March 27, 2013
We had a real treat last week: an in-person visit from Andy Crouch, the energetic and insightful executive editor of Christianity Today magazine. He's following up his 2008 IVP title, Culture Making, with a new book coming out this fall entitled Playing God. He was at the Press to lay some of his thinking on us, and it was great. Would you like to listen in?Continue reading "[Video] Andy Crouch on Institutionalism"
February 21, 2013
One of the struggles I have when blogging about books here is my fear of appearing to favor some IVP titles over others. I have quite the opposite problem from that of another colleague in book publishing: the incomparable Bridget Jones.Continue reading "Mama Loves All Her Babies the Same"
February 1, 2013
August 8, 2012
Thank you to Caitie Johnston for writing this post. Caitie is the Assistant Marketing Manager for IVP.
As booksellers, we have the opportunity to meet some pretty wonderful people in the book publishing industry. We attend many conferences every year, and at each it’s common to see familiar faces. In July, as we attended the International Christian Retail Show in Orlando, FL, we were greeted by old friends from publishers, distributors and booksellers alike. But perhaps the sweetest fellowship we enjoyed on this trip was the time with our authors who came along with us.
We are thankful to publish a variety of books by Christian artist and author Michael Card, who joined us at ICRS this year to promote the next book on Mark in his Biblical Imagination Series. Michael was invited to lead the conference’s evening worship service one night with new songs from his CD Mark: The Beginning of the Gospel, and his classic hit, “Immanuel.” It is a blessing to us to work with an author whose music and writing has impacted so many people for the last thirty years. During his book signing, many booksellers, publishers and other attendees lined up to meet Michael to express their gratitude and share about different concerts and conferences where they saw him throughout the years. Amidst his book signing, performances and interviews, Michael presented the completed manuscript of his next book Matthew: The Gospel of Identity. We look forward to seeing it printed and bound at next year’s ICRS!
We also had the pleasure of hosting Os Guinness, social critic and author of more than twenty-five books. We were honored that he accepted our invitation to ICRS this year to promote his new book, A Free People’s Suicide. We gave away plenty of books at his signing as fans lined up to get their hands on a copy of a new book by the author of such classics like The Call. Although he is living in Washington D.C., Os is still a citizen of Britain, and one fan even tried to convince him to switch over to the U.S. officially.
Michael Card and Os Guinness are very different people—Michael, a singer/songwriter and author from the Tennessee south and Os, a very cheerful but composed Brit— but they hit it off as they were ushered from one event to the next. Michael (@Michael_Card) tried to convince Os to start up his own Twitter feed by showing him how many conversations in the social media world already include references to “Os Guinness.” We’ll see if this is enough to convince Mr. Guinness to join the twittersphere.
This year, IVP also made many connections with new booksellers, and continued our relationships with some of our veteran customers. Booksellers have the most direct contact with our readers and we value their feedback on our many new books. Several popular titles for our bookstores this year were our LifeGuide Bible Study series, the John Stott Bible Studies, God in a Brothel, Sacred Rhythms, the God’s Promises series and our new Understanding the Books of the Bible series.
Another successful ICRS is over, but we’re already revving up for next year!
Posted by Leah Kiple at 11:00 AM
August 5, 2011
Thank you to Alisse Wissman for writing this post. Alisse is international sales coordinator and academic print publicist for IVP.
I'm a strong believer in full cultural immersion. When I decided to study abroad in college, I chose a program that would provide classes about the culture I was living in and allow me to physically experience that culture through travel, museums, language, and in particular, Irish dance.
So when I started working at IVP just over a year ago as the International Sales Coordinator, the question of my attendance at the International Christian Retail Show was raised. Would I like to attend? Could I handle such a big show within weeks of starting a new job? Would I be able to establish a rapport with customers by then?
"Absolutely," I said, laying down all my cards. I was in. Taking the leap. Fully immersed.
Not having heard of ICRS before, I did some research: the International Christian Retail Show is produced and hosted annually by the CBA, the association of Christian stores. It features a variety of Christian publishers and music/movie producers who set up booths featuring their artists and products. Store owners, distributors and media browse the aisles checking out the latest in Christian retailing.
It seemed simple, but what followed my very brief three-week training period was a small bit of cultural shock. Yes, I grew up in an evangelical home, and yes, I attended an evangelical Christian college, but was I ready for the art of evangelical Christian retail? Not particularly.
I was thrown into a world of Christian celebrity sightings, rows of booths and kiosks vying for my attention, mazes of author-signing lines and meetings with international customers on a noisy show room floor. Full immersion means no turning back, and there I was, in a completely new conference culture. But thankfully the experiment worked just the way I hoped it would, and adapting quickly, I gained brand new insights into the publishing world.
This year I felt much more prepared. I knew our customers and authors, had a year of experience and was quite excited to meet up with so many people whom I only see once a year.
ICRS took place in Atlanta this year, and two IVP authors attended, both of whom I was thrilled to get to know in greater capacity. Richard J. Foster, author of the forthcoming Sanctuary of the Soul, and Adele Calhoun, who recently published Invitations from God, both gave interviews and signed copies of their books for fans, media and shop owners. It was lovely to see these stellar authors interacting with the people who so cherish their writing.
I was also able to spend time with both Richard and Adele throughout the show. Richard was full of wisdom about ICRS (which he has attended many times), giving me tips and pointers. Adele and I bonded over our shared love of Cape Cod, and she even gave me ideas on places to visit for my upcoming vacation!
Conversations with our international customers were also priceless. It's fascinating that our books, which generally are written in America, relate to people not just in other English-speaking countries, but even in places like Singapore and Ghana.
Highlights of this year's show:
I think some cultural aspects of ICRS will remain the same--it will always be a place to meet authors and buy your favorite flavor of "Testamints"--but I hope it will continue to be a place where IVP can nurture relationships between authors and readers, and foster bonds between ourselves and the dedicated people who love to sell our books.
March 7, 2009
Publishing is hard work. We make it look so simple, I know: pretty little books with clever little sentences all strung together, effortlessly circumnavigating the globe and known universe to greet their audiences with a chipper “Hello!” and a promise of great reward. You want copies of The Hermeneutical Spiral and Circles of Belonging to hop in a box together and travel the thousands of miles from our distribution center to your church’s library? No problem: just point and click.
Blogging is hard work too—so hard that this blog has needed three of us to maintain it, with occasional outside support from authors, coworkers and, now, an intern. One of the nice things about authors is that they enjoy writing and are passionate about at least the subject of their book, so it’s often not all that difficult for them to come up with five- to eight-hundred words to share with our readers. One of the nice things about coworkers is that they can fill in the blanks of our understanding about our industry, so their occasional foray into blogging helps to fill out the content of Behind the Books. And one of the nice things about interns is that you can make them do pretty much anything you want.
