The Hidden Danger of Business for Creative Workers

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“I just want to create things. I’ll let someone else handle the business and marketing side of things.” I hear this all of the time. I thought the same thing for a very, very long time.

That mindset may have been the most damaging mistake for my creative work. It laid a foundation for a myriad of other mistakes, resulting in hours and hours of work for books that suffered from my ignorance. Had I actually understood the business of publishing, how the industry has evolved, and where I fit into it (the hardest piece to sort out), I could have invested significantly more time in projects that would have been both creatively fulfilling and financially sustainable.

I’m not alone with my mistakes when it comes to the business side of creative work. I’ve seen friends literally lose control of their books because an inexperienced agent made a bad publishing deal with a new publisher who went out of business right after the book released. I’ve seen colleagues get more of less dropped by their publishers before or during their book releases, with publicists offer very vague, limited support.

Other professional writers and bloggers have suffered from SEO changes that hurt their websites or social media shifts, such as changes to Facebook’s author pages, that sent their click-throughs and ad revenue diving.

There are so many things that I wish I had done differently 5-6 years ago that could have helped myself immensely today. That isn’t to say that I wish I had given myself over completely to the business side of the publishing and writing industries. Rather, I wish I at least knew what I was missing and had been more intentional about the direction of my creative career.

Creative workers can mistakenly think that ignorance of business is a virtue that makes their work pure. 

Ignorance of the business end of creative work is by no means a virtue. It may actually hold your work back, deprive you of opportunities, and even prevent you from being generous with your work. For instance, some publishers make it very difficult to share a high quality eBook with potential readers and reviewers. You would think publishers understand the value of putting books in the hands of reviewers who can help improve your ranking on Amazon by putting your book over the 50-review threshold. However, there are many, many cases of employees at publishers shipping PDF’s of the book’s print file to reviewers, which appear as a mangled garble of words and punctuation in most eReaders.

The more you know about business and marketing going into creative work, the better off you’ll be in choosing the direction that is most sustainable and consistent with your values. I have taken one self-directed crash course after another in the publishing business and marketing. I’ve made enough mistakes over the years that I’ve been very motivated to sign up for industry publications and blogs such as Digital Book World, Jane Friedman’s blog, Writers Digest, Joanna Penn’s podcast, and many more. I’ve read books about the craft of writing, the business of writing, and how independent authors make it work. I’ve read about the marketing strategies and tactics that are available.

None of this has taken away from my creative vision. I’m not changing my plans dramatically. Rather, I’m learning where my creative work can overlap with the strategies that work best today.

Here’s the ironic part of this shift: the more I understand the publishing business and where I fit into it, the more I’ve been able to invest in the kind of work that I love. Back when I was completely ignorant of the publishing industry, I wasted so much time on social media, chasing influential people, and more or less wringing my hands about the things that didn’t work out.

With a better picture in my mind of what works and what doesn’t work, I’ve invested in tools that make my work time more efficient so I can focus on my creative projects and the freelancing that will help pay the bills.

Understanding the business side of my creative work means I can choose what to ignore and compensate for the gaps that creates. For my independent books I spend very little time courting endorsements or reviews on top blogs. Rather, I focus on sharing guest posts and give out the books liberally to all who will read and review them. It runs against some of the industry advice, but it feels like a good path for my work. It’s a choice that I’ve made with full awareness of my options.

These are the decisions that no one else could make for me. I couldn’t just “trust” the experts to tell me what to do. The experts can tell you what has worked for them and for other people, but they can’t tell you how to chart your creative career.

Most importantly, if you don’t set your own course with the backing of research and self-knowledge, you could end up running from half-baked ideas to half-hearted projects over and over again. It’s far better to spend time focusing on what you need to do and then jumping in with both feet and playing the long game. It’s a risk and you’ll certainly need to make adjustments along the way. However, it’s far better to give yourself to a particular plan in order to know with a fair amount of certainty that it doesn’t work than to dabble in three different directions without a clue about what would actually work if you give yourself fully to one of them. 

There’s a danger for creative workers when it comes to the business side of their work, but the danger in most cases is ignorance of business, rather than selling out. I only have my own network to go on, but I think the number of sell outs to business are far fewer than those who flounder because of ignorance of the business side of their work.

