Category Archives: The Christian publishing industry

Interview with The Shack original publisher and collaborator, Wayne Jacobsen

For over a year now, people have been asking me what I think of The Shack. Mostly, I’m fascinated by how it’s gotten people talking—believers and regular folks, liberals and conservatives, long-time Christians and the disenfranchised. And it hasn’t even gone to mass market paperback yet (update: it now has). As a result of it all, The Shack is the little, unassuming book that continues to sit atop the bestseller lists and create controversy.

No denying it’s a fairly unusual book. Even with all its visibility, it’s difficult to call it a sensation. At first glance, most everything about it—from the book’s style, to its author, to the way in which it was published—looks fairly commonplace. Yet its unusual success story belies the unusualness beneath the pages.

I admit I was predisposed to give the book my usual surface treatment and be done with it. But as I started reading, I realized I couldn’t dismiss it so easily. In fact, I had to finish it, not just to see what all the fuss was about, but to experience something I rarely get to—a transporting experience. I read with increasing excitement and emotion. Something momentous seemed to be hidden between the pages.

So once I finished, I decided I needed to know the truth about all the rumors and accusations I’d heard. So I contacted Wayne Jacobsen, the man William P. Young claims largely inspired him to pursue publishing the book. Wayne is a writer whose own work has taken on what passes for Christianity in mainstream culture, targeting what Jacobsen calls the “missing middle” that exists between the mainstream Christian book houses and the general market.

That’s significant background because I’m convinced this is one of the biggest and most under-served readerships worldwide: the group some call the “post-religious,” spiritually-curious, but tired of the typical packaging of church programs and Christian culture. How to reach this elusive audience has been a subject I’ve studied and debated for years, but I believe the larger story around The Shack provides the best case study to date.

Coming from outside both Christian and general markets, it has succeeded in transcending the categories to define a hunger for God the typical Christian fare so often fails to fill.

—–In June 2008, I caught up with Wayne—–

Me: I understand The Shack went through some fairly extensive revisions and rewriting. Can you talk about that?

Wayne: Yeah. Paul (Young, writer), Brad (Cummings, Windblown Media), and I worked for about 16 months bringing out the more dramatic elements, the essence of the story, and cutting back on some of the more theologically loaded or simply curious elements. Through the restructuring, we wanted to be as faithful to Paul’s original idea as possible. The natural result of putting the story first was that the book catches the interest of a spiritually hungry reading public. By allowing the books’ statements about God to be experienced organically as story rather than as propositional truths or systematic theology, The Shack has resonated with a diverse audience, building bridges between all sorts of people.

Me: What did you see in the original manuscript of The Shack that made you feel you should commit to 16 months of work to it?

Wayne: We actually did a podcast with Paul on this where I talked about that very thing.

Me: I’ll include the link (“A Visit to The Shack“). Was it ever difficult to remain committed to it during that time, especially given your many involvements?

Wayne: It wasn’t a commitment at the outset, but I felt he had a great book here and Paul wasn’t motivated to do the rewrites we thought needed to be done. At one point the three of us and Bobby Downes of Downes Brothers Entertainment sat down to storyboard the movie and suggest changes in the book. Even with that, Paul wanted me to help. Eventually, I felt a nudge from the Spirit to do so and rewrote a chapter to show him what I was talking about. Then I did another, and then Brad got involved and it started to grab him, so we kept going. At one point each of us had written a version of the chapter with Sophie in the cave, and we just put them all together and kept the stuff we agreed on. A lot of it was like that. Paul was so generous with his gift, and I was using Paul’s words and working to keep it his vision. I’d never done that as an editor—I’d always just been a writer—so the commitment was more something that evolved relationally.

Me: How many people in Christian publishing—authors, agents, and editors—have contacted you about working with Windblown?