That’s not the only nice thing about interns, of course, and it’s far from the only nice thing about our current intern, Michelle Read. Michelle, a senior at Hope College majoring in English, has busied herself for a few weeks now with writing reviews of draft manuscripts, proofreading catalog copy, filing paperwork, archiving reprints, brainstorming book titles and any number of other tasks essential to the publishing process. She’s learning a fair bit along the way and processing what she’s learning whenever she can gather together some free time and space. And now we’ve figured out a way to commandeer that free time and space: we’re going to make her blog her way through her internship.
Check in here regularly over the course of spring 2009 for updates on what Michelle is learning and how she’s adjusting to life in the big city, life in an office building, life in an industry. If you’ve been wondering what life behind the books is really like, if you’ve been curious how IVP keeps generating so many addenda and errata, if you’ve suspected that Andy’s unedited thoughts are too well-formed to have not undergone editorial scrutiny, if you’ve worried just how far and deep the strangeness and dimness at IVP extends—here’s your chance. We’re not paying her, so she’s not gonna lie for us.
March 4, 2009
Sally Craft, our director of digital publishing, forwarded this link to a fascinating blog story on how one author ultimately created a bestseller by starting with an informational website. It’s a month or so old now (so ancient in the online world!), but still worth reading I think.
Sally says: “It’s a case where an author used social media to successfully connect with an audience for her book … . A key factor, I think, is that the author took initiative well before the publisher was involved. This is not something that a publisher could do for a title as
January 22, 2009
“That sounds like a good article.” That’s how a colleague responded recently to my excited presentation of a book proposal. Ouch.
What determines whether an idea would work better as a book or an article? When a friend asked me recently if I had anything that helps a writer determine the answer to that question, I had to admit I couldn’t really say. I asked around, and in fact none of us remembers seeing anything authoritative on the subject. So I thought I’d make something up.
1. Audience, audience, audience. Are there enough people out there who would drop $15-20 and a couple of weeks’ worth of reading time to digest the idea under consideration? “Enough” is a difficult threshold to measure, of course, but here’s a proto-filter:
Readers (as opposed to non-readers)
For example, many people read, but only a percentage of those reading people are Buddhists, and only a percentage of those Buddhists who read give a portion of their reading time to books. Not all Buddhist book readers read books about Buddhism, but undoubtedly some do. Only a few, however, would feel compelled to purchase and read a high-end theological critique of Buddhism from an evangelical Christian perspective. And finally, some of those Buddhist devotees of high-end theological Christian critiques of Buddhism have taken vows of poverty that preclude their spending money on books.
I am undoubtedly missing some layers in my filter, and in the case of my example there may well be a sufficient alternative audience outside of Buddhists (scholars of world religions, for example), but you get the idea. Books are significantly more expensive than articles, and so to earn their keep they depend on a highly committed audience. Is there enough demand to warrant the supply?
So the first category distinction between what constitutes a book and what constitutes an article is the question of adequate audience. The second is like it.
2. Content, content, content. In terms of pure word count, a short book is generally ten to twenty times the length of an average article. So, put simply, does the author have ten to twenty articles’ worth of ideas about the topic under consideration? Are those ideas distinct enough from each other to avoid redundancy when stuck together? Are they integrated enough that they make sense bound together into a book?
Another way of looking at this is by looking at the skeleton of your idea. How many sections does your thesis break out into? If you can’t subdivide it into more than two or three ideas, then perhaps before long you’d run out of steam writing it. If you subdivide into seven to ten “chapters” but can’t imagine yourself writing more than a few paragraphs about any of those subcategories, then maybe this idea can’t sustain a booklength treatment.
Now, just because an idea doesn’t yield a book’s worth of content doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea; it may well be a great idea. A more prudent editor might leave it to a periodical publisher to comment on the positive case for an article, but I’m not especially prudent. Therefore let me offer these preliminary thoughts.
“That sounds like a good article” is the kiss of death on a book proposal, but it’s exactly what you want to hear from a periodical publisher. In either case, there’s a lot of work—both introspection and research—that precedes it, and a lot of work—writing and rewriting and supporting and promoting—that follows it. So whatever distinctions there are between articles and books, neither one can be said to be easier. Whatever publishing direction you choose to take an idea, you need to know who you are, what you have to say, and who you’re dealing with.
December 19, 2008
Sometimes I read online conversations about stuff I know absolutely nothing about—often by accident—and occasionally they offer some insights that get past the barriers of my ignorance. Case in point: TokBox—apparently the technology of the moment.
From what I can ascertain, TokBox is free live web video, easily appended to existing social networking environments, that amps up considerably the capacity for remote meetings and other ways of connecting people across various divides. I welcome D. J. Chuang or anyone of his aptitude to publicly mock my ignorance on the matter, if only they’ll correct any misinformation I’m putting out there.
What I found particularly interesting is the difference—described here in critique of one Christian entrepreneur’s employment of TokBox technology—between an online and actual “watercooler” environment:
This “organization” idea is helpful for me. I go to the InterVarsity Press breakroom for one thing: coffee. (Maybe the occasional Hot Pocket.) Everything else is typically either (a) a delightful but ultimately distracting interruption or (b) a serendipitous and surprisingly strategic conversation.
(Incidentally, whenever my boss is within earshot, I hope it’s the latter but worry that it’s becoming the former.)
I suspect that, for people who are typically overtaxed and under pressure, their ventures online—and perhaps even into a book—fall into either category (a) or category (b). Category (b) is a virtue; category (a) is a vice. Wasting people’s time—online, in person or in print—may well be becoming the new cardinal sin.
October 3, 2008
Our managing editor, Allison Rieck, turned us on to the poem "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered," written by Clive James and posted online at Garrison Keillor's writer's almanac. You can read it here.
Remaindering is a sad and all too common experience in the publishing industry. A book is remaindered when it becomes a matter of economic prudence to unload remaining stock as quickly as possible, rather than to continue to bear the costs of storing books that simply aren't selling. The poem vividly communicates the phenomenon, most notably the wickedness it evokes in the competitive onlooker.
Writing as a craft carries a lot of mystique to it, but writing as a profession or an industry is vulnerable to the same vices as any market enterprise--most notably, competition and its impact on how we relate to our competitors. One more book remaindered, at the end of the day that everybody talks about when they're envisioning the crass bottom line of a long list of competing interests, means one less book to compete with your own, one less author to vie for media attention or critical reviews, one less half-inch of shelf space preventing your spine-out book from being face-out.
But when writers step back from the industry of writing they think of the craft of writing and the discipline of reading, and they recognize that remaindering remains a sad and all too common experience. Writers understand better than most the rewards and the significance of reading, and the part that writing plays in keeping continuity between the present and the past, not to mention the present and the future. We are, as a culture, in many ways what we read and what we write, and so books that fall into remaindering are to one degree or another evidence of the road we have chosen not to take--and some of those roads less traveled we may one day come to regret.
So alongside "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered" I suggest we reread "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and pause to reflect that each book, like each person, diminishes each of us with its death.
September 19, 2008
“You want to see what happens to books after they go to book heaven?” she asks. On the screen of her MacBook, a giant steel shredder disgorges a ragged mess of paper and cardboard onto a conveyor belt. This is the fate of up to 25 percent of the product churned out by New York’s publishing machine.
