I have just thought a terrible thought.
The single biggest obstacle to getting books into the hands of eager readers is the Christian publishing industry, an industry that I love, respect and owe much to.
Here’s the problem.
I am preparing a talk on Revelation. I would like to read a book called ‘The Theology of Revelation’ by scholar Richard Bauckham. An internet search tells me it’s on sale at Amazon for £21 or rather less on Kindle. The same search pulls up a pdf copy of the book available for free.
I am queasy about downloading the pdf because I am cheating somehow, but I am also queasy about shelling out £20, even if I did this through my local Christian bookshop. £20 is a lot of money.
What I would really like to do, it occurs to me, is email Richard Bauckham and ask if he minded me reading the free pdf. I do not think he would mind (I don’t know him). But I also think he would say he has a contract with the publishers and they would mind.
I decide to do without the book, so I neither download it nor buy it. The Christian publishing industry made the barriers too high for me.
In the late-medieval days of yore– say 1989–the only way to get material from a fine mind like Richard Bauckham into my lesser head was to have a Christian publishing industry. And it was fantastic. It shaped the Protestant world. The book cost £20. That was relatively expensive, but we paid it sometimes because we knew that although some money went to the author, most went to maintaining a world-spanning chain that edited, printed, marketed, warehoused, and displayed this and thousands of other wonderful books and made them available everywhere. In an analogue world, this was a modest cost for unimagineably vast benefits.
But everything has changed. Getting Prof Bauckman’s book direct from his head to mine now costs almost nothing, probably less than a penny.
So why can’t the book be available for 99p, most of which would go to Prof Bauckham? Why not? Because the publishers and the booksellers can’t live with that price, and through their contractual arrangements they stand in the way of it being available at that price. Christian publishers and booksellers, once the friend of Christians who wish to learn, have become their enemy. This is my terrible thought. Committed to an archaic ante-deluvian distribution model, they make books needlessly, ruinously expensive and thus drastically reduce their circulation and usefulness. Bauckham should be read by his tens of thousands; but thanks to the Christian publishing industry, he only has his thousands, or indeed his hundreds. What a terrible waste!
But, say the industry, it’s not so simple. They will tell me I am underplaying their contribution: talent-spotting, editing, marketing, gate-keeping; that magical work of taking an MS and making it fluent, coherent, available, and hallmarked as theologically solid and well-written.
I will return and say that may have been true once but is so no longer. Editing? You jest. Developing authors? Dream on. Marketing? Authors have to do it themselves. Typesetting and cover design? Free or cheap alternatives will do just as well for this kind of book. (See what CUP did with Bauckham’s book, below: this is intern stuff.) Gatekeeping? Proper reader reviews are worth much more than the fluff that goes on the cover. What is left? The prestige of being published by a respected house. This is true. But it ain’t worth £19, not when these very respected names are being taken over by accountants and falling off the perch like the rest of the rust-belt.
Publishing once was a world-changing industry; so was coal-mining.
Please someone help me, save me from my sins!
I edited this blog after first writing it, to try to simplify the arguments. I changed the title from ‘Christian bookshops’ to ‘Christian publishing industry’. I also added the Amazon ref to Prof Bauckham’s book, which I would like to warmly recommend–but of course I haven’t read it.
2 thoughts on “The game is up for the Christian publishing industry?”
I came across this post by accident. These are just a couple of immediate points. On marketing: those who have published my books do a good job of marketing. I’ve never done any marketing of my own books (other than listing them on my website).
Secondly, the major publishers do a good job of selecting stuff that really deserves to be read. One can buy a book from them with reasonable confidence in that. This is no longer the case with all publishers and is obviously not at all the case with self-published books. Of course, there are some books that deserve a good publisher but don’t get one. But readers need means of discerning the really good stuff.
Books from, say Eerdmans, are rather good value if you compare them to the price of, say, a good meal in a restaurant or a theatre ticket.
One remedy for the problem of cost is for churches to have good libraries.
The Internet is useful, of course, but I fear too many people think they can rely entirely on what’s free on the Internet to be well informed about something. We’re still a long way from that being true.
I’ve very grateful for Prof Bauckham’s thoughtful and helpful comments. I agree with him that I have underplayed the wonderful service that publishers have given in building the bridges between scholars and their audiences. This is a vital ministry and one I have been involved in most of my working life.
The idea that publishers are good at marketing or distribution, however, is not sustainable in our current world. (I am thinking particularly of academic publishers with a theoretical audience of thoughtful non-specialists.)
A few moments’ thought reveals that over 100 million committed, English-speaking Christians own smartphones. It would be possible, tomorrow, to download 100 fine books or indeed an entire bookshop onto these phones. If publishers gave away even a tithe of their back catalogue for this purpose it could be transformative. The Nigerian pastor; the penniless youth worker; the Baptist pastor who has just awarded herself another pay cut; all could be informed and formed by the finest writing.
Scholarship is a gift to the church. I believe it truly matters in shaping the people of God. It is hugely sad if Christian publishers are only targetting people who can spend 20 quid on a book when they could be giving it away in its millions. (I know it is not so simple. After all, anyone can already download Josephus or Calvin’s Institutes and millions choose not to. I think the point still stands though. Most of what I know of Milton I know because of the Internet. I wouldn’t have paid for it and would have missed out.)
Bible publishers are with the trend here. The Bible app I use has had over 100m downloads and it makes many versions available to the masses. The standard of commentaries offered alongside it, however, is in my view poor or incomplete. But these limited works of reference will be much better read because of their price point (zero) than much better works that cost money and aren’t so easily available.
It costs nothing (except lost sales) to give away part of a back-catalogue. Indeed it may increase sales ultimately: as games developers and drug dealers know, the best way to acquire paying superfans is to give away plenty of stuff free upfront. I personally only started buying N T Wright or Lesslie Newbiggin after I’d tasted their stuff free from friends or libraries.
A Promised Land of extremely-low-cost distribution is open to us; but I mostly see publishers unnerved about giants and reaching for a second glass of sherry instead. Meanwhile great writing languishes in warehouses, unread, unloved, useless, securely protected from doing great good by high pricewalls.
(Please forgive the over-writing.)