The Christian publishing industry is in flux, and the future seems to have an ever-growing question mark superimposed on it. Five years ago, who would have thought Family Christian stores would file bankruptcy; or that industry insiders would be speculating on whether the largest Christian bookstore chain in the U.S. could make good on millions owed; or that one bookstore chain could affect not only its own 3,000+ employees, but also cause layoffs at an established Christian publishing house the likes of Barbour?[i]
Questions abound, and these recent events got me to thinking about Amazon. With $5.25 billion in revenue from books[ii], Amazon’s annual book sales completely eclipse Family Christian’s “measly” $216 million[iii]. If the fate of that one chain—Family Christian—affects Christian publishing so drastically, what would a world without Amazon do to publishing at large? What would happen to reading, literacy—publishing—if there was no more Amazon? Or, more likely: What would the book world be with only Amazon? With their $5.25 billion in book sales constituting only 7% of Amazon’s total revenue, the behemoth mega-store isn’t likely to disappear from the landscape any time soon, but will the rest of us be part of the ripe rolling hills of publishing five years from now?
Despite the closing of fiction imprints from used-to-be-solid-hitters such as Moody and B&H, and despite the ongoing closing of brick-and-mortar book stores, three things tell us publishing isn’t dead:
- Amazon is publishing books
- Amazon is opening brick-and-mortar stores[iv]
- Amazon is pulling in billions selling books
Despite the fact that the Big Five and others are making millions, and retailers such as Lifeway and Kobo are seeing profits, three things tell us publishing is in trouble:
- Amazon is publishing books (the company that already has the lion’s share of retail sales)
- Amazon is opening brick-and-mortar stores (in a climate where major bookstores have closed, and indie shops have dropped by half)
- Amazon is pulling in billions selling products other than books
The very points that tell us publishing is a viable industry are the very bullets that tell us the industry is in for a shot to the heart if publishers and retailers don’t figure out a way to sell pallets of books, and fast. In a recent blog post about the status of CBA fiction, literary agent Chip MacGregor made the point that publishers are having a hard time matching books to readers, and that the phenomenon of publishers not picking up popular Christian fiction is “clearly a sales and marketing issue.”[v] I agree with much of what MacGregor says, but as the owner of a small independent house that invests thousands of dollars per year to promote Christian fiction, I know first-hand that sales and marketing strategies alone are not the golden solution to getting mass numbers of books into the hands of paying customers—not when one company controls a large and ever-growing part of the publishing marketplace. And that may be an underlying reason publishers are not quick to board the Christian fiction train, even though readers would devour content. Unless a publisher has mega-deep pockets to invest in Amazon’s co-op marketing development fund, the publisher may very well find its inventory undiscoverable on Amazon.[vi] If a publisher isn’t willing to bow to the pricing structures Amazon dictates, the publisher may find itself in the middle of a debilitating dispute.[vii] We’ve already witnessed the effect Amazon has had in regards to these two things, and we’ve also seen the effect that Amazon’s give-away-books-free approach has had on publisher and bookstore revenues.
So, exactly what does a world with only Amazon look like, and is that where we’re headed?
- In a world with only Amazon, other publishers don’t exist, so the only options for authors are acquiring a contract with an Amazon imprint or self-publishing (assuming Amazon continues to allow authors to self-publish.) Also, there are no literary agents or book distributors because without publishers, agents are obsolete and distributors are unnecessary.
- In a world with only Amazon, other bookstores don’t exist, so the only options for readers are Amazon or libraries (assuming Amazon distributes to libraries, because in this scenario there are no other publishers, so if Amazon decides not to supply libraries, libraries die.)
- In a world with only Amazon, Amazon controls what people read. With no retail competition and no other publishers producing competitive works, Amazon is in complete control of what content gets to the consumer, and Amazon controls the price to buy that content.
Does all this sound too farfetched? Let’s look at a few recent industry developments.
- Scads of authors are self-publishing—which affects publishers and literary agents in that there are fewer books to peddle and publish.
- Brick-and-mortar chains are already dying off and Barnes and Noble just announced the further shrinking of Nook.[viii]
- Amazon has recently come under scrutiny for the way in which it determines reader-to-author relationships when removing book reviews[ix], and the company has just changed the payout strategy for books on Kindle Unlimited.[x] This may or may not be detrimental to the industry (we’ll have to wait to see), but it certainly illustrates a level of control that, if unchecked, could grow stronger.
Right now, Amazon appears to be an advocate for readers and self-publishers. The company openly encourages publishers and authors to offer books to readers at low-to-no cost. Authors are able to upload e-books and sell paperbacks without publishers, and many of those authors are pleased with the control they have over their own work. But who really holds control? At any time, Amazon can alter or revoke the indie-author’s ability to self-publish, and in a world with only Amazon—with no other publishers or retailers—where would the author be?
Yes, this is a what-if scenario, but if our theorized endgame is a world with only Amazon, control is the vehicle which gets us there. How is control gained?
- Divide and conquer: Separate authors from publishers so that many publishers fold and literary agents flounder.
- Eat the spoils: Buy out publishers that don’t fold or that hold desirable contracts.
- Starve the remnant: Discount books so steeply that other retailers can’t compete (and consumers can’t resist).
Each step shifts control. But is it Amazon’s intent to monopolize the publishing industry? If book sales account for only 7% of Amazon’s revenue, why does the company expend so much energy to dominate the industry? While 5.25 billion is a lot of dollars, it isn’t a powerhouse compared to the 70 billion Amazon receives from other product sales. So why the focus on books? If it isn’t about the money, it must be about control, and that’s a frightening supposition. Monopoly in any industry is never good for consumers, but most especially when it’s in an industry responsible for entertainment (fiction) and knowledge (non-fiction). Competition drives a healthy, fair economy and supports quality control. Variety and differences are what spur intelligent thinking, dialogue and creativity. Remove competition, and inflation and unfair practices could abound. Remove variety and differences, and dialogue disappears; ideas and creativity become controllable.
Is that where we’re headed? A world where no healthy competition exists and our reading choice is controlled by a single entity? God-willing, no. The world as it is—with Amazon and many other publishers and bookstores—means the book-o-sphere can thrive; but a world with only Amazon? If you think it could never happen, have another think, because ten years ago, there were twice as many independent bookstores as there are now[xi], and Borders bookstores existed. Five years ago, Family Christian Stores was a thriving chain. Today, Nook is available in forty countries, but as of August 8, 2015, only in the U.S. and U.K. Compare those changes to the fact that Amazon’s revenue has increased from $8.5 billion in 2005 to $75 billion in 2014[xii].
Authors, publishers, distributors, retailers—and readers—need to look at the future of publishing with eyes wide open. If we squeeze them shut for too long and don’t do anything to ensure the survival of healthy competition, there’s a chance we’ll find ourselves swimming with the fishes in an ocean of what-used-to-be.