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Harvesting successful books from a field of weeds

Posted By Jim Fletcher On 07/05/2009 @ 7:08 pm In Diversions | Comments Disabled

Last week, I mentioned the huge numbers of books published annually. But over 200,000 titles per year is a problem. Have you been to a bookstore lately? In most of them, there are so many titles displayed spine-out, shoppers can get dizzy.

In Christian bookstores in particular, there are many titles covering just a handful of subjects. When I look at the sheer number of titles published each year by Christian publishers, it seems excessive.

Let’s look for a moment at some of the reasons books are published by mainstream publishers:

  • Profit. This is obvious, but for some, I suspect, profit is the only motive. This means that some publishers take on projects that might even be harmful ideologically/theologically, but they keep the cash coming in, so …
  • A “sure thing.” There’s no such thing, unless the author is a franchise like Max Lucado. But even there, it became necessary a few years ago for his publisher, Nelson, to issue a statement proclaiming the continuing relevance of his work. That suggests there was at least a hiccup in sales. Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman is famous for saying, “Nobody knows anything.” No publisher or editor knows whether a title will sell or not. This makes a thorough, objective evaluation of all factors – manuscript quality, sales potential, marketing hooks – critical and something to be undertaken with the greatest care.
  • Ideology. It’s great to publish books that present a view that deserves a hearing, but know going in that you might have a limited market. Generally, only the smaller, independent publishers are able to publish this way.

With these reasons, I wonder how much real, organized thought goes into book selections. Don’t get me wrong; there are sophisticated marketing people out there. But the overall problem, as I see it, is that too many publishers produce too many books. They are reasonably certain that a small percentage from their list will sell well, but the rest are published on hope, as in, We hope some of these projects stick to the wall, because we’re just going to throw them.

This seems crazy, but that’s what’s happening.

I remember an editor’s conference I attended a dozen years ago in Chicago. On the last day, I was amazed that the panel discussion we attended turned into a confessional. One after another, editors stood and said, “Our house produces too much junk.”

That’s a direct quote.

It’s as simple as that. And that was in 1997; think about how many more bad books have been thrown at the wall. Twenty books not worthy of being published choke out the prospects of one good book, like weeds in a flower garden.

Of course, there are various definitions of what makes a “bad” book. It might have great content but a poor cover, terrible title and little publicity. Or it could be the opposite, which I suspect is more often the case: bad content and a flashy package.

The focus on junk, and the focus on only a handful of authors in promotion (let’s be honest) also squeezes out really gifted writers who just might inspire people to embrace literacy a bit more. Terry Jamieson is a high school principal in Missouri, and one of the most gifted aspiring writers I’ve ever read. Yet in the choppy waters of publishing, he can’t get attention. If publishers would concentrate on developing a gifted, articulate writer like Jamieson, and stop pushing mediocrity, perhaps everyone would win more often.

One guy who has some innovative thought is Mark Kuyper, president and CEO of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA). After years spent in the Christian retail industry, Mark has plenty of data and experience at his disposal. He sees a larger problem for the Christian book publishing industry: lack of awareness in the faith community.

“It’s just not a lot,” he told me last week, in reference to the percentage of Christians who actually shop in Christian bookstores (perhaps 10 percent), or even have awareness of other channels, such as the web. Kuyper rightly understands that while there is vast potential out there, it is going to take a more sophisticated approach in the future to reach new audiences.

Now, ECPA is working to create synergy between publishers, authors and the book-buying public. The idea is to coordinate events that bring authors face-to-face with buyers, and to facilitate a networking model – and exchange of emails and online social networks – that can vastly increase the number of people who need to be aware of relevant books.

As to the sheer number of books being published, Kuyper noted that several houses are trimming their lists and cutting back on projects.

“I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “Not that there aren’t good books out there, but in this climate, it’s hard for publishers to promote too many.”

Dozens of legitimate Christian publishers are all struggling to maintain their core customer base. For those who publish what I call “mainstream” books – marriage, prayer, relationships, devotionals – the road is very tough. Either niche publishing, or a long-term, built-in model, such as that of a Thomas Nelson or Zondervan, are vital recipes for health.


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