As someone relatively familiar with the publishing industry, having just published my twentieth book, I read Philip Yancey’s recent article in Books and Culture with great interest. Titled “Farewell to the Golden Age,” it is an informed and insightful analysis of the end of publishing as we have known it.
Beyond just analyzing the rise of e-books and self-publishing and the demise of bookstores and back catalogs, Yancey explores what has been lost. Here are a few of his points, along with some of my own:
1. No longer can you walk into a bookstore and browse through multiple titles you didn’t know existed. Instead, if a particular book is of interest, you order it through Amazon without any awareness of either better titles on the subject, other titles on the subject, or just other books in general that would serve your life.
2. Authors are published and promoted not on the basis of writing skill or excellent content, but whether they front a large enough organization to buy large quantities of the title, have a marketing arm of their own, or the social media presence of the author is substantial. “Forget sample chapters; tell us how many followers you have on Twitter.”
3. What bookstores still exist are driven, by necessity, to sell what sells. Good and important books that have stood the test of time and need to be introduced to new readers (and new Christians) are not available – and thus unknown – because stores don’t have the ability to keep large catalogs of books. They have to stock the latest bestsellers, whether of high quality or not, and not much more.
4. Amazon and e-books have killed off most “mom and pop” bookstores, including many seminary bookstores. Ironically, we are now seeing a leveling off of interest in e-books, and a desire for a “browsing” experience from online sellers.
5. The Christian bookstores that have survived have done it by backing away from their namesake. Only about 30% of their inventory and/or sales comes from books. The rest comes from what I not-so-affectionately refer to as “Jesus Junk” (trinkets and religiously themed home décor).
Yet the need for Christian bookstores that are well-stocked with vetted titles, that will serve new and existing Christians in a day increasingly challenged in terms of a Christian worldview and a mind for God, is staggering. So in light of outdated economic models, what can be done?
The church can get involved. Consider the following:
- An on-site church bookstore doesn’t have the overhead costs of a regular bookstore, such as rent or utilities. Further, volunteers can take the place of employees, freeing up even more costs.
- Without the normal overhead, a church bookstore does not have to generate the revenue of a normal bookstore. In fact, since profit isn’t a motive, it’s simply a matter of breaking even in terms of cost-recovery (or if supplemented as a ministry expense, it doesn’t even have to reach that threshold).
- Without a profit motive, the inventory of the bookstore can be highly selective and entirely qualitative in nature. It’s a ministry, so the books can be chosen accordingly.
There is more, but I think you get the “feel” of the benefits. At Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck) where I serve, we have a bookstore and coffee shop at all of our sites called “The Grounds.” Each book is carefully screened by me and other pastors/leaders for biblical and theological integrity. We carry titles that you wouldn’t find at most other stores, but we consider them classics (or at least essential reading). We include reference works and study materials that few can afford to carry. It’s open not only on the weekends surrounding services, but throughout the week so that people can come and browse. Costs for each item are comparable to Amazon because we don’t have to carry the margin most stores would. And any and all profits beyond costs go toward our ministries and mission partners.
I know, this would be a large endeavor for many churches. But if I can be so bold, many with quick excuses could offer this ministry if they wanted to.
And it is a ministry.
When summarizing human devotion to God as involving heart, soul and strength, Jesus added “...and mind” to the original wording of Deuteronomy, as if He wanted there to be no doubt that when contemplating the comprehensive nature of commitment and relationship with God that our intellect would not be overlooked. The apostle Paul contended that our very transformation as Christians would be dependent on whether our minds were engaged in an ongoing process of renewal in light of Christ (Romans 12:2-3).
And yes, reading an actual in-your-hands book matters to this.
As Yancey writes,
We still don't know the long-term effects of reading e-books vs. traditional hard copy books. Some studies show that people read slower on dedicated e-readers, and those who use tablets or computers or iPhones have a different reading experience, being constantly distracted by text messages, emails, Facebook and other interruptions. Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains explores the changes in brain function that may result. Hyperlinked, multi-tasking readers do not have the same "deepp reading" experience, and are less likely to store what they read in long-term memory.
It is no wonder Paul wrote to Timothy from his jail cell to bring him his books (II Timothy 4:13).
How tragic would it be if there had been no books to bring. Or any place to buy them.
James Emery White
“Farewell to the Golden Age: How Publishing Has Changed,” Philip Yancey, Books and Culture, July 2014, read online.