When Commercial Christian Publishing Was Bad for My Soul

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Christian publishing was bad for my soul, but I need to begin with a few caveats.

Christian publishing isn’t “bad” in every way in and of itself.

Christian publishing isn’t necessarily bad for everyone’s soul.

Commercial publishing in general could be bad for anyone’s soul.

Christian publishing isn’t even necessarily bad for my soul right now. It could be bad for my soul, but I’d like to think I’ve learned a thing or two after a decade working my way into this subset of the publishing world. I should probably leave it at this:

Commercial Christian publishing was quite bad for my soul for a period of time. I also suspect that there are many Christian authors who would agree with this assessment at certain points in their careers.

Idealistic souls like myself enter into Christian publishing with two major problems:

  1. We don’t know how to recognize when our souls are in bad shape.
  2. We can’t imagine how Christian publishing could be bad for our souls.

The two points are related of course. If you aren’t expecting a dark side in the Christian publishing world and you can’t even determine how the dark side is impacting you in the first place, you’re most likely in for a major, major crash.

I want Christian publishers to thrive, and I want Christian authors to thrive. This isn’t about pointing fingers or telling people to avoid working with Christian publishers. On the contrary, I want healthy Christian authors to work with publishers in order to produce excellent books that will help their readers. Having commercially published a few books myself, people often ask me for advice about how to get involved in Christian publishing. I usually write something like this “off the record,” but I think it would really help if we could speak about these things openly. So here we go…

 

How Is It with Your Soul?

When I started working on my first book proposal in 2005, I didn’t know how to evaluate whether I was in a healthy or unhealthy place in relation to publishing. I felt a strong calling to write, and I had a book idea that, in my view, met an important need in the church. I graduated from seminary knowing that I shouldn’t pastor in a church, but I could pastor through my writing.

At the outset I didn’t see how I tied my personal identity with my work and, most importantly, the reception of readers and influencers to my work. I cared way, way, way too much about what people thought of my books because I linked my work with their acceptance or rejection of me.

It wasn’t the sales numbers necessarily that wore me down, although we’ll get to that. It was rather an expectation that my books were only good, and by connection myself, if certain influential people noticed them, shared them, endorsed them, etc.

In addition, I waited for the feedback of editors for book projects and unwittingly began to associate my value as a writer with my status at publishing houses. I began to only think of myself as a serious author if I had a contract at a major publishing house. My “calling” to write was handed over to a few busy people who rightly wanted no part in determining my self worth or the direction of my life.

When I didn’t reach the sales goals I needed to meet, my future as an “author” hung in the balance. I didn’t know how to survive without the approval of others for my work. Adding in the pressure to make at least some money from book publishing, I had created a toxic mixture of personal approval and financial pressure that poisoned my writing work.

There are some trends or tendencies in commercial Christian publishing that feed these toxic trends, but there’s no doubt that I brought the majority of the crazy to my personal situation. I could choose to either ground myself in God’s calling for myself and my faithfulness to that calling, or I could look to my inbox and social media for approval.

 

Christian Publishing Is a Business

It’s easy to sit back and take shots at publishers for their publishing decisions. Just the other day I was thinking: if I see another Christian dieting gimmick book, I’m going pitch a proposal called My Year of Eating Under the New Covenant where I eat nothing but pork and seafood for a year.

Nevertheless, for every “Patriot’s Bible” and faux self-help author that causes me to roll my eyes, there are excellent, grounded authors like Jennifer Dukes Lee, Ann Voskamp (no “prosetry” haters allowed, Ann’s the real deal), Nate Pyle, Preston Yancey, Emily Freeman, Michelle Derusha, Christie Purifoy, and D. L. Mayfield (just to name a few off the top of my head) breaking into Christian publishing, writing excellent books, and even dominating the bestseller lists as they offer the rest of us hope.

