The Hidden Danger of Business for Creative Workers

creative-work.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authenticity and integrity do not demand ignorance of business.

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

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

 

 

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.

Is NoiseTrade Books a Viable Book Marketing Tool? A Guest Post

noisetradebooks-book-marketing

 

I’m guest posting today for one of my favorite publishing experts: Jane Friedman, a former Writer’s Digest editor and current social media professor and founder of Scratch Magazine, a new publication for artists and writers. This post is a bit of a departure from my usual stuff, but if you’re one of the many people who ask me about how to market a book, you may want to check out how I’m connecting my books with new readers: 

 

In 2012 I was in-between book projects, and I had an idea for a short eBook on creativity, so I decided on a whim to write it, put a cover together with a high quality image, and release it for free during a 3-day KDP select offer. I even guest posted on this blog about it.

Thanks to several generous shares of the eBook by folks like Joanna Penn and the momentum of the Kindle bestseller lists, Creating Space landed on the “Creativity” and “Writing” bestseller lists (which, by the way, used to be listed next to the paid bestseller list) and spent a two days in the Kindle top 100 free eBooks. About 4,800 readers downloaded the eBook in three days (I didn’t know then that I should have probably used all five days at once).

After the promotion, I kept the price at $.99 since it’s short, and readers kept downloading it, typically noting its brevity as a virtue in reviews. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about those 4,800 downloads. Despite my ads and author information in the back of the book, I still didn’t have any way to contact any of those readers again.

While authors have successfully used free promotions to sell other books or to gain temporary exposure on bestseller lists (see Let’s Get Visible for more on that), I really wanted to find a way to offer at least a few of my books in a “pay what you want” model that relies on collecting email addresses as the primary form of payment.

That model existed—it just didn’t offer eBooks.

Read the Rest at www.janefriedman.com. 

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.”

 

 

 

Welcome! If You’re New, Start Here

I’m the author of multiple books, including the Kindle bestsellers A Christian Survival Guide; Pray, Write, Grow; Coffeehouse Theology; and Write without Crushing Your Soul. I freelance (mostly book editing, author coaching, and website content) and write books in Columbus, OH.

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The One Thing That Will Improve Your Writing Today

I’m doing something a little different this month. I’m sharing one of my two writing tips articles from my monthly e-newsletter (that goes out Saturday morning) as a preview of what’s to come. If you subscribe today, you’ll get these things:

  • Writing tips.
  • A list of top notch writing and productivity links.
  • Exclusive previews (2-3 chapters) of excellent new books.
  • Updates on my latest projects.
  • Free downloads or discounts of my books. (Hint: When you subscribe you get a free E-book right away!)

Once you’ve subscribed you can read this month’s writing tip:

penI read a lot of books, book proposals, and articles, and there’s one thing  you can work on today that will both improve your writing and help it stand out from the pack. It’s not hard to do. It just requires a sharper eye and greater intentionality while you write.

You can improve your writing today by improving your transitions.

Excellent writing has smooth transitions.

Sometimes the transition is a minor switch from an anecdote to a key idea. Sometimes the transition is from one chapter or scene to another. The words you write that lead from one section into another can make or break your writing.

A poor transition is where you’ll lose readers.

A poor transition will make readers scratch their heads as they wonder where your writing is taking them. If you lose your readers, they’ll find something else that will grab their attention and hold it.

I hear a lot about the importance of a powerful opening that engages readers from the start, but it’s also important to stay connected with readers. They need to see how each new idea and story builds on the one before.

Ideas won’t survive as islands. They thrive when joined together by transitions. Without transitions, your readers may end up lost at sea.