HAS THE LORD given you a message? Yes? Then why haven't you published it yet? I can almost hear your answer: "I can't find a publisher interested in my book. I keep getting rejection slips." Could it also be that you're not quite sure how to go about it and afraid of being taken advantage of?
Back in 1996 I attended a reunion for Christian Leaders, Authors & Speakers Services (CLASS) held during the annual Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) convention. As one of the senior editors for Thomas Nelson Publishing gave her session, I felt overwhelmed with how obvious it became that the celebrities were the only ones getting any attention at all from Thomas Nelson Publishers. She shared that it came down to dollars and cents: If they weren't absolutely sure that they could move 25,000 hardcover copies of a book in the first year, they weren't interested. Just a few years later one of our editors represented WinePress Publishing at a Christian Writers Conference in Pennsylvania where another representative for Thomas Nelson took the spotlight. Here's the email I received from her:
Just wanted to let you know the Mercer (PA) Christian Writers' Conference went well. I taught on Self-Editing and Writing the Nonfiction Book. An interesting turn of events set up my second session quite well. The keynote speaker was the editorial director for Thomas Nelson.
I sat in on his workshop entitled, "What CBA - Especially Thomas Nelson - is Looking For." After reading your book I almost didn't go, but then I figured the conferees in my late afternoon workshop probably would have heard him earlier in the day.
Basically he told us that Thomas Nelson was looking for "luminaries" - the professional athlete, gospel singer, or preacher / teacher who is already famous. They want a star who can move 25,000-50,000 copies in the first five months of a books release.
You could just sense his announcement took the wind out of the sails of these budding writers. At the close of my session, I acknowledged how difficult it was to be published with Thomas Nelson, but that shouldn't dash everyone's dreams of having a book in print. I passed out the WinePress brochures, showed the press kits, and held up the WinePress sample books. I think it sparked some hope in those who attended my workshop.
If we are going to have realistic expectations, then we ought to take a close look at the Christian publishing industry, the trends, and the real state of affairs. Publishing companies have basically two ways of doing business. The first is to publish a multitude of titles with the expectation of decent sales for all; the other is to publish fewer titles with high sales volumes for each one. The trend that most Christian publishing companies are following is the second one-fewer titles and higher sales volume-which means "big name" authors. Right there the majority of us are excluded!
One year, while on faculty at the Mt. Hermon Christian Writers' Conference, I taught a class on self-publishing and one on promoting and marketing your book. After the class I had the opportunity to take in some of the other sessions, so I sat in on one by an editorial representative from a major Christian publishing house. He told how they receive 24,000 unsolicited manuscripts per year and publish only 12 to 17 new titles per year. He went on to explain that in order to be one of their authors you "have to bring something to the table." That list includes:
1. A cutting-edge topic that is unique but still falls into their publishing niche
2. A Ph.D. or some other certified training that makes you an authority in your area
3. Strong communication skills and / or the ability to speak in front of large crowds
4. An established speaking or mail-order ministry that would purchase (in order to sell at your speaking engagements) at least 2,000 copies a year
That certainly rules out many Christian writers. However, just because you may not fit into the narrow criteria of a major publishing house doesn't mean the message God has given you shouldn't be in print. But again, we must be realistic. We need to take a look at the cold, hard facts in Christian publishing today and see what our chances are of selling works to a major Christian publisher, whether as a first-time author or as a self-published success.
The October 16, 1995 issue of Publisher's Weekly contains an article entitled "Downsizing Hits Thomas Nelson," in which Byron Williamson, head of the recently formed Nelson / Word Publishing Group, is quoted: "The changes are being made to accommodate a planned reduction in title output. In recent years, Nelson / Word published close to 400 titles annually, but…this figure will be cut to about 200 titles by fiscal 1997."1 This signaled only the beginning of major cutbacks in the industry.
The Writers Information Network printed the following excerpt from a rejection letter penned by the editorial vice president of a major Christian publisher.
Our company has instituted a planned reduction in our title output for the next year. This means we are not accepting any additional projects for the next several months. This is unfortunate, for I do find your project intriguing and the sample material is quite well done! Possibly it could work very well for us. But, as things stand for us at the moment, we are passing on many things we might have gladly published before.2
During the Pacific Northwest Book Fair, I met Jay Heinlein who was, at the time, a director of sales for Word Publishing. I let him know about WinePress Publishing and how we help people self-publish affordably (and professionally). Heinlein noted, "We receive as many as 3,000 manuscripts per year and only print approximately 150. Many of those wonderful efforts find other publishers, but sadly many never find a home."
In an early edition of our WinePress newsletter we had an opportunity to interview Bruce Zabel, literary agent for the Curtis Bruce Agency. Bruce had worked sixteen years in the publishing field before becoming an agent. He has worked for InterVarsity Press, Goodnews Publishers, Lion Publishing, and the Right Group. At the time of our interview he was representing several productive and notable authors, such as Mark Littleton, Angela Elwell Hunt, and David and Karen Mains. His comments about the Christian publishing industry were frank and sobering. The interview went like this:
Q: What are some current statistics regarding the book publishing industry?
A: Typically there are approximately 1,500 to 2,000 new Christian books published each year. Thomas Nelson, one of the largest Christian publishers, does approximately 200 to 300 new titles each year. At the other end, some of the smaller organizations will do five to ten books, so you can see there is quite a spread. The book sales figures for all [combined] Christian publishing houses are 800 million to 1 billion dollars annually.
