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.

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 like Baker and IVP; 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.