When Do Christian Books Cause Too Much Damage?

book-christian

The last thing in the world that I want to do is write about that dating book—the one where the author now admits he had no actual experience in putting the book’s ideas into practice. He’s pretty sure that it’s wrong (calling it “speculative”), has been hearing people out, and even has started to formally collect feedback.

With no personal malice toward that author, I would very much like the rest of my life to pass without hearing about him or his dating book again. His book caused so much shame, judgment, and confusion in my own relationships that I’d like to assign it to the dust bin of history and move on. I’m just one of many Christians who grew up with this book and have spent significant time trying to work through the fall out. Even if you weren’t negatively impacted by the book, take a look at a small sample of the damage it has done:

What I Learned from Joshua Harris

Christian Boy Meets Christian Girl

I Kissed Shame Goodbye

Recovering from I Kissed Dating Goodbye

Storify of I Kissed Shame Goodbye Tweets

There are clearly better things to do than discuss books written by self-admittedly unqualified authors that have wounded us, the people we love and care for, or our evangelical brothers and sisters.

Here is my problem: That dating book is still for sale, and the simple fact that this book is for sale hints to me that everything we have feared about the Christian publishing industry may be true. Putting the most positive spin on this I can manage, the publisher of this book is at the very least unwittingly acting in a way that proves our worst fears

If I put my worst fears into stark language, they would be something like this: If you’re not a gay, drunk, adulterer, or heretic, you can write just about whatever you damn well please as a Christian author, provided that it makes money.

A lack of craft can be compensated with a ghost writer and a lack of substance can be excused provided the book makes money. If the book makes money but hurts people, the people who complain are just whiners, divisive Christians, or just collateral damage because the book didn’t harm everyone who read it.

Publishers have some limits, just not consistent limits.

Perry Noble? His latest book release was suspended because he was “too drunk.” Sorry, Perry. We can’t have alcohol abuse sullying the reputation of CHRISTIAN authors and publishers.

However, a pastor in Seattle could spiritually abuse people in his congregation, and he wrote a book on marriage—REAL marriage to boot.

And a very young conference speaker can totally handle writing a book about dating before he actually put any of it into practice. Never mind that the book has caused heartbreak and shame for many of our fellow Christians. It didn’t devastate everyone, so why not keep making money from it?

Where do we draw the line for a destructive book in Christian publishing?

We have piles and piles of stories from people who have experienced shame, intimacy problems, and unhealthy relationships because of this uninformed dating book. Sure, it may have helped some readers become a little more restrained, or at least confirmed their decision because a good looking author agreed with them. But shouldn’t the piles of stories AND the author’s admissions about the book’s speculative content prompt the publisher to pull this book from sale?

People can still buy this uninformed dating book after the author has gone on a national tour saying that he was wrong and has repeatedly apologized for it on Twitter. How is this possible?

I’ve been biding my time, waiting through one interview after another as the author goes on his anti-publicity tour where he admits he managed to publish a Christian book on dating that was deeply flawed and hoping that the publisher will pull the book. And so he says he’s sorry, people applaud his bravery, and then the next day people are still buying his bullshit dating book so that he can apologize to them in 10-15 years for their crippling shame and intimacy issues.

For all of the evangelical talk about preserving marriages, shouldn’t we be concerned that the “go to” dating book of a whole generation has been exposed by its own author as speculative? Doesn’t relying on a speculative dating book for advice sound like a “not strong” and “not healthy” way to start a marriage? Would we use a speculative book for advice on raising children? Shouldn’t we take all of the stories of hurt and heartbreak seriously and demand that the publisher pull I Kissed Dating Goodbye from all stores?

Well, the skeptics say, there were PLENTY of people who didn’t suffer shame and heartbreak, so what’ the big deal?

These are the people that the Christian publisher is no doubt listening to—the people who weren’t harmed by the book that is making them money. The bar has been set embarrassingly low.

Perhaps the people in charge at this publisher don’t see things this way. Perhaps they believe they are somehow doing great good in the world by keeping this book readily available. If they are living in this fantasy, I can only hope that spelling this out may help the light of reality start to shine in.

