The Baker Book House Story
In the fall of 1987 our freshly appointed president, Richard Baker, gathered together a team of his key leaders to discuss the publishing company that was now under his care. Although I was anything but a leader at the time, he graciously invited me to participate in the crafting of a company mission statement. Although Richard does not tend toward formalities, he recognized the significance of a statement that accurately reflected our history and would guide our publishing activities in the future. Over the course of many sessions, our conversations were distilled into one concise statement, and then, with our stated mission in hand, we all returned to our respective tasks and got down to business.
Twenty years later a few of us revisited the original mission statement to evaluate its durability and refine some terms. The meeting required hardly an hour. We were impressed to discover that our statement required no significant alterations, even after two decades of perpetual transitions in the publishing profession. This continuity is one of the great blessings of serving the church with fine writings, even as the ground shifts beneath us.
Our mission is to publish high-quality writings that represent historic Christianity and serve the diverse interests and concerns of evangelical readers.
This year, in celebration of our seventy-five years of fidelity to this mission, we welcome our companions to explore a history of the kingdom activities of Baker Book House Company. To borrow a line from our founder, Herman Baker, this is the best business to be in. Today Herman’s observation is more accurate than ever.
Baker Book House Company
The Early Years
Herman Baker was fourteen years old when he and his family emigrated from the Zoutkamp area in the northern region of the Netherlands. The oldest son of Ricco (Richard) Bakker and Jenny Kregel Bakker had been born in the United States, but his family had returned to their homeland when he was two years old.
In 1925, when the family made its way again to Ellis Island and then by train to Grand Rapids, Michigan, they were here to stay. They quickly made a home in the Dutch community that had grown steadily in Grand Rapids and West Michigan since 1847, when the first immigrants arrived. The Bakker family dropped the second “k” from its name when Ricco became a United States citizen a number of years later.
For Herman, the Dutch language was familiar in the neighborhoods around Eastern Avenue and Franklin Street. The Reformed faith of the immigrants was preached in the churches and fiercely defended and openly discussed in the workplaces and homes of a people who often read theology in their free time.
Shortly after arriving in Grand Rapids, young Herman found a job working part-time in the bookstore owned by his uncle, Louis Kregel (brother of his mother, Jenny). Those days working in the bookstore fueled Herman’s love for religious classics and jump-started his dream of beginning a book business of his own.
Before Herman fulfilled that dream, he had other business to attend to. He and Angeline Sterkenberg married in 1932 and began their family. First Joanne was born, and then Richard in 1935. Ruth Ellen and Peter joined the family in the next years.
At age twenty-eight, with help from his in-laws, Herman Baker opened his bookstore at 1019 Wealthy Street in Grand Rapids. The year was 1939—the Great Depression was nearing its end and German troops invaded Poland in the opening salvos of World War II. Herman paid just eighteen dollars a month to rent the bookstore space, which he filled with homemade shelves that displayed almost five hundred used books he had collected over the years. His equipment consisted of two used desks and a typewriter purchased at the Salvation Army.
The demand for used religious books soon exceeded expectations. Herman expanded his business into several ground-floor rooms and then into the basement. Continued growth meant purchasing adjoining buildings and converting upstairs apartments into storage and display rooms.
Just a year passed after opening the store before Herman Baker took his first steps into publishing books. In 1940 Baker Book House released More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation by Dr. William Hendriksen, professor of New Testament exegetical theology at Calvin Seminary, located a short distance from the store.
More Than Conquerors proved to be the sort of title Baker loved to publish: conservative, scholarly, biblical, and timeless. The book is still in print and continues to gather praise nearly seventy-five years after the original publication.
Herman Baker purchased the Wealthy Street building in 1942, gradually growing the business through the war years. There were times, however, when he had to wait for money to come in before buying postage stamps to send out more catalogs. The catalogs were painstakingly typed by hand, with workers going through every book on the shelves and listing author, title, and price. Buyers sent back their order form with payment, and staff pulled the books from the shelves and mailed them out. The war years saw the first new and used fiction sold at the store, in part to draw in the many women who stayed home while the men went off to war.
Baker knew how to sell books. As the tenth anniversary of the business approached, he and his staff came up with the novel idea of reissuing the popular Barnes’ Notes, a commentary series that had already been a bestseller for over a century. Its last reissue was in 1852. But reissuing the twenty volumes would cost a prohibitive $30,000 for two thousand printed and bound sets. Herman didn’t have that kind of capital, but he did have a salesman’s instincts. Beginning in early 1949, Baker Book House issued the series on the Volume-a-Month Plan at three dollars per book, a plan “that has proved very popular with purchasers of modest means,” according to the tenth-anniversary catalog. More than twenty thousand volumes were ordered in just five months.
