Publisher—or Printer? Christian Nonfiction in a Digital Age

As the shadows lengthen in my career, I field more and more inquiries from younger colleagues about the vagaries of publishing. For those who have a dissertation or other narrowly focused monograph to publish, there is certain advice I can give that hasn’t changed much over my thirty-plus years in the guild. But for those who have aspirations for their book beyond selling several hundred copies aimed at libraries and fellow specialists, what do I say in 2020?

I reached out to several friends in the ranks of successful publishers. What follows is a set of emails and phone calls transformed into an ersatz conversation. Content has been edited for clarity and brevity. Each participant has had opportunity to vet his contribution before publication, but none of them purport to speak here officially for their respective houses, whose names are appended for identification purposes only. Thanks also to Prof. Scot McKnight for publicizing this conversation through his weblog at Christianity Today. There it appears in three parts, while here is the whole thing.

Stan Gundry is Senior Vice President and Publisher for the Zondervan Academic and Zondervan Reflective imprints.

Jim Kinney is Executive Vice President of Academic Publishing at Baker Publishing Group.

Michael (Mickey) Maudlin was an editor at InterVarsity Press and Christianity Today magazine. He is Executive Editor and Senior Vice-President at HarperOne.

Niko Pfund was Director and Editor-in-Chief of New York University Press and is now President and Academic Publisher at Oxford University Press, USA.

Michael Thomson worked for over 20 years at Eerdmans and is now Acquisitions and Development Editor at Wipf & Stock.

* * * * *

John Stackhouse (JS): Why should authors nowadays bother paying so much for what increasingly looks like mere printing? By “paying,” I don’t mean coming up with a subvention for a book aimed at a tiny audience. I appreciate that that might be necessary to get out a good, narrowly targeted book to a necessarily small audience at an affordable price. 

I mean taking such a small percentage (10-15%) of revenue from book sales.

It used to be, and not so long ago, that authors were expected to write a good book. The publisher and, in the appropriate genres, agent, would take it from there. A launch. Maybe a tour. Publishers guided, edited, marketed, designed—as well as printed. 

More recently, however, authors were expected to help market the book by providing magazines with some excerpts or articles based on the book. And as magazines have faded, now authors are expected to blog and tweet and Facebook and ‘Gram.

Even that can be understood as part of the new marketing demands among new media. But the word on the street is that authors are actually expected to provide customers. In trade publishing, one hears the magic number of 10,000 (10k) “followers” as one’s “platform.” And that seems to some of us like publishers are saying, “Bring us a ready-made audience.”

But when publishers sell most of such books through Amazon anyhow, how important is “distribution” anymore? Besides basic copyediting, art, and printing—which good vanity presses offer—why are we authors paying so much to publishers?

Have publishers basically conceded that they don’t know how to market books? Did they ever?

And is the dream of landing a contract with a big publishing house as an unknown author simply, indeed, a delusion?

Mickey Maudlin (HarperOne):  Thanks for once more living up to your reputation for being provocative—which, as you know, I enjoy.

For your first question, “Why pay so much . . .”, I don’t think that applies to most publishers—at least commercial ones. We tend to pay authors, not charge them. 

Still, whenever there is an agreement between author and publisher, it is merely a question of expected return on investment for both parties. Either the author thinks there is a potential for gain or not. So if an author concludes that self-publishing has a better return for them, then I can see why that might be their choice, even if it costs them something. I think self-publishing has added an important dynamic to publishing, allowing new authors to come to the attention of traditional publishers as well as pushing publishers to make sure they really are adding value to their projects.

Jim Kinney (Baker): Working with a top-notch general contractor, attending a premier university, or publishing with a traditional publisher involves a bundle of services. Theirs are not the only ways to freshen a kitchen, get an education, or publish a book. They offer particular approaches to those tasks. And the three institutions will only stay in business for the long haul if their particular bundles of services work for enough people year after year.

Michael Thomson (Wipf & Stock): Like many other publishers, at Wipf & Stock we have multiple imprints to help authors in different situations. 

For narrowly focused research—such as dissertations, Festschriften, conference proceedings, and the like—we have the Pickwick imprint, and the practices of some university presses and higher-end academic presses. Our fees for such do not at all cover the total cost of getting the book ready for publication—just enough to keep the book cheap and allow us to break even somewhere around 300 copies. And if the books sell better than that, of course, as many do, both sides recoup their investment and then some.

Wipf & Stock is our trade imprint, which includes new authors and some that may not sell a lot. There is a range, but acceptance to the imprint is not based solely on the final sales numbers. Some of these are books whose authors don’t yet have a big platform, and some of these do require fees as well to keep the purchase price within range of the target audience.

