Is the Big Book Shrinking? - Page 2

By Meg Williams 07/09/13

The Big Book remains the place to find AA's program of recovery. But thanks to competing publishers and free apps, literature revenues are falling. Is there anything World Services can do?

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Will AA's publishing revenues soon become small beer? Photo via

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AA clubhouses and Intergroup literature rooms sometimes sell selections from Hazelden’s wide variety of books on recovery. In turn, Alcoholics Anonymous sells the Big Book through the Hazelden website. It costs $10.75 instead of the usual price of $8.70, when purchased through Intergroup or at a meeting. This mark-up is most likely a result of a portion of the profits going to the distributor: Hazelden.

Apart from serving as a distributor of AA literature, Hazelden has found other ways to profit from the writings of the fellowship. In 2004, the original working manuscript for the book Alcoholics Anonymous sold for $992,000 at an auction at Sotheby’s. After the manuscript changed hands again, the current owner licensed it to Hazelden Publishing. In 2010, the company then printed an edition of the text which had previously not been available to the public. This original working manuscript has been in private hands since its creation, perhaps because the AA archives did not exist when it was made. Full-color cloth editions cost $65 each, while leather-bound editions cost $125. The book is now in its second printing.

AAWS has had some trouble so far, but they may be waking up to the fact that they can’t do everything alone.

Perhaps considering Hazelden’s success, the 63rd General Service Conference passed a motion to publish a “75th Anniversary Edition” of the first edition, first printing of Alcoholics Anonymous, slated for April 2014. Since the Conference just voted on publication, more information on this facsimile edition is not currently available. A large number of AA members are in favor of this move, but some point out that it might cause further confusion about which edition of the Big Book is the preferred one.

In an effort to regain online business, AAWS has made certain conference-approved AA literature available for purchase through their website. The user-login system allows members to read the books online or download AAWS’s own e-reader program for Apple products, such as iPhone and iPod Touch. The app is also available for iPad, but it is not an “iPad specific” app so the display is less than perfect. On the same note, Version 1.1 of the app has a bug that causes a blank screen when the user opens a book. This can be bypassed through a method mentioned on the AAWS site, but obviously it is a significant problem with the software.

The website also explains why AAWS does not currently sell digital copies through third-party vendors that offer more developed e-reader applications: “Selling eBooks through our own store allows AAWS to set the price for our literature and allows the entire income from retail sales to come to AAWS and not go partially to an outside vendor.”

AAWS has attempted to distribute AA literature through third-party websites before; however, these efforts have been far from successful. In fact, GSO’s contract with Amazon.com was terminated after less than 30 days. GSO cited Amazon’s inability to honor its requests that no suggestions for other books appear on the page for AA eBooks, that AAWS be given the power to set its own prices, and that GSO be given the ability to rescind its contract at any time.

The vote in April may enable AA to try once again to distribute literature through Apple, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. When you consider that AAWS already sells hard copies of many books through third-party distributors, extending this practice online makes sense. But this time, Amazon might not honor AAWS's request that the contract be terminable at any time. This is not common practice at Amazon, and it remains to be seen if this will remain an issue for AAWS.

In any case, the Big Book is already available on many dedicated eReaders. Amazon itself already publishes its own copy of the public domain version for Kindle, available for just $1.99. Given that Amazon didn't have to purchase rights to publish the Kindle version of the book, they're making quite a profit.

In order to counterbalance the loss in sales, AAWS could offer a more varied and updated selection of conference-approved literature for which it currently holds the copyright. This would make purchasing from AAWS preferable, even if through a third-party online vendor.

As for smart phones, many developers currently publish the first and second editions using their apps. Some seem to be AA members who have compiled a variety of resources to benefit other members, while others are independent publishers who also print other public domain texts and charge for their use. Whether publishers charge or not, they, no matter what their intentions, cannot be stopped by AAWS, as long as the publisher is a US company.

The publisher Serulia, for example, charges $0.99 for a public domain copy of the Big Book. Their other offerings include a rhyming dictionary, copies of the Bible in different languages and various state law compilations. All or most of their downloads are works of public domain, for which they bought no license and charge a fee.

Michele W., a 26-year-old New York AA with two years sober, has read some of the results of such apps. “I have used [the apps] from time to time, but I have never paid for one," she said. "I’ll only use the free versions. I own hard copies of a lot of AA literature that I paid for, but it’s great having [the apps] for quick reference on my phone. I also don’t want my money going to people trying to profit off AA, whether or not they are doing it legally. But I understand the issue to some extent. Many people, especially ones who are new, might not get it. They may pay for something they could get [for] free, and their money goes somewhere else besides AA.”

In an ever-evolving media market, AA must do its best to stay current. AAWS has had some trouble so far, but they may be waking up to the fact that they can’t do everything alone. Companies with dedicated eReaders, such as Amazon.com and Apple, are always going to have better, more user-friendly applications available. Working with them may prove very profitable for AAWS and useful to individual members. Furthermore, imitating Hazelden in the creation of collectors’ items shows an awareness of the competition and a willingness to innovate.

Of course, the success of both these ventures rests on their executions. And leave it to a bunch of alcoholics to mess things up.

Meg Williams is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about the AA Grapevine.

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