Remember the People from Whom You Have Come

Today is the first day of our 2010 fiscal year at Thomas Nelson. It is our 212th year in business. It is a day full of new beginnings and possibilities. As I thought about that today, I thought it might be good to take a quick look at the past as we prepare for the future.

a painting of thomas nelson's castle hill location in edinburgh

Thomas Nelson’s Gaelic ancestors had a popular proverb: “Cuimhnich air na daoine o’n d’thainig thu.” It means, “Remember the people from whom you have come.” This is a wise and powerful saying. It is often forgotten in our modern world that places such a high value on everything new and shiny. But remembering our ancestors often provides a treasure-trove of resources for meeting the challenges of today.

Our company began 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.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. Because 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 seventh largest trade book publisher in the U.S. We have two campuses—one in Nashville and one in Dallas—and approximately 500 employees. Recently, we opened offices in Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City. 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.

Question: Who are the people from whom you have come? How could their history have an ongoing, positive impact on your future?

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

    Thanks, for posting this again, Michael. I had read it before, but the history of Thomas Nelson is so fascinating I read it all through again. The photos and paintings are amazing. What a legacy, and what a future!

    On my own ancestors, I received a book last fall entitled "They Ate From One Bowl". Written by Dr. Thomas O. Kajer about the New Prague, MN pioneers, it chronicles how my ancestors were so poor that they only had one bowl for the entire family.

    Yes, we live in tough economic times, but our blessings are so many we just need to open our eyes and be thankful for God's provision.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I agree; there are so many blessings and opportunities. We just need the eyes to see them. That's why history is, I think, such a helpful reminder.

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  • http://true-small-caps.blogspot.com Derek

    I like the way TN went about expanding from bookselling into publishing.

    He didn't publish first and then wonder how to sell what he'd published.

    First, he determined what people wanted, and then that's what he published.

  • http://generatornetwork.com/blog Mike Rapp

    I have had the great privilege of working with Dan Johnson this past year on a project called Conversations with Fathers of the Faith (fathersofthefaith.org — we did not create the web site, only the physical packaging). Dan was a real pioneer in the Christian marketing world back when I was a green as grass 20-something, and it has been a real thrill to work with him again.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Dan and I go way back. I started my career at Word when he was the VP of marketing for the music company. He is one of the most talented and creative people I have ever met. (And a really great guy.)

      • http://generatornetwork.com/blog Mike Rapp

        I joke with Dan that, of the dozens of projects I have worked on that achieved Gold or higher status, he is the ONLY guy who actually went to the time and expense to create a Gold record for me! Every time we meet at my place, I pull out the Make His Praise Glorious gold record and display it in a prominent place!

  • http://www.thebanditproject.com Jim MacKrell

    In these troubling times its great to know that this isn't the first time publishing has fallen on tough times and like the great story of Thomas Nelson we'll all come through this as well. Great lesson..thanks Michael.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Yes, that was one of my big take-aways as well. Change happens. Those that adapt survive—and even thrive!

  • Robert Parrish

    Really cool, Michael. You are to be commended for honoring and remembering those from whom you have come as Christendom's largest publisher. As a fellow Christian publisher, I read every one (well, most) of your posts avidly and this one was superb. Thank you.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    I like that, too, though honestly I had never gleaned that insight. Thanks for calling my attention to it!

  • http://terripatrick.wordpress.com/ terri

    Thanks – this post was just what I needed today. A happy April Fools to all!

    We are part of a greater history, that spans generations. It's so easy to get sucked into the moment when everything is point-n-click now. I needed the reminder today that while it took a few years to write my memoir, my parents lived it for decades. And generations to come, will be able to hold a piece of their history while building new foundations.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/jbwagner Josh Wagner

    I love history. I married a history buff. And I like that our legacy follows us wherever we go. We are the product of those that came before. I fight to improve my family's legacy every day, and I know that my children will inherit the legacy I give them. It's humbling and should keep us honest.

    Thanks for the post, I always enjoy learning some history.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Jill_Williamson Jill_Williamson

    Wow. That was facinating. Thank you for sharing it. I wish I knew more about my ancestors. I do know that many of them were artistic, and my mom writes books, too. It is interesting to discover how similar we are. It truly sheds light on generation sin, but also generational similarities. Ah, God is good. He sees the big picture in all things. Isn't it neat that he already knows the end of all our stories? I'm glad I don't know the end to my life story. If I did, I'm sure I'd find some way of "helping" myself achieve whatever it is that would only mess everything up.

  • Lisa Hale

    Many in my generation have moved away from "the people from which they came" in order to further their family legacy, to reach new opportunities and new worlds. These trying times seems to be creating an awareness of how bitter-sweet the effects of that move can be. As we enjoy the new fruits, (whether it spiritual, financial, etc…) never before tasted by our ancestors, we see just how much of a loss our daily lives experience without our "people" impressing on us.

    This post confirms for me why my simple, self-published children's picture book, Penny Love, has sold 5000 in two year during this trying economy.

    There is just something that resonates in our hearts when we "hear" (as children do in Penny Love) from the people from which we came, "go forward and know that I love you in a way that is immeasurable, ever present and without end… go forward, take our strengths and overcome all that is planned for you. Yes, adapt, survive and thrive remembering the people from whom you have come."

    Thanks for sharing Michael.