Q: How many manuscripts does the average publisher receive in a year?
A: The big publishers get in the neighborhood of 5,000 to 10,000 unsolicited manuscripts per year. However, it is incredibly rare for an unsolicited manuscript to ever get published.
Q: What are some of the factors that make it so difficult?
A: There are tons of books and ideas submitted every day- some solicited and some not. Needless to say, more are submitted than ever get published. The main problem I see is that far more people are writing today than ever, and the number of books being published is not increasing to keep up with what is written. One of the growing practices and trends is for the publishers to use agents, like myself, to do their screening for them. I get a thousand to two thousand ideas or proposals yearly and I reject 99 percent of those…and then of the 1 percent I keep and submit to the publishers, only a fraction get serious consideration. Some publishers do look at unsolicited manuscripts still; but it is becoming more and more rare. Most won't even talk to a writer unless he or she has an agent, and writers generally don't pick an agent-the agent picks them!
Q: So what do you see as the major changes or trends in the Christian publishing industry?
A: I think the major trend [now leveling off] is fiction. However, some publishers are now re-evaluating their interest and thoughts on fiction, and I see it slowing down quite a bit in the near future. Another critical change to look at is the cost of publishing a book. As we speak, here in the spring of 1995, the price of paper has been going up for about 18 months now. Consequently, most publishers are looking closer at the number of books they publish, which makes it even tougher for an unknown writer to get a contract. The number of books getting published also seems to be decreasing.
Q: How does the Christian retail bookstore fit into all these trends and changes?
A: This is only an intuitive comment. I'm not sure if there have been any studies done on it, but Christian bookstores are not increasing the amount of space devoted to books. So this, of course, presents another problem. There's no new space being set aside for books, and any free space or shelf space is being given over to gift items, art, and music. In other words, book space is decreasing and gift item space is increasing. One thing I do know: The competition for shelf space is incredibly fierce in the Christian bookstores.
Q: In your opinion, is an unknown author likely to be picked up and contracted by a royalty publisher like Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, or Multnomah?
A: It does happen from time to time, but to answer your question…it's not likely. It is rare because the bigger publishers, and you can't fault them for this, would rather go with someone who has a proven track record and is a proven seller and a proven commodity mover. So for an unknown author to be published by them is rare. It does happen, but not too often.
Q: What is your opinion of self-publishing?
A: Well, I actually have a handful of clients who have done some self-publishing. They have also subsequently gone on to publish with a traditional publisher. I would say this: If you have a forum from which to sell your books, or a "built-in" market, so to speak, it could work out for you. That's the first thing. You just can't publish books and not have a way to get them to people who might want them. Second, if you have the time and inclination to invest in selling and marketing your books, either as a part-time or a full-time business, then it could be a very viable way to go. It could result in a successful venture for you.
Q: Do you have any concluding comments that may help or encourage our readers?
A: Yes. I have known some self-publishing ventures that have been very successful. They have gone to an organization like WinePress that helped them edit, stylize, typeset, and print their book. In this way they have gotten it into presentable form, which is crucial. Then they turned around and sold those books and made a good profit. They were able to see lifelong dreams come true. Their message was in print and selling. These folks had a forum and a market, and I'll reiterate: This is a critical factor in deciding whether to self-publish or not.3
In order to intensify your reality check, pick up a copy of the Christian Writers' Market Guide by Sally Stuart. You'll see all the various Christian publishers listed in alphabetical order. You will notice in the information that each company includes the percentage of first-time authors they publish. Sadly, the percentage numbers are almost always very low.
As I speak at the various Christian writers' conferences, I am sometimes concerned with the message that often comes across from some of the better-known authors. I've heard comments like, "Don't quit; if I can do it, you can do it. I just signed a three-book contract with a major publisher before ever actually writing the manuscripts…I work in my sweats, in the comfort of my own home, set my own hours. I am a full-time Christian writer. Now, it took me fifteen years to get to this place. If I can do it, every one of you can too."
The unreal expectations fanned into flame by such comments concern me. I agree that you should not quit. If God has given you the gift or burden for writing, you should do all you can to perfect your craft, and you should be persistent. But whether or not your name will be in lights as a well-known author just because you keep at it for fifteen years is still highly unlikely. I know that authors who make these remarks mean well and are trying to encourage the conferees, but I feel these remarks are unrealistic.
I received this e-mail message from one of the attendees of that specific conference.
Dear Athena: Thank you for bringing a realistic view of both the difficulties and the possibilities of self-publishing. You certainly erased all our vainglorious imaginations and lofty ideas of seeing our names in lights. You brought us back to earth, and at the same time you gave us hope!
I must admit I was saddened to see that all I've been noticing in the Christian publishing industry has been confirmed. At the 1997 Christian Booksellers Association International Convention (CBA), a very disturbing article was the talk of the show. "Whatever Happened to Christian Publishing?" reiterates the dreadful state of affairs in our industry. The author has given me permission to reprint the article in its entirety.
Visitors to the Christian Booksellers Association convention in Atlanta, July 14-17, will walk into the ultimate trade show. The latest T-shirts, plaques, CDs, and software will all be on display. Celebrity authors will sign autographs. Bookstore owners will be feted at hospitality suites. Publishing insiders will schmooze and make deals.
