What a Fiction Publisher is Thinking…

October 12, 2007 | Written by admin

I heard from a number of publishers and editors regarding my last couple of posts. (Some of them are still speaking to me.) Mike Hyatt, the Top Gun at Thomas Nelson (see — I TOLD you he reads my blog), wrote to note one thing: John Eldredge’s book Wild at Heart released in 2001, not the late 90′s, so there is at least one bestselling nonfiction men’s book that has come out in recent years and is selling well. And Rebecca Germany, the lead fiction editor at Barbour, wrote to inform me that Barbour Publishing derives nearly half of its income from fiction "with intentions to continue to grow our fiction strength." It’s nice to hear that. With Christian fiction growing so rapidly, I hope we’ll see several traditional CBA houses develop vibrant fiction programs.

And that leads to the big conundrum of my posts: On the one hand, I argued that Christian fiction is the fastest growing segment of all publishing three years running. On the other hand, I argued that CBA publishers are struggling with figuring out how to effectively market fiction. Those two ideas may not be logically consistent. As several readers pointed out, if it’s a growing category, surely the publishers are doing SOMETHING right. In fact, bestselling novelist Colleen Coble wrote to say, "I have great marketing at my house, and they actually DO what they’ve said they would do for me!" That’s wonderful news…and I’m expecting we’re going to see more of that in the future, as traditional CBA houses figure out how to effectively market their novels to both hardcore fans of religious fiction and general market readers.

To help me get some perspective on this, I asked Allen Arnold, a Senior Vice President and the Publisher of Fiction at Thomas Nelson, if CBA houses rely on old-style thinking when it comes to marketing fition, and if that’s why it’s been slower for effective marketing to take hold. He wrote back to say:

"I believe both mainstream New York houses and CBA publishing houses are often equal offenders when it comes to marketing fiction effectively. The core mistake is creating a campaign that settles for selling a ‘book’ instead of ‘selling the story.’ People don’t lie awake at night dreaming of buying a book — they dream about being lost in a story. And Hollywood has done a much better job at selling their stories through very emotive movie trailers and powerful celebrity interviews. They make sure we first fall in love with a story. They campture our hearts, emotions, and desire for adventure… knowing we’ll then line up to see the movie. In publishing, so often the marketing team forgets this simple lesson. Selling a widget never works. Don’t hold up a book or have the focus of the ad campaign be a picture of a book (even John Grisham’s publisher settles for this at times). With fiction, as with movies, you’re not just selling a book…you’re selling an epic story of love and adventure. "

Allen then said to me that he "loves that Thomas Nelson tries to always keep the story front and center with its marketing campaigns," and listed some of the successes they have had: Creating memorable author brands, expansive ARG’s [alternative reality games], innovative second-life author signings, the Chevy Car Treasure Hunt giveaway, original graphic novel samplers and the novel intro books, movie-like consumer trailers (at least one has been shown at theaters), interactive e-blasts, geo-tracking contests, story discussions with the author and readers across the country, and story-driven efforts that pull people into the world of their novels. "That," says Allen, "is how fiction marketing should be done — by focusing on the story, not just holding up another book."

That led me to ask him if he thinks the emphasis on trade-size novels makes any difference when it comes to selling CBA fiction. His response:

"The assumption that CBA retailers and readers only buy fiction in cheaper trade paper editions is, I believe, dated and flawed. It’s imsulting to the degree that it implies fiction retail consumers either have less money or value fiction less than shoppers at general market bookstores. Stated another way, the majority of consumers who shop at CBA stores are the same folks who pay market price for their meals, their travel, and their clothes. They’ll do the same for fiction if given excellent stories in compelling format choices. A channel shouldn’t limit their choices based on preconceived notions. The more diversity CBA offers consumers in terms of fiction content, pricing, and format, the more diverse the shoppers will be. Just as more men will shop CBA stores for fiction if they carry a rich assortment of stories that men love to read."

When I asked Allen to speak specifically about the use of trade size novels, he said, "Look at it this way: Fiction lovers across the country buy novels in all formats — harcover, trade paper, and mass market — based on a wide variety of factors from ‘price sensitivity’ to ‘personal preference’ to ‘gift decisions’ to those who want a first edition in a prestige format. The story, the genre, and the author should help dictate the format — not a dated stereotype about a particular channel or a ‘one size fits all’ reader."

