Is the Big Book Shrinking?

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Is the Big Book Shrinking?

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

When the 63rd General Service Conference of Alcoholics Anonymous met this April, the delegates representing AA groups from the US and Canada passed a motion to allow AA World Services (AAWS) to “use commissioned online stores to sell and distribute digital AA literature.”

AA literature is already widely available on the web. This includes the AA website's links to the current edition of Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Steps and Twelve TraditionsBut other vendors also publish editions of the Big Book online, downloadable for free or for a nominal charge. At this point, AAWS has already lost considerable business to these other publishers. Many would ask, “Why is AA allowing this?” The answer: AA has no legal recourse to stop it.

Individual AA members must choose whom to pay for the Big Book, if they choose to pay at all.

The first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous has been public domain since 1967, when AA failed to renew its copyright on the text. AA also failed to renew the copyright on the second edition, causing it to lapse in 1983. In both cases, most sources say that AAWS failed to act simply because of a lack of understanding of the applicable copyright laws.

Of course, other theories have been proposed. Some suggest that AA let the copyright lapse to dodge any liability resulting from the fact that Bill Wilson claimed he was the only author at the time the Big Book was first copyrighted. (Other people are known to have written portions of the book, including “To Employers” and “The Doctor’s Opinion,” for example.) Moving these works into public domain then re-copywriting the third edition and not claiming that Bill Wilson was the only author would prevent anyone from suing AA over the original copyright. These same sources add that AA's General Service Office (GSO) claimed to misunderstood the law in order to hide its true motives. This theory needs to be qualified by saying that these sources seem to have a bone to pick with AA in general. They present evidence to support their claims; however, it is very difficult to confirm its veracity, due to the lack of documentation available to the public from the AA's service structures.

Whatever its reasons, this apparent oversight has caused a considerable headache for AAWS and the GSO as a whole, because a large part of their budget comes from literature sales. The projected net income from sales for the year of 2013 was $7,782,800. This figure represents profits after subtracting all costs for royalties, manufacturing and shipping. This money was expected to cover 54% of GSO’s expenses for 2013. The 2013 gross income was budgeted at $95,000 less than 2012—showing a decline in sales, though not a steep one. GSO hoped to compensate by reducing production and distribution costs in order to increase the profit margin.

Although the current laws would have extended the copyright until at least 2021, AAWS must adhere to the laws that were in place when the first and second editions were published. The applicable law, the 1909 Copyright Act, dictates that copyrights must be renewed in writing after 30 years. International copyright laws, on the other hand, already followed the current Berne Convention when the first two editions were published. This extends copyrights to 50 years after the death of the author. Assuming Bill W. was the only author of the Big Book—which is, as we've seen, a big assumption—this would extend the copyright to 2021. 

As a result, AAWS argues that it retains control of the Big Book in every country except the US. Many AA’s claim that the Board of Trustees, GSO and AAWS have taken action against individual members who have reproduced the book in foreign countries.

Mitchell K., a nationally recognized historian and Alcoholics Anonymous archivist, asserted in his 1998 “Open Letter to AA Members” that “For over a decade now, the AA World Service Board of Trustees has been involved in several court cases or has given their approval for several others. AA members have been incarcerated and have met with severe financial hardship. AA World Services has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of our money in legal fees including consultation. There is currently a court case pending in Germany that threatens an AA member with jail and financial ruin.”

A number of lawsuits were filed against an individual German member named Matthew. Litigation continued until at least 2003, when Matthew had finally run out of financial resources for his legal defense. He began to pay the fines levied against him, which stand at upwards of $200,000.

In the course of these legal proceedings, a number of AA members attempted to bring the issue to general vote within the AA conferences, both in the US and in Germany. Eventually all efforts were blocked and the litigation continued. No further updates were forthcoming, and no official word from GSO was available on the matter.

Here in the US, AAWS’s troubles come from an almost converse problem. US-based entities such as Hazelden Publishing, Amazon.com and even iPhone app developers can publish and profit from the distribution of the first two editions of the Big Book. Individual AA members must choose whom to pay for it—if they choose to pay at all.

Sara F., a member from South Florida with nine years of sobriety, remembers a local group that gave away the small red pocket versions of the Big Book’s first 164 pages printed by Hazelden: “I know group members were doing it to spread the message," she said. "But I also know that they bought the Hazelden edition instead of the AA version because it was $2 cheaper at the Intergroup office. That can be a lot of money if you’re buying a bunch, but if you can’t spare the difference, maybe don’t buy as many. Supporting AAWS is very important to spreading the message in a bigger way than giving away Big Books.” Sara F. then mentioned the Fourth Tradition that states that every group is autonomous: “They can do what they want, even if it is not supporting the service structures.”

Other AA’s don’t get as involved in the politics of where they purchase their recovery literature. One AA explains: “I think Hazelden's daily meditations are great and super helpful. I am grateful that someone took the time to write them and share them with our fellowship. [The daily meditations] are definitely a great tool to have, especially when traveling to cities outside of New York because the meetings can become scarce.” '

Hazelden Publishing, a branch of the nonprofit Hazelden Foundation, first entered the emerging recovery literature scene when it bought the rights for a book called Twenty-Four Hours a Day in 1954. This daily meditation book has been a part of many people’s recovery and has sold over 8 million copies worldwide.

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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