Last year's convention attracted 13,663 attendees, including 2,801 store representatives and 419 exhibitors from what has become, according to published reports, a $3 billion industry. But such dramatic material success is not without its price. Today the largest Christian publishers are owned by secular corporations or have shares held by Wall Street investors. As ministries turn into big businesses, theological integrity can easily give way to marketing considerations. The attendant (cutthroat) competition, coupled with theological looseness, can lead to promotion of a new, watered-down, pop Christianity.
The trend concerns many Christians who work in book publishing. Although one source was willing to be named in this article, all the others spoke only under conditions of confidentiality, because they legitimately fear a kind of excommunication from the tightly knit industry. Information for this story was gathered from trade publications, published articles, and dozens of interviews, conversations, and e-mail correspondence with editors, writers, and other industry insiders.
Christian publishing in America has a long and distinguished history, but the contemporary story begins five years ago, with two buyout offers. Thomas Nelson Publishers generated one of the buyouts, purchasing Word for $72 million in cash, according to Business Wire. Nelson / Word is now the largest player in the Christian publishing industry. Though the two companies retain their separate names and catalogs, many of their operations have been combined. This year, Word is moving its corporate headquarters from Dallas to Thomas Nelson's offices in Nashville. The merged companies make up a single corporate entity, owned by stockholders.
Zondervan Publishing House employees tried the other buyout. Their company had been purchased in 1988 by HarperCollins, a publishing segment of Rupert Murdoch'sempire. (The Australian billionaire also owns the Fox television network and has just purchased the Family Channel.) Four years later, a management-led group of employees tried to buy the company back. James Buick, then president of Zondervan, told The Grand Rapids Press that the group's purpose was to "return the direction and control of the company into the Christian community." But according to the Grand Rapids Business Journal, the effort failed and HarperCollins solidified its control.
Opinions differ on whether that is a problem. In today's Byzantine world of corporate conglomerates, a company can theoretically have absentee landlords while retaining considerable independence. Secular ownership poses special problems, though, for Christian publishers. Church-related companies can ask questions about an employee's faith, but publicly held or secular operations are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion. Christian ministries are often concerned for evangelism and doctrinal fidelity, but secular corporations are motivated mainly by the bottom line.
According to Len Goss, a former Zondervan editor currently with Broadman & Holman, HarperCollins and Mr. Murdoch at first adopted a hands-off policy. The religious commitment of its employees was delicately taken into account, and the company was allowed to do as it had been doing. But after a few years, he said, the corporate owners did interfere.
Mr. Goss told World that HarperCollins handed down a dictate that Zondervan publish more big sellers and cut down on the rest. As a result, the academic line on which Mr. Goss worked was scrapped, and the focus shifted to mass-market titles, to books that could meet sales thresholds by appealing to the broadest possible audience. Spokesmen for Zondervan did not return World's calls seeking comment.
Thomas Nelson and Zondervan now are the Big Two of the Christian bookselling industry, an industry that is going through some introspection after a highly successful first half of the decade. Between 1991 and 1994, sales of religious books jumped from 36.7 million to 70.5 million, according to Christianity Today, a 92 percent boost that moved religious books from a 5 to a 7 percent market share.
The lucrative growth of the religious market pleased investors, but it added to the pressure to focus on big sellers. This pressure was accentuated by other changes in the religious marketplace that forced even the smaller publishers to adapt to the ways of big business.
Christian bookstores have long been the main retail outlet for the industry. The same consolidation that was taking place with the publishing companies was taking place with Christian bookstores. Family-owned and ministry-related local businesses were giving way to chain stores and retail franchises. One advantage of such franchises is that they can buy books en masse and supply stores with sharply discounted product. The priority, however, is on stocking fewer titles, often only those with big sales and high turnover, according to a John Armstrong article in Viewpoint: A Look at Reformation & Revival in Our Time.
Here's another obstacle publishers face: In a typical Christian bookstore today, books now make up only 28 percent of sales, according to Publisher's Weekly. T-shirts, CDs, videos, inspirational plaques, greeting cards, and knickknacks take up two-thirds of the shelf space, leaving little room for the display of books that are not bestsellers. (Note: this statistic has dropped since 1997, to 20-25%.)
Big wholesalers that supply the bookstores are also contributing to the new market considerations. Retailing insiders note that many booksellers take seriously the task of selecting the books they stock, but it is far easier-and often more profit-able-to take advantage of their suppliers' offer to ship only those projected to be the top-selling titles. This sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy, as books that might well have turned out to be strong sellers never make it to the shelves, while the books given special favor by the publishers and wholesalers are the only ones available for customers to buy.
Authors too are getting swept up into the new religious market. Though writers are of course essential to the publishing process, they often complain of being neglected, exploited, or- in an industry highly dependent on ghostwriters-invisible. But those Christian authors who do sell well, like their secular counterparts, increasingly use agents to negotiate mega-deals.
Ever since Chuck Swindoll used an agent in 1989 to negotiate a forty-five-title, ten-year contract with Word, the most popular Christian writers have been offering their services to the highest bidder with the help of agents. Publisher's Weekly last year recounted how an agent scored a five-year, eleven-book contract for historical novelists Brock and Bodie Thoene in a bidding war finally won by Nelson for a reported $3.5 million.
