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://www.pauldwatson.com Paul D. Watson

    Great post! Thanks for the explanation.
    -Paul

  • http://gavinknight.com Gavin Knight

    a wonderful articulation of how commercial and mission goals can work together, thanks

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

    This was super interesting to me, Mike. Authors have very little idea of the inner workings of a publishing house. One more question. If you focus on A & B, will that allow for a book like Blue Like Jazz or The Shack? If you’d seen those proposals come across the desk, would they have had brand equity and strong competitive advantage?

    You said they have strong competitive advantage but you also said they came out of nowhere so was that advantage recognizable? Those are the books I’m curious about. No one could have predicted the Left Behind series would sell the way it did. Or any number of other books that became runaway bestsellers.

    If that competitive advantage isn’t always recognizable, how do you allow for those books that suddenly go red hot?

    This is a post I’m going to read and reread. You had some eye-opening perspective in here for me. Some good things to discuss with Mr. Superman Arnold and Ami.

    Thank you for your very thoughtful and illuminating post. So glad you made it through the run yesterday!

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

    Colleen,

    Yes, this will completely allow for books like Blue Like Jazz or The Shack. At the time they were written, the authors had no brand equity. (This is what I mean by “came out of nowhere.”) However, both of them were compelling reads. That was their competitive advantage.

    This doesn’t mean all acquisition editors agreed. Clearly, they didn’t. I believe the Shack was rejected by a number of publishers, including us. But even if we published 7,000 books we would still miss some opportunities. That’s the “art” part. And when editors are so overwhelmed with the number of titles on the conveyor built, they are going to miss some opportunities.

    Our premise is that if you do less, you can focus more. And that leads to more careful consideration, more thoughtful development, and more deliberate action.

    Our greatest fear is not missing a few publishing opportunities. Our greatest fear is not being good stewards of the opportunities we have been given.

    Hope that helps,

    Mike

  • http://www.churchvideoideas.com Greg Atkinson

    I think you make great points and appreciate your insight.

  • Tim

    Mike, that was a great piece. So well thought out and put together.

    I am glad you are not my wife… I would never win an argument :)

  • Jorge Hoyos

    Over the past few days, I have been surprised by the number of folks that jumped at the chance to “make a point” without really thinking thru what they were writing. I have been quite surprised by those that raised tough questions. I’m sure from all over the world.

    I have taken a keen interest in the path that TN has gone thru during the last few years. From being a publicly traded company, which by its nature meant that “its all about the money” to a privately help company. When this move was announced, I was an employee at TN. It was the greatest thing that I thought could happen to the company. At the same time, as Mike as pointed out, the number of titles coming out of TN was and still is staggering.

    Now, as the CEO and Editor of my own publisher, I can appreciate all the work, thought, decisions that have to be made in order to survive. When I started my publisher, I wanted to publish unknown authors but I quickly realized that I needed to have titles that would generate the needed capital to publish those authors that I wanted to publish.

    Mike is right on. I won’t say that its trend setting because others have decided to focus on only publishing a specific number of books a year no matter how “big” they got. And that is the point. The less you publish, the more focused you are on those titles. The more committed you are to those authors. The more you do to make sure that they get the very best from you. From your entire team. And that created a quality product. One that people will buy. One that will cause someone to tell others. One that becomes a best-seller in its own right.

    It is truly disappointing to think that so many of us are quick to judge without truly understanding what is going on. Solomon said it best. Be slow to speak and quick to listen. Wisdom.
    From the world’s most cynical man.

    Mike, although I am no longer part of the TN family, TN is still in my heart and thoughts. I know this is the very best decision for the company and the history, mission and vision because in a real way, I know what you and that you have to depend on Him everyday.

    His best,

    Jorge

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

    Jorge,

    Thanks for your kind words. It always looks easier from the stands than it does when your suited up and playing on the field!

    All the best,

    Mike

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

    The focus part will be fun to see how it plays out! I’m all about encouraging new talent so that’s what I was concerned about. You answered all those questions very well in this post, Mike, and gave me a lot of food for thought. Thanks!

    We should have some creative and interesting times ahead. :-)

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

    Mike,

    Thanks for this. One of the things I pointed out in my wannabepublished blog is that new authors must stun an editor with amazing prose. Shocking, brilliant writing with huge doses of gripping storytelling will win an audience. But so many new writers I meet are unwilling to put in the BOC (butt on chair) time it requires to write like that. Some have emailed, saying getting published is too hard and they’re shifting to POD or self publishing.

