Tag Archives: Christian books

Why All It Takes Is 5 Minutes

It may come as a shock, but I’m easily distractible.

It’s not something I’m proud of. Especially knowing how much my work depends on writers showing up and keeping up despite the battering hurricane of demands and requests that fly in through every open window.

It can grow dark quickly underneath the pile of debris atop the little flame of a writer’s voice.

To be seen and heard is always a fight.

Yet maybe being seen and heard doesn’t have to be the goal. Maybe sharing what’s been given you that day in the 5 minutes you have to share it, the flame will shine a little more, and the light will reach out into the dark it’s intended to reach.

Burn, little guy. Burn.
Burn, little guy. Burn.

I know from painful experience how selfish and pointless it can seem to spend much time in a private place that brings you and only you such joy. Especially if so many people depend on you. The responsibility and duty of “real life” can sap the love and light right from you and leave you dark and cold.

But if God’s love for us burns white hot, wouldn’t he want us to forget all else but the true “real life?”

That’s the premise of the novel I’ve been writing over 10 years about a young man who sells his soul for a chance to change his past. It’s been growing in me and growing with me for ages, waiting as I figured out what to do with it and how to write it. It’s grown and shaped me unlike any book ever has, and it’s still not done. But I’m going ahead and opening up about my process now because I can’t wait to share some of the jaw-dropping lessons it’s taught me as I’ve strived to show up between school, raising 2 kids and full-time editing books for publishers.

Jaw-dropping, I tell you!
Jaw-dropping, I tell you!

Some days it’s felt so pointless. But 5 minutes a day adds up. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to write a book this way. And maybe it isn’t–no one said it was good–but for years now, I’ve gotten up and for 5 minutes (which sometimes turned to 10 and 15), I’ve forgotten everything else and reveled in my dream world. It’s changed me, and it’s continuing to as I pull the disparate pieces together and learn to slowly fight back against the crush of too-great demands and urgent life, giving it the best I have, which often isn’t enough, but it doesn’t matter.

God is in it.

Unlike anything else, my book has shown God’s love to me. And I know it’s true because it’s been simple even when it could have and should have been mind-numbingly complex. In the end, I’ve believed the premise, that he wants me to forget everything else but that knowledge of his love. And in 5 minutes a day, I’ve found writing a book can teach you plenty about that.

Every day, I’m hopeful for what it’ll reveal next. If you know what I mean, give me a witness….

For the Higher Purpose,

Mick

The Spiritually-Interested Publishing Revolution

Christian publishing may be more recognized than ever. But that doesn’t mean anyone knows how to sell to the avowed-unaffiliated, spiritually-interested audience.

In fact, there’s strong evidence a big house can’t because more readers are moving “off the grid” every day. Someone said recently that a quiet cultural revolution is underway, especially in publishing—the anti-establishment sentiment seems to be at a fever pitch amongst certain readers and growing louder by the day.


Oh, you’ve noticed? That’s good. Because whether or not CBA survives its uncertain and awkward teen years (never threatening the reach of its big brother ABA, even in a good year), the association of Christian retailers and affiliated Christian suppliers is scrambling to keep up with the morphing and fracturing that’s shifted into high gear. The addition of viable self-publishing, new indy publishers, and a welcoming general market have all but destroyed the arguments that we need more acceptance of Christian books. And while the lingering effects of the recession are preventing many publishers from risking on new authors, there has never been so much opportunity for diverse messages in this industry.


Let the good times roll!


CBA gatekeepers and storeowners can continue to keep “seeker” books out of their stores all they want. Christian publishers can be wary. But those authors and houses who want to do more seeker-friendly books have plenty of ways to reach that broader audience. Outside CBA lies the open sea of the general market and the bottomless Internet. Is viral and guerilla marketing as effective as store placement, big ads, and catalog spreads? It’s hard to argue “No,” when talking about the spiritually-interested book. Spiritual forum discussions, videos, blog tours, downloadable bonus content, interactive web interviews, and other creative promotions are generating interest and sales. Traditional live events, media coverage, reporting, and book reviews, are morphing into online content through alternative news and spiritual websites like Salon.com, Beliefnet, and book clubs. And anecdotal evidence says more people are seeing an author’s self-promotion in regional independent ABA stores more often and faster than those going through the traditional grueling channels (targeting an agent to sell to a big house, re-shaping to fit standards, and hiring a publicist to get you into chain stores while hundreds of other books arrive with yours). Maybe for the first time, the odds of success in spiritually-interested publishing are shifting toward small and independent.

 

By the way, we know it’s been building for several years. These readers have always been a fairly …unusual breed…okay, nerdy nonconformists. Sure, they liked believing they could be accepted in the establishment in-crowd, when it was still new. But marketing has changed all that. The big houses now feel phony and old and sad trying to target the unaffiliated. So for authors, this means the vision you construct for convincing retailers to take your spiritually-themed book will be easier to pitch as unique and desireable (and money-making) for not being mainstream. Because here’s the sound-byte of the century: aligning with big mainstream publishing—general or Christian—can be a liability to spiritually-curious readers.

Plenty of people still like the establishment, including myself. But that doesn't change the fact that these are interesting times in publishing. Any case studies? Leave a comment and we'll discuss.

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.

Christian Products’ Industry Future is “Bleak”

Demonstrating once again the failure to distinguish between Christian products and Christian books, Christian Retailing reports that former marketing exec for Nelson and Zondervan, Greg Stielstra, foresees a bleak future for the Christian "products industry" (CR):

"Brick-and-mortar operations haven't lost all their business, but they've lost the business that will allow them to stay in business, whether they know it or not," says Stielstra.

Interviewed for World Magazine’s annual books issue (ironically releasing Independence Day, and just one week before the International Christian Retail Show), Stielstra says: "There's a lot of lip service to online retailing and to e-books, but there's still too much allegiance to old ways of doing business. Surges in Christian fiction, or in sub-niches, are just disguising the fundamental problems."

Stielstra adds that the music industry showed the way ahead for the book business. "It's no accident that it took a computer company–Apple–to figure out the new music model. They had nothing invested in the old model, nothing to protect."

(Incidentally, in the same upcoming issue, a World report highlights self-publishing as "the bright spot in a gloomy book-selling environment.")

Many thoughts ricocheting around my head over this, but one question stands out: Could it be that some Christians don't consider books just another product among the "miscellaneous retail" taking over Christian stores? Okay, another: Could it be that the Christian retail channel has focused too narrowly on certain segments of their potential market?Or maybe it's just that Wal-Mart or Amazon is cheaper.

The International Christian Retail Show changed its name from the Christian Bookseller's Convention recently after many years of books losing floor space to other products. Now books are also losing to a retail industry that sees no connection between their recent downturn and the surge in popularity of the "spiritual-but-not-religious" description of faith.

We can ignore or decry the situation all we want. But I wonder, 

Is there a connection between current rejection of establishment restrictions (about which the established powers–religious, corporate, and governing–are typically very concerned), and these entities' declining health?

Because whether YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are creating or following this social revolution, it doesn't seem many in the established powers (save Obama, maybe) are really paying much attention. 

Well, I haven't read the article yet. Maybe that's part of what Stielstra is saying about Christian retail. His coauthored book, Faith-Based Marketing probably deserves a fair read.

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.