Though such arrangements are clearly good for superstar writers, use of agents changes the relationship between author and publisher into a purely financial one as opposed to the personal and collaborative relationships that sometimes occurred in the past. Another consequence, lamented in writers' conferences, is that new, less-established authors find it harder to get published, as many editors grow dependent on agents and refuse even to look at unsolicited manuscripts.
(Most such manuscripts, publishers note, are not worth their reading. But what happens to the rare exception? Even a bestseller like This Present Darkness, Frank Peretti's first supernatural thriller-can occasionally be fetched out of what book companies call the "slush pile.")
Most Christian publishing companies, including the Big Two, began as family-owned ventures closely tied to a ministry or to a church body. Many of the smaller to medium-sized publishers continue in that manner and are organized as nonprofit or church-related organizations. But today, through their own policy decisions or out of necessity, they are having to function in the tough world of big business.
Though many publishing companies and editors are still working out of a strong Christian commitment and are publishing valuable Christian books, competing in today's religious marketplace poses special challenges and temptations.
Surely the free-market economy is a good thing. America's prosperity and freedoms are tied to marketplace competition and disciplines. But while consumerism, the profit motive, and survival of the fittest are good for the realm of economics, they should not rule theology. Jesus, who drove the salesmen out of the temple, warned about the impossibility of serving both God and money. The prophets strenuously denounced religious leaders who told the people pleasant words from their own minds rather than the unsettling truths of the Word of God.
The apostle Paul could have been describing today's religious marketplace: "For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear" (2 Tim. 4:3). A free-market economy, catering to consumer desires, gives us convenient supermarkets and shopping malls. But a marketing approach to religion requires "suiting desires" that because of the Fall are innately evasive of God. Religious consumerism involves "scratching ears" by telling the customers only what they want to hear, instead of the Word of God they need to hear.
The Christian marketplace thus follows the lead of the world's pop culture. A common saying in the industry is: Whenever a trend emerges in the secular arena, wait six months and a Christianized version will appear in the religious bookstores. Romances, horror novels, management books, and other popular genres that are essentially written according to easy-to-follow formulas rather than original insights, all have their counterparts in Christian bookstores.
Our culture's obsession with physical beauty gives rise to Christian diet plans and Christian exercise videos. Even when it comes to religion, Christian publishing often follows trends rather than leads, as in the rash of books on angels and near-death experiences inspired by New Age books on the same subjects.
One phenomenon of America's pop culture is celebrity worship. Books by sports stars, entertainers, or other icons of the pop culture - a significant number of which are ghostwritten - have become big sellers for Christian publishers. While testimonies of conversion have long been staples of evangelicalism, sometimes the mere fact of celebrity seems to justify publishing an individual's life story.
One editor offered the example of the autobiography of hamburger mogul Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's. Though the book, [co-published] by Zondervan and HarperCollins, is generically inspirational and has a first-rate title-Well Done-it has almost no explicit Christian content.
Some celebrity authors-the Billy Grahams and the Chuck Swindolls-have a strong track record in ministry and teaching. Others, however, are motivational speakers or positive thinking gurus whose works may be uplifting but are at best only remotely connected to the biblical worldview. Such writers are entitled to their say and may be worth reading, but the question, again, is why are they published by presses that claim to be evangelical?
Self-help is another popular category for evangelical publishers, despite the irony that "self help" would seem to be the opposite of the historic evangelical emphasis on the grace of God. Many of these titles-such as Thomas Nelson's Don't Let Jerks Get the Best of You-are little more than pop psychology, with the standard secular bromides of self-esteem and assertiveness training. Others approach the Bible itself as a self-help manual.
Here again, the publishers are merely following the market instead of attempting to teach. Polls have shown that many Americans are interested in the Bible insofar as it can give "practical principles for successful living." Christian publishers, instead of finding ways to show that the Word of God has the power to save, sometimes domesticate it into a rule book for a contented, prosperous, middle-class lifestyle. Thomas Nelson offers titles such as The Management Methods of Jesus and The People Skills of Jesus: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Business.
The desire for market share, the yearning for acceptance by mainstream American culture, and the overweening goal of many Christian publishers to cross over into the bigger secular market, sometimes result in even bigger doctrinal compromises. Word's Searching for God in America, based on a PBS series that gave Islam and Buddhism equal time with Christianity, portrays the different faiths as equally valid paths to God.
Some smaller publishers resist the pressures of commercialism and continue to publish theological books-but some of them nevertheless have drifted away from biblical orthodoxy. InterVarsity Press (IVP) for many years was a lifeline for Christians engaged in the intellectual battles of the universities and the secular culture. IVP still publishes books such as Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial, a work that broke through into secular circles to ignite fresh debates about evolution. But IVP also publishes "megashift theology, as in The Openness of God and other works by Clark Pinnock, which maintains that God changes, that he condemns no one, and that salvation is possible apart from faith in Christ.
William B. Eerdmans for many years was one of the relatively few publishers to specialize in solid, scholarly research from the perspective of conservative Protestantism. Eerdmans still publishes on occasion important evangelical books such as David Wells' No Place for Truth, but it also puts out books from the perspective of contemporary liberal theology, Roman Catholicism (including hagiographic lives of saints), and even Judaism (including a book on anti-semitism that argues, in the words of the catalog, that "the New Testament itself expresses a deep distrust of the tradition into which Jesus was born").
