Campus Life coverI have lived through the golden age of publishing, first with magazines and then with books.  I began my career at Campus Life in 1971, and in ten years saw our circulation leap from 50,000 to 250,000.  Like many magazines, Campus Life eventually bit the dust as advertising dollars migrated to flashier (and cheaper) online sources and consumers no longer responded to direct mail offers and renewal letters.

For almost four decades (yikes!) I’ve worked as a freelance writer, feeling enormously blessed to make a good living by writing about issues of faith that I would want to explore even if no one bought my books.  Every year my royalties go down, though with more than 20 books in print I can still pay bills and find publishers willing to sponsor new books.

The changes in publishing, especially Christian publishing, stood out sharply to me when I stopped in at the largest annual Christian book convention in June.  At one time 15,000 attended that trade show, a convention so large that only a handful of cities could accommodate it.  Now less than 4,000 attend, and in Atlanta it occupied a corner of the huge convention center.  A couple hundred delegates attended a luncheon in which I participated on a panel with Ravi Zacharias and Ryan Dobson; ten years ago the same luncheon would have filled a thousand-seat banquet hall.  Though name authors had book signings, the only lines I saw were for two stars of Duck Dynasty.

Diane Stortz

Book publishing is going through massive changes.  Almost every month bookstore sales fall below the total from last year…and the year before.  Of the 5,000 Christian bookstores in the U.S. open in the 1970s, barely half that number have survived.  What happened?

In truth, many Christian bookstores were “mom and pop” stores run more out of a sense of ministry than business acumen.  Managers stocked too many titles, knew little about marketing, and stayed in business mainly because every so often a mega-seller like The Purpose Driven Life or the Left Behind series would come along to rescue their bottom line.  In the early 1990s chain stores such as Walmart, Costco, and Sam’s Club started picking off these bestsellers and general bookstores like Borders (now defunct) and Barnes & Noble greatly expanded their religion departments.  Then came, offering deep discounts to siphon off the steady sales that kept small bookstores afloat.

There was a cost to the industry, of course.  No longer Ebook apple and open old bookwould shoppers browse the shelves, pick up books to scan the contents, and walk out with five books when they had intended to buy just one.  Now they ordered the one they wanted online, untempted by new books they did not even know existed.  Scores of college and seminary bookstores closed as students ordered the required books online, forfeiting the ability to browse among unassigned books that also might interest them.

Christian bookstores adapted by expanding their product line.  Many Christian bookstores today realize less than 30 percent of their profits on books.  Instead they stock Precious Moments statues, greeting cards, toys, games, Thomas Kinkade prints, and religious kitsch.  People still like to finger gift items before they buy.

Ebook on pile of old booksIn the past five years the digital revolution has introduced a whole new challenge to the publishing industry, much like its impact on music and movies.  Until last year e-books were rising at double-digit rates.  For publishers and also authors (the “plankton” of the publishing food chain), this has meant a drastic reduction in income.  Say an author signs a contract to receive a 10 percent royalty on each book sold.  In the old days he or she would receive $2.50 on a $25 hardback book.  Now Amazon offers the book electronically for $9.99 and often offers specials of $2.99.  For the same amount of work, the author may receive half or even 10 percent as much as from “dead tree” publishing.

Last year publishers in the U.S. took in $15 billion in income from all sources.  E-books represented one-fourth of the sales volume but only 10 percent of the revenue, due to their lower prices.

For a first-time author, these are the best of times and the worst of times.  Thanks to advances in self-publishing, anyone can get a book in print—as long as you’re willing to bear the costs of production, marketing, and sales that used to be absorbed by publishers.  Brick-and-mortar bookstores generally won’t stock your book, so you have to find other ways to get the word out.  Good luck.

You can lower the cost by publishing in electronic format only, in which case you’ll need even more luck.  The best-selling author Tony Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War) recently wrote in the New York Times about his experience with electronic publishing.  He was delighted to find that his instant book on the Keystone pipeline, Boom, had landed in the Amazon Top 25 list of all digital titles—only to learn that he had sold a mere 800 copies.

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.

Steve-Starr-1Trust 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.

Reading Books Makes You BetterWe 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 600 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

Share this

63 responses to “Farewell to the Golden Age”

  1. Having read Nicholas Carr’s book I disagree with his assessment as it applies to dedicated e-readers. Hyper-linking on the monochrome Kindles (an possibly the other devices) doesn’t keeping me from deep engagement with the text. Probably because it doesn’t work very well and is frankly quite slow. I’ve had Kindle e-readers for several years now and they’ve granted access to materials I wouldn’t have otherwise read. Amazon’s plans for the device never really materialized as this specific medium really isn’t conducive to the distractive advertising that seems to drive the economics of the internet.

    Tablets are another matter altogether. They play straight into the worst of what Carr describes.

    The challenge for ministry seems to be to figure out how to adapt to the change you describe.