By 1949 Baker Book House was among the largest distributors of new and used religious books in the United States and abroad. Orders came from as close as the next block to as far away as South Africa, Korea, and Hungary.
Years of Change
The years following the end of World War II in 1945 brought growth across America, especially, thanks to the GI Bill, at colleges and universities. Seminaries and Bible colleges expanded as well and soon found themselves in need of reference works, commentaries, textbooks, and preaching aids. They sought books on archaeology, Christian education, church history, and a host of other topics. Baker Book House was poised to answer that need thanks to its newly minted publishing program, its deep inventory of used books, and improvements in the offset printing process that made reprints easier to produce.
The next major project after Barnes’ Notes was reprinting the thirteen-volume New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge—another Volume-a-Month promotion—and adding in 1955 a two-volume supplement, the Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge.
The early 1950s were years of change for Baker Book House and the Christian publishing world in general. The Wealthy Street store underwent a complete renovation inside and out in 1953, providing additional space and improvements for both publishing division office staff and the bookstore. New books and products were located on the first floor, with used books housed on the second floor.
Many of the bookstore employees came from nearby Calvin College. One of the most notable was Nicholas Wolterstorff, who taught for thirty years at Calvin College and has become a well-known author, philosopher, and theologian. He is currently the Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University.
In the larger Christian publishing world, the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) was incorporated in 1950 in Illinois with 219 charter member stores and offices at Moody Press. CBA held its first annual convention at the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago.
Baker Book House was a charter member of CBA and proudly displayed its wares in the convention hall at the 1950 event. In 1959 CBA came to Grand Rapids. Another remodel meant that visiting booksellers saw the best of Baker Book House when they toured the facilities as part of the convention activities.
In May 1959 Herman Baker wrote an article titled “So You Want to Write a Book” for the National Association of Evangelicals’ magazine United Evangelical Action. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) had been founded in April 1942 in St. Louis in an effort to bring the until-then-fragmented evangelical, conservative churches across the country together as one voice. The NAE formed the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) in 1944. Both the NRB and the NAE are still in existence today.
Baker Book House celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1964. The company created several new projects for the occasion, including a special in which buyers could get a free book with orders of ten dollars or more. The celebration also featured a manuscript contest, with the winning author receiving an expense-paid trip to the Holy Land.
The twenty-fifth-anniversary brochure announced several new publications to mark the occasion: The Biblical World: A Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, edited by Charles F. Pfeiffer; the first in the new Baker Missionary Visuograms series, a set of forty flashcards on the life of William Carey, accompanied by a booklet with the story; and nearly fifty titles to be released in the fall of 1964. Backlist titles remained strong, including Cruden’s Unabridged Concordance and Principles of Biblical Interpretation by Grand Rapids theologian Dr. Louis Berkhof. Other authors included Carl F. H. Henry, Ralph Earle, and William Hendriksen, author of More Than Conquerors.
By the twenty-fifth year, Herman Baker’s sons, Richard and Peter, were part of the staff. Richard came on in 1957 after attending Calvin College and graduating from the Publishing Procedures Course sponsored by Radcliffe College. He worked in sales and promotion, covering the eastern territory. Peter joined the business after attending Calvin College and Davenport Business Institute. He visited Baker Book House accounts in the Midwest territory.
The used-book division of Baker Book House was an essential part of the business—Herman Baker, after all, began his profession as a dealer of used books—and accounted for a large share of its business. Gary Popma, who joined Baker Book House in 1959, helped purchase libraries, classify and shelve books, keep track of the stock, and oversee preparation of the used-book catalogs sent out several times a year. Along with used books, the division also sold out-of-print books.
“I went with Mr. Baker on book-buying trips,” recalls Popma, who retired in 2004. “He had a heavy foot; I remember riding with him in his 1964 Limited Edition Buick Electra and smoking cigars. He loved a good pipe too. One time he hit something in the road that badly damaged the car. He ended up buying a new one exactly like it.”
Popma, with help from employees such as Pat Reurink Hoeksema, who began working at Baker in 1961, kept the used-book section neat and well organized. Hoeksema and others typed each catalog by hand, moving a portable table and typewriter along the rows to document each book. Catalog pages were laid on light boards for proofreading. Once the catalogs were mailed out, employees had about two weeks’ rest before orders began flooding in. It is said that even Eleanor Roosevelt purchased books from Baker Book House.