    High standards (A & B writers) weed out those who are truly interested in writing for the market and those who aren’t. The truth? No publisher owes a writer a contract. The writer must write his/her way into the heart and soul of an acquisition’s editor, then the pub board, then, hopefully, the buying public.

    Many bemoan the shift houses are taking, eliminating the midlist author. In some ways, it does worry me. But in others, it presses me into writing better books–books that fit into my passions and gifting, but that also are translatable and beneficial to the reader.

    If publishers continue to open their minds to new talent and don’t merely allow established brand-worthy authors to overshadow a house’s need to find fresh voices, then publishers won’t miss the kinds of authors needed to take us into the next millenia.

    Those who are new and struggling and pushing into their craft simply need to keep at it. Because stellar writing gets noticed.

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

    Mary,

    I couldn’t agree more. Great writing will always find an audience. And in the end, brand equity will not make up for the failure to have something to say. As you point out, too many writers are simply unwilling to pay the price. They have a tremendous sense of entitlement, which will get them absolutely nowhere.

    Thanks again,

    Mike

  • Sylvia Murphy

    Dear Michael
    What an interesting discussion! The most compelling factor is the way it has moved from the publisher’s viewpoint to the perennial moan of unpublished authors that they are being ignored without reason. If I could just add a point from over fifty years’ experience as a moderately successful writer – of course poor writing will always be rejected, but that doesn’t gurantee that the best will always get into print. There are far too many competing MSS for that to happen. I can’t help thinking that in a profession where even a minor competition attracts over 800 entries, luck must have something to do with it as well!
    Thanks for all the information,
    Sylvia

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

    Sylvia,

    The only thing I would add is that those who have some natural ability, who spend long hours developing their craft, and who write really well thought-out, compelling proposals, seem to have more luck than those who don’t. ;-)

    Thanks,

    Mike

  • Tod Shuttleworth

    Mike,

    Thank you for so eloquently stating what is simple common business sense. The blog is a great reminder for those of us charged with maximizing Nelson’s impact.

  • http://www.wordchicks.blogspot.com Johnnie

    The ladies in my online writing group aspire to reach at least the B-level with our individual projects. Our unofficial slogan is HIP/BIC (Heart in Prayer/Bottom in Chair). It’s a slow process, but our accomplishments are increasing. Thank you for giving us such a detailed perspective from the CEO’s chair.

    Johnnie (Word Chicks)

  • http://elizabethingersoll.blogspot.com Beth Ingersoll

    Thanks for your honesty, Mike. Those of us who are novices to publishing really appreciate learning about how it really works, and what we should do to succeed.

    Best of luck with your new strategy!
    Beth

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

    Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly, just wrote about our title and staff cuts. The article is entitled Fighting Trim. It is in the current issue of the magazine.

  • http://followtheroadlesstraveled.blogspot.com Jo

    Your blog has been so encouraging to me as an aspiring novelist. I appreciate the time you’re investing in the lives of so many other writers. Thank you so much!

  • John Young

    Absolutely right on the money. Mike I do appreciate and value your time and know that since we’re no longer stockholders you don’t owe a lot of explanation nor is it your job to educate the world on the publishing business.
    I’m not clear on why there were so many objections because the math is easy. Take a Borders superstore of which you donot have that floor plan in Nashville. Note they are stocking 150,000 titles and about to reduce that number so they can show books face out vs spine out on the shelf and hope more books are “seen.”

    Isn’t Walmart one of your top 3 customers? How much floor space is given for books? At what sales level must a book reach before they even consider stocking it? I know those answers and you do to.
    You reported in the last writing that altogether over 300,000 new book titles were published last year. Bingo. Where are they all supposed to go? This is a hard business. You have to have an author willing to be visible, to go out and build a fan base, to do the boring interviews and book signings and who’s perhaps on a speaking tour. Selling books is a partnership and relationship and even the successful names can’t rest on laurels anymore.

    I’d love to know how many authors are currently in the TNP catalog and then point out you have a “brand” marketing unit there to make sure those marquee names continue to move tonage so they can pay the bills. You name 4 superstars in this post: Lucado, Maxwell, Dekker, and Eldridge.
    Proctor and Gamble uses the same thought in protecting “TIDE” even and it has strong customer loyalty. Coca cola with all their brands must protect “BIG RED” because it’s the flagship.
    An old title the great Victor Oliver brought to Nelson years ago by A L Williams was titled “All you can do is all you can do but all you can do is enough.” And that’s how I see what TNP has done: more than it’s share of hard work with great results.