  2. Vicki Bee says:

    I wish I would have been around when those free downloads were offered.
    My former husband and daughter’s dad was killed on September 11 in Tower 1. We watched it happen, along with the rest of the country I know, but the rest of the country seems to have forgotten how they felt as fast as they saw it happening; nothing else explains why two weeks after it occurred they told us we were “dwelling on negativity” to still be that distressed about it.
    Anyway, I had no idea what to do then beyond walking through life feeling shellshocked in a way I’ve never before or since experienced – I really haven’t made a terribly great amount of progress since then either. In fact, if I’d never found this place called the Grief Recovery Method, I honestly don’t believe I’d be writing this now because I don’t think I could have gone much beyond 10 years of being in that much emotional angst.
    The Grief Recovery Method is still the only place that has ever said we’re actually ALLOWED to feel anger at God. Nobody else seems to think He can handle it, not even my friend whose husband died on Flight 93 who said “You might not like what’s happened but you still have to trust God.” Which to be frank, I no longer even trust Him as well as being confused, angry and pained about everything.
    All of this would have been so much easier to deal with if my daughter hadn’t reacted so horribly to the news. The word devastated is inadequate to describe whatever it did to her and my writing skills are nowhere near a place that can accurately convey how completely it annihilated every part of the goodness of her character to get the news – especially from someone in her family, who had to be the one to TELL her we need to consider him dead although no scientific (physical) evidence has ever been found to prove he ever lived on this earth much less left it in such a disgusting way.
    I once saw a show in which the mother said “Words can’t describe what it’s like to see your child in pain, especially as much as she was feeling…” I never used to know what it meant until I had to look into my daughter’s face and tell her they were considering her dad dead, knowing before I even said it that the news would cause her to feel pain. Although if I’d known how MUCH pain, I think I would have opted for the coward’s way and asked someone else to tell her the news so she didn’t have to associate the worst news of her life as coming from my mouth so that to this day she still can hardly talk to me.

  3. Meghan says:

    I’m so late to this discussion, but I have to comment, as I just finished having dinner with a friend of mine in publishing and a long discussion about this very issue. Her opinion? E-books are still a great financial deal for the publishers. So much less money is involved in getting the book to buyers- there’s no large initial outlay, or incremental cost for every unit purchased- they don’t need to guess about how many copies will sell and organize print runs around it. All that needs to be done is upload the digital proofs and see what happens. They can break even if they sell the book for much less.

    It’s mostly the authors that are hurting now. And that’s the problem, because writers have no effective union, no one to advocate for them, and a pretty poor bargaining position against a mammoth publishing company. Further exacerbating things, writing is one of a few isolated professions – acting maybe, playing on a professional sports team- where there are enough people who would write for free. It used to be that producing a book cost a huge amount of money- much like a movie or a sports team, constraining the number of professionals the industry can afford and forcing publishers to be very selective. But e-publishing’s changed that. They don’t lose money on publishing a book on a bare bones budget, so why not publish everyone and see what happens? Since people will do it for free, there’s less incentive to drive author compensation up, and that’s the margin that’s currently being squeezed. Publishers have more incentive to put very little money into editing or carefully scouting and developing talent. Marketing may or may not be justified- put that onus in the hands of the amateur who has 400 Facebook friends, doesn’t she?

    And suddenly writing a book is in danger of becoming very much like selling Cutco knives to your family, friends, and your friends’ family’s friends. If something does take off, well, isn’t that nice. The system is still set up to profit from the next J.K. Rowling. But if not? The publishers more than make their money back in publishing many more books of dubious quality for minimal expense.

    And again, just speculation (but I find it so interesting!) She thinks the future is for publishers to completely disappear. They’re not needed and they’re not effective. The rationale for having them absorb the initial risk and expense is gone now that there is much less of both. Writers- especially those whom people want to read- will simply begin publishing all on their own. Because 10% of a $25 book is the same thing as $2.50 of a $2.50 book you put out yourself. Meanwhile, editors and marketers will be a service offered ad hoc by different entities that authors may or may not employ.

    Anyway, who knows. Neither of us is much of a fortune teller. But there are certain things I love about everyone being able to publish a book that becomes instantly globally and cheaply available. It’d be nice if the unpalatable parts you discuss end up just being growing pains en route to giving authors much more control over their final product’s content and price, and their own income.

  4. Kelli says:

    As a writer trying to “make it” in the publishing world, this makes me very sad. I know it’s the reality of where we are now, and I’m trying harder to embrace this digital age of publishing. I released my first e-book this week, in fact, just so I could get my foot in the door, but it’s not what I wanted to do. I feel like I just missed the boat on this golden age of publishing. Like maybe if I had focused more on writing and getting published when I first graduated college 14 years ago instead of starting a family, then I might have stood a better chance.

    But I do like my kids, so I can’t really complain. 🙂

    I guess it’s hard for someone like me who still believes in the power of a good book to figure out where she fits in all this. I’m sort of a stickler with my kids and reading. They are not allowed to read a book on an electronic device until they’ve read at least three paper books, because I think there’s something a little more magical about the feel of the paper between your fingertips.

    I’ve been trying to get a novel published for two years now. I pitch and I query, and I receive such frustrating feedback as, “This looks great. Well written and researched, and a great story. Unfortunately, fiction isn’t selling right now so we will regretfully have to pass.”

    So I keep plugging away, building my platform and my base, thinking up new e-book ideas, and hoping that maybe someday the surge in good literature will resurface. Until then, I’ll keep writing and reading, and sending out those query letters. I don’t want to get rich writing – I just want to get lost in the beauty of the written word. There are too many stories in my head for me to ignore.