Both InterVarsity and Eerdmans are interested in post-modernist theology, with its assumptions that theology in our "post-foundationalist" age is "constructed" rather than revealed. Again, such books may deserve to be printed, but why by the few publishers available for conservative Christian scholarship?
What has gone wrong in the Christian publishing industry can perhaps best be illustrated in the career moves of Mr. Peretti, the million-selling author. Word lured Mr. Peretti away from Crossway, the company that launched his career, for a reported $4 million and a plan to turn Mr. Peretti into a crossover hit, helping him to break into the coveted secular market.
According to a veteran publishing insider who spoke on condition of anonymity, Word took the first manuscript Peretti delivered, The Oath, and hired a secular editor from the New York publishing establishment to make it more acceptable for the tastes of the non-Christian market. As might have been expected, The Oath has failed to win the big sales of Mr. Peretti's first novels. Apparently, it has not attracted the attention of Stephen King fans, for many of whom overt evil is what is titillating. Nor has it won much favor from Peretti fans, who find that it lacks what attracted them to his writing in the first place. Spokesmen for Nelson / Word did not return World's calls seeking comment.
The irony is that, in all of the attempts by the Christian publishing industry to reach the secular world by emulating its values, it is failing to do so. Despite phenomenal sales and a dramatic growth of market share, Christianity is not exerting an increasing influence on the culture. It is the other way around. Some Christian publishers tend to think that being too explicit about issues of faith is the main barrier to crossover acceptance. They forget that the Christian writers who have won the greatest reputation in secular circles-such as T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and Flannery O'Conner-have been in your face about their faith, winning attention by the power and originality of their writing.
Judging by the buzz at past conventions, conversations with practically anyone at this year's CBA convention-authors, editors, marketers, booksellers-will uncover a host of frustrations, bitter experiences, and disillusionment. Most of the individuals committed to the industry still have a strong sense of Christian vocation and hope to publish books of genuine value. But if past conventions are a guide, insiders will swap tales of ruthless competition, ghostwriting in high places, and regrets about things they believe they had to do.
One insider even ruefully observes that in some ways Christian publishing is more [cutthroat] than its non-Christian equivalent, since federal and state laws provide remedies for such conflicts as contract violations and intellectual property disputes. Christians in the industry, to their credit, usually continue to follow the scriptural injunction not to sue fellow Christians. The apostle Paul's warning against lawsuits was not intended, of course, as a cloak for shady dealings. Rather, it was predicated on the fact that Christians should be above the concerns of mere worldliness. It also assumed the accountability of church discipline.
The revival of Christian publishing must be, above all, a spiritual revival, for which Christians should be praying. In the meantime, the church can still hold the publishers of its Bibles and its ideas accountable. The power of the marketplace can exert a positive as well as a negative influence. Christian retailers can become more selective about what they stock. Christian book buyers can be better stewards, spending their money not on spiritual junk food but on what is true to the Bible.
Christians, after all, are people of the Book. Since God reveals himself by means of a Book, some of those at the CBA convention next week will be praying not for the opportunity to surf the newest big wave, but for God to safeguard and review the acts of writing, publishing, and reading.4
A recent article in Christianity Today entitled "No Longer Left Behind" had a lot to say about the current issues of Christian publishing. A few comments showed that things are no different now than when I initially quoted the World article from 1997, and actually have gotten worse:
Thomas Nelson is now the largest evangelical publisher with 2001 sales of nearly $300 million. Like many CBA publishers, it is responding to the new pressures by cutting back on titles. Two years ago, Hyatt's Nelson Book Division released 120 books. During the fiscal year that ended in March, the same division was scheduled to publish only titles.
Other companies are following similar strategies. "Publishers are saying they're going to publish fewer books and put more effort into the ones they do publish," says ECPA's Ross.5 (emphasis added)
This Present Darkness sold 4,000 copies during its first six months, at the time quite a respectable figure for a first-time novelist. Today, most larger publishers won't work with authors who don't already have significant public platforms. Few publishers will sign projects unless convinced they will sell at least 5,000 copies in the crucial first few months of a book's release.5a (emphasis added)
A few years ago I had the opportunity to spend some time with an acquisitions editor for some of the biggest publishers in Christian publishing over the last twenty years. She frankly told me that she struggled with promising new authors the moon when she knew that the publishers allowed her to sign them on only to fill empty spots in the catalog. All the marketing dollars were spent on the big names and once the catalog was replaced with the next season's catalog, the new author's books were taken out of print and forgotten about. It is sad that Christian publishing has come to the point of using new authors as filler, but it is reality, so we might as well get used to it.
Should you self-publish? Given the current direction of Christian publishing, it may be your only option. It should be something you seriously pray over. Ask the Lord to confirm the direction you should take with your specific project. Consider this article from U.S. News & World Report.
Former Milwaukee salesman Fred Gosman couldn't interest a publisher in his book on why parents should stop spoiling their kids. "You're no expert," he was told. But Gosman figured that being a parent was expertise enough. So, after being rejected by twenty or so publishers, he decided he would publish Spoiled Rotten: Today's Children and How to Change Them on his own.