Cascade works like a typical academic and trade house, such as IVP or Baker. Here we spend time judging proposals, seeking authors, and developing projects and series. The imprint is careful to screen out what we doubt is the best of what is publishable in our field. Here, no fees are levied as we have an expectation the books in Cascade will, by and large, be successful projects. 

Niko Pfund (OUP): OUP is a “full-spectrum” university press, by which I mean that we publish very specialized scholarship likely to be of interest primarily to a subset of scholars within a discipline on the one hand, and on the other we publish a significant list of general-interest titles, such as Jeffrey Stewart’s biography of Alain Locke, The New Negro, which won both the Pulitzer Prize in Biography and the National Book Award in 2018.  This gives me a particular vantage point from which to address most, if not all, of your concerns.

Authors in fact get a lot from a typical publishing house. Francine O’Sullivan over at Edward Elgar provides an extensive list of such services, which covers the waterfront well in addresses your printing/publishing binary.

For another perspective on the difference between printing and publishing, especially serious non-fiction publishing, have a look at Rakuten Kobo CEO Michael Tamblyn’s recent tweet about the influx of books touting COVID-19-related “cures”.

Maudlin (HarperOne): Self-publishing involves a lot of headaches and costs: printing, designing, writing marketing copy, typesetting, shipping, selling, accepting returns, etc. Even successful authors often accept making less money per sale just to offload these duties.

Stan Gundry (Zondervan):  If I were free to share the prepress costs with you as well as the sales and marketing costs, it would be obvious that publishing is not mere printing. And these costs are spread across both print and digital formats of books. But the costs of ppb (paper, printing, and binding) have also gone up in the last 2 or 3 years, especially the cost of paper. Are you aware that there have been paper shortages due to the fact that many paper mills shifted from producing paper to producing cardboard boxes because of the demand for boxes to meet Amazon shipping needs?

JS: I appreciate that marketing is something most lone authors can’t do well. But what can publishing houses do nowadays amid all the noise, the decline of magazines (and book reviewing), and the rise of Amazon? (H/T, by the way, to Niko for drawing to our attention, and contributing to our sense of despair, this decade-old-but-stunningly-still-relevant piece in The New Yorker on marketing.)

Maudlin (HarperOne): If anything, you understate the degree of disruption. Yes, big commercial publishers had much more power and ability to collude with the big chains and the major review mechanisms to influence what people should read—though publishing had always been an imprecise science and there has always been room for surprises. 

Still, it is hard to argue that booksellers have the power they used to and they are not nearly as willing to stock twenty copies of the latest book on the front tables just because the publisher says it will be “big.” They are now much more cautious and are much more likely to order conservatively and chase the books that start to move (becoming a responder rather than an influencer). 

Review mechanisms have all but disappeared, being replaced by such things as celebrity book clubs and reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. And those have much less power to influence the wider market for most books.

Gundry (Zondervan): The nature and method of marketing books has radically changed. It now focuses not on print, but on blogs, podcasts, virtual tours, and the varieties of social media. The bigger the social media platform an author has and the more the author is willing to exploit the platform, the more chance there is the book will perform well. 

Is that bad? Or an unreasonable expectation? And lest you think that publishers put all that burden on the authors, most of our marketing effort is spent on promotion through social media. Most of our marketing people are of the younger sort who know more about social media than do we seniors. We often spend both money and effort working with authors to establish a social media presence for those who have none.

Maudlin (HarperOne): When publishers had the ability to buy their way into the “new titles” tables at the mega bookstores, that was powerful marketing. When I came to Harper in 2002, the mission of the marketing department was almost exclusively to equip sales reps for getting our books into stores. That is no longer how it works. 

Now our marketing department is fully direct-to-consumer, working in partnership with our authors and accounts to maximize reach and sales. And, yes, you are right that the authors who need our help the least are the ones we want the most! For commercial nonfiction publishers, at least, measuring an author’s platform (the ability to get directly in front of an audience that is predisposed to buy his or her book) is a big part of our formula.

Still, isn’t it interesting that even the people with the largest platforms still almost always decide to work with a traditional publisher? It is even more telling that the most successful self-published authors almost always transition to a traditional publisher—in fact, that is the primary sign that they have been successful.

Our marketing really does add value. We know how the book business works. We know the best practices for authors reaching their audiences in a way that generates sales and attention. We know distinctive strategies to get the word out beyond the author’s base. We coordinate with publicists and pitch media. We know how to organize events and we make sure books are present. It would be hard for even the most savvy self-published author to know the market as well. 

Still, it is very difficult to create something from nothing. If the author has little ability to get in front of her audience, we are often blamed for our “poor marketing.” Guilty as charged.

Pfund (OUP): The “cultural space” in which books make their way nowadays has shrunk. High-quality programs on streaming video, for example, are cutting into places where books used to dominate. Where someone might have read a book on a subject, now they can watch an excellent four-part documentary. I do it myself, and, to paraphrase Chimimanda Adichi in a recent interview, I reject the notion of guilty pleasure, which is too often rooted in cultural snobbery.  At the same time, there is an obvious impact on authors and publishers.  