    Thank you for sharing this article.

  5. I am with you, Philip. My daughter gave me a Kindle but when it died, I didn’t replace it. Perhaps because I like to highlight and write in the margins, I love physical books. Recently, I’ve been re-reading one of your books, “The Bible Jesus Read,” and adding new news and highlights (different) color to the old ones. It looks more like a coloring book now. I confess though that I enjoy buying. I rarely find titles I want in bookstores….

  6. Margaret says:

    Thanks so much for this post and for all your books. Though occasionally if I have a long drive I listen to one of your audio books, I have never desired to try Kindle. I love having one of your books in my hand, and a few extra copies to share with others when I am traveling! Right now I am desperately searching regular and used bookstores for a copy of “Rumors of Another World” that I want to share with someone TODAY, as there is no time to wait even for prime to get it here 2 days from now. So far no luck. I don’t want the more recent version with the new title “A Skeptic’s Guide to Faith.” The former book cover and title, I have found, is much more intriguing to skeptics! Blessings on you, dear friend.

  7. David Allburn says:

    I suppose all books are purposeful to some extent. They deliver a payload to those who opt-in. To me Yancey’s payloads are a deep pique of curiosity, wry irony, cogent observation, and a callout of poseurs and intellectual frauds. It takes attention-span to ponder his profound questions and to marvel at his wide reach for answers. I’ve seen both sides of Joni Mitchell’s clouds and her other things by now. Yancey helps me see many sides of God and His other things. That’s because his books delivered their payloads. How do I know? Because there was emotional and intellectual weight-gain as a result of chewing on the ideas. Chewing required devoting some attention…just the commodity in shortest supply in these all-too-digitized days.

    I’m still blushing…all the way to India. Will you be my publicist?

  8. Edgar Galdámez says:

    Philip, I am grateful for the books you have written. I enjoy your unique style of writing. I do agree with you that the Golden Age of writing has passed but as all things must pass. From there a new age comes, perhaps better or worse, who knows. Yet, we as Christians rise up to it and will use it for proclaiming the Kingdom of God with our writing!
    P.S. We are glad we have a different format to communicate, more direct and maybe “personable” even with you Philip. Just noticed another of my favorite writers, Mr. Dorsett stopped by this blog. God bless!

  9. To add to the madness, I’m convinced that as a result of some of the changes that you cite, people read even less than they used to. I know many, many people who will pick up a book because it is free (or even just cheap) on their Kindle; have hundreds of such books on their Kindle, and yet have read maybe one or two of them. In the past, if you paid twenty dollars for a hardback, you read it. Paying a buck for an ebook does not commit anyone to read anything.

    The Logos Bible Software that you mention is a great example. Many users on the Logos forums have five thousand (or more…I’ve seen up to fourteen thousand claimed) resources in Logos. How many of those do you think they’ve actually read? They collect books, victims of Logos’ excellent marketing, without bothering to read almost any of them. They think that simply buying the book will make them smarter. (I’ve asked.)

    It is madness.

  10. Richard Jacobson says:


    Thanks so much for sharing your sobering perspective about the changing landscape of publishing. The weekend just before you posted this I attended a seminar on blogging where one of the organizers was an author who now makes his living blogging because, frankly, there’s more income in blogging (for him). Of course, in order to make money blogging you have to get into email lists, affiliate links and a lot of other strategies. Personally I’ve decided to try that route as well with my own blog. Do you think maybe the “author” of tomorrow will simply be a different animal altogether, yet still be every bit the thinker and communicator as someone like C.S. Lewis? Maybe the type of author who could focus solely on his writing craft is going the way of the scribe but is making way for a new type of writer who is somewhat of a solopreneur wirer/artist/digital strategist? Would you agree or am I just trying to be overly-optomistic about my future career opportunities?

    Thanks again for sharing your insight,

    Richard Jacobson

    Richard, someone can actually generate income by blogging? More power to him. I can’t prophesy what the writers of the future will look like, but I do worry about all the distractions of social media that prevent the kind of meditative, creative concentration that we’ve known. A few geniuses may be able to navigate the buzzy new world with the same depth, though not many. Nicholas Carr makes a compelling case of the need for caution in “The Shallows.”

  11. judy says:

    Good Morning Philip, this has nothing to do with this blog…. I have been reading some articles and watching with interest the stories about the immigraiton problems we are having….. my heart goes out to children that have been seperated from their families and sent into a foriegn land… at the same time I think of childeren in the US who go without everyday….and with people who have obeyed the laws of the land…. Can you help me reconcile these thoughts with right thinking> Do you have a site where questions can be asked about current events?

    I’m afraid I don’t often comment on current events; others are more tuned in to that. The immigration problem is so baffling. I spoke with a friend yesterday who works in Guatemala who said that the gang violence is so bad there that mothers are voluntarily sending their children away (to our border) just to keep them alive. However, there is money involved: $5000 for a “coyote” to get them there, payoffs to the Mexicans, who used to be very strict in policing their border in Guatemala. Someone is making a huge profit exploiting poor families who go in debt for life to try to keep their kids alive. It’s tragic. And unaccompanied minors in the US? They will look for another “family”–likely a gang…

  12. Janet says:

    Do not say, “Why is it that the former days were better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this. ~ Ecclesiastes 7:10

    Thank you for a small piece of reality. Maybe now you could write an encouraging post on why Christians should keep writing, especially since God has placed the call on our hearts.