Using a garage as a warehouse, William P. Young, left, author of The Shack, helps publishers Brad Cummings, center, and Wayne Jacobsen pack books for shipping. CREDIT: Rachelle Hanshaw

Wayne: Oh, more than I can count now. Christian publishing people want to do it. The Shack is hitting the middle ground, but transcending it—church people, Jewish people, the spiritually curious, etc.—all having the conversations as it relates to their spiritual interests. It doesn’t necessarily identify that middle ground because it’s more diverse than that. It’s the reality of Paul’s pain and how he deals with it. It’s more an experience not a theology thing. Jesus says, “My sheep know my voice and they won’t follow a stranger.” We don’t have to take on the mentality of gatekeepers. The push-back from the religious Taliban is that they’re making it about “them and us”–like there’s those who are in and those who are out. But that isn’t what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to serve, not to be served

Me: One of the most exciting things about The Shack to me is that it provides hope to so many people who haven’t been served in the Christian mainstream for whatever reason. This “spiritually interested”  audience is not only receptive, but seems to be responding to the idea that God is even more loving and boldly relational than we tend to think, that He’s forceful in breaking down the very walls the religious establishment wants to build in their preference for safe, non-confrontational literature. Do you see a parallel here to how Jesus used parables that were offensive to the religious establishment he was denouncing?

Wayne: People are definitely trying to defame and marginalize the message. This argument about feminizing God, for instance. The book explains very clearly that God shows up as a black woman because that’s the image that puts Mack at ease. God could have shown up as whatever he wanted, but the people who say he can’t be a black woman don’t seem to accept that. There are also some people saying it’s promoting universalism, that all paths lead to God. Even though Jesus says very clearly and repeatedly that he’s the only way, the detractors want to insist that Paul really meant something else.

For too long there’s been a fear of offending the establishment. Publishing people don’t love the books they’re publishing. Our publishing The Shack was never about being commercial or pleasing people. It was meant to be honest and truthful, to find passionate readers who were looking for this. We want to do books that resonate with people’s hearts. It was never intended to be the full orthodoxy of the gospel, whatever we may have believed that to mean.

Me: That’s a really important point. When people talk about “biblical orthodoxy” what they’re really talking about is a bunch of different historical traditions of interpretation of a bunch of theological concepts that really have very little to do with the uninterpreted Bible. The concept is deceptive and notoriously divisive in the ways it’s applied. And I guess when you put words in God’s mouth and have him saying things that sound a little too out of the box…

Wayne: You get whacked! Yeah. People say they believe in things all the time, but they really don’t. Some Christians don’t believe in the Incarnation—the in-dwelling spirit of God in everyone who believes. And it isn’t that they don’t want to believe, they’ve just never experienced it. And I think it’s sad that so many can’t allow themselves to have that experience. But those who want to explore that and experience it shouldn’t be judged for it.

Me: Well said. It seems to me a big difference between those who embrace The Shack and those who denounce it are divided between understanding faith as an intellectual construct based in the interpretation of theological concepts, and faith as an experience of these things–one is mental, the other physical. And certainly we need a balance there, but how can faith be experienced if the familiar barriers of judgment and condemnation are always there? Do you think this is why there are so many disillusioned Christians and “spiritually interested” folks not finding much in mainstream Christian publishing?

Wayne: I’m sure that’s part of it. There are many reasons. Publishing is slow, expensive, and risky. But it’s pretty difficult to keep true to the edge–of actually living out these theological concepts–while you’re worried about offending the mainstream.

Me: Thanks, Wayne. And thanks for inviting so much challenging discussion through this book. I know I’m not the only one who’s grateful for the opportunity to explore these ideas more.

Wayne: My pleasure, Mick. Thank you.

Note: Since first published in 2007, The Shack has garnered much acclaim and controversy and has gone on to become one of the bestselling books of all time. And despite being denounced as heresy, the movie releases March 3rd, 2017. 

[Please feel free to leave a kind, intelligent comment–all others will be denied, like CNN at a Trump press conference.]