He then noted that "Thomas Nelson has been a clear leader in offering the widest variety of fiction formats. While we debut many of our novels in trade paper, we also have (to the best of my knowledge), the most original hardcovers as a percentage of new releases, and the most mass market size conversions of our novels. Thomas Nelson proudly offers variety and diversity in format, content, and price…and this strategy has met with success across all retail channels."

I mentioned that most ABA publishers release their novels in hardcover, then move to mass market size, while the majority of CBA houses release their fiction only in trade paper. Then I asked Allen if he believed that has hindered the movement of some historically CBA authors into the general market.

Allen’s response: "Trade paper as a format is something that more and more general market publishers are moving to — as a mid-release between hardcover and mass. So trade paper never hinders or signals a ‘CBA mode.’ It’s a strategic additional option that makes a lot of sense. Why go from a $25 hardcover straight to an $8 mass without first allowing folks a $15 trade paper?"

When I told him that I’d heard Thomas Nelson is planning to do more mass market novels in the future, he replied, "We’ve been releasing twenty-plus mass editions of our novels the past two years, and continue to expand the program. This has resulted in several older titles hitting the bestseller lists again — and in some cases has doubled and tripled prior unit sales. No surprise, since this is the general market model as well."

I found this an educational discussion, since Thomas Nelson (along with Bethany House and Barbour) all seem to be succeeding at doing different kinds of fiction. All three houses have taken big strides in terms of making their fiction marketing work, and it has shown in the variety of titles and formats they’re producing — as well as showing through expanded sales of fiction.

Great responses. My thanks to Allen Arnold of Thomas Nelson Publishers for his time and attention to my questions.

Posted in CBA, Trends

  • http://www.WritingCareerCoach.blogspot.com Tiffany Colter

    Wow, there are many things here I’d never considered. Thanks so much, both of you, for taking so much time to discuss the industry. I think I’ve been too narrow minded in my view of the consumer as well. This has given me some great ideas about marketing.
    Focusing on story rather than product was in the back of my mind. Now I realize it should be in the front. We all know in craft STORY RULES, it IS logical that it should carry through to marketing.
    Thanks for the lesson.

  • http://eliot.stlwritersguild.org/wordpress/ Demian Farnworth

    And it helps if the author is a flamboyant show off, a real PR wh*re. [Is that okay I say that here? I'm sorry if it's not.]

  • http://www.colleencoble.com colleen Coble

    Great insight from Allen, as always. He’s passionate about fiction and I always learn so much from him.
    your blog is really great, Chip. I should be writing instead of reading it. LOL

  • http://www.rachelhauck.com Rachel Hauck

    Nice posts, Chip. I’ve been keeping up… ;)

  • http://www.timothyfish.net/ShortStories/The_Forgotten_Hat.pdf Timothy Fish

    It seems like it should be so simple to focus on the story instead of the book. We are storytellers after all. Isn’t that why we write fiction in the first place? Part of the problem may be the question of how much of the story we should tell. We don’t want to give away the surprise ending but failing to tell enough of the story results in a reader being unable to distinguish this “story about a guy who solves a murder case” from the last ten that he has read. I have noticed that Hollywood’s solution, in some cases, is to tell a different story in the trailer (using the same footage) than what they show in the theater.

  • http://rebeccaluellamiller.wordpress.com/ Rebecca LuElla Miller

    You’ve reported much good news, Chip. Thanks. It’s nice to hear someone inside a publishing company talk about things like providing good stories for men so they’ll actually have a reason to come inside a CBA store.
    Now if they’ll only see the same is true of fantasy … No, not so elves and dwarves will come into the store! :-D Fantasy lovers! Which seems to be about 1 out of every 2 individuals in the general population.

  • http://www.christianlovestories.blogspot.com Kristy Dykes

    Great stuff, Chip. Thanks.
    Kristy Dykes

  • http://www.angelfire.com/ok2/weakandfoolish Rob Sargeant

    I noticed that Thomas Nelson has posted some short book promo videos on GodTube. The Frank Perretti one is kinda scary.

  • http://danicafavorite.blogspot.com Danica/Dream

    Interesting stuff here. I love how you’ve brought several different sources to show what folks are thinking. Thanks for taking the time to do all the legwork.

  • http://www.pamhalter.info Pam Halter

    It makes sense that we need to sell the story. Knowing the theme of the story, then, is necessary. That’s what we have to do to sell our manuscript to an editor, right? So, it only stands to reason that the publishing house needs to do the same thing to sell the book to the public.

