THE Anglican mission agency and publishing house the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) announced a growth in UK and overseas sales this week as it spoke of a new vision and an initiative to publish the work of African theologians in Africa.
Now the largest Christian publisher in the UK, it revealed its relaunch, with a new vision, website, and logo, on Thursday, the 320th anniversary of its founding by Thomas Bray, a scholar-parson who also founded the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. SPCK has also announced the acquisition of exclusive rights until 2024 on all books by the New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham the Rt Revd Professor Tom Wright.
The society’s latest published accounts show that sales have increased from £3.66 million to £4.23 million. This includes growth in the UK market, and growth overseas in sales of titles from Inter Varsity Press, a publisher that SPCK took over in 2015.
Describing itself as a “mission agency working in publishing”, SPCK set out its ambition to look overseas for both new authors and new readers. It has invested for three years in a new venture, the African Theological Publishing Network, which will publish African theologians. All the work will be carried out in Africa.
SPCK’s chief executive, Sam Richardson, said: “Up until now, the best African authors have been published by US firms, and the books were too expensive for people in Africa to buy. We have gone into partnership with three other organisations to make sure that the best Christian books by African theologians are available to them.
“African theologians want to publish their own theology, and the whole process from writing to publishing will take place in Africa. We are seed-funding the network for three years. Our aim is to see theology from everyone for everyone.”
While Christian literacy was declining in the UK, it was growing in other parts of the world, he said. “There is a huge potential market of literate young Christians around the world, and new authors, too.”
Despite the growth in the UK market over the past year, only one third of Christians buy non-fiction Christian books. More than half the books published by SPCK will fail in financial terms. This figure was consistent across the general market, too, he said.
“Half the books we publish fail in financial terms, but many of these change lives or bring important thoughts and theories into the Church.
“With decreasing religious literacy in the Church, our role is more important than ever. Surveys show that younger people spend less time reading their Bible and are less religiously literate. We are thinking about what we need to do to relate to the next generation. If you are aged 20 to 34, you are unlikely to read Christian non-fiction — and this isn’t related to a decline in reading, or the arrival of ebooks.”
SPCK said that this was why it had introduced its fiction list, headed by Catherine Fox, author of the Lindchester novels. It says that it is committed to publishing “quality” fiction that could stand up well in the general fiction market. There are also plans to expand its history list.
Legacies and donations also enable the organisation to invest in initiatives that do not make a good return, such as its list of “prison fiction” — books pitched at lower literacy levels, which can be read with prison chaplains, or in groups.
SPCK is “extremely unlikely” ever to move back into owning bookshops, Mr Richardson said. He joined the organisation in 2014, after the legal wrangle over its shops came to an end (News, 21 September 2012). He believes that the company has finally put the bitter bookshop disputes behind them.
“People are beginning to understand what happened to bookshops was part of stuff happening in the market place rather than specially to do with SPCK.
“In the 20th century, we were best known for our bookshops; in the 21st century, we will be known for our publishing,” Mr Richardson said.