  • http://lynnrush.wordpress.com/ Lynn Rush

    Wow. I hadn't read that before. Amazing history.
    I enjoyed reading this.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    I know. I feel so privileged to be part of it.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    I love history, too. I probably read more history than any other single genre.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    I, too, like the perspective that history provides. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by daily events, but in the scope of history, they have a place and a flow—toward something more important.

  • http://carryingdaily.blogspot.com Martin Richardson

    That was awesome to read. It's incredible to see how strong an organization(and individuals) can be during setbacks and low times with a mission like this. The impact is phenomenal.

    I was named after my great grandfather, who was named after Martin Wells Knapp. Knapp started God's Bible School and was heavy into tracts ministry(this is a very poor, concise history). My great grandfather was a very hard worker for the glory of God, his ethic and effort placed on tasks set him apart in his day, and is a rarity today. My grandfather was a minister and my father a successful business man but a man of God first.

    I think this history gives me a drive to succeed for the Kingdom. As far as positive impact goes, reading this today was very positive and not accidental. A few years ago I joined the military and when I left for training my father's church gifted me a certificate to a Christian bookstore. I had decided I wanted a new Bible to start my journey. I didn't have a lot of money on the certificate and that was okay because I wanted something pretty simple. I found one compact NKJV published by, you guessed it, Thomas Nelson. My dad liked it and told me that it was like one my grandfather would carry. Since then I have been working and growing in the Lord. Last month I decided I would start blogging(today's tract) my walk with God and was looking for other Christian Blogs to read and have insight from. I found yours by looking at the manufacturer's website of my bible. Now that's what I call positive.

  • http://www.bryceandcasey.com Bryce

    I really enjoyed this, what great food for thought! Interesting posts like this are what keep me coming back to your blog.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    Wow. Thanks. Especially since I almost didn't post it!

  • JohnYoung

    Some of this is new to me and thank you for correcting bad information Mike.
    As you know part of publishing is the perception of success vis a vis years in business I had always heard a story that Sam Moore wanting to add some prestige to his little known local brand bought the name Thomas Nelson for a great price due to years of losses. It gave him the opportunity to suddenly have "heritage" by saying then what you still say on every imprint: "Thomas Nelson, since 1798" I assumed there was real value in tying in their past to Sam's goals and dreams which included more than just Bibles.
    Perhaps that old story is incorrect or subject to variation but the real point is that today while others have gone sideways, TNP is still standing and I hope this new fiscal year for you improves right along with the economy as most pubs have seen dramatic and sudden shifts in product flow.
    This is no reflection on your product, needed more than ever to have the lasting impact Mr Nelson intended in 1798.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, John. Yes, Sam and his shareholders at the time bought the company not just the name. (They allowed Thomas Nelson to maintain a British presence, but t was sold sold to another company soon thereafter and basically disappeared as an imprint.)

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Peter_P Peter_P

    This history actually reminds me of the history of the Cadbury's chocolate company. The Cadburys were God-fearing men who were leaders in their day in employee rights and welfare. It sounds as though the Nelsons were very similar.

    We do not hear enough these days of Christian business owners leading the way in fair treatment of employees. Chick-fil-a being about the only one which springs to mind at the moment.

  • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/Peter_P Peter_P

    Amazing history. I had no idea Thomas Nelson has such a long history. I have walked up West Bow St, I'm sure, and once worked within spiting distance of Paternoster Row and yet I had no idea of what had been there before me.

    History often seems quite irrelevant and yet we can learn so much from the mistakes and successes of our predecessors.

    Thank you for sharing this Michael.

  • http://www.godhungry.org Jim Martin

    Mike–a great post. Such a reminder of the hard work and sacrifice of those that have gone before us. Quite often I think about this reality in my own life. I know that quite often I enjoy the fruit of someone else's labor. I think of seeds of truth that I saw in my grandparents and even a great-grandmother and am blessed because of this.

  • Colleen Coble

    This just came through to me this morning and what an appropriate time. We lost Dave's dad at 1:40 this morning. While he wasn't my own father, he was as dear as one and had a huge impact on our lives. He taught us about unconditional love, and he taught his son how to love his wife. He was Jesus with flesh on to his family. He gave his grandchildren wings to grow. We will miss him.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Colleen, I am so sorry. I felt the same way about Gail's dad when he passed. I still really miss him. Gail and I will be praying for Dave, you, and the family.

  • Rachel Hauck

    I love reading Thomas Nelson's history! Thanks for posting, Mike.

    I come from a family of Christians. I 'm blessed to have such a spiritual inheritance.

    Rachel

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/PattiM PattiM

    A lot of my history is the war veterans in the family; husband, father, uncles, grandfather. They weren't military men, they served when Canada called. My volunteer time is split between church and the Royal Canadian Legion. When the Legion celebrated its 60th anniversary it used the slogan "Pride in our past; faith in our future". It's something that comes back to me no matter what I'm involved in. In knowing our past and ups and downs, we can look forward knowing that with the right leadership, we can have faith in the future.

  • http://twitter.com/CalebGriffin @CalebGriffin

    This is inspiring. I have no doubt that you, Michael, possess the leadership ability of the early Neilsons. I'm excited for the company after having read this history.

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

    Your question at the end of the post made me laugh. I guess the only way the people I came from for the positive is the determination and daily decisions I make to not go down those same roads. I’m sure some how there’s a positive slant on that, but it’s wild to look back on the past and try & understand how I escaped the lunacy.  Good times!

    Side Note: I do love my family. But we’ve all got disagreements and issues.  :)