Dark, rainy days are perfect for sleeping, especially if you’re an ER nurse like my wife. Last week, after another adventurous night shift, she was in dreamland when the doorbell rang. Thinking it might be our daughter, she answered the door at 1 p.m. Greeting her was a woman in the pouring rain, eagerly pushing fliers in her hands; she was selling newspaper subscriptions.

My wife explained that she was very tired and worked that night. The woman seemed not to hear or care and chattered away about the benefits of buying a subscription. Obviously, all print newspapers are in trouble, and this woman was only trying to earn a living. After she left, my wife threw away the fliers and spent a few hours staring at the ceiling.

I thought about that this week as I made a sweep through the Southeast after attending the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville.

Poised before us is the future of publishing; quickly receding into memory is the old way of doing things, like the newspaper subscriptions that our grandparents purchased. I had several fascinating conversations this week, since a few publishers were at NRB, and then I visited with various distributors, authors, salesmen and heads of organizations.

Two encounters were a stark contrast in how publishing operates in terms of success.

I spoke to a distributor in Nashville who told me that he’d purchased (at remainder prices) 10 pallets – thousands of copies – of the biography of a very famous country musician.

Think about that: Just one distributor purchasing thousands of copies the publisher couldn’t sell at retail.

Such stories are as numerous as the stars in publishing. A decision is made to produce a celebrity title, but with little market research or at least little thought given as how to actually sell it. As one friend used to say, it’s not really a big accomplishment to place books in a store; it is a really big deal if they actually leave the store under the arm of a customer. Returns continue to be the bane of book publishers.

On the other side of the publishing coin, I visited with the folks at Tolle Lege Press (north of Atlanta in Powder Springs). A few years ago, they began publishing a gorgeous edition of the Geneva Bible – first translated into English in 1560 – which was the Bible the Pilgrims carried to the New World. The first real “study Bible,” with notes and commentary, this historical treasure has now sold over 100,000 copies for Tolle Lege, an astonishing number that any publisher would be thrilled with.

What made the difference in success?

Several factors can claim credit for Tolle Lege’s success. First, the publisher did a great deal of market research, and they know their audience. They also provided a book that is uncommon. They also “stay after it” and continue aggressive efforts to make the public aware of this fascinating Bible.

The other publisher, who punches a time clock by producing snoozer bios of iconic musicians? Well, no doubt said musician’s agent got together with the publisher’s editorial staff over some sushi, and a year later, the book is on the remainder table.

At NRB, there were a handful of Christian publishers, most of them with 10 ft. booths. Sales opportunities are shrinking in the traditional market, as we’ve discussed many times. Even NRB appeared to be a shell of its former self (an interesting sidenote: the most enthusiasm I saw during the convention, by far, came during the breakfast sponsored by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism. The packed ballroom proved once again that “niche” worldviews are really the most engaged and energetic. It should be an epiphany for publishers who continue to churn-out celebrity bios, common themes and gift drivel).

With news that Borders has filed for Chapter 11, Christian publishers are among those owed a lot of money. HarperCollins, the parent company of Zondervan, is owed $25.8 million. Hachette Book Group, which owns FaithWords, is owed $36.9 million. Howard Books, purchased a few years ago by Simon & Schuster, is owed $33.75 million.

I mention all this because for 18 years now, I’ve watched the community of Christian publishing, which has now largely become a part of the wider publishing community due to buyouts and mergers, thirst for bigger stages and glitzy book projects.

Many are now in trouble, while the Tolle Leges of the world are humming along, financially healthy and energized by the fact that they go to work every morning because worldview matters to them.

How sad that so many other publishers are left miserably standing in the rain, pushing substandard books at a public tired of their crap and annoyed that these publishers care to take up their time and won’t leave them alone.

There is a right way to publish … and a wrong way.

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