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 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.


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