Category Archives: The Shack

Answering Cross-Market Questions

Welcome spiritually-curious readers and writers. If you have questions about the audience of The Shack or wonder about the best ways to reach this nebulous psychographic of readers, you're in the right place.

 

Ready to look at our burning questions from last time?

 

Q: Why are these [spiritually-interested] books without a clear goal or “take-away” so vastly superior for this audience?

 

This is an answer you need when it comes time to pitch your book. Bottom line: the experience of these books IS the take-away. The story is the appeal. Fiction and non-, the point is in the journey, not the goal or destination. This means the emphasis is on allowing the entire progression of the narrative to “teach” the message, and not offering the usual didactic, message-driven approach propped up by illustrations or manipulated scenes in a novel. Authors of these books start at a different place, often intending to discover alongside the reader, not to design a coersive read. Largely, these are writers seeking after mystery and beauty, not answers or reassurance.

 

Q: What's the best way to prove I can reach these readers?

 

By doing it. Reaching this audience absolutely requires a satisfying read like the one I just described. Whether that’s self-help, memoir, fiction, or investigative journalism, you have to get people talking about the amazing and unique experience your book is. And that writing skill goes hand-in-hand with your skill in marketing. The shift toward more author-driven marketing is strong proof of our increased desire to hear an authentic individual’s story as opposed to the familiar hard-sell coersion tactics of ad campaigns and publicity spin-doctors. You either embrace this new-world thinking and feel passionately about it, or you don’t. As I always point out to potential authors, if you’re onto something and you know it, it’s just a matter of time before others know it too. Ultimately, your marketing should be an extension of your passionate search in your writing. How you prove that is by being an authentically passionate connector (We’ll get more specific about this in next week’s post).

 

Q: Should I just self-publish my spiritually-interested book?

 

Good question. It follows a more important one: Do I have one book or several? If you are a career writer, you need to put in the time to your craft and learning the business to find a partner you feel best understands you and serves your ambition level. If you have one book or one burning story within you, it might be best to look outside of professional publishing. I make this distinction when it comes to spiritually-interested books because few writers can (or want to) write several. Staying in a perpetual state of searching is hard to keep up (ask Don Miller). There’s something of a life-stage consideration here—an age where self-awareness and spiritual evaluation is where you are, and a possibly more spiritually-mature stage where you are more decided in your outlook. Your comfort with mystery vs. assurance may change over time and that’s normal. Another reason is producing your book on your own can actually be a benefit in reaching this audience since you aren’t affiliated with any established, traditional house and won’t have to cater to them or compromise to fit their assumptions about the audience. Smart readers like yours are very aware of that dynamic and actually like the idea of an undiluted read (The Shack as exhibit A here again).

 

Q: Are some publishers and retailers really actively seeking these books?

 

Absolutely. In fact, I’m not sure you can find an adult general trade publisher in Christian or general market who wouldn’t be open to looking at a book for the spiritually-interested audience. All will have their own particular flavors and assumptions, but again, self-publishing is a great way to prove you have an audience and can connect with them before attempting to find a publishing partner. Of course, you need to consider how well a potential Christian publisher partner is able to reach the general market, because the place these readers are generally not is Christian bookstores or the Christian shelves at Barnes and Noble. If you see yourself next to John Eldredge and Bruce Wilkinson, you might want to reconsider your approach.

 

As always, your questions, comments and complaints are welcome and appreciated. Next time we’ll talk about what you can specifically do to find readers and build a following. Until then, don’t sweat any of this–and keep writing!

Promoting Your Cross-Market Book, Pt 1

Congratulations, you've just finished your cross-market book. So how are you going to increase visibility (and all-important sales) to your audience? Will you choose:

 

A. By reading Mick's brilliant blog post here.

B. What? Promote? That's the publisher's job. Or

C. I figured I'd learn all that once I get a contract.

 

If you answered B or C, give yourself a little slap. Wake up. While you were sleeping, it became your task to prove why your book is important. And the best way to do that is to show how it's a part of a sizeable movement—the "spiritually-interested" movement.

