Too Many Books, Too Few Shelves

If we can’t stop the presses, we should at least slow them down. U.S. publishers produced almost 300,000 new titles last year, a number that Sara Nelson of Publishers Weekly referred to as “a ridiculous number.”

With bookstore sales rising a modest 3.6% in the last five years, we have more and more books competing for what amounts to the same exact shelf space. Clearly, something is wrong.

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As a heavy book reader myself, I contend that we need better books not more books. I can’t tell you how many books I started this past year and never finished. Why? Because, frankly, they weren’t worth finishing. Most of them left me underwhelmed. The authors would have done better to boil down the content and make it a magazine article.

But publishers appear to be addicted to cranking out more and more titles. It reminds me of a scene from an old episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy and Ethel are working in a chocolate factory. Finding themselves in the Wrapping Department, they must keep up with the increasing speed of a factory conveyor belt. Since the ladies initially appear to be keeping up with the flow, their supervisor increases the speed of the belt until Lucy and her friend are overwhelmed.

Editors and book marketers face a similar predicament. “If only we had just a little more time to spit-shine this title,” they mutter under their breath. But the conveyor belt keeps delivering a seemingly endless flow of titles. Worse, Publishers desperate for growth keep piling additional titles onto the backs of their already-overworked employees.

It’s time to stop the madness. We don’t need more titles. We need better titles. The only way this is going to happen is if publishers stop focusing on quantity and begin focusing on quality.

Last year, our company introduced some 700 new titles. I don’t care how you cut it, that’s a lot of books. It is basically two books a day. Every day. All year long. Worse, 23% of our titles drove more than 90% of our revenue. Or to say it another way, 74% of our titles accounted for less than 10% of our revenue. Hello? (And, I’ll bet money that our experience isn’t unique. I’d wager that almost every other publisher’s experience is similar.)

But to really appreciate this, you have to understand that the work is pretty evenly distributed among all titles. Every title must be contracted, edited, typeset, proofread, packaged, cataloged, sold-in, merchandised, and promoted. Whether you sell a million or a few thousand, it still requires a similar amount of work.

So, based on this, we came to a fairly obvious conclusion. We can cut the title count and eliminate a significant portion of our workload, without reducing our revenue or our profit margin. All we have to do is eliminate our worst performing titles—or in the case of frontlist, the titles that are forecast to perform the worst.

You may think, Well, that’s fine in theory but forecasting is a tricky business. As Yogi Berra once famously said, “Predictions are difficult, especially about the future.” But as it turns out, not so much—at least not as far as it concerns our “A” and “B” titles (the top tier). In aggregate, our forecasting on these titles is about 95% accurate. If anything, these titles tend to outperform our expectations.

These books are generally more predictable. They are typically written by known authors or from authors who at least have media platforms and can help us promote them. Obviously, we have to find the next generation of talent, so we can’t afford to completely eliminate new authors. In fact, we will continue to take risks on those relatively few manuscripts that are exceptionally well-written. But we can still do a much better job of focusing on the authors and the content with the most potential.

The problem comes at the bottom of the list—the “C” and “D” titles. These titles are less predictable and, as a result, pose the greatest risk. Our forecast accuracy is about 60% here. These titles usually have the least potential for a reasonable return on our investment. It is easy to get excited about a new author or a new title, but the truth is that you never know what you have until you publish the book and see if people are willing to part with their hard-earned cash to buy it.

Regardless, we feel we can do a much better job of focusing on the best authors and the best content. As a result of this exercise, we have determined to cut 50 percent of our new title output. We believe that by doing so we will put at risk less than 10% of our revenues (and even less of our margin). More importantly, by slowing down the conveyor belt, we believe we can improve the quality and more than make up for any potential decrease in revenue.

Borrowing a phrase from the Marines, “we are looking for a few good books.” We are still working through the title list and are not prepared to announce who stays and who goes. However, our ultimate goal is do a better job delivering excellent books—books worth finishing—to the marketplace.

Question: Do you think publishers need to trim their lists? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://www.brianbaute.com Brian Baute

    The challenge, it seems, is what to do with those manuscripts or authors who show potential but aren’t quite there yet. The options now are “publish the book” and “don’t publish the book.” Are there in-between options to be found, like “cut this length in half but keep the good parts and we’ll publish it as a low-cost monograph?, or as a contribution to a collection of essays?” Or “let’s publish it as an e-book first and see how it goes?” Are those options feasible, or is your overhead such that the only model that makes sense is the publication of books?

  • http://www.bethjones.org beth

    I totally agree…where’s the beef? Too much gristle these days. It’s a banner day when we find a Christian book that quotes the Bible. :) I am sure all of us, as authors, would like to think our stuff is meaty, relevant, hip and life-changing. :) We really need to ask…what about being anointed to write? Called by God? Touched by Him? Is all the clutter on shelves diluting the impact of the really good God-stuff? Wonder if there are lots of authors that fit into the “American Idol” phenom…they think they can sing…or write? :) Where are the Simon Cowell’s of the publishing world? (The bummer is that as an author, not sure I really want to hear from Simon!) No easy answers on this topic…but totally agree with your premise. Ok…so would you review my manuscript? Ha!

  • http://www.martyholman.com Marty

    The movie industry should take your advice as well.

  • http://www.salberg.org Lawrence Salberg

    Hmmm… in over a year of reading your blog, Michael, this might be the first post in which I think I’m having a tough time agreeing.

    I’m not sure if you wrote it as a sort of follow-up to the layoffs post (it seems to be) as kind of a justification. I agreed with your simplistic explanation yesterday (i.e. less books = less folks to develop them). But, then I read today’s post.

    Of course, you describe the Pareto principle to a tee. But the common mistake I feel about the Pareto principle is that folks are commonly looking to cut the wasteful 80 percent. Hey, we all do it and it is certainly worth examining that option, especially when the waste is knowable and definable.