    You’ve been more than thorough and more than fair in kindly listening, generously explaining, and agressive trying to move a ship out in the ocean.
    Every firm is facing this soul search of what and how many things to publish. Recently the new president at a big rival was answering the question of why she was brought in by the parent company with no previous publishing experience. Her answer speaks volumes: “I was brought in to break up the old boys club.”

    I understand.

  • http://www.larryshallenberger.com Larry Shallenberger

    Thanks for these last two post. The message to me is — don’t neglect the art, and build platform. If anything, this hard news inspires a competitive spirit. I’ve had a book flourish and then a book falter. There are certainly no guarentees in this endeavor.

  • http://www.noveljourney.blogspot.com Gina Holmes

    I’m all for raising the bar and choosing quality over quantity. It’s such a fine line to walk between business, ministry and art. You seem to be carefully considering all three. I hope that continues. God bless!

  • http://www.goldenkeyesparsons.com Golden Keyes Parsons

    As one of the “new kids on the block,” I am humbled and overwhelmed at the same time to be on the Thomas Nelson team. My debut novel is due to be released in September, and to know all the time, finances and care that goes into that release to make it as good as it can be drives me to write the best I can. I feel privileged to be part of an organization that can make the tough decisions to move forward. Regards, Golden

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

    Robert Treskillard made some interesting observations on his blog about my post. He said he was surprised, because he expected us to be dropping authors without brand equity. This would essentially mean that new authors wouldn’t have a chance.

  • http://karlaakins.com Karla Akins

    Thank-you for the matrix! I will be keeping this in mind as I work with excellence in ministry.

  • http://www.caraputman.com Cara Putman

    Thanks for the series of posts. It’s helpful to get beyond the headlines into the thought process behind the decisions. There’s much to digest, but I appreciate the opportunity to get behind the scenes.

  • http://www.angelfire.com/ok2/weakandfoolish Rob Sargeant

    Publishing is definately going through a paradigm shift across the board with increasing online sales, e-books and the Christian bookstores selling more Jesus junk. It’s better to make changes sooner than later. I admire Michael’s courage.

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

    It appears that you are saying that you are looking, primarily, for a strong competitive advantage, prioritized by how well the author is known. I assumed that was what you were doing already. The fact is that competitive advantage is where the writer’s skill comes into play. I know that authors are concerned that this move will reduce our chances of getting published, but emphasis on quality writing helps both publisher and author.

  • http://www.thewritingroad.blogspot.com Scoti Springfield Domeij

    Thank you for the challenge to write well. The Strategic Acquisitions Matrix is hilarious! Who wants to be a dog? With a name like Scoti, I endured that tag for years—until Star Trek.

    I agree with those who talk about writers lack of commitment to dig deep into their souls or hone their craft. I see it firsthand with individuals who attend our monthly writing workshops and past critique group members. Some put forward great ideas, but cringe, and then get mad and resist honest detailed critiques. My fellow critiquers and I joke that it’s easier to write a book than a book proposal to sell the editor.

    I’m a newbie to your blog, so I clicked on your mission statement: We inspire the world. I found your comments interesting regarding “inspire”, which means God-breathed. The power of God’s holy breath (Hebrew, neshima) infused life into man’s physical body and his soul (neshama). TN’s mission encourages writers to use their 70 or 80 years of breath to connect to and write about God, rather than sucking air and dying for 70-80 years—disconnected from their Creator and purpose. Publishing writing that draws from the Divine breath of the soul touches and changes readers’ hearts.

    Your quote is going into my permanent quote file: “Our greatest fear is not missing a few publishing opportunities. Our greatest fear is not being good stewards of the opportunities we have been given.” That applies to writers, too. I look forward utilizing your wisdom to motivate others.

  • http://paraklesis.com/childrens_publishing_news/ sally apokedak

    Three cheers for you and three cheers for the B books.

    I understand the need to publish brand names. but I’m glad you want those writers to produce quality work. Some of our brand name authors–even some of YOUR brand name authors–seem to write when they have nothing to say. They just babble out a shelfload of books each year because they can.

    Less books, for sure. Get rid of all the bad ones. :)

    The fact that you put B books before C books gives me great hope for a bright future.

