Being Gutsy: An Insider Looks at Publishing

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

The publishing committee for the fledging publisher was small: four people. They sat not at a boardroom table but in a circle of chairs in the publishing executive’s office.

The marketing director shuffled through her sheaves of reports on how the first two books in a teen series were selling. The numbers weren’t encouraging.

Everyone was disappointed, for the series was groundbreaking–one of the first two teen fiction series in the entire Christian industry (the year was 1989). What had gone wrong? Considerable marketing and bookstore placement had provided what was hoped to be sufficient muscle to grind out enough sales to grow the series.

A sad silence descended on the group after each person–save the executive–voiced the inevitable conclusion that the series should end at two.

But the executive seemed to be weighing options. Not that any had been on tightrope

Then he said, “I think we should do two more books to see if that will give us the momentum we need. Teens need novels; let’s do it for the ministry.”

I can recount this scene in detail because I was the editor sitting in one of those chairs. Rolf Zettersten, who now is the senior vice president of FaithWords (a division of Hachette), was the executive who made the decision. The publisher was Focus on the Family, and the series was Robin Jones Gunn’s Christy Miller Series.

Rolf’s gutsy decision, based not on finances but on ministry, paid off on both fronts. The series grew to twelve books, all of which remain in print and are still selling at a brisk pace. So far they’ve sold close to 5 million copies. Yup, 5 million. And Robin regularly receives letters and emails from around the world from girls who have come to Christ because of Christy Miller and who have made other significant spiritual decisions based on the series’ characters’ example.

Good call, Rolf.

Fast forward to the year 2000. Dan Rich, publisher of WaterBrook Press, watches retailers enter a ballroom at the Christian Booksellers Convention for a book signing. Sitting behind four tables are three best-selling authors and a newbie author.

As Dan expected, the first retailers to come in head to the best-selling authors. The second wave of retailers, seeing the lines for the well-known writers, head over to the newbie to collect signed copies of her book. Just as Dan would have predicted.

But then something odd happened. With all the lines being of about equal length, when additional retailers joined the crowd, they looked at the posters of the books being signed and…headed over to the newbie’s line.

That’s when Dan made a gutsy decision: He chose to put major marketing muscle behind the book. Since WaterBrook was a relatively new publishing division of Random House, that was a dangerous decision. If it were wrong, he’d have Random House executives to answer to.

But Dan made the right call. Joanna Weaver’s Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World continues to sell at a strong pace fifteen years after its release, and last year it crossed the one-million-copies-sold mark. Lives transformed, hearts renewed.

I know this story to be true because Dan recounted it to me, as Joanna’s agent, a few years into Mary Heart’s happy life.

These two stories remind all of us what makes publishing so wonderful: Following one’s instincts can result in something special happening. But it takes guts. Risk. Going out on a ledge.

Looking for only authors with platform means missing out. Not only on the two books I’ve mentioned but also Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling and writers such as Bev Lewis, Dee Henderson and Karen Kingsbury.

Those in publishing who make decisions based purely on the numbers don’t know what they’re missing. But we can assure them they are missing out on some very important books. The kinds of books that create new trends, that infuse energy (and funds) into the entire industry.

Let’s all be gutsy! Not ridiculous, toss all cares to the wind gutsy. But let’s be people who are willing to take a risk–because that’s what our guts tell us.

What books or authors can you think of that publishing took a chance on–and won?

What would be a gutsy decision for you?


What publishing needs now are gutsy people. Click to tweet.

Writers: Follow your gut. It’s probably right. Click to tweet.