 

The top Christian publishers owned by larger NY parent houses may be positioned to exploit this large area, but their awareness of it and how to reach it is still fairly, well, not always stellar. Some have seen moderate-to-big success with these kinds of books, but whether by accident or intent is largely conjecture. The encouraging news is that many of the authors of these books had modest platforms, or no platform at all before, and whether or not a particular publisher is heavily personality-driven in its philosophy, the appeal of these books is often message-driven, content-driven, and reader-need-driven. In short, there’s a strong “heart incentive” here for readers you can tap into in your marketing. The author best positioned to succeed in winning readers in this audience is the one who proves he or she can lead the way to defining and even shaping this newer category (I like the word “psychographic”) of publishing.

 

And you thought you were just writing a book.

 

Some big reasons to take control of your publicity:

1. This new territory is wonderfully wide open. That means you can largely define the shape of your approach (more on that in following posts).

 

2. This spiritually-curious audience is media-saavy and uber-connected. There's a good reason top-Twitterer Ashton Kutcher found The Shack.

 

3. Existing CBA stores are closing at a faster rate than new CBA stores are opening, and commerce in general is shifting away from brick-and-mortar stores to the Internet. This has been going on for some time, but most CBA retail commerce is controlled (and limited) by just a handful of channels—including FCS, LifeWay, Mardel, CBD, Choice, Parable, and a collection of independents. When you add up all the units typically sold through these channels, first-year sell-through projections are rather low for all but a handful of Christian authors. So publishers are finding it necessary to follow authors' leads who can effectively identify and sell into the new online and viral sales channels (to which, spiritually-interested books are especially suited). This means you're much more likely to find a top publisher if you're already active in promotion.

 

4. Most importantly, you need your message to go to more than book-readers, believers, or any other category familiar to a publicity team. Let's just say these spiritually-interested folks don’t typically shop in CBA stores. Christian and general market retailers are generally averse to new genres (and even to many established genres). They like their usual areas–Christian living, genre fiction, diet books, whatever–and maybe a few others (proven best-selling authors and really cheap books). This limits publishers commercially. Taking on a new mission like this is attractive to a house and spurs greater innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship. And again, authors have a huge opportunity to be the lead entrepreneurs here.

 

In short, as author of a spiritually-interested book, you have the opportunity to identify and test new strategies in sales and marketing, in line with the present and future of book publishing. And that's attractive no matter what kind of book you've written.

 

As authors, we must define this vision and ensure it’s understood in our proposals and manuscripts. We must incite passion in our publishing teams for reaching this large audience. And we need to explore nontraditional ways to “pitch” the appeal of these books.

 

We'll unpack much of this with more practicals in the posts to follow. Some questions we'll answer next time:

 

Q: Why are these books without a clear goal or “take-away” so vastly superior for this audience? 

Q: What's the best way to prove I can reach these readers? 

Q: Should I just self-publish my spiritually-interested book?

Q: Are some publishers and retailers really actively seeking these books?

 

Come on back. I think you'll like the answers.

Crossing Over: Who Is Your Audience?

In the closing month of 2008, Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion released these findings:

  • 20% of Americans said they have “heard God’s voice”
  • 55% feel they are protected by a guardian angel
  • 23% say they have witnessed a miraculous physical healing


In a similar survey in 2005, 67% of Americans were convinced heaven exists. Dick Staub made an interesting related commentary recently about all these spiritual seekers (estimates say it’s commonly around 82% of Americans) who perpetually come up empty in their spiritual search. This is not a new audience.



