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The Golden Age of Reading?

Selling books used to be easy. I did it for more than 20 years as a manager of a successful Christian bookstore chain.  It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time in the not-too-distant past when the bookstore—Christian or secular—was about the only place you could buy a book.

In the secular space, there were chains like Walden Books and B. Dalton Bookseller, a subsidiary of Barnes & Noble. There were also thousands of independent bookstores, including a few that rose to legendary status among serious bibliophiles—such as Powell’s in Portland, Tattered Cover in Denver, Davis-Kidd in Nashville and Oxford’s in Atlanta. In the Christian world, even though the chains were smaller and the independent stores fewer, you could count on almost every community in America having at least one Christian bookstore.

Because these stores were the only game in town and the only option for those who bought books, it was the golden age of bookselling. When you have a monopoly, that’s what happens.

Then came the digital revolution, and in less than a decade selling books in bookstores became incredibly difficult.

Once book buyers discovered that not only could you order a book online and have it mailed directly to your home in a matter of days (at a price far less than you would pay in your local bookstore), but you could also order a digital copy of a book and have it delivered to a portable device in your hands in less than a minute—once anyone who ever had a need to buy a book figured this out, it was lights out for the traditional brick and mortar bookstore.

Nobody in the retail book business saw this coming, except for Jeff Bezos. That’s why two-thirds of all bookstores that once populated cities across the country are now gone. And the retail carnage isn’t over. Barnes & Noble, one of a handful of bookstore chains left, recently announced plans to shutter 200 more stores in the next ten years, reducing its footprint to under 500 stores nationally (they used to have more than 2,000).

Whether or not Amazon is a new kind of bookselling monopoly—the online giant now accounts for one-quarter of all books sold—is debatable. But this much is certain: the old monopoly is gone.

Instead of just one way to buy a book, you now have at least 47. I’m not just pulling a number out of the air. That statistic comes from Bowker, the world’s leading provider of bibliographic information. As a reader, you literally have nearly 50 ways to buy books.

Welcome to the golden age of reading.

As a reader, not only do you have a dizzying array of choices when it comes to buying a book, but you also have a mind-boggling number of titles to choose from. Bowker reports that between traditional publishing (something I’m involved with at Regal Books) and self-publishing, more than one million titles are produced each year. Talk about choice!

Of course, with all of this choice come challenges. You may have 50 ways to find a book, but with tens of millions of book titles at your fingerprints, how do you choose the one that’s right for you?

I would love to hear your answer to that question, but in the meantime, I have a couple of thoughts in response.

First, because book buyers have neither the time nor the inclination to sift through the enormous variety of books being published each year, they tend to buy books that are already selling. In other words, they prefer to buy what everybody else is buying rather than choosing something new or obscure.

According to Amazon’s statistics, six of the top ten bestselling books in 2012 were from just two series: the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy and three books in The Hunger Games series. As for the top ten best selling Christian books on Amazon’s list, only three were released in 2012. The other seven were released before 2012 and were already established best sellers: Crazy Love (released in 2008), Jesus Calling (2004), Heaven Is for Real (2010), and the top selling Christian book in Amazon’s 2012 list, The 5 Love Languages, which has been in print for 20 years.

Second, with all of this clutter in the book publishing and bookselling world, it’s getting increasingly difficult for new and innovative voices to reach the kind of “critical mass” that books need to stay relevant. You may not think this is a big deal, but in today’s book climate, it’s doubtful that books like Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller or Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness—books by obscure writers that took years to find the support needed to propel them to a mass audience—would make it today.

Don’t get me wrong. As a reader, I’m loving this brave new world of books, when I can virtually think of a title and have it in my possession in a matter of seconds. But as a writer and publisher, I’m a little perplexed over the new realities of publishing and bookselling.

If I were to write or publish a book that attained the status of a best seller in today’s climate, I would of course be thrilled. But for every best seller published these days, there are thousands if not tens of thousands of other books that should be best sellers based on their content, but they lie dormant and unrecognized, buried beneath the mass of other titles being published at a rate of more than 3,000 per day.

And I can tell you from personal experience that cutting through that clutter is almost impossible. In order for a book to become a best seller today, it either has to be written by an established best selling author, or somehow it must hit a nerve in the reading public that unexplainably takes it from obscurity to mass awareness.

Like I said, I would love to get your take on this. Do you think this is a golden age of reading, or something less than that? And does it matter that some very fine authors will never get widely read because of the way books are being sold these days, not to mention how many books are published each year?

Comments

And while the speaker last night, ended the reading of Scripture with the phrase “This is the Word of the Lord,” I’m still unsure how the first phrase is congruent with the last phrase. - Peter F. Spittler

Depends on what source (study, gov't resource, etc.) you check if this is average or not. Generally between ages 4- 5 is normal to start beginning reading, but even by age 8 it is not considered late to learn how to read from a brain development standpoint. -Douglas Andrew

I am what they call an "indie" writer as well as the guy who puts away all the borrowed books from my church library. I can tell you that I’ve coined the phrase “macaroni and cheese” literature for the kinds of books people like to read—the books that get borrowed and returned at my library. If you ask a kid what he wants to eat, he’s going to ask for something yummy like macaroni and cheese. Publishers know this, and are churning out macaroni and cheese literature like crazy. This puts pressure on the indie writer to imitate macaroni and cheese in his or her own writing. Never mind that there is virtually no spiritually nutritional value in that kind of literature. What is happening is that the really good books—the ones that have a powerful spiritual message that makes you want to go out and buy another copy to pass on to your friend—these “grilled salmon” masterpieces are getting lost in all the macaroni and cheese.

I am also somebody who has been trying to get published through traditional publishers for the last twenty years. In my opinion, Amazon.com and Smashwords.com—the two leading self-publishing opportunities for 99% of the writers in the free world right now—are God’s answer to a traditional Christian publishing industry that must serve both God and Mammon (and thus cannot help anybody). Yes, we have entered a dark age in the history of books and bookstores here in the USA. At the same time, Amazon and the internet have made our indie books available to rising nations such as India, Japan, Brazil, Russia, and China. These peoples are discovering the authors God means for them to find—not the ones the publishing industries are forcing on them, but the independent authors who have stepped out in faith and waded into the impossible odds. I think things are going to be mixed up a bit, and I fully expect for some knees to get banged up before the end of it. But in the end, I have hope that Truth will prevail, and that those who rise to leadership in the new publishing economy will follow God’s will rather than the world’s incessant desire for macaroni and cheese.

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About
Stan's entire life has been wrapped in content: selling, writing and publishing books and resources that help ordinary people capture a glimpse of extraordinary things.