That's a peek into a recent staff meeting at Harper Studio in New York, profiled in New York magazine recently, and a chilling vison of a world in which a laptop computer can be called a Mac "Book" and a twelve-year-old's suggestion for revitalizing the book publishing industry is to "turn all the books into movies so nobody has to waste their time."
You think that's gloomy? Check out this candid observation:
Nobody knows where the readers are, or how to connect with them. Fifteen years ago, Philip Roth guessed there were at most 120,000 serious American readers—those who read every night—and that the number was dropping by half every decade.
Meanwhile, the sales landscape is changing dramatically, not the least of which (though perhaps the most surreptitious of which) is the positioning going on at Amazon:
Editors and retailers alike fear that it’s bent on building a vertical publishing business—from acquisition to your doorstep—with not a single middleman in sight. No HarperCollins, no Borders, no printing press. . . . The ultimate fear is that the Kindle could be a Trojan horse.
No HarperCollins, presumably, means no InterVarsity Press--not because we are like them but because compared to a corporate behemoth like Amazon we are a teeny weeny grasshopper. That's OK though, because--if I may mix my metaphors--that makes us the underdog, and as the author of the New York article suggests, "the industry's long-term survival" depends on "people who think like underdogs.”
Thanks to a fellow underdog, NavPress editor Caleb Seeling, for turning me on to this article.
August 25, 2008
I don't want you to think we are anti-endorsement. We are very grateful for the kind words that are attributed to our books. Nevertheless, since I read it just yesterday, I can't resist quoting a bit from Thomas Merton's A Vow of Conversation.
I am surfeited with words and typescript and print. Surfeited to the point of utter nausea. Surfeited above all with letters. This is so bad that it amounts to a sickness, like the obsessive gluttony of the rich woman in Theodoret who was eating thirty chickens a day until some hermit cured her and brought her to the state where she only ate three. . . .
One place to begin is perhaps in the area of letters. All I know is that when I respond to another request asking for a blurb, I feel like a drunk and incontinent man falling into bed with another woman in spite of himself, and the awful thing is that I can't stop.
August 20, 2008
My Gen X sister--perhaps because she lives in Washington, D.C., where everyone has an agenda and works the angles (I saw Legally Blonde 2, so I know what life in D.C. is like)--has a healthy skepticism about words of commendation of any kind. So I was not surprised by the New York Times article she turned me on to this week, about the seedy backroom politics of book endorsements. You can read the article here.
Endorsements are uncomfortable. One of the authors I've worked with had a standing policy of not endorsing books until the moment when we sent his book out for endorsements. It reminded me of my standing policy in college not to date my friends, which one friend reminded me of when I asked another friend out. I was, to quote Garry Trudeau quoting William Shakespeare, "hoisted by my own petard."
Endorsements are solicited for any number of reasons but are guided by one agenda: the broader dissemination of the book. To that extent endorsements (and by extension, endorsers) are commodities and are necessarily treated as such. Too many endorsements and the reader glazes over, and the impact of each is lessened. Not enough endorsements, or endorsements by reviewers of dubious consequence, and the book struggles to distinguish itself among the hundreds of thousands of other new books on the market.
But despite the commodification of the practice, endorsing books is still a human activity and thus has some self-correcting attributes to it. The endorser's name is attached to his or her words of commendation, and so regardless of motive, the reputation of an endorser is to one degree or another linked to the fate of each endorsed book. It's also more evident than many endorsers realize whether they've actually read the book or are simply indulging a friend or extending their own brand. Readers, we've come to discover, aren't stupid. Convince enough readers that you'll endorse anything on paper regardless of what it says, and your supply of endorsements will quickly exceed its demand.
In a perfect world, a writer--particularly an unknown writer--will experience endorsements as the affirmation of his or her forerunners and peers that this book merits reading. Endorsements are a way of welcoming an author into the guild or otherwise celebrating their craft. In this respect such a welcome can come from the author's close friends but also from complete strangers, because the community of publishing is large enough that we can't possibly know everybody.
I got a call right around Christmas morning from Jason Santos, the author of the forthcoming A Community Called Taizé, that the brothers whose community he was chronicling had invited Archbishop Desmond Tutu to write him a foreword, and that the Archbishop had accepted the invitation. Jason's journey as an author wasn't quite complete at that point--his book won't be in print for another couple of months--but the journey into the community of authors that began with his professor suggesting we publish him led him ultimately across the world to one of the great voices of our age. It takes a village to sell a book, but every once in a while a book can create a community.
June 16, 2008
A friend of mine (he's a cop!) sent me the following video, which corresponds nicely with my boss's trip to England and his boss's ongoing sabbatical. I'm not commenting on our work ethic at IVP, but it does stir the imagination . . .
February 4, 2008
I've written before about why authors expect (not unreasonably) that it should not take too long to get a revised manuscript typeset and printed.
Rachel Donadio offers another look at the same topic here, explaining that while technology can make things fast, people, geography, planning and distribution can still take a long time.
Posted by Andy Le Peau at 9:27 AM
November 21, 2007
The good folks at Very Short List recently featured the book Seven Hundred Penguins, a visual survey of sixty-five years of Penguin Books paperback covers. You can peek at eight such covers at VSL. Good Christmas present for the graphic designer in your life.
We talk about covers all the time at InterVarsity Press. How can you not when you publish ninety to a hundred titles a year--all of which need covers--and when you have more than a thousand books in your backlist--all of which feature covers that may or may not, on any given day, be showing their age?
Maybe you have a favorite cover design from the IVP backlist. Feel free to share the joy here with your fellow readers.
October 19, 2007
Vanity publishing. It even sounds a bit sleazy, doesn't it? Paying a "publisher" to print and distribute your work has always had negative connotations in publishing. If a legitimate firm won't produce your book, there must be something wrong with it. Right? Either it is commercially unviable or editorially substandard. It means someone is doing it just to satisfy their vanity.
No more. Vanity publishing has had an extreme makeover.Continue reading "Vanity Publishing: Extreme Makeover Edition"
September 19, 2007
To be an editor is, at least in part, to be a destroyer of dreams. One of my first responsibilities at InterVarsity Press was to oversee (and, let’s face it, overlook) the “slush pile”—unsolicited solicitations from would-be IVP authors, ranging from apologetic young scholars trying to publish before they perish to would-be apostles thinking they’ve just written the next Bible. To lick the envelope that contains the form letter informing these author-wannabes that they’ve been rejected for publication is to step into a long and storied stream of publishing history.
Lisa Cockrel, an editor at Brazos Press, turned me on to an article David Oshinsky wrote for the New York Times recounting his experience mining the archives of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and finding letters politely or frankly rejecting some of the great minds and literary works of the twentieth century. Those folks had it down to an art form—their letters were virtually Pulitzer prizeworthy; you knew from reading the well-crafted rejection that your writing wasn’t up to snuff.