The twenty-fifth-anniversary brochure mentioned plans for expansion: “Also in the offing is a major building and expansion program. Tentative plans call for a doubling in area of the headquarters building, giving more adequate space for the retail store, new offices for the publishing division, as well as much-needed additional room and facilities for receiving and shipping.”
The Growth Years
The late 1960s onward were years of unprecedented growth for Christian publishing in general and for Baker Book House specifically. The bookstore on Wealthy Street became a gathering place for area pastors, teachers, and laypeople eager to find the newest books or to fill holes in their libraries.
Mondays were often the busiest day because pastors, on their day off, visited the bookstore to meet fellow ministers, discuss and debate theological issues, and soak in the sights and smells of the many books.
Often pastors and teachers visited Grand Rapids just to shop at Baker Book House. The narrow aisles were filled with the likes of D. James Kennedy, Jimmy Swaggart’s employees purchasing books for the new seminary library of World Evangelism Bible College, and David Otis Fuller of nearby Wealthy Street Baptist Church. Fuller, whose theology differed from the Reformed tradition of the Dutch Bakers, was known to walk by the store, see a book on display in the window, and step inside to say, “Are you sure you want to sell that book?”
Other visitors included David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, longtime minister at Westminster Chapel in London; Peter Masters, minister at Metropolitan Tabernacle in London; and Ernest E. Jolley, a United Pentecostal Church International minister. Reverend Jolley was one of the rare few given a key to Baker Book House for his twice-yearly visits to the store from his home in Arkansas. He shopped well into the night, leaving his piles of books to be cataloged and billed during the day.
J. I. Packer was a guest as well, one time tangling in the leash of a dog that neighborhood children had brought into the store. Harald F. J. Ellingsen, author of the Baker title Homiletic Thesaurus on the Gospels, toppled down the steep steps leading from the used-book section of the store.
Ezra Carter, father of June Carter Cash, bought via mail order The Preacher’s Homiletic Commentary, a thirty-eight-volume set covering the Old and New Testaments. Gary Popma later saw Carter’s son-in-law Johnny Cash at a conference and spoke to him about that commentary series. “I told him that his father-in-law bought that commentary set from Baker Book House. Johnny said, ‘Yeah, I have that set now.’?”
Building and Buying
Perhaps the biggest move during the 1960s was construction of a twenty-five-thousand-square-foot facility in Ada, just east of Grand Rapids, to house the publishing division and warehouse. The building has been expanded three times since then, adding space to the mailing and warehousing departments as well as publishing-division offices.
While Baker Book House was expanding its physical space, it was also expanding its space in the publishing realm. In 1968 it acquired the W. A. Wilde Company of Massachusetts, publisher of Peloubet’s Notes as well as works by distinguished authors such as Bernard Ramm and Wilbur Smith. Wilde also published books of object lessons, Bible quizzes, and puzzles, adding nearly one hundred new titles to the Baker list. Baker also acquired Canon Press, the publishing arm of Christianity Today, in 1975.
Herman Baker loved the classics of the faith, building his business on the selling of used classics and reprinting the best of the best. He also recognized an opportunity to further expand the business by publishing books for lay readers.
His first venture into reaching this vast market came in 1971 in the form of Ron Hembree’s Fruit of the Spirit, with a first printing of twenty-five thousand copies. By Baker’s fortieth anniversary in 1979, books that reached the general, or trade, market—not pastoral or scholarly works—composed about 60 percent of the Baker list. However, the 1979 catalog of academic books listed over 460 titles on subjects such as biblical studies, theology, apologetics, philosophy, missions, and hymnology.
Baker’s complete list ranged from under-one-dollar counseling booklets to multivolume commentaries such as Barnes’ Notes. Classics appeared in paperback as well as deluxe hardcovers and as part of several series, including Direction Books by contemporary authors and the Summit Series for theological and devotional classics. The list included titles such as Happiness Is a Choice: A Manual on the Symptoms, Causes, and Cures of Depression by Frank Minirth and Paul Meier; Hi! I’m Ann: One Girl’s Witness by Ann Kiemel; God’s Ultimate Purpose: An Exposition of Ephesians 1 by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones; and Once Upon a Tree by Calvin Miller.
Baker Book House was a force in Christian publishing in the 1970s, its influence acknowledged with an article about Herman Baker in the magazine Publishers Weekly. The article quoted Herman as saying, “We love to sell a good book. There is no better business to be in. In books we have the richest treasures on earth, the output of the best minds of the ages.”
Baker Book House began as a used-book business and later branched out into publishing. In the 1970s, the retail aspect of the business was going strong under the leadership of Herman Baker’s second son, Peter.
