CBP: Could you share your testimony with us, how you came to a saving faith in Jesus Christ?
Don: Sure, be glad to. I grew up in Southern Louisiana, in the Cajun country. My father was a well-field worker, and we had a very stable family, but we were not a church family. When I was in high school, probably eighth or ninth grade, my best friend in school went to a local Baptist church, and invited me and invited me until I was sick of it. So, one day I went with him to get him off my back, so to speak. I found a very warm, loving congregation there. Probably within a year, I made a commitment to Christ, and followed through with baptism. I went through that little church the rest of my high school career.
From there, I went on to feel a sense of call to ministry, and have been pastoring and writing ever since. But it was all because of this friend of mine who bothered me and bothered me. Bother is the term I used then, but I sure am glad he did.
CBP: That's encouraging. It shows how something you don't think is that life-changing, just inviting a friend to church, how that can be a catalyst for someone becoming a believer. And a pastor.
Don: It's interesting, because when I became a pastor, I went back to that little church to speak. And the first person I baptized was my own mother.
CBP: That must have been very special.
Don: It was. She's got terminal cancer now, but she's okay with that. And will soon be better. Forever.
CBP: You've got a new book: The Little Handbook of the Art of Christian Writing.
Don: The reason for that is that Len Goss and his wife, a couple years ago, did The Little Style Guide. So this is the same look and size, so they decided to call it the Little Handbook. I think ultimately they're going to put them together and sell them in a little slipcase. I can never remember the name of it myself! I just call it the Writing Book.
CBP: In this, you and Len give a really balanced view to aspiring writers. You give them the realism, but you also are very encouraging.
Don: Thank you. That's exactly what we were trying to do. We started off by saying, look, it's tough to get your foot in the door, but it can be done if you'll work hard, get to know people, learn your craft well. It can be done. But just sitting around and wishing, saying, "God gave me this message." Well, sure, God gives you a message, but He gives hard work and opportunities. So we really set out this book that really would be balanced, and I appreciate you picking up on that. We wanted to say, look, it's tough. Be diligent. You've got to pay your dues. You're not going to have a bestseller the first time out of the chute, but you can do it.
CBP: You have people who have a message, and don't really work at it. And then there are people who work hard, but don't seem to really have a good Christian message behind it. I tried to pull some quotes from your book, "Even in Christian publishing, our sense of business may be taking over our sense of critical judgment." I see so much of that.
Don: I think there was a quote from one of the editors that we work with in here, but it's certainly my perspective also. It's almost like once you get on the treadmill of making money, it's awful hard to get off of that. And there's nothing wrong with making money, in fact, there's everything right with it. But that can't be the end-all, be-all of it. Because if it is, then what's the difference between us and everybody else.
Again, talking about this balance, the other side of that is if all you have is what you think of as the message, but you don't have a way of saying it in a strong, well-written way, and getting it to a reader, all of which takes work and money, then you're just whistling in the dark.
CBP: You point out a lot of skilled writers that have honed their craft, that are classics today. Why aren't we seeing Christian writing that is done to that level today?
Don: I think one of the reasons is that most of us have bad theology. What I mean by that is, some people simply think, "All I have to do is pray, and God's going to give me this book." Every editor has received manuscripts in which the writer has said, "God gave me this book, and told me to send it to you. I expect you to publish it. And by the way, don't change any words." I always say to that, first of all, God can spell better than this (laughing). And second of all, you've got the wrong idea. Writing is hard work, and there are things you have to learn. It is a craft that must be perfected by doing the craft. The more you do it, the better you get at it. It is absolutely heresy in my opinion, that a person can think that God is going to open up their skull and pour these words in, and they're going to come out perfect, and they don't have to do anything. That's sheer presumption.
I speak at a lot of writer's conferences around the country, and this is what I tell writers: "I'm glad you're here, because you are taking the first step, you are learning, you're making all these contacts, you're finding out how little you know at the beginning." We all start out that way. We're all amateurs at the beginning.
CBP: Then you went through and interviewed several Christian writers, some are well-known, some are not, and they gave some advice, and personal experiences. Was there anything that surprised you as you did this?
Don: I think what stood out to me personally, was how difficult it was and is to start. Almost every one of these said, "I wrote and wrote and wrote and nobody published my stuff." "My family didn't understand why it was taking so much time for this." "Here I am ten years later, still not making very much money." It was both a surprise and an affirmation, because they're still doing it. They sense this call to do this.
CBP: You're a writer yourself, so you could relate to it. "It's not just me!"
Don: That's exactly what I thought. Yes! Somebody else is perfecting the art of writing obscure, hard-to-find books! That's my specialty, you know (laughing)!
CBP: Do you think that the perception out there is that it is easy, and if I put it down on paper and find the right publisher it'll just sail through?
Don: That is the perception. And it does happen sometimes. Look at Joel Osteen, with his first book, Your Best Life Now. It sold over 3 million hardback copies.
CBP: But he also has a media presence.
Don: He has a tremendous platform, exactly the key. People don't necessarily think of that. They think, "I can do that." Sure you can. If you have a church of 50,000 members and you're on national television. But it is tough, and I think it's getting harder. It's certainly harder now than when I began. When I began, I've been doing this for over 25 years, but one of the first books I ever did, I took some of the sermons I had done and sent them to a publisher. They were full of strike-outs, and type-overs, and misspelled words, because my thinking was he's the editor, he'll take care of that.
Fortunately for me, this editor wrote me a two-page, single-spaced letter, pointing out every mistake I made, and saying, "You need to work better at this. Why don't you correct all this and send it back to me?" I did, and he ultimately published the book. Now you would never get a letter like this. These guys and gals don't have that kind of time.
