Calvin Demmon tells all

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Friday, September 30, 2005
Christian History Project
ends sadly, but not badly

I got a sad letter in the mail this week:

"Dear Calvin,

"This letter is to inform you that the Christian History Project is in the process of winding up its business operations. This has been a difficult decision to come to, and was arrived at only after considering all alternative options.

"As many of you know, at the end of December 2004, the Christian History Project was broken into. Their server, which contained all their customer records and business processes, was stolen. It took them five weeks to get back to where they could resume operations, but the damage mortally affected their already fragile business. Despite untiring efforts by the staff and significant financial input from some directors, they have not been able to re-build the business to a self-sustaining status.

"The directors have engaged my services to wind up the Christian History Project, and I am in the process of selling off equipment. After meeting the normal operating expenses, any monies remaining from the proceeds, as well as funds from receivables recovered by the partnership, will be used to pay off creditors. . . . "

Until I got the letter (from Brian Lehr, with whom I once rode the killer roller coaster in the West Edmonton Mall), I wasn't aware of the break-in. But I knew the project was in deep trouble.

Its problems began long before the computer snafu. All or nearly all the editorial staff was dismissed from the project in about March 2004; I'd left three months earlier, having become both unaffordable and unhelpful. I hadn't heard much since then, except that Ted Byfield, the editor, was working with his wife at his home, trying to produce copy for more books.

The series had been well received by those who actually saw the books, but it never achieved the level of sales required by the expenses, and it was just one long money-bleed. I believe the investors sunk more than $5 million into the project, and they've pretty much lost it all.

What happened is that the business plan, drawn up maybe five years ago, was predicated upon making telephone sales to pre-selected prospects on purchased lists. Time-Life Books had amassed a fortune that way, and some of the CHP principals had successfully used the same research/production/sales system for a multi-volume publication covering the history of Alberta, Canada. All the early projections said the CHP would work just as well.

Then, about three years ago, the whole telemarketing thing went up in smoke, with consumer protests leading to creation of the "do not call" list by the U.S. federal gov't. CHP's sales-callers (I met some of them in Edmonton and they were fine folks, not your typical boiler-room bunch) had to make umpty-umpty calls before even reaching anybody, using lists that had to be repeatedly vetted through cumbersome, expensive computer filters that deleted the names on the "do not call" list. Even without the don't-call list, everybody had gotten fed up with sales calls and would hang up without listening -- as I would do myself.

They just couldn't make enough sales over the phone with all these difficulties, and there wasn't any workable alternate plan. Volume I was actually a loss-leader; it cost more to produce than it brought in from a customer. The hoped-for money was in subscriptions to subsequent volumes. That meant, for one thing, that selling the first volume by itself in a bookstore wouldn't work, nor could you package two or three of the volumes at a retail price low enough for the stores to be interested. They also tried marketing the thing through churches, libraries, and schools, but they hadn't planned to do that and it couldn't have been done on the necessary scale anyway, in the short time that remained.

Financially, the project was a failure, but it was a success on other fronts. It produced at least five volumes (maybe six -- this is one of the little details I'm not certain about) of wonderfully assembled words and pictures about a crucially important passage of history. It started with the death of Christ and ended up (by running out of money) somewhere in the 9th or 10th century (I guess), after astonishing sidetrips into such currently important matters as the history and intent of Islam.

I need to admit that my own efforts in the editorial department in the period before I left weren't really up to snuff, for a variety of reasons. My problems certainly didn't sink the magazine, but I couldn't help it very much.

They still owe me $3,000. I don't expect to see any of it, and I won't be upset if I don't. I'd rather that whatever cash they scrape together in liquidation go back to those poor guys who sunk all their retirement money into the thing. I know some of them very well. I grieve for them. And for the readers of those beautiful first volumes, who will have to piece together the subsequent 1,000 years of Christianity on their own.


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