Nevertheless, the rejection-I-mean-review process of a publishing house is almost unavoidably, in Oshinsky’s words, “wildly subjective, reflecting the quirks and biases of the reviewer.” The challenge facing the editor is obvious, if you have the stomach to put yourself in his or her shoes: with space, in our case, for about ninety new books a year, and with upwards of 1,500 proposals plunking down annually in the in-box, and with dozens of competing publishers simultaneously vying for the attention of a fickle reading public that is reading statistically fewer and fewer books, the stakes are high and the prospects are dim.
That being said, editors are not completely heartless. There’s a reason we’re here, I’m told: We have generally good instincts about what makes for good writing that people will read. As Oshinsky readily avers, “Even in the rejection files, where negativity reigned, the great bulk of the reader’s reports seemed fair-minded and persuasive. Put simply, a rejected manuscript usually appeared to deserve its fate.” Beyond that, editors will even try to maintain a big-picture view of the author behind each proposal; sometimes it’s a matter of timing, sometimes it’s a matter of mismatch. For Knopf, “cultivating fresh talent was a process in which doors must remain open, . . . the next manuscript might well be the charm.”
So for all you writers out there who can’t stand the thought that some heartless philistine such as myself is passing judgment on your brilliant prose, cut me some slack, Jack Kerouac: there are sixteen editors just like me out there who felt perfectly justified in rejecting Anne Frank.
September 7, 2007
The previous post got enough comments musing along these lines that I thought it deserved a post of its own. Is Christian publishing a business or a ministry? Some hybrid of both? Neither? Let me answer this way. I don't think anybody goes into Christian publishing for "business reasons." Book publishing is a low-margin industry. If you want to make a lot of money in business, you wouldn't pick books. You'd go into electronics or technology or financial services. (Once several colleagues were discussing how administrative assistants at a financial services firm make double or triple what they do in book publishing. I observed, "Well, that makes sense. We make books. They make money.")
Basically everybody who works in Christian publishing does so for ministry reasons. We care about ideas, we are passionate about the gospel, we want to change lives through Christian literature. That being said, we all quickly learn that financial concerns and marketplace issues necessarily impact everything we do, from acquisitions and design to marketing and distribution. We are thrilled to be in the work of publishing and distributing Christian books and resources, but because it's a commercial enterprise, the bottom-line realities mean that if the books don't sell and have marketplace viability, their ministry effectiveness is decreased.
IVP's publisher, Bob Fryling, has often quoted a saying that "Book publishing is like shooting a gun in the air and hoping a duck flies by." Publishing professionals have long said that publishing is mostly a matter of throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. You publish a bunch of books, and there may be no rhyme or reason as to why some books catch on, sell well and are profitable, while other books--which may be just as good in terms of editorial content and ministry value--don't find an audience and end up going quickly out of print. It's a mystery.
So publishers do what they can to minimize unknown risk factors and publish books that are more likely to work for them. If a particular kind of book succeeds, we'll do more like it. If readers respond well to a particular author, we'll ask for a follow-up. But if a book bombs, we're not likely to do more books like that or from that author.
As a result, every publisher tends to develop its own brand identity and constituency. Some publishers have a strong core identity as conservative or Reformed or charismatic or devotional or academic or whatever. Some have a track record with biographies or self-help or biblical studies or fiction. All this leads publishers to continue to acquire and publish books in those veins, and readers come to know them for those kinds of books.
In terms of the development of the Christian publishing industry as a whole, this means that it has become increasingly difficult for new, first-time, unknown authors to get published, because on the whole, publishing a book by an established author is less risky and more likely to find an audience and be profitable than publishing a book by an unknown. This fuels the bestseller mentality, the search for big-name A-list authors, and squeezes out many good books by thoughtful authors. (It also weeds out a lot of lousy books by writers who might have noble ministry intentions but have bad writing, bad content or both.)
All this is to say that Christian publishers do what they can to publish missionally edifying Christian books with the best potential for ministry value within their particular business constraints and parameters. It's not an either/or; it's a both/and, necessarily so. It's a dialectical tension, or a paradox, like God being three in one or Jesus being fully God and fully human. We could similarly say that ideally, Christian publishers should be fully ministry and fully business at the same time. Working out the implications of all that is tricky, and leads to all sorts of interesting discussions when our publishing committee meets to decide what books we publish or don't publish.
What's interesting to me is that the market has shifted. Thirty years ago, IVP's editorial director Jim Sire could publish books by Hans Rookmaaker or about existentialism or Kierkegaard and they would sell just fine, primarily because there were a lot fewer Christian books and publishers out there. So the market sustained niche books and they worked in the general trade. But now, there's much more competition (some 200,000 books published in the English language each year, with at least five or six thousand directly published by Christian publishers), so those kinds of books don't tend to make as much of a splash.
We publish a lot of books that are not going to see huge commercial returns because we want to serve an underserved market or publish on an important issue or topic. We might do a book for Asian American women, or a survey of the literature of Second Temple Judaism, or something else that is by its nature for a very niche audience. Fortunately, as Chris Anderson has detailed in The Long Tail, online technology and infinite virtual shelf space means that such niche books can be financially viable, as long as people can hear about them and find them. So we are not quite as bound by the bestseller demands of the marketplace now as we might have been before the advent of Amazon and Google.
I'll leave it to others to develop a full-blown theology of Christian publishing (which would necessarily require analysis and intersection with the role of the parachurch, marketplace ministry, Christian understandings of commerce and economics and all the rest). The best I can say at this point is that in the daily trenches of working out our praxis, we in Christian publishing are doing our best to be faithful to the gospel and the mission and ministry of Christian literature through the commercial resources and business structures available to us.
September 5, 2007
Mark Taylor, president of Tyndale House Publishers, recently posted this lament about authors, agents and royalty advances in the Christian publishing market:
We sharpen our pencils. How many copies will we have to sell in order to earn out the advance? We grimace. We don’t think we can sell that many copies. So we figure out how painful the write-off will be if we don’t sell that many copies. Even with a big write-off, will the project still be profitable?
We put together our proposal and send it to the agent. We’ve stretched as far as we can stretch because we want this deal. Then the agent comes back to tell us that the offer wasn’t high enough. There are other offers that are bigger. But we want this deal—so we stretch even higher. Sometimes we run through all of the normal warning signs and make an offer that makes no sense at all. After all, we want this deal!
So we get the deal. We pay the advance. The manuscript comes in. We begin to wonder why we paid so much for this average manuscript. We edit it and market it and sell it and process the returns. And at the end of the day we take a huge write-off. If we’re lucky, the book earns a net contribution to overheads. But in most of these scenarios, the book generates a loss even apart from overheads.
What's interesting about this is that high-flying auctions and advances has been true of New York general market publishing for decades, but it has not been the case in Christian publishing until relatively recently, perhaps the last ten or fifteen years or so. And as a result, good books (with less "commercial potential") get squeezed out of the market and displaced from bookstore shelves to make way for high-profile books that publishers need to sell a boatload of to break even on.