    One thing, though: I’ve heard publishers sometimes say they publish the poorly written (or even the theologically muddy) but popular books in order to pay for the good, but not hugely popular books. Literary or children’s books, for instance–worthwhile books without a large or established audience.

    Is there any room in the new order of things for using the cash cows to bankroll good but not necessarily popular books? A kind of a pro bono type deal?

    I do agree that you need to shoot for only publishing quality books. They should all be excellent in content and style and packaging. Still, in order to open up new markets you might lose money on the groundbreaking books, mightn’t you?

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

    Sally,

    We are not really a literary publisher (which is, of course, a technical distinction). However, rest assured, there will still be room for books that editors are just plain enthusiastic about. But, hopefully, we will do a better job validating that enthusiasm before we agree to publish them.

    Thanks,

    Mike

  • http://paraklesis.com/childrens_publishing_news sally apokedak

    Good deal! I’m all for validation of the enthusiasm. I’m glad you’re willing to shoot the dogs to make room for the better books. If you ever need a test reader for children’s manuscripts I’d be happy to volunteer.

  • http://robert.epictales.org Robert Treskillard

    Michael,

    I was surprised today when reading the comments to find you had pointed people to my blog.

    One question: how do these changes affect non-fiction vs. fiction?

    Are the cuts being split between them proportionally, or are the cuts based solely upon sales / potential sales?

    Thanks again for this discussion and for your leadership to keep Thomas Nelson and Christian publishing strong.

    -Robert

  • http://youthmaster.blogspot.com Marvin Nelson

    Mike,
    This article really helped me out a lot! As an author seeking understanding on how to better myself and make my self “publishable” this article is KEY for me. I hope to be able to continue working on what I have to make my works “competitive advantaged” enough to catch an eye! (check out my blogspot if you have time) youthmaster.blogspot.com

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

    Robert,

    The cuts were pretty evenly distributed between nonfiction and fiction, although fiction is a smaller part of our total program. The cuts were mostly based on potential sales, although this was not an absolute rule.

    Thanks,

    Mike

  • http://www.withoutwax.tv Pete Wilson

    Brilliant! This makes total sense to me.

  • Brian Jeffers

    As always, you make a lot of sense. My hope is that the independents and Church stores are not lost in the shuffle as Thomas Nelson reconfigures.

  • http://jennicatron.tv Jenni Catron

    I appreciate how you are addressing this with such candor. In an age where we can all find an audience within the blogging world, it’s important to me to know that publishers are more aggressively screening products and releasing books that they really believe in. As a consume it helps me clear through the clutter of so many resources to choose from.

  • http://www.myspaceless.com RadX

    Personally, when buying Christian books, I always check the author first. That way I have an idea of what he already believes in. Then I can take the content of the book in its proper context. If I don’t know the author, then I check the publisher. If the publisher is Nelson, I have confidence in the book, just like Ron Blue’s Storm Shelter, that I bought recently at a second-hand book store.

  • http://www.authorchristinaberry.blogspot.com Christina Berry

    Thanks for convicting me about a certain thought pattern that had crept into my mind.

    You said, “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.'”

    Recently I was rejected by a house which is moving toward the Amish trend. I subconsiously made excuses that if they had been focusing more of their list toward my genre, I might have been accepted. The truth is, no matter how torn they said they were, my manuscript still missed the special something that would make them fight tooth and nail to publish it despite their stated direction.

  • http://www.teawithtiffany.blogspot.com Tiffany Stuart

    I continue to glean from your blog. Thanks for allowing us to take a look into the art of publishing.

    I’m banking on the B.

  • http://the-walrus-said.blogspot.com Janet

    As an unpublished, aspiring author, I think this is great. And I hope every large publisher out there follows your example.
    There are too many books being published that are claptrap. They deaden the ear and cheapen the taste of the people who read them so they can’t recognize quality when they see it. There are some really great authors who are not getting the sales and recognition they deserve because the publishers are too busy cranking out the claptrap.

    By all means, raise the bar. If it pushes it over my head, oh well. I don’t want to languish at the bottom of the D pile anyway. If I’m capable of jumping that bar, then I will have a better chance of building a lasting career.

    Go for it.

