Changes at B&H Fiction

by Steve Laube

 What is Next Sticky Note

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.

  1. 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.]
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

  1. Fewer slots available for authors.
  2. Fewer bidders for new projects that garner multiple publisher interest.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

33 Responses to Changes at B&H Fiction

  1. Rick Barry May 6, 2013 at 4:41 am #

    The one thing that never changes is that everything always changes. My sincere sympathy goes to those authors whose contracts were cancelled. At the same time, I trust that your stories, which bypassed many others to be accepted for publication, will yet find a home with another publisher.

  2. Michelle Saint-Germain May 6, 2013 at 5:31 am #

    I agree with Rick. I’m sorry for those authors who have to find a new publisher, but keep your heads up. This industry is wide open for those who are patient and persevere. I also understand from a business pov how difficult these times are for publishers. I’m sure this announcement wasn’t an easy one to make, but necessary. I pray that all will find comfort with the NEW situation.

  3. Sally Bradley May 6, 2013 at 5:47 am #

    Steve, thanks so much for sharing the details with us.

  4. Judith Robl May 6, 2013 at 6:19 am #

    The more things change, the more they stay the same. Nothing is permanent but God. And He’s in charge of the whole shootin’ match. As long as we remember that, we’re in good shape.

    I’ve never taken anything to God and had him exclaim “Oh, really. I didn’t know that.”

  5. Lancia E. Smith May 6, 2013 at 6:49 am #

    Thanks, Steve, for both the update on what has transpired and the reminder of Who is in control. Keep Calm and Carry On still applies.

  6. Jan Cline May 6, 2013 at 7:22 am #

    Such is the publishing roller-coaster. As an aspiring novelist I know it’s a tough time to enter the fiction publishing world. These announcements could get me and others like me shook up, but we can’t afford the distraction of worry and doubt. It is what it is. We keep going and learn to be better writers until we are so good and have such a good story, it won’t matter which company is doing whatever. We focus on our job to write good books. And we support each other. How would this effect someone who has an editorial appointment with B&H at a large upcoming conference?

    • Steve Laube May 6, 2013 at 10:17 am #

      Good question Jan. If someone has a future conference appointment with Julie Gwinn from B&H she will not be attending the conference as a representative of B&H. And if B&H were represented at that event it would likely be a non-fiction representative.

      The exception would be ACFW which is all fiction related. Then if B&H were represented it would be to find properties that tie in to their other divisions as their press releases state.

      • Jan Cline May 6, 2013 at 10:37 am #

        Good to know. And it was ACFW I was referring to – will have to wait and see what appointments I actually end up with – my request for Julie was not my first choice, but will reevaluate when I get confirmation of who I’ll be seeing. Appreciate the heads up. 🙂

  7. Ann Shorey May 6, 2013 at 7:38 am #

    Thanks for the thorough explanation, Steve. God is in control, indeed.

  8. Laurie Alice Eakes May 6, 2013 at 7:46 am #

    Publishing is not a business for the feint of heart, that’s for sure. What I’ve seen over the past twenty years since I met my first published author I called friend, is that publishing is always changing and never anywhere have I so seen a demonstration of one door closing and another one opening.

    Not quite two years ago, we learned that Barbour was closing the Heartsong line. Six months later, I sold another book to Heartsong because Harlequin bought it for their Love Inspired line.

    Publishing seems to be like a piece of metal in the sun–expanding in the heat and contracting when the temperatures drop.

  9. Sue Harrison May 6, 2013 at 8:27 am #

    Thank you, Steve. I’ve been hoping for a commonsense blog post that would put this all into perspective for all of us out there with novel manuscripts in hand.

  10. Meghan Carver May 6, 2013 at 8:29 am #

    Difficult developments, but I appreciate your perspective that God is not surprised.

  11. Gina Welborn May 6, 2013 at 10:01 am #

    Thanks, Steve, for clarifying all of this!

  12. marci seither May 6, 2013 at 10:08 am #

    It always feels like a death of a distant cousin to hear of a publisher closing it’s doors. I had a story I wrote for Breakaway magazine after interviewing 100 teenagers on the topic of stealing. When I called Tom Neven about my story, he said they were on their last two issues. I felt bad for the work I had done, but even worse for those whose careers were impacted. This is a hard time for everyone in the writing business. My heart goes out to Julie Gwinn as well as the authors who had projects in the work and for those who had hoped to be published by B&H.

    I teach article writing at a conf. and one of the biggest encouragement I offer newer writers in the face of all of the discouragement is that there is a difference between the value and the worth of a story.Thanks for the update Steve.
    Pressing on with truth and grace and keeping my heart and pen focused on the author and perfector of my faith.

