Article: Big Shifts In Publishing (I)

BookAs literary agent I have to help writers come to terms with a lot of misconceptions. Surprisingly few have studied the publishing landscape they are attempting to enter with their book project, either fiction or non-fiction. The majority of book proposals I see these days are memoirs of one illness or another or novels born out of the writer’s desire to promote understanding of an issue, often abuse, or a biblical insight they gained. But they’ve never explored the realities in the publishing world, so are unprepared for the big shifts in Christian publishing over the last couple of decades—some very recent.

The first big shift to affect book authors was the development of bookstore chains in the 1960s. Family Bookstores, for example, located in limited space in shopping malls, dramatically reducing the number of books they could carry. Adopting the principles of their secular cousins, they basically carried bestsellers, leaving less well-known writers relegated to independent bookstores, many of whom carried a wide selection to meet the needs of their customer base but did not have the kind of traffic generated in a mall store. As editorial director of a publishing house I started receiving multiple complaints that “My friends are complaining that my hometown bookstore is not carrying my book. And they won’t order it because it is not on the official list of books carried by the chain store.”

The second big shift to affect writers was initiated in the 1970s with the growth of the first wholesale distribution company, Spring Arbor. For booksellers it seemed like a great idea, for it meant they could accumulate an order of books from multiple publishers and increase their discount while reducing shipping costs, making each order more profitable. More distributors emerged in coming decades and in time a majority of purchases at the bookstore level were from distributors—wholesalers.

However, what was a great idea for booksellers emerged as a bad idea for writers, who did not realize that one buyer at a distributor held the fate of their book in his/her hands. While publishers lobbied furiously for their books, distributors set up conditions like financial participation in catalogs that shut out smaller publishers because of the costs involved. So while heavily promoted authors were still automatically entered into the supply chain and available on bookstore shelves, authors who did not yet have a national reputation found their book unavailable in many stores—even for special orders, though eventually the introduction of sophisticated computers resulted in the listing of most books.

The third big shift came with the growth of the discounters. While book buyers reveled in the lower prices at Christian Book Discount and Amazon, writers took two major hits. One was a dramatic reduction in royalty income, since almost every publisher cut royalty percentages in half on these heavily discounted books. Long time selling authors were stunned as they looked at their royalty reports to see how little royalty income they actually received from each book. I began being asked, “Is it really worth writing a book when my income has shriveled?”

The second negative is that discounters took customers away from the neighborhood Christian bookstore and in time dramatically reduced the number of bookstores serving the public. Together these factors hastened the creation of a privileged class of authors—those with already a national platform through their ability to reach large audiences as radio and TV speakers or as pastors of the growing mega-church movement. American fascination with celebrities in the entertainment industry now spilled over into the book world. Extremely well-prepared and experienced authors found themselves on the outside looking in.

The fourth big shift that affected writers came with a seemingly great development—the opening of the market at stores like Walmart, Target, Cosco and other “secular” outlets to Christian bestsellers. Walking into a Cosco, for example, they could see piles of several bestsellers. Walmart and Target took on a wider selection, but that resulted in a new negative for writers, the thing publishers dread the most—the return of unsold books. A client’s book sold to Walmart showed up as 27,000 copies sold—only to have the next report reveal that 14,000 copies had been returned. This practice happened so often that publishers had to be much more discriminating—and only already bestselling books by nationally recognized authors got the nod when a sales rep talked to a Walmart or Target or Cosco buyer. Recently, while the devotional Jesus Calling was piled high at the Cosco we visited, no Jerry Jenkins or Chuck Swindoll book was in sight, much less novels by Tom Pawlik or Mike Dellosso, though published by major publishers.

This is the first article in a series. To read part two, click here.

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