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.