Gosman, whose book has since sold tens of thousands of copies, is in good company. "Self-publishing is the fastest-growing segment of the publishing industry," says Jan Nathan of the Publishers Marketing Association [PMA] trade group. Self-publishing works best with how-to books and carefully targeted niche markets. Atlanta author Diane Pfeifer, for example, has successfully produced two specialty cookbooks, fewer than half of which have been sold in bookstores. Pfeifer netted $110,000 on For Popcorn Lovers Only, published in 1987. She rushed to print with Gone with the Grits in four months so it could debut last April at the World Grits Festival in St. George, SC. She is also peddling the book in airport and hotel gift shops and turnpike restaurant chains.
Getting your name in print isn't cheap. "Putting out a book costs about $12,000," says Dan Poynter, self-published author of more than sixty books including The Self-Publishing Manual ($19.95, Para Publishing, 1997). But compared with the standard 10 to 15 percent royalty that publishers traditionally offer authors, self-publishers can pocket up to 30 percent. Of course, you'll eat up much of the royalty on production costs. "You're not going to make enough money on one book to leave another career," says the PMA's Nathan.
Harried authors may find it worthwhile to farm out production to a pro. About Books in Buena Vista, Colorado, for instance, charges $12,000 to $40,000 for everything from editing to designing the cover and registering the copyright. Such consultants are different from vanity publishers. Book consultants work for a preset fee; profits are yours. Vanity publishers offer only a royalty after charging you to produce the book; complaints about quality and marketing are legion.
COOKING UP A SALES PLAN
Many self-published writers are surprised to learn that their biggest job begins after the book is printed. Marketing demands cunning, stamina, and luck. When cookbook writer Pfeifer couldn't interest Macy's book buyers in a book signing, she arranged one through the gourmet department instead. Spoiled Rotten author Gosman, lived in his car and in cheap motels for weeks, pitching his book to newspapers, radio, and television. Gosman's grueling schedule paid off when the publicity led to an offer to publish the book from Villard Books, a subsidiary of Random House, and an advance in the high five figures. Craig Zirbel, who wrote The Texas Connection: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, credits providence for his stints on the New York Times and other best-seller lists. "It's like I was sitting in the ballpark waiting for the game and someone threw me the ball and I hit a grand slam. It's pure dumb luck."6
Now, this book is about Christian publishing, and that was a secular article. You and I both know it's not about luck-it's about hearing God and being obedient to what He tells us to do. When we obey, He blesses. But I am trying to make a point for self-publishing, because if the secular industry is saying self-publishing is the fastest growing segment, then the same will be true in Christian publishing. It is a fact that the trends in the secular book publishing market set the pace for the Christian book publishing market.
I sit on editor's panels at Christian writers conferences all across the country and unfortunately I hear more often than not that whatever you see selling in the secular arena, just wait six months and you'll see the idea repackaged with a Christian slant and selling in the CBA market. It's sad that we're following the world instead of the other way around, but it is true in more than just the marketing of products. Even the way the world does business is the way we are doing business. I mentioned earlier in this chapter that Thomas Nelson looks for new authors who are luminaries. The following article is just more proof that Christian publishing is following the world:
REAL WRITERS LOSING OUT ON CONTRACTS: CELEBRITY OF MONTH DRIVES BOOK MARKET
Except for the anguished authors, few noticed this summer when publishing megahouse Harper-Collins unexpectedly canceled more than 100 titles from its lists of forthcoming books. But that unprecedented act signals all sorts of problems for wannabe authors on down to book buyers.
The difficulties were in place long before the HarperCollins news, starting with the headlines that regularly trumpeted multi-million dollar book deals for celebrities, politicians, athletes and a very few real writers such as Tom Clancy and Mary Higgins Clark.
To stay in business, publishers generally need book sales to cover the costs of the author's contract, printing, production time (editors, artists designing the dust cover, etc.) and shipping.
It has always been the custom to give some book contracts to talented authors whose books won't sell in the hundreds of thousands. The hope is that simply getting the book on the market will, over time, allow the writer to develop a following that will buy future titles in larger, profit-making numbers. Dollars lost in this manner are supposedly offset by the millions of books sold each time a Clancy or a Clark brings out a blockbuster.
But in recent years, the old formula hasn't worked. Outlandish advances to celebrity authors have drained publishers' pockets, and more often than not, the subsequent books didn't sell nearly as well as expected.
Johnnie Cochran's "Journey to Justice" is a good example. Ballantine paid Cochran a $4.4 million advance for the book. By a conservative estimate, "Journey to Justice" would have had to sell at least 850,000 to 1 million copies to break even. Industry sources peg the book's sales at fewer than 200,000.
Cochran still keeps the $4.4 million.
Ballantine is left with warehouses full of unsold books.
The only way publishers can make up such losses is to do what Harper-Collins has done: cut back on contracts with lesser-known writers. Those authors are lumped into the "mid-list" category, meaning that their often well-written books regularly sell 5,000 to 10,000 copies. (It takes sales of 50,000 to 60,000 to make most bestseller lists.)
That doesn't mean that the publishers lose money on those modestly selling books. Despite the millions thrown to celebrities, most working writers rarely exceed $5,000 in royalty advances. If their books sell 10,000 copies, the publishers will probably make a profit.
So why don't publishers simply abandon the expensive celebrities and concentrate on talented if less well-compensated authors?
They blame the proliferation of major chain bookstores, Barnes & Noble and Borders in particular.