In 1968 Baker opened a store in Holland, about twenty-five miles southwest of Grand Rapids. A third store opened in 1970 in the Benton Harbor area. Then, between September 1972 and April 1976, three stores opened in Breton Village Mall in Grand Rapids. The first, also named Baker Book House, sold religious and secular titles from the major publishers in both realms. Paperbacks on Parade sold only paperbacks, and the third store, Pooh’s Corner, specialized in children’s books. In late 1978 the company established an outlet store in Grand Village Mall in the Grand Rapids suburb of Grandville.
The flagship Wealthy Street store continued to sell new books but was the only location that sold used religious books via over-the-counter sales and a robust mail-order business. However, the Wealthy Street store had its idiosyncrasies. While it drew the most learned theologians from churches and colleges across the nation and the world, it also drew rats that had found a food source at the grocery store located across the street. Longtime employees remember the rats well, along with the epic battles that ensued when one of the rodents made an appearance.
The day finally came when the constraints of space, age, and location meant closing the Wealthy Street store. In July 1980 the move to 2768 East Paris Avenue in the Grand Rapids suburb of Kentwood began. Catalog and office divisions moved first, followed by used books and shipping and receiving, with the store moving last into the remodeled warehouse space of the former Pella Windows store. The space dictated the layout of the building: the Pella offices and showroom at the front of the building remained offices; the warehouse at the back became the retail store.
Technology and Business
Baker Book House welcomed technology into the business of selling and publishing books, although at times not as quickly as some employees would have liked. Marilyn Gordon walked in the door for her first day on November 1, 1976; she’d been interviewed off-site so she had never been in the Ada offices before. She admits to a few tears when she discovered there were no electric typewriters in the building.
“I typed 100 words a minute! I didn’t know a business would have even one manual typewriter, let alone all manual typewriters,” she remembers. Three electric typewriters finally arrived in March 1977. It wasn’t long before others saw the benefits of the new technology, and the transition to all electric typewriters was soon complete.
The transition to allowing employees more than one pen at a time took a bit longer. An employee had to request a pen from the business manager, who gave out only one at a time when an empty pen was returned. The legendary Dutch thriftiness that translated into careful business practices continued into the 1990s with the policy of one pen per employee.
The first Macintosh computer arrived in 1987 to manage the author and title index of the complete catalog. Using a Macintosh Plus, employees keyed in information one time and used it many times thereafter. Designer Dan Malda recognized the possibilities for book design as well. Previously, all interior book design was outsourced, but by 1988 all books were typeset on the Mac computers. Soon all art and design work was done on the Mac as well. The change meant a 75 percent reduction in per-page costs and a minimum of a month off the production schedule. What once took weeks from an outside service provider would take just a few days in-house.
“Any time we could demonstrate a need, the Bakers were very open to new technology, programs, and procedures,” said Malda, who continues as director of design and typesetting at Baker Publishing Group. “The change allowed me to hire additional staff to handle the volume. The cost savings covered the wages of the employees while maintaining the dramatic reduction in per-page cost.”
The Transition Years
Herman Baker was a constant presence at Baker Book House from the beginning in 1939 until his retirement in 1987. He took an active role in running the business and as a caretaker of the evangelical, Reformed tradition. He cared deeply about the employees, calling each by name. In fact, after his retirement he continued coming to work every day except for the several weeks he and his wife, Angeline, spent in Florida each year.
“Mr. Baker was always a real gentleman. He always called each employee by name.” —Paul Hoeksema
“Mr. B had an uncanny sense of the market—he knew what to reprint and saw trends based on used books and reprints.” —Phyllis Bylsma
“My grandfather was elegant, dignified, and reserved, yet kindly. He was the subject of awe and respect, but he was never imperious.” —Dwight Baker
“Grandpa had a gentle demeanor and was soft spoken. He said to me, ‘Once you find your passion, pursue it.’” —Dave Baker
“Mr. Baker would ask me, ‘What are you working on, Marilyn?’ And he was innovative for employees. He implemented allowing Friday afternoons off in the summer—we made up the time during the week of course—and allowed us to leave early on the day before a holiday, if we had made up the time earlier.” —Marilyn Gordon
”He was always just ‘Grandpa’ to me. He was engaged in all of our lives and took an interest in what we were doing.” —Dan Baker
“Boy, could he pack books! There was never any rattle in a box Mr. Baker packed. He was patient with me, a good mentor, and a smart guy.” —Gary Popma
“We got a lot of work done, but we had a lot of fun. It was really a family-owned business; we knew everybody’s family.” —Marv Moll
“Ben Veldkamp had had a heart attack and I was filling in; I was wracking my brain trying to figure out how to keep things going. The night before my family and I left for vacation, Herm stopped by my office and said, ‘I know you’re working hard here, so take your family out to dinner.’ And he handed me fifty dollars.” —Wes Brower
Richard Baker, Herman’s oldest son, became president of Baker Book House upon Herman’s retirement. Peter Baker, Rich’s younger brother, was vice president of the retail sales division at that time as well. Despite his retirement at age seventy-six, Herman continued to play a role in the book business as publisher-at-large. He continued working until his death in February 1991 at age seventy-nine. He died doing what he loved: sitting in his chair listening to classical music at his vacation home in Stuart, Florida. His wife, Angeline, died at age ninety-one in late 2003.
