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VOL. 36 | NO. 50 | Friday, December 14, 2012

Worthy Publishing grows, expands lines

By Linda Bryant

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While some are predicting the decline of book publishing in coming years, a fast-growing Brentwood-based company is banking on the opposite – a renaissance in the industry that will benefit many, particularly small publishing houses.

In less than three years, Worthy Publishing has gone from a little-known publisher of Christian titles to a publisher of several high-profile authors and celebrities, including Jerry B. Jenkins, author of the 70-million selling Left Behind books; best-selling inspirational writer Max Lucado, gospel superstar BeBe Winans and the once-embattled pro quarterback Michael Vick.

The company is also advancing in the marketplace by purchasing other companies that broaden its product lines. They just announced the acquisition of Ellie Claire Gift and Paper Excursions from Guideposts and bought another specialty publisher, Freeman-Smith, in 2011. The Ellie Claire deal, effective Nov. 30, includes the company’s brand and product lines of gift items, diaries, journals, travel planners and all of the non-fiction and devotional titles from Guidepost’s Summerside Press.

Worthy acquired about 150 active titles from Ellie Claire, and will likely release around 60 new titles each year under that imprint. Jason Rovenstine, who heads up Ellie Claire’s creative team, will join Worthy as a vice president. Ellie Claire will relocate to Worthy’s Nashville office from Minneapolis early in 2013. The combined divisions will employ about 25 people.

Beyond books

Worthy President and CEO Byron Williamson says adding a strong line of gift items to the company’s offerings is key to its long-term strategy. Williamson was formerly CEO of Integrity Publishers from 2001-2006; president of Thomas Nelson 1995-1998; and president of Word Publishing from 1988-1998.

“The book industry’s broader footprint is expanding beyond (traditional) books and into more gift products, DVDs and paper goods,” Williamson says.

Williamson describes Worthy’s three divisions – made possible by the recent acquisitions – as a “three-legged stool,” with “hard content” books published under the Worthy imprint as one leg; Ellie Claire’s non-fiction lines and gift and journal products forming another; and Freeman-Smith’s merchandise supplying a third.

“The more legs you have on your stool, the more stability you have,” he says.

Freeman-Smith, a specialty publisher of gift books, devotionals, and custom publishing projects has published several hundred titles and has produced exclusive products for the LifeWay and Family Christian chains as well as Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club. Freeman-Smith has also produced two titles featuring the popular Veggie Tales characters.

Williamson did not disclose Worthy’s revenue or give the price-tag of the latest acquisition. The company will continue to look for strategic acquisitions that add new product lines, he says.

“We are sticking close to our strategic plan (of offering diverse product lines),” Williamson says. “Sales this year have doubled over last year and we expect the same to happen next year.”

Williamson says Worthy Publishing is small compared to large conglomerates such as Simon & Shuster, which is owned by CBS and publishes over 2,000 titles a year and has 31 imprints, or Harper Collins, which purchased Nashville-based Thomas Nelson earlier this year. Thomas Nelson is the largest publisher of Christian titles in the world.

Worthy published 32 titles and Freeman-Smith 50 in 2012.

‘Good and talented team’

Steve Green, a literary agent and manager who has worked with Christian authors such as Max Lucado and Phil Gulley, gives Williamson a lot of the credit for Worthy’s quick ascent in boutique publishing.

“Byron is considered by many to be among the most innovative and accomplished publishers in the business,” Green says. “He is widely respected and his opinion matters. He’s assembled a good and talented team of publishing veterans. He’s acquiring good books from respected authors, and he’s serving those authors with single-minded purpose and doing it all with trademark integrity.”

Williamson says many authors are now attracted to smaller publishing houses because they typically receive more personal attention than can be offered at a mega-sized company. He compares the growth of boutique publishers to the rise of independent and small record labels in the music industry.

“There was a time when Christian publishing was thought of as a subculture, but we have evolved into a category, and we are thriving,” Williamson says.

Green agrees.

“The religion trade publishing category represents more than 10 percent of all publishing and enjoyed double digit growth from 2009 to 2010 and more than 7 percent growth from 2010 to 2011,” he says. “That’s pretty strong performance achieved during a very difficult season for retail. The gross number of units (books in all formats) purchased grew even more dramatically than revenues in those same periods. I would say the data makes it clear that Christian publishing is as mainstream as any other category.”

Williamson says his Christian titles and authors reflect the population at large.

“There is no such thing as a typical Christian demographic anymore,” he says.

“It’s a profoundly broad spectrum of people – Republicans, Democrats and all stripes in-between.”

One of the biggest surprises connected to Worthy’s growth is the amount of media play its books and authors have attracted, Williamson says.

“For our size, we’ve gotten amazing results coverage,” Williamson says.

Worthy authors have been featured in front page stories in USA Today, covered in major national publications such as Time, Rolling Stone, Huffington Post and Sports Illustrated and featured on TV shows, including the Today Show, The O’Reilly Factor, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, Morning Joe and Entertainment Tonight.

The company also was named NEXT Award winner for the 2012 media and entertainment start-up of the year.

The NEXT Award, one of the most prestigious business awards given in Middle Tennessee, is sponsored by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Entrepreneur Center.

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