  13. Peter says:

    Philip, Thank you. And, thank you for all/all the books you wrote that have been published, and are a part of my library/collection… Philip Yancey collection…
    God Bless You…

  14. Greg Denholm says:

    When I saw that you’d written an article about publishing books, Philip, I thought I would pass it on to my pastor out of interest, as he has recently published a couple of books (one of which won a prize at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers’ Conference—just thought I’d casually slip that in) and he has some more in the pipeline. By the time I had reached the end of the article, though, I thought better of my intentions. I don’t want to risk killing off his optimism!

  15. Charlie Hedges says:

    I agree w your thots. I quit my Kindle and now buy paper. I love books. However, I believe we all need to rethink the issues. I view this new electronic age as an opportunity. I am currently working to be Different (see Youngme Moon). I believe we now have a new and yet really unexplored venue. The challenge is great but also invigorating. We can now help exponentially more people if we do it right. Human media has never thwarted the will of God. And never will.

  16. Ross Lawhead says:

    I’d also like to challenge what Michael Hyatt said in his reply. He is someone who obviously speaks from the publisher’s side. What he says about authors working harder but gaining an unexpected bonus of a platform that is theirs and no one else’s is a misdirect. At one time, technically, I was under contract to Michael and this was told to me by those at the publisher as a way to get me to take on the duties of marketer for myself. As a first-time author I was required to run a Facebook fan page, be a frequent Twitterer, post regular blogs on a website which not only would I run but also fund out of my pocket, as well as brainstorm other ideas for self-promotion. Oh, and also write a 100,000 word book to a one-year deadline. I won’t be gauche enough to tell you what I was paid for this but I will say it was less than the national minimum wage, and so I had to immediately go out and get a part-time job.

    So I was to be my own marketer yet I had no training. Not only that, but I had no access to any of the marketing resources of the company, I was not copied in on emails discussing market figures, I did not have a say in marketing meetings. And the carrot on a stick for all of this was that I would have my own platform, my own readership that would follow me and be loyal to me and not my publisher. Which strikes me as disingenuous because I don’t think that in all of the days going back to Caxton have readers ever been followers primarily of publishers rather than authors. But the industry saw a way of cutting costs by convincing first-time authors to be their own marketing team for free, and so that’s now what they are doing.

    But yes, they are now all regretting that they leaped into bed with Amazon, and that is why I hope that they work together to stand up to the company in the way that Hachette has. It would be a start.

  17. Katharine Godbey says:

    I think is a reminder for us of how things change even when we sometimes wish they wouldn’t. Technology definitely has brought us much, but there are always those drawbacks. The key to be present in the moment and pay attention to the changes unfolding. Then we can better adjust ourselves. While the past days of publishing seem to be changing rapidly, there are options available. We just have to be flexible enough to want to learn about them.

  18. Ross Lawhead says:

    The point about people expecting to pay less for books is a good one. It’s something I recognised in myself. I don’t buy very many new books anymore, and not all of those are by living authors. The Amazon dynamic has upset things more than just offering books at a lower price, or even at a loss leader price. The unlimited catalogue means that in addition to publishers and bookstores trying to undercut each other, authors themselves are now undercutting each other. I’d hate to be the author that launches a new book on the same day that Philip Yancey’s new book becomes free. I’d hate to be the publisher of that book as well, for that matter. This is a completely new dynamic and incidently counterproductive to the industry. Before it was nearly impossible (or at least greatly impractical) to let 40,000 people read a new book for free; now it is extremely easy and even seen as good business sense. But what is the effect of it? Does it mean that people will buy the next Philip Yancey book? Or will they only just wait for the next free book, whatever that is?

    There are a lot of changes that can be made to the industry that could preserve it for the next generation, but those won’t be made by the people making the decisions now. And Amazon is very willing to slit the throat of the publishing industry in order to stand on its body to reach more desirable fruit. (That is now being challenged in France, and we’ll see if other countries follow suit.) The slow collapse will continue but throughout people will still want to read books, in whatever format. And that is encouraging, but the day of the professional writer has probably passed.

    I’ve written a blog very like this one but from the perspective of a fiction author:

  19. John Stuart says:

    Thanks for the observations, Mr. Yancey. I believe that the Christian book industry managed to do this to itself. When publishers gave up on reading new author submissions and relying on outside gatekeeper agencies to do their work, they lost out on a lot of new authors. Amazon has allowed people of faith like myself to easily publish Christian books with a 35% royalty rate. We may not be up there with the best sellers, but our work is gradually being recognized. I’ve written 16 books and sold more than 1400 copies. I’m learning more about the market and don’t have to deal with the middle agencies. It’s very satisfying and meaningful to me that I can help other folks draw nearer to Christ through my writing. This seems to be the new publishing revolution that the old publishing companies don’t really want to understand, embrace, or accept. God bless.

