Features

Publishing, perishing

Economy | Both Christian and secular publishers are giving in to the same economic pressures

Issue: "Larry Woiwode: By the book," July 4, 1998

"Of making many books there is no end," says the Good Book, "and much study wearies the body" (Ecclesiastes 12:12). It has always been this way: Writers write, readers read, books are made. Within that context, however, change is coming fast, for both secular and Christian publishers.

First, the two dozen or so formerly independent New York publishing houses have been bought up by 10 major consortiums, six of them foreign. For example, Putnam was bought by Matsushita, Macmillan by the British Rupert Murdoch group, and Doubleday by Bertelsmann, a German company. With the consolidation comes increased influence on business decisions by bean counters and lawyers instead of traditional book people.

Parallel to the demise of family publishing is the disappearance of the family bookstore. The old mom-and-pop bookstore was supplanted by mall-oriented sellers like Waldenbooks and B. Dalton's. Now these are themselves being superceded-or acquired-by megabookstores like Borders (once owned by Kmart) and Barnes & Noble. Like farming a generation ago, the word in the book business today is, "Get big or get out."

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All of this is true for Christian publishers and booksellers as well. Many are now owned by secular corporations-and secular publishers. Family-owned bookstore ministries are giving way to the big chains, which in turn have to compete with Christian megastores.

Robert Lescher, longtime New York literary agent, predicts that the literary marketplace will end up with few major imprints, but lots of smaller, independent imprints-which are now emerging and getting distribution, even in the megastores.

He also notes the day when editors would take young authors and develop them for years until they found their audience is over. The MBA-run companies are publishing fewer books, and they want authors with higher sales potential. They are less interested in "midlist" authors (that is, those selling 5 to 10 thousand copies) who write in a literary rather than popular style.

Montana cattle rancher and Christian novelist John L. Moore has experienced this in Christian publishing, submitting literary fiction to Christian publishers who want only another blockbuster a la Frank Peretti. "Both Christian readers and Christian writers are lazy," he generalizes. "They do not want to 'invest' in a book. I shudder when I hear Christian writers bragging that they wrote a book in 30 to 60 days." (As if secular publishing were any different. That's the pace at which R.L. Stine cranks out his Goosebumps thrillers.) Mr. Moore-though his novels have been published by Christian companies-complains that genuine literary fiction is treated with disrespect by many Christian readers, writers, and publishers.

Some Christian book industry insiders complain that it is difficult to maintain clear evangelical commitment as companies become more diverse and search for broader markets. Larger publishers tend to cherry-pick-focusing on the big books by the big names and buying up new authors that smaller publishers have successfully launched. They rarely use their market power to take risks with new writers and new ideas.

Crossway Books found a runaway bestseller in Frank Peretti's This Present Darkness, a dark horse that has sold over 3 million copies in more than 20 languages. Yet Lane Dennis, president of Crossway, notes that "remarkably, on the day the novel came before our publishing committee, the first item on the agenda was whether or not we should continue to publish fiction. After some discussion, the decision was made: Yes, we believed that part of our unique calling was to publish fiction that would impact people's lives for Christ."

In context, it makes perfect sense. Clyde Dennis started Good News Publishing in 1938 to print tracts. Good News went on to books that emphasized saving faith in Christ during a period when Christian publishing was dominated by liberal Protestantism. Lane Dennis, Clyde's son, started Crossway in 1979 "to apply the truth of God's Word to all of life." So Mr. Peretti's tract-like writing fit the ministry's mission. Crossway executives stuck with their vision and were surprised by success. But their main motive was not simply to print bestsellers.

In his chairman's address to the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association in 1996, Mr. Dennis said, "one of the key challenges here ... is how to balance the economic side with the ministry side of publishing." While secular publishers are finding that economic pressures often result in the sacrifice of literary quality, many Christian publishers are pressured to sacrifice not only quality but-more significantly-their theological integrity.

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