Richard Baker worked his way up the ranks of Baker Book House, from sweeping floors as a boy, to the sales department as a young man, and finally to president at a time of growth and transition for the company. He and his wife, Fran, whom he met at Calvin College and married in 1957, have four children: Dawn Baker Faasse, Dwight, David, and Dan. Rich made sure the children were familiar with the company, often bringing them in to the office or warehouse on the weekends.
Moving into Trade Publishing
Richard Baker could see a need in the area of trade publishing. The man who stepped into his father’s shoes put his mark on Baker Book House by expanding the company through several key purchases that filled that need. The first, in 1992, was the purchase of the Fleming H. Revell Company and Chosen Books, both based in Tarrytown, New York. Herman Baker had reprinted many books first published by Revell, so he had developed an understanding of its strengths.
Baker Book House acquired Revell’s and Chosen’s inventory and publishing rights as well as several of their imprints. Rich Baker retained two key Revell staff members—editorial director William Petersen and marketing manager John Topliff—and began publishing Revell and Chosen books from the Grand Rapids offices.
Lonnie Hull DuPont joined the Revell staff in March 1999, having worked for a number of publishers, including Guideposts, and in business for herself in San Francisco. She eventually became editorial director for Revell and is now an acquisitions editor.
“At the time Baker bought Revell, I thought it was an odd fit. But they were good stewards of their resources, and they knew what they were doing,” DuPont said. “We’re still publishing the books they bought and still repurposing those books that came with Revell.”
Today Revell publishes about one hundred books a year, divided between fiction and nonfiction. Jennifer Leep, current editorial director of Revell, credits the 2004 release of 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper with Cecil Murphey with returning the division to a prominent place on the New York Times bestseller list for the first time in decades. Leep admits, “We believed 90 Minutes might sell well but to be honest never predicted it would sell over five million copies.”
Revell’s growth remains steady and its future bright thanks to a core group of authors and its stable team. “We have been working together for a long time and work hard at building strong relationships with authors,” Leep said. “We want Revell to feel like home for our authors. And there is something unique and special about this publishing family we’ve created.”
Emphasis on Academics
Despite the acquisition of a number of imprints that propelled Baker Book House deep into the popular Christian market, its emphasis on academic books remained strong. The company’s fiftieth anniversary in 1989 was celebrated in part with the publication of the two-volume Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, a monumental work of 2,207 pages edited by Dr. Walter Elwell, professor and dean of the graduate school at Wheaton College.
Elwell’s Encyclopedia was indicative of Baker’s solid commitment to reference works. Similar titles included the Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology (1985), edited by David Benner, and the Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, edited by Elwell and also released in 1989.
In 1989 Baker published about fifty new academic titles, which were featured in a semiannual catalog and were often sold in college and seminary bookstores. Authors included D. A. Carson, Walter Kaiser, David Hesselgrave, Mark Noll, and many others. College- and seminary-level textbooks covered numerous topics in the fields of theology, preaching, missions, philosophy, economics, and political science. By the late 1980s, psychology texts had become a specialty.
Allan Fisher was a key player in Baker’s academic book subculture, first as acquisitions editor for reference and academic books and later as director of publications until 1999.
The emphasis on academic books continues today with series such as The Church and Postmodern Culture, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament, and Engaging Culture. Individual books include Old Testament Theology by R. W. L. Moberly, Understanding Christian Mission by Scott Sunquist, and Journey toward Justice by Nicholas Wolterstorff. The current academic catalog has forty-six pages’ worth of new or updated titles and lists hundreds of backlist titles.
