August 1, 2008
How publishers make publishing decisions
Kevin O'Brien, director of Bibles and reference for Tyndale, has a great blog post about the decision processes involved in Christian publishing. In his case, for Bibles, "I often not only ask myself whether or not we at Tyndale can produce a Bible but also whether or not we should produce that same Bible." He gives an example of a wide-margin, single-column Bible. It's something that people have requested and has ministry value, but it faced challenges:
The problem is that the economics on a project like this have made it very difficult to create. The Notemaker's Bible in the first edition of the NLT was exactly the kind of product that we are talking about. It was developed before I came to Tyndale, but from all the reviews I have seen, the team's efforts to get it right paid off. But there was a problem. Big one. It sat on store shelves. And sat. To be fair there could be a lot of reasons for this. Maybe our price was wrong, maybe the cover or the title were just a bit off. Maybe the timing was just wrong. I'm honestly not sure.
The issue here is not one of whether or not the product is worthy, but whether or not it's viable. There's a lot that goes into the creation of a Bible. Things like the time and money invested in design, typesetting, proofreading, manufacturing, warehousing, freight (and yes that one keeps going up), how long the print run will be, which market segment is likely to stock that kind of a Bible, what the returns rate and average discount that channel receives and a whole lot of other issues as well, things like whether or not "the market" will support the product (i.e., is there a sufficient demand).
It's a complex business to publish a Bible with a lot of variables and a lot of difficult decisions to be made. Print runs are a great example. Increase the print run and the cost of goods per unit goes down. This means it's easier for us to be competitive in retail and sale pricing. It's also a huge risk because you can sit on a lot of inventory for a long time if the product doesn't work. And those are dollars that you can't put into other projects. Which means that not only does the business potentially suffer, but so does ministry because opportunities may not be able to be pursued.
We face the same kinds of questions and challenges in IVP's publishing program. We turn down lots of perfectly good book proposals because for whatever reason, they are not likely to be financially viable, and thus it wouldn't be good stewardship of our time and resources to publish them. We often pass on a proposal because it overlaps too much with other books already on the market. For example, there are thousands of general books on prayer, or basic introductions to apologetics, or books on leadership. Unless the author has an amazingly new and fresh angle or a significant high-profile platform, the book is likely to get lost in the mix.
It's not merely a matter of whether a book makes a significant contribution to its field. It's also whether the book is likely to find enough readers to be economically viable. These days both the editorial content and the marketing potential are key components of the equation. IVP's bias is generally still to emphasize editorial content, because if a book has great content but weak marketing possibilities, we can usually work on improving the marketability. But if a book has great marketability but weak content, there's comparatively less we can do to make the editorial content stronger. It's easier to tell a potential author, "Work on your platform," than it is to say, "Write a better book! Get better ideas!"
(Of course, many publishers and authors enlist ghostwriters and book doctors for exactly this reason - an author might be prominent and likely to sell books, but can't write worth a darn or has nothing new to say. So ghosters collaborate with the personality to make a salable book. But that's generally not the kind of publishing IVP does.)
At any rate, what makes for the best book is when all the publishing stars align. You have the right author writing on the right topic, aligned with the right publisher that can find the right intended audience. It doesn't happen all the time, but when it does, we rejoice.