However, commercial publishing remains a business that demands immediate results, and diet books and Amish romances do provide guaranteed sales. Every author feels the pressure to meet sales targets knowing that their next books hinge on those sales numbers. It doesn’t matter if outside circumstances contributed to low sales numbers, a marketing person dropped the ball, or, in my case, the publicist got fired before the book’s release. If you can’t produce the numbers a publisher needs, you’re getting axed and publishing another book will be tough in the future.

Suddenly sticking a woman with a bonnet on your book’s cover to jumpstart sales starts looking attractive… Amish Coffeehouse Theology Romance anyone?

Most writers either in Christian publishing or hoping to enter Christian publishing need to know why certain books are chosen over others and how publishers hope to make money from the books they acquire.

For instance, the pastor with a congregation of 5,000 people and a huge social media following can pitch a book that says something like, “Following Jesus is a relationship and church is about the people, not the building,” or “Don’t gossip!” and it may get published because his platform is huge and can guarantee the sales a publisher needs. Just create a sermon series around the book’s release and presto! Book deal!

I can only imagine what some of the authors of our spiritual classics would hear if they were pitching their books today…

“Dear Mr. Bonhoeffer,

I’m afraid we’re going to have to pass on your book proposal about creating a healthy church community. It is clearly well-written and based on your experience leading an underground church movement, but your Twitter following just isn’t up to snuff and your congregation is unfortunately too small and, most concerning of all, UNDERGROUND…”

The relatively unknown authors who aren’t household names will need to blog like crazy, make connections on social media, gather endorsements from influential people, and develop amazing book concepts that are unique and original while somehow landing within the interests and guidelines of a publisher.

That may not be true across the board for every book proposal, but so far as I can see, that is simply the reality for many. And mind you, if you create a really compelling book that a publisher takes a chance on, you really, really need to at least earn back your advance if you want to publish more books commercially. My struggle to land a second or third book deal because a first book was perceived as underperforming based on sales in the first year is not uncommon.

This puts a ton of pressure on authors to play the publicity game, and authors can really hit a wall here. We need to gather reviews, write guest posts, book speaking events when possible, and figure out ways to gain exposure for our books even though most of us have no experience in publicity, retail, or online merchandising. Publishers have essentially told authors, “This is the new normal, get used to it.”

I spent about ten years in this grind of writing proposals, blogging, working on publicity, and fighting to boost my sales. I’ve had some nice triumphs and some dismal failures.

When I started on a “Woe is me” lament with a pastor friend, he said, “But look at all of the experience you gained!”

I replied with something like, “Yeah, and that experience really hurt.”

Like I said, commercial Christian publishing was bad for my soul.

At the start of 2015, I decided that I needed to make a major change.

 

Taking a Break from Commercial Publishing

For this season of my life, I’m shelving my proposals. I told my agent that I’m taking a break. I’m not saying I’m done forever. I’m just done for now because I’ve had enough of the commercial publishing game. If I ever pursue it again, I want to develop a healthier way of publishing and marketing books.

I can tell you that this decision has resulted in both grief and relief. I never knew how tightly I was holding onto commercial publishing as the source of my identity until I let go of it. I also never knew that letting go of those dreams and goals could be so wonderfully freeing.

For now I’m mapping out plans to work on a few projects I’ve had sitting around and publishing them “Independently,” which is the term of choice over self-publishing for many. I first experimented with self-publishing in 2010 with my book A Path to Publishing (I updated the current version in 2014). Back then the majority of the people with self-publishing experience were still trying to get their books noticed through bookstores, advertising, and article placement—at least the people I read about. It was a ton of work, and sales weren’t amazing. I’ve continued little side experiments with independent publishing, and now I’m finally at a place where I think it’s worth trying.

With Scrivener, it’s ridiculously easy to put an eBook together, and tools like NoiseTrade, BookBub, MailChimp, Kindle Direct, and Draft2Digital make it easy to market your work in a variety of ways. I still have to work with a cover designer and sort out the editorial process, but it’s not that much more work than commercial publishing at this point, even if I do miss the support of some of the excellent editors and publicists I’ve worked with over the years.

