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.

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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.

Kinney (Baker): Given the increased number of people writing books each year, we may simply have to accept a certain amount of misunderstanding along the way.

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!