This is not to say that agents are all bad, or that advances are all inflated. More than anything, it's a cautionary tale to publishers about bidding on new book proposals. The reality is that the vast majority of books are only going to sell a few thousand copies and thus only warrant advances of a few thousand dollars.
We're fortunate that relatively few IVP books crash and burn. Almost every book is at least profitable, and some do well. IVP is not a big-name bestseller-type publisher. Our latest theological dictionary or spiritual formation text is not going to burn up the charts. But we hope every IVP book makes some contribution to the kingdom and to thoughtful evangelical Christian discourse that is more influential than can be measured in sales figures or royalty dollars.
July 23, 2007
The Jane Austen Festival in Bath, apparently, has a point it would like to make about the publishing industry. The leader of the festival sent a book proposal called First Impressions to eighteen publishers. The first line was a direct lift from the first line of Pride & Prejudice; the passages that followed were thinly veiled reconstructions of Austen's writings. Read the story here.
Seventeen of the eighteen publishers rejected the proposal without noting the similarities between it and Austen's work; the eighteenth publisher accused the "author" of "plagiarism." The unfortunate seventeen are now under attack by the Jane Austen Festival in Bath; their rejection letters are an indictment on the state of contemporary literature, or somesuch nonsense.
To my knowledge, the Jane Austen Festival in Bath didn't send their faux-proposal to InterVarsity Press, so I have not seen it. I would, however, like to offer my own meager defense of the publishers who rejected the work.
I recognize that in defending the rejection of Jane Austen I am incurring the wrath of her rabid fans, one of whom I live with. So I don't enter into this lightly, but I think it's important to confront the reality of the market: books that are classic are still to one degree or another timebound. They were written in a specific context by people who were shaped by and engaged with the ethos of their era. No matter how profound and timeless some of their insights have proven to be, at a certain point they start to look like quaint anachronisms with no relevance to contemporary society. Jane Austen's ouevre, sadly, fits into this category.
Exhibit A: Here's the first line of the novel proposal: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." I see three things fundamentally anachronistic about this opening line:
* Thing number one: Truth is rarely universally acknowledged in this day and age, particularly such sentimental and clearly socially constructed a "truth" as this opening statement.
* Thing number two: "A single man . . . must be in want of a wife" hardly seems a safe assumption these days.
* Thing number three: I for one would be uncomfortable with the idea that one can be "in want of a wife" in the same way that one might be "in possession of a good fortune."
Now please hear me, all you rabid fans of Jane Austen: I am not deriding Pride & Prejudice as a literary work. Trust me, I know whereof I speak: I have dutifully sat through two viewings of the ten-episode production starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. I own (by proxy) that production, which means that before I die I'll probably sit through it again and, let's face it, again. I also own (by proxy) the 2005 Keira Knightly film which communicates very effectively in two hours what took the Colin Firth version six hours; I think they trimmed about four hours of dancing and kept the story intact. I will aver that Pride & Prejudice is a really good story that does, in many ways, transcend its particular setting. But as a new novel it is neither new nor novel, and the editors at those seventeen publishers were right to ascertain that it wouldn't fetch the audience that the original has been able to cultivate over nearly two hundred years.
Exhibit B: Jane Austen. Keeping in mind that I have not seen the actual faux-proposal ("Back, rabid Jane Austen fans, back!"), and although I'm sure her name wasn't on the proposal, for the sake of intellectual integrity the Jane Austen Festival in Bath would need to manufacture an appropriate doppelganger for her, and so we have to imagine what strengths this faux-Jane Austen would bring to the marketing plan. Consider, then, what a mousy, reclusive and (let us not forget) dead author has to offer a publisher in this technology/celebrity-driven culture. Jane Austen would not know how to deal with a radio interview, whether in person or by telephone. She wouldn't be able to conduct herself from her castle by carriage to the Barnes & Noble for a booksigning without freaking out.
Seriously, picture Jane Austen with one of those Bluetooth things in her ear, plugging dates for public readings into her BlackBerry as she boards the Lear for Hollywood to negotiate the Fox television series deal and the manga version of her collected works. She's lost some of her charm, hasn't she? No, I'm afraid Jane Austen isn't as marketable a person as is Jane Austen the icon, and so she would indeed have a much more difficult time securing a publishing deal. It's not her, it's the market.
So there, Jane Austen Festival in Bath. I quote the prophet Isaiah: "Wash and make yourselves clean. / Take your evil deeds / out of my sight! / Stop doing wrong, / learn to do right!" Enough with your dirty tricks! Leave us poor publishers alone! We've got enough to worry about now that Harry Potter is done and people are back to thinking that books are a quaint anachronism with no relevance to contemporary society.
Be gentle, rabid Jane Austen fans, be gentle . . .
July 10, 2007
Al Hsu filed this report from the International Christian Retail Show in Atlanta, Georgia. Al is representing InterVarsity Press as an editor there; his wife, Ellen, is meeting with international publishers as our rights manager. Read more about the trip at Al's personal blog, The Suburban Christian.
Ellen and I attended the CBA/ECPA Christian Book Awards ceremony last night, which is the Christian publishing world's equivalent of the Oscars or Emmys. InterVarsity Press had three finalists: Praying by J. I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom in the Inspiration & Gift category, The IVP Atlas of Bible History in the Bible Reference & Study category, and Finding God Beyond Harvard by Kelly Monroe Kullberg in the Christian Life category. I was particularly excited about Kelly's book being a finalist because I was the project editor for that book, and the other books in the category were by folks like Philip Yancey, Bill Hybels, Larry Crabb and John Piper. Quite the competition, and it's an honor just to be in the running.
And we were thrilled to find out that one of our books won in its category! The winners are:
Bibles: Archaeological Study Bible NIV (Zondervan)
(Last year a 900-page dictionary of theological interpretation won the book of the year, and they changed the rules so that any of the finalists in any of the six categories could be book of the year. Sales numbers are now weighed as one of the factors in determining the overall winner. Which is why a theological dictionary did not win this year.)
In addition, Packer & Nystrom's Praying also won a Logos Book Award from the Logos Bookstores chain in the Devotional/Spirituality category. Congrats to the authors!
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:42 AM
July 9, 2007
Every July an eerie silence settles over InterVarsity Press's corporate compound in the Western Suburbs of Chicago. You could set your watch to it--if your watch reported time in monthly increments rather than second by second.
The blame can be cast in a variety of directions. Maybe everyone is being quiet out of respect for the accountants conducting our annual financial audit, which follows the end of our fiscal year in June. Maybe July is the vacation month of choice here, so that people can cash in on their newly replenished vacation time or recover from their year of editorial exertion. Maybe people are simply traveling as representatives of the Press at industry events such as the International Christian Retail Show or ministry events such as the Emergent Midwest Gathering. Or maybe the summer heat has sucked any remaining vestiges of extroversion out of our editorial staff.
Me, I like a little noise in my life--a fact that doesn't really harmonize well with my chosen profession. Editors edit, which requires concentration, which according to conventional wisdom requires silence. Not so with me: I whistle while I work, much to the perturbation of my coworkers. I listen to my tunes on iTunes. I keep my door wide open so that I can say hi when people walk by. July--the quietest of all editorial months--can become a bit oppressive for me as a consequence.