And I don’t think it’s at all contradictory or elitist to point out that each form—video, audio, text—has a different intensity level of interpretation.  John Irving has said that “reading is the encounter in silence of two minds” and there’s not a lot of silence in video or audio.

JS: So having nodded toward Netflix et al., let’s confront the 900-pound gorilla.

Maudlin (HarperOne): While it is impossible to know the exact numbers, I think a conservative estimate would have Amazon distributing about 60% of the commercial market for physical books and about 80% of the digital market (ebook and audio). And they have definitely leveled the playing field.

When I worked at IVP, I remember how hard we had to work to get our books into any bookstores, Christian or not. Now all of IVP’s books appear on Amazon. But so does everything else. That is why it is still difficult (in fact, more difficult) to get eyeballs to notice your book.

It is also why getting distribution to as many retail outlets as possible is important. Amazon notices what other retailers are selling and is more likely to discount those books that are doing well in other venues; also, for a book to appear in a bookstore, customers know that it has earned a spot there, since bookstores do not order “everything.”

Kinney (Baker): Does having my book sold by Amazon suffice as “distribution”? Last week there was an event that produced demand for certain of our books. The request was fielded by our special sales rep, passed to our customer service department, and handled by our shipping department in a matter of hours. Could Amazon have done that (not last week, of course, but in normal, non-COVID-19 times)? I don’t think so. 

No other outlet has the level of investment in these books and their success that we have. We’re happy to use as many partners as possible for distribution. But as the publisher, we have a vested interest in leveraging all of those partnerships in any way we can to help connect our authors with their readers. That’s the kind of advocacy and oversight a publisher can provide, even in the area of distribution.

Thomson (Wipf & Stock):  IVP, Baker, Zondervan, Cascade and others: these are publishing programs that do keep the customer in mind as we sort out cost of development, potential return, and pricing. Are book retail prices a bit higher than a decade ago? Surely, but then Amazon has completely (I mean literally completely) changed the equation around what a retail price even means. Amazon commands higher discounts from publishers than a once-thriving retail sector did and has all but replaced local bookstores, includng academic bookstores. They do now provide, inescapably, access to customers around the globe.

Gundry (Zondervan): All the major publishers are heavily dependent on Amazon sales, but knowledgeable publishers have teams of people who do nothing except focus on how to make their books discoverable on Amazon. Do you really think that all we do is ship books to Amazon to sell and that the rest is up to Amazon? There is an entire skill set to effectively making the books we publish easily discoverable on Amazon.

Pfund (OUP): We have entire teams of people working on activities that didn’t exist 20 years ago and that few authors consider or even know about: SEO (Search Engine Optimization), usage metrics, bibliographic data interfaces, etc., etc. As a university press, we focus increasingly on usage rather than merely on sales. Most print sales of the typical academic monograph have generally occurred in the first 1-2 years after the book’s publication. But the curve on usage looks very different: for an average monograph on Oxford Scholarship Online, usage increases in each of the first five years.  That is a hugely relevant statistic and should be encouraging to every author discouraged by print sales (and every hiring or tenure committee evaluating such authors).

The authors you are advising need to keep that distinction clearly in mind. “Sales” are not a reliable representation of influence.  Hence the emphasis in journals publishing on impact factor, altmetrics, etc.  Academic authors who understand that academic writing is rarely directly remunerative but who want to reveal and enlighten and communicate with peers or other publics rightfully focus more on usage, review attention, and citation than on print sales.

Maudlin (HarperOne): I agree. Sales are not the only reason people wish to publish. People are generally more interested in a book from a traditional publisher because they know that the publisher, who is supposed to be an expert on these things, thought the project had value and that there was an audience who would be interested. This is the curation factor, and it is why we often wince when people hand us their self-published book. There is a sense of legitimacy and even prestige associated with working with a publisher, which, depending on the author’s goals, may be more important than any financial gain.

Thomson (Wipf & Stock): Even within our range of publishing options, we don’t publish just anything! We turn down bad books all the time. Badly written books, yes, but also books with messages we don’t want to promote.

Pfund (OUP): Yes, in the past mainstream publishing was largely the genteel pursuit of certain well-heeled white men along the East Coast corridor from Washington to Boston. Today a few large conglomerates dominate the industry, and they understandably expect, being for the most part publicly traded commercial enterprises, to make money. (Norton, run in effect as an employee-owned co-op, is the exception that proves the rule.) 

