By Mike Duran
As you would expect, Thomas Nelson’s recent decision to cut its work force and publish less books — which includes a 50 percent cut in new author titles — has generated some animated discussions and hand-wringing amongst Christian authors. While Michael Hyatt, CEO of Nelson, concedes the business aspects of this decision, he inevitably cites quality as the driving force. In his initial blog post, Too Many Books, Too Few Shelves, Hyatt writes:
As a heavy book reader myself, I contend that we need better books not more books. I can’t tell you how many books I started this past year and never finished. Why? Because, frankly, they weren’t worth finishing. Most of them left me underwhelmed. The authors would have done better to boil down the content and make it a magazine article.
But publishers appear to be addicted to cranking out more and more titles. It reminds me of a scene from an old episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy and Ethel are working in a chocolate factory. Finding themselves in the Wrapping Department, they must keep up with the increasing speed of a factory conveyor belt. Since the ladies initially appear to be keeping up with the flow, their supervisor increases the speed of the belt until Lucy and her friend are overwhelmed.
Editors and book marketers face a similar predicament. “If only we had just a little more time to spit-shine this title,” they mutter under their breath. But the conveyor belt keeps delivering a seemingly endless flow of titles. Worse, Publishers desperate for growth keep piling additional titles onto the backs of their already-overworked employees.
It’s time to stop the madness. We don’t need more titles. We need better titles. The only way this is going to happen is if publishers stop focusing on quantity and begin focusing on quality. (italics mine)
Though Nelson’s decision has potentially uncomfortable ramifications for book makers and aspiring authors, the appeal for quality above quantity should resonate with readers. Who doesn’t want to see better books? In this, Hyatt’s statements recall another industry giant.
Patrick Goldstein’s The Big Picture appears weekly in the L.A. Times and is one of the most informative Hollywood insider columns out there (in fact, Goldstein recently launched his own blog, which is equally rich in content). Earlier this year, in a column entitled Mouse House Tops Studio Report Card, Goldstein handed out year-end report cards to the studios. The overall score consisted of three grades: first for box office and profitability, second for film quality, and third for overall success. At the top of the list was Disney with an A-.
While finding Disney at the head of the class is not surprising, what is noteworthy is the reason given for their success:
…Of the 11 movies it released in 2007, eight were Disney label movies, allowing the company to remain relentlessly focused on its brand. By releasing so few films, Disney was able to make more high-quality films by putting extra time into solving script, production and marketing issues than competitors like Sony and Warner Bros., who roll out more than 20 a year.
“We’re probably in a different business than our brother and sister companies,” says Disney studio chief Dick Cook. “We’ve learned that it’s not how many you do but how good they are. If you only make 11 movies a year, you’re not putting your movies through a meat grinder; you can be very specific about quality. That way, if we do stumble, and I’m sure we will, it will be because we were pushing the envelope instead of not keeping our eye on the ball.” (italics mine)
After watching Ratatouille, a delightful film that made many critics’ Top Ten ‘o7 lists, who could argue about the meticulous detail that goes into Disney’s animated films — a signature that will, no doubt, be continued with Wall-E, its most recent release. But as with any quality product, there’s a downside — perfection takes time. And this is exactly what differentiates Disney from its competitors. So while competing studios crank out 20+ films a year, Disney is content to limit its lot… and polish the heck out of them.
Can Thomas Nelson be slighted for going a similar route?
It’s not a coincidence, I think, that both executives have come to eschew the mass production mentality that drives so many in their respective fields. Hyatt calls it a “conveyor belt,” Cook a “meat grinder.” And that’s from the guys in charge! Either way, breaking this “addiction” (Hyatt’s term) is not without consequences. The downside of publishing better books, in part, means taking more time with less titles. Therein lies the rub.
The fallout of TN’s decision, marketwise, is pending. Will other Christian publishers follow suit? Will more amateur novelists now choose self-publishing over the big name houses? Will more small, independent presses arise, willing to take on the unpublished, middlin’ authors left in the lurch? With the big boys seeking, primarily, brand name authors with shelf cred and the cream of the “breakout novel” crop, it makes sense that aspiring authors should look toward new, creative ways to get their story into print. But perhaps the biggest question is, Will we really see more, better books?
Whatever happens, I for one, applaud Thomas Nelson’s decision, even if it makes the climb that much harder for aspiring authors like me.