But then again, there are times when I do close my door because I've become overwhelmed by sensory overload. There are times when I can't sleep because the sounds of the day have become the noises echoing in my head. There are times when I need silence.
Adele Calhoun writes of silence in her wonderful Spiritual Disciplines Handbook:
Jesus told his disciples, "I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear" (John 16:12). It is [the] Holy Spirit's job to keep the inner process of revelation underway. But in order for the Spirit to do his job, we need to cooperate and put ourselves in a place to deeply and reflectively listen.
Silence really does serve its purpose: to free up mental space, to calm our bodies down, to prepare us to receive. So every once in a while I like to allow silence to interrupt my sonic playground, in the same way that I welcome the sounds of people occasionally interrupting my times of silence. That, I think, is what St. Ambrose was doing under Augustine's scrutiny in The Confessions--finding the proper balance between welcoming God and welcoming others. Sometimes I use Augustine's observation of his practice as a "Do Not Disturb" sign on my doorframe:
When he was reading, his eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the meaning; however, his voice and tongue were at rest. Often when we had come to see him, for no man was forbidden to enter, . . . we saw him reading to himself in this way, and never otherwise. Seeing that he sat silently for so long--for who dares to intrude on one so intent?--we were inclined to depart.
This July I hope to receive the silence around here as a gift rather than as an oppression, but trust me: I'll happily welcome the interruptions as they come, because I enjoy a visit just as much as I enjoy the silence.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:49 AM
June 15, 2007
According to a new survey conducted by consulting firm Content Connections, book buyers are typically middle-aged career women who are married, make an average of $88,000 a year and have at least a bachelor's degree. Of all nonfiction books sold, 66 percent are purchased by women (though fewer than 15 percent of bestselling authors are female). Last year, the average female book buyer was 45 years old and bought 28 books, spending $280 on nonfiction titles and $147 on fiction titles. This book buyer most likely lives in a large city and buys a third of her books online but prefers to visit the local bookstore where she spends an average of 40 minutes browsing.
Does this fit you, dear reader? Occasionally over the years InterVarsity Press has done studies of our readership, especially of our IVP Book Club members, and we have learned that the "typical" IVP reader tends to be a middle-aged male, often active in some form of ministry or church leadership. Of course, many of our books are geared directly for college students, and thus another segment of our readership is quite distinctly 18-25 of both genders (often more women, as more women are college students than men on campus in general as well as within InterVarsity circles).
I think the above study is interesting not only for the demographic snapshot but also for the buying habit pattern - two-thirds nonfiction, one-third fiction, a third online, two-thirds in physical stores. And 28 books a year is roughly one every two weeks. Of course, how one calculates this is inexact; I start far more books than I finish, since I casually browse and dip into dozens of books at a time, a chapter here, a chapter there. But I generally finish reading one or two books a week. I used to read as many as a hundred and fifty books in a calendar year, but that number has gone drastically down since having kids. (Unless you include kids' books, in which case I now read hundreds more!)
How about you? How many books do you read a year? And do you buy them online, in physical stores or a mix of both? Inquiring minds want to know.
Posted by Al Hsu at 7:49 AM
June 8, 2007
Dieter Roelstraete, in issue 12 of the journal Dot Dot Dot, extends Martin Heidegger's description of books as "letters to friends":
Anyone who has ever "made" a book will immediately grasp the depth of feeling communicated in this admittedly romantic view of the book publishing business. No matter how strained the relationship between writer, editor, translator, designer, publisher, printer and book-seller can become, there is no denying the intimacy that is engendered by poring over the book as a labor of love that has required the "befriending," however formal and economically dictated, of so many different parties. By their very nature, books are collaborative efforts in a cultural space that continues to be dominated by individualism, conflated egos, and conflicts of solitary interests.
I should say lest you think Is Dave taking a class or something? that I didn't find this quotation by myself, nor did I deduce by myself that Heidegger (whoever that is) had anything to do with it. No, this quotation was forwarded to me by my colleague Matt Smith, a designer here at InterVarsity Press. It's a nice lived example of how things work around here, and how things in publishing work in general: insights come from all corners and contribute to the final product. And though there are days when the corners inhabited by designers, marketers, editors and authors seem like the four corners of a boxing ring, on our best days we all kiss and make up something uniquely collaborative, truly insightful, a conversation really worth joining.
Guess I'm feeling sappy today. I heart InterVarsity Press.
June 4, 2007
It seems sometimes as though the only news that books make is the news of their impending demise. In his article The New Book Burning Art Winslow draws attention to the steady dissolution of book sections in national newspapers. Coast to coast, papers such as the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the LA Times and the Dallas Morning News are making radical changes (read "substantial cutbacks") to their reporting on the book publishing industry.
Some journalists are blaming the trend on the book publishers themselves, who have redistributed advertising dollars from newspapers to in-store promotions and other publicity options. I'm sure that's a part of it--although as my friend Al notes, "It's not like newspapers don't carry sports because sports teams don't advertise, or they don't carry the weather because the Weather Channel doesn't run ads." But then again, there's a Weather Channel at all because people want to know the weather, and ESPN exists because someone somewhere anticipated a steady audience. Books, it seems, attract a more refined (read "smaller") audience, and thus niche (read "fewer") advertisers.
Of course, it's not as though you can't find people writing about books. Online stores such as Amazon have made reader reviews one of their most popular features; type "book reviews" into a search engine such as Google and you have 118 million sites to choose from. Not to mention all the bloggers effusively extolling the virtues of their favorite writers and writings.
It's not just online where people can find ways of learning about books, either. Professional journals and popular magazines alike still devote ample space to discussing what's new in print. Even People magazine has a book reviews section, for heaven's sake.
I think it's fair to suggest that part of the reason newspapers are retreating from the book review business is simple economics: fewer people are turning to newspapers for all their information, and so newspapers are having to cut their losses and rethink their business. I'm not so worried about the demise of book review sections in newspapers across the country; to be honest, I'm more worried about the impending demise of the newspapers themselves.
In other news, someone has left a camping lantern in the men's bathroom here at IVP. I have no idea why; there's probably an entire post contained in that one observation though. I welcome your speculation and/or insights.
May 29, 2007
At the 2004 Asian American staff conference for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, ministry coordinator Paul Tokunaga talked about all the recently published IVP books that had been written by Asian American authors - Kingdom Come by Allen Wakabayashi, Secure in God's Embrace by Ken Fong, Get the Word Out by John Teter, The Kingdom of God LifeGuide Bible study by Greg Jao, Grieving a Suicide by Al Hsu (yup, that's me), and Paul's own Invitation to Lead. That was quite a list, and a definite increase over recent years.
Then I realized that all of those authors were men.
Not a single female author was on the list. That fact was painfully obvious to everyone in the room, especially since we have far more Asian American women on InterVarsity staff than AA men.