    But, as you said here, predicting the future is tricky. I’m sure when your team released each of those 700 books last year, they had plans (hopes) that they would become bestsellers. Statistically, they **know** that can’t happen, but they hopefully weren’t just knowingly flooding the market, but putting out the best product they could with a solid belief in the product’s lifespan.

    By reducing your sample base 50%, you reduce your statistical chances for those runaway bestsellers by 50%. If we can assume that your team puts out only quality stuff which they fully believe will do well (or serve the Lord well), then I don’t see how reducing the number of those titles (alone) will increase the bottom line.

    In other words, your theory seems to be, if I understand you right, that by creating a maximum quota, you inherently drive the team to put out better products. I don’t subscribe to the idea that such a quota (alone) will do that. Better people, better accountability (for poorly sold products), and learning from past mistakes, I think, would prove better in the end.

    I guess I also look at it from the standpoint that so many other businesses would *love* to have the problem you are facing. They want to put out more chancy titles (products), but don’t have the resources to do so. They want to occasionally be able to help the first-time unproven author whose message they believe in, but can’t afford the risk of a poor first run.

    Your company already has the resources. I understand you want to refine and hone those resources, but I think a number cut isn’t the answer. At least, not all of it. In other words, if we could go back in time, I think I could create a list of 700 books for you to publish that you would have a hard time saying no to any of them (having already seen them sell like hotcakes).

    I think it will be an interesting experiment. I share your frustration with the overcrowded book market (as a frequent buyer of books), and how many books I buy lead me to Chapter 4 and no more, but I am also buoyed by the knowledge that more and more readers are created every day – and that, in this information age, there are more and more niche markets than ever (long tail sort of thinking, I guess).

    Just my two cents worth, but follow your heart and the Lord as always!

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

    Interesting post, Mike, but I’m not sure I can fully buy into it. 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.

    Look at The DaVinci Code. I tried to read that book. Really I did. I wanted to see what all the hoopla was about. It was so poorly written and so boring I couldn’t get past the third chapter. If it hadn’t already been a runaway bestseller, I would have said that thing would never sell. But it struck a chord with readers.

    And how about The Shack? It had to go self published. 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. What universal truth ignites that coveted word of mouth.

    I have great respect for your leadership ability and I’ve seen the way you’ve energized and turned Nelson around. So of course we will follow where you lead. But I wonder. Can you point to one book that you knew in your gut would make it even though the signs were “off” a bit? Or to a book that didn’t make it nearly as big as you were sure WOULD? Or have you seen lightning strike out of the blue? if so, that’s what I’m talking about. The next big hit that’s totally unpredictable.

    And of course all of your authors are always hoping it’s OURS. LOL But it might be a totally unknown author out there waiting for a break. Is there going to be room to find him/her?

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

    I would love to see a publisher focus more on quality books. I believe that focusing on quality is different from focusing on finding the next runaway bestseller. A single runaway bestseller will keep the coffers full for a while, but a steady stream of quality books will provide a steady stream of revenue and loyal customers. A runaway bestseller will produce money quickly, but in time, a reputation for producing quality books will create a greater flow of money.

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

    Lawrence and Colleen,

    I appreciate your comments. I have several things I would like to share on this topic, but it’s been a long day. If you will indulge me, I will respond tomorrow. Your points are well-taken and worthy of further dialog.

    More later,

    Mike

  • http://zoecarnate.com Mike Morrell

    The first commenter, Brian, posed a question: “The options now are “publish the book” and “don’t publish the book.” Are there in-between options to be found?”

    And I think the answer is to be found in your post: “The authors would have done better to boil down the content and make it a magazine article.”

    I know there are zillions of faith-based magazines around, but I wonder if TN (or someone) could publish a magazine specifically of Christian literature, from these authors who show writing potential but do not yet show full-length potential. I know so of so many non-fiction spirituality titles that I think would have made stronger articles–or tracts!

    Of course, this can also be done online via sites like Harper UK’s Authonomy or the WEbook initiative.

    Overall, I’m not bothered by your cutting your output, but I agree with the unease that those above have stated–which 80% will you cut? And because my reading interests lie outside the mainstream, I have a sinking feeling that if you get it “right” on which ones to cut, that the ones you leave intact will be the schlocky Christian self-help stuff, where I want to read your Jim Palmers, Becky Garrisons, and Brian McLarens. So I might be driven further outside the TN reading fold than I already am. But we’ll see!

  • Brian Jeffers

    Mike, I commend you for making bold decisions in challenging times. You always seem to have keen insight. However, I am slightly scratching my head about how enough of the “better books” will be successful when some of your staff reductions were in your sales force. Won’t eliminating the amount of field reps visiting CBA independents and Church stores result in a decrease in sales of the titles you do publish?

  • http://www.emergingintofaith.blogspot.com Dr. David Frisbie

    Investing less money in lower-performing titles is a positive step for cash flow, but may fail to address the underlying issues. Why do some titles underperform? Is the publisher investing in poorly written books, or in books that have no market niche? Or is the publisher cranking out books that it has no intention of supporting with a decent marketing effort? As the market changes, publishers need to invest their time, energy and scarce capital in learning how to market books successfully.

  • John Young

    Wow Mike this is better than a TNP staff meeting because some good people feel free to talk. Acquistion guys always defend their decision with a “you oughta see what I DIDN’T PUBLISH” comment. Truth is every acquistion guy is competing internally to be a star and nobody knows which book will get legs. Truth is how can any book get life with a 30-45 day marketing campaign and stores turning over prime shelf space too fast for the next hopeful blockbuster coming right behind. Pubs still think like this is the movie business. Books are a slow build. Remember 4 years ago when Wild at Heart was in your top 5 sales and it was then a 3 year old book. Captivating still sells, and Get of the the Pit is still moving and it’s a year old. Most titles never get the luxury of being discovered.
    I wouldn’t write if I didn’t love your industry but at times I feel some companys are in a vaccum. The redundancy of content is overwhelming. Last year it seems everybody with an opinion on parenting released another book. This year every acquistion guy passed on a little book called “The Shack” which is at 400,000 copies sold after one year… self published. Nobody saw the audience’s needs. Instead we go with something similar to something else time and time again and have a warehouse just dedicated to accepting returns.