Looking at the publisher from the outside, there is no logical reason why this book should still be on sale. Period. A publisher somehow found the courage to suspend a book by a drunk pastor, but somehow a publisher is OK with a book by the author who is a well-meaning speaker who just did his honest best to help teens not have sex and made up a bunch of stuff along the way. If this is really a reflection of Christian publishing today, then we have a real credibility problem.

I write all of this as a Christian author who cares about the Christian publishing industry. I believe in many of the authors and editors I’ve worked with. We dare not lump everyone into the same boat here. There are many, many editors who would roll their eyes at the mere mention of this dating book. They know what we all know, but the opinions of individuals are quite different from the actions of organizations.

I know many, many Christian authors who invest years and years into their research and craft. They don’t speculate on anything. They seek out expert help, they go to workshops to get critical feedback, they read voraciously, and then they write really, really wonderful books that help make the body of Christ stronger. Readers may disagree with them on some points, but there aren’t entire movements of people sharing stories of shame, fear, anxiety, and heartbreak in response to their books.

I have also worked with Christian publishers who have extremely high standards. One editor at a favorite publisher of mine wrote in response to my 2006 book proposal that he frankly didn’t think I was qualified enough to write the book I had proposed. He was 100% right, and I had to work harder at my research and put my book ideas into practice in order to further refine them. When a publisher finally accepted my first book proposal, I had spent countless hours working with theology professors, pastors, small groups, and trusted friends. I had piles of research notes, and only a small percentage of them actually made it into my book. When I submitted my first draft, my editor pushed me to make it better, to do even more research, and to turn it into the best book I could produce. The book wasn’t a bestseller, but many college professors started to use my book for their classes, and I largely credit the people in the publishing industry for pushing me to make it a better book.

All of my first hand experiences in Christian publishing combined with my negative experiences with this dating book make this whole story extremely galling for me. I know that Christian publishing regularly does better than this. I know that there are excellent authors out there working with world class editors to give us books that don’t receive half of the attention of this dating book.

As much as I want to go my separate way from the author of this dating book and personally never hear from him again, I am grateful for the steps he has taken. I hope that he can move from remorse to actual repentance for his actions by also publicly calling for the removal of this book. I hope and pray that he can find his way again as a pastor, author, husband, and father. I just hope to God he doesn’t write another dating book.

At the very least, the publisher of this dating book owes us an explanation for why the book is still for sale. If the many stories about the damage of the book or the author’s admitted flaws about its content aren’t enough to prompt the suspending of this book, then we need to know what in the world the people at this publisher are thinking. Until they take action or offer an explanation, it sure looks like this dating book is only in print because it’s still making money, not because it makes the body of Christ stronger.

When Commercial Christian Publishing Was Bad for My Soul

measuring-up-writers

 

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.

 

How to Market a Book with Integrity: A Christian Author’s Struggle

On-being-writer-writing-life

My friend Charity Singleton Craig is guest posting today about the lessons she and co-author Ann Kroeker learned as they released their latest book On Being a Writer. In particular, she shares how they tried to make the marketing process less miserable—even fun at times. If Ann and Charity can’t make book marketing fun, I don’t know who can!

 

I’ve never been part of a publishing industry that comes knocking on writers’ doors with large advance checks and the opportunity to just be our introverted selves and write. Never once has someone told me, “You just focus on the words; someone else will worry about the sales.” In fact, conventional wisdom tells us just the opposite. Make sure the writing is decent, but your marketing strategy and platform need to be excellent.

And you’d think that would be fine by me since in addition to being a writer, I also provide marketing services to clients. I have no problem giving them the tools they need to explain their services and connect with potential customers.

When it comes to selling myself, though—which is really what an author needs to do if she plans to write more than one book—the whole business seems a little slimy. I don’t know any writers who think or feel any differently, but if participating in a sales strategy is a necessary part of the writing life, then I needed to get okay with it. And fast.

As my co-author, Ann Kroeker, and I wrote and released our recent book, On Being a Writer, five key elements emerged that have allowed me to sell books without losing my soul.

1. Permission to be myself.

From very early on as we brainstormed ways to spread the word about our book, our publisher, L.L. Barkat, encouraged both Ann and me to choose marketing activities that would allow us to be ourselves. Organizing a big launch team? That didn’t feel like “us.” So instead, we contacted a few individuals privately to help with specific tasks. We also hosted small in-person, launch parties so our friends could come and buy books and celebrate with us. We don’t all have the same gifts and skills—the Apostle Paul reminds the Corinthians of that extensively in his letters to them. In the same way, we can’t all approach book selling the same. That’s not to say that I should never operate outside of my comfort zone. But finding marketing methods that fit best with my personality and desires will ultimately serve the book, the readers, and myself best.