    • Steve Laube May 6, 2013 at 10:14 am #

      Just to clarify Marci. B&H publishing is still publishing books and still in business. They have not closed their doors. They are, however, shuttering the broader focus of their fiction division. Didn’t want anyone to think B&H was out of business!

    • Rick Barry May 6, 2013 at 10:22 am #

      Marci, I used to write for Breakaway, too. Mostly fiction, but not always. Breakaway was a terrific mag for experimenting with various genres in a YA context. I was sad to see Focus discontinue it, but am amazed that I still receive an occasional email about stories I wrote for Breakaway. Oh well. Since we can’t live in the past, we must change with the times.

  13. Andie Tubbs May 6, 2013 at 10:40 am #

    My question Steve, is how is this fair or Christlike for those authors with contracts with B&H? Are they being able to finish out their contracts?

    • Steve Laube May 6, 2013 at 10:48 am #

      I am very careful not judge whether a business decision is “Christlike” or not. This usually implies something nefarious from people I know to be godly and sincere.

      Is it fair? is another issue entirely. No. Losing a job or a contract never feels fair (and I can speak to that from personal experience). In this case, as I wrote, “Business decisions like this are just that…business decisions.”

      No, the cancelled contracts will not be published. But the authors will keep any monies already advanced as a “kill fee” (and if you are wondering what a “kill fee” is – read this article

  14. James Scott Bell May 6, 2013 at 11:30 am #

    “Business decisions like this are just that…business decisions.”

    And such decisions are now a two-way street. Deciding to self-publish, for example, and doing so with a plan, is increasingly looking like the “right” decision for many writers. A self-publishing writer will not cancel his own contract, nor will he lose the rights over books he has labored on.

  15. Mary Kay May 6, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    Thanks, Steve, for the calm, balanced post. Like Marci, hearing of a fiction division (or pub house, for that matter) being closed is like hearing of a death. But your post reminds us that businesses change, and, as in all of life, we need to face change and also trust God for the outcome.

  16. Karen Barnett May 6, 2013 at 11:57 am #

    Thanks for the update. I’ll be praying for all of the authors affected by this, as well as Julie. I met her at Mount Hermon a few years ago and really enjoyed getting to speak with her. Even though my project didn’t match up with B&H, I still think of our chat as a conference high-point. I hope she finds another position soon and will continue contributing her talents to Christian fiction.

  17. Andie Tubbs May 6, 2013 at 12:34 pm #


    I have this to say. It is my understanding that B&H is a Christian publishing house. Which means that when you make business decisions you make them with Christ. We’re not talking Donald Trump here where we’re going to the “mattresses” as it is said in business. So, by making a “business” decision without Christ in a Christian company is one that will not be blessed by God, period!

    • Steve Laube May 6, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

      Please read the link to the Publisher’s Weekly article cited in the first paragraph above. The last paragraph should be sufficient to answer your question. If you are unable to view it I am pasting the quotation here:

      B&H Trade Publisher Jennifer Lyell said, “Publishers are all facing the same challenges; we’re all trying to evaluate who we are, the realities of the marketplace, and how we can best serve the body of Christ. This decision was not hastily made, and was bathed in intensive prayer and research.”

      • Andie Tubbs May 6, 2013 at 4:36 pm #

        That’s the nice Christian pat answer.
        It is very clear what is going on here.
        As long as B&H publishes bestsellers, and rakes in millions that is the main goal. Forget about touching lives and bringing people to Christ.

  18. Steve Myers May 6, 2013 at 1:12 pm #

    The TREND is what I called THE HOURGLASS about 20 years ago when then a returning student in my 30s at the University of Texas at El Paso. I had returned after 15 years in broadcast Radio and Television to complete what I postponed after graduating from high school in 1977: A BA Degree. In the 1990s I was often a guest speaker to a variety of Broadcast and Journalism professors and classes to offer my theory of changes in the electronic media. I’d like to share that now with this fiction writers blog.

    Picture the Hour Glass. Look at it from the top down. Industries start and change over time. Some grow, others narrow focus and some disappear like the sand through the narrowest point in the process. But what emerges on the other side should offer hope: A growing widening of the capacity of the glass.

    In 1992 Bruce Springsteen penned the song 57 Channels and Nothing’s On. Today we have a universe of channels in this country and globally to our homes via Directv, Dish, and Cable providers. On my Directv box I have over 400 channels. There’s literally a network for just about everyone and they seem to offer content 24/7.

