Chapter 1: Our History

This is part of the Thomas Nelson Way Series, an in-house curriculum for new employees. It is intended to be a “quick reference” for the things that are important to us. You can click here to see the introduction to the series and our thinking behind it.

Cuimhnich air na daoine o’n d’thainig thu (Remember the people from whom you have come.)
— A Gaelic Proverb

Our company has a long and fascinating history. The story begins in Scotland with the birth of Thomas Neilson [sic] in 1780. Though his parents were farmers, he developed an interest in printing, the most high-tech industry of the 18th century. As a result, his parents sent him to London to become an apprentice in a print shop on Paternoster Row, which was kind of the Silicon Valley of the Day.

Painting of Thomas Nelson’s Castle Hill Location in Edinburg, Scotland

In 1798, at the tender age of 18, Neilson started a second-hand bookstore in Edinburgh, Scotland. The store was located at 7 West Bow Street. The store did quite well, but in the early 1800s, he decided to branch out. He began to realize there was a market for inexpensive editions of public domain books. So, in 1818, he began reprinting the classics. He also legally changed the spelling of his name to “Nelson.”

Unlike other publishers who catered to the wealthy, Thomas Nelson had a vision to make the world’s greatest books affordable to “common folk.” At first, other booksellers boycotted his inexpensive editions. So, he went around them and held book fairs in various towns and villages around Edinburgh.

In 1829, he launched another publishing innovation. He sent out traveling sales reps to call on booksellers in southern Scotland and northern England. This was also initially resisted by booksellers but eventually became the industry norm.

Thomas Nelson had two sons. William joined the firm in 1835 at the age of 19. He took responsibility for the sales and marketing side of the business. Thomas, Jr. joined the firm in 1839 at the age of 17. He took responsibility for the editorial and production side of the business. The Nelson brothers brought fresh energy and vision to the company. It grew rapidly.

Thomas Nelson and his sons soon moved the company from West Bow to Castle Hill. They also opened an office in London at 35 Paternoster Row—the very street where Thomas Nelson had been a printer’s apprentice as a teenager.

But just a few years later, with increasing demand for their books, they outgrew the Castle Hill facility. In 1845, they built a new facility at Hope Park on the south side of Edinburgh. By 1878, thirty-three years later they had over 400 employees.

In 1850, Thomas, Jr. perfected a rotary press, and demonstrated a model of it at the Great Exhibition in London the following year. It is no exaggeration to say that this was the single biggest technological advance in printing since Gutenberg. It dramatically reduced the cost of printing, making books even more affordable for the masses. Unfortunately, he never patented his invention. It was quickly replicated and adopted by publishers and printers throughout the world.

By 1854, Thomas Nelson had become the largest publisher in Scotland. In that same year, the company opened an office in New York City. It was the first British publisher to do so. In addition to Edinburgh, London, and New York, it would eventually have offices in Toronto, Leipzig, Sydney, Capetown, and other African cities.

For some families, employment at Thomas Nelson was a hereditary occupation. Many workers spent the whole of their career at the company. The company had a structured system of training and apprenticeship programs. It even fed its employees one meal a day at the company’s expense. They often invited preachers in to speak to the employees while they ate.

Thomas Nelson, Sr. himself died in Edinburgh on March 23, 1861. He was 81 years old. To the end, he demonstrated the faith and integrity that had guided him throughout his life. When he was told that his death was near, he replied calmly, “I thought so; my days are wholly in God’s hands. He doeth all things well. His will be done!” He then picked up his Bible on his bedside table and said, “Now I must finish my chapter.”

While Thomas Nelson and his sons prospered, they were not immune to hardship.

In April 1878, the expanded Hope Park facility, the company’s main headquarters, production plant, and warehouse, completely burned to the ground. Not a single book, piece of machinery, or building survived. Yet, while the ruins still smoldered, Thomas, Jr. was already ordering new presses and other equipment. Thankfully, workers discovered that a number of plates, woodcuts, and type, stored in fireproof vaults, had escaped destruction. The city of Edinburgh helped set up temporary work areas and competing printers offered time on their presses. Within two months, the company was back up and running.

Two years later, Thomas Nelson moved into a new facility at Parkside Terrace, on Edinburgh’s south side. In 1885, the company published its first Bible, the King James Version. This move proved to be strategic. Bible publishing soon become the company’s second largest business. William died in 1887 at the age of 70. Thomas, Jr. died in 1892 at the age of 71. It was the end of an era.

George Brown, Thomas, Jr.’s son-in-law, and John Buchan, a renowned novelist, biographer, and political correspondent, took over the day-to-day management of the company. Thomas, Jr. had two sons, Tommy and Ian. When they finished their education, they joined the firm and eventually took the helm. By the early 1900s, the company had become the largest publisher in the English language.