  20. Philip, you are making an important observation / personal confession. It matters to hear from our writer-mentors what they think and how they are negotiating these radical changes in an industry that will continue to change. So, thank you for this post.

    The arguments over traditional publishing v. self-publishing (see further comment below) are beside the point here. We have seen the end of an era, which has passed into history–THAT is the point, in my humble opinion (IMHO in texting language). It is worth reflecting upon seriously, because it represents yet another chapter of the ancient story of human struggle to establish a working relationship between art and commerce in the formation of culture. To reduce this reflection to polemics about strategies and tactics regarding print, digital, and how many middlemen there are between writer and reader is to miss entirely the bigger and more important phenomenon: what have we sown, and what are we reaping, in our consumer-driven society?

    Regarding all the arguments pro and con for traditional publishing v. self-publishing: the underlying wild-card factor is that there is no one business model easily replicated for every author, which is why the whole situation is so difficult and fraught with people making money handing out bad advice on both models, and with strident voices seeking validation and/or crowing rights, and with crazy exceptions to every rule that swing the pendulum wildly back and forth on the opinions meter.

    And finally, Vicki Anderholt, may your tribe increase: a free download converts to at least three purchased physical copies. What a wonderful thing you are doing for your daughters. I hope they similarly choose authors with whom they will endow their own children. And thank you on behalf of all of us laboring in the book publishing industry to make it a blessing, not a curse, that of the making of many books there is no end.

  21. Travis Love says:

    As an individual wishing to publish his legacy over the next year, it is a little disheartening to hear the “Golden Age” is long over. Obviously, if it’s not for money, it shouldn’t matter, but more then a pennys worth return would be a nice investable option to hear for new writers

  22. Cindy Bratton says:

    For me, a missionary living overseas, e-books have been a real blessing. English language books here cost 4-5 times as much as in the States. Christian books are nearly unknown here. I do prefer turning pages over swiping a finger over my iPad, but have learned to get by. I would think that a 20% price reduction from the cost of a quality paperback (no paper or printing) would be reasonable from the cost of hard copies. On a missionary budget that would still make most novels out-of-reach, but still be fair to the authors and publishers, I would think. Then, too, I live overseas and don’t always appreciate the intricacies of the U.S. economy.

  23. Len Wilson says:

    Philip, thanks for your comments. I’m a writer who for a brief period worked in the industry at Abingdon Press. I echo your sentiments. What I now called my paid reading sabbatical while in Christian leadership acquisitions exposed me to a world of declining profits and dismayed industry veterans who were trying to sustain their careers until retirement. New revenue streams are rising but minuscule.

    Your description of the “golden age” is apt; we’ve enjoyed a confluence of rising readership and more accessible and affordable books. (A new release of Gone With the Wind in 1939 cost about $250 in today’s dollars, which is why personal libraries were a sign of prosperity.) I agree this age is fading.

    However, the optimists, and there are a few, told me the industry has gone through similar upheavals in the past but has been saved by innovation, for example by the rise of paperbacks in the 1950s and the hard cover first edition in the 1980s.

    As a writer, I hope for readers, but then again I don’t really write because of them, anyway.

    Thanks for your work and I look forward to your visit to Peachtree this fall.

    Len Wilson
    Creative Director
    Peachtree Presbyterian Church

  24. evelyn bence says:

    Great, Philip, and so true. Just one place I’d disagree–that there’s nothing new at all about religious kitsch and sideline products in/for brick-and-mortar stores.

  25. Larry Stone says:

    Philip, Thank you. Great summary. I alternate between (1) being glad I had many fabulous experiences in publishing, contributed to the development of authors, published a number of best sellers along the way, written a few books, and am now out of corporate life, and (2) wishing I were picking up the challenge of figuring out how to exploit the strengths of our electronic world to more effectively proclaim the gospel and build up the church. I still love wandering through a used book store, discovering ideas, authors, and creativity. Those will never go away, even when they no longer result in a wonderful semi-musty smell.

  26. Erica Layne says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. Even in light of the sobering thoughts about changes in publishing. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  27. As far as I’m concerned, Luci Shaw has the last word in anything. So I hesitate to say anything after she has spoken. And I agree with everything you have said, Philip, but one. If I may offer a whisper of hope, it is that the real Golden Age may lie in the future, but it will not be one of publishing but of relationships. People will expect content to be free. They will not “buy” our books. But what they will pay for, and pay large sums for, is not the content itself, but a relationship with the content-provider, and that relationship becomes the new real content. In other words, they will pay for a relationship with Philip Yancey who can help them do what he does, except customized and contextualized for them. We are entering the Golden Age of Relationships.

  28. Thanks for offering your perspective. It is sobering, isn’t it?

    I entered the Christian publishing industry about the same time as you. It has been discouraging to watch what has happened to it in recent years. I don’t think any of us who were pushing for greater distribution through Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, and then Amazon had any idea that this would be the undoing of the industry.

    Yet, I stubbornly remain an optimist.

    While I don’t want to see more emphasis on platform that writing, I don’t believe one will survive without the other. We need both. Yes, authors who are going to be successful in today’s environment must work harder. The good news is that they will end up with a platform they own rather than one that is merely borrowed. This is both the promise and the challenge.