    I’m not for one second applying for a job or saying I could do anybody’s job better. Many companys are turning out more stuff than we can absorb.

    The “talk” of reducing titles and publishing smarter has been going on so long I’m not sure what will make it change. Perhaps a few years of loosing money. It’s not my wish but that does get CEO’s attention fast.

    I do have compassion tho Mike. Proctor and Gamble, Coca Cola, they all do testing and research before a product goes national. You guys sit with a guess and gut reaction, buy it, print it, ship it and hope for the best. You don’t get paid til it sells and sometimes extend credit terms to keep the product on the floor in hopes….today brings in that customer. It feels a lot like Jesus playing the tables at Vegas doesn’t it. Random has Grisham and you have Lucado to pay the bills for all those that don’t come up for air. But like in Vegas not every roll is an opportunity, but I realize in many meetings, acquistion guys are hyped by agents who think the world won’t spin another minute until their book is released. Maybe somewhere in the middle is the truth.

  • windyrdg

    These two sentences really hit me between the eyes: These books are generally more predictable. They are typically written by known authors or from authors who at least have media platforms and can help us promote them.

    Great idea. Maybe all publishers can subscribe to this theory and the only people published will be TV and radio personalities, rock singers, movie stars, washed-up politicians anbd pastors of mega churches. This week’s coming attractions- Dr. Phil, Joel Osteen, Britney Spears and Jerry Seinfeld’s wife.

    I’ve seen those publishing numbers (ISBN’s issued)broken down and when you strip away the business and technical, text books, self-pubs, etc. the numbers don’t look nearly as overwhelming. The music, movie, TV and book industry have always operated on the shotgun principle simply because no one can predict a hit. Playing it safe doesn’t guarantee success, it guarantees stagnation.

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

    Thanks, Mike, for your honesty and bravado here. As an aspiring author, I take these words as if you have thrown down a gauntlet:

    “In fact, we will continue to take risks on those relatively few manuscripts that are exceptionally well-written”

    The door is still open, but we must improve our writing. And that is a good thing for everyone involved, especially the future of Christian publishing.

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

    I’ve written about your comments on my wannabepublished blog. Here’s the part I’d love for you to address, and as I read the comments here, I see I’m not alone:

    From: http://wannabepublished.blogspot.com/2008/04/whats-new-author-to-do.html

    “Here’s one thing that makes me curious as I read Mr. Hyatt’s savvy words. He does make concession for the need to build new, brilliant voices, but my question is (generally speaking), if the publishing industry resorts only to bottom line tried-and-true authors, how will they truly cultivate new voices? If all the money is spent on promoting those who don’t need promotion, how will new voices be heard? And what does this do for the breadth of the Body of Christ? If we are only publishing the kinds of books that sell, how will we hear from other voices?

    I know this is all about money. I understand. I need to make a living too. But I’m curious if publishing houses, as they’re relying on safe bets, aren’t shooting themselves in the foot by not wooing new voices. Perhaps houses have little funky divisions called “New Voice Acquisition” where they actively take risks on new authors. I’ve heard of such a thing. Anyone in the industry know of this? It must happen because houses have taken huge risks to let me, an unknown, write books.”

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

    Mary, et. al.,

    These are all great questions. They deserve a thoughtful answer. I am working on that now. Stay tuned for a new blog post. I need more space to address these issues than the comments allow.

    Thanks,

    Mike

  • Jorge Hoyos

    Thanks Mike…

  • http://www.rmabry.com Richard Mabry

    I’m shaking my head, trying to digest your words. I appreciate your addressing this, although I must agree that some of the post sounds like simple justification of your actions. Yet I see the hard, dollars-and-cents necessity of making a strong effort to bring out only books that at least sell out enough to cover advances and expenses, even though they may not bring a huge profit.
    The problem, of course, is that all this is subjective. Movies that I’ve loved have been panned by critics. I’ve hated books that sold millions of copies. As one editor told me, after the pub board turned down his presentation of my novel, “Don’t worry. We turned down Left Behind, too.” Where is the magic 8-ball when we need it most?

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

    Thanks Mike, I appreciate it. I will certainly link to your response too.

  • http://www.hickorywithepc.org/Pastor/pastorblog/pastorblog.php Ed Eubanks

    Thanks for posting this– it’s an interesting view at how you (and your leadership team) are making key decisions that will, inevitably, shape the future of Christian publishing in general, since Thomas Nelson is a pace-setter for the industry.

    That said, I wonder if this approach is really being true to your mission, Michael. It seems like this is a strictly pragmatic approach to publishing, as some fellow commenters have pointed out above. Buying only “what will sell” and refusing the rest sounds like a good business plan, but not one driven by any sense of ideals or mission.

    Our world is full of people who, sadly, want to have their ears tickled; thus, basing purchases and publishing expenses solely on what sells will inevitably lead to much more of the popular drivel that affirms a fallen condition, that creates a victim mentality, and that feeds sinful and unhealthy thinking and behavior.

    Your mission, however, is NOT to provide materials that simply “tickle the ears” but that offers real change. Is it possible that the stated goals in your post above are in conflict with the stated goals of your mission?

    What if your approach were radically different? Instead of evaluating manuscripts and existing titles based on sales and profitability, you evaluated them SOLELY on their excellence: in quality of writing, in content that effects real change, and in their stimulation of emotional and spiritual health? And what if you eliminated the titles that DIDN’T fit these as resource-suckers instead?

    In short, what if straight-up saleability and profitablity were never a part of the equation?