  • http://blog.brioprint.com/ Nocat

    For those that want their voice heard another option is self-publishing, nothing against your publishing house but as you say, you can’t publish everything. With that said, your readers would be interested in knowing that Brioprint a commercial book publisher that goes the extra distance with authors.They help new and existing authors sell more books and reach new readers. In doing so, they have a new team that can better assist small publishers and self publishers reach their goals and sell more books. would be worth checking out , the information is good.

  • http://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com Guy Stewart

    While I understand the business decision, I was disappointed that you never mentioned prayer, fasting, seeking God’s will — or any of the other precedents of wise business. Reading what you wrote — while it’s certainly sensible from a strict business standpoint — doesn’t particularly distinguish Thomas Nelson from any of the other publishing companies that are pursuing similar plans. I was just wondering why, given Thomas Nelson’s catalogue, you chose not to mention the spiritual aspects of the change? This would seem especially important when many who are NOT Christians might read this.

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

    Guy,

    Mainly because I don’t like wearing my faith on my sleeve. Jesus made a point of rebuking those who do their “acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them” (Mt. 6:1). Certainly, we have spent much time in prayer alone and together. But we have tried to follow Jesus’ admonition, “when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Mt. 6:6).

    Thanks,

    Mike

  • Kyle Watson

    Mike is correct and fair to authors. I know because I have experience in the publishing industry and as a POD author. Imagine yourself in Mike’s position for a moment. Now balance out every aspect of the company. I think you will find its not so easy. I know for a fact that many writers are jealous and angry. Why? They want to be well known and praised. If you don’t believe it take a internet tour and read the hateful things written about authors. If they can’t get the author on the poor writing craft of the book. They will turn to the subject matter and bash it. I got the same treatment from some people just for the success I had. Instead of getting upset with Mike. Do what I did. I had a known agency reject my latest book because of pressures from publishers. They thought it was a fresh idea. So I didn’t get upset. I took the positive parts of the letter. Made some changes and got it published myself. Don’t blame Mike and be humble. God may want to change your attitude before making you a known author.

  • http://www.thefutureofpublishing.com Thad McIlroy

    I’d like to draw your attention to some additional statistics on my Web site, in an article on the future of the book publishing industry (http://www.thefutureofpublishing.com/industries/the_future_of_book_publishing.html).

    While the U.S. did publish nearly 300,000 new titles in 2006, there were 375,000 new titles published in English worldwide.

    The June 2007 Harper’s magazine, referencing Nielsen BookScan, reported that nearly 1.5 million different titles were sold in the United States in 2006, although 78% of those titles sold fewer than 99 copies, while only 483 titles sold more than 100,000 copies.

    Certainly, as you report in a separate entry, a few large publishers control a significant percentage of the U.S. publishing industry, but a 2005 report by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) revealed that there are 62,815 active publishers in the United States, and that 46,860 of these publishers had revenues below $50,000 per year.

    Meanwhile new “vanity press”-style publishers such as Lulu.com suggest that any title reduction from the large publishers may have little or no impact on allowing the reading public to encounter new and diverse voices: According to a company press release “Lulu.com is the premier marketplace for new digital content on the Internet, with more than 100,000 recently published titles, and more than 2500 new titles added each week, created by people in 80 different countries.”

    Lulu does not charge authors to print their books, instead charging a commission on actual sales. A senior sales executive told a Toronto book publishing conference in March 2007 that the average title sold less than two copies, but because of the enormous number of titles sold, the company was profitable.

    Like most publishing industries, book publishing is undergoing enormous change, some of that change still very subtle in its impact.

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

    Thad,

    These are some amazing statistics. As I heard tonight from Andy Crouch at the ECPA conference in Dallas, there is a huge shift going on in our culture. People are increasingly dissatisfied with being merely consumers. They want to be creators. I think that huge spike in the number of books published is evidence of this.

    Thanks,

    Mike

  • Linda Condolora

    I don't have the strong brand equity-yet, but I think I've got the competitive edge going for me. Time will tell.

  • http://www.marydemuth.com marydemuth

    As an author, it's refreshing to see what goes on behind the curtain of the pub board. Your matrix of four is helpful to me.

    New question: If you were to give an author advice who has ideas with competitive edge but a smaller platform, what would you say? How does an author move from C/B to A? Is it simply a matter of pure luck? Grit? Fluke? Work? Web presence? Verve?

  • Mary

    Wonderful post! Im glad you are at the helm of Thomas Nelson Publishing! I like the way you explain things on how you choose what books to be published.

  • 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!