Perspective on the Sale of Thomas Nelson Publishers

by Steve Laube

In light of yesterday’s announcement of the sale of Thomas Nelson Publishers to HarperCollins I thought I’d present a few thoughts.

Without question this is the biggest news story in the Christian publishing industry this year, if not the last few years. Most of us have been caught flat-footed. Partly because Thomas Nelson is such a large company. And partly because they were just purchased by an investment group last year. The other surprise is the buyer. HarperCollins has owned Zondervan since 1988 which is a direct competitor to Nelson. They publish some of the same authors. (And by the way, HarperCollins is owned by NewsCorp…whose owner is Rupert Murdoch.)

Back in 2002 when I was still with Bethany House Publishers we were sold to Baker Books. So I’ve seen some of the inside of a publishing sale. There will be some obvious echoes to our experience, but Zondervan and Nelson are very different from Bethany House and Baker.

Ten Random Thoughts

Some random thoughts for authors who are worried or wondering about the sale:

1.  The sale has not been completed . It still has to pass Federal regulatory stuff. Anything can happen before the end of the year.

2. This will put both the New International Version Bible (NIV) and the New King James Bible (NKJV) under the same ownership.

3. Everyone at both Zondervan and Nelson is saying “business as usual” and they are being completely truthful. But when management begins trying to merge the two entities under one roof they will find redundancies that must be reorganized. Those are usually in infrastructure, i.e. accounting, information technology, production, design, warehousing (Zondervan’s warehouse was already being closed). Other areas where we see changes are in sales. Which sales reps will cover which stores in overlapping territories? Marketing and publicity could see some shifts. The last place usually affected is editorial. But don’t see this as a blueprint, merely an observation.

4. HarperCollins has enabled Zondervan to operate independently other than typical corporate profit pressures and they have done so with some great success (like the Purpose Driven Life phenomenon). There is no reason to think that management methodology will change.

5. The biggest future question for literary agents comes in the proposal stage. Currently we have had times when Zondervan and Nelson were vying for the same property. If they are under one roof it remains to be seen whether that practice will continue. For example Baker Books, Bethany House, and Revell do not bid against each other because they are under one “roof” as part of the Baker Publishing Group.

6. What does this mean for the existing Zondervan or Thomas Nelson author? One, there will likely be little change for now.  Current projects will move forward as before. Nothing will come to a standstill because that would mean revenue would stop. Two, if you have an old contract with Thomas Nelson for a book they still have under their care I would dig it out and read the “Assignment” clause. Find out if your book can be “assigned” to HarperCollins without your permission. That is likely the case, but be sure. Ask your agent if you are unclear. Three, our understanding is that acquisitions will continue as before. (But see number five above.) If you are an author with Westbow (the self-publishing arm of Thomas Nelson) I doubt if anything will change. HarperCollins has a company called Authonomy that helps give self-published authors a forum for discovery.

7. In a christianbook.com search I counted 2,900 Zondervan books and 3,300 Nelson books. (Only books, not Bibles.) That is astounding. (Tyndale House has 1,400 titles listed.) It truly will make this the largest Christian publishing company in the world.

8. Should authors be worried? No. The corporate landscape is always changing. Does this mean fewer publishing slots will be available? Possibly. Time will tell. Fortunately there are some pretty smart people in charge and they all have a vested interest in not breaking what isn’t broken.

9. Will they change the name of one of the companies after the purchase goes through? I doubt it. At least not in the foreseeable future. Both company names are iconic and have a rich tradition of quality and strength.

10. Is HarperCollins done? Or are they going to buy up other Christian publishers too? I had to chuckle when I heard that question….as if I would know or could predict. :-) My two cents says that they will have their hands full with this integration process. I could be wrong, but if it were me, I’d make sure this went very smoothly first before acquiring other companies.

Do you have any questions or thoughts on this? I’m happy to try to answer them in the comment section below.

Update 11/07/2011:

News Corp. is paying $200 million for Thomas Nelson, the parent company of HarperCollins disclosed in its quarterly filing on Friday November 4th. In 2006, InterMedia paid $473 million for the publisher which had sales of $253 million at the time.