In Tarrant County, Texas, alone the big chains have virtually eliminated privately owned bookstores and even smaller chains such as Taylors. This has been seen as a boon for most consumers, because the chains can buy titles in bulk and offer substantial discounts from suggested retail price.
Publishing houses want to be the big chain's best friends, because a major national purchase of a title by a chain such as Barnes & Noble can instantly propel a book onto best-seller lists.
But the chains want books by big names. Publishers that disdain Oprah or Tim Allen in favor of gifted but little-known writers simply won't get any substantial orders from the chains.
Even when the chains order hundreds of thousands of copies of a book, the publisher is still gambling by printing and shipping them. If a store orders 200 copies of a book and sells just 20, it can return the other 180 to the publisher for credit on future orders. When a much-hyped book doesn't sell, it hurts the publisher far more than the bookstores.
How bad is it? Last year, more than 30 percent of books were returned by bookstores to publishers. One midsize press says that 70 percent of its books were returned.
The real pain, however, is being felt by mid-list writers, talented but as-yet-unpublished authors and, most of all, book buyers.
Big-dollar deals with celebrities have left the incorrect impression that anyone who regularly publishes books must be rich. In fact, most published authors have full-time jobs because they cannot support themselves by writing.
These mid-list writers are the ones whose contracts were terminated by HarperCollins and whose books will be expunged from publishing lists if other houses follow suit. They will have no choice but to turn to small regional presses, whose limited budgets mean tiny (1,000 to 2,500 copies) printings and even more miniscule royalty advances.
Yet those smaller presses are the ones that regularly offer first contracts to previously unpublished writers. With more established authors available, the regional presses will contract with far fewer wannabe writers, making it even more difficult for fledgling authors to get their first book published.
One publishing industry proverb: "For every 100 people who say they're going to write a book, one starts a book. For every 100 people who start writing a book, one finishes a book. And for every 10,000 books that are finished, one gets published." This was before HarperCollins made its draconian move.
It could be even worse for readers.
In recent years, books have gradually increased in price. In 1980, an average hardcover book cost about $15. In 1997, it's $24. Publishers blame production expenses, particularly an explosive rise in paper prices. But in fact, readers have also been subsidizing huge book advances to celebrities-of-the-month. That's your money in Johnnie Cochran's pocket.
As long as the chains demand books by famous people, and the famous people demand unreasonably huge advances from the publishers, the situation isn't going to change.
Fewer books will be published. Those that do make it into print will be caught in the same publishing Catch-22: they'll cost more and more, and probably sell less and less.7
So, as you can see, whatever is happening in the secular publishing world, will be happening in the Christian publishing world in no time flat. Sad, but true. Again, the fact that self-publishing is the fastest growing segment of the secular publishing industry confirms the trend in the Christian market in this additional publishing option. WinePress has been blessed to lead the way in bringing credibility and respect to the alternative of self-publishing. Over the last fourteen years we have worked hard at bringing the standard of excellence in self-publishing up to a competitive level with royalty publishers in the marketplace.
Now just because publishing a book can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, don't tuck tail and run. You don't have to spend $40,000 to get a quality book into print. As I mentioned in chapter two, this tends to be a greed-driven industry, but that does not mean that all Christian subsidy publishers, book packagers, and consultants are dishonest.
Dan Poynter's best-selling book, The Self-Publishing Manual, gives us eight good reasons to self-publish.
Self-publishing is not new. In fact, it has solid early American roots; it is almost a tradition. Well-known self-publishers include Mark Twain, Zane Grey, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Stephen Crane, Mary Baker Eddy, George Bernard Shaw, Edgar Allen Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Robert Ringer, Spencer Johnson, Richard Bolles, Richard Nixon and many, many more. These people were self-publishers, though today the vanity presses claim their books were "subsidy" published.
Years ago, some authors elected to go their own way after being turned down by regular publishers, but today most self-publishers make an educated decision to take control of their book-usually after reading this book.
Do self-publishers ever sell many books? Here are some numbers (at last count): What Color is Your Parachute?, 4.3 million; Fifty Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth, 3.5 million; How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, 2.2 million; Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, over half a million; and Final Exit, over half a million copies. These authors took control and made it big.
Self-publishing is not difficult. In fact, it may even be easier than dealing with a publisher. The job of the publishing manager is not to perform every task, but to see that every task gets done. The self-publisher deals directly with the printer and handles as many of the editing, proofing, promotion and distribution jobs as he or she can. What they can't do, they farm out. Therefore, self-publishing may take on many forms depending on the author's interests, assets and abilities. It allows you to concentrate on those areas you find most challenging. . . .
HERE ARE EIGHT GOOD REASONS TO SELF-PUBLISH:
1. To make more money. Why accept 6 percent to 10 percent in royalties when you can have 35 percent? You know your subject and you know the people in the field. Certainly you know better than some distant publisher who might buy your book. While the trade publisher may have some good contacts, he doesn't know the market as well as you, and he isn't going to expend as much promotional effort. Ask yourself this question: Will the trade publisher be able to sell four times as many books as I can?
2. Speed. Most publishers work on an 18-month production cycle. Can you wait that long to get into print? Will you miss your market? The 1-1/2 years don't even begin until after the contract negotiations and contract signing. Publication could be three years away! Why waste valuable time shipping your manuscript around to see if there is a publisher out there who likes it? Richard Nixon self-published Real Peace in 1983 because he felt his message was urgent; he couldn't wait for a publisher's machinery to grind out the book. Typically, bookstores buy the first book on a popular subject. Later books may be better, but the buyer will pass on them since the store already has the subject "covered."