 

2. Focus on relationships.

When readers become a platform and friends become a strategy, it’s easy to forget that these are people I am building relationships with. Focusing only on what others can do for me is not only a self-centered sales technique, it misses completely the way the Bible says we should love people. Though Scripture is certainly more than a relationship manual, it provides many guidelines for how we as writers should be interacting with readers, publishers, fellow writers, and more. Here are just a few: James warns against favoritism or giving preference to those who are influential or wealthy. Paul exhorts us away from selfish ambition, thinking only of our interests, toward looking out for the interest of others. Peter reminds us that love should be sincere. And Jesus tells us to give straight answers, to let our yes be yes and our no be no.

 

3. Let each project motivate me.

In On Being a Writer, Ann makes a strong point about what should motivate us to promote our books or other writing projects. It’s advice she actually got from the publisher of one of her earlier books. “Something compelled you to write this message and share it with a broader audience. Right?” her publisher asked. “Could you see speaking [or other promotional efforts] as another avenue to share that same message?” Later in the chapter Ann talks about going on the road to promote that earlier project: “Each time, I kept that idea in mind: the message matters, and I want to get it to the people who need to hear it.” If you just want to write for your own self-discovery or private reflection, keep a journal. But if you have a message or a story or a strategy you want to share with others, publish a book, and then let that message guide you toward telling people about it.

 

4. Remembering that I am creative.

Not only do we each have unique, God-given gifts, we also are made in His image as creators. Just as we bring all of that creativity to the work of writing books, we can employ it in selling books, too. Don’t use just the strategies everyone else is using because “that’s the way we do things around here.” Try new things. Take creative risks. Let your personality, your relationships, your book itself guide you in new and interesting ways to spread the word. For Ann and me, that came in the form of an early release of our book, a surprise even to us as authors! Without telling us, our publisher released our book several weeks early. Sales were happening, friends were gathering, and Ann and I were nearly the last ones to know! That creative launch gave our early sales a boost, and we had nothing to do with it!

 

5. Finally, have fun.

After the hilarity of that early release, suddenly Ann and I had a lot of work to do to get the word out beyond our immediate circles. We ratcheted up the intensity, and rather than enjoying the conversations and being thankful for our bit of success, our strategy turned serious. For several weeks, I didn’t have much fun. People would ask how the launch was going, and I’d smile and say, “Great!” But secretly I was wondering whether I really was cut out for the writing life. After a break from the book over the holidays, I came back to our efforts realizing that it was just the intense, serious version of the writing life that isn’t for me. But by injecting a little fun into our marketing campaigns, I can still be focused without nearly as much stress.

Author Neil Gaiman tells the story of some advice he received from best-selling horror writer Stephen King fairly early in his career. When King observed Gaiman’s early success, he told him simply: “This is really great. You should enjoy it.” The thing is, Gaiman wasn’t enjoying it. And he didn’t for a while.

“Best advice I got that I ignored,” Gaiman said. “Instead I worried about it. I worried about the next deadline, the next idea, the next story. There wasn’t a moment for the next fourteen or fifteen years that I wasn’t writing something in my head, or wondering about it. And I didn’t stop and look around and go, this is really fun. I wish I’d enjoyed it more.”

Being part of a sales strategy is now a reality for writers. But it doesn’t have to suck the life out of you in the process. How do you keep your soul while selling books?

Learn more about On Being a Writer: Ten Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts.

 

About Today’s Guest Blogger

Charity-Craig-authorCharity Singleton Craig is a writer, bringing words to life through essays, stories, blog posts, and books. She is the coauthor of On Being a Writer (T.S. Poetry Press, October 2014), and she has contributed essays to three books, including Letters to Me: Conversations with a Younger Self. She is regularly published at various venues, including The Curator, where she is a staff writer; The High Callingwhere she is a content and copy editor; and TweetSpeak Poetrywhere she is a contributing writer. She lives with her husband and three step-sons in central Indiana. You can find her online at charitysingletoncraig.com, on Twitter @charityscraig, and on Facebook

 

One last note from Ed:

By the way, my latest eBook, Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together (due out March 11th), is available for pre-order at the steep discount of $.99 on Kindle.

