The House of Zondervan: Celebrating 75 Years

The House of Zondervan: Celebrating 75 Years

by Jim Ruark

Hardcover(Revised ed.)

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The year was 1931, and in a farmhouse in Grandville, Michigan, brothers Pat and Bernie Zondervan were quietly making publishing history. They started by purchasing and reselling some “remaindered” book from Harper & Brothers, then quickly moved into a publishing operation of their own, which, thanks to faith, industriousness, business savvy, and the right people, prospered in the midst of the Depression. It has been flourishing ever since. What began as Pat and Bernie’s vision has become today’s premier Christian communications company, meeting the needs of people across the world with resources that glorify Jesus Christ and promote biblical principles. This is the story of how it all happened. The House of Zondervan is a fascinating, richly human look at the people and the relationships, the faith and the labor, the struggles and heartbreaks as well as the triumphs, the accomplishments of yesterday and the challenges and opportunities of today, that both make up our heritage and point toward our future. Here are authors who have shaped the face of evangelicalism and helped people across the world experience the power and grace of God’s kingdom. Here too are editors and marketers who have brought to light some of Christianity’s most gifted and important voices. And here are leaders who have not only defined the course of our company but embodied its character and instilled it in those they have led. The story of Zondervan is also the story of its enterprises past and present—a story of retail stores; record and music publishing; bestselling Bibles and Bible translations such as the New International Version; rich and diverse partnerships; constantly shifting relationships in the publishing and bookselling industry; and innovations in marketing, research, product development, and author care that have earned us our place at the vanguard of Christian communications. Above all, the history of Zondervan is the story of lives reached and transformed by the grace and power of God. And it is a testimony to Jesus Christ, the Lord we love and serve, who has been faithful to us as we have strived to be faithful to him. Welcome to The House of Zondervan. We hope you enjoy your stay!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780310271505
Publisher: Zondervan
Publication date: 07/01/2006
Edition description: Revised ed.
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.25(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jim Ruark has been in journalism and publishing for more than 50 years, more than 41 of them as an editor with Zondervan. He is a graduate of Gordon College (B.A., English and literature) and attended Calvin Theological Seminary. He has contributed to several books on publishing and editing and is author of The House of Zondervan, the history of the publishing company's first 75 years.

Read an Excerpt

The House of Zondervan

Celebrating 75 Years
By James E. Ruark


Copyright © 2006 the Zondervan Corporation
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-310-27150-9

Chapter One

Dawn at the Farm

It is both ironic and appropriate that the publishing house known as Zondervan should begin on a family farm in Grandville - ironic because neither Pat nor Bernie Zondervan ever felt cut out for farming, and appropriate because the farm held so much of their roots and heritage

Peter John was born April 2, 1909, in Paterson, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City that still harbors a substantial Dutch community. His brother, Bernard Dick, was born on October 8, 1910, in Harrison, South Dakota, after the family moved to the upper Midwest to take up farming. After that the boys' only sister, Mary Ann, better known as "Bonnie," arrived

Eventually the children ended up on a farm in Grandville, Michigan, southwest of Grand Rapids, in a then completely rural area. By that time, however, their mother, Petranella, had gone through a divorce and then married a man named Louis Zondervan, who adopted the children so that they would share his surname.

Petranella, an immigrant from the Netherlands, was pleased to be living only a few miles from her brother, William B. Eerdmans. Pat, Bernie, and Bonnie were joined by five more brothers, George, William, Harold, Louis Jr., and Ted.

Somehow Peter came to be known as "Pat," and that's the only name most people ever knew him by. People were as likely to guess that his real name was Patrick. One puzzled bookstore clerk who obviously had never been paid a visit by the brothers wrote to the publishing house in 1945:

Dear Pat and Bernie,

I am not familiar enough with you to know if Pat and Bernie are brothers or if Pat stands for Patricia and you are Mr. and Mrs. I am very interested to find out.

Myra Bemis The Book Shop Fullerton, California

For Bernie there was never any confusion. He was named after his mother's father. Dutch names can be fascinating! "Zondervan" is a Dutch expression that means literally "without a from." This name probably dated from the days of the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands when the indigenous Dutch were required to register according to where they lived. The Zondervans evidently identified themselves as "from nowhere". Peter and Bernard not only wore their "out of nowhere" name proudly, but also made it immortal - or at least a household word in many a minister's library and religious institutions around the world.

* * *

Given the large family and the traditional Dutch love of hearth and hospitality,. there was a virtual "open door" policy at the Zondervan farm. Everyone referred to Nellie Zondervan as "Ma." The fellows and girls from the neighborhood and church would often be found at the farm, playing ball in summer and making themselves at home indoors in winter. Ma always had a supply of freshly baked bread, cookies, or other Dutch treats on hand. As her children grew up, the extended family enriched Ma's life. Pat and Bernie's younger brother Bill recalls, "She was a true mother, and she was a true woman of the house. Nothing thrilled her or excited her more than to have all her family - grandchildren and great-grandchildren - come home on holidays "

The home was typically Dutch also in its religious practice. The Bible was read after every meal, and the whole family went to church twice on Sunday . It is no wonder that Pat and Bernie later saw their book enterprise not only as a business but also as a ministry to present and spread the gospel.

