Tag Archives: spiritual books

The Writer’s Cross: Why Writers Need Community

It’s a crazy dark day, the kind we get in Portland in the winter where you have to keep the lights on in the house all day because of the thick gray haze blanketing the world.

It can get into your skin.

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So on this rainy day, I’m pondering about musings. And about how most things in life come down to who you are. What you do with the things life hands you.

Have you noticed?

Take this very post. This way of expressing it. It’s all learned, or more accurately, cobbled together—the language, the choppy sentence structure, the straightforward, hopeful-yet-artfully-detached tone that hopes you’ll read but not presume I care too much. It’s all been stitched into the patchwork I call my writing voice. And I’m just trying to use all I have.

Sure you’ve noticed: it’s those who seem to be using all they have in life that inspire us to be more, to do more. I’m no different. I’ve been impressed by those responding at full tilt to the impulses we recognize and feel but don’t always express so freely and fluently.

This is why a lot of us get into writing. Which is great and perfectly reasonable and good. I think the Inspirer takes what he can get.

But it isn’t long after getting “the call” a writer begins to realize what they’re in for.

And things start to get dark.

Waking Up Dead

Maybe the realization hits them the first night they stay up too late, the blackness outside turning a bluer tinge as they clack away on the keys, inspiration burning off all sense of time and space between them and the inner flash of light.

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They’re a bit nervous at first, but too excited to notice. That is until the kids get up and have to eat and be driven to school before the forty-seven-thousandth trip to the office where the day will really get underway. And the sharpness of the revelation will dissipate in a sour cup of weak coffee, and nodding off in the meeting, and the bothersome business of shuffling around with the other mortals assigned their related cases of self-imposed misery, equally ignorant that they’re the cause of their own lethargy and atrophy.

Scared? The word doesn’t begin to describe it.

How, they think. How am I going to get out of this hole I’m in? They look around at the papers and small office items and think about it—the big leap they know is coming. I should be more grateful to have a job, they think. But last night happened. And now it’s only too obvious they’re no longer their own.

Some voice has woken them up and the memory of it won’t let them go back to sleep.

So what do they do? What should a fresh-faced writer do when they realize they can’t deny the truth any longer? How will they find the strength and courage to commit to the work that will slurp up their margin time, not to mention their family time and sleep time as well?

How do writers remain faithful to the vision they were given?

The Persistent Question

I’ve thought long and hard about this question. As a kid in high-school, I thought the best thing to do was find a mentor, someone who could help me learn to speak the words I felt so strongly, so overpoweringly. My own call came sometime in my sophomore year, though it would be many years before I took it seriously enough to write anything real. In college, I thought books and knowledge would teach me the secret to writing longevity. I figured the books were themselves how other writers had stayed the course, the force of their singular brilliance compelling existence out of finite inevitability.

Like Gallagher.

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When I became an editor for WaterBrook of Random House, I hoped an intense publishing job would force diamonds out as I navigated acquisitions and profit and loss statements, and slush piles and pitches to the execs in the big boardroom.

And each step helped. But none brought what I needed most.

It wasn’t until breaking down again for the forty-seven-thousandth time that I realized what I was missing. What I’d always been missing. It wasn’t an unusual feeling, this ache of emptiness inside. I’d always attributed it to what Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I figured it was an inevitable burden, something given by God for me to carry. My writer’s cross.

But this time, crying out to God, I felt the slightest shift. I felt it change. It was something I knew as head knowledge but had never felt, like so much of my life in church I’d experienced through frosted glass windows, unaffected, unmoved. Something pierced my heart and I heard: This is what it feels like to be a writer alone.

And in my typical fashion, I resisted it. I protested. No, this isn’t that bad. People are suffering way worse than this feeling. What about those on the street or those trapped in sex slavery or the abandoned orphans who grow up never knowing a parents’ love? They’re far worse off.

And as usual God didn’t argue with me. But the feeling remained.

It felt like a kind of death. A knowledge of being cut off and nothing you can do about it. It’s a familiar feeling—we’re all ultimately alone and no one stops living for our death. It all goes on without us. But writers struggle to go places others don’t or haven’t yet, places others shun.

And this is why I believe the thing we writers need most is people. People who, like us, go to places others don’t. The places we’re compelled to go even when we don’t know why.

 

Carriers of Our Cross

We need the people who won’t ask questions. People who will simply nod, knowing it won’t be easy. But not people to try and talk us out of going.

People for whom such a thing would never enter their minds.

People who know we have to go. People who will carry us when we can’t get there ourselves.

Samwise knew.

There are some people who know something important lies that way, something not unnecessary, something difficult to define but no less real and terrifying. People who know no one can go for us. And we can’t go another way because the road is this way.