Is Christian Art Useless?

Fellow Christian writers and artists, do you consider this a challenge?

“Christian art is a knock-off.”

Maybe? Maybe it depends on what we consider Christian art.

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How do we define Christian art? Are the rules different than for regular art? Probably they are, and that’s fair since “Christian” should involve some specific differences about what’s artistic and what’s not.

So what does “Christian art” mean?

Is it art when it portrays some aspect of the glory of God? And are the qualities of the work less important, more important, or as important as the content, the message? Are the specific qualities merely the wrapping paper for the gift inside? Or is the packaging of the message the more important part?

Should “Christian art” mean what pleases God rather than what pleases man? Should it entertain or only be serious? Should it seek to convert its viewers by providing an alternative to unwholesome art? Should it be less interested in depicting the real world and more interested in what is pure, true, good, et cetera? Should it provide specific takeaways?

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And does this really matter? After 4 decades in the Christian subculture, I can finally say I don’t have the faintest clue. I stopped being able to judge Christian art somewhere around age 30. I can probably make a pretty fair argument for both sides, from “everything has to literally spell out the gospel in order to be Christian art” to “only organically Christian art is truly a witness.”

But the recent “film debate” between Fifty Shades of Gray and the Christian alternative “Old Fashioned” revived some of the unanswerable questions.

“This is the irony of the Christian film industry: movies that appeal mostly to Christians are marketed as if capable of bringing sinners to repentance.”

Is that true? Is Old Fashioned art for Christians? And is it really incapable of reaching beyond that? Why? And who really knows?

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And should we really spend time debating this?

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Every Christian industry–film, music, books and all those giftable products–exists for Christians. The art they sell is for people who want a message and aren’t as interested (though they still are) in the wrapping. Should we debate whether the message of Christian art is getting seen by regular folk?

Or should we be making art?

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My opinion? We should be making art. If the appeal of “50 Shades” proves anything, it’s that the wrapping of the message matters–a lot. Maybe more than the message, in many ways. (As Marshall McLuhan said back in 1964). So if you’re a Christian inclined to making beautiful art, you should probably spend more time working on making the package work, and not worrying so much whether the message is clear.

But my point is, whether Christian art is or isn’t largely miserable, useless and derivative, who cares? What if instead of debating we just got to work and focused more on making art than the distractions of others’ opinions?

Maybe that would be a more productive use of our gifts and time?

I’m reminding myself here. And now leaving to write.

Feeling better already…

Confronting Harper Lee’s Monster

It came across our Facebook feeds yesterday:

Harper Lee is releasing a new book!

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It had already been announced and discussed and when I told my wife, she said what we all thought, “Isn’t she dead?”

Almost immediately there were suspicions about it all over the feeds. News and opinions went back and forth without much substance to go on. Was she being coerced or manipulated? Who had actually talked to her about it?

But behind the speculation, some of us sensed a monster lurking, a question we can’t quite answer: are we doing what’s right here?

This wasn’t just about what a beloved author really wanted. It was about what the Internet and media (social and otherwise) is doing to our world. Knowingly or not, Nelle Harper Lee has started a conversation again over the central issue her debut speaks to most presciently: the hopelessness in today’s world of doing what’s right.

Whether it’s the conversation about our country’s Internet and media addiction that none of us want to have, or the one about reparations and systemic injustice, there are winners and losers in this country. And we all have to face how deeply unfair so much of what we call “fair” is just not.

The story of a famously private author finally deciding to release another book is some of the best news fodder we Chatty Cathys could hope for. Think of the traffic being generated! But whatever else it’s about, the story is also a warning, a reckoning, that we could be killing a mockingbird here. If someone is lying or manipulating this living national treasure, they’ll most certainly be published, er, punished.  Ahem.

