22.5.09

The Christian Publishing Titanic

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.

15 comments:

  1. So "Read with Discernment" isn't assumed for reading any book?

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  2. No, Larry. Everything in Lifeway (except those books) is as true and real as the Gospels.

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  3. I'd like a shot, for sure. One day.

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  4. That goes without saying.

    I've got some cynical attitudes toward the CBA. However, I'm convinced that great writing and great stories rise to the top, regardless.

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  5. I'll through a little input in this for the first time in over a year of reading Burnside.

    However, I'll stay anonymous. Because of my position in the industry. If anyone would prefer to get behind the anonymous wall let me know in the comments and I will email you directly.

    I'd say you've got two things here that you're really talking about. 1. Technology in CBA
    2. Publishing choices within CBA

    When it comes to technology it's a mixed bag, but remember Lifeway is not an example of everything in CBA. They're SB run so they're are very specific to that denomination.
    There are a number of stores out there right now stocking digital book selections for Kindle's and Sony Readers. I know of at least 15 that were some of the first bookstores period to stock Symteo displays for digital book purchases. On the other hand I personally know bookstore owners that refuse to use email and insist on tracking sales via hand ledger books. So it runs the gambit. Within the Christian community we tend to have a large portion of the Luddite community at large, and it's no surprise that some of them are bookstore owners.

    On the topic of 2. You are more than correct. What we publish tends to be largely on the safe side of the fence. But I have to say that from the way I see it, that is largely if not almost completely driven by the community to which they're selling.

    I've got stories of store owners refusing to stock books because it was rumored that the other had gay friends.

    But again in that world, Lifeway is its own ball game. They're run by SBC and are actually non-profit because of they're status in ownership by a religious denomination. I won't go into how much bullshit that is, but it's ridiculous.

    On the other side I personally know store owners who passionately stock everything from Catholic dogma books to Donald M, Rob Bell, and John Calvin, because all they passionately want is to minister to people no matter where they're at. They're out there. Don't give up all hope.

    JACKINTL

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  6. sorry about all the spelling and word switches. typing from a phone.

    JACKINTL

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  7. Thanks for that insight.

    When I talk about forward thinking, technology definitely plays in, but I think it's more about a shift in reading and thought across the board. Christian culture seems to be quickly adapting to the internet, but I'm not sure they're fully understanding what that switch means, and how culture and reading habits will change.

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  8. A. Journalism is struggling at the moment. This year's Ruhl Lecture brought up the subject of "the shrinking newsroom", and how in-depth reporting takes funding that newssources just don't have. Newspapers are shutting down sattelite offices around the world. I haven't read much about the internet news readership, but I do know that having the majority of the news released by the AP and Reuters isn't a great idea. Either way, info-tainment is what's selling, and unless a giant breaking story involves Angelina Jolie spying for the Russians, it's not going to get the coverage or news investigation it deserves.

    B. Publishing. Yeah. From the editors I've talked to (my own and others that I know), there's a disconnect between what they want to put out and what they can. They're very much at the mercy of what sells. I know editors who are very interested in Gen-X fiction, and have been for the last few years. But Marketing and Sales aren't into risks right now, especially with the economy as it is. Hollywood's doing the same thing.

    I've had a great experience so far with my publishing house. My editors have been very supportive of my work, which is certainly left of mainstream, and in building me as an author. I hope other envelope-pushing writers will have similar opportunities.

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  9. @Hillary:

    I do think journalism is in flux right now, and things are dire now.

    My point is, the old building's being torn down, and another is going up in its place. We just don't know what that is yet. If newspapers are gone, the hole they leave won't be filled with "bloggers in their parents' basements". The positive side to the internet is it's an even stronger meritocracy than print media was, and the cream will rise to the top.

    To me, the main issue with revenue right now is the confusion over internet advertising (if it's effective, how much it should cost, etc.). I think once those costs are established a little more, and print media is no longer even an option, you're going to see more e-news rising up to fill the void.

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  10. I don't doubt that more e-news will rise to the top. In the absence of print journalism, some papers (one in Seattle, the name of which is escaping me at the moment) are going entirely online.

    My point is that good journalism takes serious man-hours and serious-man hours requires money. Even if they get paid for, the reader interest has shrunk. The question is not whether intellectuals and and literary community will read news journalism, but if middle America will read something other than updates on American Idol.

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  11. I am a nobody from nowhere without a substantive platform who got a shot. My first book, a story of my conversion to Christianity after 37 years of Christian-bashing atheism and recovery-based agnosticism is referred to by my publisher, the Christian arm of Simon and Schuster, as a spiritual narrative rather than a memoir, and it comes out next spring.

