Today marks the one-year anniversary marking the release of my second book Thrive. In celebration I am discounting the e-book version to $2.99 available on Amazon and my website.
In this post I want some insight I’ve learned writing both of my books. They come from my experience navigating the ins and outs of publishing as both an author and someone who own his own publishing imprint. Enjoy
Writing. Why do you do it? Any writer will tell you they just have to write. We are built for it. My mind, body, and soul compel me to write. It’s not only a cathartic release and a form of therapy, but it’s a craft I’ve committed to. Some days writing beats me, somedays I beat it. In the process I’m trying to continually improve. Of course that means facing the inevitable Resistance that blocks any artist from producing. But it’s all part of the process.
I barely remember putting together the collection of ideas that built my first non-fiction book. Some of the ideas are now 10 years old. Thrive itself went through a number of frustrating iterations. I started putting together the manuscript over five years ago. I slowly amassed enough content to produce the rough version. A rough version that was too long coming in at over 90,000 words. Getting to 90,000 wasn’t hard. It was sifting through the mess after the fact that took a year. I actually used dictation on the computer to get the ideas out.
TIP. Google dictation software is head-and-shoulders better than Apple. OSX is simply not capable of dictating properly. That means I have to talk to my phone. Having said that, I would never try to write a book using dictation again.
I still use dictation for jotting down ideas or blog posts. It’s a good way for me to transfer my ideas from typewriter, yes that’s a tool I’m using now, to blog post. It’s a roundabout way but something that works for me.
Thrive wasn’t called Thrive. Initially I was trying to use a format/metaphor borrowing Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. The working title was, “Adventures to save a dying church.” Getting down from 90,000 words to something coherent took me a year. In that time frame I took some time away and ironically published my first book, Soul CoatsL Restoration. While I was figuring out the process for a first time author, I was also trying to figure out the process of behind publishing. It’s different, both with their own learning curves.
I knew that I was interested in publishing with a larger publishing house that specialized in Christian non-fiction. For that you need a book proposal. Usually you also need an agent. So that’s what I tried to lineup. Then I got discouraged.
I noted what was staring at me in the face the whole time. The Christian publishing industry is entirely dominated by white authors, white publishing houses, and white agents. For example, in my search for a book agent, I realized that main agencies in the Christian world had not one, and I want to stress this, not one author of color on their public lists of authors. Commercially there are essentially no authors of color dominating the Christian book space unless your name is TD Jakes or Francis Chan. I know there is a shift in book publishing right now, in particular IVP, dedicated to publishing more authors of color. But by and large the publishing scene hasn’t shifted much. The dominant and authoritative voices are still white authors.
I remember talking to a relatively unknown but likeable white pastor who was nonchalantly talking about how his agent had found him a book deal. How easy it was for him to find an agent (who later found him a book contract). In fact, I have heard this story a few times from unknown white pastors who are now first-time authors. There is a default privilege being a white author; agents will give them a chance despite being relatively unknown. It’s difficult for authors of color to get the same level of recognition and benefit of the doubt. My book wasn’t picked up. Of course, I don’t chalk that up to a race issue. Maybe I’m not a very good writer or the idea wasn’t good. But if you have any desire to be published by a major christian publishing house (even the secondary ones), editors will only see your manuscript through an agent.
TIP. First time authors, don’t waste your money on the Christian Writers Market Guide or Christian Manuscript Submission Services
If you’re a brand new author you’ll usually embark on the Google journey to learn. It’s all you need. In my search I read tips about how hard it was to get an editor (the right editor) to read your manuscript (which is true). Then I read about the alternative options in browsing the Christian Writers Market Guide, and submitting a manuscripts to Christian manuscript websites. Both have a fee that preys upon authors trying to get the right eyes on their book. Both are completely useless and a waste of money. They only help the person collecting your money. Search the top books in your niche, find the publishers, look for them at writers conferences and in social media (don’t cold call via social media). Everything in the industry is relational, through your agent, or in the rare instance based on celebrity. The publishing industry is a business, and if you are a pastor with a sizeable church following on the ground and online, publishers will take a chance on your book because you can sell. If you are a nobody, and if you are topic is relatively niche, then it’s unlikely you will be picked up. For me I had one take a look but ultimately the idea wasn’t going to fit.
TIP. Writers need to check off 3 boxes for publishers: can the author sell, is the manuscript good, does it fit the current schedule of materials for the publisher.
I would like to think Thrive checked at least one of those boxes but then again who knows. Since I was going to self-publish (and after six months putting together the book proposal) I headed down the road to self-publish. I hired two editors and quickly found out I had more work in front of me. Despite rewriting the entire book after the dictation errors, and then again trying to get something coherent for the book proposal, my developmental editor challenged the central motif.