 


But the “spiritually interested” audience is this group. Among their primary interests are a spiritual reality that isn’t immediately apparent to the five senses. They are not necessarily looking for doctrine, Bible studies, or tips on successful living. They are not even necessarily looking for verifiable proof, tangible evidence, or practical application of this spiritual reality. Their interest is more elemental—tracking closely with universal human curiosity. To wit, the spiritually interested are:


  • Open to new ideas and possibilities
  • Eager to consider new ways of looking at life and reality and the universe
  • Concerned about issues such as personal freedom, self-realization, destiny, fulfillment
  • Not geared to motivators such as paranoia, shame, legalism, and fear. In contrast to many evangelicals, these motivators are off-putting to the spiritually interested.
  • If God exists, they want to know that he/she/it loves them  
  • Tuned into invisible reality, which includes spiritual reality, parallel reality, mystical reality, supernatural phenomena, mystery, spiritual power, intersections between the physical realm and the spiritual realm, and direct experience of these things
  • Tuned into spiritual power, especially as it helps them live everyday life and achieve their goals/desires/aspirations
  • Interested in exerting control over external circumstances through spiritual means
  • Driven by direct experience over theory, logic, or arguments
  • Open to new possibilities, not bound to dogma, religious systems, schools of thought or worldviews.


This “cafeteria-style” approach to belief, religion, and spirituality is exhibited in the self-improvement fields, which lends itself very nicely to current CBA and ABA nonfiction focused on self-help and a humanistic worldview. In fiction, this is harder to quantify, but redemptive stories that illuminate a benevolent, engaged, and beneficial spiritual reality are aiming at this broad audience. But in fiction and in nonfiction, this audience is interested in information that illuminates:

  • Natural laws of the universe and how one can live in harmony with it
  • Special wisdom and/or knowledge about those laws, power within them, and often control over them for personal gain and making sense of chaotic life
  • The future and what lies ahead
  • The other side, heaven, the afterlife, angels, the parallel spiritual realm, non-corporeal experience


In general, the types, genres and categories for these books is broad. They can be fiction or non, straight-forward or deceptive, traditional or quirky, literary or crassly commercial. They may have direct discussion of spiritual reality or opt for organic discussion of spiritual reality woven in. They may speak of Christianity as a supernatural faith, of meeting God & the devil on Haight-Asbury, or finding Heaven in an oil-slicked parking lot. They may be tame or surprisingly wild, serious or funny, artless or crafted, emotional or intellectual, scientific or not. Most will engage with experimental elements that break assumptions and illuminate a supernatural theme (which can include everything from vampires to superheroes to commercial thrillers to literary magical realism).



 


Some comparative titles to this audience:


The Shack, William Young (Windblown Media)


Dinner with a Perfect Stranger, David Gregory (WaterBrook)


The Secret, Rhonda Byrne (Atria)


A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle (Plume)


The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle (New World Library).


90 Minutes in Heaven, Don Piper with Cecil Murphey (Revell/Baker)


The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs (S&S)


Walking the Bible, Bruce Feiler (Harper)


Journey of Desire, John Eldredge (Nelson)


The Faith Club, Idliby, Oliver, Warner (Free Press)


What Jesus Meant, Garry Willis (Viking)


The Traveler’s Gift, Andy Andrews (Nelson)


Closer Than Your Skin, Susan Hill (WaterBrook)



 


Dean Koontz and Stephen King. Francis Collins and Timothy Keller. This audience is not a new one. Obviously, this creates something of a “supercategory” that quickly becomes unwieldy. But for readers of this blog, I hope you see how it may include books that present an indirect gospel essence to those not yet convinced. Books of this nature don’t sound like a typical Evangelical Christian book, largely because they aren’t written by your typical Evangelical Christian. Yet these books can still be completely orthodox and in line with the biblical account while connecting with an audience most Christian books will never reach. This is why publishing to the “spiritually interested” is a significant growth area and we need to find out how best to position ourselves to intentionally and strategically target this market.



