March 30, 2009
The Decline of Denominational Publishing
— Martin E. Marty
"Christian Book Expo Attracts Few Customers," headlines Marcia Z. Nelson in the March 23rd Publishers Weekly. This is overlookable news to most Americans who have little interest in Evangelicalism and its books, but it has portents for all kinds of citizens. One could call this the canary in the mines which chirps signals of danger before others sense it, except that in this case much of what was in the mine has exploded, and in many places the mine's roof has already caved in. Consider this one more sign.
What is "this"? As Nelson tells it, the Christian Book Expo in the Dallas Convention Center, planned to attract fifteen thousand to twenty thousand attendees, drew only fifteen hundred in this "buckle of the Bible belt." Would there have been even fifteen Expo-goers in Boston or Seattle? As Nelson tells it, glum publishers stood around for three days, shadowed by mountains of unsold books. "We can't afford these kinds of risks," grumbled one publisher. "These kinds" refer to what was a pioneering effort to link publishers and potential buyers.
While the risk-takers here were members of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, any number of similar signs of down-turns are evident. The Christian Bookseller Association has experienced more "downs" at conventions, and Catholic and mainline Protestant publishers don't even try to attract as they used to. With few exceptions, denominations are closing their stores around the country, including even some in those last-bastions-of-books, seminary campuses. Wal-Mart may still display EPCA-linked books, but try to find them at Borders, if you can still find a Borders, or Barnes and Noble or other big-box places, which never did much with such books.
But cheer up: There still is still the on-line selling of books, and the internet market which also helped kill off bookstores has compensated by making books easily available to people who did not live near book stores, whether Catholic, Mainline, Evangelical, Jewish, or whatever. "Kindle" can or some day will have such books ready for your pocket-sized electronic "book." At the same time, something is lost with the dwindling and dying of expos, conventions, and denominational publishing houses and stores.
With self-imposed discipline, I am not allowed to be a Luddite (who rues technological change), a Whiner (who whines), or a Yearner for Good Old Days. But those of us who love books have to be allowed to be Lamenters, in the mood and mode of the biblical Book of Lamentations. A confession: I had no use for ninety-nine percent of the materials in these expos and book stores. Some reflected alien world views, or were strident Far Right blasts; and, while there were some valid devotional materials and self-improvement manuals, much of what sold was, to me and others who don't like to think of ourselves as snobs, pious pap. For decades I was book-review editor of The Christian Century, across whose desk a new religious book landed every hour. Yet when I read the lists of "Christian Best-Sellers," almost all authors looked alien to me.
Give credit to the publishers and sellers, however, for having carved out a large niche in the publishing world that had otherwise generally slighted religious books. They at least aspired to remind publics, including religiously affiliated people, that churches had and still have, in the age of the internet and all things electronic, something at stake in the world of print and bound books. Maybe these will invent more compensatory mechanisms for getting the word out and building community. The Luddites and the Whiners have often been wrong. The Book of Lamentations does not have to be gospel.
Read Nelson's Publishers Weekly article online at http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6645769.html?q=marcia+z%252E+nelsonon
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com. Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.