It was by chance the DE was really familiar, in fact an expert, in storytelling. Long story short, my attempt to use the hero’s journey was flawed. So rather than rewrite the entire book yet again, I made subtle shifts, taking the advice and dropping the metaphor. I kept most of the content intact and shifted the focus to be less about the journey and more about celebrating ideas for re-imagining church in a post-christian context. Oh yeah, that’s another piece I would change, the subtitle. Post-Christendom is not a word anybody uses (I knew this). I’d use post-christian if I had a second chance.
Once I turned around Thrive, and after a copyeditor and then two proofreaders went through it, I published. There were other people involved including a book designer and a cover designer. It’s a lot of work. It cost a lot of money. In fact, both of my books have been money losers. The process however, has given me exceptional insight into the realm of publishing.
One of the primary areas of tension is the relationship with Amazon. Most recently an IVP book was discovered to be counterfeited through Amazon. Tish Warren’s, “Liturgy of the Ordinary” was counterfeited by a printer to the tune of a quarter million dollars worth of books. I can say this without a doubt, Amazon is evil. Working with them as both a publisher and as a self-published author, and that is a different relationship, was and is terrible. Amazon is only concerned about delivering the lowest cost to the customer, and amassing billions in revenue. You need other avenues to sell books.
TIP. Find different avenues other than Amazon to sell books, most notable leveraging your newsletter.
Yes, Amazon has opened the door to the self-publishing world, particularly e-books and POD thereby making small time authors–well–authors for cheap. But cheap comes at a cost. For my coloring book Soul Coats, I quickly realized that there are many tools unavailable to small publishers that big publishers get. I also learned some important pieces in terms of how to rank books on Amazon. Many of you know I’m a web marketing consultant in my paying gig, and I noticed a few trends that might help you.
TIP. In Amazon, book reviews don’t matter. It only does if there are two competing books where all things are equal. Otherwise, there’s only one factor that matters to Amazon and their ranking algorithms: sales.
You have to sell books, and not only that you have to sell books consistently and constantly. Having all of your friends buy your book at launch will help rank high in the first week, but if that buying power isn’t sustained you will drop down like a rock never to return. Consistency is key. This is why American authors tend to do better than Canadian ones. Having a greater number of target buyers opens the door for more consistent sales.
The other piece to my hate for Amazon, and the reason why I have essentially eliminated all of my book buying from Amazon, is that the author doesn’t make very much money. Again, yes, self-publishing means you keep more, even in the Amazon environment, but if you do publish with the publisher you’re not making very much. The corporation making the money through this transaction is always Amazon. They skew everything so that they can take their cut. They also don’t care if they are counterfeit books or if there are bookstores undercutting your own book. What did I just say?
Here’s how it works behind the scenes.
If you want to sell your book as a self-published author on the Amazon platform, you don’t exclusively publish through Amazon. You also make your book available to wherever fine books are sold. That’s a separate system and since book stores don’t use Amazon (Amazon is killing the brick-and-mortar bookstore) they purchase through a distributor. There are only a handful as well. IngramSpark is the main one for self published authors. They have the same capabilities as Amazon, albeit at a slightly higher price point for print on demand. But their reach is global. That’s important because you don’t want to be me with my coloring book and print 5000 books of your own only to have them sit in your garage (you need coloring books???)
TIP. Don’t hold inventory and print on demand (POD).
Ingramspark will do this for you. But back to the undercutting bookstore on Amazon. ANY bookstore can order ANY book through Ingram at the discounted wholesale price which is usually around 75%. I’ll have to double-check that number but it’s around there. Many bookstores list books on Amazon. Do you see the problem? Book stores can undercut Amazon prices (which is often the author price) by offering a book closer to the wholesale price. Notice all the different publishers/options in the buy box when you purchase an item? Because Amazon has trained customers to select the cheapest option for the same product, customers don’t really care who gets the money at the end of the day. In fact it’s really hard to tell. So that’s why so many people buy counterfeit books. It’s cheaper and that’s all that matters. As for Amazon, there’s simply no checks or balances, nor do they really care since they make their cut (and they love to do returns).
This was a bit of a long-winded blog post but hopefully it gives you a sense of what’s ahead as a self-published author and gives you a behind-the-scenes look at how the industry works. Does that stop me from writing books? No. I’m going to continue on and I may even look to join up with a publisher for a book or two in the future. So here it is again, my ebook available at a discount, ironically at Amazon too, and I hope you enjoy. Tell all your friends and maybe buy a box or two of my coloring books.