“We didn’t have a business plan because it was a God thing!” The story behind Armour Publishing
by Karen Tan // February 22, 2019, 11:45 pm
Christina Lim (left) and Bernice Lee (right) started Armour Publishing in 1991. "We chose the name Armour because, in a way, the books were meant to help people shelter their faith," says Christina. All photos courtesy of Armour Publishing.
Pick up a locally published Christian book, and chances are it has been published by Armour Publishing.
Armour Publishing is one of the better known local independent publishing houses. The 28-year-old company is responsible for over 300 titles in the market, with distribution networks in the region, Europe and the United States. The company’s three main markets: Christian, General and Children’s.
As a start-up almost three decades ago, the business was almost a no go.
“If I did have a business plan then I don’t need God, as the details would all have been worked out.”
With no business plan in hand but a few pieces of fleece placed before God, co-founder Christina Lim called on investors to partner her foray into publishing. She was in for a rude shock.
“I could not chart out how many books I would publish or talk about costs and revenue. I didn’t have a business plan because it was a God thing. If I did have a business plan then I don’t need God as the details would all have been worked out.
“So they (Christian businessmen) walked out.”
With a steely will and a heart fortified to do what God had placed there, Lim, then 32, was not about to give up so easily.
The publisher must be me!
Up until then, her career had been in communications. She had been waiting on God for new directions and had jumped at the opportunity to attend a writing workshop, thinking that it may be the new path God wanted her to tread.
The workshop she attended in 1990 was conducted by visiting Christian author, Elizabeth Sherrill, who had co-written Christian classics The Hiding Place and The Cross and the Switchblade.
“The participants were sharing their writing assignments with the class, saying, ‘I’ve written this and that.’ But I was struggling,” says Lim, 61.
“Then the light bulb went on, and I said, ‘Wow! God, all these writers are here, why am I aspiring to be a writer? If they are to be the writers, then they need a publisher.’ So I kay kiang (smart alec) and thought, ‘The publisher must be me!’”
Lim laughs at the memory.
With that, she looked around for potential partners at the workshop and found one in newly met acquaintance, Bernice Lee, who had worked as an editor for the big publishing names of Oxford University Press and Heinemann.
“Bernice said she would talk it over with her husband. Meanwhile, I found out that I had a mutual friend who knew her husband and could affirm my integrity. So it was a God thing … no business plan!” She chuckles again.
Armour Publishing was established in 1991 after both women shelled out $10,000 each from their own pockets.
If Christians will not do good books, who will?
In the early nineties, Singapore’s literary scene was in its infancy. Local titles like Excuse me, Are you a Model? and True Singapore Ghost Stories had hit the shelves and had served to whet Singaporeans’ appetite for local work.
Both Lim and Lee wanted to do more than tickle the fancy of readers.
“We did not draw full salaries for several years and only took an allowance. It was living on the edge.”
“We had a vision of doing good books that could also cross over into the general market place. We wanted to give people a choice, not necessarily producing texts that quoted chapter and verse, but providing a general revelation. We wanted authors who would write from a Christian worldview,” Lee says of their vision for Armour Publishing.
“The question Elizabeth Sherrill posed at the writing workshop had stuck: ‘If Christians will not do good books, who will?’
“So, our dream was to see a society with good values. And to be a help to the readers in a way that many (local) books did not seem to do then.
“People asked, ‘How did you manage?’ When we started to have staff, we had to make sure they were paid even though we did not draw full salaries for several years and only took an allowance. It was living on the edge,” Lee, 61, recalls.
We kept pouring and He kept supplying
Lim describes the first decade of business in one word: Amazing.
“God was always with us and showed His faithfulness. In the beginning people donated computers and printers. We started in Bernice’s house. My car had books and books. I had to lug them everywhere. We laboured and I grumbled, ‘Why am I doing this?'”
While friends and family rallied around them, they were not spared from the harsh realities of the publishing business.
“There were the early sacrifices of doing something that was different. We surprised the people we met. They didn’t know us and whether our books would sell, but we plodded on and persistently knocked on doors. It was tough!
