If you're on Facebook, please join Augsburg Fortress Advocates. Here's why.
These days are tough ones for Augsburg Fortress, the publishing ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Truth be told, denominational publishing has never been a get-rich-quick scheme – developing products for a very narrow and budget-limited market of penny-pinching German and Scandanavian Lutherans isn't the ideal business opportunity – but in a recession economy it is even harder.
In response to continued financial challenges, Augsburg Fortress is closing its retail stores and eliminating its consumer-oriented product lines (press release here). Augsburg Fortress will continue to develop and invest in congregational resources, particularly in the areas of education and worship. The Fortress Books line will continue serving the academic market, too.
This is not entirely surprising to me, an Augsburg Fortress customer since entering seminary 11 years ago and former sales representative for the company. In an internet world, bricks and mortar are costly. And for a small publisher, it can be difficult to promote good, theologically sound books on spirituality and faith when you're competing for shelf space with much larger, theologically flexible publishers of feel-good fluff. This move isn't surprising.
But it is saddening, for I fear that it may only be a harbinger of changes to come. In the past ten years Augsburg Fortress has gone through several reorganizations, including the sale of its Ecclesiastical Arts division based in Philadelphia just a few years ago. So how can you support Augsburg Fortress, and help it in its core business of providing resources for congregations, so that future press releases announce the company's expansion rather than its downsizing? Here are a few ideas.
- Pray for the ELCA's ministry of publishing. Nothing good happens without prayer. Please pray for our church's ministry of publishing, that it might be a faithful, healthy ministry providing resources for congregations to carry out their ministry in the Lutheran tradition.
- Look first at Augsburg Fortress materials when selecting church resources. This is my biggest gripe. I have heard time and again – both as a sales representative and as a regular church person – of churches who purchase this or that product from another vendor to save a few pennies, or out of convenience. Thriftiness and convenience are good things, but if there's a difference of a few pennies or of an extra day of delivery, couldn't it be worth it to send your money to the Lutheran publishing ministry rather than some other company? After all, it is only through sales revenue that Augsburg Fortress makes money, and it is only with sales revenue that it can develop Lutheran resources for Lutheran congregations. If you care about being Lutheran and having Lutheran resources, please, look first at Augsburg Fortress materials when selecting church resources – from certificates to communion wafers to curriculum to paraments.
- Speak in support of Augsburg Fortress in collegial, synodical, and ecumenical gatherings. Be an advocate for your Lutheran publishing house. Tell others how you've used Augsburg Fortress materials in your church, and encourage others to do the same. Invite authors or educators to present Augsburg Fortress books and materials at your church. Link to Augsburg Fortress from your church website. If you have something bad to say, tell Augsburg Fortress directly instead of blabbering in the lobby at synod assembly. Which leads me to my next point:
- Provide feedback to Augsburg Fortress to help them in the development of new resources. Augsburg Fortress has some wickedly smart people on staff creating some really good resources, but they can't be in every one of the nearly 11,000 churches in the ELCA. They can't possibly know how you do ministry at St John's by the Gas Station. So let them know. Tell them what has worked and what hasn't worked. Give them your feedback. As a former insider, I know they listen to your feedback. They can't enact every piece of advice – such as the advice I received once that Augsburg Fortress should create a curriculum teaching Reformation hymnody to teenagers – but when they hear trends in the feedback, they act.
- Purchase directly from Augsburg Fortress rather than through a
third-party vendor (such as Amazon or the local Christian bookstore),
thus cutting out the "middle man" and providing more revenue to our
ministry of publishing. This is another one of my major gripes. I had congregations purchasing quantities of The Lutheran Handbook from Amazon.com rather than from Augsburg Fortress directly, because they were able to save about $.75 per book that way. "I'm still buying the Augsburg Fortress product," they told me. But . . . but when Augsburg Fortress sells to Amazon, they do so at the 40% "trade discount." For example: that book which lists for $10 at the Augsburg Fortress website may sell for $8 at Amazon. When you purchase from Augsburg Fortress, they get every single one of your ten dollars. When you purchase from Amazon, Augsburg Fortress only receives about six of your dollars. Yes, you've saved two dollars, but the publishing house has lost out on four dollars of revenue . . . four dollars (multiplied by hundreds and thousands of product sales) that would otherwise go toward the creation of Lutheran education, catechetical, or worship resources. Isn't the Lutheran ministry of publishing worth your two dollars?
- Be forgiving. I've heard some pretty nasty things said about Augsburg Fortress over the years by disgruntled customers who perhaps didn't get an order on time or who found an error in a curriculum or who were angry that their favorite Bible study series was discontinued. I once drove eight hours to call on a customer, only to be yelled at for something printed twenty-five years earlier in a Fortres Press book! At times these customers may be right, and at other times I think they're blowing things out of proportion. But either way, a spirit of forgiveness is called for. Surely we've all screwed up at times in our own lives and ministries . . .
- Again, pray. The ministry of publishing is so important . . . something we Lutherans should be particularly sensitive to and appreciative of. Pray for the writers and editors and product developers and business managers of Augsburg Fortress. They need your prayers.
PS. Though I worked as a sales representative for Augsburg Fortress in the past, this message and the Augsburg Fortress Advocates Facebook group are completely my own creations, independent of the fine people at Augsburg Fortress.