Publisher—or just Printer? Nonfiction Christian Publishing in the Digital Age

by John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

AUTHOR BIO: John Stackhouse (Ph.D., Chicago) holds the Samuel J. Mikolaski Chair of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada. He has published 10 books, co-authored four more, and edited four books. His publishers include Oxford University Press, the University of Toronto Press, Baker Academic, Zondervan, and InterVarsity Press. His latest book, Can I Believe? Christianity for the Hesitant, is due out in October from OUP.

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.

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?