It was at the farm as well that the brothers learned to work hard. They got their first taste of selling in driving their dad's horse and wagon into southwest Grand Rapids and peddling farm produce door-to-door. Pat recalled that muskmelons were a special favorite of their customers

If they didn't care for farming when they grew older, neither did they disparage the Puritan work ethic that had been instilled in them. In later years Louis Zondervan remarked Calvinistically on the way things turned out for his boys Pat and Bernie: "You never know what God will do. He makes one rich, and the other one he keeps poor. That's the way he does it. And these boys succeeded pretty well. I must put it this way: It's God's work and all in his hands. Every way it turned out, God has used them, it's true, but all the same. He was the one who blessed the work, so that's why they got what they got!"

Early on, Pat wanted to be a preacher. Walking behind a plow on the farm didn't suit him; yet it gave him a chance to try out and develop a preaching style. "I wanted to get into the Lord's work," Pat remembered, "and then the only church employment I knew was either as a minister or a missionary. I just wanted to preach."

Perhaps as much for her sake as for Pat's - for who can abide a restless son? - Nellie Zondervan arranged for Pat to live with the Eerdmans family and work for Uncle Bill. This was in 1924, when Pat was fifteen. He had gone as far as the tenth grade in Grand Rapids Christian High School and then tried the Davenport McLaughlin Business Institute briefly. That was the extent of his formal education. But he learned much from his uncle that he could never have learned in school. He also got some advice: William Eerdmans had attended Calvin Seminary for a year, so with some authority he told Pat, "You can have a much wider ministry in selling Christian books than in being the pastor of one church." Pat took the counsel, and his uncle put him to work at once. Even so, Pat did become a gifted lay preacher for the Gideons International by the time he was thirty.

Pat remembered, "I was handyman around the publishing business and around my uncle's house." In the home he helped out as babysitter, auto mechanic, and groundskeeper. At the publishing house, he said, "I began by sweeping floors, then working in the warehouse and shipping. Then I worked in the offices and finally became Eerdmans' first salesman." He was a good salesman. Some of his early selling efforts consisted of pedaling his bicycle around to homes in Grand Rapids to peddle Eerdmans' latest publications.

Then Pat began to sell out of town and gained a passion for travel that he kept for the rest of his life. He dealt with publishers and bookstores, sold books to seminarians, and scouted ministers' libraries for good used books to buy. In this way he gained an appreciation for theological and academic books that figured prominently in his own business later on.

Another invaluable experience for Pat was a trip he took to Europe with his uncle in 1930. Among the publishers and booksellers Pat met in London was Frederick Marshall of the prestigious publishing firm of Marshall, Morgan & Scott. This meeting paved the way to an opportunity for Pat and Bernie to begin dealing in foreign rights some four years later, and foreign rights became another crucial aspect of Zondervan publishing.

* * *

With all this experience in the publishing world, it didn't take Pat long to decide what to do after he was fired by Bill Eerdmans that day in July 1931. Pat set off the next month for the East Coast by car to see if he could acquire some Christian books that New York publishers couldn't sell because of the Depression doldrums. Among the books he purchased in New York were some "remainders" from Harper Brothers, especially a number of copies of J. Gresham Machen's book The Virgin Birth. Harper's price was $5.00 a copy, but Pat bought them for $1.00. Some other titles he bought at ten cents on the dollar.

By the time Pat arrived home, Bernie, who had gone to work for Eerdmans two years after Pat, was ready to join him in the enterprise. Twenty-year-old Bernie and Uncle Bill agreed that they didn't need any family competition. So Bernie left.

Then, later, when Eerdmans heard about Pat's buying the Machen books, he sent a wire to Harper, saying that "these boys don't have the money to pay for the merchandise!"

Too late! The books had already been shipped. Pat and Bernie sold them to seminary students for $1.95 each, and the Harper bill was paid on time

It was a long time before Uncle Bill forgave Pat for going into competition with him. After all, Pat had learned the publishing business from him! But sometime in the early sixties, when William Eerdmans was in his eighties, he called Pat and said, "Let's have lunch." The two went to the Schnitzelbank, a German restaurant across from the Eerdmans company, and there they were reconciled.

"Pat," said Uncle Bill, "I want you to know that I don't hold anything against you and I wish you every success in your business." The wish was a little ironic considering that Zondervan Publishing House had been prospering for more than thirty years and had surpassed Eerdmans in annual sales by that time. But the reconciliation was a delight to Pat.

"Believe me, Uncle Bill," Pat replied, "I don't hold anything against you either. If it hadn't been for you, I'd never have gotten started in this business. Thank you for calling this lunch and having this chat."

They parted as equals. Both firms have fared well since uncle and nephews parted ways back in 1931.

* * *

It must have become apparent to William Eerdmans, and to everyone else who knew them, that Pat and Bernie had learned the book business well by the time they set out on their own. Pat brought sales experience and the ability to promote products creatively; Bernie had gained a solid knowledge of the financial and production aspects of publishing. They complemented each other perfectly in the partnership they maintained for thirty-five years until Bernie's death in 1966.

