A Change in Choosing and a Change of Heart
Although my navigation skills are slightly below average, there are several places I can drive without confusion. One of these places is the library in Lowell, Michigan. During my middle school years, the shelves in this library were familiar territory. I repeatedly returned to these shelves and perused–sometimes for hours–accumulating a small stack of books to read. Historical fiction and mystery were my favorite genres, and I particularly appreciated certain authors’ writing styles. These two factors informed my book selection.
While packing for a vacation this summer, however, I did not visit the library in Lowell, nor did I visit a different library. I simply packed my Kindle in my suitcase. While in my cabin one evening after hiking, I scrolled through the titles I had uploaded for free. (I had at least fifty to choose from.) Over the past five years, the process by which I choose which books to read has changed. Throughout the incremental shifts, one thing remained constant: I cared little about the bottom of the book’s spine or the lower portion of the Amazon page. The book’s genre, author, title, and back cover copy all contributed to my decision to read or refuse to read the book–but who published the book was virtually insignificant.
Now, however, because of the changing culture and new technologies, I have begun to care about who publishes the books I read. And I believe that every Christian who reads should care about this deeply as well. Moreover, Christian authors must care deeply about who publishes the books they write. In an age in which self-publishing is becoming an increasingly popular publishing option, Christians who write must not ignore–but instead must vigorously pursue–the option of traditional publishing.
A Newer Uprising
Undoubtedly, self-publishing has become increasingly popular within the past seven years. According to Bowker, the number of books that are self-published annually in the United States has increased 287 percent since 2006. This uprising of self-publishing is happening in part because writers are being rejected by traditional publishing houses. Randall Payleitner, one of the seven Acquisitions Editors at Moody Publishers, receives around 210 book proposals (which typically include information about the author, the big idea of the book, a table of contents, and a sample chapter) each year. Of these 210, only ten are contracted. This rejection rate certainly leads authors to self-publish. Larger motivations than rejection, however, are the ease, affordability, flexibility, and profitability of self-publishing.
With the advent of the e-reader, the process of self-publishing has become quite easy. When writers finish their manuscript, they can simply upload the electronic file to a website such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble and sell the file as an e-book (Vinjamuri 5). E-readers have also made reading easier mainly because readers no longer need to tote heavy books with them. While on vacation or even while waiting to catch a bus, readers can have the convenience of turning on their slim, light-weight e-reader and deciding which book they want to read. In these ways, self-publishing has made both writing and reading easier.
Another technology that has spurred the rise of self-publishing is the machine that prints books on demand. Fifteen years ago, writers who self-published needed to buy hundreds or thousands of copies of their book upfront because printing was usually done in large runs (Tugend). Now, however, writers have the option not only of e-book publishing but also of print-on-demand. These print-on-demand machines can print a 300-page book in about four minutes and can give writers a chance to have and sell a print version of their book as well as an e-version of their book. Print-on-demand machines and e-book technologies have made self-publishing more alluring because the initial investment is eliminated.
Self-publishing has been made significantly easier and cheaper by the advent of these new technologies. But several other factors have contributed the the rise in self-publishing. First, if writers choose to self-publish, they are not bound by deadlines besides the ones they set for themselves. Writers who self-publish typically face no penalty if their work is late, and usually no one else’s job depends on the timely completion of their work. Moreover, writers have total control of the entire book–not simply the deadlines. They can exercise absolute independence, rearrange their work, and write whatever they wish without the fear of particular sections being cut by editors. This flexibility both in terms of time and control over the work undoubtedly makes self-publishing an attractive option.
Second, self-publishing has become immensely profitable. Royalties offered for traditionally published print books are around fifteen to twenty percent, and often the royalties for traditionally-published e-books are lower (Vinjamuri 2). However, royalties offered for self-published e-books sold for Kindle between the prices of $2.99 and $9.99 are around seventy percent (Tugend). Of course, not all self-published books become bestsellers, but neither do all traditionally-published books.
