Dear Self-Published Christian Author
by Bart L. Denny, Ph.D., Th.M.
Dear Self-Published Christian Author,
I am rooting for you. I admire you. I have no doubt that you have a message that needs to be out there. I’m glad you think your book would look good on the shelves of the Christian bookstore for which I buy inventory. If we sell your book, you win and we win. So, I am writing to ask, as Tom Cruise’s character, Jerry Maguire, so famously pleads with his client, “Help me help you!”
I want to lovingly disabuse you of a few notions as I get rolling. The first one is that because you are local to the store, customers will automatically be interested in your book. I’m sorry, but they won’t. Not only that, but you have a lot of competition from other local, self-published authors and plenty of local authors that publish traditionally with the major Christian publishing houses. You must have at least some local notoriety—and a way to let people know your book is available locally at fine Christian bookstores.
Second is the idea that a good book will automatically sell. I wish that were true. Some fantastic books out there do not sell well. Even some (in my estimation) beautiful books published traditionally by the major Christian publishing houses do not sell very well. Most of us don’t have much fame or general notoriety, which doesn’t mean we can’t be successful writers. But I should warn you that if you don’t have some “platform,” some sort of name recognition, at least in your field of expertise, you will need to work hard to market yourself—maybe too hard, given the constraints on your time and money. Indeed, a bookstore, even as large as the one I am associated with, has very little ability to market a specific book. In short, don’t look to a bookstore to promote your book much outside the store’s four walls or maybe even on the store’s website. Even traditionally published authors often work very hard to market themselves. These are efforts beyond the publisher’s (who also faces resource constraints).
The next thing is a little awkward, but here goes: Your book may be good, but it’s probably not done yet. Your book isn’t ready for prime time. Most likely, it is insufficiently edited. And editing makes all the difference. I’m not talking simply about hiring a copy editor who polishes up your grammar or a proofreader who fixes the spelling mistakes we miss after staring at our writing forever. Your book needs that kind of editing, and you should make the investment necessary to ensure your book gets that sort of treatment before printing.
But it’s not enough editing. Outstanding books—and all traditionally published books—receive “developmental editing.” Developmental editing does not focus on writing mechanics; it looks at the big picture. Developmental editors understand the market and are involved early on when the book is still in the idea stage. They focus on the structure of the entire book. Even the few self-published books that have undergone sufficient copy editing and proofreading lack developmental editing. Self-published authors can hire developmental editors—and really should—but they are the most significant cost, by far, of self-publishing a book. It would be best if you were prepared to spend several thousand dollars for developmental editing. Sorry to break it to you.
They say you should never judge a book by its cover. Too bad everyone does. And I can tell a self-published book by its cover. Spend the money on a good cover artist, not just the cheapest artist on Fiverr.com who at least can do better than you. And look at the covers of traditionally published books in the same genre as your book—books published within the last few years, not the early 2000s or before. You’ve got to look professional—by today’s standards. The same goes for the interior. The interior layout of a book often belies self-publishing. Too many self-published books lack the quality of a traditionally-published book’s appearance—inside and out. They look amateurish. And, even if you’ve got the best content out there, people will always pass on a book that doesn’t look good—by today’s standards.
Another we need to talk about is how you’re distributing your book. Make sure your book is available through a large distributor serving booksellers—namely, Ingram, which serves the entire retail book industry. If you are printing and distributing through Amazon, that’s great. But I can’t get your book through that channel. Make sure you price your book reasonably. If you are a new or small-time author, you aren’t going to command the price that Max Lucado, Beth Moore, or Tony Evans can fetch. Sorry. Maybe someday.
Now that your book is available let’s talk about what I must pay for it. You must set your discount to retailers. Select Ingram’s standard, which is over 40 percent (I think 42% is the standard—and I can get better deals going straight to many publishers. Keep that in mind). In other words, if you’ve priced your book for $10 retail, I won’t pay more than $6 wholesale (preferably, I’ll pay less). If your book doesn’t sell, I need room to mark it down on sale without losing money. With Ingram (and, I suppose, other distributors), you also need to decide whether to make your book “returnable.” I can return unsold copies and get my money back—because, ultimately, if your book isn’t selling, it’s taking up shelf space that could be occupied by a book that might sell better. And yes, making your book returnable is another risk for you (not for the distributor). Hey, you want me to carry your book. I want you to make money. But more than that, I want to stay in business—and you’re unproven.
I want to talk about vanity Christian publishers like WestBow or Xulon Press, who market to the self-publisher. WestBow is part of HarperCollins and advertised as a division of Zondervan and Thomas Nelson—the big Christian imprints owned by HarperCollins. They’ll print your book—for a fee. If you want my honest opinion, they are not a good value for your money. Yes, they are probably less complicated than figuring everything out for yourself. But I think you can do better for less—and hire a developmental editor with the money saved.
I'm more familiar with WestBow than Xulon, but they seem similar. WestBow advertises that they will give your book an “editorial evaluation.” Whatever that is, it is certainly not the same as a developmental editor. They’ll format your book interior, which is helpful—but there are cheaper ways to do it (I’ll talk more about this later). WestBow does provide cover design services, although not much about their covers bowls me away. Again, I think you can do better less expensively. They’ll get you distributed on Amazon and Ingram, which is good—but nothing special. WestBow offers some marketing services, but you might find better value elsewhere—as with everything else they offer.
Finally, WestBow offers that Thomas Nelson and Zondervan will see your book for consideration for traditional publishing. Nelson and Zondervan do indeed pick up some WestBow titles for conventional publishing. However, there’s no evidence that the acceptance rates for the self-published titles are any better than for the slew of book proposals and unsolicited manuscripts they receive regularly. What’s more, as a retailer, I can order Thomas Nelson and Zondervan titles directly from Harper Collins—at a better discount than from a distributor like Ingram. Not so with WestBow, where I still have to go to a distributor.
So, if you want me to take on your self-published book (better yet if you want it to sell—period), you need to have quality as good as the big publishing houses can do. I don’t think this is out of your reach, however. If you want the best value—saving enough money over WestBow or Xulon to spring for a developmental editor—I recommend you look at IngramSpark. As I mentioned, Ingram is a major distributor, and they also print. And they have a great deal of training available for free to help you along the way. IngramSpark will help you get an ISBN and print your book (including print-on-demand, which keeps you from buying this immense stock of books that will sit in your garage unsold). Ingram will distribute your book—and get your ebook on Kindle, Nook, and others. They also recommend partners to help you with design (cover and interior), editing (including developmental editing), and marketing for your self-published book. You will have to manage more moving parts but get more for your money.
That said, your book still might not sell. The big publishing houses deal with this all of the time. But they publish enough good ones to make up for the turkeys (or they go out of business). You’re probably not operating under that model. I’m not trying to throw cold water on your dreams. Like I said, I want to see your Christian book succeed. But I think you should go into it with your eyes wide open--and do everything possible to not wind up with a garage full of unsold books.
If you manage your expectations, self-publishing your book could be a great experience!