The brothers shared many personality traits, even though many who knew them tended to think first of their differences. Perhaps the greatest difference was that Bernie was generally quieter and more reserved. If they were walking down the street and chanced to see one of their employees, Bernie would acknowledge that person with a beaming smile; Pat would as likely wave and call out a greeting. Otherwise, the brothers held in common a strong Calvinistic acceptance of life, a friendly mien, a keen business sense, and a love for work. And true to their religious heritage, they grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, learned and practiced a vital faith, and determined to serve God both in the work of the church and in their vocation.

Their vocation clearly was publishing. "In view of the fact that Bernie and I didn't like farming," Pat once recalled, "and since the only other occupation that either of us knew was book publishing and selling, and since we couldn't get a position with any other Christian publisher, we decided to start our own business. We had both just read a book that told about the beginning of Foyle's Bookshop in London, and that gave us courage to go out on our own, even though we had only $1,500 and were in the heart of the Great Depression." Their friends also gave them encouragement, since they had a lot of faith in the boys. They were young, they were aggressive, and they had nothing to lose.

They received permission from Ma Zondervan to use a spare upstairs bedroom to set up their business. Then they had to settle on a name. They rejected the word company as too cold; they wanted the name to have a warm and friendly sound. And since they would be operating out of the farmhouse, they thought house would be appropriate. They decided their business should be called "Zondervan Publishing House."

It is interesting that in book publishing, perhaps more than in most other businesses, there is a tradition of naming a firm after its founders. Consider how many prominent publishing firms bear the names of the originators: Scribners; Macmillan; Doubleday; Simon & Schuster; Farrar, Straus & Giroux - the list goes on and on. Perhaps this arises from a regard for books as something more personal than a typical assembly-line item.

Pat and Bernie used the term publishing because they resolved to produce their own books as soon as the opportunity arose. But first they had to get established and become known to the book trade.

* * *

The brothers' plan was to produce catalogs under their own name, listing remaindered stock and whatever other books they could acquire. Then they would call on booksellers and students in the East, South, and Midwest. (Neither ventured across the Rockies to the West Coast until Pat and Mary made the trip in 1937.) Names from denominational yearbooks and business contacts from previous trips were compiled to form Pat and Bernie's first mailing list of 2,000, and this was used for their publishing premiere - a four-page catalog. Much of their business was conducted by direct mail, using one old typewriter and a battered desk and chair.

Business grew and prospered. During the first few months Pat and Bernie each drew $10.00 a week in salary and paid their mother $7.00 of that, leaving them $3.00 apiece for gas, dating, and other personal expenses. Their total sales that December were $1,800.00.

Brother Bill, who, like Bernie, was named for his grandfather, was only a grade-school student at the time, yet he did as much as he could to help the business. After school he would help pack books into one of the closets that was supposed to hold clothes. Bill recalls getting paid $1.50 for eight hours of work.

There was also some outside help. Wilma Plas, one of six daughters of a truck farmer in nearby Wyoming, Michigan, attended the same church as Pat and Bernie - Wyoming Park Christian Reformed. While Bernie was still working for William Eerdmans, Wilma was studying at the Davenport Business School and later was a secretary for the Grand Rapids Credit Men, neither place being very far from the publishing company. They often rode together on the "interurban," the electric train line that ran between Holland and Grand Rapids and connected a number of other towns and cities in West Michigan. They started dating while they were in their teens.

During the earliest days of the business at the farm, Wilma often came to help by stuffing envelopes and licking stamps. "I can still see that crowded bedroom and the stairway filled with books so that we could hardly move in the house," she recalled. "No one used the front entrance, as that was filled with books, and on the farm everybody came through the back door anyway. Finally every available bit of space was crowded with books, boxes, and shipping material." The chicken coop and other space in the farm buildings had long since become stuffed with merchandise.

Until finally Ma Zondervan had to call a halt.

"When the living room began to fill up and there was no room for the rest of the children to play," Wilma continued, "Ma Zondervan said, 'This is enough! It's time to go out and have a sale and get rid of all these books!'"

And that's just what Pat and Bernie did.


Excerpted from The House of Zondervan by James E. Ruark Copyright © 2006 by the Zondervan Corporation. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Doug Lockhart,
President and CEO, Zondervan . 7
Prologue . 9
1. Dawn at the Farm. 15
2. Publish or Perish. 23
3. A Ministry of Books. 33
4. Winning a War. 41
5. An Era of Competition. 53
6. The Silver Anniversary . 65
7. Sharing God’s Word. 77
8. A Handbook to Remember. 89
9. A Song to Sing. 99
10. In the Shadows. 113
11. The Late Great Seventies. 123
12. Breaking New Ground. 139
13. Golden Opportunities. 155
14. Comeback. 163
15. A Purpose Driven Company. 177
16. New Horizons. 197
Afterword by Bruce Ryskamp,
Former President and CEO, Zondervan. 213
Acknowledgments . 215
Notes. 216
Index. 218

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