofounder Bernie Zondervan died, but brother Pat continued to lead the company. Zondervan's publishing efforts included a somewhat broad range of material, not always books with a strictly conservative, religious bent. Titles such as The Act of Marriage by Tim and Beverly LaHaye from 1959 and Sexual Happiness in Marriage by Herbert Miles from 1967 were published alongside more typical fare such as biographies of missionaries, discussions of theological issues, Bible encyclopedias and concordances, and tracts on the evils of tobacco or communism.

Further Expansion: 1970-87

Zondervan occasionally published religious titles with mass appeal, such as Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth from 1970, which eventually sold some ten million copies. The following year, 1971, Zondervan made an investment in the financially troubled International Bible Society's translation of the New International Version of the Bible, a move that would later repay itself many times over. The New Testament of the New International Version was published in 1973, with Zondervan given exclusive rights in the United States. The entire Bible was ready in 1978, and was a sensation, quickly rising on the bestseller lists to second place behind the King James version. Zondervan was suddenly vaulted to the forefront of religious publishing houses. The NIV, as it was known, was a scrupulous translation from the original languages into contemporary English, and it appealed to many Christians of different branches of the faith. Within a few years it was adopted as the Bible of choice by a wide range of churches, from Baptists to Episcopalians. With the NIV also came the opportunity to create many derivative works such as concordances and study materials, all of which found a ready market.

Zondervan went public in 1976, issuing stock on the NASDAQ. Following the success of the NIV Bible, the company began to acquire other businesses. In 1980 religious music publisher John T. Benson Company was purchased, making Zondervan the second largest producer of religious recordings in the United States. In the early 1980s other acquisitions included religious publishers Chosen Books, Francis Asbury Press, and Fleming H. Revell Company, and a specialty bindery, Tapley-Rutter Company.

Zondervan's business, while based on the apparently steady and predictable religious book market, was actually more tenuous than it appeared. In 1979 there were difficulties related to the bookstore chain, resulting in unexpected losses. Though sales and profits more than doubled within the next five years, with annual revenues in 1983 of $93 million, in 1984 accounting irregularities hid losses of several million dollars. These were ultimately attributed to poor inventory control and unanticipated expenses such as unrecoverable publishing advances, but the company's chief financial officer was dismissed and Zondervan was sanctioned by the Securities and Exchange Commission. A lawsuit from a disgruntled New Jersey investor followed, eventually settled out of court for $3.6 million in 1989.

Just before the discovery of its financial problems, Zondervan had chosen James Buick as its chief executive, replacing Pat Zondervan's successor, Peter Kladder, who had been with the company since 1956. Buick, a former executive of Brunswick Corporation, immediately had his hands full. Zondervan posted losses for the next several years following the bookkeeping debacle, and in 1986 a hostile takeover attempt was organized by British financier Christopher Moran. After months of wheeling and dealing, including a visit from Moran to Pat Zondervan and an emergency prayer session held by employees, the company's board reached an agreement with its stockholders to seek a third-party buyer. Not long afterwards, Moran began quietly selling off his shares. The stock price, which had been driven up by the takeover attempt, plummeted when Moran's selloff was discovered. Many investors were angry and when the company was finally sold over a year later for $56.7 million to Harper & Row, other lawsuits were initiated on behalf of investors who felt the board had accepted an unfairly low price. During the course of the takeover attempt, Zondervan had also sold off its Revell and Chosen Books subsidiaries, and had closed a Grand Rapids-based printing operation.

Acquisition and Prosperity: 1988 to the Early 1990s

Harper & Row (which soon merged with British religious book company Collins Publishing to become HarperCollins) was owned by News Corporation Ltd., headed by Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch's other interests included the Fox film and television studios and several tabloid news publications. Zondervan employees and the company's chairman emeritus expressed concerns that the publisher's traditional religious, evangelic focus would be changed as part of a more aggressive pursuit of profits, much as they had also worried about Moran's intentions several years earlier.

