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Zondervan Publishing Executive Details His Anti-Mass Marketing System

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PHOENIX ( -- Praise the Lord and pass the pyromarketing was essentially the message delivered by one of the nation's most successful religious book publishers to attendees at the Magazine Publishers of American Retail Conference here yesterday.
Zondervan has sold 21 million copies of 'The Purpose-Driven Life' by harnessing networks of evangelical Christian consumers.

"Pyromarketing" is the term coined by Zondervan to describe the methods it has used to sell surprisingly large numbers of books in recent years. The Grand Rapids, Mich., company has gained wide attention in national book distribution circles with The Purpose-Driven Life, a title that has sold more than 21 million copies since its release in October 2002.

Anti-mass marketing
Greg Stielstra, Zondervan's senior director of marketing, yesterday detailed his anti-mass-marketing methods and explained how he believed them to be scalable to other sales and marketing projects.

In doing so, he gave glimpses into the inner workings of the tightly networked, several-million strong world of the evangelical Christian community, which is exerting significant influence on American culture as evidenced by successes as diverse as The Passion of the Christ and the 2004 presidential election.

Demonstrating his own marketing savvy even as he explained it to a roomful of book and magazine retail executives, Mr. Stielstra promoted his forthcoming HarperBusiness book Pyromarketing, which further amplifies the strategies he discussed.

Pyromarketing principles
Pyromarketing's principles, which flashed onscreen during his presentation, are as follows:

1. Gather driest tinder (or: the most impassioned consumers)
2. Touch with match (or: marketing plan)
3. Fan flames
4. Save coals.

All of this, he said, was impossible without the "oxygen" of a powerful product.

These tenets, he said, underpinned Zondervan's initial plan to "reach thousands [of consumers] in order to sell millions" of The Purpose-Driven Life. He said his company had to take this approach because it then lacked a celebrity author and a massive ad budget -- or even a secular subject matter that would ensure heavy coverage in mainstream media.

Christian consumer base
What Zondervan did have was a highly networked Christian consumer base, which attends church faithfully and frequently visit Web sites such as, which is run by Purpose-Driven Life author Rick Warren. So Zondervan targeted 400,000 churchgoers and 1,200 pastors. It sold them copies of the book for $7 (its retail price is $20). It tied sermons by Mr. Warren, which he posted at, to specific chapters in the book. It suggested churchgoers read one chapter a day for 40 days, and reinforced the message further with what Mr. Stielstra said were "parallel," locally targeted radio broadcasts.

"The only way to get rich is to start slowly," Mr. Stielstra said. The difference between his "pyromarketing" and mass-marketing was that mass-marketing encourages little more than a "quick flash" of sales success -- even in enormously successful mass-market books, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton's Living History.

Although the success of The Purpose-Driven Life might appear to owe more to its consumer base than its carefully executed marketing strategy, in an interview with the lanky and energetic Mr. Stielstra insisted the approach could work elsewhere.

Online and offline infrastructure
The key, he said, is relying on the online and offline infrastructure that links networks of enthusiasts. He said if he promoted a book about quilting to "one-tenth of one percent of left-handed quilters," he could land the title on the nonfiction best-seller list and prime it for even bigger success. (As the Christian community was largely invisible to the secular mainstream until recently, so remains the sizable quilting community.)

"The passionate are influencers," he said.

The enormous successes of explicitly Christian works such as Mr. Warren's Purpose-Driven Life and the movie The Passion of the Christ have made many mainstream publishers to take note of the massive Christian market. But Mr. Stielstra contended that outsiders marketing to what he called the "core committed" of any niche faced potential pitfalls.

The core committed
"The core committed can spot a counterfeit a mile away," he said, whether the core are urban rap fans or evangelicals. A marketer "better make sure [it] understand[s] the culture intimately" if it's counting on a tightly targeted pyromarketing strategy to spearhead an ambitious marketing plan.

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