  29. Very valuable information Mr. Yancey! Thank you for sharing your years of experience and insight! Much appreciated, Mark

  30. Kelly says:

    On one hand, I lament with you the demise of traditional publishing. On another, it’s a blessing to consider that more voices can be published. The kicker becomes, how does one become heard in such a noisy world?

    Perhaps, God’s sovereignty extends even to that. Whether or not my work is ever published, I cannot help but write. As the words “He who has ears, let him hear” echo in my head, I’m trusting that an audience will always be around. Even if it’s an audience of One.

  31. Lorretta says:

    Thank you so very much for this insightful look at the writer’s world today. I haven’t been writing publicly for long but I quickly recognized the trends you’ve expressed here and honestly, I can’t risk it. I’ll write small for our Big God and trust Him to do what He wants. I guess I’m an anomaly but I still enjoy the weight of a book in my hand and the dog-eared underlining that goes along with it. And the first sniff. I love that too!

  32. Ann Braker. (Facebook name. Ann Braker Walton.)) says:

    The older I get, the less I like change…. It seems sad that so few ‘Artists’ of all the Art Forms can make a living from their talent… I wish them all a good ‘Day Job’ that will not wear them out…

  33. Steve Cuss says:

    I had not thought of the “accidental discovery” that came with perusing in a bookshop. I suppose now such accidental discoveries come more from online recommendations.

    Count me as a another who has been deeply moved by your work. My first introduction was “Pain, The Gift Nobody Wants” with the beloved Paul Brand. It tickled me that the title was changed on the reprint. Nobody wanted a book with the original title, apparently! (or perhaps the publisher didn’t….) But it was a stunning and revolutionary book. You have a gift, you steward it well and we’re the better for it. I’ll also be forever in your debt for introducing your readers to Fred Buechner.

    I was at the Simply Jesus Gathering in Denver last Fall and found the talk you gave to be profound soul food.

    Thanks Phil

    Steve Cuss

  34. Rita Gerlach says:

    Thanks for this timely article. One thing I noticed starting in the 90s was the Christian bookstores in my area became more like gift shops instead of bookstores. They were limited especially on fiction and sold a lot of art, home decorating items, and stationary. We once had three in our town. Now we are down to one.

    One thing I’ve enjoyed about ebooks is the listening feature. I’ve heard from some of my readers they also enjoy listening to ebooks. While I was going through chemotherapy for breast cancer, I would soak in a hot tub late at night to ease the pain and listen to books on my Kindle. Shirley Corder’s devotional ‘Strength Renewed: Your Journey Through Breast Cancer’, was especially healing to me. So maybe the listening feature is another reason ebooks are doing pretty well.

    Still these are tough times. We can only persevere in our callings as writers and trust that God will place our work into the right hands.

  35. We’ve been wrestling with the same questions at Plough Publishing. With feedback from others who treasure the deep reading experience, we’ve relaunched our Plough Quarterly magazine in print format, and so far, subscriptions are showing that plenty of Christian thinkers still like to turn a page and dive into something deeper than 200 words! But – and I know it’s ironic – there’s a flip-book preview available at! Gotta meet them where they are…

  36. Luci Shaw says:

    Phil, you’ve said it all. And if everything you wrote is true for writers of prose, think of the dilemma today’s publishing habits pose for poets! I am grateful for independent bookstores such as Hearts and Minds, and our wonderful Bellingham store, Village Books, that hosts public events such as Literature Live with nationally-known authors reading from, selling, and signing their new works.

    As one of the earlier Christian publishers (Harold Shaw) in the trade, hoping to print books for “thoughtful readers,” I’m relieved to be out of the publishing business, but grateful to readers who still look for books that engage heart, mind and spirit. As yours still do!

  37. Lois Gourley says:

    Thank you Phillip. You articulate well the tip of the iceberg that I, as Production Director of the Global Publishing department of SIL International, struggle with. In my “other” life, I am a print-on-demand author of novels. I chose to publish through Lulu and Amazon because of the immediacy of product availability (from my desktop to an Amazon search in two weeks). However, due to my status as a supported missionary, I have never been able to take advantage of promotion packages, and have thus relied on family and friends to recommend my books. Needless to say, writing will never be my main source of income! However, like you, I do it for the joy of the task set before me. Gratuity is linked to the enthusiastic responses I get from readers, and not from the royalty checks. May God continue to bless you….you are an exceptional writer!!

  38. Cass Wessel says:

    Glad I stopped by and read this older post. Being a woman of a certain age, I find e-reading beneficial since I can adjust the font to suit my aging eyes. You’ve got me thinking, though. Thanks for the blog. Blessings.

  39. How sad that you and these other commenters just accept some mythical “end” to publishing opportunities when they are just beginning. What you described as “golden” was leaving it up to someone else to control everything you write and publish, including how long it takes before anyone ever sees it. We have coe into a time of having the freedom to chose your editors, designers, and marketing opportunities, and of potentially reaching a worldwide audience every day on a blog, on Twitter, on Facebook. What is it that’s ended? Control and complacency for traditional publishers. What has begun? The day of writers who educate themselves fully about digital possibilities for serving God. We have over 2000 blog followers and have charted with several Amazon bestsellers. Nothing has ended. It is just beginning for us, even at 55+.

