Authors all around me are giving up on book publishing, shifting to new careers, or radically rethinking how they approach publishing. Some authors, such as Phillip Yancey, are lamenting the changes to publishing and counting themselves lucky that they got in while the getting is good.
Many active authors make the bulk of their money through speaking, online courses, coaching, and more need-based, how-to projects.
The reality is that very few writers can actually survive as authors alone—especially Christian authors. I’ve seen many bestselling Christian authors who have greater success than I could ever hope for switch to corporate clients, business writing, self-help books, event planning, and the list goes on. There’s a trend where many of the people I’ve looked up to have peered ahead to the future and decided that they at least needed a better side source of financial support, if not an altogether different career.
I’ve been thinking long and hard about the path of my career. At one point I tried to supplement book publishing with magazine writing. I’ve also tried to play the traditional author game by landing speaking gigs. Both have their advantages for other people, but I can see that neither are a particularly good fit for me, especially at this season in my life.
Having commercially published five books and self-published several short projects and one full-length book, I’m also rethinking my path as an author, but not quite like them. I’d like to share five shifts I’m making in order to help other authors consider their own futures and, let’s be honest here, to hold myself accountable.
1. I’m Writing Books. Period.
I’ve spent too much time dividing myself over too many different kinds of projects. I’d been trying to write for magazines and very particular websites that called for a specific kind of short-form writing and I’m simply terrible at it.
I’m sticking with this blog, my newsletter, my book projects, and some select freelancing projects. I used to really fret about getting magazine credits and invested so much time in pitching article ideas that were either shot down on the spot or written on spec before being shot down. The few articles that did make it into publication brought very little by way of return for my publishing career.
I’m not saying that other people can’t or shouldn’t do that. I just know I’ve tried really hard to make it work, and I’m not seeing any kind of meaningful return. I’d much rather write eBooks, something I know how to do, and give them away in exchange for email addresses or sell them for a discounted price—which adds up if you can sell enough eBooks.
2. It’s All about Email
Writers write for an audience, right?
I used to divide my attention between writing for an audience and writing to get noticed by publishers—hence my wasted time trying to write for magazines when I really had no business doing that.
There’s a simple, tried and true way to build relationships with readers on your own terms that every book marketing expert praises: email. And here’s the thing, I love jotting down little notes to my e-newsletter readers, keeping them in the loop on projects, and sending them free books whenever I can.
It’s like having a secret club.
So my publishing plan is something like this:
- Write for my blog regularly, testing out book ideas and collecting new email subscribers.
- Send updates, recommendations, and new books to email subscribers.
- Publish and self-publish books, asking my newsletter readers to help spread the word.
- Then I’ll start posting new ideas on my blog and begin the process again.
3. I’m Crossing Genres, Not Topics.
It made sense to write my Path to Publishing book in 2010. It helped me land publishing workshop gigs. It also saved me a ton of time writing emails to people asking first-time publishing questions. I wouldn’t say it’s made a ton of money, but it at least paid for itself.
However, I’m not interested in becoming a publishing guru as so many authors have done. I’m more interested in publishing books related to religion and then sharing what I’ve learned about publishing along the way. I see A Path to Publishing as a departure from my central writing topic: religion.
Having said that, I am finally taking fiction seriously. I’ve dabbled in fiction on and off over the years, always scrapping novels at the halfway point because I just wanted to run the main character over with a bus. I finally have an idea for a series that is exciting and strikes me as sustainable for the long term.
The novel I’m working on has a main character who is a Christian and he’ll be interacting with Christian stuff, but there’s no single moralistic lesson or point to the book beyond telling a good story. So I’m sticking to religion as my topic, but I’ll keep writing nonfiction while adding some fiction to the mix.
4. I’m Committing to a Hybrid Approach… for Now
There was a time when I saw the amount of work required to go indie as an author, and I rightly decided that it was simply too time-consuming.
Now there are better tools and better methods available. It’s far more viable for authors to self-publish today. I also have way more experience with publishing, so I should, in theory, be able to write books that require less editing than if I’d started self-publishing full time in 2010. I’ve already dabbled in self-publishing for a few book projects as a kind of experiment. I was hesitant to jump in with both feet until I had a better grasp of what it took to be successful—not I have a “great” grasp, just a better grasp.
I’m not giving up on commercial publishing. I’m simply becoming more intentional about both.
I have a list of publishers in mind for my projects, and if I can’t work with the right publisher(s) for the right project, I’ll either drop it or self-publish it.
I’m also intentionally developing a series of eBooks that I can self-publish.
5. I’m Selectively Publishing
I admit that I saw a publisher as a way to legitimize myself. Perhaps I still do. I’m not sure I would strike out into self-publishing without a few commercial books that at least turned a few heads.
I used to think that publishers validate you. I was wrong. Readers validate you. If readers want your books, then you’re valid.
I heard an agent talking about that bestselling book Heaven Is for Real. Someone insightfully asked him if he would have represented the author. He laughed and said, “Well, I’d represent him now!” Exactly, as long as Burpo is selling books to people, he’s a valid author.
Validating yourself as an author is really just a matter of connecting with readers. That’s it.
Today I see publishers as partners who should help you do two things:
- Improve your book.
- Reach more readers.
While authors understand that the best editors should improve the content of a book, most fail to fully grasp just how much rests with the author for book promotion. A publisher can do a lot. They can buy some ads, print marketing materials, organize price promotions, create graphics, send copies to reviewers, advocate for authors with book buyers, and promote books to their mailing lists, but none of those tactics are necessarily guarantee sales.
Few authors are prepared to successfully convince people to buy their books. I’ve also learned that publicists at a variety of publishers are divided in their opinions on how to release a new book, which is a whole other post.
In some cases a savvy publicist makes all of the difference in the sale of a book, in some cases the publicist holds back an author who has innovative ideas, and in other cases the book is DOA regardless of what a publicist or author does. I’ve talked to authors who have been all across the spectrum on this.
So that’s it. I’m going to keep publishing books. I’m not here to get cover stories on magazines, to be the headliner at a conference, or to change the course of evangelical Christianity for the next 50 years or whatever. I have some stories to tell, some ideas to share, and an itch in my fingers to write.
I have books to write, blog posts to draft, and emails to send. If you want to keep in touch throughout this journey, pick up my new books, learn from my mistakes, and get some off the record thoughts on it all, sign up for my e-newsletter. You’ll also receive two free eBooks!