 


That is the million dollar question. If your book with spiritual themes can invite anybody in no matter what they believe, and put them on an equal footing, without teaching or preaching, that’s the first step. If you allow readers to draw their own conclusions, if you are comfortable asking “What if ….?,” and allownig your curiosity to guide you, you can write for this audience. If you acknowledge that there is still much to be discovered about the universe, the challenges of life, God, spiritual reality, etc., and you are someone who asks Why me? instead of feeling grand or entitled to your opinions, you have the voice. This makes you valueable to this type of reader. Because these readers are looking for authenticity, an author who knows enough to ask that question and not expect an answer is someone different than those the establishment likes to hype. Nine times out of 10, they’re more real. And readers want their books for that reason.



 


This is how you will open the door wide to the “emerging” readership.

Crossing Over: Writing to the “Spiritually Interested”

"Spiritually interested" is the rather obtuse designation Cathy Grossman borrowed for her article in USA Today speaking about the audience of The Shack. The term comes from Wayne Jacobsen, one of the publishers of the book, attempting to define the larger market for Christian books that Christian publishing is not serving. Since one of my stated goals for this website is to bridge that gap, I think it might be instructive to discuss whether Christian publishing should appeal to more than Christians. After all, like faith without works, or a church that doesn't evangelize, the situation seems unnecessarily restrictive at best, at worst unbiblical.

 

So our question from last time was, How does one capture the tone, approach, and appeal in this blossoming category of books for the spiritually interested? Some primary distinctives are that these books:

 

  • Do not identify with the Christian subculture or the Christian product and media industries.
  • Focus on experiential faith over propositional truth: Not arguments or lessons, but immersion in a direct, story-driven experience.
  • Show supernatural experience not “evidence” (natural or biblical): The transcendence of God intervening in everyday life through “dispatches from the other side.”
  • Are mysterious over convincing, allowing an experience that’s open-ended, unexplained, and even inconclusive.
  • Are timely and timeless, revealing the here-and-now God unbound to traditionalism, and intimately involved in our uncertainty about the present and near-future.
  • Reveal love triumphing over law, in relationship-affirming and life-honoring freedom from formal religious dogma, judgment, or mediation.

Before hurrying on, we should talk more about that first bullet. Those looking for books outside the strict confines of popular Christianity generally don’t seem to spend much time looking in places the gatekeepers control, namely Christian bookstores. And though there are several exceptions, the obvious limiting factor in getting these books read is that they are not “Christian” enough for Evangelical Christian readers, and up until recently, were too spiritual for most NY houses.

 

But now you see, that’s changing. These books for the spiritually interested are not coersive, they don't pound principles, which is a major reason they fit better in the general market than the Christian subculture. They aren’t closed to including what doesn’t currently fit modern Christianity. These books are redemptive, but their redemption comes in the jouney, not the destination. The “take-away” is of becoming engaged in an exploration, not to fix something, convert skeptics, or even evoke a quatifiable change, but to enjoy a satisfying read. The Shack, while not high literature, provides an example of book-as-interpretive-experience that causes readers to explore. That exploration attracts many “recovering Christians,” but the transcendent experience is broader and more profound than simple affirmation. The Shack challenges stereotypes about God to present him as a generous, fun-loving, approachable mother/father, with a single agenda of bringing unconditional, sacrificial love into the world. In religion and in larger society, that's an easy reality to miss. And what I find so exciting about this example is that despite its initial rejection by CBA and ABA publishers, it's revealed a huge desire for discussion about this God who doesn't necessarily begin and end in our established categories.

 

So why did Christian or NY editors believe their houses shouldn't publish it? Several possibilities, but "too risky" and "not up to snuff" seem likely to this editor.

 

The Shack proves there's an audience of spiritually interested folks who are not being served either by the so-called Christian ghetto or the ivory towers.

 

Some take issue with the idea of designating books as Christian at all. One result of The Shack's success is that readers now recognize there's something more to God and maybe even this word "Christian" than they realized. Maybe David Sessions wasn't just being bombastic when he said that the divide between Christian and mainstream designations has been the single most damaging idea to Christianity in the modern world.