After the session, Nikki Toyama came running up to me and said something like, "The authors were all men. Is IVP looking for Asian women authors too?" I said, "Yes. Let's talk."
We then sat together at lunch, and I think Tracey Gee was at the same table, and we talked about what a book by and for Asian American women might look like. Two months later I was in Los Angeles for a conference. While there, I connected with Tracey and talked further about the book idea.
Over the next two years, Nikki and Tracey assembled a pan-Asian writing team and embarked on a first-of-its-kind effort. They stretched beyond traditional East Asian demographics of Chinese, Japanese and Korean heritage and included coauthors from Southeast Asian (Filipina) and South Asian (Pakistani) backgrounds. They also included the voices of their biracial, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and adopted sisters.
Their book, More Than Serving Tea: Asian American Women on Expectations, Relationships, Leadership and Faith, was published in November 2006, just in time for the Urbana 06 student missions convention, where 29 percent of the 22,000 attendees were of Asian descent. I was thrilled that apart from the featured books of the day, More Than Serving Tea was our #2 bestselling book of the convention, outselling even Knowing God and Too Busy Not to Pray.
As society continues to diversify, the multiethnic dimension of IVP's publishing program becomes increasingly important. So I am always on the lookout for books by people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, writing on ethnic-specific topics as well as general topics for all audiences. Because we want to equip the church to serve our diverse twenty-first-century context, our books and authors need to reflect the multiethnic diversity of the global church and kingdom of God.
May 22, 2007
We've been working on Spring 2008 titles here at IVP. See Andy Unedited for more thoughts on titling.
When considering titles, authors often want to gather feedback from friends, relatives and spouses. As you might imagine, this feedback can be helpful or unhelpful depending on how well those asked understand the publishing industry or the function of a book title. Author Laura Barkat (whose upcoming book now has a final title: Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places) sought an opinion from her friend Mark Goodyear. He sent Laura some thoughts on titling that made my day.
Here's what I know about titles from my mentor, Max Lucado. He and I were talking about his editorial process and I asked about titles. He said, "I never choose my own titles. Or almost never."
What Max Lucado is expressing here is exactly what we try to communicate to our authors. The title has to get the reader's attention. Of course, we love it if we can be poetic and entice the reader with the content. That's the goal.
Thanks to Mark Goodyear for allowing us to quote him. You can find Mark's blog at goodwordediting.com.
May 16, 2007
The problem with editing, for me, is all the reading.
I enjoy casually reading a good book as much as the next person, I suppose, but reading at work is all business. I don’t read, I re/add.
Re/adding is an entirely different exercise from the "reading" all you laypeople do. When I read, I lose myself in the content that I've entered into. While I may engage the material critically, even disagree with it, at the root of things I'm simply receiving what's been produced for me. By contrast, when I re/add I confront the author re: perceived blind spots in his or her writing or apparent ambiguity in what he or she is trying to say. I make suggestions for what he or she should add or subtract or otherwise modify.
My authors, of course, have to decide whether the battles I pick with them as I re/add their manuscripts are worth fighting: after all, the editor is Christian, enlightened, paying the bills; the editor, therefore, is always right. Right?
It takes an act of the will not to bring this editorial hubris with me into my casual reading as well. More often than not, I’m afraid, it refuses to be left behind. So I read a classic book in the evangelical tradition, and I scoff at the obvious modernist biases that pervade the author’s writings. I skim a splashy new release in the Christian book publishing industry and take delight in pointing out the clichés and tricks of the trade that clutter up the simple message that I, the enlightened Christian editor, would edit differently. I note lists of religious bestsellers and declare that “bestselling” does not equal “best-written.” I mock the theological naiveté of the hoi polloi who are buying whatever pablum some nefarious wolf in publisher’s clothing has dumped in their laps.
But every once in a while I read a book with a group of other people—people who aren’t re/add-ing so much as reading. My small group at church, for example, opts to discuss a forty-year-old book on evangelism. I commence re/add-ing, dutifully but skeptically, deconstructing and dismissing as I go. I lean back smugly in my chair in our circle, biding my time until I can bring all conversation to a halt with my enlightened Christian editorial denouncement of our reading assignment. Meanwhile, my friends and neighbors share how meaningful this week’s chapter was, how the author brought up things they’d never thought of, how their understanding and appreciation of Jesus has been transformed by their encounter with this text. And I am left silent.
But wait: now my small group wants to read the latest trendy, manufactured, prefab, one-size-fits-all presentation of the mega-gospel. I commence re/adding the book, systematically mocking the trail of alliteration and acronyms that litter its pages, marvelling at the depth of Christian mystery that has been so effectively sterilized and commodified by this larger-than-life Christian celebrity with a word-processor and a PR department. Meanwhile, my friends and neighbors are reading the book, wide-eyed and mouth agape at this fresh look at the Savior they’ve been singing to half-awake every Sunday of their lives. Some of them wonder why nobody’s ever talked about Jesus this way before. And I am left silent.
I sometimes picture myself in the stories I find in the Bible, and when I’m feeling particularly self-congratulatory, I put myself in the place of someone very special—the father of Jesus, perhaps, or the disciple Jesus loved, or even—dare I say it?—Jesus himself. But sometimes, when I’m seeing more clearly, I find that I, the enlightened Christian editor that I am, look suspiciously like a Pharisee.
In the grand scheme of things, the Pharisees are doing something salutary: immersing themselves in God’s revelation to his people. The trouble comes when they get so close to the truth that they can’t see the Truth in front of them. Jesus contrasts this enlightened myopia with the simple vision of everyday people who have encountered, in flesh and blood, the Truth that the Pharisees have been re/add-ing about. Jesus invites the Pharisees, and the gatekeepers of contemporary Christian industry, and the old guard of every generation of the people of God, to look up and catch a glimpse of what everbody else is witnessing: “I once was blind, but now I see.” We’ll be left silent, perhaps, but our mouths will nonetheless be agape, and our eyes will be wide open.
May 11, 2007
A few months ago an industry friend e-mailed me and asked if I knew how many new Christian books are published each year. I wasn't sure. I know that overall, in terms of total new English language books published in North America, the number has ballooned from about 55,000 a year when I started in publishing in the mid-90s to 178,000 (as of 2005) or perhaps even over 200,000 now. The growth is largely a result of print-on-demand technologies and self-publishing vehicles being much more available. And something like 70,000 new publishers have cropped up in the last few years. Some of those are things like alumni associations publishing a book of alumni reflections, but even so, there are a lot more independent small publishers now. I have also heard a figure of something like 8,000 or 9,000 new religion titles published each year, the vast majority of which are Christian, but I haven't been able to nail that down.
Well, in an article in Publishers Weekly, I finally saw some concrete numbers. PW quotes Mark Kuyper, president of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, as saying that ECPA publishers published about 7,500 new books in 2005, but that number has declined to about 5,900 new titles in 2006. "Most of our publishers are trying to figure out how to get more out of fewer books," he said.
