Successful self-publishing might be fairly new, but one company can trace its roots back more than 200 years.
In 1798, on West Bow Street in Edinburgh, Scotland, the eponymously named Thomas Nelson was founded as a publisher of inexpensive editions of classic books like The Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe. After two centuries of changes in ownership, Nelson is now part of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, the unit of HarperCollins created when News Corp. acquired Nelson in 2011 and combined it with its existing Zondervan imprint.
The name of Nelson’s self-publishing division, WestBow Press, harks back to those long-ago origins. When Nelson launched the division in 2009, it revived the WestBow name, which had been the name of the Thomas Nelson fiction imprint until 2005, when the One Company initiative eliminated Nelson’s imprints. Nelson formed a strategic partnership with Author Solutions for the new venture, which Nelson and ASI co-manage. Author Solutions provides the full range of publishing functions, selling packages to authors with options for production, different levels of editing, marketing, and getting WestBow titles into distributors’ databases.
With a dedicated WestBow team of 60–70 staffers at ASI’s Bloomington, Ind., headquarters, Nelson has not had to add staff, notes Pete Nikolai, director of publishing services for WestBow and the only full-time WestBow employee at Nelson’s Nashville headquarters. Calling Author Solutions “a strong partner,” Nikolai says, “they are a big part of our operations. They have unique expertise and they can scale.” Through this alliance, WestBow has published 4,000 titles since its launch and plans to continue to publish at that pace, about 1,000 per year.
While WestBow’s marketing materials cite the advantages of self-publishing for authors—speed, freedom, control—the goal for indie authors is still a traditional publishing contract, Nikolai says. Likening WestBow to a “farm club,” he says, “traditional publishing still offers major benefits, especially bookstore distribution. The book then has a chance of making the bestseller lists, it’s in the Ingram database, and there are review opportunities. And e-book sales have plateaued, so the majority of sales are still print.”
What sets WestBow apart from other self-publishing companies, says Nikolai, is the advantages it offers as a division of HarperCollins Christian Publishing. “We are always checking sales reports to see if we want to consider a book for acquisition. Several times a month, I will also suggest authors to agents we know.” One author who signed with WestBow, William Sirls, was contracted by Nelson just before his book was to release in a WestBow edition.
Other recent WestBow authors also have been signed by publishers: Sharon Garlough Brown, who published Sensible Shoes: A Novel with WestBow in 2010, was signed by InterVarsity Press, which released its edition in February. Annie Downs published From Head to Foot with WestBow in 2010; she later signed with Zondervan, which published its edition, retitled Perfectly Unique, in 2012. Her second book for Zondervan, Speak Love, with a companion devotional/journal Speak Love Revolution, released in August. Those titles are for teens and young adults; her first adult trade book, Let’s All Be Brave, will be published by Zondervan in spring 2014.
WestBow has strict editorial standards—the same as Thomas Nelson’s—that begin with the author’s personal faith commitment and behavior and how those align with the theological tenets of evangelical Christianity. Profanity, violence, and sexual scenes are prohibited, and specific criteria for WestBow books are laid out in eight points based on the New Testament passage Philippians 4:8: they are to be “true... noble... just... pure... lovely... of good report... virtuous... praiseworthy.” Books are vetted for adherence to these standards when WestBow receives a finished manuscript. “When an author signs up with us, they agree to those standards,” Nikolai says. “If we feel they have deviated from them, we’ll ask the author for changes, or, in some cases, cancel the book.”
Most WestBow titles are e-books and/or POD. “That should be what everyone does,” Nikolai says. “There’s no need for warehousing costs for authors. Occasionally we do print more copies and warehouse them, for example, if an author has speaking engagements and needs to ship books to them.” The Nelson sales team sells WestBow titles into local bookstores selectively, “when we see a book has traction,” Nikolai says, “and we try to get a title into bookstores within about 100 miles of an author’s home town.” Asked whether the WestBow brand is more prominent than that of other Christian self-publishers, Nikolai says, “Not with consumers—they don’t care. But I think it is within the industry.”
WestBow's Web site offers not only information on WestBow services and editorial standards but also a bookstore and an Author Hub with how-to and inspirational videos, blogs, a listing of events and resources, and author news. WestBow holds an annual contest for authors through the Women of Faith conferences; the grand prize winner receives a free self-publishing package. The 2010 winner, Marcia Moston, won for her memoir, Call of a Coward (WestBow, 2011) and went on to sign with Nelson, which published its edition in 2012. Amy Sorrells won in 2012, but was signed by David C. Cook before she could publish with WestBow. Her How Sweet the Sound: A Novel, will be published by Cook in March 2014. This year’s winner is Laurie Norlander for Mirror Images, a novel released by WestBow this July.