Gone or Dawn? The Golden Age of Publishing

Recently Philip Yancey, a revered and bestselling author, wrote an article mourning the decline of the golden age of Christian Publishing. His words got me thinking…

Are the Golden Days Gone?

I have heard a lot of negative statements about the book industry, and the Christian publishing industry in particular, these past few years. Statements like “the system is broken,” “publishers are abusing authors,” “No one can get traditionally published unless they are famous,” etc.

As I wrote last week, I too went to the Christian booksellers convention in Atlanta. It was smaller than its “glory days” but it was still vibrant.

Ultimately the real answer to the question is based on one’s perspective. You can look at it one way and say things are terrible, horrible, and no good. There are fewer CBA stores. There are struggling CBA publishers. There are fewer slots available to debut and even established authors. That is one way to view it.

Another way to view it is to declare the view different. Not poor, but different. And that is where I land. If things were so dire then why are publishers still selling any books at all? Heaven is for Real wouldn’t have sold a single copy. Harbinger would not have been on the New York Times bestseller list for over 100 weeks.

So far this calendar year our agency has contracted over 60 new deals covering more than 100 new titles. Has it been easy? Of course not. It takes hard work. Hard working authors, and hard working editors, hard working agents, and hard working publishers.

Have there been disappointments? Yes. But there have also been some tremendous victories.

At the same time we should not compare this year’s circumstances with past circumstances. Circumstances are different. As Yancey’s article pointed out, there have been massive changes in the industry. Everything from superstore bankruptcy to the Amazon Kindle. All sorts of disruption.

This is normal. Stay around long enough and something else will change again. This may be where we should focus our attention.

Is This the Dawn of a New Golden Era?

If things are merely different and not catastrophically dire, then maybe something else is afoot.

The rise of indie publishing has made the creation of new voices possible. It has also created a viable option for those whose ideas may not have had the larger commercial value that major publishers are seeking. It also nurtures a cottage industry of freelance editors and book packagers (some of which are better than others).

Many veteran authors have smartly put their older titles into e-book form and made them available forever. (I do see that slowing down as fewer titles are available for this conversion.)

Traditional publishers are still finding great new books and finding new places to sell them. And with the showdown between Amazon.com and Hachette still unresolved as of this writing, publishers are definitely making sure all their eggs are not in one shopping cart on Amazon (if you know what I mean).

Meanwhile the disruptions, the negotiations, the technology inventions; all of keep books in the news. Let me name a few that have people talking. The Fault in Our Stars , Unbroken, Lean In, Not a Fan, The Book Thief, Gone Girl, One Thousand Gifts, and Killing Jesus.  People are talking about books.

It is different, and yet still the same. Is it possible that we are enjoying a new golden era but we are so close to it we cannot see it for what it is?

Maybe I’m hopelessly optimistic…even a romantic at heart, but I believe in the power of words. I believe that words fitly spoken and brilliantly written can change the world around us. So yes, the light you see is a dawn, a golden dawn…. not the light of a train inside a tunnel.

18 Responses to Gone or Dawn? The Golden Age of Publishing

  1. Avatar
    Chris July 14, 2014 at 5:31 am #

    Guess I will be the first to post a comment.
    I don’t know the ends and outs of the dawn of this new world in publishing, but I know He’s called me to write and craft words to His glory. He has placed you, Dan and others in the right time and position to distribute words ready to be etched into the heart and mind of just the right person. What you do has eternal value one book, one person, one word at a time.
    It’s not in the numbers, it’s in the obedience. God will greatly reward you in your move to reach out to touch one soul at a time. Thank you.

