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Philip Yancey


Farewell to the Golden Age

How publishing has changed.

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I had an enlightening experience with e-books in 2013. In April I finished the book The Question That Never Goes Away, based on my visits to three places of great tragedy. My traditional publisher wanted at least nine months lead time to publish it, the typical schedule for a new book, yet new tragedies such as the Boston Marathon bombings, tornadoes, and school shootings were occurring almost weekly, the very situations my book addressed. So I signed on for an Amazon-exclusive program to publish an e-book for 90 days before the hard copy book came out. Leaning on my friends for email lists, I managed to sell about 3,000 copies. On September 11 and Thanksgiving weekend I offered free downloads and 40,000 people downloaded the book! The moral of the story, as many have learned: things can quickly go viral on the Internet but it's a tough place to generate income.

Trust me, I have no sour grapes. My main motive in writing the book was to bring perspective and comfort to people going through hard times, and if 40,000 people got it free, all the better. As I say, I have made a good living from writing and would probably keep doing it even if all my books were free. I do worry, though, about new authors who don't have a backlist to depend on. As readers are trained to pay less (or nothing) for books, how can authors survive?

Last year Amazon sold more e-books than hard copy books, and some experts predict that by 2016 e-books will represent one-half of all books sold. (E-book sales have recently cooled, however, and that prognostication now seems unlikely.) Half of U.S. adults now own an e-reader or tablet computer, and there appears to be a generational divide. According to the Financial Times, 52 percent of 8- to 16-year-olds prefer reading on screen, with just 32 percent preferring print.

Certainly, e-books offer significant advantages. They are amazingly portable, for one thing. Logos Bible Software offers a package of 2,500 books that fit comfortably on a laptop computer and are instantly available with a few clicks. Someone kindly gave me a Kindle Paperwhite reader, and I find it ideal for reading books on a long trip without straining my arm or briefcase.

We still don't know the long-term effects of reading e-books vs. traditional hard copy books. Some studies show that people read slower on dedicated e-readers, and those who use tablets or computers or iPhones have a different reading experience, being constantly distracted by text messages, emails, Facebook, and other interruptions. Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains explores the changes in brain function that may result. Hyperlinked, multi-tasking readers do not have the same "deep reading" experience, and are less likely to store what they read in long-term memory.

In short, we face a revolution in reading not unlike the one Gutenberg introduced almost 700 years ago. Nowadays authors are coached on "building your brand" more than on improving their writing. Publishers care more about website stats and Twitter followers than the quality of an author's work.

Frankly, I'm glad I'm as old as I am. It's been fun living through publishing's golden age. I'll happily stick with the "deep reading" experience. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than browsing through the books in my office. They're my friends—marked up, dog-eared, highlighted, a kind of spiritual and intellectual journal—in a way that my Kindle reader will never be.

Philip Yancey is the author of many books, including Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church. This essay was posted on his blog site on July 6, 2014.

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