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.

 

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

15_02_13_PrayWriteGrow copy

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.

 

Order your copy on Amazon for $1.99 until March 16.
(regular price $3.99)

Nook | Kobo | iBooks | Print

Download a Sample PDF.

Read the reviews at Goodreads.

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!

e-newsletter-subscribe

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.