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    Connie Almony July 14, 2014 at 6:30 am #

    I wouldn’t say it’s the decline of the golden age of publishing, but it is certainly the decline in the old ways of doing things. As with any industry, it will evolve and if those within it don’t understand the hows and whys and are prepared to move with it, they will be left behind. All of us need to ask why is it moving and how can we jump on the train to get where we want to go. To ignore how the ebook and indie revolution has impacted the industry would be tragic for anyone who wants to stay in this business. You have a choice, continue as always and hope things don’t change too much (good luck there), wait to see what happens and follow, OR be a part of the innovation and lead the way.
    The last option is my favorite!
    Publishers could use their clout, connections and resources to create innovative, multimedia books. Agents might add new services, like helping indie clients with marketing and distribution. Brick and mortars might find ways to make their stores a more social environment, providing the human connection. Online stores might find ways to offer more books (including quality indie work), and create a better search engine (like the largest retailer has) that will help buyers better find the type of story they want among a growing breadth of material (as opposed to the current narrowing).
    Rather than lament the change, we in the industry need to re-tool. As you say, the written word is not in decline, only particular ways of getting it to the reader. I’m not worried at all … just watching!

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    Rick Barry July 14, 2014 at 6:45 am #

    I, too, believe in the power of words. As long as people have eyes and ears, they will want to communicate, and they will seek other people who have the creative skills to captivate them with a story.

    I imagine that, back in 1861, those who made a living at the Pony Express wailed about how the telegraph was destroying their livelihood. Perhaps telegraph operators lamented the invention of wireless radio. Maybe radio stations fear the cyber world will render them obsolete? One thing that never changes is that everything (except God Himself) always changes. Through it all, words and stories survive.

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    Thomas Allbaugh July 14, 2014 at 6:45 am #

    I was so disappointed when the Christian bookseller I’d supported over the years suddenly went out of business six or seven years ago and was replaced by a Karate teacher. Even so, I do appreciate the longer, broader perspective you take here. There certainly are new, indie opportunities while the old model shrinks and dries up.

    However, I have to take issue with this “bottom line” thinking around platforms, required now and brought to us by technology and social media. The requirement that an author needs a huge platform seems to have made most traditional publishers close their doors to new ideas or good writing. All that matters is that the writer has a huge platform. This makes publishing look more and more like a giant PR game and less and less like a game of ideas.

    I know I’m probably nostalgic. But the bottom line I take concerns what this constant focus on “sizzle” does to the kind of writing made available to the church as a whole. Maybe we’re getting shallow. I won’t forget what the pastor leading my church discussion group said when and friend and I suggested we read and discuss a book of the Bible–we were interested in the complexities in “Romans” at the time. “We can’t read the Bible,” our pastor said. “That’s not what people want.” He was casting about for some self-help book on improvement, finances, or raising kids. And that’s all good, but I was bothered by his comment, “We can’t read the Bible.”

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    Heather Day Gilbert July 14, 2014 at 6:58 am #

    I do think it depends which side of the fence you’re sitting on, but this hand-wringing approach of Yancey’s isn’t really helpful OR a full picture of the industry. The writing industry is no longer limited to traditional publishers, as you pointed out, and most of the indie authors I know are extremely optimistic, with many positioned at the top of the bestseller lists.

    Indie authors have more control over their product than ever, from publication schedule to cover art to marketing methods. We aren’t getting second-hand goods to readers–we are working extremely hard to bring readers what they are interested in and what publishers have been unwilling to take a “chance” on. Often those books that were deemed a marketing “risk” by publishers go on to dominate the charts in their niche and build a reader following eager for the next book. Publishers just aren’t positioned to take those risks anymore, even if readers are asking for something else (and they have been).

    I think most indie authors I know feel this is the start of a golden age for authors. I know many Christian indie authors hope Christian traditional publishers will begin adapting to the e-book revolution, instead of lamenting it and producing more of the same.

    I feel many agents don’t even read/support their clients’ indie books, and they’re unaware of/ignoring the quality products that are reaching readers. And indie authors have READERS. I truly would love to see more agencies touting their authors’ INDIE books, since more and more tradpub authors are self-publishing.

    Christian indie books are making inroads where traditionally published CBA books could not. My Viking historical is in the Royal BC Museum gift shop for a Viking exhibit in Canada. Today (7/14), many Christian indie authors are participating in #digitalbookday, a worldwide event in which authors are offering free books. Christian books are right next to erotica…and we are reaching READERS.

    The times, they are a’changin’…but many authors would argue it’s for the better.