Fortunately for Zondervan, there was no apparent downside to the change of ownership as the company's editorial policy was not altered. Instead, there was an enhancement of Zondervan's ability to cross-market titles into the mainstream. Successful books such as the memoirs of Dave Dravecky (a baseball pitcher who had lost his pitching arm), Oliver North, Colin Powell, and Dan Quayle were marketed with HarperCollins, enabling them to reach a larger audience. In some cases Zondervan secured authors it might not have been able to attract on its own, because of its association with HarperCollins. By 1991 the company's estimated annual sales were $175 million, up from $106 million just four years earlier. The publishing division issued an average of 130 new titles a year, including Bible editions tailored to specific audiences such as women and teens, and maintained a healthy backlist of some 1,000 titles.

Though business had been on a more even keel since its acquisition by HarperCollins, Zondervan's management still had doubts about the relationship. In early 1992 amid slumping sales and layoffs, Zondervan sought investors to help buy the company back from HarperCollins. Then rival Word Publishing came up for sale and Zondervan placed its buyout plans on hold to court Word. Word, however, was bought by the country's top religious publisher, Thomas Nelson, and Zondervan abandoned its buyout aspirations. Apparently satisfied it could remain editorially independent, Zondervan concentrated on streamlining operations and developing new products. At the end of 1992, the company sold its Benson Music subsidiary and left the music business completely.

In September 1993 major change came to Zondervan when the company split in two, with the publishing operations retaining the name of Zondervan Publishing House, and the bookstore chain becoming a separate entity (though still owned by HarperCollins and with offices in the same building as Zondervan). Chief executive James Buick, who had directed the company for almost ten years and had been instrumental in the breakup, retired, and management of Zondervan went to Bruce Ryskamp.

With sales of personal computers beginning to surge in the late 1980s, the company had created a software division to market computer-formatted Bibles and study aids. Other divisions had been founded to create video and audio products, and these operations were merged in early 1995 to form ZPH New Media. Products included BibleSource for Windows, macBible, several series of religious studies and children's videos, and audio versions of some of the company's books. The products were primarily distributed to Christian bookstores.

Fluctuating Bible Sales: Mid- to Late 1990s

The NIV Bible, which had been Zondervan's crown jewel since 1978, had remained a consistent bestseller and in 1986 had eclipsed the King James version as the top-selling Bible. The company continued to capitalize on its success, issuing many derivative works and variant versions. Increasingly, Bible sales were being targeted to specific niche groups. One method of repackaging the NIV was to create a "Devotional Bible," which added numerous prayers and commentaries directed toward a specific audience, such as mothers with young children or retirees. In late 1994 the Christian Booksellers Association's sales chart of bestselling Bibles, which had been topped by the NIV for several years, saw Zondervan products holding all of the top ten slots. It was estimated that 45 percent of all Bibles sold were NIVs, especially those directed to niche markets such as women, teens, and children.

Zondervan continued to seek new markets, purchasing Editorial Vida (known in the United States as Vida Publishers) in August 1995, a distributor of Bibles in French, Spanish, and Portuguese. In addition, Zondervan announced a new NIV version called the New International Reader's Bible (or NIrV), which was written at a third grade reading level. The audience for this version was people with poor reading skills and new immigrants with a limited command of English--it was an instant success.

With so many different niche Bibles on the market (from Zondervan as well as its rivals), it was hardly surprising sales had begun to slump by 1996. Several newly published translations did poorly and Zondervan's former chain of bookstores (now owned by its management following the 1995 buyout) reported shipping more than $200,000 worth of King James Bibles back to publishers. Despite the industrywide slowdown, Zondervan was only slightly affected, and unveiled plans for Devotional Bibles targeted at college students and African Americans. Another Bible project, however, embroiled the company in controversy.