Unfortunately, the company suffered another major setback in 1917. After 18 months on the front line, Tommy Nelson was killed in battle. Buchan wrote, “His death made a bigger hole in the life of Scotland than any other man of his years…. He was a rare being because he was so superbly normal.” He was 40 years old.

Following Tommy’s death, his brother Ian took over. This began the long, slow decline of the company. He just didn’t seem to have a talent for running the large multi-national publishing company that Thomas Nelson had become.

The company suffered another setback in WWII. At the height of the German blitz, the company’s London offices were bombed to rubble. It took years for the company to fully recover. This was due, no doubt, to Ian’s lack of leadership ability and the difficult economic circumstances in Europe following the war. Worse, the company lost its sense of mission and vision. It began to drift.

At this point, further decline was inevitable. Ian died in 1958. His son Ronald took over. He had less ability than his father and even less interest in the business. In 1962, it was merged into The Thomson Organization. The new management separated the editorial and printing businesses and sold the Edinburgh operation. In reality this was the death of the company.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., a young Lebanese immigrant by the name of Sam Moore had started his own publishing company. In 1958, he founded the National Book Company to sell Bibles door-to-door. In 1962, he incorporated Royal Publishing, so that he could print Bibles himself. To finance the venture, he sold stock to about 250 people, including Billy Graham’s mother.

The new company published its first Bible in 1963. It grew over 100% a year for each of the next five years. Moore became so successful that Lord Thomson, head of the Thomson organization, invited Sam to lead the U.S. office of Thomas Nelson. Sam prayed about the offer and then surprised Lord Thomson by offering to buy Thomas Nelson.

On March 7, 1969, Royal Publishers acquired Thomas Nelson and adopted its name. The company flourished under Moore’s leadership. He was the company’s CEO for 36 years, retiring in August 2005, after the biggest year in the company’s history. I succeeded Sam Moore as the company’s CEO and continue to serve in that role.

Today, Thomas Nelson is the largest Christian publisher in the world and the sixth largest trade book publisher in the U.S. We have three campuses—two in Nashville and one in Dallas—and 650 employees. This past year, we opened offices in Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, and Beijing. While publishing is still at the heart of what we do, we also host live events through our Women of Faith and Revolve conference brands. We are more open than ever to new technologies and formats that will enable us to fulfill the simple vision of our founder to “honor God and serve people.”

Note: If you are interested, you can view a gallery of old Thomas Nelson photos and paintings here.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • http://www.colleencoble.com Colleen Coble

    Wow, I had no idea, Mike. I knew Sam was CEO before you, but I thought Thomas Nelson was Thomas Nelson from way back with no interruption.

    So great to see the word WestBow! I still miss that distinction for the fiction division.

  • http://hopeofglory.typepad.com Nicole

    Fascinating story.

    (Two copy editing errors in the final paragraph–first and third sentences.)

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Matt Karnes

    This is a wonderful history. Suggestion:

    “…and competing printers offered time on their presses. ”

    If you know the names of any of the firms that donated press time it would be good to mention them. They deserve the honor.

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    Nicole, Thanks for the catch. I have fixed both errors. Matt, alas, I don’t know the names of the printers.

  • Beth Ryan

    Mike,

    The only thing I might add to this chapter is the title of the first book ever published by Thomas Nelson, wasn’t it Pilgrims Progress?

  • Douglas Schultz

    Great story! Thanks for sharing. I am a big believer in passing on corporate knowledge and the companies vision, mission, values and beliefs through storytelling. Personally, I find myself recalling more of the content through the format of a story than a procedure manual or a vision statement framed and hanging on the wall. I belief your employees will appreciate it more.

    This is my first comment but I have been reading your blog for a few months. I have pointed several people to it. Please keep up the good work.

  • Mark Cole

    Mike,

    What an incredible story about a company so that is so influential to all of us. I think the idea of writing a book for your employees with your story is brillant and now that I have read the first chapter, I am incredibly intrigued! Great job on this! Again, I had no idea the history of Thomas Nelson and am completely inspired by it. Thanks for sharing this. When you are done, you need to make it available for the public, I think it will inspire other business and ministry leaders!

  • http://www.marydemuth.com Mary E. DeMuth

    Fascinating!

    Now, do you still feed your employees every day?

    There were a couple instances of telling, where you already showed the action well and then told it again (It begain to drift; it was the end of an era.)

    Where are your offices in Dallas?

  • Franklin

    it is my great pleasure to know the history of Thomas Nelson. Do you have office in India ?.