  40. Keith says:

    A good overall perspective on publishing today. As an employee of a publisher, I do take issue with one statement. Yes, publishers care a great deal about an author’s online platform, but I do know that my employer still cares more about the quality of an author’s work. Great writing and a weak digital platform is still superior to weak writing and a strong digital platform. Ideally both are needed to maximize results.

  41. Though I haven’t been in the field as long as you, I entered at the tail end of the golden age, and it’s been a hard navigation–to start one way and end up with flux. I’m taking a Sabbatical this summer to try to wrap my mind around what’s next. Can I make a living with my words? Or is that era over?

  42. Bill Donahue says:

    Thanks Phil – My agent, Greg Johnson, sent me the link to your piece. Thanks for your writing; you will never know this side of heaven the impact you’ve had on so many, including me. I too have been writing during some of the golden age, with over a dozen books and DVD’s out there mostly in the small group leader/training space. (Leading Life-Changing Small Groups was a long-term seller with over 250K in print over the 17 years it has survived, now in 3rd edition). But it launched during the back end of the golden age and in the height of the Willow Creek-Zondervan partnership leveraging all the marketing and large conferences we had (I worked at Willow 18 years). That kept it in front of the public. Many other titles have limped along, with a few exceptions.

    It is truly a new world. And I am working to hack my way through the publishing jungle that defines this new land, though I confess my machete needs sharpening.

    Best to you, Bill.

  43. Mark Brown says:

    Excellent article Philip. My context, I am deeply involved in the digital world, and a former CEO of Bible Society with experience in publishing.

    My sense is that Christian publishing hasn’t yet worked out how best to position itself with the dramatic changes over the past number of years. The key as I see it, is to understand as much as possible about the digital milieu, how customers are behaving in the digital space. And a primary way of achieving this is immersing yourself in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and picking up your Kindle.

    Its a fascinating place that provides us with the ability to get our message to millions of people; why would we not want to explore it?

    God bless,


  44. Beth Kroger says:

    Your brilliant and insightful writing about Christianity has brought me great joy through the years. My favorite book in the entire world is “Soul Survivor.” The chapter on Paul Brand especially speaks to me since Paul Brand and his wife Margaret were close friends of my parents, who were missionaries stationed about 30 miles from Vellore. Two memories especially stand out from my childhood: a visit to Karigiri Leprosy Center and the Christmas Paul spent with our family while Margaret took their kids to England. I was fortunate enough to visit Paul and Margaret on a trip to Seattle a year before Paul died. I was also pleased that you included Gandhi in “Soul Survivor.” My dad (who spent 41 years in India) had the privilege of meeting Gandhi and speaking to him, during which conversation Gandhi mentioned that he would have considered becoming a Christian if only its members lived out the teachings of Jesus.

  45. Ian Matthews says:

    Hi Philip

    As someone how works almost exclusively in the digital world these days (after a stint at one of those big Christian houses) I suppose I would be expected to embrace ebooks. I do have a reader, and many things work well on it, but there is nothing like browsing my library and picking out a book to revisit or visit for the first time. I will be sorry if books disappear altogether.

    Here in the UK it is unusual to find someone who makes a living just writing books (apart from the big fiction authors) – most write out of the vocation they already have and is paying their bills. For a number of years I have told aspiring writers no to expect writing alone to give them an income to live on. I look back at authors of old and many of them did the same – Swift, Dickens, D H Lawrence, Orwell etc, so there is at least a good precedent for this!

  46. As a fellow author, and one who has benefited from the wealth of your faith words, thank you for the time it took to articulate so thoroughly the place we find ourselves in as authors, and readers. I would love to talk more about this subject with you on my radio show, ATS LIVE. If you’re interested, you can email me tomtom @ I would love to hear from you. Blessings~

  47. Julie Patrick-Barnhill says:

    Dear Mr. Yancey,

    I wholeheartedly agree with your perspectives. Thank you for the many books and thoughtful analysis you’ve given to matters of faith and life over those ‘golden years’.
    I pray (and trust) God will continue to provide a publishing route not only for you but for countless other authors (like me) who desire to make a difference one reader at a time.

    Julie Patrick-Barnhill

  48. Lyle Dorsett says:

    Philip, thank you for this charitable and thoughtful article. Although my primary source of income comes from teaching, I have been publishing books and articles since 1968. Everything you expressed resonates with and you have expressed better than I could. I, too, am grateful to have lived through the “golden years.” You have spoke well for many of us.

    Blessings, Lyle Dorsett

  49. Thank you for your insightful commentary. I am writing my first full length novel after years offering devotional pieces on my website. We can pray God will want our work received well, but I also recognize that my daily posts will get more hits than books purchased when published. Of course, I always go back to why I write. Thankfully I do not need base my efforts on financial rewards. For those that are talented enough to rely on the financial rewards, I pray the pendulum will swing back to people enjoying good, quality books again. There truly is far too much poor writing being solicited as published material…the question is how best to shine among the clutter that is out there?

  50. Dean Merrill says:

    Yep … that’s pretty much how things are, Philip. You’ve described it well.