    If you did this– if you offered only those titles that fit all of these criteria– then you might take a hit in sales, to a degree. Frankly, though, I think Thomas Nelson is big enough and influential enough that such a move wouldn’t so much affect the bottom line in a drastic, panic-inspiring way as it would result in a better fulfillment of mission and a greater impact on readers.

    If your stated mission were something like, “Thomas Nelson aspires to be the biggest, most profitable producer of books in the spirituality genre,” then your plan of action spelled out above would be EXACTLY what you need to do. But when I read your stated mission, I don’t find that as anything close to your goals or aspirations.

    As a pastor and an acquaintance, I urge you: let your mission drive your action on this matter.

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

    Ed,

    Your point is well-taken. Unfortunately, I can’t say everything in one blog post. We are totally committed to the mission. That’s a given. In recent years, we have said “no” to many projects that would have sold well. But they were not congruent with either or mission or our content standards. By doing less, we believe we can focus on the books that truly will make a difference and give them the marketing attention they need—and deserve—to succeed.

    More later,

    Mike

  • Brad Lynch

    RE: Pastor Eubanks.

    The points you lay out in your 11:21.32 post, while heartfelt and God-based, miss the key cross-over step in trying to do the work of the Lord via a for-profit – or even a not-for-profit – organization.

    I consult such organizations as a former consumer marketing person, and every one of those organizations would like nothing better than simply to be allowed to be on about the business of God.

    But as I said to the first one I ever worked with: “You cannot be about the business of God unless you are also a viable business.”

    I am one more of the thousands of Christians that would love to have Thomas Nelson publish my manuscript. But if doing so puts Thomas Nelson in a financial corner, then eventually NO life-changing books get published by Thomas Nelson.

    And that most definitely does not further the work of God.

    God’s peace be with you.

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

    I am giving up this afternoon on a blog post in response to these comments. Too many interruptions. I will have to work on it this weekend—after the marathon.

  • http://flowerdust.net Anne Jackson

    It has been interesting to read all these comments.

    As a rookie author, with a modest platform, I undoubtedly was given a chance by a well-known publisher (not TN). I am VERY appreciative of that opportunity, realizing that for the most part, that just doesn’t typically happen.

    Even so, I appreciate Mike & TN’s decision to cut their published titles in half. I think it is actually way ahead of the curve not just from a financial and logistical standpoint, but as the music industry shifted from record labels to digital world and then to a more “indie” path, I have a good feeling the book world will not be far behind.

    I do think self publishing is great, and if something resonates with the masses — regardless of how it is produced — it will reach its intended audience.

    Personally, I hope this inspires authors, both published and not, to carefully craft their work, pray about their path, and to never compromise their voice or dreams for a royalty check or marketing campaign. Or to think more of themselves if they are “published” or less of themselves if they are not.

    Cheers!

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

    I agree that you should keep looking for the “next generation” of writers.

  • http://www.brianbaute.com Brian Baute

    Anne, excellent comparison to the music industry. It’s the crux of my question in the first comment: “Are there in-between options to be found?” Those in the music industry have found the in-between on MySpace, iTunes, Amazon, and downloads on artist web sites. Look at Radiohead giving away their latest, or closer to the CCM world freederekwebb.com. And because the labels didn’t recognize the shift, they’re being left out of the new game. Disintermediated. If publishers like TNP keep the old dichotomy (publish the book or don’t publish the book), it seems that they’re guaranteeing themselves the same fate. And just like the digital revolution has changed the primary unit of music purchased from the album (record/cassette/CD) to the song, so we’re seeing the primary unit of text read from the longform newspaper/magazine/book to the shortform article/chapter/blog post. Will TNP capitalize on the new opportunities in these shorter forms?

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

    I’m a bookaholic and purchase a minimum of five books a week—religious and secular. Yes, I do read them. I carry a book everywhere I go. I even read at long stoplights. Currently, 50 books I’ve read in the past few months grace my bedside. My best friend is also a reader. If she says a book is meaningful to her, I have to read it. She LOVED “The Shack.” Last week I bought ten books—one of which was a TN title “The Thrill of the Chaste,” which arrived yesterday in the mail. It will be read by Monday along with two others that I purchased on amazon.com.

    I purchased another title at Barnes and Noble on the same subject by your competitor for $19.99 plus tax because people raved about the author’s first book. The title of the book grabbed me and the chapter titles intrigued me. The chapter content does not live up to the chapter titles. In fact, in one chapter he only addresses the advertised chapter title topic in ONE SENTENCE. UGH! This book is a random collection of disconnected, dull stories about his travels here and there interspersed between yet another uninteresting sermon. I will force myself to finish reading it, but the thought repels me. I most likely will not ever consider buying another book by this author. Needless to say, I’m ticked that I paid $21 for another predictable sermon.

    One question I have is…are the authors you will be publishing be those who are “famous” or can move books via their media outlets or speaking venues, because it is guaranteed money? I’m writing an in depth Bible study on the book of Esther. I purchased an older TN title by a famous media preacher. It was an incredible disappointment. I would classify it as a quote book rather than a study of Esther. Pithy quotes by others were interspersed between nothing-new-generic-comments about Esther. I only learned ONE NEW THOUGHT from his book. The book does not live up to its marketing hype. Now when I see any book by him, I get a bad feeling and I ignore it. I still enjoy and listen to his radio show, but would be hard-pressed to spend one penny for something he has written.

    I read the Da Vinci Code and paid full price for it. It was the best fun read I’ve had in years. Was working full time and didn’t sleep for several nights to inhale it. I found another title of Brown’s at a used bookstore, bought it and read it. It was the Da Vinci Code just dressed up in a different outfit. Same style, pacing, detail, etc. Been there. Read that. Couldn’t bring myself to buy Angels and Demons. The first ten pages sounded too much like Da Vinci Code.

    I read with a highlighter in hand and highlight sentences or paragraphs that grab my heart, tell me something I don’t know, is a wonderful word picture, says something in a clever way, makes me laugh, think or reevaluate what I belief. At this point, I probably should add, I love Dallas Willard’s books and I had to use multiple color highlighters because almost every paragraph in every book of his is highlightable. He challenges me. He makes me think. He pricks my conscience. He prods me spiritually. He is re-readable.

