Choosing Which Books to Publish

My post, Too Many Books, Too Few Shelves, raised a lot of great questions about how we determine what we publish at Thomas Nelson. Therefore, I would like to address a persistent issue that was raised in the comments section of that post.

A Person Selecting a Red Book from a Shelf - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/akarelias, Image #7819752

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/akarelias

Let me say at the outset that I appreciate the robust dialog. It is very helpful to me, and I hope to other readers. Not only does it help me to clarify my position, but it may actually help shape my position. My thinking is not static, and neither is our strategy. It is a “work in progress.”

I also want to disagree with the assertion that somehow our decision to cut our list is “all about the money.” Forgive me for a Simon Cowell moment, but I suspect that this line of thinking primarily comes from would-be authors who can’t get published. This is simply a convenient story-line for those who don’t have the talent or the perseverance to write truly compelling proposals or manuscripts. Instead of taking responsibility for their own failure, they blame it on publishers whom they believe are more focused on money rather than their “work of creative genius.”

To be sure, it is partly about the money. Otherwise, we won’t stay in business. But that is certainly not what gets us up in the morning. At Thomas Nelson, we are all about the mission of Christian publishing (see here and here). It is our passion and our calling. But we don’t believe that these two—mission and positive financial results—are incompatible. In fact, each is essential if we are to be faithful in our stewardship.

So when it comes to choosing which books we acquire, being a publisher is similar to managing any kind of portfolio. Whether you are a financial manager, a real estate investor, or a movie studio executive, you must balance risk and return. This is also true of publishing. As a result, in your portfolio, you will have a mix of things. Some will be “sure bets.” Some will involve more risk. Not every project has the same risk, requires the same investment, or promises the same return.

One commenter to my previous post wrote:

Don’t ALL editors buy what really grips them, what they hope will become a runaway bestseller? There’s no way of predicting what book with hit that spot in the market. If publishers knew which ones, they’d only pick books with that potential…. There is no rhyme or reason for how lightning strikes a book. There’s no magic formula. It’s art and it’s what resonates at a particular time.

There are certainly some books that surprise the market. Books like Blue Like Jazz or The Shack came seemingly out of nowhere. But I would suggest that these are the exceptions. Publishing is more nuanced than that. It is not an exact science, to be sure, but it is not pure art either. We can predict the performance of some titles better than others.

When I think about publishing a prospective book, as a publisher, I consider two components: brand equity and competitive advantage. The former is more of the science of sales forecasting. The latter is more of the art of sales forecasting. Let’s start with brand equity.

When I use the phrase “brand equity,” I am usually referring to the author. Authors with brand equity have a certain name and reputation in the marketplace. Authors like Max Lucado, John Eldredge, John Maxwell, or Ted Dekker, to name a few, have very strong brand equity. Conversely, most first-time authors have little or no brand equity. They simply haven’t had the opportunity to develop it.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Some first-time authors do have brand equity. This is particularly true in the case of public figures or authors who have built a personal name and reputation before they begin writing. Obvious examples would include politicians, celebrities, and business leaders. They may not have brand equity as an author, but they certainly have brand equity that can be leveraged as an author.

Why is this important? Because whatever else it is, a brand is a promise. It means that the author promises the reader something very specific in return for his or her investment. For example, if I buy a John Maxwell book, I know that I will be getting a cutting edge book on some aspect of leadership that will help me in my own personal development. Because I know this about Maxwell, I am more likely to buy his book on leadership than some new author’s book on leadership. This is really just “Branding 101,” and it works in almost any commercial endeavor.

Branding can also apply to book series like Chicken Soup for the Soul, Left Behind, or the Dummies Guides. These are brands in their own right. The individual authors are less important. The important thing is that strong brand equity usually translates into stronger sales. Readers know what to expect and, in an over-published world where readers have too many options, they tend to gravitate toward what they know.

In response to my previous post, some people thought that by cutting the number of titles we said we would publish, I was somehow saying that we would only publish well-known authors or those with strong brand equity. But, no, this is not the case.

For starters, even if we wanted to do this, there aren’t enough well-known authors to make it possible. But even if it were possible, it certainly wouldn’t be desirable. Publishers like Thomas Nelson must discover and develop new talent in order to stay in business. This is just common sense—as many people pointed out.

And this brings me to competitive advantage. This is something a new title must have in order to succeed in the marketplace. You can succeed without brand equity, but you cannot succeed without a competitive advantage—at least not for very long. No author can afford to ignore it and be consistently successful.

Competitive advantage can take many different forms. For example, the book may just be incredibly compelling. This was the primary driver for books like Blue Like Jazz, Same Kind of Different as Me, or The Shack. Readers found that they couldn’t put them down or keep from recommending them to their friends. As a result, they sold—and are selling—like crazy.

Competitive advantage can also include an author’s media platform or some other built-in audience, the topic’s relevance to current events, a unique perspective that isn’t well-represented in the marketplace, or any number of things that give the book a natural advantage over similar books.

For example, a book on parenting doesn’t have much competitive advantage. There are literally thousands if not hundreds of thousands of books on this topic. However a book like Robert W. Sears, The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child narrows the topic down to a specific parental concern that virtually no one else is addressing. For a while, it was #1 on Amazon.com’s Parenting bestseller list.

My premise is that books with strong brand equity and a strong competitive advantage are more predictable and more likely to succeed. It does not mean this will happen in every case. There are clearly exceptions. But overall, it works pretty well.