    One small silver lining to the arrival of e-commerce is that it has broken the hated bottleneck of availability for authors. No longer do we get the common comment of years past, “I looked for your new book in my bookstore but couldn’t find it. How do I get a copy?” Now, everybody knows to go straight to the Internet (and pay a rock-bottom price, as you point out).

    It’s a much altered world, more than we ever expected, isn’t it?

  51. Darren Sombke says:

    Thank you for sharing an insider’s perspective Philip. Your writings have been truly helpful to me over the years. Many of your observations about the Christian publishing industry are also true of the church and congregations in the U.S.A. I’m currently reading a book about self-publishing e-books and the formulaic / cookie-cutter approach is quite sad … mostly because it is probably quite accurate if one is hoping to make any amount of money from writing in the current environment.
    Thanks for being a blessing in my life.
    — Darren

  52. George Tatro says:

    That about sums it up. The days of finding exactly what you weren’t looking for are over. I went looking for a book at Atlanta Vintage Books back in 1999 and ended up finding a wife – you never knew what you would go home with back then. Thanks for the good read.

  53. Philip – thank you for (unsurprisingly!) articulating so well what we know is happening in the book world. The future for authors, publishers and booksellers is a challenge, while still offering great opportunities for spreading the Gospel. As physical moves to digital, there is much talk about ‘content’, whereas I believe we should talk about ‘message’.
    The message is the same but the vehicle is changing.
    In CLC we have a worldwide perspective, and the situation is by no means homogeneous. In Latin America and India, for instance, more books are being sold and more bookshops are opening. Worldwide, we see more Bibles and children’s books being sold. That said, with so many channels of distribution, booksellers have to work harder.
    Clearly there is no turning back so we must embrace the change. I am sure the scribes were disgruntled when the Gutenberg press was invented.
    With all the changes we still need the message to be articulated. So, please, keep writing!

  54. Tho I was one if the 40,000 to get your e-book free… I will still be buying at least three copies of it as I need them for the Yancey Collection I’ve acquired over the years for my three grown daughters… Charlotte … Samantha, and Tori. Each of them will one day inherit the entire collection of your books! Recent I finally found copies of one of your earlier books and was able to get 3 of them! Yay!

  55. Marty Jones says:

    I don’t think I can find enough words to express the importance your words have had upon my life.
    While I had hoped to be a “famous illustrator” at this point in my life, it doesn’t appear to be likely to happen; consequently your influence on my life won’t have as much impact on the world as I’d hoped.
    Fortunately, we both live for a different kingdom.
    Blessings, Marty Jones

  56. jdy says:

    Thanks for the article…. I must say I enjoy the paper book, although I have most of your books on kindle and hard copy …….just because….some of the kindle books were free or low cost and I usually buy paper as soon as I walk in the book store… My 16 year old still enjoys the paper book although he taught himself to read with a game boy when he was 4.

  57. Christine Troeger Coffin says:

    I agree with you completely. My husband does all his reading on a kindle, even carrying it to church to follow the scripture used for the message. I still (and will) carry my Bible to church! My son is the director of our county public library and is also seeing how the digital age is affecting the way the library is run. People come in to use the computers and they are also able to download library books to read at home. I love my books, they are my friends, and I will never resort to reading on a kindle no matter how convenient it is.

  58. Doug Amery says:

    Thanks Philip,
    I’ve really enjoyed reading your books over the years and they have been great fuel for thought. I really appreciate your well researched content and ability to look at things from a different perspective to the traditional view. Though I have never read your thoughts on the baptism of the Holy Spirit and living a Spirit filled life. Maybe in the future.

  59. Micah Smith says:

    You have been, presently are and will remain one of the most insightful and profound writers of all time. I am thankful for you PY, and the privilege of reading your books.

  60. Dave Sheridan says:

    I appreciated your blog very much. Although I can’t say I miss the traditional paper books. Even though I do have a bookshelf full of books, all that guided me along my Faith Walk, that I still go back to. Once I started using a Kindle I was hooked. It holds my daily devotionals, Bibles and current and past reading and goes where I go.
    Thanks so much for the many wonderful books you have written. They too, helped me tremendously on my Walk. I’m looking forward to your next book.

  61. mel conant says:

    Hi Phillip. Very insightful comments. I often feel caught in the middle of this media revolution….wanting to stay somewhat in the mix of electronic upgrades but I often go back to wanting hard copy whether it is newspaper, mag or book. I guess I’m still a “golden age” reader. My grandkids are a bit amazed by grandpa’s book shelves. I try and explain that there is something special about actually feeling and holding a book, and turning pages. They may nod a bit as if humoring me. Anyway, it will be interesting to see where this all goes. Thanks again for your thoughts on this. Mel

  62. Lewis Codington says:

    Thank you for sharing your personal experiences, which so closely match those of the folks who have worked in the book industry during the past 30-40 years. Books are also my wonderful friends…hard to offload even as I try to cut down!


  63. Marg Miller says:

    A very interesting blog post but sad farewell to the golden age of publishing … I haven’t been able to make myself read an e-book yet. I still prefer REAL books! So even though my husband had your latest book on Kindle, I waited the three months to buy it to read!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.