Expanding the Baker Vision
The 1980s and 1990s were years of growth, success, and vision for Baker Book House. Regional sales representatives were crisscrossing the nation meeting with bookstores and educational institutions, Baker Book House became the first complete line taken on by Spring Arbor Distributors, and foreign distributors put books into the hands of the world, from Canada to South Africa to Australia. Bestsellers in the late 1980s included Precious Moments books, which sold nearly one million total copies; Louis Caldwell’s graduation book After the Tassel Is Moved, which approached one million copies sold by 1990; and Happiness Is a Choice by Frank Minirth and Paul Meier, which had sold nearly five hundred thousand copies by 1990.
Technology was also making its mark on the world and on Baker Book House. The first desktop computers were being used, fax machines showed up at the office, and eventually the internet and email revolutionized communications, marketing, and electronic access to Baker products. Computers became smaller as their necessity in the workplace grew exponentially.
Baker Book House began the decade of the 1990s with one identity and exited with another, according to president Dwight Baker. Rich Baker’s purchase of Revell and Chosen in 1992 set the company on track as a trade publisher, but it was hard to reeducate the public.
“Isn’t Baker the company that does classics and reprints?” many asked. “The perception of Baker as a dusty corner of the book business stuck to us for years,” according to Dwight. “Of course, Baker did remain a publisher of classics. It was good business to continue working in that area as we established ourselves in the new markets of the late 1990s and the new millennium.
“In fact, we turned the final page on the history only recently. The last carton of Calvin’s Commentaries shipped from our warehouse in April 2013. The occasion passed without notice or fanfare, but that shipment marked the end of an era for our publishing program. Today our catalog represents only works that we introduce.”
The 1990s were also a time of transition in leadership. Rich Baker, who had led the company since 1987, stepped down in 1997, and his oldest son, Dwight, stepped in. Dwight had grown up at the company his grandfather started. Like his father, Dwight started out sweeping floors, washing windows, and packing books into boxes in the mailroom.
After graduating from Grand Rapids Christian High School, Dwight attended Calvin College and majored in art. He joined Baker Book House in 1979, was appointed art director in 1983, and became executive vice president in 1991. Dwight designed about half of the company’s book covers and jackets, while Dan Malda designed the interior pages of almost all books.
“My dad retired on the last day of a five-year paydown after the purchase of Revell. He took us through the five years of higher risk, then retired and left me with money to invest. We invested in staff, infrastructure, and authors,” Dwight said.
But Dwight faced a transition in editorial leadership in 1999 that left the company understaffed and anxious about the future, not to mention facing a serious loss of momentum. Dwight and the leadership team decided that Don Stephenson was the perfect person to lead the editorial department, but Don was in faraway San Diego and not inclined to move to chilly, snowy Michigan. Talks with Don continued over the spring and summer of 1999.
“Employees would ask me about plan B, an alternative should our negotiations with Don fall through,” Dwight said. “I didn’t have the heart to explain that I had no backup idea. Plan A was it.”
Stephenson, however, had his own plans. He and two others—Rodney Clapp and Bobbi Jo Heyboer—dreamed of starting Brazos Press, a line they hoped would publish thoughtful, theologically sound books by leading Christian thinkers from across traditions. Dwight solved all of their problems by hiring all three and bringing Brazos Press under the umbrella of Baker Publishing Group. Dwight liked their ambitions, calling them timely and relevant.
Clapp came to Baker as editorial director of Brazos and Heyboer as director of marketing for Baker Academic and Brazos. Brazos was officially launched in 1999, with three books released during its first season in the fall of 2000.
“When Don called me to accept the job, I headed down the hall to spread the good news,” Dwight recalled. “My first conversation was with two academic editors who at that very moment were holding a melancholy little conference, as they paged through a newly released academic book and identified all the errors. In fact, the work was so badly edited that we soon withdrew it from the market. Our brief conversation reflected both a low point in our publishing program and the beginning of a turnaround.”
During the summer of 1999 Paul Engle served as interim publisher, although he had already accepted a job offer elsewhere. “He kept this private to avoid exacerbating my obvious anxiety,” Dwight said, “dutifully managing his department until the week Don arrived.”
The careers of these two capable men overlapped at Baker Publishing Group for a single afternoon; it was the first surprise Don Stephenson faced upon his arrival, with many others to follow.
“Through it all,” Dwight remembers, “I assumed that all the little pieces would just magically come together again, if Don would just show up here and get to work. That’s essentially what happened, with a lengthy series of speed bumps along the way.”
On the retail side of the company, all stores except the Kentwood location eventually closed. Then in 1996, Baker Book House experienced a devastating loss when Peter Baker, vice president of retail sales, passed away from leukemia. He was fifty-two years old and left behind his wife, Carol, and four children. Peter was Herman Baker’s second son and a visionary in book retailing, one of the first to open a bookstore, Pooh’s Corner, devoted exclusively to children’s books.
