When former Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor Jesse Coleman was looking to get back into publishing after spending years building a freelance editorial business, he found himself weighing opportunities at Big Five houses against a job at a software company. Hoping to get away from the isolation he felt as a freelancer, Coleman jumped at the chance to create a book division for a Los Angeles–based software company called NationBuilder. The company’s goal? To create the kind of nonfiction books that have consumer appeal, and extend the company’s brand.
NationBuilder, Coleman explained, sells software that helps organizations more efficiently communicate with people in their network. Particularly popular among political organizations and nonprofits, the company’s clients include schools such as Columbia University and various political candidates in the U.S. and much of Europe. (Both sides of the Brexit campaign, for example, used NationBuilder.)
That a software company would be interested in a book division seems, as Coleman acknowledged, a bit odd. But the idea for the book unit was something that began brewing when Coleman was hired as a freelance editor to work on a book that Jim Gilliam, NationBuilder’s cofounder and CEO, had written.
Gilliam got his first taste of publishing in 2011, after a speech he gave at the Personal Democracy Forum (an annual technology conference) went viral. The speech, titled “The Internet Is My Religion,” chronicled how Gilliam found solace in the connections made possible by the World Wide Web while he was battling cancer.
When the talk started racking up clicks on YouTube—to date, it’s been viewed more than 60,000 times—Gilliam received calls from literary agents asking him if he was interested in writing a book. He was, but he had no desire to hand over his story to a traditional editor or publishing company. Instead, Gilliam went ahead with his book, writing it with NationBuilder cofounder Lea Endres.
Endres and Gilliam found Coleman through his editorial company, NY Book Editors, and hired him to do a critique of the manuscript. Endres and Gilliam then went on to self-publish their book, The Internet Is My Religion, and quietly began giving—and selling—copies to clients and business contacts. They then approached Coleman about establishing a book division tied to NationBuilder that would publish titles like Gilliam’s, that are part business book and part inspirational memoir. (The Internet Is My Religion, in addition to telling Gilliam’s story of finding success as a tech entrepreneur, chronicles his fundamentalist Christian upbringing, his overcoming cancer, and his belief that the Internet is the ultimate tool for connectivity.)
Now, NationBuilder Books will officially launch this fall when The Internet Is My Religion is rereleased as a more widely available consumer title on September 13. NationBuilder’s titles will be available in both print and online, and Coleman said he’s currently in negotiations with a major distributor. Veering from the traditional royalty model, Coleman is instead commissioning books as works for hire. In lieu of royalties, authors will be offered flat advances of $20,000 each.
Acknowledging that the house’s unique model may initially be a tough pitch to some agents and authors, Coleman believes NationBuilder is offering something traditional publishers are not. He said that the kind of books he wants to buy would likely each come with a $10,000 advance and a small print run of maybe 3,000–5,000 copies at a big New York house. NationBuilder, by contrast, will offer higher advances and intends to do first printings of around 20,000 copies each.
So far, working largely through personal networks, Coleman has signed up eight books. He’s relief on existing contacts thus far for everything from acquisition through production—his copy editor works at the Paris Review, his jacket designers are at a smattering of Big Five houses—and is just now starting to meet with more agents to tell them about the book division.
Coleman, who is now based out of NationBuilder’s L.A. office, said his house will bring books to market with the intention of selling the title, and giving it away. Though NationBuilder books will be seen as brand builders for the company backing them—it’s hoped that potential clients will find the books and then hire NationBuilder—they are also intended to appeal to regular consumers. As Coleman put it, NationBuilder wants to be recognized not as a software company but as a place that cultivates and supports leaders. And, in order to do that, Coleman will publish books that make people think about “how to create change in the world.”
Correction: A comment about Nation Builder's pending distribution deals was credited to Jim Gilliam. This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the comment was made by Jesse Coleman.