This opportunity of easy, affordable, flexible, and even profitable self-publishing sounds promising for many authors–if readers will buy their books. But this system is even more promising because self-published books are easier than ever to buy–even accidentally. Amazon has not segregated books based on their publisher (i.e. it has not ghettoized self-published books) (Vinjamuri 5). In a survey of twelve male and female readers in the Millennial generation, I discovered that two did not know whether they had read a self-published book, and two were unsure how to tell whether a book was self-published. The leveling of the field between self-published writers and traditionally-published writers increases the chance that self-published books will be purchased.
The advent of these new technologies as well as the added benefits of flexibility and profitability have not only allowed the system of self-publishing to become more popular, but also have caused the culture to become increasingly more “Indie.” As defined by Joshua Grudziecki, “Indie” is a term that often refers to “a form of creative self-employment.” By using Indie here, I mean the writer who writes a book by himself and maybe has his family or friends proofread it. The Indie mindset that is pervading other art forms has certainly affected publishing, leading many writers to either abandon or forget about another system that could add inestimable value to their work.
An Older Team Approach
Over the past year and two weeks, I have come to know intimately the inner workings of traditional publishing. During this period, I have been a Marketing Assistant for Moody Collective, which is one of the seven publishing teams at Moody Publishers. My readers may guess that I am biased toward traditional publishing because I am required by my job to be biased. However, I received absolute permission from my superiors to write about traditional publishing–full disclosure. So here is the full disclosure: my job has convinced me–and continues to convince me each day–of the value of traditional publishing.
About a month ago, my publishing team ate an early Thanksgiving meal with an author who had recently signed a book contract with our team. Because this was the fist time most of us had met him, our conversation consisted mainly of get-to-know-yous. One of the get-to-know-you topics was the role of each person at the table. Randall, the Acquisitions Editor, explained that he would be helping the author with content development (idea and theology). Natalie, the Audience Development Manager, explained that she would be finding and creating a larger audience for the book. Also, she explained that she would be creating a marketing plan, which Nathan and I would help carry out. Nathan and I took turns describing the connections we had made with various magazines, websites, authors, and Moody Bible Institute and how these connections would help us carry out the marketing plan and promote his book. Randall then briefly explained that other people employed by Moody Publishers would be editing the book for organization and structure, accuracy, and–of course–grammar and punctuation. He also explained that other employees would help with sales and publicity.
During this conversation, the author’s fork began making fewer trips to his mouth. Eventually, he set the fork on his plate, placed his hands on the table, and rested his back against the booth. At the end of our explanation, his mouth hung agape. He recovered from his slightly overwhelmed state and asked, “That many people will be working on my book? Oh wow. When I write other stuff, it’s just my wife and I.”
Tyler Braun, author of Why Holiness Matters (Moody Publishers 2012) and How To Find and Thrive with a Mentor (self-published for his blog in 2012), expressed in an interview that traditional publishing can help a writer make his or her book a better product. He believes that the traditionally published product was better than the self-published product because of “better editors, better design, more proof readers. Each piece of the book making puzzle was better [because of] working with a team of people who could put effort toward the book.” In another interview, Randall stated that “Traditional publishing can offer the backing and expertise of a whole group of publishing professionals (editing, design, publicity, audience-development, distribution, sales, etc.).”
In my albeit brief experience at Moody Publishers, I can validate Tyler and Randall’s statements. I have reviewed book proposals, read early manuscripts, and–of course–read many final products. I saw numerous improvements at each stage. Major ideas were sometimes deconstructed then reconstructed and strengthened. The quality of the writing was improved, more robust examples were given within the work, and the content was better organized. The contribution of experts in editing and design alone made the book an improved, sound, and beautiful product.
Dr. Rosalie de Rosset, author of Unseduced and Unshaken (Moody Publishers 2012) stated in an interview that she saw another benefit of having expert input on her book. “I had the onus that [an expert] was going to see it,” she said. “The pressure was totally refining.” For writers, the knowledge and pressure that an expert editor will scrupulously edit their writing may itself be improve their work.