 

37 Responses to Perspective on the Sale of Thomas Nelson Publishers

  1. Amy Boucher Pye November 1, 2011 at 3:27 am #

    Makes me think of the old adage, the only constant is change. Measured thoughts here, Steve; thank you for them. I can’t help wondering if one day we will see some kind of ZonderNelson, but as you say, business will be as usual now for otherwise revenue streams would dry up.

    • Steve Laube November 1, 2011 at 9:36 am #

      Or Nelzon instead of ZonderNelson? :-)

      • Amy Boucher Pye November 3, 2011 at 3:55 pm #

        Ha – yes, that’s a good one!

  2. Camy Tang November 1, 2011 at 4:46 am #

    Thanks, Steve. It’s always helpful to me to hear your thoughts on these things. I won’t lie, I am a bit concerned about how things might change with my contracted books (with Zondervan), but since things may not change for me at all, I’m doing my best not to worry about it unless/until it smacks me in the face.

    • Steve Laube November 1, 2011 at 9:40 am #

      It is best to not worry until you have to. While this may be a really big purchase there have been similar absorptions in the past.

      Baker bought Revell. And later bought Bethany House.
      Waterbrook bought Shaw Books. And later bought Multnomah.
      Gospel Light/Regal bought Servant Books.
      David C. Cook bought Scripture Press. And later bought Honor Books.
      Thomas Nelson bought Here’s Life Publishers (I was on the board of Here’s Life at the time). And later bought Word Books. And later bought Integrity Publishing.

      Thus from my perspective this isn’t really anything “new.”

      Authors who can create amazing content will always be able to find work.

  3. Timothy Fish November 1, 2011 at 5:02 am #

    I’m still trying to figure out what I think about it. My gut reaction is that I don’t like it.

  4. Richard Mabry November 1, 2011 at 5:45 am #

    Steve, thanks for this post. Right now, all the conversations in the various loops seem to be generating more heat than light. It’s nice to have your perspective on this move.
    As an author who recently signed with Thomas Nelson, I’ve decided that my approach will be to read Philippians 4 and keep writing.

  5. Robert Treskillard November 1, 2011 at 6:03 am #

    It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.

    Realistically, how can HC merge these companies without a lot of pain on both sides, considering that their headquarters are in different cities?

    Considering that Thomas Nelson itself was in the top 10 publishers worldwide, does this purchase affect Harper Collins ranking among all publishers?

    • Steve Laube November 1, 2011 at 9:54 am #

      Robert,
      That is an excellent question. Harper is one of the “Big Six” already. Whether they move up is almost immaterial since those six are already the top tier of global publishing conglomerates.

      Who are the big six?

      1. Hachette Book Group
      Formerly Warner Books (of Time Warner), Hachette was acquired by Hachette Livre, a subsidiary of the French media conglomerate Lagardère Group. Their Christian imprint is FaithWords.

      2. HarperCollins
      Owned by Ruper Murdoch’s News Corp, HarperCollins has around fifty imprints. Zondervan had been their sold evangelical Christian imprint. But they also have HarperOne (formerly HarperSanFrancisco which publishes religious books. Also Avon Inspire is a Christian fiction division of the Avon fiction imprint.

      3. Holtzbrinck Publishing Group
      Owned by the German Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. Primarily known in the U.S. as MacMillan. They do not have a Christian imprint. But do have strong commercial imprints like St. Martin’s, Tor, and Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

      4. Pearson
      A British conglomerate known in the U.S. as Penguin. They have imprints like Putnam, Berkley, Touchstone, etc. They have tipped their hat to the Christian market with the Penguin Praise imprint, but does not have a dedicated staff developing those titles.

      5. Bertelsmann
      Another German conglomerate that owns Random House which is the largest English-language trade publisher in the world. They have several divisions. The Crown Publishing Group has within it the Waterbrook/Multnomah imprint. Their Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group included Doubleday which is a religious imprint that generally has had Catholic oriented titles.

      6. Simon & Schuster
      Owned by CBS. Their Christian imprint is Howard Books. Other well known imprints include Pocket, Free Press, and Scribner.

    • Timothy Fish November 1, 2011 at 10:55 am #

      One report I saw says that it will move them from 4th to 2nd overall. More interestingly, the same report says that it will give them 49.5% of the religious book market.