Click the cover image below to place your order before the price goes up!

15_02_13_PrayWriteGrow copy

 

3 Challenges for Christian Publishing

challenges-christian-publishing

 

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.

Publishing a Book Is Not NEAT

book publishing is hard

 

In case you were wondering, publishing a book is not “neat” in any sense of the word.

Writing a book is messy.

Writing a book is demanding.

Writing a book is heartbreaking.

Writing a book demands sacrifices of yourself and everyone close to you.

Writing a book will drain you, punch you in the gut, and then kick you while you’re down.

When you finally hold that book in your hands after years of fighting, chopping, and spilling your heart onto the page, it will be surreal. It will be amazing. You’ll also think something like, “Well, it’s about damn time.” And then you’ll go take a nap or collapse onto the couch to sob a little… and then take a nap.

I outlined my publishing journey in my book A Path to Publishing (download the whole book for free), and the most common response I hear from readers is despair. When I walk new authors through the book marketing process, many of them just want to crawl into the fetal position.

And I haven’t even mentioned the absolute worst part of book publishing. And no, it’s not a bad review.

The worst part about publishing is the staggering indifference of most readers to your work.

Marketing a carefully crafted book is draining and demanding, but few may read it no matter how hard you try to spread the word. Remember, J.K. Rowling published a book under a pen name, and it hardly sold any copies. This is someone who has penned enduring bestsellers that have defined an entire generation of young readers, and she couldn’t even rack up a few thousand readers when using a different name.

Do you have any idea how daunting that is?

All of this is profoundly NOT NEAT.

* * *

I do a lot of author coaching both formally and informally, and I often refer new authors to my Path to Publishing book and encourage them to write with questions about the next step. If they can’t even finish the book, then they’re clearly not determined enough to publish a book—they probably just think publishing is “neat” until you read about the demands of the step-by-step process.

The people who will succeed in book publishing cannot go into it because they think it’s neat. They need a stronger driving force to carry them through all of the politics, discouragement, and exhaustion.

Writing a book has to be an unstoppable mission or a haunting presence that you can’t shake. You have to find yourself scribbling down ideas, dreaming of book covers, and imagining what your readers want.

I would go so far as saying that it’s like the words bottled up in the prophet Jeremiah that were a fire in his bones. If he didn’t let them out, they would have consumed him.

Authors must be driven write. There’s something inside of us that we simply can’t switch off. And perhaps we’ll still say that publishing a book would be neat, but deep down it must be more than. It must be a driving passion.

* * *

When I talk to friends about book publishing and I learn that one of them is considering it, I often say something like this, “I’ll help you, but I also want to spare you from pain. This is going to hurt.”

The pain of publishing is one of the most common reflections I’ve heard from fellow writers. It… just… hurts. That isn’t to say that it’s bad to have that pain. You just need to really want that finished book project if you’re going to endure that kind of pain.

The most worthy goals in life often call us to the greatest pain.

In the Christian faith we talk about the cost of discipleship, laying our lives down for the cause of Christ. If you feel a calling or desire to write, there will be a sacrifice and it will hurt, but there are certainly rewards if you can fight past the pain.

In fact, I would even say that we can even resist some of the pain in publishing. We can choose to ignore which influencers or friends have ignored our book. We can stop comparing our success to other authors.

Instead, we can look at the people whose lives have been changed by our work.

We can be grateful that we finally breathed these words of fire onto the page and they didn’t consume us.

We can be grateful that we’ve created something that could outlive us.

We can be grateful that we’ve persevered and accomplished something that only a small group of people are willing to endure.

Book publishing is not for everyone. In fact, even with the ease of self-publishing, there are lots of people who should focus on other creative outlets, such as podcasting, creating short videos, or blogging. A book can effectively communicate ideas to a lot of people, but it’s not the only way to reach a large group of people with ideas or stories.

Writing and publishing several books has been the most meaningful work I’ve done. If I had a few days, weeks, or months left to live, I’d keep publishing. It’s the best kind of challenge I can imagine. It results in something I’m proud of.

As much as I love it, I can assure you that publishing a book is not “neat.”