Sunday, 16 September 2007

The Ugly Side of Competition in Christian Publishing

Christianity Today in its September web issue reports that competition to publish celebrity Christians crowd out theology. It also provides link to Mark Taylor's article, "The Values and Perils of Competition." Abstract of the report is reproduced below:

Mark Taylor, president of Tyndale House Publishers, bemoans the effects of competition on his industry. It seems agents and large royalty payments, commonplace in the wider publishing world, have become the new reality for Christian publishers.

Taylor explains the process. An agent approaches the publisher with a can't-miss book proposal by a big-name Christian author. The publisher likes the idea. The agent lets the publisher know that other houses want the book. This project demands a serious advance. Perhaps against better judgment, the publisher bites.

"So we get the deal," Taylor writes. "We pay the advance. The manuscript comes in. We begin to wonder why we paid so much for this average manuscript. We edit it and market it and sell it and process the returns. And at the end of the day we take a huge write-off. If we're lucky, the book earns a net contribution to overheads. But in most of these scenarios, the book generates a loss even apart from overheads. Competition (and perhaps some greed) has nearly killed us."

What does all this have to do with theology? I won't guess which Tyndale books Taylor has in mind. But I can guess the genre. And it's not serious theology or catechesis for our churches. Al Hsu, an acquisitions and development editor at InterVarsity Press, explains the consequences. "[G]ood books (with less 'commercial potential') get squeezed out of the market and displaced from bookstore shelves to make way for high-profile books that publishers need to sell a boatload of to break even on."

This is business in the American market. I don't suspect Christian publishers will successfully collude to suppress author advances. At least the principle doesn't work in professional sports. So if the supply doesn't change, then demand must. Agents can pitch these books because we the readers often love our celebrity authors more than we care for sound doctrine. Consider the example of Hollywood. Movie studios would sooner take their chances on a star-studded cast with an iffy script than an unknown actor with a promising concept. It's a safer bet. Likewise, some Christian publishers will cast their lot with authors whose faces they can slap on the front of a book. If you don't like what you see in Christian bookstores, vote with your pocketbook. Lead not Christian publishers into the temptation of big advances for bad books. And when you do see good theology, drop some change.

Amen! Let us encourage our local Christian authors who write good theology and book stores that promotes good books (at reasonable price too)!


Alex Tang said...

the problem is not just between book publishers and authors. There is also the need of a distributor. Without distributors, however good the book is, it cannot get to the store.

Kar Yong said...

Thanks, Alex, for the input.

I am just wondering aboout agent - while this is true in north america, I am not sure how far this is applicable in our local context. What about your own experience in publishing your books?

Alex Tang said...

There is no literary agent in Malaysia and Singapore, unlike in the States.

blogpastor said...

Reminds me of how churches outbid one another to secure any HDB church reserved site so that the average winning bid in the last ten years is 6 million for a 30 year lease in a small plot of land. I doubt they will ever come together to agree on a ceiling for agents....