Article: Big Shifts in Publishing (II)

This is the second article in a series. To read “Big Shifts in Publishing (I)”, click here.

Stack of Library BooksThe big shifts in publishing affecting writers covered in Part 1 were paralleled to some extent by secular publishers developing an interest in Christian publishers. After all, when the Left Behind series dominated the New York Times bestseller list in fiction and The Prayer of Jabez dominated the bestseller list in non-fiction, there was obviously money being made in Christian publishing. In fact, while sales of ABA publishers declined, sales of CBA publishers increased, creating an obvious investment opportunity.

Zondervan Publishing had for years been owned by New York houses, with the latest owner none other than Rupert Murdoch’s Harper Collins. This was followed by Random House teaming with former Multnomah Press executives to create Waterbrook Publishing. When some years later Multnomah was up for sale, Random House added it to Waterbrook. The Hatchette group snapped up FaithWords, run by a former Focus on the Family and then Thomas Nelson executive. A family run publishing house, Howard Books, agreed to being bought by Simon and Schuster. This year Harper Collins completed the purchase of Thomas Nelson, once a privately owned publisher that had gone public and was owned by a multiplicity of shareholders. Harper Collins created a separate subsidiary to run both Zondervan and Thomas Nelson.

So what is the implication for Christian writers? The ABA publishers did not buy CBA publishers as a charity gesture or to strengthen the exposure of the Christian message. Not really visible to writers and the reading public is New York’s pressure to provide quick returns on investments. Rather than providing opportunity for new writers, they provide opportunity for bestselling authors or those few with a unique writing platform as communicators and mega-church pastors, which lowers the risk in publishing and feeds on the American Christian public’s preoccupation with celebrities.

So where does opportunity lie for not-so-important writers with a message burning in their heart? With two other significant shifts in publishing! The first is the development of contests, with Operation First Novel by the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild leading the way with a significant financial award in addition to a publishing contract. They first teamed up with Tyndale House and more recently with Worthy Publishing.  But ACFW also grew as a home for eager fiction writers, with the Genesis contest creating opportunity for unpublished authors in many categories. With editors helping identify up and coming authors as they participated in judging at the final stage of the selection process, they created new opportunity for fiction writers. In Canada, the growth in significance of The Word Guild’s annual contests resulted in the establishment of The Grace Irwin Award, with its monetary prize. There have been other contests, both Christian and secular, that got Christian writers visibility with editors.

The second opportunity is the application of new communications technology to publishing. The rapid growth of both smartphones and the use of e-book tools like the Kindle and the Nook opened up opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs. Because they depend on a steady supply of content, they created new opportunity for frustrated writers. Some of them developed their own publishing program and soon unleashed opportunity for other frustrated writers unable to find a publishing home. While publishers specializing in e-books and e-stories do not provide the up-front financial packages for new authors typical of the traditional publishers, these e-book/POD (Printing on Demand) publishers provide higher royalty percentages. What authors teaming up with e-book publishers quickly discover is that sales are not automatic—the author needs to develop marketing skills. And their primary focus has become social networking, with a much more consistent involvement of the writer’s  time, since social networks require constant attention, the development of blogs and participation in book clubs and cyber book tours.

In the midst of all of this change, there are still privately owned publishing houses with a greater willingness to take a risk with less-than-famous writers delivering important messages creatively. These writers often have local and regional support and ministry networks that can help them in promoting their books. Every so often a fresh voice breaks through the barriers to success and finds a ready market for her/his book. They can actually create an amazingly broad demand for a new genre, like 90 Days in Heaven has done, as witness all of the new stories of experiences in heaven on the bestseller list. I expect that the amazing success of Jesus Calling is creating a new generation of daily devotional readers—and thus new opportunities for writers that have not existed for some time. Authors of collections of stories got “do not sell” messages until Chicken Soup for the Soul opened up a vast new market for writers with stories. In addition Angels in the ER’s outstanding sales got Dr. Robert Lesslie contracts unheard of for a pure non-fiction storyteller.

Big shifts in any field of endeavor create winners and losers. The winners in publishing are those who are open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance and remain committed to creatively getting out the message of new life in Christ.

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