  • http://email.bugmenot.com/ Anon Nelson

    Thoughts from a Frequent Reader:

    First, although the EC may have chosen to compile corporate info into a ‘small book’ for internal purposes, there is still a modicum of richness required to make the effort worthwhile. Otherwise, the material smacks of a preamble to a standardized test. Memorize these facts and be ready to spew them out on a moment’s notice whenever cornered by an executive! It’s not a history but an assembly line of dates and names. Is that what’s ‘important’ to you?

    Second, there’s a real lack of creativity in the writing. I would consider hiring a professional writer to transform the concept into something that sings off the page (or screen). Reading a corporate history shouldn’t feel like a chore, but a wonderful trip that propels the employee into a more inspired place of being.

  • http://www.timothyfish.net Timothy Fish

    Because this is intended for employees of Thomas Nelson, I like the use of “our company” at the beginning. This gives the reader the sense that we are in this thing together. This is our company, this is our history, the success of the company is our success. This chapter might be helped by using similar phasing in more places. When saying “the company” it sound much more distant. For lack of a better description, I think you should use the “team point of view” throughout, so that reader feels that he has a part in the company and a part in this book.

    When you state, “I succeeded Sam Moore as the company’s CEO and continue to serve in that role,” it seems like you have changed points of view. Since this is a historical account, I think it might be better to say “Michael Hyatt succeeded Sam Moore…” even though you are the person writing this.

  • Katherine Hyde

    As a former employee, I enjoyed reading more detail about the company’s history than I ever knew while I was working there. It’s an inspiring history. Keep up the good work!

  • Bob Maier

    I enjoyed reading the history of the company and realized how difficult it must be to maintain the continuity and vision of its founders, from one era to the next. However, what I didn’t read were the explanations of the values and philosophy of the company that sustained it through difficult times and how those values survive today.

  • http://www.rachelhauck.com Rachel Hauck

    I love Thomas Nelson’s history. Thanks Mike. Some times we can’t realize our future until we understand our past.

    Rachel

  • Lorraine Rovig

    Love your blog and have no criticism of this most interesting history of your company. I like the ponit of view changing as you become a part of the history. There is one proofreading question in my mind:
    “Thomas Nelson, Sr. himself died in Edinburgh on March 23, 1861.”

    I wonder whether “himself” should be between commas? I am still confused by the old rules and the new Chicago Manual of Style rules on commas.

    PS: I’m no one important in the book world. Please do not post my email address.

  • Gary Davidson

    I have heard this story many times but it’s great to read it again to realize the story God is telling through our company. Thank you for the research and the detail you have provided for us. It is an honor to be even a small part of what Thomas Nelson has been able to accomplish in spreading God’s Word to the world. Thank you.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/petenikolai Pete Nikolai

    One way to make this more of a team project would be to post these documents on our wiki to enable collaborative writing and editing. Since we will be publishing this content in book format, it would probably be appropriate to footnote the facts so the sources are clear (and any unsubstantiated statements or myths can be identified).

    It also would be helpful to have a bibliography of the resources that are in our archive (or otherwise accessible) posted somewhere so that we can see what is available. The bibliography would also help to determine whether the purchase of an old book would be of value or unnecessary based on whether that resource is already readily available. For instance, I recently noticed a memorial biography of William Nelson but I did not purchase it since it was rather expensive and I had no way of knowing whether a copy was already in our archive.

  • Steve

    I too am wondering about the VERY first book published by Thomas Nelson. Is that documented in the company records by any chance…even to the point of determining that first edition from subsequent reprints?

    Thanks for the fascinating history lesson.

  • Joel

    Awesome work! As a former employee, I fondly remember Chuck Moore (Sam’s brother) and his recounting of the company’s inspiring history. Sam’s story is equally as exciting and inspirational. By the way, international office expansions are a tribute Thomas Nelson’s heritage. Here’s wishing you and the company a much successful and prosperous 2008.

  • http://www.newsinjector.com/about.html Vilmantas Baranauskas

    Great story. I would like to bring to your attention one possible contradiction.

    First you write:
    Unlike other publishers who catered to the wealthy, Thomas Nelson had a vision to make the world’s greatest books affordable to “common folk.”

    Later follows:
    …biggest technological advance in printing since Gutenberg. It dramatically reduced the cost of printing, making books even more affordable for the masses. Unfortunately, he never patented his invention. It was quickly replicated and adopted by publishers and printers throughout the world.

    The contradiction here lies in the word “Unfortunately”. The fact that other publishers quickly replicated this new printing technology only made Thomas Nelson’s vision closer to reality – books definitely became more affordable to “common folk”.

