5 Changes in My Approach to Book Publishing

book-publishing-changes

 

Authors all around me are giving up on book publishing, shifting to new careers, or radically rethinking how they approach publishing. Some authors, such as Phillip Yancey, are lamenting the changes to publishing and counting themselves lucky that they got in while the getting is good.

Many active authors make the bulk of their money through speaking, online courses, coaching, and more need-based, how-to projects.

The reality is that very few writers can actually survive as authors alone—especially Christian authors. I’ve seen many bestselling Christian authors who have greater success than I could ever hope for switch to corporate clients, business writing, self-help books, event planning, and the list goes on. There’s a trend where many of the people I’ve looked up to have peered ahead to the future and decided that they at least needed a better side source of financial support, if not an altogether different career.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about the path of my career. At one point I tried to supplement book publishing with magazine writing. I’ve also tried to play the traditional author game by landing speaking gigs. Both have their advantages for other people, but I can see that neither are a particularly good fit for me, especially at this season in my life.

Having commercially published five books and self-published several short projects and one full-length book, I’m also rethinking my path as an author, but not quite like them. I’d like to share five shifts I’m making in order to help other authors consider their own futures and, let’s be honest here, to hold myself accountable.

 

1. I’m Writing Books. Period.

I’ve spent too much time dividing myself over too many different kinds of projects. I’d been trying to write for magazines and very particular websites that called for a specific kind of short-form writing and I’m simply terrible at it.

I’m sticking with this blog, my newsletter, my book projects, and some select freelancing projects. I used to really fret about getting magazine credits and invested so much time in pitching article ideas that were either shot down on the spot or written on spec before being shot down. The few articles that did make it into publication brought very little by way of return for my publishing career.

I’m not saying that other people can’t or shouldn’t do that. I just know I’ve tried really hard to make it work, and I’m not seeing any kind of meaningful return. I’d much rather write eBooks, something I know how to do, and give them away in exchange for email addresses or sell them for a discounted price—which adds up if you can sell enough eBooks.

 

2. It’s All about Email

Writers write for an audience, right?

Right.

I used to divide my attention between writing for an audience and writing to get noticed by publishers—hence my wasted time trying to write for magazines when I really had no business doing that.

There’s a simple, tried and true way to build relationships with readers on your own terms that every book marketing expert praises: email. And here’s the thing, I love jotting down little notes to my e-newsletter readers, keeping them in the loop on projects, and sending them free books whenever I can.

It’s like having a secret club.

So my publishing plan is something like this:

  • Write for my blog regularly, testing out book ideas and collecting new email subscribers.
  • Send updates, recommendations, and new books to email subscribers.
  • Publish and self-publish books, asking my newsletter readers to help spread the word.
  • Then I’ll start posting new ideas on my blog and begin the process again.

 

3. I’m Crossing Genres, Not Topics.

It made sense to write my Path to Publishing book in 2010. It helped me land publishing workshop gigs. It also saved me a ton of time writing emails to people asking first-time publishing questions. I wouldn’t say it’s made a ton of money, but it at least paid for itself.

However, I’m not interested in becoming a publishing guru as so many authors have done. I’m more interested in publishing books related to religion and then sharing what I’ve learned about publishing along the way. I see A Path to Publishing as a departure from my central writing topic: religion.

Having said that, I am finally taking fiction seriously. I’ve dabbled in fiction on and off over the years, always scrapping novels at the halfway point because I just wanted to run the main character over with a bus. I finally have an idea for a series that is exciting and strikes me as sustainable for the long term.

The novel I’m working on has a main character who is a Christian and he’ll be interacting with Christian stuff, but there’s no single moralistic lesson or point to the book beyond telling a good story. So I’m sticking to religion as my topic, but I’ll keep writing nonfiction while adding some fiction to the mix.

 

4. I’m Committing to a Hybrid Approach… for Now

There was a time when I saw the amount of work required to go indie as an author, and I rightly decided that it was simply too time-consuming.

Now there are better tools and better methods available. It’s far more viable for authors to self-publish today. I also have way more experience with publishing, so I should, in theory, be able to write books that require less editing than if I’d started self-publishing full time in 2010. I’ve already dabbled in self-publishing for a few book projects as a kind of experiment. I was hesitant to jump in with both feet until I had a better grasp of what it took to be successful—not I have a “great” grasp, just a better grasp.

I’m not giving up on commercial publishing. I’m simply becoming more intentional about both.

I have a list of publishers in mind for my projects, and if I can’t work with the right publisher(s) for the right project, I’ll either drop it or self-publish it.

I’m also intentionally developing a series of eBooks that I can self-publish.

 

5. I’m Selectively Publishing

I admit that I saw a publisher as a way to legitimize myself. Perhaps I still do. I’m not sure I would strike out into self-publishing without a few commercial books that at least turned a few heads.

I used to think that publishers validate you. I was wrong. Readers validate you. If readers want your books, then you’re valid.

I heard an agent talking about that bestselling book Heaven Is for Real. Someone insightfully asked him if he would have represented the author. He laughed and said, “Well, I’d represent him now!” Exactly, as long as Burpo is selling books to people, he’s a valid author.

Validating yourself as an author is really just a matter of connecting with readers. That’s it.

Today I see publishers as partners who should help you do two things:

  • Improve your book.
  • Reach more readers.

While authors understand that the best editors should improve the content of a book, most fail to fully grasp just how much rests with the author for book promotion. A publisher can do a lot. They can buy some ads, print marketing materials, organize price promotions, create graphics, send copies to reviewers, advocate for authors with book buyers, and promote books to their mailing lists, but none of those tactics are necessarily guarantee sales.

Few authors are prepared to successfully convince people to buy their books. I’ve also learned that publicists at a variety of publishers are divided in their opinions on how to release a new book, which is a whole other post.

In some cases a savvy publicist makes all of the difference in the sale of a book, in some cases the publicist holds back an author who has innovative ideas, and in other cases the book is DOA regardless of what a publicist or author does. I’ve talked to authors who have been all across the spectrum on this.

 

So that’s it. I’m going to keep publishing books. I’m not here to get cover stories on magazines, to be the headliner at a conference, or to change the course of evangelical Christianity for the next 50 years or whatever. I have some stories to tell, some ideas to share, and an itch in my fingers to write.

I have books to write, blog posts to draft, and emails to send. If you want to keep in touch throughout this journey, pick up my new books, learn from my mistakes, and get some off the record thoughts on it all, sign up for my e-newsletter. You’ll also receive two free eBooks!

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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.”

 

 

 

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.