Christian Message Writing: or Why I’m Uncomfortable With Marketing My Books

If it’s ok with you, I’m going to get a little bit introspective. Today’s post isn’t really a matter of advice or a how-to style explanation. It isn’t a list of 5 (or 7 or 9) steps you can take to do anything. It’s more of a question. How does a Christian nonfiction writer with a “message” book approach the problem of marketing?

Now at first, this seems like a bit of a silly question. I mean, it’s not like we can’t successfully market our books the same way everyone else does. We can go out there and do book promotions, blog tours, book signings, and event tie-ins. We could write press releases and try to get interviewed by local radio and newspaper outlets. But while that might work with a lot of writing (even a lot of Christian writing) it never really felt right when I tried to do any of those things for my own books. For a while I wasn’t really able to put my finger on why. But every time anyone (read: my BFF/SNOO) pushed me to develop a specific and actionable marketing plan, I found myself slamming on the brakes.

So after a year or two of doing virtually NO marketing for ANY of my books, I sat down and asked God what the deal was. Why was I so reluctant to do this? Was it just that I had an aversion to marketing in general? Was it something that I needed to get over?

The more I prayed about this subject, the clearer it became to me. I was avoiding marketing because I was inherently uncomfortable with the idea of “selling” the message of my books. I didn’t write these books because I wanted to become a published author. I mean, let’s be real – I absolutely wanted to become an author. I’ve wanted that since I was 8 or 9  years old. But that want never led me to write a book. And if success as an author was my main goal, I really should have picked a friendlier and more popular genre.

No, I wrote these books because I had a message on my heart for the people of God, and I wanted to share it with them. At the risk of sounding insanely self-important and pretentious, I’ll admit that I really believe the messages in these books are ones that God placed in my heart. I didn’t come up with them on my own. They aren’t my ideas. And because of that these books have become (in my heart, at least) much more a matter of ministry than business. I see them more as God’s work than my own.

No wonder I’ve struggled with the traditional marketing schemes that focus on “selling” the books as a product. They aren’t really my product to sell! In fact, even the idea of letting my friends and acquaintances buy these books from me has always bothered me. I’ve come to realize that while selling books is the easiest and most far-reaching way to spread these messages, it’s never really been about sales for me. It’s always been about getting the word out there to as many people as I can.

Now I know that this may sound a little crazy to most of you. But I have a feeling that for at least a few other Christian authors, this is going to ring true. So the next question that we have to ask ourselves is this: what do we do about it? How to we adapt our approach to marketing in order to adjust for our different perspective. How do we reach a broader audience without focusing on getting people to buy a product?

The answer (for me at any rate) is simple, Biblical, and effective. Start sowing seeds. 

What that means will be different for each of us, and that’s ok. This isn’t meant to be a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s a new way to look at marketing from a Biblical and ministerial perspective. All you have to do is look at your books as seeds that you are planting into people’s lives and ministries. The harvest that you hope to reap is a widespread understanding of the message that God has given you.

In the morning sow your seed,
And in the evening do not withhold your hand;
For you do not know which will prosper,
Either this or that,
Or whether both alike will be good (Ecclesiastes 11:6).

Start looking for opportunities to sow the seed of your message into people’s lives. Maybe that means giving away free copies of the book to local pastors and ministers who you think may benefit from reading it. Maybe it means taking advantage of Amazon’s KDP Select program so that you can “sell” your ebook for free for several days each quarter. Maybe it means carrying hard copies of your book around with you so that you are ready to give them to people who might benefit from reading them.

What do you guys think? How can you stop selling and start sowing? Leave a comment below 🙂

It’s Time to Take Marketing Seriously

I had a very honest conversation with my BFF/support-network-of-one the other day about marketing, or more specifically about how little I find myself motivated to market my books.

You see, when I first started writing My Brother’s Keeper I was mostly writing it for me, and (by extension) people like me. I didn’t really think that hard about how to appeal to an audience, because that wasn’t the point of the book. The point was that I had been learning about things that I felt needed to be shared. The book was the only outlet that I had to share them. When i first started writing, I didn’t even know if it would ever get published. I was never sure that any of my words would be seen outside of my personal circle. But I wrote it anyway. It was, in that regard, very much a passion project.

So when the book was eventually published, I had no real expectations about who would want to buy it, and was at a complete loss as to how to market it. I understood that the topic was not one that held mass-appeal. In fact, quite the opposite – I imagined that given the option most people in my general genre wouldn’t willingly choose to open it up and begin reading. How do you market to the general public when the general public doesn’t really want what you’re offering?

