Saturday, January 12, 2008


I have been frustrated for some time by the short-sighted mindset of book publishers.

This mindset seems to be a combination of "this-is-how-we've-always-done-it" thinking and greed. Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to Christian publishers. But it does seem to be especially egregious when done "in the name of Christ."

I do not object to individuals or companies making a profit. I believe that it is an honorable thing to provide something of value to the world and to be financially rewarded for those efforts. But I do have a problem with exploitation and "price gouging."

What makes the current situation in e-publishing particularly frustrating is that the publishers are working against their own long-term interests.

We've seen Hollywood's resistance to new technology create confusion and stagnation in the entertainment industry. The music industry has also contributed to the chaos of digital rights management.

I also believe that our current copyright laws need to be redone to reflect the present state of technology.

But even without any change to the copyright statute, book publishers are missing out on an amazing opportunity to take advantage of today's digital "revolution."

With the invention of the printing press, books quickly went from a luxury item affordable only to a few wealthy individuals or institutions to an inexpensive medium for the transmission of and "democratization" of vast new fields of knowledge.

The Reformation could never have happened without the new world of publishing made possible by the printing press. It is hard to imagine the Industrial Revolution ever gathering any "steam" as long as books needed to be copied by hand. The Scientific Revolution was an effect of the print technology "cause."

"In just three years, between 1517 and 1520, Martin Luther's 30 publications probably sold more than 300,000 copies."

Before the printing press, a handwritten Bible might take a single monk 20 years to transcribe. In 1424, Cambridge University library owned only 122 books, and each of them cost the equivalent of a small farm. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, by 1500 there were more than 9 million books in Europe.

Imagine what would have happened if William Caxton had marketed his edition of The Canterbury Tales with this approach:

You can purchase your own copy of the ribald tales in Chaucer's masterpiece. The hand-copied edition would set you back a lifetime of earnings. But now you can buy this work produced by the new printing press at a substantial discount. For a mere five-years' salary you can order your personal edition. Once enough individuals sign up for this pre-publication offer, we will begin setting the type.

That's enough historical reflection. Now for my rant.

Disclaimer: What follows in my experience and my opinion. I do not claim that this company is alone guilty of the practices and attitudes I mention. Nor do I claim that it is the worst offender.

Some time ago, I purchased the Scholar's Library: Gold from Logos Bible Software. Its current price is $1379.95.

As I recall, that's the same price that I paid. It was a lot of money. But I thought it was a good investment.

The concept is appealing.

  1. Electronic books require no shelf space (something that I have less and less of).
  2. I can search all my books by topic or Bible reference.
  3. I can do research much more efficiently than with printed books.

Since my initial purchase, I have bought one additional book: The Hermeneutical Spiral by Grant Osborne. I had thought about buying the print edition, and the electronic edition was slightly cheaper. But I've gotten little use out of the book in the six month's I've owned it.

Well, I don't really own the book. I have a copy of it on my hard drive, but I can only access it from the Logos software and only on this one computer.

In December, I received an e-mail of an offer that was "too good to be true." For a mere $395.95 I could "own" $6,000 worth of books (300 individual titles). Of course, the value is calculated by what I would have to pay to get print editions of these works. Also, as an owner of the Scholar's Library Gold package, I already have several of them (about one-third). Oh, and I have to buy before December 31, 2007. Any CDs not sold by then will be destroyed and never offered again. And in case I have a slight shortage of cash, I can go on the installment plan starting at $55 dollars a month.

They include a little disclaimer that sounds like it was written by the Payday Advance Loan people:

The payment plan is a budgeting tool which can be used wisely or irresponsibly—"choose wisely". Don't use a payment plan or buy products you can not afford. While we would love everyone to buy all our books, we do not want people to go into debt because of us or abuse a payment plan.

Did I mention that several of the books most people would never buy unless they were included in a "package deal"? And a few of them appeared to be the public domain.

I don't have to buy it. By not buying it I am not harmed in any way. The value of my previous purchase does not diminish if I pass on this "upgrade."

So what's my problem with this offer?

For starters, it sounds like I'm being sold a used car.

Things like "offer good only" until December 31, leftover product will be destroyed, never be offered again, installment plan.

Second, the price of the print editions is irrelevant.

Only a fraction of the retail price of a printed work goes to the author. The remainder goes for production and distribution costs. Eventually, the production and distribution costs of an electronic product are zero. Yes, the books have to be created in the electronic format, but this only has to be done once. Even new editions can be produced with virtually no work. And customers can download electronic books at an insignificant cost to the publisher.

Third, these "special offer" prices should be the regular prices.

If they can afford to sell these books at the "one time offer" price, they could sell them forever at the same price. Every additional copy is pure profit, once the royalties are paid.

This whole electronic publishing thing could be revolutionary.

What if I could convert my own documents into the same format and add them to my purchased collection?

Surprise, I can do just that with the Personal Book Builder.

For a mere $89.95 I can buy software to convert my own documents. But wait, the license is good only for one year. And no one else can use the documents I create. I can't even use them unless I access them on the very same computer on which they were created.

Of course there is the Personal Book Builder—Standard Edition. It will set me back $249.95. And it's also only good for one year. What's more, I cannot "sell" my documents to anyone else. I can only distribute them for free. If I want to sell them, I must buy a different (more expensive) license and pay additional processing fees.

Even with this software, converting my own documents is a complex process involving several steps.

And then, only Logos customers who own one of the "seven boxed products" will be able to read my work.

Have these guys heard of Adobe Acrobat?

Their business model seems to be based on protecting their ability to charge premium prices for their software and electronic "books." The irony is that they would be able to make significantly more money if they weren't so greedy. Of course, they are not the only ones who are greedy here. The print publishers are trying to hang on to their stranglehold of the market. They find themselves the owners of electronic rights that they

  • Claimed for books they had published before there was such a thing.
  • Tricked unsuspecting authors into giving away.

And they are selling these works at a price point that is designed to protect the printed product, a price point that gives them (but not the author) an obscene percentage of profit.

The truth is that traditional publishers are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Instead of positioning themselves to add real value in a new world, they are trying to slow down technological progress.

Someday, someone will provide a low-cost, high-value channel for publishing and purchasing electronic works. Whoever does will become ridiculously wealthy. And I'll be able to say, "I told you so."

Pastor Rod

"Helping You Become the Person God Created You to Be"


daniel the smith said...

All the "traditional" media are in the same boat. It sucks for the consumers...

Meredith Gould said...

You think it "sucks" for the consumers? It's a zillion times worse for the authors. I should know. I am one who, despite being published by the "majors" ended up setting up my own company to put out a book considered too niche. It has sold very nicely, thank you. Publishing (Christian and otherwise) is a total mess. If you're reading this and you're an author, I encourage you to join the Authors Guild!

Pastor Rod said...


My frustration is with how much better it could be for everyone. Compared to the many years ago when I was a teenager, some things have improved significantly for consumers. But they could be so much better.


Pastor Rod said...


Yep, authors and other content creators have long been exploited by publishers. Good luck with the Author's Guild.

What are the details about it?


Meredith Gould said...

The Authors Guild, is a venerable institution that provides services (e.g., legal advice) for authors.

Dues are on a sliding scale. I joined years ago, on the the advice of my agent, to deal one of the major publishers. The mere mention of AG involvement stopped (nearly all) the shenanigans on their end!

In addition, their quarterly newsletter is a delightful compilation of news and articles by and about writers.

Pastor Rod said...


Thanks for for the info. I'll check it out.