Don’t Blame the Publishers

[Christianity Today, February 9, 1998]

Get a bunch of Christian intellectuals together and pretty soon they’ll start in deploring the CBA. The initials stand for the Christian Booksellers Association, the organization that links Christian bookstores across the nation. (Secular bookstores form the American Booksellers Association, or ABA.)

The shorthand is a little inaccurate, because it’s not actually the booksellers themselves that us pipe-and-elbow-patch types deplore. It’s the poor quality of the books they sell. These books are generally described as shallow, cutesy, self-indulgent, and trivializing; they’re thought to be embarassingly below the standards of the ABA (no pinnacle of wisdom itself).

Who’s to blame for this sorry state of affairs? Those scoundrels, the publishers. These are the guys responsible for producing the physical books; they decide a project is worth the investment, coax it from a writer, run it through an editor, and stamp their name at the bottom of the spine (of the book, that is). CBA publishers, it’s said, are too enamored of profit and don’t care enough for the nurture of souls.

I can deplore with the best of them, and agree that much of what’s on display in a Christian bookstore falls short of edifying, especially when a lot of it isn’t even books. If you walked in your local secular bookstore and found a third of the floor space given over to plastic geegaws and t-shirts with cringeworthy puns about your deepest beliefs, you’d gather that they don’t think of you as MENSA material.

I’ m not convinced that publishers are the bad guys in this story. Book publishing looks like a glamorous, big-bucks biz, but on the inside it’s a lot more love than money. As Ken Auletta explained, in a New Yorker magazine overview of publishing aptly titled “The Impossible Business,” books require more expensive production and deliver tinier profits than most consumers realize. He offers a pie-chart breakdown of the cost of a typical book: manufacturing the physical book costs ten per cent of the cover price; distribution is eight per cent, marketing is another seven and a half, and business overhead adds eight more. (Of course, these figures will vary in accord with the number of books sold. The more books printed, the lower the per-book manufacturing price; the more sold, the lower the per-book business overhead price.)

The author gets a shockingly-low ten per cent “royalties,” rising to fifteen when sales pass a certain number. A complicating factor: the publisher often pays this to the author up front in a lump sum called an “advance”, based on his estimate of how many copies will eventually sell. These estimates are routinely over-generous; in 1996, inflated advances which didn’t “earn out” cost New York publishers $20 to $50 million.

We’ve already got a typical-book cost to the publisher of 43-48%, before we add two more factors: stores and distributers enjoy discounts of 40-50%, and—the surprise killer—unsold books can be returned for a full refund. Auletta writes, “Most content businesses [those that deal in entertainment or information, like TV, music, and software] expect to make profits of at least fifteen to twenty per cent, but publishing has never seen returns of that size.” Anthea Disney of HarperCollins told Auletta, “If we could make eight per cent, I’d be Queen of the May.” Alberto Vitale of Random House echoes that: “We are in the single-digit profit margins.”

Doing the math makes me reluctant to pin the blame on publishers. I can understand their pursuit of the blockbuster, since a big success provides coattails wide enough for smaller books to get a ride. Conservatives who favor the “free market” should be most sympathetic here. If manufacturers of everything from peanut butter to paint have the right to produce those goods they think will bring the best return, why can’t publishers do the same? Are publishers the only group duty-bound to bring out products that won’t break even in sales, and pay their workers with a smile and pat on the head? We don’t expect churches and ministries to be run on such a basis; we expect wise stewardship instead.

If not the publishers, who’s to blame? As with any commodity, it’s a situation of supply and demand. Publishers are not forcing shallow books on an unwilling community. Buyers vote with their dollars which books they prefer. The depressing fact is that qualities deplored on the typical CBA shelf are exactly the ones consumers have demanded. How can things be improved?

(1) Read book reviews, and when something sounds good to you, buy it. If you really like it, buy extra copies for your church library, your pastor, your best friend. Reward the industry for taking chances on more thoughtful books by proving that there is a market for them.

(2) Buy in hardback, if possible. I know, this is a crunch. But the initial hardback sales, before a book goes to paper, are where the numbers really count. Tell friends that anytime they’re buying you a gift, make it a hardback book. Give hardbacks yourself, as wedding and birthday gifts. Annie Dillard points out that current mainstream fiction is aimed at a single reader: the wealthy woman over fifty. She’s the only one thought to be buying hardback fiction. Change this.

(3) Start a book study group at your church. This is not only increases book sales, but also raises reader expectations as to what constitutes a worthwhile book.

An educated consumer is the direct cause of an improved CBA bookshelf. Let’s roll up our elbow patches and get to work.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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