The short answer was that I didn’t. I spread it around among some of the “people like me” whom I know personally, and I let it exist on line for those who would take the trouble to find it. But beyond that I created only the most fundamental of online platforms in support of this book’s existence. Not surprisingly, I had very moderate successes in the first year – which is to say that I would happen upon an occasional “person like me” who liked my book and wanted to use it for teaching purposes with their church/small group/Bible study. That person would order the book in bulk. But beyond that, sales were essentially nonexistent.

So when the BFF/SNOO (see above) started quizzing me on why and how I would “take the next step” in marketing My Brother’s Keeper, I eventually admitted to her what I’d never said out loud to anyone else. “I don’t want to market this thing.” It just felt like too big an effort for too small a reward.

But then she reminded me that all of the generic marketing plans out there (you know, the ones that assume your book has mass appeal and therefore a widespread audience) were just that – generic. They were not hard-fast rules, or one-size-fits-all programs. They were guidelines and tips, some of which would apply to my book, and many of which were completely useless to me. The truth was that there were ways that I could put the book in the hands of the right people – people who, if they read it, would understand, agree with, and maybe even appreciate and want to use what I had written. I even knew who some of those right people were. Some of them would even know who I was if I were to mail them a copy.

So what was holding me back? Only the fact that I’d been too nervous to consider sending it to them. Which is, of course, nonsense. I wrote the book because I had something to share, after all. How could I now turn around and claim to be too scared to share it?

So this is my resolution. It’s time to start an actual marketing campaign. I am sending this book out (physical copies) to the people who I want to read it. I’m doing it this week. No more excuses, no more delays. It’s time to put it out there. Stay tuned to see what happens next.

It’s Not All About the Money

Just writing that title sent me into a bit of a spin … I can just imagine how much of a hornet’s nest I could potentially be shaking up with a statement like this. After all, most people who write and publish books do them with the intent to sell. And because of that, much of what is out there regarding success in publishing very often IS about the money. And that’s ok. There’s nothing wrong with publishing for money, and sales figures are a wonderful (and easy) marker of success.

But I think it’s important from time to time to remember that money isn’t the only reason a book (even a good book) can be published. It’s important to understand this, because if you aren’t publishing a piece specifically to make money off of it, that means sales figures are no longer the only (or even the most valid) measure of that book’s success, and that’s really the type of thing that you should really know ahead of time.

So here are just a few other reasons you might have for considering publishing:

Exposure: I’ve been reading a lot this week about passive marketing and something that stuck with me was the idea that one of the most effective ways to market your work is to produce more work. Having a backlist of books, even ones that are less commercially successful, can expose you to audiences that your “commercial” books might not otherwise reach.

A Gift: Imagine you have a ton of faithful readers, a growing blog following, or a sold core of super-fans. Sometimes the best way to say “thank you” to those supporters is to give them something special (in this case, an extra taste of your writing). Creating something special just for them may not be about commercial success at all. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be worth your while.

A Message: Sometimes there are things that you just need to say, books that seem to beg to be written. Writing those books and publishing may not always be about sales figures. Sometimes they’re just about reaching as large an audience as you can manage. And while sales are always a part of that, they may not be the driving force behind it. You may, for instance, decide that you don’t want to sell this kind of book at all – finding that you reach larger numbers of people setting your ebook to “free” on a permanent basis.

Fun: Let’s be real here – writing can be fun, and so can seeing that writing in print. There is nothing wrong with deciding that you want to publish something just “because”. Now this isn’t permission to publish junk. If you put it in print (and especially if you charge money for it) your work should be of the highest possible quality. But there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of the self-publishing market to create and publish something that may have no commercial audience whatsoever. It’s ok to publish just for fun.

Keep in mind that none of these reasons for publishing will disqualify you from making money. It’s always possible to find commercial success with a book, even if that wasn’t your original aim. The point of the post isn’t to say that money is bad. Rather, it’s to remind my fellow writers that it’s ok to give yourself permission to write and publish for reasons that aren’t financially driven.

Self-Publishing: A 6 Step Overview

It’s amazing to me to think how many people have asked me in recent months to tell them what I know about the self-publishing process. It’s just as amazing for me to realize that just a few years ago I was blissfully ignorant of all of this myself

I remember when I first started looking into the world of self-publishing. The sheer volume of information out there was overwhelming. So, in the hopes of sparing you a little of the tedium and confusion that I went through at the beginning, I’ll be using the next few posts to present a very basic overview of what self-publishing actually entails. Nothing I’m going to say here is new. You can find it a million times over on a thousand different blogs all over the web. But at least here you have a simple, real-world list of what you will need to do …

And just as a word of warning – this one is going to be long. I can’t help it – I’ve always been long winded, and there’s no getting around the sheer volume of information that you need to know, even in a simple overview.