  6. Janet Ann Collins November 1, 2011 at 6:31 am #

    When times are rough, people look to religion for help. After the Great Depression and World War II people wanted to be safe, but the next generation got bored with safety and Christian books stopped selling well, so general publishers stopped doing them and houses that had primarily done curriculum before started publishing novels, etc. and more Christian publishing companies appeared. I hope when our economy improves the secular ones that have bought out Christian houses don’t close them down. But if they do probably new Christian publishers will appear and already existing smaller ones will grow.

    • Timothy Fish November 1, 2011 at 8:08 am #

      Janet,

      That is one of the things I thought about. Even if Thomas Nelson starts looking and smelling like Fox, there are plenty of publishers that operate as ministries instead of businesses that will step up to fill in any gap their parent churches, associations, or denominations think exist. So Christian publishing as a whole won’t be hurt, but I kind of liked the idea that Thomas Nelson had stayed free of the influence of the large secular publishers.

      • Danna Demetre November 3, 2011 at 9:39 pm #

        When Christian books are the big sellers in the marketplace – the secular houses want to buy in. Like you, Timothy – I found comfort in knowing that at their core TN was committed to truth. What will happen when HC sees a dip in the Christian market/message and has no spiritual compass that compells them to stay faithful to truth?

  7. Gayle Vanessa November 1, 2011 at 7:46 am #

    If Zondervan and Thomas Nelson have a no bid clause, will that lower the value of future book deals. Or is there enough pressure from Tyndale and Revell that the reduction of competitors will be unnoticed?

    • Steve Laube November 1, 2011 at 9:55 am #

      Doubtful it will reduce much other than eliminating the potential of one other bidder.

  8. Maria I. Morgan November 1, 2011 at 9:44 am #

    In light of this acquisition, what are your thoughts on sending a book proposal at this point in time? Appreciate your input!

  9. Christina (Berry) Tarabochia November 1, 2011 at 9:54 am #

    Does this mean that HarperCollins now owns Women of Faith as well? That blows my mind!

    I have a project under consideration at Zondervan. Would you say, since they have already been absorbed, that business will be MORE of the norm there than at TN? Or is this a shakeup all the way around?

    • Steve Laube November 1, 2011 at 9:56 am #

      Yes it does. Women of Faith is a wholly owned division of Thomas Nelson.

      We will not know the extent of any “shake up” for many months. If there will even be a “shake up.”

    • Timothy Fish November 1, 2011 at 10:39 am #

      One thing about it, whether they merge otherwise or not, I would imagine that the Zondervan name will now be showing up at the Women of Faith conference.

  10. Mari-Anna Frangén Stålnacke November 1, 2011 at 10:18 am #

    Thank you for this post! At times like this it is very valuable to hear publishing professionals’ view on these things!

    I’d be interested in hearing your opinion on the matter that Gayle Vanessa brought up a bit earlier. Thank you! Blessings!

  11. Jill Kemerer November 1, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    I missed hearing this news yesterday, and I’m very glad you posted about it. My husband and I have been in situations where we’ve gotten new bosses, stores have merged, etc… Our experience has been that these developments bring opportunities to those who have an open attitude. I think there will be exciting prospects ahead.

  12. Merrie Destefano November 1, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

    My thoughts are somewhat limited by my experience, but here they are. Thomas Nelson has been making great strides in recent years by getting their books placed in the general market category. This did not compromise the content of those books (in my opinion), but it opened the door for more readers to find their books besides just in Christian bookstores. As an author, I currently have two books published with HarperVoyager, a general market imprint of HarperCollins. I’ve been very happy with my publisher and have been treated extremely well by all staff members. Ages ago, I sold four books to Thomas Nelson, right before Nelson merged with Word. During that period, they dropped all their midlist authors and I was one of them. My books, which were completed, were never published, but I did get paid. So, from my perspective, things can change drastically whether there is a general market publisher involved in the purchase of a company or not. Again, in my opinion, I’ve only ever seen HarperCollins strive for excellence and, if Thomas Nelson was for up for sale (which it must have been), then being purchased by Harper could be a very good thing. Harper, being one of the big six, could provide stability for Nelson in this difficult time period. I understand there could seem to be a “conflict of interest” between Nelson and Zondervan, but long term, I think everything will be fine. Harper has so many different imprints, many of them in the same category (like young adult), but they complement one another and readers know what to expect from the different imprints.