And we need these people because the normal, sane people, the people who value things like security and stability and maintaining a respectful distance from the unanswerable questions of life, they know we’ve got it all wrong. And they like telling us we should believe that more. It’s in their eyes if not their words.

They’d have us revoke our allegiances and accept the forced servitude and live safe behind the glass. They’d have us recant and abandon the cause, and give up the fight because isn’t it nicer just to live and accept the easier way? But we were born to write. 

We can argue all day if their way is the way of Jesus, the meek way of receiving the moderate blessings of a simple, quiet life. But if somebody says you can’t do something what are they saying but to squash God’s dream for you?

Maybe it’s them who don’t get it. Maybe for us, the way of Jesus is the way of the cross.

And without the community of like-minded explorers to pick us up when we stumble, to wipe our brows and understand our cause if not our destination, we would not make it.

The friends who’ll give up time, money, prestige and sleep so we can seek this strange, exciting adventure, these are the people who protect the dream and make new books live. And we owe them far more than we can ever repay.

Life, jobs, others will tell us to turn from this way. They say it’s not worth it.

But we will not turn. We are writers. We go the way others will not. And we will meet our fate together.

Have you thanked your community today?

 

Middle Ground Marketing

Ghandi2  How do we get past the separatism in today’s book market? How do we invite readers to consider the created beauty of life? Defeating current market restrictions requires books that go to the middle ground, that show and/or talk about God and the world, about Jesus and fallen man. And the middle ground for these books that don’t fit the Jesus-sanitized ABA or the fallen-man-sanitized CBA is emerging. So how do we find it and become a part of it?

 

So the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at how to find it and become a part of it here, here, and here. These books are different. They go to people seeking to unify their lives in a full body-mind-spirit experience, who reject leaglism, hypocrisy, and prejudice, and aspire to live beyond categories that blind people, to make responsible choices to further those goals.

 

Middle ground authors are different too. They don’t promote agendas. They promote simple values like those described above. They don’t do phony. Authentic writing pours from their authentic living. “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” Duplicity and negativism crush joy. And joy is their point.

 

This is the cresting wave of middle ground publishing to the spiritually curious, those interested and interesting people. “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” So when these authors promote their writing, a spiritually-interested “marketing plan” certainly looks different. There’s a pared-down quality, a simplicity that attempts to conjure that other other all-important city, authenticity. If authors don’t live there in spiritually-interested publishing, they end up in Falacity (Feel free to leave your favorite Bushisms below.).

 

Manipulative marketing is contrived and ignorant. “The moment there is suspicion about a person's motives, everything he does becomes tainted.” And if there’s anything antithetical to middle ground books it’s manipulation. No God-respecting author can “spin” their work. It’s obvious when marketing becomes a con. Viral marketing can have no strategy, no manufacturing. Yes, YouTube killed the commercial and ads (or launch parties) for consumer products don’t work anymore unless the customer is specifically looking for that product. Many people are looking to be sold books, so author launch parties are a good idea. But without word-of-mouth, the book will still die. You can’t get a million readers without being talked about. And you'll soon fade if you aren't visibly real. 

 

A better way to see book marketing is as it is: a service. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” It’s not easy. But “unwearied ceaseless effort is the price that must be paid for turning faith into a rich infallible experience.” Your purpose in marketing must be the same as it is in writing: to offer an experience readers will want to live daily. Because the life-giving experience of your book comes from God and is God. “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” Both are about filling people with the word of life and celebrating God’s work in passing on your observations, insights, and the beauty you’ve witnessed. To help others see what you see.

 

“Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed. Always aim at purifying your thoughts and everything will be well.”

To believe in “selling” that message, your aim must be to connect, not sell. “We do not need to proselytise either by our speech or by our writing. We can only do so really with our lives. Let our lives be open books for all to study.” Do you love people? God does. If you struggle, try seeing with his eyes. A middle ground book or marketing campaign isn’t about converting readers, it’s about inspiring, encouraging, and reminding.

 

Is it possible to change people with a book? Of course. But there’s a common, cynical theory that says to sell well, spiritual books must give people what they want, pat them on the back, and not offer any deeper challenge. Tickle ears. Sure, some readers may be a lost cause, but “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” So here’s a challenge: if heresy is anything short of full gospel, then heretics are those who speak of God yet fail to inspire people to join His redemption orchestra. And in your quest for the middle ground, remember “pandering” to reveal words that cause people to change is very different than pandering to tickle ears. It’s taken me several years to realize that distinction, let alone put it into practice.

 

“All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take.”

 

Remember the true goal when you write and when you promote, and you’ll be fine.

 

(Quotes are from Mohandas Gandhi who Google reminds us earns 140 candles on his cake today.) (Also, in case you missed this other birthday, Guiness turned 250 recently.)

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.

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.