Tag Archives: Christian book publishing

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?”

This Dangerous Platform

Writers who are honest feel fear about self-promotion.

The initial excitement and hope fades into something else, and those fears can blossom into putrid black blooms. (Did you know there's a guy leading seminars on how to make videos go viral who intentionally falls off a stage and posts the videos on YouTube as examples? The quest for fame does make people do some pretty stupid things.)

I get one of two questions from authors when they're about to be published. The first is, "What should I do to get the message out?" And the second: "What if I become a phony?" (they don't always use that term. But I know what they mean.) Phonies are people who fake it. They don't feel real, so they have to pretend they know what being real is. And they desperately have to prove it to you. But even if you have fame shoved on you, problems with being a phony only come when you begin to worry about it. Fame requires authenticity and people know the real deal when they see it.

"But won't I have to change?" they ask. Well, yes, but you always have to change, even if you don't become well-known. Remember Holden Caufield's big fear? After the success of The Catcher In the Rye, part of the reason Salinger disappeared was because Holden was a part of him, and when fame came, it became his prison. Can we blame him?

How do you write without being affected by all that noise? You have to ignore it. People will not like it and they won't always like what you write. But fame or no fame, everything changes you and it's your job to take it all as it comes and continue responding positively and inspiring the same. Everything is an opportunity to invest a little more.

Many people say “God, if you make me famous, I’ll use it for your glory” but if you really meant that would you want to be famous? I’ve told several authors I’d only take their book forward if they promised not to become a phony when the accolades came. Most have no trouble saying it, expecting few accolades. People who stand on truth are far from the danger of falling off their platform, big or little. I haven’t seen many dramatic changes in authors who went on to become famous in their genre or area of expertise because I tend to work with well-grounded people. No matter what you might get at some conferences and reading the trades, publishing books isn't much like American Idol.

I once read a great email from Dave Eggers whose postmodern memoir Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius went on to become a #1 bestseller for several months, and somewhat launched the "young po-mo memoir" publishing phenom (along with Augusten Burroughs, Haven Kimmel, Lauren Winner, Don Miller, several others). Eggers denounced the perception that fame had made him a phony, contesting he didn't much care if people thought he'd sold out. Because look what he was able to do with it, much more good than he'd ever been able to before. I think that's something. How does a kid with his story end up with that truth–that giving to others for a higher purpose is the real focus and worrying about selling out is so juvenile and self-conscious?

I've always been a myopic kid, so concerned about "selling out." But once I saw how adolescent it really was, I decided to be done with it. The right question is, "Am I selling out right now to the idea of changing things for the better?" Because that's entirely up to you. I’ve had a half dose of fame since growing up in a fishbowl as a pastor's kid, possibly to inoculate me and convince me it's a necessary evil and certainly not something to strive for.

You may think you'd like fame, but believe me, sane people don't like it. You think it'd be so nice being known, being of interest. But fame is never really being "known." What people know, they want it from you, and many act as though they have a right to claim it. They don't, but when you're famous, you don't get to decide that. I grew up the oldest son of the senior pastor at a growing church. I was known in that little circle in our small town, so even becoming a book editor took me time to embrace. I still don't enjoy the attention I sometimes face. People come with all kinds of expectations that feel very similar to being told I had to perform perfectly to set a good example, and that this was God's plan for me, to do good things so others would. Then God would be happy. I never knew if what I was doing was enough or good enough, and most the time, I fought the desire to secretly rebel just to get the voices out and deny their access.

In my limited experience, the more people you encounter, the harder it becomes to hear God.

The struggle is good and worthwhile, but my portion of fame has taught me that the challenge is only an opportunity when I'm striving very hard against it to hold onto resting in God. Will you become a phony? Or are you sold out to changing things for the better?

People who become phony are people who don’t know themselves. They want to present an image and fit in because they lack assurance about who they really are. Most of us know this on some level, but plenty of folks–self-proclaimed Christians–self-promote like crazy, as though becoming famous may finally convince them they're lovable and finally overwhelm their fragile egos with sufficient evidence that they're good enough and smart enough for people to like, doggone it. And some become crazy, attention-grabbing loud mouths.

Listen: when there’s no misunderstanding about where our identity is secured, that doesn't happen. On the other hand, if there’s a in you wanting to be liked, affirmed, comforted by a surrogate daddy, you will smell desperate. And it's a bad cologne. Writers conferences usually reek with it, people desperate to be published. It’s hard to miss. But the real phonies are those with an entourage. They have handlers and no real ability to write. The book is their next chance to be a star and pop the panacea to keep the affirmation fixes coming, the endless fixes that haven’t quite fixed them. Regular folk don't have to worry much about becoming a vampire like them.

My best advice for those worried about self-promotion is to get with your maker right now. Do some soul work and ask the omniscient Creator to point out any place where there’s still a desperation in you to be loved, affirmed, comforted or known. He'll show you and your eyes will be opened. Do the work he gives you. And forget everything else and just keep doing it. Give that to him and let him fill that void in you. You will find your peace and no substitute can look attractive when you have that.