For all our hopes of another novel, shouldn’t we be asking, Should we just leave her alone?movie

Then there’s the fact that this couldn’t be more fitting to the point of her novel: no question Bob Ewell and his kind of prejudice are evil and wrong, and so is the jury for believing him. But we all know there’s another monster on the loose that we’re not talking about, a deep evil, possibly the greatest of all–a bully with an insatiable hunger for more.

More news. More information. More of the juicy story. More amazing books. And even if you weren’t as excited as I was to hear about this new book, we’re all in danger of becoming sick-drunk with this thirst for more.

Maybe she realizes there are still many innocents who need protecting and maybe her novel can help. Or maybe she still sees herself as Boo Radley as she has said.

Are we taking advantage of her? Remember, even Atticus was ready to force Boo and his own son to face public “justice” for the murder of Bob Ewell, spinning it as positively as he could.

It took the hardened lawman, Heck Tate, to talk sense into him and show him his misplaced faith in people to do what’s right.

This news story and To Kill a Mockingbird have everything to do with how we view right and wrong and our responsibility to seek true justice. Make no mistake, the point here is just like in the novel–doing the right thing may be hopeless, but it’s still worth doing all you can. We must consider the consequences of our snap judgments, and remember that in our modern rush to consume information, we can so easily become ravenous “More Monsters.”

I believe deep down, we all know we’re a mix of great good and deep evil. And because of that evil, Boo Radley wouldn’t really be left alone. Not in the real world.

Wouldn’t we all kill a mockingbird if we had a chance to own her song? As good as he wanted to be, not even Atticus, for all his good intentions, could see that without help.

2Q==To be sure, Go Set a Watchman is a very promising title. Should it happen to be about coming to terms with our tendency to go after those who need our protection, it could inspire discussion again about the importance of limiting ourselves to preserve something good and pure in the world. Maybe it will be about respect and facing our prejudices and dealing with the misguided bullies in our hearts.

We can only hope. And maybe if Nelle’s new-old vision from a grown-up Scout Finch does ignite that vital conversation again, she’ll forgive us for needing the reminder?

Don’t Fear the Reaper: FREE ebook

This is a great, power-packed and quick-read resource from copyeditor and writer Blake Atwood. And I’m strongly considering giving it a place in my highly-recommended resources.

It’s the book I’d like to have written if I wasn’t so busy coaching and editing books.

Oh, it’s also FREE. (But you know, tip how you’d want to be tipped.)

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Check it out!

Do You Need an Editor? The *Definitive* Post

There’s a misconception I’d like to put to rest.

Freelance editors are not expendable. Freelance content editors are the unsung heroes of publishing.

Though it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, I’m not. And this idea may not make me popular among my industry friends and colleagues. Yet as publishing continues to change, I see too many good writers, mid-listers and professional authors being sold a steaming heap of monkey giblets about how to sell more books. And I think it’s high time we jumped this collection of clunkers with confidence.

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Wheeeeee!!! Craaaap!!!!

The unassailable history proves that word of mouth is what sells books over the long term. And despite publisher and traditional bookseller practices, long-term sales are what authors need in order to survive.

Check. (Thanks, Google.)

But what generates consistent and long-lasting word-of-mouth? Is it promotions, interviews, contests or other savvy marketing? Maybe killer content? Meaningful and enriching stories? Most professionals will mark “a good read at a good price” as the way to sell books best over the long-term–and little else besides.

Okay. So the question eventually comes down to: how do authors develop the most scintillating, wide-reaching material?

Now we’re ready, ladles and gent-lemons. The one way to writing good books (and my nomination for word of the year):

Refinement. 

Show me a “professional” who doesn’t take many drafts to develop their material and I’ll show you an amateur who isn’t creating their most widely-accessible work. (Duck and cover, people! I warned you.) And even after initial rewriting, refinement always requires some outside help, objective opinion, and more specifically, experienced, balanced objective opinion(s).

So is it hyperbole to say that finding these helpers may mean the difference between success and failure for every author?

