Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Lazy Age of Christian Publishing?

A few weeks ago, Philip Yancey lamented on his blog about the death of the "golden age" of Christian publishing. Changes in the publishing world mean that authors typically receive less for their work and that anyone who wants to become an "author" can simply self-publish. This has flooded the online market with more books than ever but with fewer gatekeepers to ensure any measure of quality.

And earlier this week, Karen E. Yates, a guest writer over at Her.Meneutics, offered another perspective—one that was a little more upbeat. While Yancey bemoaned the fact that today authors are pressed to build their platforms rather than focus on their writing, Yates argues that this is not such a bad thing and highlights all the positive outcomes of having a tribe. And she says that self-publishing doesn't just flood the market; it also gives a voice to books that might not otherwise see the light of day, citing The Shack as an example.

After reading both pieces, I can't help but see things more like Yancey does than Yates. The changes in the publishing industry, while probably inevitable, are not necessarily good. When the music industry went through its digital revolution, there was a place to land when the floor fell out from beneath singers and songwriters. Artists can make money from tours and their back catalogue if the perceived value of their albums is little or nothing. In fact, as Noisetrade.com has shown time and time again, giving away a recording could be the best thing to generate new fans. But in the publishing world, the book is all there is. Authors don't go on tour to perform their books (book tours are only promotional). The book is their revenue stream.

Earlier this year, I went to a writer's conference with some colleagues from the ministry where I work and was saddened to learn that many of the authors presenting that week had to hold down other full-time day jobs. I left feeling mighty blessed to call myself a full-time writer and editor. Still, the changing shape of the publishing landscape suggests that people will not be willing to pay what they once did for a book—even a hard copy—since ebooks and online reading have given us a taste for free and cheap books. It makes my dream of someday being a full-time author harder than ever to achieve.

More disturbing is a trend that both Yancey and Yates hinted at. Christian publishers are less willing these days to take a chance on an unknown. Many would rather publish something unnecessary or sub-par that will sell than something refreshing and insightful that comes from someone without an established platform. In other words, if Rick Warren took to writing poetry for use in the bathroom, he would be more likely to find himself a lucrative publishing deal with a well-known publisher than Ann Voskamp would had she written her notes of thankfulness in her journal rather than her blog. Publishers, by and large, are looking past authors to their tribe—the book is even less important.

But there's self-publishing, right? All voices can now be heard even if publishers fail to see a diamond in the rough, can't they? While self-publshing can be a great option for established authors or for niche projects, the influx of books is crowding the market. A new author who convinces a traditional publisher that their book is worth publishing now faces a tremendous fight to be noticed among the thousands of titles newly available on Amazon every day. Many consumers are not savvy enough to recognize a self-published book, so the result is the cheapening of the word "author." (I recently filled a writer position on my team, and I cannot tell you how many people listed their first credential on their résumé as "author." But with the exception of one or two, every one was self-published. Anyone with a word-processing program and a few hundred dollars can add the same honor to their C.V.)

In this new world, it seems to me, we've lost the role of publishers. They were supposed to be the gatekeepers, ensuring that books making it through their stringent weeding-out process were worth a person's time. But now, it's more about the platform than the book. And we've lost the role of author. Anyone can become one, so no one can be one—or at least it's much harder to make a living at it. In the end, readers might get more and cheaper books, but there will undoubtedly be fewer great reads in the mix.

As a writer, I am faced with the choice every day to spend my time building my tribe or working on my writing. I choose to write—for magazines I'm a part of, for work, for special projects, and yes, sometimes for this blog. But I'm focused on the writing because that's what I love. If I ever have a "tribe," it will be fun to bounce ideas off of my peeps and get instant feedback. But the tribe itself can never replace finding something worth saying.

I have worked with a few different book publishers in a variety of capacities. My last book was published by a small and very targeted publisher, but they chose to publish my book—one of only six they published last year. Knowing that my story was something someone else was willing to take a risk on (especially given the subject) mattered so much to me. I have a new project in the works (more on that later), but it's with another traditional publisher—and again, it means the world to me to know that they think my writing is worth their time and investment. And it's so much fun working with people who want to help me produce something worthwhile, something that will bless others and maybe even challenge them.

I may have missed out on Yancey's "golden age," but I hope there's still room in this new world for those of us who mourn its passing.

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