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Sunday, April 21, 2013

An Call to Noble and Ethical Competition in Christian Publishing

I wrote this post in 2008 and continue to stand behind every word.  For a group of people who profess to follow Christ, the use of gossip as a form of industry competition is disappointing.  I have interacted with all the publishers in Nashville and can paraphrase the industry's best seller when I say that there is none without sin in this manner. 

Christian publishing is my third industry. I started my career in retail, moved to durable goods manufacturing (auto industry), and then came to Thomas Nelson. In all three industries, as I'm sure is the case in every industry, there is off-campus interaction among competitors. Not only is Christian publishing not an exception, it is the most incestuous and interconnected industry I've experienced. Its practitioners, whether acting on behalf of their companies or not, often engage in some of the lowest forms of competition I've experienced.

Mind you, people have been hitting Nelson below the belt long before I got here and, if you are a competitor reading this, how's that working for you? I'm not complaining because of an injury or as a sore loser because we're not losing. What I am asking is how people can profess Christianity on the one hand and engage in the type of dirty competition I sometimes see in this industry, especially among competitors in the Nashville market.

Here's what I'm talking about.

In my other two industries you inevitably run into your competitors off-campus. You may be in the same city and the same hotel bar after pitching to the same potential customer. You may be out to dinner with your wife and run into your competitor and their spouse in the same restaurant. It could be at the local Chamber meeting or whereever. It happens and I usually like to have good relationships and engage in friendly competition.

In these improptu meetings you'll always get the loaded question. One time when the auto industry was considering moving production from Mexico to Thailand, I had a competitor ask, "What kind of pricing are you seeing in Thailand", which was meant to see if we were looking at Thailand or not. In another case a competing store manager asked, "How much are you selling of "x" product", which was to see if we were carrying that product. Such questions designed to gain intel on products, prices, strategy, etc... are just part of being in business.

In Christian publishing, especially in Nashville, I get an entirely different type of question. I recently ran into a former Nelson employee, who works for a competitor, on a plane ride back from Dallas. The first thing out of his mouth even before "Hello" was, "Boy I bet Mike's under a lot of pressure with that new Board, isn't he?" I ran into another former Nelsonite one night this week whose first question after "Hello" was, "How bad are things over there? I'm sure you must be under so much pressure." During my almost eight years at Nelson I have been pumped for information from countless competitors here in Nashville, most of them former Nelson colleagues, on a wide variety of topics including:

  • "Is Sam Moore really crazy?"

  • "I hear you guys are being sold"

  • "I guess you're glad to be owned by a Catholic"

  • "I hear you guys are having a layoff" (4 - 6 times a month for eight years)

  • "I hear things are bad there" (I got this even during our three years of record profits) get the picture by now.

So what's the purpose of these types of questions? Gossip for business purposes. The extraction of just enough of a reaction that it can be interpreted to suit the competitor, and then repeated in competition for authors, employees, and just for the sheer joy of the gossip.

The positive that I've seen in all this is the good that it says about our company. I've never had anyone ask what was wrong with our distribution operations. I've never had anyone ask what was wrong with our sales force. I've never met anyone over a drink that as asked, "I hear your call centers can't answer the phones on time." I've never heard how poorly our books are written or marketed.

Overall, if gossip is the worst competition we experience then I'll take it. But if you work for a competitor, or carry tales back to one, and you see me in Nashville then I'm glad to see you, talk to you about our families, health, politics, faith, products, or just about anything else you want to talk about. What doesn't interest me, and what shouldn't interest you, is the below-the-belt stuff that seems to fascinate this industry.

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