I was in Tucson a couple weeks ago, having an early evening beer at a pizza place near U of A with fellow Burnsider Dan Gibson. One of the servers had a Kindle, and we asked if she liked it.
"I love it," she replied. We asked to see it.
It was surprising. We expected a glorified laptop screen, but the print was shockingly clear and clean, like reading a real page.
"I could see owning one," Dan said, a collector of books like I am. I agreed.
Driving home Sunday morning, an Tucson's NPR station featured a piece by a journalist decrying the death of print media. She talked about the hunger of young journalists for fame, to make that Woodward/Bernstein story break. It was a wistful lament for a better time, and it annoyed me.
Not because I'm enjoying the death of print media, but because I'm not worried about the death of journalism. Journalism will change, but it won't disappear. There will still be a public hunger for uncovering corruption and untold stories. In fact, while I don't have stats to back it up, isn't the internet breeding more readers than ever before?
This The Nation piece (sent to me by the prolific Morf Morford) goes into more detail on how the internet revolution is beginning to impact the book publishing industry. The article spells out many of the same warnings music and media faced: lack of innovation, forward-thinking, and underappreciating artists has left the industry unprepared, cautiously fending off the coming end.
That's how mainstream publishing is looking. If you think the future is any brighter for CBA publishers, I've got some property in the suburbs west of Phoenix to sell you.
Christian publishing is notoriously behind the times, unwilling to innovate, and unwilling to publish anything even remotely risky. This is an industry, mind you, that soundly and across the board rejected The Shack for being too theologically controversial. Until it sold 50,000 copies on its own word of mouth, of course. Look what happens when they do take risks: Thomas Nelson takes a chance on a young, unestablished writer with a poor-selling debut, and it becomes a NYT bestseller. Six years later, Blue Like Jazz now carries a "Read with Discernment" warning at Lifeway Christian Bookstores (along with books by Rob Bell, Brian McLaren and The Shack). Heaven forbid Lifeway patrons might read anything not having to do with making their marriage better.
You'd think, with changing media, CBA might be coming around.
It's happening in some ways...there was a rush on BLJ-style memoirs, but that's less about taking risks than trying to ride the coattails of someone else's. Some publishers have opened newer, "hipper" imprints in an attempt to appeal to that weirdo emergent crowd. Unfortunately, they seem to think using crazy new fonts is the epitome of boundary-pushing. At least Chad Gibbs and Susan Isaacs got book deals. That was a step in the right direction. Though if I told you the ridiculous resistance Chad came up against, you'd be slack-jawed.
But what I've been hearing from folks, usually editors at Christian publishing houses, is the opposite is happening. Publishers are curling in on themselves, like frightened turtles. They're relying more and more on bookstores like Lifeway and Family Christian Stores as fearful evangelicals wall off the outside world, worried about the coming liberal-lead apocalypse.
It's not the editors who are at fault, it's the marketing and sales. The editors push boundaries. The accountants and marketing experts shut them down. The editors wring their hands in frustration before finding someone to write another study guide on I Kissed Dating Goodbye (this time focused on middle aged single parents).
There's no way to blame them, really, because Christian retailers are where the sales are right now. The problem is, this is the same disease that's been afflicting American industry for the last decade. Who cares about 10 years from now? This ship is going down, so let's get our money now. It's not even about content. It's about being completely lost in the face of change. Christian retailers and publishers have been selling to Baby Boomers for so long, they have no idea how to deal with X-ers, let alone an entirely post-internet generation.
If there are any Christian publishers out there interested in people, writers and editors, who understand where publishing is headed and aren't afraid to take risks, let me know. I'd gladly point you to a ton of folks itching for a shot.
(Stepping off my soapbox now...hoping I didn't offend any potential employers.)
If you work in Christian publishing, I'd love to know if I'm off base with this. Feel free to share your thoughts and disagreements in the comments section, anonymously if you feel so inclined.