Legacy publishers on the ropes...

(Tim) The latest New Yorker has an article by Ken Auletta chronicling the death throes of bookstores and traditional book publishers. People are still buying books, but there's a hostile takeover of these legacy hard copy businesses being waged by authors and their strong allies: particularly the explosion of e-books and the pricing structure and self-publishing services of a number of companies; most especially, Amazon. 

It's been a long time coming and nothing but good that authors are regaining some authority over the marketing and distribution of their work.

Take, for instance, self-publishing. In the old days, traditional book publishers cultivated the notion that anything worth publishing would be recognized and put under contract by a reputable publisher. If you weren't able to interest the big name publishers and went the vanity press route, it was because you were vain and wouldn't listen to the simple truth acquisitions editors kindly sent you by letter--that your book had no market. So hardheaded authors who wouldn't take "no" for an answer went off to a vanity press and paid, rather than being paid, for their book to be published. They spent money out of their own pockets to purchase a few hundred copies they could pawn off on business associates or family members.

But no serious man with serious credentials and serious things to say would be caught dead going that route. That's what was meant when you heard the suits say "he went with a vanity press."

Of course those who live in the publishing world know how fallible acquisitions editors and publishers are. John Grisham had his first mystery turned down by twelve publishers and sixteen agents before he found someone willing to take him into print...

J. K. Rowling, reputed several years ago to be worth around $50 million more than the Queen, had her Harry Potter and the (Sorceror's) Stone rejected by a dozen publishers, including Penguin and HarperCollins. Then a small publisher took the manuscript home where his eight-year-old daughter got her hands on it. She pleaded with her dad to give it a chance, which he did.

Consider Dare to Discipline, Jim Dobson's childrearing classic. Dobson argued discipline was good, so the book was quite risky in the post-sixties world of rebellion. If I remember correctly, a number of Christian publishers turned it down before Tyndale House gave it a chance. But then, Tyndale House itself was started by my father-in-law who was, at the time, director of Moody Press. He had written a book he knew Moody would not be willing to take into print, so Dad Taylor left Moody and borrowed money to print the first copies of Living Letters--the first portion of what eventually became the Living Bible. When my wife was in elementary school, she used to take orders over the kitchen telephone.

And Dad Bayly? He wrote a satire about Evangelical parachurch organizations, their boards, and their evangelization techniques. Dad had been editor of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship's national magazine, His, and director of Inter-Varsity Press. But like my father-in-law, Dad had to launch his own press to get the book into print. Evangelical publishers didn't think satire was spiritual.

So Dad started his own publishing company calling it Windward (sailing against the wind) Press. He used to chortle over Zondervan deciding to pick up the title after The Gospel Blimp had sold over 40,000 copies. (Buy a copy of the Gospel Blimp here. Or check out the movie--it's retro and laugh-out-loud funny. If you'd like a DVD of the movie, just send a check for $12.50 payable to "ClearNote Fellowship" and we'll send you a copy. The movie was directed by "Shorty" Yeaworth who also directed Steve McQueen in the 1958 cult classic, The Blob. Please mail your order to ClearNote Fellowship, 2501 South Endwright Road, Bloomington, IN 47403.)

We could go on and mention Ted Tripp's self-published Shepherding a Child's Heart and the resultant Shepherd's Press which Ted founded; Doug Wilson's Reforming Marriage published by Canon Press (which Doug founded); but the point is made.

Happily, that's all changed, now. Amazon, for instance, has started several self-publishing services for authors wanting to bypass traditional print publishers. What sort of author is leaving legacy print publishers and bookstores behind, working directly with Amazon?

In December, the Simon & Schuster author Stephen Covey sold Amazon the exclusive digital rights to two of his best-sellers, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Principle-Centered Leadership. The books were sold on Amazon by RosettaBooks, and Covey got more than half the net proceeds. One publisher said, "What it did for us was confirm that Amazon sees itself as much as a competitor as a retailer. They have aspirations to be a publisher."

A close associate of Bezos (Amazon's CEO) puts it more starkly: "What Amazon really wanted to do was make the price of e-books so low that people would no longer buy hard-cover books. Then the next shoe to drop would be to cut publishers out and go right to authors."

...in January (Amazon) offered authors who sold electronic rights directly to Amazon a royalty of seventy percent, provided they agreed to prices of between $2.99 and $9.99. The offer, one irate publisher said, was meant "to pit authors against publishers."