3. To keep control of your book. According to Writer's Digest, 60 percent of the big publishers do not give the author final approval on copy editing. Twenty-three percent never give the author the right to select the title, 20 percent do not consult the author on the jacket design and 36 percent rarely involve the author in the book's promotion. The big New York trade publishers may have more promotional connections than you, but with a stable of books to push, your effort may get lost in the shuffle. The big publishers are good at getting books into bookstores but they fail miserably at approaching other outlets. Give the book to someone who has a personal interest in it-the author.
4. No one will read your manuscript. Many publishers receive more than 100 unsolicited manuscripts for consideration each day. They do not have time to unwrap, review, rewrap and ship all these submissions, so they return them unopened. Unless you are a movie star, noted politician or have a recognizable name, it is nearly impossible to attract a publisher. Many publishers work with their existing stable of authors and accept new authors only through agents.
5. Self-publishing is good business. There are more tax advantages for an author-publisher than there are for just authors.
6. Self-publishing will help you to think like a publisher. You will learn the industry and will have a better understanding of the big picture. A book is a product of one's self. An analogy may be drawn with giving birth. The author naturally feels that his book is terrific and that it would sell better if only the publisher would dump in more promotion money. He is very protective about his book (ever try to tell a mother her child is ugly?). The publisher answers that he is not anxious to dump more money into a book that isn't selling. So, if the author self-publishes, he gains a better understanding of the arguments on both sides. It is his money and his choice.
7. You will gain self-confidence and self-esteem. You will be proud to be the author of a book. Compare this to pleading with people to read your manuscript.
8. Finally-you may have no other choice. There are more manuscripts than can be read. Most publishers don't have time to even look at your manuscript.8
I'd like to add one more compelling reason to self-publish. The more commercial and worldly the Christian publishing industry becomes, the harder it will be to get more controversial topics published. Certainly, my two books on the dangers of multi-level marketing in the church (Consumed by Success and All That Glitters Is Not God) were controversial enough that I didn't even waste my time trying to go the royalty route. But other examples would include John Paulk's book Not Afraid to Change: The Remarkable Story of How One Man Overcame Homosexuality. While a successful agent tried for a full year to sell his manuscript to the larger Christian publishing houses, it was finally obvious that the topic was just a little too controversial for the mainstream Christian publishing industry. The story of John as an active homosexual and high-pro-file life as a "drag-queen" before his radical conversion, deliverance and marriage to a former lesbian was just a little too "colorful" for most. John's commitment to the message of hope for those trapped in the homosexual lifestyle enabled him to take the self-publishing step of faith. We published 3,000 hardcover copies and when sales took off, reprinted 10,000 softcover copies. Not long after that step he went to work for Focus on the Family and the door was opened, partly due to the success of Not Afraid to Change, for Tyndale House to contract him for the story of he and his wife, entitled Love Won Out.
Another example would be a book we published in late 1998 entitled, Hating for Jesus. It is a "hard word" which expounds on Luke 14:26-27 where Jesus says;
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters-yes, even his own life-he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
Although the obvious intent is not worldly hate, the title in itself is controversial enough that no royalty publisher would want to risk their reputation to publish it. But because the underlying foundation was the full message of the Cross, much like the Andrew Murray, A.W. Tozer, William Law, Corrie ten Boom, Amy Carmichael and Thomas a'Kempis books of long ago, we were willing to help this pastor and his wife get the message into print.
In Is There a Book Inside You? Dan Poynter and Mindy Bingham offer a simple quiz to help you determine which route is best for you to go. The following should help to solidify some realistic expectations.
Consider the following statements to help decide which publishing option is best for you.
If you feel:
1. It is important to me to be published by a major New York publisher because I value the type of recognition that would bring.
2. I have a personal connection with a publisher. I know an editor and can get my manuscript considered.
3. Publishers and their editors will change my manuscript for the better. I trust their judgment.
4. I will be happy to accept a 10 percent royalty.
5. Rejection does not bother me. I will keep sending out my manuscript until I find the right publisher.
Then start trying to find a conventional publisher.
If you feel:
1. I want a few copies of my book for family and friends. It does not have to sell.
2. I am not concerned about price or about getting a return on my investment.
3. I do not want to produce my own book.
Then a vanity press might serve your purposes well.
BOOK PRODUCER OR PACKAGER
If you feel:
1. I want an attractive, professional-looking book.
2. I want someone else to handle the details, to take my manuscript and deliver the books to me to sell.
A book producer might be your answer.
If you feel:
1. I do not have the time to find a publisher.
2. I would rather create than sell.
3. I am confident of my talent as a writer.
You should try to find an agent.
If you feel:
1. I am businesslike as well as creative.
2. I can afford to invest in a business.
3. I want to maintain complete control over my book.
4. If I wait much longer, someone else will beat me to the market.
5. I want a business of my own, and I am willing to put in the time and effort necessary.
6. I want to maximize the return on my efforts.
Self-publishing might be the route for you.9
At this point, you may have prayerfully determined that self-publishing is the most viable option for your project. But before we move into the how-tos, I'd like to tell you some of the real-life successes and disasters that I've encountered working in this industry.