    To me a good book is revealed by how much I highlight on each page and how many personal comments I write in the white space of the page in response to what the author says. Many Christian titles are just not that highlightable or re-readable.

    My frustration with some of the “well-known” authors is after a best seller or two; they sound the same or are just plain boring or predictable. Many Christian books are just the same old yadda, yadda, yadda or talk at me or sell the latest popular theological bent. Yawn. Nothing deep, well thought out or thought provoking. Boring. Recently, I signed up to critique and receive writing critiques at a Christian and a secular website. The writing at the secular website was breathtaking, creative, interesting. At the Christian site? Beyond horrible. Same old yadda, yadda.

    My comments are not meant as criticism, but frustration. I love to read and write. I want to grow in all areas of my life. When I was an editor for one of the top five Christian publishing houses, I enjoyed reading the manuscripts that came in. My favorite manuscript was “Memoirs of an Amnesiac.” Every page was blank. Hilarious! Many times manuscripts that were meaty and interesting were not considered, because they weren’t “fluff” or popular topics or written by well-known authors.

    Christian publishers have published a body of excellent books. However, have Christian publishers underestimated their reading audience? Have they created a lazy reading audience? Where are everyday people, Christian writers, who are honest, vulnerable, share their passions, and talk from their hearts—not their heads? Is it possible that those in the Christian publishing world are “too close” to what they think will sell?

    Have you made the decision to publish fewer, but more quality, books?

    My favorite Bible publisher is Jewish. I will only buy their hardbacks because they are so well made and beautiful. I’ve highlighted my wish list in their catalog and I’m slowing collecting them. When they announce a new book, I check it out. When they email me with 20% off, I jump at the chance to purchase another title. The writing and editing is superb. Book cover designs are beautiful. Their authors are thought-provoking and great writers. I did buy two that were expensive that I intensely disliked, but overall, their books don’t disappoint me. Recently, I noticed that many topics I research lead me to Catholic writers or thinkers.

    As the director of Springs Writers, I have 300 writers, from wannabees to professionals, on my E-news list. I book an agent, author or publishing representative every month to provide a free, conference-quality writing workshop. My passion is encouraging writers. This particular blog entry is a real bummer to them. What advice do you offer to budding authors? After I read your response to comments, I want to blog at http://www.thewritingroad.blogspot.com.

    Respectfully, Scoti Springfield Domeij

  • http://www.stanwilliams.com Stan Williams, Ph.D.

    I too am a ferocious reader, writer, and publisher of sorts. Over the years I’ve been bored to tears by those popular Christian writers, who say the right things but challenge me not. Blah, mediocre Christianity. Perhaps that’s one reason I converted to Catholicism, I wanted something deeper, historical, mind-bending-in-keeping with Christ. But I agree, with 700 titles, you have WAY too many to do a good job. I have a retail site, too, and I get announcements all the time from Christian publishers about their new titles. 99% of them sound like the titles and topics were selected to be “safe” and middle of the road. // I think Mike provided a good explanation of why they should cut 50% of the titles, and based on their 95% and 60% predictions, still be profitable and make better books. I read some manuscripts people send and some of the ideas are great IF, IF, IF you can spend the time working with the good idea people to get it right on paper. (cf James Michener’s Writer’s Handbook) I read once that Isaac Asimov was a terrible “writer” but he had “great ideas.” He had some good editors and publishers and look where it got all of them. Publishers should look for the Asimov’s. Unfortunately there are too many good ideas, and not enough good editors or patient enough publishers. The last few efforts I’ve been involved with boggled my mind as I encountered really impatient publishers and lazy editors. Go Mike. You’re right on.

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

    By the way, my figure of 300,000 new titles last year is incorrect. According to an article in the New York Times entitled “You’re an Author? Me Too!” by Rachel Donadio, 400,000 new titles were published last year, up from 300,000 the previous year. This is a 33% increase!

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

    Stan, In regard to your observation: “I read some manuscripts people send and some of the ideas are great IF, IF, IF you can spend the time working with the good idea people to get it right on paper.” That’s why writers need a writing critique group–a place to flesh out ideas, dig deeper into our cores and hone writing skills. Our group members love red ink. When we submit manuscripts, editors tell us, “This is so clean.” My responsibility as a writer is to offer a publisher fresh, focused and clean copy.

  • http://www.chipmacgregor.com chip

    Geez. Dropping out of ICRS. Cutting out BEA. Laying off 10% of the workforce. And trimming back a potential 100-200 titles? THAT, my friend, is one lousy week.

    I may not like some of those decisions, Mike, but I have to respect a man who, when handed the reins, tries to see what the road ahead looks like and is willing make the tough decisions in order to get his company successfully to its destination. And the fact that you were open enough to blog about it, and take personal shots from people… I don’t know that I could have done that. Wow. I read your blog and have never once commented in the past, but felt I had to say something this time. These decisions may not earn you any new fans, but it certainly earns you my respect.

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

    Chip.

    Thanks for your comments. It was a tough week. Change is never easy.

    But, honestly, I don’t think publishers have a choice. The market is changing rapidly. Yet, many publishers continue to justify the status quo.

    We may not be making all the right changes, but at least we in motion. I think we have a better chance of swimming with the current rather than standing still and hoping the current slows down or starts moving in the opposite direction.

    Best,

    Mike

  • Alan Giagnocavo

    Mike:

    As you prepare for a board meeting – let me share a poem that may be useful:

    Bertolt Brecht
    THE DOUBTER

    Whenever we seemed
    To have found the answer to a question
    One of us untied the string of the old rolled-up
    Chinese scroll on the wall, so that it fell down and
    Revealed to us the man on the bench who
    Doubted so much.