In the years since it had been introduced, the NIV had been subject to occasional revisions, as new discoveries of ancient sources were made or new Bible scholarship was published. In the spring of 1997 a committee of scholars wanted to make changes to a number of gender-specific terms in the translation, removing references to "man" and substituting gender-neutral language when a particular passage actually referred to all of humankind. This was not an especially radical move, as the committee was composed of respected, conservative scholars, and changes of this type had already been incorporated into several Bible translations including the recently published NIrV and the U.K. version of the NIV. When a report in a Christian publication implied the changes were being made to satisfy feminists, anger was stirred up among fundamentalists and Zondervan put the project on the backburner. The International Bible Society, which was responsible for the NIV and NIrV, also announced it would revise the NIrV back to the older NIV language standards to appease fundamentalists.

Despite this setback Zondervan continued to do well, with the successful publication of the African-American Devotional Bible in the fall of 1997 and the Collegiate Devotional Bible in mid-1998. The company also renamed its children's division Zonderkidz and increased its range of products, which included the acquisition of the Gold 'n' Honey unit of Multnomah Publishers. By the end of the decade Zondervan was releasing a total of some 2,000 publications and had renewed its contract with the International Bible Society to continue publishing the NIV through the year 2023.

A New Century: Early 2000s

At the dawn of the 21st century, Zonderkidz gained recognition and market share for its age-appropriate Bibles (including the NIrV new kids' edition), software and video products, and picture books. Zondervan also expanded its presence in electronic media, not only establishing its own website capable of taking and processing orders, but teaming up with Amazon.com to create an online "Bible store" (www.amazon .com/zondervan) as well. Zondervan also issued two e-books in November 2000, one of which was available only in electronic form. Next came the launch of Inspirio, Zondervan's renamed gifts division, offering a variety of inspirationally themed products including bookmarks, Bible covers, figurines, gift books, candles, cards, and more.

In early 2001 Zondervan absorbed the publishing and marketing duties for Marshall Pickering, an evangelical imprint of HarperCollins based in the United Kingdom. In hopes of broadening Zondervan's international appeal, Marshall Pickering's titles, as well as those of its Anglican imprint, Fount, were folded into Zondervan's catalogue. In the early part of the year, the company rehauled its image and introduced a new logo. Instead of separate logos for each division, the new logo was simply "Zondervan," and was launched at the Christian Booksellers Association convention in July. Though Christian publishing as a whole experienced an industry slowdown for the first three quarters of the year, the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in September 2001 caused a surge in sales for Bibles and inspirational titles. Zondervan finished the year with revenues of $165 million, with its NIV editions accounting for a major chunk of its sales.

Zondervan scored several coups in 2002 including a Zonderkidz joint venture with Big Idea Productions, the licensor of the wildly popular Veggie Tales; issuing its first electronic version of the NIV; and publishing Rick Warren's book The Purpose-Driven Life. The latter proved an astounding success, topping Christian bestseller lists and crossing over to mainstream publishing lists as well. The Purpose-Driven Life was to adults what the Veggie Tales phenomenon was to kids--with Zondervan cashing in on both. Zonderkidz planned to publish 30 new Veggie Tales books over the next two years, including several tie-in titles for the first big screen Veggie Tales movie, released in late 2002.

By 2003 Zondervan continued to ride high with The Purpose-Driven Life, which had sold 100,000 copies in a matter of months and was slated for translation into several languages. Not only had the title remained at the top of both Christian and general bestseller lists, but it was named Christian Book of the Year by the Christian Booksellers Association. Zondervan's gift division, Inspirio, signed a deal with Running Press in mid-2003 to issue miniature versions of the bestseller. Though the new imprint contained both names, Inspirio marketed its editions to Christian bookstores while Running Press sold to conventional bookstores and retailers. Zondervan did, however, run into controversy with Today's New International Version (TNIV), its gender-neutral NIV which had been resurrected despite running afoul of fundamentalists.