    Not sure which stores it will or will not be in and I am just starting to deal with the Marketing folks, but I am confident that it will find its way onto the shelves it is meant to sit on. Personally, I am more hesitant about the nature of Christian book buyers than I am about the stores themselves (I know, not a popular position for a new author, but I call 'em like I see 'em).

    As a person who grew up secular and came to the table in my late 30s, I sometimes find American Christianity to be a lot like a high school lunch room. Everybody finds their crowd who they are sure are the smartest or the coolest and lobs philosophical french fries over at the other tables. I'm like the new kid walking in with my tray but unwilling to pick one table at the expense of all the others. Not sure who reads the story of the new girl standing in the middle of the room between gray garbage cans on wheels eating sloppy joes with a spork...

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  12. I'm was in christian publishing for quite some time. Don't base too much on Lifeway - they are their own party and they're constantly checking i.d.'s at the door.

    As to the rest, you can smell the fear in the room; CBA publishers have no idea what the future holds. 98% of all decisions are being made based on what worked or sold in the past and that's why much of what you see, either in brick and mortar or online, is much of the same (same evangelical all-star authors, spin-offs in the form of small group studies, and niche bibles for single-dads-with-unibrows, etc). While I appreciate the optimism of great writing/stories rising to the top, that is not the reality in publishing. Lots of great writing never passes the first hoop because, according to sales and marketers, it won't sell.

    The Titanic may be going down but a nice rendition of "Nearer My God to Thee" is being played on the overhead to ease the pain. Aspiring authors, run for the smaller lifeboats; there's no fine china on board, but you might get to sit next to Kate Winslet.

    And yes, the way we read has and is changing. Our attention spans are now down to 140 word Twitter post. These are interesting days indeed for a people that consider themselves of "the Book."

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  13. The bigger picture shows that the entire information industry is on the verge of significant change. Working in technology for the academic library, every week, sometimes every day of a week, on campus I read or hear about another newspaper folding that our users "really want" and another journal or database that we have to cancel which faculty complain they "really need". Who ever that the Boston Globe would go down?

    As a library, both librarians and technologists, are looking no only how to respond, but how to be prosactive. Sure, a academic publishing is a little different than mainstream or even Christian publishing, but one solution, that isn't really new, is to collect and provide open access to information that ordinarily is (or maybe still is) published for a fee. This is both a technological and economical solution. It breaks the myth of price (or even simply published) means quality, and puts control of published content back in the hands of the people.

    It makes sense that publishers won't publish somethig that they don't think will sell. It makes sense that authors that have sold get more opportunities. That's just business and the CBA is a business just as much as the mainstream or academic publishers no matter what their tax status says. But if the desire of authors is to get their ideas and stories and books out to others in some published form, then find others the same boat, create (or join) a peer reviewing network, and published together in an open accces way. The industry is going to change signifcantly, and open access is going to have a big impact. The key is the strength and public reputations of the peer review.

    As for technological progress in publishing, Kindles and other e-book readers are just cracking the surface and aren't even be close go the final step. Until Kindles, etc start allowing open access to share books, like we share books with each other, or libraries circulate, they will remain a limited niche in the marketplace.

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  14. Many years ago, Powell's Books in Portland gave out a little flyer that had a message that was a tribute to books. It emphasized that books required no batteries, made no annoying noises and left the reader in peace with his or her thoughts.

    Now, the Kindle requires batteries for reading and in five years or so, and every Kindle will be just another piece of toxic electronic junk.

    This is an improvement?

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  15. The truth is, even when we're not in an economic crunch, most publishing houses make all their money on one or two best sellers. The rest they publish at a loss.

    Therefore it makes sense that the publishing industry is suffering along with the rest of the economy and has a hard time reconciling new technology. I actually was involved in eBooks about 7 years ago but it didn't catch on back then, even though the technology was good enough that you could read an eBook on the pda you already owned instead of having to buy something like a Kindle.

    As far as Christian publishing, I think they are trying to move forward, but -- like with many aspects of religion -- they still tend to segregate themselves. Take for instance someone from the Christian Book Expo writing in to me to say that Dallas was a strategic choice for the expo's location -- even though most publishers (including mainstream Christian publishers) will be attending Book Expo America (BEA) in New York City, the publishing mecca of our country:

    http://asphalteden.blogspot.com/2009/03/texas-can-keep-its-music-we-still-have.html

    By the way, is anyone going to BEA this week? I'd love to meet up with you if you are.

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