Thursday, May 10, 2012

Those Dinosaurs Never Saw It Coming

Well, I've spent nearly two weeks of my life in Tampa at the United Methodist General Conference which occurs every four years.  During this time, delegates from around the world get together and try to figure out how we can best be the church to a variety of places and cultures.

One of the ways I've tried to push us was toward better communication for some of our denominational publications.  I suggested that several things be available for free download such as our Book of Discipline, Book of Resolutions and the Guidelines for Leading Your Congregation which are written for our various local church committees and based on the structure we put forth at each General Conference.

The dinosaurs were surprised by an extinction event 65
million years ago.  We can see ours coming and might just
avoid it if we can take appropriate steps.
The first two books are documents that are produced by the action of the General Conference.  We own these as a denomination and I believe that they should be shared as widely as possible.  The only argument against releasing these for free is that it would cut into sales by our publishing house (Cokesbury).  Currently, you must purchase the print copy or a CD-ROM edition or pay a subscription fee to view them online.

Now let me make this clear: As cheap as I am, I'm not worried about paying for my own Book of Discipline.  I will continue to purchase a printed copy.  However, I am thinking about the generations coming after me who have certain expectations when it comes to online availability.   One of my youth serving on our local church youth council and involved in our conference youth programs, recently searched online for something within the Book of Discipline and came away realizing that it was not easily accessible to him.

It's not that he couldn't afford the $14 subscription fee - but he was left wondering why his church was charging for this information in the first place.

We want you to follow our polity and know our rules but we're going to charge you to do it.

In a business analogy, it would be like charging employees to buy copies of their personnel policies or worse yet, their organizational goals and vision.

The Conferences Committees agreed that the Book of Discipline should be available online but removed the word "free" from the legislation which simply adds more words to the Book of Discipline without really changing anything.  The General Conference ran out of time before this piece made it to the floor for discussion.

The Guidelines mentioned above actually passed on the consent calendar but was then later removed and referred to the publishing house because of the financial implications. A publishing house representative shared that it would cost around $100,000 to produce these electronic files and that Cokesbury (our United Methodist bookstore) would lose $1.1 million in sales (you can watch the drama unfold here at about the 1:05:30 mark).

I believe that these were inflated numbers presented so that the body would vote to do nothing.  If the production number is true, we need to reevaluate how our publishing house is spending its money.  The Guidelines should be written by agency staff and so we shouldn't need to pay a royalty fee to anyone.  They are based on information directly from the Book of Discipline which we own.  Currently, no author is listed on the individual booklets (at least online).

Furthermore, they already produce electronic documents of the Guidelines.  Downloads cost $2.65 each compared to $2.95 for the print version.  Any printed material is produced electronically before it is published so that is basically a sunk cost.

We need to get creative here.  How much does Cokesbury spend on advertising? Sending out all those multiple catalogs to churches is pretty expensive.  If the Guidelines were available as a free download, you would have multiple hits on the Cokesbury site as churches acquired their copies.  In fact, you might have 27 different people from each church going to the Cokesbury site for their particular committee responsibility. Cokesbury ad banners for related materials for purchase would probably more than make up for any lost revenue that the Guidelines would produce.

Electronic sales on our website is the future for our publishing house (just ask Borders Bookstores).  If we offer enough hooks free material through our website, it will generate loyalty as well as multiple hits.  If we overcharge for everything, today's consumer will find it cheaper elsewhere and might never venture back to our publishing website.

The petition on free Guidelines was referred to the publishing house.  My hope is that this will help them to take a serious look at not only how we do business in today's world, but how we communicate effectively.

Which I think is the purpose of having a publishing house in the first place, isn't it?


  1. Very sad when you consider John Piper has made available for free everything he has ever written. And Craig Groeschel too makes free much of the literature coming out of lifechurch. We are missing the point. Guidelines for free? That should be a no-brainer! BOD too. Is the purpose to make disciples? or to make money?

  2. I couldn't agree more Sam. Some of us still haven't caught up with the 21st century,and I'm wondering if we ever will.

    Rik Marion

  3. Very well put Sam. When I was serving as a Pastor, mostly small churches, cost was the reason for not getting these materials into the hands of leadership. Many times I paid for a set out of my own resources and charged it off to my Library cost. One of the reasons for UM Churches going down the road of fundamentalism is lack of these educational resources. Only one of many reasons. Keep up the work Sam

  4. I agree, too! Plus, the purchase of curriculum....especially children's. Paper, paper, paper & wasted or not purchased. How great it would be to download just what you need/want. That would benefit churches so much more. You are right. Our publishing house has lots of work to do.
    I tried to work with them for a position through on-line access, but was denied. Said the staff needs to be in the office available. Our publishing house isn't ready for this century.

  5. I don't think your legislation was controversial enough, Sam. Try adding next time that though the Book of Discipline would be "available to all," it would still be of "sacred worth." That'll get it off the consent calendar!

  6. In all fairness, we did pass on the consent calendar putting the Daily Christian Advocate and the Advanced Daily Christian Advocate for free on our website - which we did this quad anyway. I believe we also allowed for the resolutions to be produced by the various boards they relate to such as Church and Society, Higher Education or Discipleship. I think they will be able to publish the various resolutions online.

    Some progress but still fairly limited to what I thought we would do at this GC.