    I, he said to us,
    Am the doubter. I am doubtful whether
    the work was well done that devoured your days.
    Whether what you said would still have value for anyone if it
    were less well said.
    Whether you said it well but perhaps
    Were not convinced of the truth of what you said.
    Whether it is not ambiguous; each possible misunderstanding
    Is your responsibility. Or it can be unambiguous
    And take the contradictions out of things; is it too
    Unambiguous?
    If so, what you say is useless. Your thing has no life in it.

    Are you truly in the stream of happening? Do you accept
    All that develops? Are you developing? Who are you? To
    whom do you speak? Who finds what you say useful?

    And by the way: Is it sobering? Can it be read in the morning?
    Is it also linked to what is already there? Are the sentences
    That were spoken before you made use of, or at least refuted? Is
    everything verifiable? By experience? By which one?

    But above all.
    Always above all else: how does one act
    If one believes what you say? Above all: how does one act?
    Reflectively, curiously, we studied the doubting
    Blue man on the scroll, looked at each other and
    made a fresh start.
    -end of poem-

    How many bad title decisions could we all avoid if we asked ourselves these questions?

    As a publisher of spiritual books- what if you made these sorts of questions the litmus test instead of or on top of things like the Nicene Creed?

    PS:
    Before starting a woodworking publishing company, I ran a small Christian bookstore and owned a tiny bluegrass gospel label. I met Sam Moore many years ago and even remember when Nelson gave out Goo-Goo clusters at conventions. Appreciate your columns.

  • http://www.salberg.org Lawrence Salberg

    Mike wrote: “Will you indulge me?” in response to my comment. Huh? Of course! The CEO of the largest Christian bookseller wants to know if I’ll indulge him by letting him wait a day to respond? Gee, I’m just happy you didn’t decide to use your vast resources to send a ninja after me or to somehow ban my IP address forever.

    And I saw the new post today. Helpful. Explanatory. I move 10 percent in your direction. Communication = good.

    And saw the above comments, some obviously by disgruntled authors as you suspected in today’s post. Just want to clarify that I’m not one. A disgruntled author that is. Or an author of any emotional state. Blogger? Yes. Author? No. Web Designer/Developer? Yes. Person who wants higher quality books? Yes. Person who thinks I have something to offer anyone for $24.95 in hardback? No.

    Although there is my one idea about a guy who wakes up one morning to find that his wife, who he was going to divorce in a few months, is gone. And how he goes from initial fear, acceptance, elation, to depression, to madness… all in about the space of a month. Not really a Christian book because the only way I see it ending is him killing himself by suddenly jerking the wheel of his car and driving his car into a ravine. Which is like the literary equivalent of a ditch. But you can’t just put “ditch” in a book because it’s a rule that you have to use the word ravine. It’s more ominous. No one gets out of a ravine alive. It’s impossible. Watch a few episodes of CSI. You’ll see.

    But since I’ve pretty much summed up the plot, it’s now free for the taking. All you wanna-be authors can use it. There’s a few more parts – like the girl at the convenience store (redhead, if you must know) who he imagines being bold enough to ask out once he leaves his wife, but who turns out to be a happily married but just flirts a lot and doesn’t wear a wedding ring. And his new car getting repossessed. Yeah, it’s a Mustang GT (if you must know) and it’s Navy Blue. Leave it to middle-aged men to even screw up a midlife crisis. He tried to use the color to convince his wife he wasn’t going through a midlife crisis: “Did I buy red? No! Did I buy black? No! That’s what an irresponsible reckless man would do: Buy red or black. Probably with some kind of flames on the hood. I bought a navy blue car. As in the U.S. Navy, the pride of strength and stability. How dare you criticize me?”… yada, yada, yada, .

    So there you have it, wanna-be disgruntled authors. I’ve given you Excalibur – you just have to pick it up and use it.

  • http://josephinedamian.blogspot.com Josephine Damian

    I can’t tell you how many books I started this past year and never finished. Why? Because, frankly, they weren’t worth finishing. Most of them left me underwhelmed. The authors would have done better to boil down the content and make it a magazine article.

    I’ve flat out stopped buying books because of the poor quality. That and the fact that writers are using their friends and family, and sometimes even a “sock puppet” version of themself with a phony name to post glowing reviews of their awful books on sites like amazon.

    Still, I wonder why editors and agents push these bad books through the system and allow them to be published? The industry can’t put an end to bad writers, but it can and should put an end to bad books.

  • Termagant 2

    I’m a fiction reader and I’d love to hear about how the majority of what TN will release next year is high quality fiction. It will help make up for all those mediocre novels I’ve been putting in the bag for the Salvation Army to pick up, after I’ve read 30 pages.

    It’s not an easy age to find space in the family budget for books. Many things eat up money I’d rather spend on reading material. I’m sure I’m not the only person thinking this way in a tough economy.

    I feel TN and other pubs might consider choosing one relatively new author with a worthy project, and granting them the promo dollars that once were allocated to the tried-and-true old familiars. If the book sells really well, you’ve done us all a service.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/RichTatum/ Rich Tatum

    Without sowing the crop of poorer-performing C- and D-list titles this year, you don’t reap the harvest of mature A- and B-list authors ten years from now. Only focusing on the cream of your current crop will handicap you down the road.

    Regards,

    Rich

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

    @Rich: I would encourage you to read my follow-up post, Choosing Which Books to Publish, which addresses the very concern you raise. Thanks.

  • http://pubs.usgs.gov chastityhu

    1998 space cycle ars likewise

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  • http://twitter.com/robwar0100 @robwar0100

    Michael, I like this post, especially your advice that some of the books be scaled back to a magazine article. As my wife and I researched the art of screenwriting, one of the authors suggested the writer determine what avenue was best suited for the idea. It might be a movie script, a book, a song or even a poem.

  • http://www.indiebusinessblog.com Donna Maria @ Indie Business

    I enjoyed scanning your post. Not to seem shallow or anything, but I especially loved the I Love Lucy video. I’ll re-visit the post and think later, but for now, it’s Saturday evening and I’m enjoying the laugh!! Thanks!