Authenticity and integrity do not demand ignorance of business.

If you value integrity and your creative vision, there’s no harm in learning about the business side of your creative work. Dig in and sort out which advice rings true and which doesn’t. Take a look at how you fit into your industry and how your creative work can either reach more people with this knowledge.

If any particular practice in your creative industry strikes you as troubling or unsustainable, no one will blame you for avoiding it. It’s better to see the opportunities and obstacles with clarity than to avoid them both in ignorance.

 

 

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.

 

Releasing My New Book: Growth in Prayer and Writing Starts in the Same Place

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Today I’m releasing my latest book, Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together. This book combines the questions: “How do I find more time to pray?” and “How can I improve as a writer?” What if you could grow in both prayer and writing at the same time? What if the time you invested in writing could help you pray, and the time you invested in prayer could help you write? Here is part of the opening chapter that begins to answer those questions:

 

Every time you bow your head in prayer, open up a blank document on your computer, or flip open a journal page to write, you’re taking a leap of faith. Writers choose to believe they can string together another series of sentences that will speak to the needs of readers somewhere. When people pray, they’re choosing to believe there’s a good, loving God reaching out to us, listening to our prayers, and meeting with us.

We have faith that the discipline of writing will pay off. If we keep working at it, keep practicing, keep asking for feedback, keep revising, and keep publishing our work wherever possible, we’ll get better, reach more readers, and take meaningful steps forward. If we face the most challenging and vulnerable parts of our lives, we have faith that we’ll find words that offer clarity and perspective. If we put our words in front of readers, we have faith that some will reply, “Yes! Me too!” If we take the time to continually examine ourselves and care for ourselves, we have faith that the words will continue to come together year in, year out, whatever life throws at us.

We have faith that the practices of silence, praying with scripture, or reciting the prayers passed on to us will bear fruit over time. If we continue to fight through our fears and anxieties in order to sit in silence, we trust that God can meet us, even if it leads to results we aren’t expecting or doesn’t even result in quantifiable progress.

If we continue to cultivate habits of stillness and quiet throughout the day, we have faith that God can meet us and will speak even at moments when we aren’t expecting to hear anything. If we continue to wait on God, we have faith that periods of silence don’t indicate God has abandoned us.

We can even have faith that growing in one practice could lead to growth in the other.

Every time I grow as a writer, my prayer time receives direction.

Every time I grow in my prayer time, my writing has increased clarity.

Writing and prayer stand well enough on their own, but many of the disciplines that help you write better will also help you pray better and vise versa. This wasn’t something I planned out. I never set out to find connections between the two. Rather, I spend significant parts of each day writing and praying, and at a certain point I started to notice how the two converged.

As I prayed, my writing started to shift and grow. Both the disciplines of prayer and the lessons I learned transferred over to my writing, and my writing furthered my personal reflection and helped foster the habits and disciplines I’d been cultivating while praying. When prayer and writing finally started working together in my life, I began to take significant steps forward in both simultaneously.

I suspect that both prayer and writing can offer a lot of benefits by themselves. I certainly don’t think you have to do them together. However, if you’re already inclined to both write and pray, you may as well figure out how they can help each other. And if you’re experienced in one, you may find opportunities for personal or spiritual growth by trying out the other. I would even go so far as saying it like this:

If you want to improve your prayer life, try writing.

If you want to improve your writing life, try praying.

The two require many of the same practices, disciplines, and virtues. Of course you should certainly only pray out of an interest to meet with God on a deeper level, just as you should only write if you have something to say or process. I’m not trying to tap into the commercial writing potential for prayer or to guilt the reluctant into writing. Rather, I want to drive home the point that prayer and writing not only happily co-exist, but also feed off of each other and can benefit each other.

 

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3 Challenges for Christian Publishing

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If you searched for “crisis in publishing,” you could spend the rest of your life, quite unhappily I might add, reading predictions of publishing’s impending demise. I don’t have anything at stake with the big New York City publishing scene, but I do know a thing or two about Christian publishing.

Perhaps the word “crisis” goes too far. The more measured, less “link-bait-inclined” headline I’ve chosen is “challenges” (My thanks to the three of you who persevered to click through.) Mind you, these are some big challenges. The challenges are especially pressing for authors who aren’t pastors of mega-churches or who can’t afford a $250,000 marketing campaign to make a series of purchases that land their books on the New York Times bestseller list.