Zondervan believed the translation mirrored societal changes and would appeal to the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, though offended conservatives asked religious bookstores to boycott the title. Thus Zondervan turned to mass merchandisers including Wal-mart, Kmart, and Target for distribution to market the progressive TNIV. In keeping with its more traditional products, Zondervan signed Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of Billy Graham, to a four-book deal and partnered with Mel Gibson to handle DVD and VHS sales of his hit movie The Passion of the Christ to Christian markets (Twentieth-Century Fox handled nonreligious sales). With The Passion of the Christ earning hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, Zondervan executives expected orders and sales for the DVDs and videos to skyrocket upon release in August 2004. By the end of the year The Purpose-Driven Life had sold more than 15 million copies worldwide and had been named Christian Book of the Year for a second time, propelling Zondervan's sales and in turn accounting for 15 percent of parent company HarperCollins' revenues.

Keeping the Faith, 2005 and Beyond

In January 2005 Zondervan was once again in the news with its TNIV after initiating a $1 million advertising campaign and approaching Rolling Stone magazine with an ad for the "hip" bible. Rolling Stone, long the bastion for free speech and often outrageous content, refused the ad, believing its audience would not appreciate a Bible advertisement. News of the refusal sent shockwaves throughout the magazine's readership and beyond. As Rolling Stone faced angry readers and advertisers, Zondervan benefited from numerous publications clamoring to show their political correctness and carry ads for the TNIV. In the end, Rolling Stone caved and Zondervan had a plethora of media outlets for the controversial TNIV. Other Zondervan hits during the year included a glossy, new edition of the NIV for women that looked more like an issue of Glamour or Vogue, and Rick Warren's still popular The Purpose-Driven Life, which remained on both the Christian and mainstream bestseller lists.

Into the 21st century Zondervan continued to rule the Bible segment of Christian publishing, putting out Bibles tailored to the evolving needs of its readers. Bibles came in all shapes and sizes--from traditional leather bindings to neon or flower-printed softcovers, from e-books for handheld devices to audio, video, or DVD formats. The NIV, its most popular line of Bibles, had sold more than 150 million copies worldwide by 2005. In addition to its mainstay Bibles, Zondervan provided a myriad of religious-themed materials from its Inspirio line's bookmarks, candles, and home d├ęcor products to Zonderkidz's chapter books, picture books, and ABC primers.

Principal Operating Units: Bibles; Books; New Media; Zonderkidz; Inspirio; Vida Publishers.

Principal Competitors: Canon Press; Multnomah Publishers; Thomas Nelson Inc.; Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.; W Publishing Group.

Further Reading:

  • "Baptists Irate Over Zondervan Plan for New Bible," Grand Rapids Press, May 14, 1997, p. A1.
  • "Bible Bust: Publishers Are Making Too Many Bibles for Too Few Christians," Grand Rapids Press, November 9, 1996, p. B1.
  • Buss, Dale, "A New Bible for Sale," Sales & Marketing Management, April 2003, p. 16.
  • ------, "Fight to Take Over a Religious Publisher Becomes a Holy War," Wall Street Journal, August 14, 1986.
  • Couretas, John, "Zondervan Cuts 49 from Work Force," Grand Rapids Press, February 11, 1992, p. B6.
  • Crosby, Cindy, "Harper Moves UK Religion to Zondervan," Publishers Weekly, April 23, 2001, p. 11.
  • Crossen, Cynthia, "Harper & Row Says It Will Acquire Zondervan, Expand Religious Line," Wall Street Journal, July 14, 1988.
  • Dart, John, "New Bible Woos Young Adults, Skirts Critics," Christian Century, March 8, 2005, pp. 14+.
  • Fine, Jon, "Bible Publisher Turns Rolling Stone Ad Ban into PR Gold," Advertising Age, January 24, 2005, p. 3.
  • Garrett, Lynn, et al., "Smooth Sailing for CBA in Atlanta," Publishers Weekly, July 23, 2001, p. 16.
  • ------, "Surfing for Bibles," Publishers Weekly, March 13, 2001, p.40.
  • ------, "Zondervan Forms New Children's Publishing Group," Publishers Weekly, November 16, 1998, p. 18.
  • Grenier Guiles, Melinda, "Zondervan Says Financial Chief Relieved of Job," Wall Street Journal, December 17, 1984.
  • Harger, Jim, "Turning the Page: Zondervan's Breakup into Publishing, Bookstore Firms Is Success Story," Grand Rapids Press, May 10, 1994, p. E1.
  • ------, "Zondervan Gets 28 Year Contract to Publish Bible," Grand Rapids Press, June 13, 1995, p. B8.
  • ------, "Zondervan Splitting into Two Companies," Grand Rapids Press, September 3, 1993.
  • Knorr, David, "Litigation Fails to Block Zondervan Merger," Grand Rapids Business Journal, August 15, 1988, p. 1.
  • LeBlanc, Doug, "Hands Off My NIV," Christianity Today, June 16, 1997, p. 52.
  • Maryles, Daisy, "The Purpose-Driven Campaign," Publishers Weekly, February 10, 2003, p. 60.
  • Meehan, Chris, "Selling the Word," Grand Rapids Press, December 28, 1997, p. G1.
  • ------, "Zondervan's Mission and Marketing Goals Translate into Retail Expansion," Publishers Weekly, March 9, 1984, pp. 90-93.
  • Milliot, Jim, "HarperCollins Has Record Fiscal 2004; Zondervan Drives Gains in Sales and Earnings," Publishers Weekly, August 16, 2004, p. 15(2).
  • Perlman, Lisa, "Christian Publisher Says Chapter on Its Woes Is Closed," Los Angeles Times, September 11, 1988, p. 7.
  • Raugust, Karen, "Veggie Tales from Zonderkidz," Publishers Weekly, August 26, 2002, p. 10.
  • Reed, Eric, "Southern Baptists Blast TNIV," Christianity Today, August 5, 2002, p. 17.
  • Ruark, James E., and Theodore W. Engstrom, The House of Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981.
  • "Running Press Inks Mini Deal with Zondervan," Publishers Weekly, June 2, 2003, p. 13.
  • Shepherd, Forrest, "What It Means for Now: A Popular Bible Translation Offends Readers and Scholars by Going Gender-Neutral," Alberta Report, March 18, 2002, p. 50.
  • Rublin, Lauren R., "Do Zondervan Shareholders Have a Prayer? The Unorthodox Behavior of a Bible Publisher's Stock," Barron's, October 19, 1987, p. 18.
  • Schifrin, Matthew, "Bible Bungle," Forbes, March 11, 1985, p. 123.
  • Simmons, Rebecca, "Diversity--New Bible Aimed at Blacks," Dayton Daily News, October 4, 1997, p. 6C.
  • Steel, Johannes, "Zondervan May Prove an Investment Made in Heaven," Oklahoma City Times, November 11, 1983.
  • Terbel, John, "A History of Book Publishing in the United States," New York: R.R. Bowker, 1981.
  • Veverka, Amber, "James G. Buick: Inside Track," Grand Rapids Business Journal, May 28, 1991, p. 5.
  • ------, "Zondervan Nixes Plan for Management Buyout," Grand Rapids Business Journal, October 5, 1992, p. 3.
  • "Zondervan Adds to Kids Line," Publishers Weekly, May 17, 1999, p. 15.
  • "Zondervan Corp. Finally Finds Suitable Suitor," Grand Rapids Business Journal, July 18, 1988, p. 1.
  • "Zondervan Corp. Says It Expects to Post Loss of $3.5 Million for 1984," Wall Street Journal, April 17, 1985.
  • "Zondervan Ready to Sell Its Benson Music Business," Grand Rapids Press, November 17, 1992, p. A7.
  • "Zondervan's $3.5 Million Settlement Approved by Judge," Associated Press, February 27, 1989.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 71. St. James Press, 2005.