    I can see why this was “unfortunate” from the business point of view but it definitely made books overall cheaper and more affordable to “common folk”.

  • http://www.phenixpublicity.com Rusty Shelton

    It is very interesting to learn about the rich history of Thomas Nelson. I think compiling this information into a book is a great idea–what better way to quickly bring a new employee, prospective author, bookstore manager or investor up to speed on company values and history than by giving them a book.

    One topic that left me wanting a bit more was the reference to the first US office of Nelson, opened in 1854. I think some may be interested in learning more how successful the first international venture was. What unique challenges were in place in New York vs. London at that time? This may be coming in a later chapter but it is something that I would be interested in hearing more about.

  • http://alanlnelson.typepad.com Alan Nelson

    Mike, bah humbug on the comments of “Anon Nelson” above. “It’s not a history but an assembly line of dates and names. Is that what’s ‘important’ to you?” How pompous — and from someone who didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to register an actual name and email address to boot.

    Here’s a “cheers” to the positive and constructive feedback from the remainder of the comments above. Well deserved, and I for one congratulate you for engaging in such a public discourse with your employees (and customers).

  • http://www.bryancatherman.com Bryan Cathererman

    What a great history. And what a great idea to print you materials into a book. In the bookstore were I work, we’re forced to keep our handbook and whatnot in electronic and saved in a shared folder. I guess that’s cheaper then even printing paper to put in a binder.

  • RBonser

    Nice, inspiring read. I would have liked a few more details that would give me a little better mental photo of the times. I think this could be done without sacrificing the immediate, quick-read style. For instance, what kinds of books did Sr. build the business on? I’d like to know what the “common folk” were reading back then — just a point of curiosity. And why was Ian such a poor manager?

    Thanks for the excerpt.

  • http://thedoubleu.blogspot.com thom

    Are internal editors reviewing the text? The “himself” mentioned above is not needed, and the 81 should be spelled out and hyphenated. The best line is “Now I must finish my chapter.” Thanks for sharing; what is past is prologue.

  • http://russ-ramblings.blogspot.com Russ N.

    What a fascinating, rich history. I understand the desire to have short chapters; however, I’d love to see an expanded version of the history of the company.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com matt Karnes

    I agree with RBonser. The ansers to the question he (she?) raises might make for a more fascinating read.

  • Herman Villanueva

    Hi Mike,

    I am between writers’ critique group meetings. My mind is itching for materials to work on. Here are some comments:

    1. I commend you for having a corporate philosophy booklet.

    2. It is not encouraging to read these statements: “the were not immune to hardship, It was the end of an era, It began to drift, In reality this was the death of the company.” Find another angle, word order, and word choice to share the decline of the company. Share but shorten the details during this era. Accenuate the vision and strenght of the company.

    3. Need to bring out more of the passion, vision, and heart of Thomas Nelson during the formative years of the company. Highlight more of his character and subordinate the historical information. Details.

    4. The tone is a little bit lackluster. Need to use more words like: vision, passion, drive, hard work, inspire, spiritual dimension, bring out more heart and soul.

    5. The last paragraph is powerless. Need a stronger message to inspire employees. Need to open a door for employees to enter in. Incorporate the visions of the company.

    6. Need to present the publishing climate during early years of the company. Also, expose the hunger of the populace for knowledge. Bring out some information about the transformation of society during the industrial revolution and spiritual awakening.

    7. Delete some of the adjectives. These words lessen the impact of the sentences. These words dampen the effectiveness of the thought presented. For example, “Our company has a long and fascinating history.” This is a more direct sentence, “Our company has a fascinating history.”

    8. Share the impact to the Christian community of the King James Version of the Bible printed in 1885. Find an angle where Thomas Nelson fits in the publishing industry and global evangelism.

    9. Incorporate the employees in the scope of the writing. Find ways to talk to the reader and be a part of the story. Ask Questions. Incorporate the message of carrying the legacy of Thomas Nelson.

    10. Mike, thank you for opening the inner sanctum of your company. I bid you well.

  • peter claringbull

    Dear Sir
    I have a book the details of which are:
    By R.D. Blackmore
    Title Lorna Doone a Romance of Exmore
    Illustrations by A. M. Trotter
    Front piece coloured illustration by E F Skinner
    Spine has Oak Leaf impression and OAK CLASSICS.
    As this book is not dated I would be most interested if you could any details of its origin
    Many thanks.
    Peter Claringbull

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  • http://www.forward-living.com W. Mark Thompson

    Very interesting background of the company. Helps understand the significance of the company as well. Amazing how it’s survived. Thanks for sharing.