    1n the 1990s Desktop Publishing was a threat to Printers. Many went out of business. However, some thrived and grew integrating Desktop Publishing into their businesses. We did not even conceivably envision an iPad, Kindle or Nook in 1992. Today, my iPad has over 200 titles as does my iPhone and Computer with the Kindle app.

    What I used to have to rent in a U-haul to take my DJ system in the 1980s to dances in West Texas in milk crates of albums, and boxes of 45s I could today put into a postage stamp sized ipod-shuffle at 2 gigs of drive for $46.00 from Wal Mart.

    I can remember putting five and a quarter floppies into an IBM computer to type with orange or green type on a screen for word processing. I marveled on the day when I could buy a 1 gig hard drive and paid $3,700 for a 100 gig raid tower in 1999 for my $35,000 nonlinear television editing Media 100. I just bought a 4 TB hard drive for my writing to consolidate 2 400 gig Seagates and two 250 gig WD drives. 4 TB for $300 is amazing. How times have changed and in many ways for the better.

    So Publishing is in a transition of both business decisions and directions. In some ways it seems like the crux and narrow passage of the Hour Glass as old standby’s morph or downsize, change or go away. Others are absorbed into mainstream companies. I once despised a youth pastor for trying to tell me in 1977 that ‘Constant Change is Here To Stay.’ Now I seem more optimistic that as time progresses there will be more instead of less opportunities for writers to become published as both new publishers in print and electronic forms will rise from the dust of those who are imploding. Not since movable type do we have the options we have now and whose to say there will not be some Renaissance in how publishing and writing progresses?

    For now, the dust is just starting to settle over B&H. But who is on the cusp of a new start up? Who has a concept that is just starting to change the industry? Yes, it may be tight for a season as writers adjust but in the list of premature obituaries on publishing is this reminder:

    “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” When did Mark Twain write that?

    Books are still being published. If there is a Christian Market worth publishing someone, some company, even the secular world who has been buying up Christian Publishers, will publish. If there’s a streamlined way to make a dollar and a cent in this industry there will be publishers. Steve Laube is right, one of them entered the business at not the best of economical times and is exiting that strategy. Who replaces them or comes up with an innovation or workable business model remains to be seen. Let it not stop us from continuing to write, edit, hope and pray that our work will somehow see the light of day.

  19. Andie Tubbs May 6, 2013 at 1:15 pm #

    My heart aches for all of these authors that are now out of a job, and are having to write proposals to find a new place for their work. God will bless them!

  20. Casey May 6, 2013 at 5:46 pm #

    I have so very sad to hear that B&H had disbanded their fiction line and I was hoping for more info, so this is great, thank you, Steve. However, I have many favorite authors at this publishing house, so to see it dissolve is heart breaking for me. But yes, what you said is very true, despite this “shudder”, God’s work prevails and His rightful place for each and every one of these authors.

  21. Linda Rodante May 6, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

    Thanks for an informative and calm update.

  22. marci seither May 7, 2013 at 12:02 am #

    Thanks Steve for clearing that up for me. I am so relieved to know they aren’t closing the doors, but jut re-evaluating their priorities. what a huge decision on their part.

  23. Kathleen Freeman May 7, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    Well put, Steve! Prayers for Julie and the B&H authors. No doubt God has a plan, and a business decision is not going to get in God’s way. My faith, mustard seed small though it is, is constantly affirmed.

  24. Lauralee Bliss May 8, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    I’ve been there. I worked for two years on a contracted fiction book, researched and wrote it, had it edited and re-edited, only to have the project shelved and the publisher cancel its fiction line. I was able to keep the advance money, but that was it. It hurt, yes. I didn’t write for many months. But somehow you get through it. To this day the book has never found another publisher. All that work, travel, time, writing, two long years. It was just not God’s plan for me. No, I don’t understand it even fifteen years later. But I trust Him more than a publisher, because He wants His best for me. His best for me was not to have that book published. “Though He slay me, yet will I trust.” It’s all you can do.

  25. Patrick Craig May 8, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

    You’re absolutely right, Steve. Publishing companies don’t dictate, God does. A good story is a good story and the reader is always looking. Reminds me of my days as a performing musician. We would always run into club owners who thought that if it wasn’t for them, there would be no music business.

  26. Gay N. Lewis May 13, 2013 at 7:28 am #

    Thanks for the information. My heart goes out to the authors whose contracts were cancelled. It’s a sad day for B&H too. Adapting to changes can be difficult. Reminding ourselves that God is in control helps.

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