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    Ron Estrada July 14, 2014 at 7:04 am #

    You’re right, Steve. It’s not in decline, it’s just different. All industries change, especially when new, easily available technology makes it possible for independent entrepenuers to do what used to take a team of professionals to acomplish. I happen to have a blog going up this week adressing this. We all still share a passion for books and well written stories. The only thing that will change is our roles. Writers still need editors, cover designers, and agents to help with foreign markets, movie rights, etc. We’re all independent contractors. We just need to figure out where our talents are most needed. I believe this is the golden age. Indies are free to write (good or bad) and get their work in the hands of readers. Yes, a majority will crash and burn. That hasn’t changed. And many still want the assurance of professionals before revealing their work to the public. But for others who are willing to do the work, new possibilites and opportunities are opening, it seems, on a daily basis. I welcome it. And I’m sure we’ll all find our roles to play in this new economy.

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    Cathy West July 14, 2014 at 7:20 am #

    Steve, this is a great way of looking at things. Authors have options. Yes, I think it’s kind of sad to see brick and mortar stores closing. But that doesn’t mean publishers will stop acquiring or readers will stop reading. It just means, as you pointed out, things might be done a little differently. I don’t believe traditional publishing will come to a grinding halt anytime soon. Indie publishing is taking off, but let’s face it, it’s easy. While it can take a year or more to get a traditional book into the hands of readers, you can have a book available on Amazon for the world within a few hours. Is this a good thing? I don’t know. What I don’t like is the underlying feeling I’m picking up on that one way is better than the next. I’m not sure that line of thinking will benefit anyone in the long run. I think there is room enough for both methods of publishing to grow and prosper and most likely continue to change as the world continues to turn. Personally, I’d like to do both. I still have a lot of respect for traditional publishing and trust it will be around awhile longer, but the opportunities of Indie publishing are exciting too. Great stories will continue to be told. And those are the ones that will rise to the top, whichever way they’re published.

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    Sandie Bricker July 14, 2014 at 7:44 am #

    I think one segment of all the changes that has authors feeling a little less dreamy-eyed and optimistic than we were when we started writing is the disappearance of so many publishing options. Christian fiction, in particular, has lost so many avenues. For me, I’ve lost three of my publishers in the last few years because they’ve opted to discontinue or drastically reduce their fiction lines. Because I’m a hard sell on indie publishing and not particularly feeling the idea of writing non-fiction, this has built a fence around the hopes I had for my career that I’m only just now starting to figure out.

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    Sally Apokedak July 14, 2014 at 9:07 am #

    “words fitly spoken and brilliantly written can change the world”


    Words and ideas matter and we will always be making books—whether on scrolls or pages.

    Story will always be with us. We have told stories for as long as human history has existed—around the campfire or read off of glowing screens. And e-books will go up in price, eventually, so authors can make a bit more than they’re making now. Steve Roxburgh, in a speech, said something like, “Half of you are sitting out there with cups of coffee in papers cups. You paid five bucks for the coffee. Story matters, not the vessel it comes in.”

    It seems to me that printing companies may, eventually have to adapt, but I don’t see why publishers and agents would be threatened. Even if authors publish their own books, there will always be room for publishers, I think (and because of that, agents). I mean, Arthur Levine puts out a certain quality. Wendy Lamb, Jean Feiwal, Katherine Tegan–all of these children’s imprints have a brand. I don’t see them folding as long as they keep giving readers great books. Other imprints may come to the front, but I don’t see why the indie movement would do away with these brands.

    In the end whoever best serves the reader will survive. Ceramic mugs and paper cups are of little consequence. It’s the flavor of the coffee that matters.

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    Randy Ingermanson July 14, 2014 at 10:07 am #

    The magic of writing is that I can make some marks on a page and somehow those marks telepathically move my thoughts into your brain.

    That is amazing. As long as that can happen, people will continue reading.

    As long as people keep reading, they will pay people to write.

    The magic of modern technology is that I can now punch buttons on a machine and within the hour, I can be selling my work to anyone on the planet who wants it. Global distribution, right now, available to anyone, at very low cost.

    Clearly, we are entering the Golden Age of Publishing. The old ways were slower, more difficult, and more expensive.

    There has never been a better time to be a reader. There has never been a better time to be a writer. There is more money to be made as a writer now than ever before. There is less friction in the distribution system than ever before.