And from there, you won’t have to shun the limelight, though you may want to. If you can use it as one more of his gifts for reconnecting with others, you may end up feeling his smile on you. Imagine his pride in you for investing wisely. Be realistic and don't expect it to be easy, invasive fans waiting to confront you about your sins, mobs of hungry faces looking for a morsel of your flesh, enemies who'd like a chance to stone you. Most people won't care. It normally takes a long time in publishing to gain people's attention. But some will care too much. And they'll hurt you with their hurts.

Remember your real goal is hearing those words: “Well done. Well done my wonderful son, my wonderful daughter of grace.”

Faith is a gift. It is not an ability to gain. It is not a commitment to muster. God supplies it to those who ask for it. So ask. And use your platform the same way you use all his gifts, to highlight the wonders you’ve been shown. To point others to the source. To turn their eager faces to the one who provided your eyes to see it. The ones who help you craft it. The supporters who readers need to know have helped and invested so they could receive it. The endless gifts given to make more and more opportunities to share his love.

As a good friend of mine likes to say, all is grace. And I've discovered it’s really true. All is grace. So what part of ALL do we not yet understand?

Free the Christian Book!

In a guest editorial for Christian Retailing, Mark Kuyper, President & CEO of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, shares how according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, 76% of Americans identify as Christian (50.9% claim to be Protestant). Another study shows 75% of the population reads books. Two-thirds say they read the Bible and "other religious works." Yet, according to Pubtrack Consumer, Christian books are only 4.7% of the market. Kuyper says, "the potential for … growth is staggering…."

His conclusion?

"Going through difficult times encourages us to innovate. Publishers and retailers all over our industry are rethinking how to do their work. Now is the time to actively and creatively develop new ideas and strategies to reach beyond our current customer base…"

Amen. A standing ovation for the thought. So what might these "new ideas and strategies" be? 

This week, I'd like to honor Mark's wonderful suggestion and ask for your ideas and strategies. The ECPA, the Christian Booksellers Association, even Christian Retailing, which according to their slogan, "serves the $4.6 billion Christian products industry" is eager to hear what we think we should do to grow the market for Christian books. So far, these new ideas are pretty scarce (one new suggestion comes from the CBA chairman: downsizing stores). And to be clear, Kuyper's article isn't necessarily agreeing with the original assumption that the Christian book is only intended for Christians. Yet though he does believe that The Purpose-Driven Life sold to more than just Christians, there's no denying that this simplistic Bible study broke out of CBA–the association of Christian book stores–to reach those who didn't need a safe shopping experience or assurance that their values were shared by the store-owner. Those who bought it at warehouse stores or online could have been nonChristians, but according to the data, if one in four American Christians bought the book, all copies would be accounted for. And given the number of churches who ran 40-Days-of-Purpose campaigns, I think that may be pretty close to accurate (Barna says over half the US population attends church at least once a month).

I'm happy Mark's joined me in what I've been saying for a while now: we need a new strategy. The Christian book industry has taken up the challenge too, so where should we start? I'd like to suggest we start at the beginning–at our guiding principles. I believe our problem comes down to this: not enough of us really believe what we say we do. And that's nothing new. How many of us really practice the Great Commission every day? How many of us break the first and second commandment often? But what about the Golden Rule? Most of us at least do to others what we'd like done to us, right?

Not when it comes to Christian book buyers (I mean buyers of Christian books). Would you like others to treat you as an outsider and say what kind of books you should be allowed to read and where you can get them? No! That's why CBA was initially formed in the 50s, when Christian books were being denied shelf space at secular bookstores. But what about today–with the largest segment of the Christian book industry owned by secular houses and Amazon carrying everything as cheap as it can get? Now the tables are turned and some Christian book buyers find their "seeker" books banned in Christian stores, and by association, themselves untolerated. The challenge to think up new ideas and strategies for expanding the customer base is all well and good when we're talking about reaching Christian buyers of Christian books. But everyone else? They're just not who we serve.

Of course, I'm not necessarily saying there's a problem with this. I suppose it might fly: "Sorry, Lord. I tried to do what you asked, as long as it didn't offend my existing customer base. Christian books just don't reach anyone but Christians."

Guilt-trips aside, since tough times are ripe times, I'd like to offer up the first admittedly-simple-minded suggestion for one of these new strategies: stop thinking of books or stores or customers as Christian vs. non. After all, we're all just reaching out of the same gutter. And in place of those categories, think of how your next act will share love and reach someone God misses. Sure it might not be as nice and neatly compartmentalized, and make it harder to thin-slice the market into subcategories. But if we really have a higher organizing principle, let's apply it to deconstructing this idea of insiders and outsiders and replace it with the idea of all of us looking to get out of the same old dirty box.

And maybe, when we're all unworthy-yet-adored, and O-thank-you-God reachable, we'll just happen to find that transcendent books can in fact sell, for the very reason that they also transcend bariers.