One of the key changes made during this time reflected the growth and breadth of Herman Baker’s vision and Richard Baker’s forward thinking. The publishing divisions began operating under the name Baker Publishing Group, though the name Baker Book House Company survives as the official name of the organization. The bookstore in Kentwood kept the Baker Book House moniker, a reflection of the original name given so long ago to a small bookstore that sold used books.
The New Millennium
The early years of the new millennium saw Baker Publishing Group expanding once again, this time nearly doubling the line and strengthening exponentially its reach into the fiction market with the purchase of Bethany House Publishers. Bethany House, based in Bloomington, Minnesota, is well known for its deep historical fiction line, contemporary and Amish fiction, and vibrant nonfiction line. Its authors include Beverly Lewis, Lynn Austin, Julie Klassen, Tracie Peterson, Dee Henderson, Albert Mohler, Dr. William Marty, Stephen M. Miller, Jack Graham, and a host of other award-winning novelists and nonfiction writers.
Jim Parrish started at Bethany House in 1984 in sales and customer service, eventually becoming business manager and vice president. In 2008 he became executive vice president and director when Gary Johnson stepped aside as president of the division.
“When we were informed that Bethany Fellowship was planning to sell the publishing house, we were shaken by the idea that a New York publisher or conglomerate might purchase Bethany House and promptly break the company apart, reorganize, consolidate, let most of our staff go, and eventually lose the distinctive character of Bethany House,” said Parrish, who also leads Chosen Books. “But when we heard the buyer was Baker, we were greatly relieved. We knew Baker to be a strong and stable presence in the publishing world. And, under Baker, Bethany House, like the other Baker divisions, continues to develop its own unique focus and identity to meet the needs of the authors we partner with and the readers we serve.”
Dave Horton, vice president of editorial for Bethany House, agrees. “We had gotten to know their president at the time, Rich Baker, over the years, and anyone who has had interaction with the Baker family has found it to be a positive experience. That added a layer of comfort, knowing we would be working with these good people.”
Parrish had served with Rich Baker on a CBA board in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “I appreciated Rich’s no-nonsense get-the-job-done attitude. I also became aware of his personal interest in getting books overseas. He was willing to make sacrifices to see that Baker books serve the needs of readers far outside our borders.”
For Horton, a chance meeting at the Baker CBA booth spoke volumes about Rich Baker and the Baker family: “I complimented him on a Baker book I had read; he told me that if I was interested in any other Baker titles to give him a call and he’d send it. Six months later I did just that. The book was sitting on my desk the next day. He was serious about people reading his books.”
That respect continues under the leadership of Rich’s son Dwight Baker. “He’s thoughtful and thought-provoking, confident and decisive,” Horton said. “We can get an answer within minutes to a question that could take a board or committee days or weeks to work on. And he’s humble enough to take the blame if a decision goes awry. That is an admirable trait.”
The purchase of Bethany House Publishers ramped up Baker Publishing Group to another level, expanding its reach and its product lines. In 2007, Don Stephenson retired, replaced by Jack Kuhatschek as executive vice president and publisher. Kuhatschek had joined Baker Publishing Group in 2005 as editorial director of the Baker Books division.
“When I came to Baker Publishing Group in 2005, I was very encouraged by the amazing growth the company had experienced in recent years,” Kuhatschek said. “I also saw great potential for additional growth and ministry, and I was eager to join the very talented editorial team and to help them move to the next level.”
The early 2000s—a time of continued growth and deepened commitment to reaching readers with fine books—were the calm before the storm of a huge recession that hit the United States, with Michigan particularly hard hit. Sales in 2008 and 2009 plummeted as consumers struggled to make ends meet due to job loss and higher costs of living. The book publishing industry was hit especially hard, with Baker Publishing Group no exception.
Many other companies went through staff reductions during this time, a step that Dwight Baker sought to avoid. Instead, the company announced in late 2008 that every employee making more than twelve dollars per hour would receive a 5 percent pay cut. This action, in addition to a hiring freeze and many other spending reductions, enabled the company to get through the recession. Staff members’ pay was later restored as economic conditions improved.
Office staff also took shifts in the warehouse when the hiring freeze meant warehouse workers were falling behind in processing returns. They donned jeans and T-shirts and got to work opening cartons, putting books back on shelves, and handling damaged books.
“When their backs are against the wall, the Bakers’ way has been to take austerity measures,” said Chad Allen, who did his shifts in the warehouse. “It was the right thing to do. Dwight demonstrated that there is more to life than money. His priorities are people, books, and community.”
