Legacy publishers on the ropes...

Error message

(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


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.