Christians who write must also take notice of the Bible’s support of a team approach to any work. For example, Proverbs 11:14 says, “Without guidance, people fall, but with many counselors there is deliverance.” And Proverbs 12:15 says, “A fool’s way is right in his own eyes, but whoever listens to counsel is wise.” The Bible compels us to seek the counsel of others in our work. When a writer sets to writing a book by him- or herself, the ambition tends toward arrogance and may lead to error. A collaborative, team approach to publishing will help authors avoid error, whether in things as weighty as a punctuation mark or a statement about God.
Although traditional publishing may be a much longer process, that process itself will likely also refine the work. Dr. de Rosset commented that “The easier something is, the easier you do it.” Because of the extensive time taken to write a proposal, submit it to publishing houses, wait for a response, work with the Acquisitions Editor on the idea, and submit multiple manuscripts to skilled editors, the writer will likely not write on a whim, but rather will write a message they are deeply convicted about and know will greatly affect their audience. Dr. de Rosset said that the traditional publishing process “backs you up and makes you think Is this something I really want to do or is it something I need to do?” Christians who write must not expect to meet immediate success with their first proposal or initial idea; this is truly a prideful rather than a humble attitude. Despite their attachment to the idea or the way they expressed it, they must be willing to let it go if it truly needs improvement (Brand 173-174). The longer process of traditional publishing will discourage a writer from publishing a book with a bland, improper, or whimsical idea quickly and then potentially regretting their decision later.
Finally, traditional publishing allows writers to focus on what they do best–writing! Self-publishing often requires writers to wear many hats–for example, to be their own editors and designers. Dr. de Rosset attests that she appreciated being able to “expend [herself] in the interest of writing and not as much in anything else.” Traditional publishing allows writers to be the experts in their craft while receiving refining criticism from others who are experts in their craft.
My plea to Christians who write is that they stand strong against the current cultural trend of going Indie and instead embrace a collaborative approach to publishing. My plea is that they refuse to conform to this age (Romans 12:2), bending to its popular and alluring systems simply because these systems are easy, affordable, more flexible, and profitable. Here I must note that some Christians who write will receive many rejections from traditional publishers. I do not desire to completely rule out the option of self-publishing. Rather, I desire to cause the Christian writer to see the necessity of involving experts in the book publishing process. This can also be done by hiring expert editors and designers. Although the investment may be steep, the benefits (both immediate and eternal) will be worth the cost. So once more I issue my plea: Christians who write, please do not bend. Listen closely to wisdom and direct your heart to understanding (Proverbs 2:2), think carefully about who will publish what you write, and be sure your decision is based not necessarily on cultural trends but always on the glorification of God.
Beware of the Spine
While Christians who write must carefully consider who will publish their work, Christians who read must also carefully consider who published the books they read. First, they must carefully consider who published the books they read because of the above argument. Typically, more experts do expend great effort refining a traditionally published book, and they can add value and correctness to the book (which is especially important regarding matters of theology). Thus, readers are more likely to receive a solid, precise, enduring product in a traditionally published book.
Second, Christians who read must carefully consider who published the books they read because this consideration may prevent their own frustration. On the websites of online retailers such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble, many self-published books are indistinguishable from traditionally published books. While self-published books are often less expensive than traditionally published books, many readers–even those who are strong advocates of self-publishing–are frustrated that the writing in many self-published books is poor. If for no other reason than to prevent their own frustration, Christians who read ought to develop a list of publishers they trust and purchase from the pool of books those publishers release. By doing this, readers are far less likely to be disappointed with a book’s quality.
Third, Christians must carefully consider who published the books they read because our time on earth is fleeting. Moses wrote, “Our lives last seventy years or, if we are strong, eighty years. Even the best of them are struggle and sorrow; indeed, they pass quickly and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10). And David wrote, “Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow” (Psalm 144:4). We simply do not have time to set our minds to incomplete or erroneous ideas or occupy our minds with things that may have been written on a whim. Instead, we must use our time wisely–making the most of every opportunity to read that we are blessed with. My plea to Christian readers is this: refuse to read books simply because they are inexpensive. Carefully investigate who published the books you read and choose what has been scrutinized, what has been developed and refined by experts.