The company also banded together to support employees in times of personal crisis. One of these took place in 2009 when the wife of human resources director Dan Baker, youngest son of Richard Baker, was critically injured in a car accident and later died, leaving two children behind. The staff of Baker Publishing Group prayed and provided encouragement and support to one of their own.
For Wes Brower, executive vice president of finance and operations, the Baker family showed their support and concern when his son Dan was battling leukemia at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago a number of years ago. The family received many cards and gift baskets and much prayer support through Dan’s three-and-a-half-month battle with the disease that took his life.
A number of people at the company had their bone marrow tested—at company expense—to see if they were a match for Dan Brower. None were, but several years later one of those tested matched someone in need. The bone marrow donation was made and was a success.
Looking to the Future
The future is bright for Baker Publishing Group. Baker Book House, the retail arm of the company, recently underwent a million-dollar renovation to update and expand the store. Current bestsellers, backlist titles, and a deep academic section draw casual readers and scholarly experts. Customers come from around the world to shop the store’s ninety thousand used books and bargain area; authors—from Ted Dekker to Liz Curtis Higgs to Charles Stanley—are eager to do events at the store; and the community has found a meeting place replete with private conference rooms, Wi-Fi, a café, event space, and comfortable seating.
Broader service to the Christian publishing and retail community remains part of the Baker ethos. It began with Herman Baker playing a key role in the start of CBA and ECPA and continued with Rich Baker’s role on the boards of CBA and ECPA. Dwight Baker is part of the ECPA executive committee today, and Sue Smith, store manager of Baker Book House, is chairperson of the CBA board of directors.
Baker Publishing Group, always ready to tackle new trends, was on the cutting edge of the ebook revolution in 2008 when The Pawn by Steven James and unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons became the first Baker Publishing Group ebooks. Between 2008 and 2012 almost all backlist titles were converted to ebook format. The current focus is on frontlist title conversion, with all new titles (300–350 titles a year) released in ebook form to accommodate the habits of twenty-first-century readers. The company has about twenty-five resellers (such as Amazon and Apple) of ebooks in the United States and abroad.
“Sales and profits from digital books have helped us continue publishing with minimal interruption to the company,” said Dave Lewis, executive vice president of sales and marketing. “Fiction was the category that exploded for ebook sales first, and the reason we have kept pace with the overall industry in ebook sales.”
Lewis credits Nathan Henrion and others in the sales department who were quick to understand the power of promoting certain ebooks at low prices to find new readers.
“We love to experiment with price points, then measure the results and create new promotions based upon the knowledge gained in the process,” Lewis said. “We predict that ebooks will become one-third of the total sales of Baker Publishing Group within the next five years.”
The publishing company converts most of its titles to ebooks at the Ada offices, using outside vendors only when necessary. Lewis said, “We believe that doing our own conversions creates a more reliable and better-looking ebook.”
With an active list of 2,800 titles and an annual output of 270 new works, Baker Publishing Group continues to look to the future. Now in its third generation of Baker family leadership, the company is preparing for the next decades. Dwight Baker created a governing board in September 2012 made up of Dwight and Dan Baker and six nonfamily members. These thoughtful men and women are tasked with guiding the organization into the fourth generation and beyond. And while Dwight leads Baker Book House Company, the ownership of the company is shared among the second and third generations of the Baker family.
Rich Baker sees much to praise at the company his father started and that he piloted for a decade. “There is always a market for books from Baker Publishing Group. We can go along as an independent publisher for years. I’m very optimistic for our immediate future with the position we’re in and the grace of God.”
Baker Publishing Group looks to the future even as it celebrates the past seventy-five years. The company’s goal remains the same, reflecting the words of Herman Baker: “We love to sell a good book. There is no better business to be in.”
Note from Dwight Baker
When we review the past few decades, it becomes clear that we have made our greatest progress during those periods when our confidence and comfort levels are comparatively low. I refer to those occasions when we have over-extended ourselves and faced demands that were outside our usual boundaries. The challenge might appear in the form of a business acquisition or an ambitious new project. Or it might arrive in the form of a threat, such as the recession, a large failure, or the departure of a highly valued employee.
The scope of our publishing and retailing services will continue to expand as long as we don’t grow too comfortable in our own space. We do our best when we are in over our heads, and we eventually forget about how panicked we felt at the time. That’s one of the amazing aspects about book publishing. Yes, it is conservative by nature and rich with tradition, but every morning on the job I still feel like a freshman. There is still so much to learn about serving the church through publishing, and that is its enduring joy.