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

    One of the biggest problems I see in Christian nonfiction writing and other self-help titles is that they are mostly made up of stories about other people. With so many second and third-handed stories, the books seem to meld into a huge pile of the same-old, same-old. Yet, content that's new might well run into a brick wall because it is new and people want the security of the same-old, same-old. I do not eny you in your job especially with the abundance of writing courses, publications, and conferences that seem to promise, "Just be persistent, you'll get published." But, I do believe if you are asking God for knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, He will give them to you.

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

    One of the biggest problems I see in Christian nonfiction writing and other self-help titles is that they are mostly made up of stories about other people. With so many second and third-handed stories, the books seem to meld into a huge pile of the same-old, same-old. Yet, content that's new might well run into a brick wall because it is new and people want the security of the same-old, same-old. I do not envy you in your job especially with the abundance of writing courses, publications, and conferences that seem to promise, "Just be persistent, you'll get published." But, I do believe if you are asking God for knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, He will give them to you.

  • http://www.tedkinzer.com Ted

    Michael,

    Understand this is a post from awhile back but wanted to say I agree with you. I am a student of leadership and read many books on the subject. I find most could have been distilled to an article or shortened by about 200 pages.

    For business non-fiction, I would like to see more research based writing as opposed to just anecdotal thoughts or someone writing about how 'they did it', these are definitely candidates for articles.

    I have started a practice of using the library to check out most books before deciding to add to my personal library.

    Thanks,
    Ted
    @terribleted66

  • Ava Pennington

    Well written with many valid observations. However I'm having difficulty reconciling this with TN's recently announced venture into self-publishing!

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

    Interesting post. Could be that his trend is related to RISK?

    If I am correct, it used to be that publishers accepted a small number of titles to pursue because they shouldered the majority of the RISK involved with publishing a book. But as actual costs have been driven down and marketing channels / distribution outlets have increased, the RISK has effectively been reduced — hence publishers are able to and have been "investing" in more titles to increase the odds of getting a "hit."

    Separate, but related, self-publishing has also been affected by technology improvements in publishing on-demand, so that authors are increasingly able to take on the financial risk and pursue vanity press outlets without publishing houses' involvement.

    While the floodgates have opened, your company's response to cut title is worthy of consideration. But how about looking at how to influence another area of the issue? How about trying to see if you/wee can influence the filter/edit/curation of what consumers see in the bookstores. One example is Oprah's Book Club. While there's probably a lot of criticism for that "vehicle", it is serving to deal with this onslaught of new books each year.

    There's more to develop on this thread of thought, but I figured it was interesting enough to post here…What do you think?
    My recent post My Own [Randomization] Ritual

  • http://www.elehack.net/jennifer Jennifer

    Just this week I was saying "life is too short to read ok books" as I returned three books to the library without finishing them.

    I appreciate many things about TN. Saying that, I've noticed most of the books I read or buy come from a few publishers that only publish a handful of books every month.

    Picking which authors to take a risk on must be hard work, but I appreciate focusing on better instead of more.

  • http://www.themotherlode.wordpress.com Theresa Lode

    First, I had to chuckle at your use of the Lucy clip; what a sage she was, eh? Seth Godin used it in one of his recent posts and I used it on a post about education. (http://themotherlode.wordpress.com/2010/02/03/the

    I think it's pretty amazing what you're doing. Letting go of something that is no longer working takes guts, human tendencies being what they are. Especially when there's no real road map lining out what's around the corner.

    I find personally, God will often ask us to let us go of something before he unveils the next step. It's a delightful adventure…though scary at times.

    Thank you so much for what you share, Michael. Your leadership example in the corporate setting inspires me in my personal life.
    My recent post Why teaching is ‘not like making motorcars’

    • http://www.themotherlode.wordpress.com Theresa Lode

      Ha! I didn't realize this was an old post. (Note to self: Check posting dates.) Nonetheless, I am very glad to have read it. Good stuff!
      My recent post Why teaching is ‘not like making motorcars’

  • D. N. Stoddart

    "And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh." ~ Ecclesiastes 12:12

    I've long shared your contention that we need better books instead of more books.

    Let me cite an example that comes immediately to mind. A few years ago when film adaptations of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series of books were released, I noted the spate of non-fiction titles seeking to cash in on the increased interest in Lewis in particular and the Inklings in general. Suddenly, there was a veritable glut on the shelves of titles related to Lewis biography, Lewis' worldview, etcetera *ad nauseum*. I dutifully read most of these. Only a single book, Michael Ward's very fine _Planet Narnia_, struck me as exceptional. The rest, as you note, would have been better as journal articles.

    It seems to this writer that there is more bandwagon-jumping in the Christian market than ever before. The only solution is for publishers to exercise more discrimination.

    Now that Amazon says that eBook sales have surpassed hardcover sales, perhaps now is the time for Christian publishers to find an economic incentive for cutting title lists. However, I'll be saddened if this results in fewer new authors. I hope you find a way to improve discovery of new authors and titles. I don't want a book market where only the most popular titles get all the attention of established publishers.

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  • http://jackr.myopenid.com/ Jack Repenning

    Your “focus on the top” strategy sounds suspiciously like “barrier to new writer entry.” Maybe the ideal formula is neither more, nor fewer books, but rather some way to do the “C and D” books at lower cost.

    E-publication, for example, has the obvious savings of paper and press. You don’t actually mention those costs, which probably means they’re not as important as the human work (which seems credible). But are there other ways to shave costs on “C and D” books? In the explosion of E-publication lately, I’ve definitely noticed that many publishers were e-publishing scans of older paper-published books that seem suspiciously light on the proof-reading. Maybe that’s a shavable cost for new works as well?