Yes, there are more Christian authors than that one former pastor who have done the latter.

Adding to the urgency of these challenges, I’ve seen quite a few of my talented friends involved in Christian publishing take big steps back either to rest or to reevaluate what they’re doing. Some have bowed out, some have made big changes to their goals and daily practices. Some are soldiering on in Christian publishing while harboring some big misgivings—hardly believing that others aren’t putting up more red flags.

From what I know about editors and publicists in the Christian publishing business, most are aware that the challenges and vices of their world are more or less open secrets—especially when the word “business” comes into play with anything that’s supposed to be “Christian.” By and large they all want to fix problems rather than perpetuate them. However, it’s nearly impossible to create any kind of meaningful momentum in a climate where many editors and publicists could be laid off at any moment and publishing companies are always reorganizing and shifting. The last thing I want to do is point fingers or create an us vs. them climate.

From my limited vantage point, there are three major challenges that everyone involved in Christian publishing has to deal with. If you’re new to Christian publishing, you’ll most likely be shocked and overwhelmed by these three challenges at one point or another—so let’s just get the shock over with now. If you’re trying to write Christian books for the long term, I think you’ll have to deal with these challenges sooner than later—that is, if these challenges don’t prevent you from landing a book deal.

Most importantly, I’d like to talk about them and hopefully arrive at some solutions. I have no personal vendettas here… OK, maybe I have a few teeny, tiny grudges… but I’m not out to attack anyone or any company. This is all stuff that tons of people talk about over coffee at Christian conferences and publishing events. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could actually sort some of them out a bit?

 

What is a Christian book?

The biggest hurdle Christian authors face today is the “Christian book” category itself. What exactly should Christian authors write about if we’re trying to write books about our faith for a “Christian” publisher?

Seriously, just take a look at this little overview of the 2014 Christian bestsellers. We have diet books, relationship books, money-management books, and several crazy town end times prophecy books. I have no bone to pick with anyone who wants to read these books—OK, maybe I’ve shown my cards on the whole end times prophecy thing. But really… I’m just asking, what exactly makes a book “Christian”?

“Christian living” has long been the catchall category for books about prayer, faith, spirituality, and Bible study. There are subsets for church books, theology books, prayer, and fiction. However, the distribution of books into these categories just flat out sucks sometimes. I mean, for the love, people… Heaven Is for Real and Four Blood Moons are listed on Amazon as “theology” books. We may as well list Hippos Go Berserk under Wisdom Literature—you can’t deny the parallels with Ecclesiastes.

Most importantly, quite a few of the best-selling Christian authors getting the biggest advances at the largest publishers aren’t necessarily even writing books with any discernable Christian or faith-based element beyond the fact that they are Christians themselves.

I’m not here to judge anyone. We may need self help/healthy living books at times, and it doesn’t hurt to read a book about living a better life, organizing your junk, or whatever. I understand that these books have a broad appeal, sell well, and keep the lights on at publishers. The same goes for the ubiquitous Amish fiction genre.

However, based on some of the books that are acquired and that become bestsellers, Christian publishing is having a bit of an identity crisis. I don’t know about you, but I spend my time trying to figure out the challenges and needs of Christians and then developing book ideas that address them from the perspective of the Christian faith. That at least strikes me as the point of Christian publishing—you know, as opposed to using the Bible to speculate about the end times, sowing fear and confusion, and then cashing in by playing to the fears American culture attempts to medicate through entertainment and sleeping pills.

Publishers may not like me, my writing, or my ideas, but so long as I’m presenting solutions to problems from a Christian perspective, I think I’m at least faithful to the mission of what Christian publishing is all about.

Christian books should resemble the actions and teachings of Christ.

When we see books that are essentially self-help manuals sitting atop the bestseller list alongside Christian bestsellers like 1,000 Gifts or the latest N.T. Wright book (i.e. books that are actually “Christian” in content, mission, etc.), you can’t blame Christian authors for getting a bit confused.

What exactly should we pitch to editors?

What do editors want?