CBP: How many submissions do you think an average editor will receive?
Don: Probably between 2,000 - 4,000 a year. On any given day they may have 30 to 40. So that person that's thinking, "This is easy." If his or her manuscript lands on the desk, maybe the theme is good, but at the same time, one that is really well-written and well-researched, professional in other words, on the same theme, which one do you think the editor's going to jump on?
CBP: In addition to being well-written, what is something else that makes a book proposal stand out?
Don: It's got to be a vital theme. A vital theme means different things to different publishers. But it's got to be, in a way, life enriching. I started to say life changing, that's almost a cliche. What does that mean? At least life enriching, which can be the truth with fiction, for example. One of the things several publishers have told me down through the years is that they see so much stuff that wouldn't make any difference one way or the other if it got published. Think about that. It's almost like it doesn't matter.
CBP: Even on the bookshelves I think there are a lot of books that would fit into that category.
Don: Yes. I had an editor tell me, "I've published some of this stuff. I have to. I have to keep the wheels turning, so to speak." Sometimes, it seems to me well-known writers run out of things to say. Idle things to say, but they keep writing. And they keep selling, apparently.
CBP: How do you think the mass-marketing of Christian books is changing the market?
Don: It's amazing what's happened over the last five or six years. You've got Rick Warren now selling 20 million hardback copies. Many, many of those are going into the hands of the non-churched, maybe non-Christian readers. But people who are looking for some significance in life. You've got Time Warner opening up their own imprint, Warner Faith. They've recently been bought out by somebody else, it's hard to keep track. Now FaithWords.
Now all of a sudden, these companies that are not Christian publishers realize that there is a tremendous market there, and there's a lot of money to be made. When Zondervan was bought out by Murdoch's group years ago, Len Goss and I had a brand-new book that had come out with Zondervan called Inside Religious Publishing. Rupert Murdoch came to Zondervan and said he wanted them to make more books that make more money and fewer books that make less money. That's kind of a "duh" sort of thing! What it did was kill off one of the imprints that my book was in. So it was almost dead on arrival.
I think that was sort of the start of this trend that's continuing on right now.
CBP: It's less about the theology and being biblically correct...
Don:...and more about the money. There's a very large publisher out here, whose name I won't mention, who had been bought out by one of these large corporations, that publishes terrible junk. But they sell very well.
CBP: I can think of at least three! That makes it more difficult as a reader to find books that are actually, not just life enhancing, but godly. Everything we do ought to honor the Lord, and not everything is focused that way. What I see selling more copies, are book on how I can feel better, how I can be significant, how I can be fulfilled. It's less about how I can be serving the Lord and denying myself.
Don: Well if you take that first message, and let that be the first part of the equation: I can feel better, I can be more significant. Great. But now what am I going to do with that? Here's how you move beyond your self-focus, and focus on ministry or whatever. It seems like we do pretty well on that first part of the equation, not so well on the second part.
CBP: That's really sad. If someone is going through Costco and the only religious books that you see there are the ones that are the bestsellers: it's all about me!
Don: It may be that's why they're there. That's their market. Recently, a couple of the books I did with Kregel Publication, one's called God's Man and the other is called Still God's Man, they're devotionals for men. We took those to the Walmart people and asked them what they thought about handling them in their distribution. They put us in touch with a company in Texas that does all of their books and journals and magazines. The upshot of that is that they wrote back and said they liked them a lot, but we wouldn't be able to sell enough copies of that. It's all about the numbers. I wouldn't have anything at all against being sold in Walmart.
CBP: What about agents? At the end you talk about some new trends in Christian publishing, and one of them is agents.
Don: I've worked now with three agents. The first agent I had really knew the publishing aspect, especially contracts. He went through our contract with a fine-toothed comb and showed me a bunch of things. But he had personal problems, and ultimately ended up closing his agency, and he got sued by some other clients. It was a real mess.
Went to another agent, signed on with him. He promised me the moon and delivered virtually nothing. He went through all kinds of family crises, so I ended my relationship with him. I tried a third one, fairly recently as a matter of fact. He was new, and I was willing to give him a shot at it. He sent out some proposals. Absolutely nothing happened, which sort of surprised me. I just ended my relationship with him recently, and asked him to send all my stuff back. When I opened the package that he sent back, the reek of cigarette smoke hit me. I realized this guy was sending out all this stuff with tobacco. I guess he was a heavy smoker, and I thought, well, no wonder.
So, right now I am agentless.
CBP: And book-full.
Don: Yes. My wife keeps telling me I'm a better agent than most agents. I don't know if I am or not. I come to these kinds of things and meet people. Out of twenty-one books, I've landed them all myself. I had an agent help me with a contract one time. I believe all the rest of them I've done myself.
CBP: Do I see something coming down the road for you, Don?
CBP: You still are pastor of a church out of Florida?
Don: Yes, a little community called Palatka, about 50 miles south of Jacksonville. It's claim to fame is that that was the place that Billy Graham preached his first revival in a little church, and he was baptised in Silver Lake there.
CBP: So what's next? Are you working on another project?
Don: I am working on another project right now. I'm doing a book on all of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Because every person or group that He talks to is a group or person in a crisis. He's talking to people who have failed, he's talking to people who are afraid, who are facing life with despair. So I'm dealing with all of those issues in this book.
CBP: Thank you so much for this great book, The Art of Christian Writing. I really appreciate the viewpoint that you bring in it, and the tone that is wonderful.