In the words of former CBA president Bill Anderson, Don Jacobson is a “publisher, leader, and man of God who’s come through a lot” and is now doing “some creative and bold work.”
As the leader of Zeal Books out of Portland, OR, and the D. C. Jacobson & Associates Literary Agency, Jacobson is fully engaged in publishing books the world needs.
After growing up in Oregon and attending Multnomah Bible School, Jacobson started work at Multnomah Press in 1984.
“I was special markets manager. After a few months I ended up becoming the marketing director,” he says. “I was there for about three years before leaving to start a new company, which we called Questar at the time. We brought out our first list of books in 1988 and then basically moved the company back to Oregon in 1989.
“Then my friend Max Lucado called me and said he had some children’s stories that he thought would make a good little Bible. We ended up publishing The Beginner’s Bible and that’s kind of what put us on the map.”
After selling several million copies of the Bible, the company was in a position to buy Multnomah Press from Multnomah School of the Bible.
“We also bought a couple of other publishing companies along the way. The thing that a lot of people would recognize us for is that we published The Prayer of Jabez with Bruce Wilkinson. That really made things go crazy for a while,” he says.
In 2006 Multnomah was sold to Random House. “It wasn’t something we wanted to do, but we had gotten ourselves into some financial problems and the bank forced the sale,” says Jacobson. “That next fall we started the literary agency and our first author who knocked it out of the park was Francis Chan with Crazy Love.”
A Call for Craft
Jacobson considers writing to be a privilege. “Getting published is a privilege. It’s an honor. Sometimes that’s not held carefully enough. So, what the bookseller and the publisher and the agent have got to do is become more like Warren Buffett [who] says, ‘I’m not smart enough to pick a thousand stocks, but I can do 20.’”
Jacobson considers it important to make deeper commitments. “We can’t just chase tomorrow’s flavor. I hired a marketer a while back and asked her what she thought the biggest issue was in publishing. She said that it was the ability to identify, create, and execute a customized marketing plan. At a time when a blogger with a platform can have a book to market in three or four months, we as publishers are taking a much longer time to figure it out. I’m arguing for better curation of the content, from editing to design.
“It’s not a publisher problem,” he continues. “It’s not a bookstore problem. It’s not an agent problem. It’s not an author problem. It’s a problem for all of us. The solution [to these challenging times] is only going to happen if we work better together. There are no easy answers.”
“Ultimately, we need to make deeper commitments. At Zeal Books, I’m only going to publish four books a year. I want to be intimately involved with every single book we’re doing. We have an amazing book coming out on forgiveness from Bruce Wilkinson. As far as I’m concerned it’s the best book he’s ever done. I’ve been eating, sleeping, and dreaming that book for over a year now. Pastors tell us 90 percent to 100 percent of the people in their churches deal with unforgiveness and we said, ‘Wow, what would happen if we could get that number to go down?’”
“Everybody realizes that it’s getting a lot more difficult,” says Jacobson. “That’s no surprise. It’s getting harder and harder to identify customers for books. I was talking to one acquisition editor who said, ‘If I voted no every time one of my editors brought me a book, I’d be right 95 percent of the time.’ That really speaks to the difficulty of finding audiences when we have so many things competing for our leisure time.
“Unless you’re a student, reading is a leisure time activity,” he adds. “Leisure is obviously one of the gods of our culture, so I think the challenge is to find readers.”