Last week Christian publishing powerhouse Thomas Nelson announced that they were transforming their former Westbow imprint into Westbow Press, an arm of the company devoted to helping authors self-publish their works.
CEO Michael Hyatt stated on his blog that there are three reasons why his company decided to do this:
1) They think there is a huge growth potential in this category
2) They want to offer a legitimate alternative to traditional publishing
3) They want to find new voices for tomorrow, to use the imprint as a sort of “farm team” for their regular publishing process.
Now, I can certainly understand reason number one. Hyatt is correct – there IS a huge potential for growth in this category and that translates very simply as a huge potential for TN to pocket quite a bit of money as a result. After all, there has to be a reason why companies such as Createspace, Lulu, and iUniverse are going gangbusters year after year.
I stumble a bit, however, when trying to understand reasons number two and three.
Reason #2 states that they want to offer a legitimate alternative to traditional publishing. My question is why? Westbow seemed to be doing just fine as an imprint. Back in March 2005, Publishers Weekly had this to say about the line:
“Thomas Nelson’s WestBow imprint is quickly gaining a reputation for publishing more innovative CBA fiction. Launched in late 2003, WestBow’s intention from the start was to raise the bar. “Our primary goal isn’t ‘edgy’ fiction but stories with a real, authentic voice that are entertaining, culturally relevant, and God honoring,” said publisher and industry veteran Allen Arnold. “When we find those voices, we don’t shy away from the edgy elements—or sugarcoat them.”
As Lindsey Nobles, Communications Director with TN correctly points out in the comments below, the Westbow imprint was discontinued in 2006, but clearly, in their market space, they were doing something well. I’m not personally a fan of much Christian fiction (not because I don’t think there is a real need for it, which I do, but because too much is just sugarcoated bs that only serves to make those who think they are “in” feel better about themselves rather than truly trying to preach the gospel to those who might need it – but that’s an argument for another day) but Westbow raised the bar in my view. In fact, some of my friends have been published by Westbow – Eric Wilson’s Jerusalem’s Undead series and Tony Hines’ marvelous Waking Lazarus are prime examples. Never mind Ted Dekker, probably one of the biggest names in Christian publishing today.
So if the current imprint is successful, why make the change?
Which brings me to reason #3: because they want to find “new voices for tomorrow.” I find this to be the most ludicrous statement of all. Hyatt notes that his company is publishing close to 500 books per year and that a lot of those authors that submit to TN simply don’t make the cut. Fine, that’s how publishing works. But a farm team implies that Thomas Nelson will somehow be investing in these authors, training them and improving their skills to give them a shot at the big leagues, and I don’t see that happening in any way, shape, or form simply by taking their money and printing their books.
Hyatt even comments that he wants to provide a place where authors can publish without getting “ripped off.” Okay, great. That’s really nice of him. Complaints have been surfacing for years about companies like Xlibris and iUniverse ripping off authors and keeping that from happening is a good thing in anyone’s book What I’m trying to figure out is how TN hopes to do this when the company they partnered with to create this self-publishing line, Author Solutions Inc, owns the companies I just mentioned?
I won’t even get into the potential for problems raised by the idea that traditional TN editors might reject a manuscript, only to turn around and say something like “Gee, this isn’t good enough for us, but maybe you should think about publishing with Westbow Press? After all, they’re our farm team. And you’ll be published by the same company that published Ted Dekker…” I’m not saying they will do that, in fact, I would bet they would go out of their way to avoid that kind of blurring of the lines, but they have to realize that the perception of a problem is sometimes as difficult as having the problem in the first place.
It dismays me to see this blurring of the lines from a company that I have formerly respected a great deal, never mind having it coached in this fashion to try and make it more palpable to the industry in general.
Is this a sign of what the future holds for the industry in general?
I hope not.