Still, by going off on my own I don’t have any pressure to meet sales goals, to play the endorsement game (don’t get me started on that one), or to market my work in any particular ways. I can run promotions whenever I want and jump on opportunities for publicity as they arise. If a book flops, then it’s mainly my own time that I’ve wasted, and if a book struggles in its first month, there’s still plenty of time to figure out ways to promote it.

I can certainly still fall into the trap of judging my self-worth based on the reviews of readers or the response by my friends and colleagues. My soul isn’t in the clear. In fact, before the release of my latest book Pray, Write, Grow, I still had trouble falling asleep for a week as I worried whether enough people would like it. However, once the book released, my anxiety completely disappeared and I was able to simply enjoy the fact that readers were enjoying my book, and that the fate of my next book had nothing to do with its sales for the next month or two.

I like to think that I’m building a healthier way for me, Ed Cyzewski, to write, publish, and publicize my work. Perhaps a day will come that I can sort out a way to work with a publisher again. I’m certainly open to that possibility. But for now, I know that I needed a season to let go of my commercial publishing dreams and simply figure out a healthy way forward as an author.

 

Should You Pursue Commercial Christian Publishing?

One of my main motivations in writing this post is that I’m often asked about how to break into Christian publishing. I even coach some new authors who started out hoping for book deals and actually shifted toward independent publishing for the time being—decisions they made with zero prompting on my part.

I feel like I owe the people who know me some kind of response on the public record to this often-asked question: “Should I pursue commercial Christian publishing?”

I can’t answer that question definitely, but here’s what I know based on my experiences, and I suspect I’m not alone in this, even if my take certainly isn’t the norm for everyone:

  1. There is a ton of pressure to sell enough books if you want to make a career of commercial publishing in general.
  2. The process of publishing a book on deadline and marketing it within a publisher’s timeline can be draining and even make it hard to write the next book.
  3. Marketing support varies from publisher to publisher, and it’s hard to know if you’ve ever been given enough help or the right kind of help. (Publishers are all over the place on how to market books and even when publishers do a lot to market a book, there’s no guarantee it will work as hoped).

I still think there are some really talented writers who should shoot for the big publishers. I’m honestly looking forward to the release of many books from my colleagues this year, and I’m glad they’ve endured the challenges of this industry in order to work with talented editors who will make their books all that much better.

However, the majority of writers hoping to break into publishing simply aren’t ready for all of the demands of publishing, especially the marketing side of things. I’ve been hired to critique lots of proposals, and the vast majority are too thin in the marketing department. While I admire their willingness to take their chances with a publisher, if they do manage to publish that book, release week and the ensuing weeks could be extremely stressful and even soul crushing.

With the ease of independently publishing eBooks these days, most new authors should begin by publishing at least a book or two on their own and figuring out how they can best market it without the pressure of a publisher’s sales goals looming over them. If publishers are going to demand that authors bring their own marketing platforms along with their books, you may as well figure out a way forward that is enjoyable and, most importantly, tested in real life.

I spent years building up social media and blog contacts without understanding how to actually use them to promote books. I wrote newsletters each month without a clue about the value of those email addresses. I was just moving from one half measure to another based on what other authors were doing without fully understanding what would be most effective for connecting readers with my writing.

Commercial Christian publishing was bad for my soul, but I’m trying to learn from my mistakes. I’m hopeful that we can make things better, and we can at least improve upon the status quo.

I still believe that books are a powerful way to share carefully crafted ideas and stories that can change lives and bring joy.

I still believe that the majority of readers are looking for another great book.

I still believe that the majority of authors, editors, and publicists want to produce the absolute best works possible, even if they’re often placed in difficult situations.

The truth is that book publishing can be messy and painful. No one is going to look out for your spiritual health. Once you hop on the publishing roller coaster, it’s going to be difficult to bring it to a stop when you grow weary.

Before I experienced the publishing business from the inside, I thought that publishing books for my fellow Christians was pretty much the greatest gig ever. These days I applaud anyone who wants to get published commercially, but before you take the plunge, you need to realize that writing books for your fellow Christians could be very, very bad for your soul.