One caveat: if your publisher is super-duper reformed, you just need to find a cool metaphor or analogy for explaining what the Gospel REALLY is. For the rest of us, it’s not just a crapshoot. It’s a huge mess where some big publishing deals are going to authors, who are very nice and good Christian people, who aren’t necessarily writing faith-based books.

I don’t know what the best solution is. I don’t hold any grudges against publishers or authors for this confusing state of affairs. I trust that these are complex, difficult situations. Put most charitably, it’s all quite confusing. Perhaps it would help if some publishers just created an imprint or line of books that are specifically dedicated to “better living” or take more of a self-help angle. We could at least have honest conversations about what a publisher is looking for. Then Christian authors who are writing about specifically Christian topics will have a better idea of their odds of being acquired.

While publishers put together little lists of “topics” they’re currently interested in, I can’t help thinking there’s a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” element going on even if their list focuses on stuff like prayer or discipleship. I mean, sure they’ll publish a book about prayer if the author has the credentials, platform, and, preferably, thousands of church members to help catapult sales, but if a simple living recipe book about losing weight and saving your marriage while decluttering your home and raising happy kids came along by a Christian author with a huge cooking blog platform, they won’t say no.

 

Fragmented Authors and Publishers Aren’t Working Together

The majority of authors I know are struggling to find readers for their books, and the majority of their books are really good or at least ideal for a particular niche of readers. We’re all on our own little islands with our various publishers trying to find new readers, asking each other for favors, and dreading a few authors who always ask for a bazillion favors.

I have personally not seen evidence that Christian publishers recognize how authors at different publishers could work together to serve the same market and reach more readers. Publicists are already shoving authors out the door to network and beg for favors. Why can’t publishers join their authors in becoming partners in building these networks among authors in order to strengthen promotions? This could be as simple as sending a few emails back and forth to coordinate a price promotion, book release, or special event.

I don’t mean one of two publicists here and there. Some publicists already get this. You can always find some people who are willing to think outside the box. The problem is that this has yet to become an assumed industry standard. I mean, gosh, some publicists can’t be talked into running eBook promotions yet, let alone partnering with other publishers to help an eBook promotion reach a wider audience!

When I’ve attempted to set up book promotions with the authors I know, the promotions didn’t happen because we couldn’t get certain publicists to respond to our emails in a timely fashion. I think we had a few really great opportunities to network together, and some publicists I spoke to really loved this idea. However, we didn’t get the critical mass to pull it off because some emails weren’t returned.

This kind of thing is maddening to authors. We’ve gone to publishing conferences where publishing experts lecture us on authors taking the initiative, doing their own marketing, and moving away from the days of “just writing books.” Seriously, if you work at a publisher, you need to know this: authors are lectured over and over again about not being lazy and being proactive and doing our marketing. OK? We hear this all of the time. So we try working together to promote our work, and it doesn’t happen because someone at a publisher can’t answer an email.

Every author I know sees the need to work with fellow authors, and some have a long history of doing so. It’s time for publishers to start doing the same or to at least take a more active role in helping us do what they’re telling us to do. If you have a group of authors with intersecting books who write for different publishers, there’s no reason why they can’t work together to organize a group promotion for the same week. A few emails and two months of lead time is all you need to set this up. This is low hanging fruit, folks.

Authors are always being challenged to stop viewing each other as the competition. Most of us are willing to work together to help each other succeed. If our publishers joined us in this as partners with the same vision of cooperation, we would all have a lot to gain.

 

No One Can Agree on Book Marketing

Based on the conversations I’ve had with authors and publicists at a variety of publishers, there really isn’t a strong consensus on how to market a book. There are, however, a lot of strong opinions. These opinions are so strong, in fact, that some hopeful authors have opted to not pursue book publishing because they don’t want to blog or be a public speaker or deal with the insanity that is Twitter.

#NotAllAuthorsLikeTwitter

However, in each case these authors have merely run into people who have strong opinions about Twitter or public speaking or blogging. There are other professionals with equally strong credentials and comparable experience who think Twitter is ineffective for selling books and public speaking does jack squat for selling books. Some publishers rely on ads and radio interviews, others rely on eBook promotions and reviews, and still others look to blogs, email lists, and social media strategies.

How crazy is this? One publisher rejected a proposal because I didn’t have 10,000 Twitter followers, while another said my platform was strong based on my email list since Twitter didn’t matter. Another friend was told she had to make a YouTube video advertising her book, while another was told his deal hinged on public speaking engagements.

