Rolf Zettersten knew change was afoot more than a decade ago in his role as trade publisher at Thomas Nelson. He'd been watching sales of religion books move increasingly into the general trade and club markets as those accounts became more interested in carrying inspirational, and especially Christian, books.
So when he was approached by Time Warner about starting a Christian/inspirational publishing group that reached into those markets, he jumped at the chance. Zettersten wrote up a business plan, hired a staff, and spent the first year acquiring books. Warner Faith published its first list in September 2001.
With the acquisition of Time Warner by AOL and the sale of the publishing divisions to Hachette Book Group, Warner Faith was renamed FaithWords. In the past decade, FaithWords has published more than 750 unique works and sold over 50 million books in North America. That number goes up to 60 million if sales of The Shack, for which FaithWords set a marketing and distribution agreement in 2008, are included. The division now publishes about 50 books a year.
"It always comes back to the authors," said Zettersten, Hachette Book Group senior v-p and publisher of FaithWords and Center Street, which publishes general market fiction and nonfiction in categories such as motivation, current events, and leadership. Hachette's deep pockets allow him to pay well for top authors. Said Zettersten, "More than 75 of our titles have sold 40,000 copies or more." Joel Osteen's Your Best Life Now (2004) has sold over four million copies. Joyce Meyer's Battlefield of the Mind (2002) is at two million, and her Starting Your Day Right (2003) at 1.2 million.
FaithWords bought Meyer's entire catalogue of titles and negotiated rights for new books in 2002; her contract has since been renewed. "Buying those rights proved to be a very wise investment," said Zettersten, who adds that FaithWords has sold more than 21 million copies of Meyer's books. FaithWords now publishes two to three books by her every year. His division has sold nearly eight million Osteen books domestically; in South Korea alone, the licensee has sold over a million copies. "But it's not just our bestselling authors; we've had a great midlist group of authors who have been fairly successful," he noted.
Editorial staff for the division is based in Nashville, Tenn.; the marketing team is in New York, which keeps them close to the sales people, he said. "Our culture and systems are blended, but because we're here in Nashville, we have our ear to the ground as to what is developing in the heartland and in the religious market."
FaithWords is one division of six that make up Hachette Book Group, overseen by chairman and CEO David Young. "It's been lovely to see the business mature and become such a great part of the religious publishing landscape in the last decade," said Young, who has been at Hachette for five years. "We've seen very steady, very satisfactory growth. The team in Nashville is very strong."
According to Zettersten, FaithWords offers its authors big-budget marketing: The company buys a lot of advertising and spends a lot on media promotion—television, print, online, and through social networks. "The plan from the start was to publish big books in a small list. The idea is to be as selective as we can with authors, then get behind them and support them aggressively," said Zettersten.
David Jeremiah's first book with FaithWords, The Coming Economic Armageddon: What Bible Prophecy Warns about the New Global Economy (2010) debuted at #7 on the PW bestseller list in October 2010 and sold nearly 175,000 copies that year, according to PW figures. It was also a New York Times bestseller. "There is something very special about publishing with a New York house," Jeremiah said. "Hachette Book Group and FaithWords have a huge footprint and a huge reach, and we benefit from their incredible experience." His next book, I Never Thought I'd See the Day! Culture at the Crossroads, comes out in October.
FaithWords publishes a wide variety of authors representing a range of Christian denominations, including some Catholic titles. Its newest imprint, Jericho Books, run by publisher Wendy Grisham, will aim for a younger, more progressive audience.
Zettersten is excited about digital publishing and the changes it brings to the market. He is publishing enhanced e-books this year by Osteen, Meyer, and Philip Yancey. An author app for Meyer was released in April; one for Osteen is due out in September. There also are apps for two of Meyer's books, The Confident Woman Devotional (Dec. 2010) and The Love Out Loud Devotional (Nov.).
But Zettersten also plans to keep doing what has brought the house success in its first 10 years: "If you do the basic things right, growth comes and opportunities happen." He calls it the "virtuous circle. You start with acquiring quality authors and creating excellent books; use aggressive marketing to build sales, and sales lead back to attracting great authors."■
Ann Byle is a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids, Mich., and the author or coauthor of four books, including Soul Surfer Devotions (Thomas Nelson).