  • http://twitter.com/lovinglyyoursG Georgiana

    As the old wise saying goes ~ “Quality over quantity” is always best. I want to invest my reading time with substantial books that have inspirational messages that I can personally relate and apply to my everyday life. Learning new ideas and gaining new insight is also important as well.

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  • Chris Donato

    I’m so very grateful for this post. Thanks also for pointing the finger at yourself—a lot of fluff has hit the shelf from Thomas Nelson over the years. I’m a bibliophile and I can’t agree more that there’s way too much wasted paper out there.

    I also can’t wait to hear the “end” of this story a year from now when you divulge how this plan works out (cutting 50% of  new title output while risking less than 10% revenue).

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Actually, I wrote this post three years ago. It has had a big impact on us in terms of enabling us to focus our resources on fewer titles. It was a very good decision, and we have stuck with it.

      • Chris Donato

        That’s great to hear. Thanks again for blazing the trail in this regard!

  • http://twitter.com/jackalopekid Adam Smith

      I was thinking of writing a post on this and just never got to it, but I totally agree with you. People aren’t writing with the New York Times Bestseller list in mind at all these days. In fact I’d say that authors are happy and are satisfied with mediocrity. Glad to see Thomas Nelson come out with a stance to make authors think before they write and submit their transcript. It will make us all better.

  • http://twitter.com/jackalopekid Adam Smith

    And for those that aren’t quite where they need to be in their writing but have to publish their content, you have shown that the ebook is a great option.

  • Matthew

    Often great books sell poorly and poorly written books sell well. Many impacting books only impact a few, but those few can change the world. And how does something like this accelerate a celebrity driven Christian culture? Would people like P. Yancy be discovered as great writers in this climate, people who have no mega-church or national platform behind them? OK choose quality over quantity but will you choose great books or national celebrity who have the best chance to sell. I am afraid the best intentions are led astray by thirst for profit most often.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I’m sorry, but I disagree. Too many publishers throw too much mud at the wall, hoping some of it will stick. When you focus on fewer products, you can publish with more intention—and more success. We are still publishing plenty of books by first-time authors. In fact, the two of the three books we have on the New York Times bestsellers list this week are written by first-time authors. Neither of them are celebrities.

  • Susan Wilkinson

    Halleluia. Glad you said it.  Amen and Amen.

  • http://www.christopherneiger.com/blog Chris Neiger

    As an aspiring writer this one is difficult to read, but I have to say that I aggree. There are way to many books on the shelf and some of them just aren’t good.

  • Bob Christopher

     Michael, excellent post. I applaud your efforts. The Gospel is way too important to settle for anything less than the best. Authors, both rookies and seasoned vets, should be both encouraged and challenged by your words. I certainly am.

  • http://brevis.me Robert Ewoldt

    I totally agree; publishing less, but focusing more on making those few really good. 

  • http://twitter.com/cynthiaSEL Cynthia Leighton

     Yes! Bravo for daring to say so and preparing to take action.

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  • Rick Carr

    I don’t disagree that there are probably too many books out there, and many that possibly should never have been published. However, I’d like to offer another perspective.

    Some years ago, I took a draft of my book to Kip Jordan of Word Publishing. I was working for Word Music at the time, and asked his opinion of the book, not seeking to have Word publish it, just getting an expert opinion of my manuscript. Kip told me my book deserved to be published. He told me it was good, better than a lot of what’s out there. However, since I was an unknown, Kip said if a large company like Word or Nelson were to publish it, it would just go in the catalog, with no marketing dollars behind it. If a sales rep read it and really liked he might give it an extra push, but other than that, it would just be there – in the catalog and on the automatic release program – with no advertising or in-store marketing pieces. He said the irony is that marketing dollars of big companies go to their top tier authors by contract – the Billy Grahams, Chuck Colsons, etc. – even though they have huge platforms and really don’t need it like the lesser known authors do.

    In sales, the “80/20 rule” rules. 20% of your ______ (books, albums, salesmen, accounts, customers…) account for 80% of your sales. (Your 90/23 skews the rule a bit.) Most business don’t feel they can afford to ignore the other 20%. Come to think of it, that way of thinking is why there’s a shortage of a key drug to fight leukemia. It’s no longer one of those 80% items for the drug companies.

    When I was in retail, there were often new albums that I really enjoyed, but they weren’t selling. There would be hit songs from an album on radio, 1, 2, then 3. I’d be about to return my unsold stock when all the sudden the album would start selling. When that happened, I often asked customers why they chose that particular album. Almost without fail, they would say, “It was when the 3rd single hit radio. I figured if there were 3 songs that I liked, I’d probably like the whole album.”

    When I was with Word, I cannot tell you how many new artists never got that 3rd single. And because their sales never took off, after one album, or maybe two, the record label would drop them.

    While all other costs may be fairly equal, the marketing support is far from the same for A titles, B titles, and C & D titles. Maybe, just maybe, if the marketing dollars were spread more evenly, at least some of the C titles could move up a category or two.

  • Sybil Light

    I think publishers need to produce those titles that readers/consumers want to read/buy, that libraries want to pitch, that people want to talk about, that groups wants to talk about around their living room, that intrigue the mind and stretch imaginations.  Trim? Yes.  I don’t need to say anymore.

  • Steve

    Mike,
    I appreciate what you’re saying. As a customer, I don’t want you to publish the books you think I will buy, but the books you think are worth buying. Perhaps it’s roughly the same list, but, to me anyway, it’s an important distinction.
    -Steve

  • http://livingtopleasegod.blogspot.com Rhoda

    I couldn’t agree more! As I read new books I keep thinking that the few old golden ones I have are so much better! And with Christian books many times I think we would be getting more from re-reading the old ones rather than buying new, though I guess that doesn’t work too well for a publishing company :)

  • Jenn Lull

    Yes. I’ve found a lot of books have given me 300 pages of action or story and then try to wrap the whole thing up in 5 pages. Please people, start writing actual endings to books. This isn’t the movie industry, I expect better from authors, editors, and publishers.