I don’t hold anything against publishers and publicists for this range of opinion. I suspect that particular marketing tactics work based on the author, the book, and the audience. There isn’t a single “correct” way to release a book. In fact, we run into problems when publicists get hooked to particular promotion strategies that simply don’t work for a specific author or a particular book.

The best conversation I’ve ever had with a publicist involved her telling me all of the strategies that wouldn’t work for my book. It was extremely helpful and refreshing.

If you’re getting into Christian publishing, here’s the best thing I can tell you about marketing: you need a plan, but you don’t have to copy every bestselling author. If you hate blogging, try podcasting. I have a friend who told me that her podcast did a lot more to sell her books, even if conventional wisdom says that podcasts don’t sell books.

If you like writing letters, I have good news for you. It’s fun to send regular email newsletters! You just need to figure out how to get people to subscribe so that you have a strong list for your book’s release.

If you have deep, pithy thoughts you enjoy sharing throughout the day, then you’ll probably crush it on Twitter.

If you like starting engaging conversations, then Facebook is certainly for you.

My biggest mistake as an author was trying to imitate authors who are very different people and who write very different books from my own. I would have been far better served to be honest about what I like to do and what I hate to do and then imitating authors based on that.

There’s always a place in book marketing for holding your nose and diving into promotion tactics that you find draining or annoying. There are certain activities that will pay off, even if you don’t like them.

However, there are too many authors who go into marketing conference calls without a clear sense of the most effective ways they as authors can help promote their specific books. Either out of ignorance or an aversion to marketing, they just defer to publicists, some of whom may have strong opinions about marketing that don’t necessarily line up with an author’s talents or the book’s message.

While authors shouldn’t resist every suggestion from a publicist, I’ve talked to enough publicists to appreciate the range of opinions out there. If you want people to read your book and you don’t want to be curled up in the fetal position during release week, take some time to review your options for book publicity and then sort out which ones appeal to you. By the time you sit down to discuss marketing plans, come prepared to listen, but also make a list of ideas and suggestions that best reflect ways you want to promote your book.

 

Is Christian Publishing in Crisis?

Answering that question definitively is way above my head. However, there’s no denying that Christian writers hoping to publish with one of the top 15-20 Christian publishers will face these challenges related to the identity of a Christian book, working with authors at different publishers, and marketing their books.

In the midst of this turmoil, we’ll most likely see more small publishers and vanity publishers reaching out to ambitious authors who may not quite know what they’re getting into. Middlemen are also rising up, some with more credentials than others, promising classes and coaching on how to get published. As more bloggers and authors see the ease of publishing with Scrivener and Kindle Direct, they’ll begin migrating toward Indie publishing since their profit margins will be higher per sale and there are many top notch tools that make it easy to publish on your own these days.

It’s wonderful and terrible. The opportunities are breathtaking, but for every chance to leap forward, there are twice as many ways things can fall apart.

Every author I know has shared his/her shock at the pain of the publishing experience. There certainly are positive experiences too—or else no one would even bother trying!

I could be completely wrong about all three points here. It would be nice if I was, in fact. However, it’s much easier to take a punch if you’re ready for it. It can be significantly harder to stand up and prepare for the next punch if you aren’t expecting the first. If you want to get into Christian publishing, I guarantee that the punches are coming. Brace yourselves… Christian publishing is changing.

What did I miss? Are there challenges I’ve overlooked? 

 

If you still want to give book publishing a shot after my rants,

I’m still giving away my book A Path to Publishing for Free:

Download it today at NoiseTrade Books

You can also download it straight to your Kindle for a few bucks.

5 Changes in My Approach to Book Publishing

book-publishing-changes

 

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?

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!

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What Could Writers Learn from Monastic Ministry?

writing ministry like monastic ministryWhen I started to take my writing seriously, I hit a point where I had to cut out some interests and leisure activities from my life, including most sports (except hockey OF COURSE), television shows, radio, and almost all of “pop culture” (I dare you to ask me about the latest top 40 songs or movies in theaters). That was the only way to make some space for my work.

