by Steve Laube
In case you missed the news, last Thursday B&H Publishing (a division of Lifeway) realigned their fiction division. A number of changes accompanied the decision.
- B&H will continue to publish fiction, but only if the novel is connected in some way to other Lifeway projects, i.e. novelizations of movies like “Courageous.” [Please read their announcement on the company blog and this press release/article from Publisher's Weekly date 5/6/13. A third version appeared in Christian Retailing's daily newsletter.]
- Novels scheduled for release through March/April 2014 will continue as planned. But all novels contracted thereafter have been cancelled. Authors may keep advance monies prepaid and rights to those books will revert, but all future contracted advances will not be paid.
- Julie Gwinn, executive editor of fiction, will transition out of the company in July after completing current projects.
Business decisions like this are just that…business decisions. To understand these business decisions one must view them through the lens of history. B&H has been publishing fiction periodically for a long time. In 2007 they made a decision to become more intentional and hired Karen Ball to be their senior editor (link to the press release at that time) and work with David Webb who was the Executive Editor. Soon thereafter they hired Julie Gwinn to direct the marketing of their fiction line.
This initiative’s new titles began hitting the market in 2008…right at the time when the nation’s economy went into a severe recession. The absolute worst time to launch a “new business initiative.” Thus, from the beginning, there was an economic hole that became very hard to climb out of.
Over the next five years many changes occurred. They promoted Karen Ball to Executive Editor but then released her in 2010 (to our benefit because it allowed her to join our agency!) and put Julie Gwinn in charge of the whole line. Note that the number of bodies overseeing the department shrank over time…. There were also changes at upper management of B&H with a new President and a new Trade Publisher.
Meanwhile during the six years since the announcement of the fiction initiative they didn’t have a “breakout” novel per se. They had quite a few that did very well but no single title or author, unrelated to a movie, climbed the bestseller lists and dominated. And there is the key to the success of a publishing division…at least one barn busting title. It wasn’t an issue of quality, in fact eight of their books were finalists in the Christy Awards. It was an issue of sales volume.
What are the implications for the industry? Especially the fiction side of things?
- Fewer slots available for authors.
- Fewer bidders for new projects that garner multiple publisher interest.
- A number of established authors have to find a new home (see #1). Authors with cancelled contracts will attempt to find a new company to support their writing efforts. Especially those for whom writing fiction is a full-time occupation. Many agents received calls last Thursday with this news and on Friday received a list of titles from B&H affected by cancellations.
- A general shudder throughout the author community.
We have a choice when faced with adversity. One choice is to panic, cry out, and wring our hands with fear seeing this as confirmation that the industry is collapsing. Or we can get busy, absorb the news, and remember that we are not in control…there is a big God who was not surprised by these developments. One of my clients chose the latter despite having three future contracts cancelled.
We’ve survived similar changes in the past. NavPress disbanded their fiction program overnight five years ago. Multnomah fiction was slowly absorbed by Waterbrook’s fiction division after the company was purchased in 2006. I could go on, but you get the idea.
I am confident that content will win out. The best writers and the best stories will carry the torch. Readers demand great stories and readers are publishing agnostic (they don’t care who the publisher is). The market puts their money behind the projects that capture their interest and attention. Readers are hungry for the next best story!
If I have left something out or misrepresented any of the above facts I will gladly correct this post. Either let our office know privately or post a comment below. My desire is to let this post be as informative as possible.