Whatever the number, the sheer quantities are still staggering. That's a lot of books fighting for shelf space and media attention. IVP publishes about 100 books a year, not including paperback editions of previously released hardcovers or other reprints. That's less than 2% of all the new Christian titles each year. I'm personally responsible for the acquisition, development and publication of about 12 to 15 of IVP's titles each year. It's humbling to think about how much work goes into the publishing of a book, and then to realize that that book is barely a drop in the ocean.
The same issue of PW quotes an author who says that if authors are feeling cocky and self-important about their work, all you have to do is go to a bookstore - "Tolstoy could go into a bookstore and say, 'Wow, nobody needs War and Peace; there's plenty of stuff to read!' If the bookstore doesn't depress you, go to BEA [BookExpo America, the annual trade show for the American bookselling industry]: it'll be very clear how unimportant your work is."
Despite the numbers, what keeps us going and keeps us publishing is that our books seem to be making contributions that people find helpful. I get a kick out of searching for our book titles on Blogger and seeing who's reading our books. We know that folks have infinite options for their discretionary time these days, not just the multitudes of books but all forms of entertainment media, so we are honored when people choose to spend time with our books. We try hard to make them worth your while, and we hope that they're helpful to you.
May 9, 2007
Did you enjoy the YouTube movie “short” on “New Book Technology” the other day? There is a serious side to that, you know. Early Christians were in fact at the forefront of the early introduction of the codex, or what we call the “book,” in place of the scroll. Not that they abandoned the scroll (or roll), nor did Christians invent the codex, but there is a great deal of evidence that the codex early became the preferred medium for Christian Scripture. Why? We are not certain. But for the most recent codex, er . . . book, on the subject, take a look at Larry Hurtado’s The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins. No, this book is not from the IVP scriptorium, but it’s irresistible fodder for a “Behind the Books” blog, and it has some info that editorial types can geek-out on. (Another interesting book is Harry Y. Gamble’s Books and Readers in the Early Church.)
Hurtado explores several features of the actual physical manuscripts of early Christian texts as a neglected resource for understanding early Christianity. Chapter two is devoted to “The Early Christian Preference for the Codex.” This is definitely a technical, scholarly study that is careful to avoid unwarranted conclusions, but I’ll hazard losing some nuance and offer some tidbits here:
For the most part, up through the second century the codex was reserved for texts Christians regarded as Scripture, generally those that would eventually make up the Christian canon. Other Christian texts too could be in codex form, but the preference of the codex for “scripture” is markedly pronounced. Up until the third century, more than 98 percent of non-Christian Greek books are rolls. But for that same period, nearly all Christian books are codices. By the fourth century, the rest of the world had caught on.
The early Christian preference of the codex for their texts is so pronounced and widespread that it requires some explanation. It wasn’t just the handy form of the codex that dictated it. It wasn’t ease of production, since the codex was more difficult to make than the roll. It wasn’t economics that drove it, since the savings (maybe 25 percent) were not that great. It wasn’t social status (a codex for common folks, rolls for literary folks). It seemed to have signified something, to have “semiotic” value. It almost appears that if in the second century you saw Urbanus walking down the street with a codex in hand, you’d take notice and assume he was a Christian.
Well, so how did it get started? In fact, how did it develop? As for the latter, it’s evident that Christians were experimenting with the technology of making a good codex, and particularly with the aim of jamming more scriptural books between two covers. So it’s not like the technology was just dropped in their lap fully developed, having been perfected in the big publishing houses of Antioch or Rome. At this point we can only speculate about the initial impetus for the “Christian” codex. Was it the form in which the first collection of Paul’s letters or a Gospel was “published”? Was it preferred by some technologically innovative and influential early Christian leader, maybe a geeky apostle? Did it have its origin in using these texts in early Christian worship? We just don’t know! It’s interesting to consider though, and maybe time and further research will answer these questions.
Meanwhile, think about this: In a significant respect, we owe our present-day book form to the initiative of the early Christians. Anyone want to go back to the scroll? Well, actually, I’m scrolling down a computer screen as I write. Is this an improvement? What has been lost? What has been gained? And notice how today we are experimenting with the best ways of using this new technology—but the goal is to emulate the printed page!
Now for a little self-indulgence: editors and publishers of Christian literature have a long history, and a cloud of unnamed saints in our tradition. I for one would love to meet some of them, and I’d give my laptop for a peek at a second- or third-century “Behind the Books” blog from a Christian scriptorium in Antioch, Alexandria or Rome.
Posted by Dan Reid at 7:59 AM
May 7, 2007
April 30, 2007
I knew I would love IVP editorial director Andy Le Peau like my own dear old dad when I learned that, while I was frittering away my life in the first grade, he was writing an ongoing column for His magazine about "bubbles"--not in the strict, literal sense of the word but as a sort of linguistic exercise. Andy would take a word that ended in able or ible and conflate it with the word bubble. Then he would define the new term. So, for example, the word contemptible would become contemptibubble, and take on the definition "a bubble filled not with air but with hate." The whole concept was, in a word, incredibubble.
As this blog has taken shape, we could very easily revive the bubble game Andy pioneered in days of yore. The question "What is blogable?" has occupied more real estate in our editorial brains lately than is probabubbly appropriate. "Should this blog include jokes?" we've asked. "Should we share with our readers the funny mixed metaphors we run across?" "Should we bare our souls in front of all of our publishing audience?" "Should we edit one another?" "Should we publicly critique one another's posts?" "What, fundamentally, is the point of going Behind the Books?
This internal dilemma plays out to a soundtrack of a ticking clock. We need to continually feed this blogging enterprise with new posts, to keep it interesting both for us and for both of our readers. Editors may never get editor's block--ask our opinion on anything and we'll be quick to give it--but we're as vulnerable to writer's block as anybody. So the pressure is on to individually keep coming up with new ideas that all of us agree are, in a word, blogabubble.
Phillip Johnson, author of several IVP books including Reason in the Balance, once commented on the ongoing rivalry between evolution and intelligent design as legitimate subjects for public education. His advice: "Why not teach the controversy?" He recognized that the value of observing two ideas interacting with one another (like stubble and bubble) is similar to the value of knowing intimately one idea or the other. Evolution as a theory of origins has its intellectual merits; so does intelligent design. Each also has its vulnerabilities. And the exposure of one to another itself yields valuable insights into our understanding of the world and our other intellectual pursuits.
To borrow the concept, it strikes me that the internal dilemma of how to define and grow an editorial blog is exactly the type of question that characterizes any editorial enterprise and, coincidentally enough, the type of question that often characterizes a good, thoughtful blog posting. It makes a certain amount of poetic sense, then, that a bunch of editors would invest as much time and energy as we have into figuring out precisely what they should say, and how they should say it. Any other process would be, in a word, inconceivabubble.
April 19, 2007
The February 26, 2007, issue of Publishers Weekly had this little news piece. An advertising firm asked readers what factors motivated them to buy a book. (People could choose more than one.) Here are the top eight answers:
1. Friend's recommendation - 49%
Posted by Al Hsu at 7:34 AM