    The old world of publishing was not a Golden Age for most writers. The new world of publishing will not be a Golden Age for all writers, either. But it will be a Golden Age for MORE writers than ever before.

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    Lora Sawyer July 14, 2014 at 10:19 am #

    Even though I have a kindle, nothing can take the place of a book in my hands. Browsing through the library and bookstores will always be a favorite pastime. My love of books has not waned over my lifetime. Perhaps others feel the same way. There will always be a need, appetite and desire for the written word in the form of “books.”

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    Nick July 14, 2014 at 1:18 pm #

    I love the idea that it is just “different.” There’s something comforting in that. There is no one way to publish anymore, and, while a part of my traditional publishing background is disturbed by that truth, a greater part of me believes change is good if it allows more people to see the glory of God, in whatever format.

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    Dana McNeely July 14, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

    I think it’s a golden dawn of opportunity. For myself, my preference would be to partner with an agent who would advise me on this journey. But if that isn’t possible, how wonderful that I still have choices. I’ve seen a lot of changes in the time I’ve been on this earth. And all the changes have born out what we read in scripture. “All things work together for good, to those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

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    Nancy B. Kennedy July 14, 2014 at 3:10 pm #

    Self-publishing has no doubt opened up new avenues for many writers to be heard. Even so, I would never consider indie publishing. My books are all the better for the instincts and involvement of everyone in the traditional publishing chain of command — agent, editors, copy editors, proofreaders, sales and marketing staff, publicists and publishers. I’ve been vetted and edited and I’m thankful for that! I don’t have the energy or expertise to take on all of these roles. Publishing is rewarding as a cooperative venture, and I wouldn’t want to attempt it on my own.

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    Gideon Grey July 14, 2014 at 4:23 pm #

    It does come down to one thing. Do you believe that He can accomplish anything through any channels? I do. I always have and I always will. I believe that this is my calling. I also believe that callings are not easy. God never said that following Him was going to be a road paved with gold where a chariot awaits me and I will never strike my foot (that’s Heaven…not earth). Reality check, the road less taken is generally the one worth taking. So I’m going to follow where it leads and believe that the God who created the universe can still do what I perceive to be impossible. It may look bleak, but then again, a lot of things nowadays do…and then miracles happen.
    I’m just joyful that there are still agents out there that believe in the power of the written word. After all, the Word that I place my entire life in was written once, has withstood the test of time, and has changed lives for centuries.
    Words hold power. They hold Truth. They hold the ability to teach and share and learn. Oh to use that ability for His glory. What a magnificent calling indeed.

    • Avatar
      Mary July 15, 2014 at 5:10 pm #

      (quote) Words hold power. They hold Truth. They hold the ability to teach and share and learn. Oh to use that ability for His glory. What a magnificent calling indeed. (unquote)

      Preach it, Brother! As I typed the last word of the last major revision of my 2nd manuscript, I sat and stared at the computer screen, once again awed by the trust my Creator-Abba gives to me, letting my pen be the voice of His heart; letting my ears hear the whispers of His ideas.

      I can’t speak to whether it’s the golden age of publishing, but it’s my golden age as a writer. I no longer need to worry about traditional publishers not taking a chance on an unknown, or about the fact that there is an almost non-existent market for a collection of short stories, especially by an unknown.

      Thanks to Lulu.com and Smashwords.com, as well as the big vendors, I can publish my own carefully “vetted and edited” work, while helping another small business owner by paying her to design my covers, and while I may not have a publicist or agent or marketing team, I have a Father who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. HE knows the hearts that need to be reached by my books, and HE knows how to get the books into their hands.

      I’m not doing this to make a living – I’m doing it to be faithful. If I were wanting to make a living at it, I might be more concerned. But for now, what I see is a world full of possibility, with a once-locked gate standing wide open.

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    Susan Donetti July 14, 2014 at 10:12 pm #

    This world needs all the hopeless optimists it can get. People like you are uplifting for people like me. So thanks so much for that!

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    Peter DeHaan July 17, 2014 at 4:50 pm #

    Change offers opportunity, and I see the publishing glass as half full, not half empty (or completely empty). Onward!

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