I do this for the money, prestige and power. Said no writer ever.
I do this for the money, prestige and power. Said no writer ever.

There are many stages in an author’s development, but freelance editing is one I see too often overlooked. In fact, questions and misunderstandings seem to be increasing.

What do they really do? Won’t they ruin my story? Wouldn’t they change my voice? Why would I want someone to mess with my vision and challenge what I’ve worked so hard on?

Real, valid concerns. Actually, if writers weren’t asking questions like this, I’d be worried. There are no guarantees editing will help you (and any editor who offers that is playing you). Step back and recall how many badly written books have made it to the bestseller list without any apparent assistance from an editor’s red pen. Do books really need editing to sell well?

Literary-snobs shut your eyes: “Not really.” (support) (proof)

So if quality control isn’t a valid reason, what’s the point of hiring an editor? And who needs editing beforehand anyway, especially if you’ll be going through the editing during the publication process?

Freelance editors are a dime a dozen and the wrong one could be disastrous. To top it off, they’re crazy expensive. Let’s just get straight-up honest, here:

Do you really need a freelance editor?

First, there are critique groups. Good writers all use them. Beta readers. They can be hugely helpful, harsh and honest, professional friends.

Agents. The good ones do still content-edit quite a bit besides crafting astounding, profitable ideas out of thin air. They are often the first and only line of defense and author advocate before the infamous …

In-house editors. Despite rumors to the contrary, they do still edit. And they do a bang-up job of it too, if not as singularly as editors who aren’t required to handle multiple concurrent book-production schedules, new acquisitions, pub-board presentations, sales conferences, departmental requests for early materials and publicity pieces, and the thousands of other insipid and infuriating things in-house editors are literally bombarded with every day. And if you’re independently published, you’ll have your…

Publishing package editors. And in some cases, they’ll actually fix some words you missed. Just don’t expect them to do much content shaping, let alone character or plot analysis or smoothing. But, then, sometimes you may even have your…

Ghostwriters. These are the most evolved industry folks around. No way any “word shenanigans” are getting past these bad boys and girls of publishing.

So freelance editors. What’s really left for them to do with all these competent folks around?

I can’t speak for all my freelance editor friends, of course. But as an independent business, my goal is not to achieve “high quality,” or improve the story, or even to fulfill the author’s hopes of a completed project. My one purpose is to sell books. To do this, the author must see how they’re authentically surprising and delighting readers. That isn’t crass or unbiblical, it’s simply ambitious: it’s how the most influential authors are publishing today.

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I’m a seasoned editor and some say I’m rather good. So let me challenge you to consider who will help you gain the best perspective on your book. Is it:

Someone who knows you and may be tempted to put friendship first?

Someone with a lot of experience and even objectivity, but 25-100 clients they’re carrying simultaneously?

Someone you’ve been assigned and needs you “processed” as quickly as possible?

Or someone who is free to invest weeks of professional evaluation into suggesting improvements for readability and mass appeal?

Freelance editors exist because they love books. And yes, they love successful books, because time and again they find the core of their author’s message and bring it out more fully to compel readers to proselytize about their books.

A freelance editor is your greatest chance to extend your reach and expand your writing career. With the right freelance editor, you will find a fulfilling sense of empowerment from an insightful supporter who gets you and respects your process. And at the very least, you will find new angles and depths you missed in your own work, which, in the end, will provide more compelling angles to sell your work.

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So before you decide your next step, do one thing: run a simple search for experienced freelance editors. Ask them your questions and take a look at how hard they are working to balance author’s visions with reader appeal. And consider carefully the true value of investing in this powerful tool of education and insight you’re endeavoring to begin.

Could you use an unbiased coach and personal trainer in your corner?

Maybe the question isn’t, “Do you need a freelance editor?” Maybe it’s time the savvy authors recognized the better question is,

“Do you want to sell books?”