Author Solutions is ground zero of this self-publishing movement and the article makes it clear the stakes are large:

Author Solutions, a self-publishing company in Bloomington, Indiana, has ninety thousand client-authors. For books that attract commercial interest, the company has partnered with publishers like Harlequin to release them through traditional channels, but with more generous royalties.

As the crow flies, Author Solutions is about half a mile from us here in Bloomington. One of the company's growth areas is taking books into print that are rejected by evangelical publishers. The publisher doesn't want the book, but he suggests the disappointed author take his book to Author Solutions and pay for them to put in into print. For their part, the Evangelical publishing house gets a cut of what Author Solutions takes in and offers the author the use of some some obscure imprint name to go on the spine, leaving the author with the feeling that he's almost legit. There's little (and with some publishers, no) control over style or doctrinal content, so these enterprises seem to me to be the worst of both worlds; vanity publishing with the evangelical corporate types getting a kickback with absolutely no risk.

But back to the mainstream. Print publishers, including newspapers, magazines, and book publishers, are in serious trouble and they're looking for a saviour. With his health continuing to be the subject of heart palipatations on Wall Street, Steve Jobs is looking for his final legacy and thinks, in one fell swoop, he may be able to reestablish profitability for all print publishers with his just-released iPad (which has already sold over a million units). The New Yorker piece is largely an account of his efforts along with prognostications on the possibilities of his success.

As I've indicated above, the bust-up of print publishing gives me nothing but joy. And having spent much of my life among evangelical publishers, I'm joyful about the changes the internet is forcing on Evangelical publishers, also. They've been way too powerful and done the Church of Jesus Christ much damage and little good.

Because of their betrayal of the Word of God, it's been many years since I've purchased a book published by Eerdmans, IVP, or Zondervan. What great news that more publishers like Shepherd's Press, Canon Press, and Windward Press are being founded, and the internet is allowing them to market their work directly to the people of God without subsidizing false shepherds and publishers who think peddling the Word of God to weak-willed women is a respectable means of profit.

And that's not even to talk about the wonderful news that the New York Times, herself, may not survive.


I'm glad to see the stranglehold of centralized publishing being broken but I'd be very unhappy if hardcopy editions went out altogether in favour of ebooks.

I had not clued in that many of my favorite books were written by people who had to go around the established publishing houses to get their work into print.....

...and well said, David Gray. My thoughts exactly.

Printed books retain only one advantage -- they are the most widely ~portable~ medium for ink (real or digital) on paper (real or digital). Yes, devices such as Kindle rival a book's portability, but at a significant cost to the reader. For that reason -- for reasons of cost, that is -- devices like Kindle have not yet reached anywhere near a critical, minimal saturation distribution among the reading public.

But, we can expect that kind of thing to change. It's happened over and over and over with other consumer electronics (microwaves, VCR players/recorders, home computers, cell phones, etc.).

Once a truly low-cost digital reading device -- something that can display books, magazines, newspapers, web content, all of it independent of the publishers of the words -- once such a low-cost devise is available and wide-spread in the market, then you can expect the legacy publishers to vanish. Their demise will be faster than what we're seeing in print-journalism right now.

>Printed books retain only one advantage...

What about aesthetics? Sitting in my den sipping a single malt whisky surrounded by computers and discs does not produce the same sort of ambience for me.

" I'd be very unhappy if hardcopy editions went out altogether in favour of ebooks."

"Sitting in my den sipping a single malt whisky surrounded by computers and discs does not produce the same sort of ambience for me."

There are many hard-copy books that are centuries old. Compare these to the print works that have vanaished behind now-dead links on the internet. Or, the "file not found" report you get when searching for something you thought you'd squirreled away in your digital hidey-hole. Digital works seem ephemeral, and at this time they are. Maybe that will change. It ~should~ change. It certainly can change. Let's hope that literature in digital form will achieve at least the same longevity that real-ink-on-real-paper has.

As to aesthetics, I don't know anyone arguing for reducing all literature to Kindle-sized formats. We possess a number of "coffee-table books," with which no digital delivery device I'm aware of can compete. No one's arging that we should replace ~everything~ formerly on paper with something on a computer monitor or a Kindle-like screen.

But, for a vast array of print matter, just such a replacement is not only desirable but -- because of the way technology and the market make choices for us -- inevitable.

>Printed books retain only one advantage -- they are the most widely ~portable~ medium for ink (real or digital) on paper (real or digital).

Access to electricity cannot always be assumed.