If you flesh this out in a simple 2 x 2 matrix, it looks like this:

  • A-Level Projects—The Cash Cows: Projects where there is strong brand equity and a strong competitive advantage.
  • B-Level Projects—The Potential Stars: Projects where there is weaker brand equity but a strong competitive advantage.
  • C-Level Projects—The Question Marks: Projects where there is stronger brand equity but weaker competitive advantage.
  • D-Level Projects—The Real Dogs: Projects where you have neither a strong brand equity or a strong competitive advantage.

I contend that the most predictability is at the top of this list. Projects become less predictable as you move down the list. So, for example, the best case scenario is a book by an author with strong brand equity and with a strong competitive advantage.

This is also why the best authors must continue to have fresh, compelling ideas. Brand equity isn’t enough. Successful authors must resist the temptation to sit on their laurels and crank out another version of the same old book. This will work for a while but ultimately destroys the brand. (I could give numerous examples here, but in order to protect the guilty, I won’t.)

This is also why our sales forecasting on A-Level projects is about 95% accurate. The “science” part of the equation tells us how many books this author typically sells. The “art” part of the equation tells us that this project will find a ready market, because it has a strong competitive advantage.

Hopefully, you can see how this thinking applies to the other categories as well. The point is that this is more nuanced than an editor assuming that every book he acquires has the potential to become a bestseller. Theoretically this may be true, but practically it is not.

The truth is that publishers are forced to allocate their resources. They don’t have enough time or money to spend equally on every book. So they must choose. Which books are (relatively-speaking) the surefire bets? Which books have the most potential? Which books have less potential? Somebody has to make this call, in advance of publication. You may think this is unfair. But in a world of limited resources, there is really no other choice.

All I was trying to say in my previous post is that at Thomas Nelson, we want to focus on the books that have the most potential (the A’s and the B’s). We believe that by eliminating those with the least potential (the C’s and the D’s), we can do a better job of focusing on better books and better promotion. This doesn’t eliminate first-time authors, but it does raise the bar. In the end, we are choosing quality over quantity.

Question: If you disagree, how would you do it differently?
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  • http://rachelheldevans.com Rachel H. Evans

    Great insights in both posts, Mike. Both published and prospective authors are at such an advantage when they are given a glimpse of the "big picture," so thanks for the generosity with which you share your perspective as an executive.

    My advice for writers working on proposals is to focus on and highlight their strengths (either brand equity or competitive advantage). I know that artsy folks like me are not always inclined to construct a project around a business model, but I'm convinced that pitching with the CEO in mind is the best way to secure a book deal.

    I'm about to sign a contract with Thomas Nelson for Book #2 and have been pleasantly surprised by how often and how effectively my contacts in editorial, marketing, and publicity have been communicating with me.

    …..Must have something to do with the leadership. :-)

  • http://www.lanavaughan.com Lana Vaughan

    Still "out of nowhere" working on my proposal. Hoping to make the A team someday.

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    I appreciate that you not only want to explain the process but you are also open to dialogue. Sales forecasting–whether science or art–is a necessary part of any business. Isn't development and promotion of new talent something else all together?

    Two questions:
    1). How did someone like Dallas Willard find a publisher? His content is outstanding; his execution as a writer, on the other hand, works against him. Who could possibly have any indication ("in advance" as you pointed out) his work would sell?
    2). Does the energy or effort of a first-time author have any impact on a decision to publish? How could a first-timer communicate an exceptional willingness to take ownership of his or her own success? Aren't you the guy who once said platforms were overrated?

    Thanks for the dialogue, and peace!

  • http://bobhamp.com/ Bob Hamp

    Michael, Disagree would be too strong a word, as, clearly you have a thought out and reasonable process and filtering system. I love your clarity. My comment is not so much a disagreement, but a desire to draw attention to perhaps another category of potential projects.
    You mentioned books like "The Shack" and "Blue Like Jazz", and I think that this type of book represents a category which is difficult, but perhaps not impossible to identify.
    Often people (authors) who think very differently than others identify a specific area of social unrest, or need. Their perspective is so outside of the box (I'm kind of tired of this phrase….it does not fully communicate the distinctiveness of such thinkers) that it may be passed over by those who are looking through a matrix of "the familiar". As a result the two factors you utilize, because they are applied to the mass of projects may not help, and may even hinder the identification of the distinctively unique. Part of the uniqueness of this type of project is that it identifies a need that the masses themselves may share but be unaware of until it is met. At the risk of over-spiritualizing this idea, I think that Jesus saw a need that was universal, and saw it in a way that the common thinkers of His day could not discern until they actually heard Him speak to it.
    Hence, His brilliant "You have heard it said…" approach helped people (masses) to think in a new way, a way that they desperately needed, but did not know that they had such a need, until He began to meet it.
    The two projects you name, I believe have that distinctive uniqueness of speaking to a common human need, that most humans had not identified. It seems that because common thinking (applying filters to large numbers of projects) may inherently be unable to identify this type of book, the best way to identify them is to apply unique thinking. Donald Miller and William Young may be the ones best suited to help identify other "unpredictable" successes, because their mind already has a unique set of filters, that is clearly in touch with a need that is universal but harder to identify.
    Thanks
    Bob Hamp

  • http://www.truelovewaitsrally.com Kenneth Purdom

    Thank you for taking the time to give us some inside info on your business.

  • greentub

    Good post, Michael. Very insightful.

  • Bill Roth

    Appreciate your blog Mr. Hyatt.

    As a veteran marketing agency owner (and aspiring writer), I can’t agree more. Publishing is a business – of vetting marketable content from amidst the piles of everything else.

    Like it or not, we as writers are in*product development – not [exclusively] self expression. Our books, stories, manifestos, etc. need to be compelling products – powerfully addressing latent market needs.

    There is just too much noise / media for all of us to gain traction.

    Conclusion? Pursue and execute better ideas. Be professional. And don’t quit.

    Thanks for the insight!