God Moments (9): Building a Publishing List

[This is the ninth article in the series of God Moments in My Publishing Life.]

How long does it take for an acquisitions editor to become truly effective?   

When I got to Moody Press in 1970 I thought God had given me remarkable preparation for my new role as acquisitions editor. After all, I had been a bookstore buyer, bookstore selling floor supervisor, manuscript evaluation editor for Kenneth Taylor, four years as editor of Christian Bookseller Magazine, and four years interviewing executives at all levels in society as editor of business magazines. While God was in it, I did not feel that I was aware of all the nuances in book acquisition until I had been at Moody Press for five years.

A Prayer that God Answered

I soon realized that I could not depend on my own smarts, but on God’s provision. I was convinced we needed at least one top seller for each six-month list that would excite booksellers and their customers. It would also give bookstore buyers confidence to order more books from the rest of the list.  Yet over and over as I surveyed what we had acquired for the next list I realized there was no top-selling possibility on it. That would drive me to pray, “Lord, we really need a ‘zinger’ or two that attracts booksellers to our list.” And miraculously such a book manuscript would arrive, giving me confidence that God would supply our need as publisher.  Daktar Diplomat in Bangladesh, by Dr. Viggo Olsen was such a book, eventually becoming Moody Press’s first inspirational book in the Top Ten Bestseller List.

I had been at Moody Press for two years when word got around that a remarkable missionary doctor was home on furlough from Bangladesh and ready to write his memoir. The word on the street was that six publishers were after him to sign a contract with them. As the non-profit book publishing arm of Moody Bible Institute, we could not begin to match offers we expected other publishers to make. In a God Moment he gave me a strategy. One of our authors, Jeanette Lockerbie, had a daughter at the same mission location as Dr. Viggo Olsen—and she wanted to write his biography. So I enlisted her help in approaching Dr. Olsen.

Clearing the strategy with my boss, Peter Gunther, I made an evening appointment with Dr. Olsen the night before he was flying back to Bangladesh and the hospital he had founded. I brought with me our advertising and marketing directors, from whom I had gained a commitment that we would spend $25,000 in promotion and marketing of Dr. Olsen’s book. We presented our slogan, “The name you can trust,” and laid our offer on the table. Dr. Olsen agreed to pray about it.

A Contract Signed in Bangladesh

Back at the office I developed the contract, including not only the $25,000 commitment but also the signature of the advertising and marketing executives to assure Dr. Olsen we meant business. I mailed it to Jeanette Lockerbie, who was flying to Bangladesh to see her daughter, giving her the assignment of getting Dr. Olsen’s signature on the contract. She did—he signed it on the back of a car at the airport at newly-formed Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka.

viggo b. olsen

Dr. Viggo Olsen and his wife, Joan

When Dr. Olsen returned after six weeks to Wheaton, IL he was within easy driving distance of our home. We agreed that the purpose of the book would be two-fold—one was to open with his testimony of coming to faith in Christ as an agnostic so it would be a witness to medical people. The second was to create so compelling a case for medical mission work that it could be an enlistment tool for medical students, persuading them to consider overseas mission work after graduation.

In preparation, Dr. Olsen agreed to study Elements of Style, to use a flashback technique I suggested to grab the reader in the first chapter, and let Mrs. Lockerbie write a short bit at the end of chapters about aspects of Dr. Olsen’s life he was too humble to share. The first chapter opened with him and four West Pakistanis on the roof of the hospital awaiting an attack by guerrillas fighting for the establishment of East Pakistan as a separate country named Bangladesh. Dr. Olsen had a broken arm from a motorcycle accident in a sling, so he had a revolver in his other hand. He gave the four associates guns, but they were not trained gun users—not exactly a force strong enough to repel guerrillas. They waited, and waited, knowing that every night at 10:00 p.m. the lights would go out, making all preparations useless. But the lights did not go out—and the guerrillas arrived the next day and did not attack the hospital. Dr. Olsen strung that incident out in opening sentences for the first seven chapters—and many readers admitted that’s what kept them reading.

The Evangelistic Hook

Next came Dr. Olsen’s story of how he and his wife came to faith in the Bible and the reality of Christ as a historical figure after about a month of intensive study. Their resources came from a pastor at a church in Brooklyn, where Dr. Olsen was a surgical internist.  They also got books from the public library. One day he came home and announced to his wife Joan that he had accepted Jesus’ death and resurrection as historically true and made his faith commitment. She admitted she had reached that conclusion four days earlier and had also become a Christ follower. Those chapters became a powerful witness to medical people—one agnostic doctor in Michigan, for example, was recovering from surgery when a friend gave him a copy of Dr. Olsen’s book. Reading it he accepted Christ as Savior.

Dr. Olsen was writing a chapter every few days. I might drive to his house late at night to pick up a finished chapter, or he would show up at our house at 6:15 a.m. before I left for the train to Chicago and Moody Press. During that time the executive team at Moody Press spent many hours in successive sessions battling over the title, with the team finally agreeing to my initial suggestion, Daktar Diplomat in Bangladesh. Dr. Olsen finished writing the 356-page memoir in less than three months.

When we put Daktar Diplomat in Bangladesh on the market Dr. Olsen recorded public service announcements that were distributed to Christian radio stations. He was a compelling communicator—at a large women’s gathering at Elmbrook Church in Milwaukee, WI he sold 600 copies of the book after telling his story. He sold more than 6,000 copies to his mailing list of supporters of Memorial Christian Hospital in Malumghat, Bangladesh.

Keeping our promotional commitment, Moody Press engaged a public relations firm to develop the cover and promotional thrust. Sales of this hardcover missionary memoir topped 65,000 in six months—and mass paperback rights were sold to a New York publisher for distribution in the secular market. God had enabled us to achieve a first for Moody Press, a spot on the top 10 bestseller list—and  that a missionary autobiography—15 years after the Harper Classics had proved a well-written missionary biography could sell extremely well. For an update on the remarkable life of Viggo and Joan Olsen, go to http://medinahbaptist.org/about/medinah-baptist-missionaries/dr-viggo-and-joan-olsen.

Other Acquisition Strategies

As a textbook publisher Moody Press typically released five or six academic books a year. A year after I arrived, my associate Jim Matheson, and I made a trip to California, visiting Christian colleges and seminaries. We’d connect with the academic dean’s secretary and have her invite professors to a lunch at which we presented our new books—and spent the afternoon meeting those who had book ideas. In time I visited colleges and seminaries all over the United States and Canada. We received some outstanding book ideas, some of which required multiple authors, each writing a chapter.

I had learned the value of a writers’ conference as associate editor of Christian Life Magazine, so I participated in the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, meeting writers with book ideas one-on-one. My boss would ask me when I returned, “So what manuscript did you bring back with you.” I’d have to reply, “None, but I gathered intelligence on what is agitating Christian women as I sat with them at mealtimes.” As a result we steadily published books for specific women’s needs. After one Decision School of Christian Writing I came back with two book projects that proved successful.

In the next installment, I’ll reveal a remarkable series of God Moments when it seemed the bottom had dropped out of my world as acquisitions editor at Moody Press.

Copyright, 2014, Les Stobbe

One thought on “God Moments (9): Building a Publishing List

  1. Thanks for the post, Mr. Stobbe. I read it with great interest. Even more importantly, I gained perspective for possibly using an evangelistic hook for the manuscript (Uncommon Influence) I am currently finishing, even though it is a Suspense/Thriller.

    Terry Dodd

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