“We knew there was a big picture, that’s why we clung on to it with tenacity.”
“From one place to another, God was always faithful. It was like the widow at Zarephath – we kept pouring out and He kept supplying.” Lim adds.
Despite the initial difficulties, quitting was not an option.
“We had our moments of complaining and whining to God,” says Lim. “But we knew there was a big picture behind it; that’s why we clung on to it with tenacity. So at the end of it, you give it back to the Lord.”
For Lee, it was about being obedient to His call. “It was what God had said to do. It was not a blind obedience, but based on what He was showing us. Until such time when He said stop, we just had to continue. God never owes you. So, no matter how tough things got, He would always come through. And when you have some hindsight, it gives you the courage to move forward.”
Our first book was stillborn
From managing a publishing house to learning the ropes of the industry, the pair of newbies found themselves on a steep learning curve. There were lots of scars from the school of hard knocks.
“Our first book was stillborn; it never saw the light of day. We printed 5,000 copies but we had to pulp them all,” Lee says.
The parenting title, which they had expected would be a hit for the general market and a guaranteed success, had to be pulped because Armour only had a verbal agreement with the author and no binding contract.
Their hopes were temporarily dashed, but God had other plans.
A Christian book, Journey Through the Valley, gave them their break.
It was an autobiography of local church leader, David Ng, who lost the use of all his limbs to a motor neuron disease. Though confined to a wheelchair, Ng wrote the manuscript with a probe attached to his head and told of God’s working in his life.
“God showed us that the early success we had desired had to come from a Christian book.”
The first run of a thousand books sold in no time and they had a few more reprints.
Lim remembers: “We cried buckets. I think God wanted to teach us a lesson. He showed us that the early success we had desired had to come from a Christian book. At the end of the day it was still: His will be done.”
Lee adds: “I guess we were focused on success, rather than focused on what He wanted us to do.”
Despite early triumphs, they found that publishing was only a small part within the entire value chain of the book trade.
We either grow, or we die
“It’s well and fine doing books but if you don’t get the books into the hands of people, then it’s not much point,” Lee says. “As our books were not ‘Christian-Christian’, the Christian book sellers viewed us with suspicion. Then the others who didn’t mind our books weren’t willing to take very many copies. The big distributors will only look at you if you have a track record and we didn’t! We went to the distributors but then one by one they kind of failed us.”
The hiccups and teething problems along they way only served to sharpen their vision and firm their resolve.
Lee explains: “We still wanted to publish good books and real-life stories that show God working in lives. Initially we thought it would just focus on the secular market but then we realised good books are good books.”
Another big break came from the late Anthony Yeo, often referred to as the “father of counselling”.
“We were very pleased that Anthony gave us his first manuscript which was his handbook on counselling, even though he published with The Straits Times before that. His books helped people a lot,” Lim looks back fondly.
Counselling: A problem-solving approach, published in 1993, is still on the shelves today. That was the start of an author-publisher relationship with Yeo that lasted for years.
“We realised we either grow or die. If it was of God, we had to proceed.”
As the credibility of Armour grew, more authors brought their manuscripts to the publishing house. Among them was Dr Robert Solomon who was then a lecturer at the Trinity Theological College. Today, the Bishop Emeritus of the Methodist Church continues to publish with Armour.
As business got better, they had to rethink their business strategy. “We couldn’t continue at the rate that we were going. We realised we had to either grow or die. And if it was of God, we had to see it proceed – to continue to bless people,” says Lee.
By now, with some tangible success, others were more willing to come alongside to invest in their vision.
In 2005, Lee cashed out to relocate to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Lim stepped down as an executive director of Armour Publishing in 2017.
These two remarkable women, who have blazed the trail for local authors, talk about their publishing venture as a matter of fact, but it has been a faith journey, first of tentative steps, and then in the firm strides of obedience.
They share their thoughts on good Christian literature: “A good Christian book is one that helps someone become more like Jesus, whether directly or indirectly,” Lee offers.
Says Lim: “It speaks to a person in some area of their life, and there’s a transformation. The value you receive is far more than the monetary value of the book.”
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