A great deal has been written about the extent to which publishers can take long-term vs. short-term views, depending on their ownership, and I won’t rehash that here.  I think we sometimes fetishize the cases where an editor or publisher has resolutely stood by an author out of an admiration for their craft and the hope that it will eventually be recognized (Cormac McCarthy is often cited as a quality writer who was commercially unsuccessful until All the Pretty Horses reanimated his back catalog).  We focus on these cases because of the serotonin boost we get from satisfying anecdotes that conform to the way we wish the world were.  

But a great many deserving writers never break through, and the risks publishers take more often than not go unrewarded.  I think they should be celebrated for that, not pilloried for taking too few risks.   A great many excellent books never come close to selling 10,000 copies, or even 5,000.

JS: Yes, let’s talk about the “magic number” of 10k. 

Maudlin (HarperOne): I don’t know if it is so much a rule, but I think it is true that large commercial publishers expect to sell at least 10,000 copies for it to make sense for them to take it on (which is to say, 10k of the print edition in the first 12 months). If I don’t think a book has a good chance of selling that much, then I usually pass. 

This is one of the advantages of smaller publishers; they have learned to publish profitably books that sell 5,000 copies. And university presses are another animal, too, with both academic refereeing governing their publication and, at least sometimes, financial support from the university to balance their books.

Gundry (Zondervan): If a particular title is going to be a quick flash in the pan and gone, one had better be assured that it will sell at least 10k in 12 months. But I have never been interested in that sort of thing. You would be surprised at how many books we publish a year that are projected to sell 5k or less, but we publish them if they have good backlist potential.

Still, I have a confession to make. On one occasion a title came my way that I knew would likely sell several hundred thousand copies—it was an opportunistic book that capitalized on current events. And if memory serves me correctly, it sold well over a million copies. 

The problem was, it came out and sold late in our fiscal year. By the new fiscal year, the contemporary situation had resolved itself and the unsold books came back by the tens of thousands. And in that new fiscal year we had to take the hit. I never forgot that lesson. Publishing only for an opportunistic reason can come back to bite you.

JS: What about the romantic ideal so many of us still harbour: I have this truly wonderful book that will bless millions, but I don’t yet have the reputation and following to guarantee you that 10k in first-year sales. Will you look at it?

Maudlin (HarperOne): Okay, let’s talk about that: no platform but a good writer and a good book. You have just described many of my books. If you are looking for people with romantic ideals, then hang out with acquisition editors and ignore their attempts to sound cynical. 

A publisher signing up an author’s book is very much like making a bet. If this happens and this happens and this happens, then we might sell X many. The trick is to fill in that formula with as many quality entries as possible—such as: has a TV show; has a newsletter that goes out to 1m; last book was a bestseller; speaks all over the country to large crowds; and so on. 

Still, sometimes it is simply that we feel it is the right book at the right time and we hope others will notice and help. Our job is to have the right instincts and prowess to make the right bets, and we do not last very long if all our bets lose.

JS: My authorial fantasies are pretty conventional: book tour, print ads, giant advances…but those seem gone with the wind, no?

Gundry (Zondervan): My own view is that traditional marketing through print media was mostly a waste of money, the only exception to that being print catalogs for our academic books sent to professors. Often print ads only had the effect of making the author feel good, and there was a suspicion that the cost of the ad was not recouped from the books sold as a result of the ad. Marketing books today requires more skill than in the past, but I believe it is more cost effective that in the past.

Thomson (Wipf & Stock): Launches do happen, tours less often. In my 25 years at this, I’ve only been involved with a tour book a handful of times. Few authors in theological circles have the sort of pull that a tour presupposes.

Sure…if you get Tom Wright’s big book, or another author of that calibre, and write a very large advance, you can then write a lot more checks to support the tour. I know from friends in other publishing houses, however, that such front-loaded books, even with really big authors, often do not pay for themselves. They may be justified by helping the “branding” of the press, a marketing consideration of a different order.

Maudlin (HarperOne): In the era of digital, targeted marketing, I don’t think anyone expects for there to be print ads, even authors. Besides, almost all print ads are based on companies getting you to keep buying their products (such as Tide) or for which the scale is large (like a Pixar movie) or for a high-payoff product (car ads). Advertising a book is a one-time, low-margin transaction and does not help you sell the imprint or the author’s next book, just that one book. (A lot of book ads in Christian magazines are trades. We let them excerpt a book and they give us an ad.)

JS: Thanks very much, friends, for helping us authors see better what’s going on between our manuscripts and the resulting book.

Pfund (OUP): If I could impress one thing on prospective authors, it would be to think of publishing through the prism of risk.  If publishers take all the risk up front, in effect like an angel investor in a start-up, they need to benefit from their successes so as to compensate for the books that don’t succeed commercially.  The less risk the publishers (e.g., author service houses) take, the more they can share any financial reward with the author.

Maudlin (HarperOne): These are not trade secrets. I wish more authors understood how publishing really works. It would make my job easier!


Comments are closed.