Thomas Nelson’s Densely Packed Brand Nucleus

By Neal Comment

michael-hyatt.jpgI was expecting to walk into a panel on “social networking technology” Thursday afternoon, but due to a double booking in the BEA event calendar, I found myself arriving at a lecture by Thomas Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt (left) on how he stripped away all the subsidiary imprints that had made up the Nelson conglomerate and chose to focus on a single identity. Nelson was the sixth-largest publisher in the United States, he said (depending on your metrics), “but you wouldn’t have known it before, because we were so diluted.” The new structure, which unites all the company’s holdings under a single imprint broken into four “strategic publishing units,” offers a simplified business model, better internal collaboration, a stronger consumer focus, and higher market visibility. Now that he’d managed to throw off Nelson’s dead weight, he enthused, the company’s goal over the next five years was to outpace the rest of the industry in its growth.

I liked Hyatt a lot by the end of the hour: It’s fun and refreshing to watch a Christian publisher throw Led Zep covers into the PowerPoint as he talks about how the lack of transparent data in the industry “sucks,” then calls for a “Copernican revolution” in the way his company does business. (And he makes sense, too—if you’re going to be an evangelist, surely you’d want to know if you were getting your message across effectively.) But don’t just take my word for it; Michael Cader had the panel videotaped. If you don’t think you have time to watch, speedread Hyatt’s synopsis from his own blog.

During the Q&A session, I asked Hyatt if he had any thoughts on the way that the Perseus/Avalon merger had created an imprint shakeout. “To me, the best outcome is not that everyone eliminates imprints,” he replied. “But the more clutter we can remove from the equation…” It was an echo of one of his earlier comments: “You’d better have a good reason for keeping an imprint alive. If something doesn’t add value, it disappears.”

So of course the very next morning I sat in on a panel with six editors who had all launched new imprints within the last year. “Why are you all here?” Jon Karp of Twelve joked with the audience at the start, until somebody pointed out that agents were dying to learn about everyone’s editorial visions. Julie Grau allowed that “Riverhead was a pretty great model” for what she and Cindy Spiegel wanted to accomplish with their new imprint at Doubleday, while Leigh Haber enthused about “pushing the envelope” at Rodale with her Modern Times books. Later, she added, “What an imprint gives you is an opportunity to be personal. Part of my editorial perspective comes from what interests me most.” But, Pamela Dorman of Voice countered, “you also have to take some chances and risks,” because you can’t rely on your backlist. And then there was Mary Matalin, who flippantly described herself as “the Admiral Stockdale of the group” (as in who am I and what am I doing here?), but ultimately seemed to have a strong sense of how she wanted to position Threshold as a conservative alternative to a largely liberal market selection.