There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all, and if I wanted to take writing seriously, I had to make some sacrifices. When I saw how badly I wanted to write, these weren’t very difficult sacrifices to make. In fact, I’ve sometimes made a loose connection between my calling to write with the calling of a monk.

Mind you, these are “loose” connections, but it’s not so far-fetched to compare the calling of the writer to the calling of a monk—at least a writer who is committed to seriously writing. In fact, I’d suggest that many writers could stand to learn a bit from the commitments of the monastic way of life.

Without minimizing the commitments of monks, here are a few ways writers resemble monks:

 

Monks and Writers Withdraw

Monks devote their lives to prayer and work. Some may be more in tune with the times than others, but generally the task of the monk is withdrawing from the pleasures of this world in order more perfectly align themselves with God.

Monks serve as a living signpost of sorts that the goals and promises of our world are fleeting and feeble.

Withdrawing is essential for writers. Writers can’t just hammer out 1,000 words while watching a hockey game or while a kid hammers on your leg with stuffed rabbit—not that I’ve tried to do either…

We have to withdraw for contemplation and reflection in order to feed our writing time. Time for reflection is needed in addition to the actual time we sit down to write.

Those of us with kids and other commitments will need to withdraw in small chunks of time, be that while doing the dishes, showering, driving, or taking a walk. I’ve had to cut way back on my podcasts over the years just to make sure my mind has time to develop ideas before I sit down to write.

If you keep saying, “I don’t have anything to write about,” there’s a good chance you need more time to withdraw and let your mind wander.

 

Monks and Writers Develop Awareness

From my outsider perspective, it strikes me that a major part of monastic work is learning to become aware—especially aware of what can get in the way of God’s presence. If a monk’s primary task is to commune with God, the first step is to remove the obstacles that get in the way of God.

Writers learn a similar kind of awareness—identifying their emotions, stories, and contexts and then sharing stories and ideas that flesh them out. We have to recognize what drives us, what stirs our anger, and what leaves us devastated.

When we write from this place of awareness, we create meaningful connections with readers. We’ll hear people say, “You put my experiences into words perfectly.”

I don’t think writers have a special “writer sense” that allows us to see the world differently. The main difference is that good writers take time to become aware of the world and then reflect longer.

There aren’t extra hours in a day that writers get. We have to develop our awareness and then let it flow into our writing, testing out different phrases and metaphors as we work on putting it all into words.

 

Monks and Writers Practice and Practice and Practice

Monks take vows of long-term commitment to their way of life. It is a life-long apprenticeship that they won’t get right overnight.

Writers commit to the long term with their work. Developing a personal style and learning how to effectively communicate with readers in print is no small matter. I started writing for publication back in 2005, and I’m just now starting to understand what I need to aim for in my writing—whether I can actually succeed at connecting with readers in the end is another matter entirely!

Keep working at your writing. Keep practicing draft after draft after draft. I have found that new writers, myself included, tend to overestimate their abilities, even if they have to overcome their insecurities in the first place. There’s no way around it. We have to labor over our words, absorb feedback, and keep hammering at our keyboards and scratching with our pens.

 

Monks and Writers Serve

Writing serves others just as monks have a calling to serve the church. They create a space for the holy through both their monasteries and their practices. Whether monks host retreats, intercede for others, or provide for the needs of others, the monastic life is not self-serving.

Writers learn this lesson as they figure out  how to write for an audience, providing what their readers need and connecting with them on a level that matters to them. When I started out as a writer, I tended to “preach” to my readers. I ranted and lectured.

I’m still learning to this day the art of writing books that say, “Do you struggle with this? Me too, here’s my story…” It’s far easier to just tell people what to think. That can be a ministry I suppose, but ministry is far more likely to happen when we share the stories of our imperfections and struggles, inviting readers to join us as we try to sort things out.

 

Is This a Stretch?

It may be a stretch to compare writers and monks, but if Micha Boyett can compare stay at home moms to monks, it’s worth a shot. My experience of monasticism is limited to what I have read and to a few conversations with monks. It’s not exhaustive by any means.

Nevertheless, I can’t help noticing the connections between the ministry of monks and the ministry of writers. And if we can’t imagine how a writer could possibly be like a monk, perhaps we’d be better off if we could start imagining such a notion and give it a shot next time we struggle to focus or hit a creative roadblock.