  13. Peter DeHaan November 1, 2011 at 2:46 pm #

    Steve, thanks for keeping us updated and informed. It will certainly be interesting to see how this plays out.

  14. Aldrin Roy November 1, 2011 at 11:33 pm #

    Thanks Steve for posting this information. I hope the NKJV wouldn’t be supressed by the NIV. I wish these Bibles come out to the open domain… I pray that the Word of God (in the right format) runs swiftly to the unreached hands in these last days…

    • Timothy Fish November 2, 2011 at 6:04 am #

      That seems highly unlikely. I won’t say it can’t happen. I’ve seen companies buy a company and then kill a product I needed because all they really wanted was another part of the company, but NKJV is a big profit maker for Thomas Nelson. I don’t see a company being willing to pay approximately $500 million and then eliminating their more popular products.

  15. Lisa Hall-Wilson November 2, 2011 at 7:39 am #

    There’s been a lot of mumbling among the indie authors over the last bit about the tyranny of the ‘big six’ (although perhaps that isn’t a new thing).
    When big houses become bigger, will this be reflected in the editorial and marketing emphasis and backing they offer authors?

  16. Robert Treskillard November 2, 2011 at 7:45 am #

    Steve,

    I just made eight predictions regarding the Thomas Nelson purchase by HarperCollins. These have more to do with the merging of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan and how that will happen.

    http://www.epictales.org/blog/robertblog.php/2011/11/02/harpercollins-purchases-thomas-nelson-my-predictions

    I’d be interested in your thoughts!

    Thanks,

    -Robert

  17. Jeff Adams November 2, 2011 at 7:36 pm #

    Steve, thanks for your thoughts. I’m grateful you give us a positive view. I won’t disagree, but I will play the cynical pragmatist.

    First, the larger the corporation, the sharper the focus on profit. That’s magnified in this economy.

    Second, survival requires fiscal fitness. Profitability should trump everything else. But it won’t. Not at first. Initially, the decisions made in the ivory towers will be about salability. Name recognition and brand will get the lion’s share of marketing as they have for some time.

    Third, quality (content) will remain less important than marketability. Like so many industries today, because quality is relegated to the end of the assembly line or production process, efficiency is diminished. But publishing books that sell only a few thousand copies with large numbers of buybacks isn’t profitable.

    Fourth, when the CEOs, VPs, and others get this—via the next annual report to the stockholders—they will gut middle management and jettison little known authors as ballast.

    Fifth, while this process is grinding away, direct e-pub via Amazon, Apple, and B&N (which will have a decreasing market share because of the economic burden of brick and mortar stores) will grow exponentially.

    Whoever controls the distribution channels controls the market. In the end it won’t matter much that people like to hold books or love the smell of ink and paper. Profits will determine the medium. When the major publishers learn that they make more money selling e-books, and discover ways to increase those sales, the industry will change how the houses operate.

    That may not be a bad thing. Traditional houses will be more inclined to get in the game. More authors will be published. Increased competition may raise the value of content. Authors will need more help from agents in order to navigate more complex contracts. Publicists will become even more necessary to successfully market products for both houses and authors. And readers will enjoy a greater variety of better books.

    So much for being a cynic.

  18. Jana Muntsinger November 3, 2011 at 8:45 am #

    Steve, fascinating thoughts. I got to be a part of the Thomas Nelson purchase of Word, Inc. a billion years ago in 1992. I was working in PR in Dallas for Word Publishing. I think there might be many “stages” involved with two such large entities, just like it was with Word and Nelson. I do believe that what the purchase looks like next year might be radically different in 2 or even 5 years. It look Nelson five years to move Word from Dallas and to sell off the music division. I believe this will change Christian publishing — and I can’t wait to see all the ripple effects.

  19. Linda Clare November 4, 2011 at 3:18 pm #

    For many of us “midlisters,” the threat feels more as if the bigger the big guys get, the more they’ll rely on the “Big Gun” authors. I know all publishers want to discover the next big gun, but when the choices of publishers are fewer, it feels as if the odds are stacked against midlist writers. Just my two cents.

  20. James Elrod January 4, 2014 at 9:38 am #

    Why had they dropped so much in value since 2006 and will they stay in Nashville?

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