 

Of course, here are the sticky swamplands. If it's not Christian, how do we know it’s wholesome? Can we really let people be their own judges of that? Many rely on labels in today’s hyper-marketed culture, myself included. Where do we redraw the lines of this demographic? And I don't want to waste time arguing about the morality of blurring this line–hoping for a greater reach isn't a failure of faith. I don't question those who still feel called to be Christian writers, and never anything less. But the challenge remains. There's a big underserved audience out there. How are we going to reach them?

 

The good news is, reaching this spiritually interested audience isn't only possible, it's profitable. So next time we'll take a closer look at some comparative books and content characteristics that should reveal a bit more about how we define this emerging category.

Why Is The Shack Still Selling?

Earlier this year (2009), I led a discussion of The Shack and it’s impact on Christian publishing at the Northwest Christian Writers Renewal. Response to that was overwhelmingly positive from the largely Christian group of writers, but as usual, I didn’t get to much of what I was excited to talk about. Most people were far too busy discussing its theology and the successes and failures therein. And though debate about it seems to have died down to a low rumble now, sales continue to clip along for this “heretical” “life-saving” pseudo-fictional book.

 

Whether you love it or hate it, if you’re interested in the question above as much as I am, you will at least like this post. Because what I was so eager to get to at the NCWR was this question of who is buying this book. Let’s do some quick analysis.

 

In early 2008, an article in USA Today defined the audience of The Shack as the rather broad, unwieldy category of “spiritually interested.” But who are they? This audience is curious about spiritual matters, but especially as found outside of organized religion and the religious establishment, however we might define that. Maybe most significant about readers who recommend this book, they tend to be interested in the uncommon approach to the Christian God, and most, how he responds to our pain. They may or may not be Christian, but they’re attracted to the God they meet here (who IS largely the Judeo Christian God of the Bible: http://bit.ly/5srJo), and they are eager for an honest experience of God’s love and transcendence.

 

We might discuss how much less eager traditional Christian churches tend to be for such “extra-biblical” experience and how that defecit created the chasm for this book. That’s a great topic. Or we could look at the growing dissatisfaction with and breakdown of the modern Christian retail industry being undermined by fundamentalists and the traditional establishment creating a bubble, a ghetto, an ivory tower set apart from the very people Jesus worked so hard to get us to serve. Another great topic. But let’s ask another question instead.

 

How do these “pioneers” differ from the more traditional Christian book market?

 

Pioneers value                                 Traditionalists value

Mystery over certainty           Certainty over mystery

Experiential faith                    Propositional truth

Freedom from structure         Structure to their freedom

Personal authority                  Authority figures

Love at the expense of truth   Truth at the expense of love

Authenticity over status          Status over authenticity

Relationship over rules                   Rules over relationship             

Maleable, interpretive            Concrete, quantifiable

A story over principles          Principles over a story

Seeking over knowing           Knowing over seeking

 

Pioneers have been conquering this literary frontier for a while. John Eldredge and Brent Curtis took this experience-based, non-propositional approach in The Sacred Romance and Journey of Desire. Meanwhile Henry Blackaby wrote Experiencing God for the church set and Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez revealed a God who longed to bless. Lauren Winner followed suit with her memoir Girl Meets God, quickly followed by Donald Miller’s meandering Blue Like Jazz and somewhere in this Brian McLaren released A New Kind of Christian. Soon, an unlikely pastor named Rob Bell jumped in with Velvet Elvis and the territory began to get fairly well carved out by various other new voices. One of my personal favorites—Closer Than Your Skin by Susan Hill (WaterBrook, 2007)—uses Susan’s amazing personal journey of discovery to show how to truly know the creator of the eternal reality all around us. No bubbles in there.

 

So to help these pioneers move closer in their journey toward God through authentic spiritual experience, and to encourage them to explore and process new questions about God, the Bible, and faith, we need to understand how to capture the tone, approach, and appeal in this blossoming category. More on that next time.