He Reaps What He Sows

It's just the sort of tale a publisher of inspirational literature would love to print: a college student named Salim Ziady sees a sign on campus reading EARN $100 A WEEK and takes a job selling Bibles. The young Lebanese immigrant sets out with a briefcase full of King James versions and a heart full of zeal, only to find that some of his customers lack Christian charity. They slam doors in his face. They laugh at his accent. In his first 85-hour week, he earns only $19, and turns to his sales manager for advice. "Look," says the manager, " when the customer says no, it doesn't mean no. Just take the 'n' and put it behind the 'o' and go on."

Buoyed by that homily, Salim Ziady did go on. And today, four decades later, having Americanized his name to "Sam Moore," he is still selling Bibles. The company he runs, Thomas Nelson, is the nation's leading publisher of religious and inspirational books, controlling about 30 percent of the estimated $150 million-a-year Bible market. Now Moore is poised to become a force in the fast-growing Christian-music industry. Last month Nashville-based Nelson announced plans to acquire Word Inc., a publishing and gospel-record giant owned by Capital Cities/ABC. The $72 million deal would leave Nelson with nine of the 10 top-selling Christian books on the market (chart) and such recording powerhouses as Amy ("Baby Baby") Grant and gospel star Sandi Patti. "In book publishing, the deal will move them from a position of strength to dominance, and in gospel music, it will catapult them into prominence," says Craig Weichmann, a stock analyst for Morgan Keegan & Co. in Memphis, Tenn.

Transforming a door-to-door Bible business into a publishing and entertainment Goliath may seem as plausible as turning water into wine. But Sam Moore is a man who believes in miracles. " I like to emphasize the positive side of things," he says. It was that spirit that led Moore, who holds an economics degree, to found a door-to-door distributorship called National Book in the late 1950s, and later merge it into Royal Publishing, a Bible firm.

The Good Book was good business, but Moore needed new products to sell. He got a profitable inspiration from the King James version of the Old Testament, which contained a passage referring to cows as "kine." "I thought, 'Holy smoke, what's so uncivilized about mentioning the word "cows" in the Bible?'" he recalls. Not long afterward, Royal introduced its amplified King James Bible, an annotated version that became one of the company's best sellers. Moore later pulled together $2.6 million and merged with the U.S. division of Nelson, gaining distribution channels and a respected name in the world of religious book publishing.

But the publishing business has not always been a land of milk and honey. An Acquisition binge in the mid-1980s proved ill-timed. Profits fell sharply after Nelson purchased, among other things, a greeting-card company and a magazine publisher, which it later sold. Earnings finally picked up in 1988 after Nelson refocused on its core inspirational book business. Its most recent fiscal year, in fact, was the company's best, as the stock price doubled and sales soared 27 percent to $93.1 million.

The business is blessed by its recession-proof nature. Unlike other products, the Good Book sells particularly well in tough economic times. And Nelson, which distributes its Bibles largely through Christian bookstores, has left no page unturned. The company publishes seven of the nine major translations of the Bible and presents them in more than 650 different styles-including study Bibles, bride's Bibles, giant-print Bibles, gift Bibles and even a baby's Bible called "Precious Moments." A special version titled " The Businesswoman's Bible" contains short readings on management tied to relevant Biblical verses. It warns, for example, of the temptations on the way up the corporate ladder, recommending "consistent fellowship with the same sex" and "minimizing coed [business] travel" to guard against adultery.

Of course, even the Scripture business cannot bring eternal rewards. Sales in the Bible unit are not expected to increase as rapidly as in the past. Thus, Moore is focusing on secular offerings, including what one employee calls a "touchy-feely" line of calendars, baby books, photo albums, audio tapes and other gifts marketed through stores like Wal-Mart. In addition to titles like "How to Rescue the Earth Without Worshiping Nature" ("Save Water in the Name of Jesus" it advises), Nelson is promoting Zig Ziglar's books on salesmanship and records by Grant, a darling on the pop, as well as gospel, circuit. It's all in keeping, he says, with his mission to "honor God, serve humanity--and enhance shareholder value." As Wall Street might say, Amen.

Divine Domination Nelson and Word Inc. lead the religious-book ranks. A guide to 1991's top sellers: PUBLISHER Good Morning, Holy Spirit Inspirational messages Nelson The New World Order Pat Robertson speaks Word Life's Not Fair, But God Is Good For the discouraged Nelson Love Hunger: Recovery From Food Codependency A self-help plan Nelson The Coming Economic Earthquake Financial advice Moody SOURCE: PUBLISHERS WEEKLY