Another advantage of printed books; they can last 2-3000 years in the right conditions. Having personally worked for over a decade doing long term reliability calculations for disk drive companies, I assure you that you will not be able to say this about anything made by Seagate, Hitachi, or Western Digital.

Except, possibly, the warranty card and print version owner's manual.


I imagine that by the time digital reading devices reach the price point where they will be an advantage over individual printed and bound copies of books they will be equipped with solar panels.


P.S. Bibliophiles unite!

"Access to electricity cannot always be assumed."

Nor access to batteries. Or candles. We do keep a number of oil lamps and some dry matches handy at all times, for those times when the electricity fails (several times a year

I guess we can depend on the sunlight.

[Insert three hour hiatus in posting this comment]

Right after I penned that sentence before the brackets, the power went off. It just came back on, a tad over three hours since it vanished. No biggie; just an interesting wrinkle in Providence.

I could have (and did) read ink on paper during that period (the electric bill, to get the outage-report number); and I read it by God-provided light (the sun). As always, he is ever faithful.

Still ...

Fr. Bill,

You remind me of an old Dr. Who maxim, "The more advanced the techonology, the more susceptible it is to primitive attack". One well-placed splash of water and . . .


Besides I myself get headaches and eye strain trying to read large amounts of info on the screen.

And, of course, what is true for the print media is more than true for music. Here, the industry is haveing to relearn how to make money - so much so that one big-name British band (Radiohead) released its last album on-line, in full, for free - tho' a CD collectors' version followed later.

"Traditional Publishing on the Ropes" . . .
Traditional ability to think and communicate follows soon thereafter. If mainstream or traditional publishing houses disappear, there will be no infrastructure left for many other forms of print media. The mass markets support the whole chain of industries (paper, ink, printing & binding, etc.) so any desire to distribute hard copy will become prohibitively expensive. And when all hardcopy journalism & news disappear, will we be better served? For all the potential & actual slants & biases in journalism, there's still a mediated, reviewed process for producing that content. If all "journalism" is reduced to web posts & blogs, were are all impoverished. Trust is harder to establish. The web is mostly balkanized people talking to themselves and their like-minded adherents. How often does a blog persuade someone or an alternate idea.

Cris, that would make sense if.....the new publishers were not the ones actually republishing the great works of the past. Sorry, but the publishers working to help people think and communicate traditionally are, sad to say, the new ones.

It's not always easy to figure out who is legacy and who is new--Zondervan was only founded in 1931, for example, in response to liberal theology--but there is a reality that after a certain point, many publishers lose their touch and become rather ossified.

Dear Cris,

Blogs teach, whether truth or lies. And teaching inevitably bears fruit. The only variable is whether that fruit is good or evil. The fruit of this blog, for instance, has been demonstrated regularly through private correspondence from readers. And when I say "fruit," I'm referring to souls growing in their knowledge of God's Word and Truth. In other words, changed minds and hearts and lives.

To say internet media are "Balkanized" is really to say nothing. "New Criterion," "First Things," "Commentary," "New Republic," "Mother Jones," and "World" demonstrate the Balkanization of North American print magazines. So what?

In our day, the basic Biblical doctrines uniformly subscribed to by all the Reformers are only known, let alone affirmed and lived, by a tiny minority of men claiming orthodox Christian faith. This blog says nothing in disagreement with any of those doctrines (and almost nothing beyond them). Or maybe a better way to put it is that this blog's failure is that we leave some of those doctrines alone when we should be teaching them, also.

Yet some might lament the divisive (Balkanizing) nature of Baylyblog.

Really, the issue is that modern man has turned his back on the doctrines of Scripture, and consequently, those working to resurrect the proclamation of those ancient doctrines in our own time are viewed as divisive.

But of course, the minute a man reads those ancient truths taught by the Word of God, asking God to feed him, he learns to love that truth even--or especially--where embracing and living it separates him from other men. He's tasted the Scriptures and found them sweeter than honey. Thus he embraces them and goes on to become an evangelist for those truths among the sick and lost.

Tell him he's contributing to the Balkanization of the internet, the church, our community, or our nation and he'll give you a confused look, asking poignantly "When has the Word of God ever been proclaimed without the godless accuse God's servants of Balkanizing their community?

You may not be carrying as much water in your simple remark as this response indicates, but I'm hopeful we all resign ourselves joyfully to follow Christ and His Word no matter who and how many despise us for it.


Very good Tim. Jesus came to divide men - in terms of himself. This is a great offense in our present age. All men operate in terms of a prior commitment. It's high time all men acknowledged so.

Add new comment