God Moments (22): Yes, Publishers Do Blow It

[This is the twenty-second article in the series of God Moments in My Publishing Life.]

Publishing has always been rife with rumors of publishers misjudging the potential of a book. For years Publishers Weekly would run an article on “sure-fire bestsellers” that were busts. Sometimes it is editors in the acquisitions department simply misjudging a book’s appeal—and sometimes it is marketing leaders applying what I call conventional wisdom to a book proposal. Let me give some examples that happened during my life in the publishing world.

The first occurred when I work with Dr. Kenneth Taylor at Moody Press as his manuscript evaluation editor in the early 1960s. I had presented a positive evaluation of his version of First Timothy, but he did not call for a vote by the whole committee. Instead he approached the president of Moody Bible Institute about his reaction to Moody Press releasing Taylor’s Living Letters. He found Dr. Culbertson rather cool to the idea, since he thought there were already enough translations on the market. As a result Taylor approached other publishers of that day, like Zondervan, Kregel, Baker, and probably Eerdmans. All turned him down, probably for the same reasoning as Dr. Culbertson. As a result Taylor founded his own publishing house and saw the Living Bible become one of the most popular Bibles ever. I was editor of Christian Bookseller Magazine by that time and saw the impact of Living Letters being given to donors to Billy Grahams “The Hour of Decision,” with about 500,000 requesting it and thus seeding the market.

Turned Down Book Becomes Major Giveaway

One of the books selected for publication by Moody Press in 1961 was Splendor from the Sea, by Philip Keller, a biography of a Shantyman Mission’s missionary on the Pacific Coast of Canada. When I returned to Moody Press eight years later, this time as editor, Splendor from the Sea was still selling.

layman looks at lords prayerMeanwhile, Keller had written his most significant book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. He took it to Zondervan, who gave it the usual treatment accorded a relatively unknown biblical studies author from Canada. I was told it sold 7,500 copies the first year (thus not exactly a barnburner), 15,000 the second, and 30,000 the third. Then Zondervan decided to give it an advertising boost and sales took off. While this was happening Keller had presented Zondervan with A Layman Looks at the Lord’s Prayer. Conventional wisdom held that books on the Lord’s Prayer did not sell, so Zondervan turned it down. Since Moody Press had published two of Keller’s biographies of pioneer missionaries on Canada’s west coast, he sent the book proposal to me at Moody Press.

The vibes from the marketplace told me A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 was starting to kick up a storm, so I got our publication committee to agree to publish A Layman Looks at the Lord’s Prayer. I sent one of the first copies to Dwayne Herbrandson at the Billy Graham headquarters in Minneapolis. After the Billy Graham team evaluated it they decided to offer it to donors to “The Hour of Decision.” My recollection is that listeners requested about 250,000 copies, the ministry sold another 65,000—and at Moody Press we sold about the same number, making it one of our first big sellers. Imagine what Zondervan could have done with it if they had paired it with A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.

The Charles Swindoll Opportunity Squandered

My friend Warren Wiersbe suggested I approach Charles Swindoll about writing a book for Moody Press. I promptly wrote Swindoll, then a speaker on “The Lockman Hour,” inviting him to consider Moody Press for a book. He wrote back that he would do it if Moody Radio Network would rebroadcast his program on their radio network. My boss, Peter Gunther, inquired Moody Radio’s executives about the possibility and was quickly turned down. So Swindoll connected with John VanDiest, founder of Multnomah Publishing, who gladly sent an editor to southern California to see what Swindoll had in mind. After several quite successful books Swindoll was wooed by Word Books, who turned his first of a trio using tennis terms as titles, Improving Your Serve, into the next year’s No.1 bestseller.

One of my most entertaining author acquisitions was a fictionalized version of experiences by Crying Wind, a pseudonym. Every letter got me laughing so uproariously I later discovered several women in the editing department would gather outside my office to hear me laugh. The manuscript revealed growing up experiences, including spiritual development, in an American Indian home. Crying Wind specified that while the title of the book could be Crying Wind, she not be listed as author of the book. The marketing director insisted she be listed as author and the book be sold as a memoir.

