The Secular Problem in Christian Publishing

A pastor asked me to write a book about the experience she had with adoption. I thought she had a unique story with a jaw dropping ending. When writing friends concurred, I attended a writing conference with the hope of obtaining the coveted ten minutes with an agent to pitch my book idea.

Agents are the hot item at conferences. They attend looking for manuscripts to sell. Writers attend hoping an agent will sign them as a client and their dream of being a published author will come true. That makes personal consults difficult to obtain.

The conference had advised those seeking a consult to arrive early promising the sign-up sheet to meet with the agent would be on the registration table.  I arrived early. No sign-up sheet. The people at the table said Mary had it. “Who is Mary and where is she?” They did not know. I spent the rest of the morning looking for the elusive Mary. I did learn she was the daughter of the people who ran the conference but no one knew where to find her.

I stopped attending conferences when they became little more than new faces giving the same information. Pitching a book idea was my only reason for attending. The prospects of getting my name on the list were none, so a friend and I went to a publisher’s workshop. As soon as we sat down one of the conference leaders entered with bad news. The publisher had car problems on the way to the conference. The workshop was canceled.

About ten of us remained to wait for the next workshop which would be with the agent I could not get a consult with. My friend and I found a better seat in the front. A few minutes later, a woman stuck her head in the door and said, “Mary is in the cafeteria. She has two spots left with the agent.” Everyone stood and ran out the door except my friend and me. The idea of trying to outrun my fellow Christians like we were headed for a black Friday special did not appeal to us.

A few minutes later, the agent I could not get a consult with walked in the room to set up his workshop. Instead of ten minutes with the agent, I had a forty-five minute conversation, and received an education in the current state of Christian traditional publishing. 

Without hearing the pitch the agent wasn’t interested because adoption stories were not selling. Christian publishing is motivated by money just like secular publishing. They argue that they are a business and the purpose of a business is to make money.  I agree. The purpose of a business is to make money.

Based on Jesus declaration

“No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”

Matthew 6:24, NIV

If money governs every decision they should remove the word Christian and be what they are–a secular business. If we pursue God’s will in business decisions God is able to make a book sell whether the subject is currently trending or not.

  After turning down my idea he explained his dilemma. On a recent visit with a publisher to pitch a manuscript the publisher did not look at the manuscript. He tossed it on the table and said, “Who is that and why should I care?” Clearly, the message in the manuscript was secondary to the publisher’s ability to profit. The agent may be sincere in his devotion to God, but he still has to deal with an industry motivated by money. 

The publisher also has a dilemma. Most books by new and unknown authors fail to sell enough copies for the publisher to recoup the cost of producing the book. In a quest to remain solvent as a publisher they look for people with a large following because name recognition will sell the book. It does not matter if the person can write or not. The publisher has ghost writers and editors who can fix manuscripts. That is one reason it is very difficult to acquire an agent to represent you and even harder for the agent to sell your work unless you have a history that your work will sell.

The revelation about the secular state of Christian publishing made me wonder why he was at one of the cheapest conferences in the nation listening to book ideas from people who are not famous. The adoption story never became a book. It became something better. I condensed it into a 1500 word short story and sold it to Cook Publishing. They used the story in their Sunday School Curriculum, which exposed the pastor’s message to a quarter million people. It’s highly unlikely she would have sold that many books.

Traditional publishing will welcome you if you are successful. A local journalist self-published a collection of articles he wrote about Katrina. After he sold 60,000 copies a traditional publisher wanted to buy his book. It wasn’t his to sell. The articles he published belonged to the newspaper. They gave him permission to self-publish the book. When a traditional publisher came knocking their attorneys took over the negotiations. The journalist walked away with enough money to buy a new car, but the book and royalties belonged to the newspaper. 

You can be successful without traditional publishing. A friend invested $10,000 in self-publishing her children’s book. The last time I talked to her, she had sold more than 7,000 books. Enough to recoup her investment and make a nice profit.  Traditional publishing considers you a success if you sell 5,000 books. She became a success without them.

Another author friend signed a contract with a Print On Demand publisher that promised to refund her $4,000 investment for using their marketing department if she sold 5,000 books. She sold 5,000 books at book signings, festivals and conferences. Her publisher reimbursed her investment and published her future books free. Apparently, too many of their authors passed the 5,000 threshold. The publisher changed their contract to include only books sold by bookstores. That small change made it impossible for new authors to recoup their investment. Bookstores do not stock books by self-published authors unless it’s on consignment. That meant the bookstore did not buy the authors books from the publisher. And the books were not counted as sold by a bookstore. That publisher advertised itself as a friend to new authors who did not charge authors to publish their books. They might have started with good intention, but they didn’t end well. The business failed. People went to jail.

My experience in Christian publishing has exposed they operate like secular a business devoted to making money. But one person’s experience should never be applied to all. I believe Christian publishers devoted to spreading God’s message exist. If you find one, please let me know.

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