  • http://www.mikeduran.com mike duran

    Mr. Arnold’s point about “selling a story” as opposed to just “selling a book” is fantastic! The question it brings up, at least to me, is whether or not this still brings us back to the basics of what sells books. After all, there are only so many “stories” out there. If it’s not “an epic story of love and adventure,” it’s “an epic story of love and mystery / fantasy / espionage / horror / swashbucklers, etc.” In other words, the same plots and characters are just being reworked. Doesn’t it come back to star power, word of mouth and presentation?
    I rarely pay to see a movie simply based on the trailers or marketing. Even bad movies can be made to look good. I wonder then that most people see a show, not because the story was sold to them, but because they like the director or the cast, people they respect recommend it, or they’ve already read and enjoyed the book. (Of course, people like me will also get suckered into a movie just because the special effects look so cool.) So in the book world, even if we’re selling stories, doesn’t it still come down to star / author power, word of mouth and presentation?
    I know I’m missing something here. Can you help? Thanks Chip and Allen!

  • http://christianbookscout.blogspot.com/ Crystal Warren Miller

    Here’s something that I’ve been thinking about that may or may not go along with this. People who love literature and books often collect first editions (NICE hard cover,) and with most CBA fiction books this is not possible with any longevity involved. I used to work in a library, so I understand about trying to prolong the “shelf-life” of a book.
    But then, the Catch-22 (hahahahaha) is–are there any books in CBA that we want to collect?(this is rhetorical! I seriously love Christian romances that I read in a few hours, OK?) Ok, ok, I’ll admit that I’ve kept (and I’ve reviewed hundreds) some CBA books.(I’m talking recent authors, not C.S. Lewis, etc.) One Christian author that I recently “discovered” blew me away with her writing/story, and I’m scooping up her others–but they are all paperbacks, alas.
    I donate tons of books and it is rather disheartening to always be donating paperbacks, so I’m with ya on that score.
    Anyway, interesting discussion and thoughts. I don’t know nuthin’ about the answers to marketing, Miss Scarlett, but I like it that people are brainstorming/discussing it.
    Signed, Just a Reader

  • http://www.chipmacgregor.com chip responds

    An interesting thought… You’re right — hardcover first editions of most Christian books are hard to come by. I have hardcover copies of the first six Left Behind novels, all signed by both Tim & Jerry. But…what do you DO with those? I don’t know if they’re collectibles, or if I should sell them on EBay, or what…

  • http://carasmusings.blogspot.com Cara Putman

    Thanks for the information. It was really interesting to hear Allen’s perspective in the professional early bird, and your interview with him expands on that. Thomas Nelson seems innovative in its approach. And I think others are looking at the box and evaluating how to expand it. And that’s good for Christian fiction in general.

  • http://christianfiction.blogspot.com Dee Stewart

    Crystal, I would like to know the answer to that question also. But as I think of it I wonder are there enough book collectors out there interested in Christian Fiction?

  • http://www.askcarolynwarren.com Carolyn Warren

    My personal vote is for Christian trade fiction. I don’t care for the mass paperback size. The print is too small for personal enjoyment, and it doesn’t make a nice gift.
    On the other hand, trade size makes a nice presentation and is easier to read. The paper cover is cheaper than hardback, making it affordable to buy more books per month.
    I realize my opinion may not be that of the majority, but hey, everyone gets a vote.
    Thank you for creating such a valuable blog, Chip.

  • http://readinnwritin.blogspot.com PatriciaW

    The emphasis on selling the story is encouraging. I do think CBA booksellers often focus on selling the book. The book trailers might help but they have already become a less than novel idea. Christian authors, publishers, and booksellers will need to continue to be creative.
    The more I thought about it, the more I realized I really do buy for the story, unless it’s an author I have come to trust implicity, because s(he) always delivers the story.

  • http://www.timothyfish.net Timothy Fish

    I am sure that the novelty of book trailers sold a few books, but if all we have to sell books is the novelty of our marketing method then the book probably isn’t very good. With the novelty wearing off, book trailers will have to focus more on the message rather than the wow factor. The thing that sold me on book trailers is the one that was done for Dangerous Book For Boys. It very clearly showed what a boy would be able to do if he had the book. With fiction, the strength of a book trailer is going to rest on the strength of the story. A good trailer will be like a window into the world that is the story, and give the viewer a desire to step through the doorway into that world for a few hours.

  • http://hopeofglory.typepad.com Nicole

    I’m with Carolyn W. on book trims. The hard covers are nice for collectors, and I do buy and keep my books, but, I think a limited edition hardback should come out after the book sells well. Also JMO.