Background of Crying Wind Story

crying windEven though Crying Wind did not have a platform, the book sold 100,000 copies the first year. A second book also sold well. I had moved on to Christian Herald’s books and book clubs when marketing’s over-riding of the author’s wishes not to market it as a memoir created a storm. The accusations that the author was lying about her past were accepted as fact. Neither the former director of Moody Press nor I were contacted regarding the accusations. Crying Wind’s earned royalties were withheld. The books were withdrawn from the marketplace, with the original eventually re-published by another publisher, this time not as a memoir but as a fictionalized version. As editor, my mistake had been to not insert a disclaimer in the front matter that it was a fictionalized version of growing up in an American Indian home and culture. You can read more about her life and buy some of her 50 books, at Amazon.

Let me introduce several that I was not directly involved with to further illustrate how conventional wisdom has led to bad decisions at Christian publishers.

Misjudging Max Lucado’s Potential

No-Wonder-They-Call-Him-the-Savior-CoverMax Lucado was an unknown pastor when he wrote a book that Tyndale House agreed to publish. Sales were disappointing, most likely because Lucado adopted Jesus’ storytelling technique. This was not yet accepted by conservative pastors and serious Christians as a valid form of truth communication. The market was still stuck in the Greek philosophers’ approach of idea upon idea, truth upon truth, adopted many centuries ago. So Tyndale’s publication board turned down Lucado’s next book. John VanDiest at Multnomah recognized its potential and released it as No Wonder They Called Him the Savior, a long but evocative title. Sales of several hundred thousand copies launched Max Lucado as a bestselling author. He also moved to Word Books, at the time offering the best financial terms to authors developed by other publishers. Some years later the list of top ten bestselling books in the Christian market would have six Lucado books.

Being Over-Eager Can Bite You

For some years books by Billy Graham had been published by Doubleday Books, which had a history of releasing books by evangelical authors. Word Books decided to go for broke, approaching the author they considered the best selling author in Christian books and offering Billy Graham great sales for a new book, Born Again. When Word Book’s team prepared its marketing plan they apparently thought sales could approach a million copies. Rumor had it they also wanted to prove they could sell more of the evangelist’s books than Doubleday. They launched a major campaign and shipped hundreds of thousands of copies into bookstores in one of the most aggressive sales efforts up to that time. Rumors were rife that of the 800,000-copy print run, sales reached a “mere” 200,000 and unsold books from booksellers clogged their warehouse.

Zondervan’s marketing department was salivating when the editorial department signed up Johnny Cash, the popular country singer, for a book they titled Man in Black. Rumor had it they set up a promotional strategy designed to generate sales of 500,000 copies.  When the money had been spent and sales totaled a “mere” 125,000 key executives in the marketing department were fired. A competitor quickly engaged them, clearly hoping to learn the secret of launching a major promotional campaign.

Similar stories of multiple rejections could be told about This Present Darkness, by Frank Peretti, and The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young.  I believe many mis-steps are based on marketing persons’ focus on past sellers as indicative of what will sell in the future, instead of on research at writers’ conferences and trends identified by savvy editors. I found that listening to conversations at mealtimes at writers’ conferences revealed what female buyers of books were concerned about. Tackling tough women’s issues in the 1970s at Moody Press boosted sales and helped make us profitable.

Copyright, 2015, Les Stobbe

2 thoughts on “God Moments (22): Yes, Publishers Do Blow It

  1. Les,

    “Yes, Publishers Do Blow It” was quite interesting. As years pass, editors, authors and readers can get the longer-look perspective.They can often see how God worked in the outreach of certain books. I think what’s most important in this gambling business called publishing is: does the material bring truth, honor God, spread the gospel & benefit the reader?

  2. Loved this article. Been selling Christian books for 42 years now and know all these books. So fun to hear the stories behind them. Les, lunch is on me next time you’re in Abbotsford.

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