So grab your coffee (or tea, or whatever you’re drinking to stay awake on this lovely Monday morning), and get comfy as I present The Six Steps To Self-Publishing (or whatever).

Step 1: You will need to write a manuscript

I assume that you know what that means. You may not, however, understand what it entails. To write a professional-level manuscript, one that will be taken seriously in a competitive market, you will probably need help. This means finding yourself an editor, or at the very least a proofreader (and no, your genius-mom or bookworm-friend won’t cut it, not unless that’s what they do for a living).

This is the “writing” part of the writing process, and it will take months of your life to see it through. The best advice I can give here is don’t rush it.  Work on it, and keep on working on it until it feels ready. Then let it stew for a few weeks and pull it out and work on it again.

Step 2: You will need to create a book interior

This is not the same thing as writing the book itself. It’s a whole different step. This is about turning the words in your word processor into something that looks like the finished product that you see on the shelves of your local bookstore. In other words, this is the step where you design the interior of your book.

This is when you will need to do things like create a copyright page and a table of contents. You will need to design the layout of the text within the pages, create running headers with page numbers, etc. This kind of design is an art form unto itself, and there are very specific standard practices that you will want to follow in order to make it look “right.” We’ll get into more of that in a later post, but if it’s the type of thing that sets the hair on the back of your neck prickling, this is another one of those steps where you might want to hire professional help (yes, there are professional-grade, freelance book designers out there who do nothing but make the pages in your book look pretty!)

Creating the interior of an e-book, on the other hand, is often a much simpler thing. E-books aren’t static products. The look of a page depends on what kind of file you’re reading and what you’re reading it from. Even things like font sizes aren’t etched in stone, so much of the “prettifying” that’s necessary in a paper book becomes moot when you create an ebook.

You won’t be creating headers or worrying about text layout. You will, however, need to make sure the correct front-matter (copyright info, etc.) is there, but then it’s just about formatting the file in a way that will work well with whatever e-book converter you are going to use.  Again, we’ll get into more of that some other day.

Step 3: you will need to create a cover.

A book cover needs to contain some basic information (the title author’s name, etc.). It needs to be attractive and compelling – which means it needs to follow some basic rules of graphic design. It should be easy to read (it is especially important that it remains readable at thumbnail size, since that’s how most people will be viewing it if they’re buying the book on line). It also needs to be simple and uncluttered. And finally, it should conform to the expectations of your readers.

What does that mean? That means that they should be able to tell, by looking at your cover, what kind of genre the book fits into. In other words, you shouldn’t put a cartoon unicorn on your memoir or a creepy photo of a swamp on your collection of humorous essays. You want your book to find the right readers, and your cover should confirm to them that this is the book they want to read. It shouldn’t confused or annoy them.

*** Cover design is another complex area where you might want to find a professional to hire. Keep in mind that book cover design is a specialty of its own within the larger “design” world, so you would benefit from hiring someone who’s familiar with the field.

Step 4: You will need to pick a printer

For self-publishers this normally means using a Print on Demand (POD) printing service. To use a POD service, you create a PDF of your book file, and then upload it into their system. Then, any time someone orders a copy of your book, they print a single copy. There are several services out there that are widely used, reliable, and relatively easy to navigate. I use createspace.com because they’re cheap and because they make it super-easy to get your books onto Amazon. Other good POD options include lightningsource.com and lulu.com

The other printing option available to you is called “Offset Printing.” This is the printing process that big publishers use. It’s high quality, and in large print runs it’s significantly cheaper than POD as well. The problem with Offset Printing (for the self-published author) is that you need to print many (think at least 1,000) books in one shot. Most of us can’t afford that, and unless you’re a public speaker, pastor of a large church, magazine editor, or someone else with a large sphere of influence and the expectation that you will definitely SELL all 1,000 of your books, it’s normally not worth the hassle.

Step 5: You will need to publish.

This is the point in the process where all the bits and pieces come together to make a book that people can find and read. If you are using a POD distributor, this is the easy step. Createspace (the POD printer I use) is so user-friendly that it’s almost impossible to screw up the process.

In order to publish you will need an ISBN. If you are using Createspace (or many other POD publishers) you can get a free ISBN from them. This means that Createspace (or whomever) will be listed as the publisher of record. That doesn’t hurt you in any way or take any of your rights away as the author and owner of the work.  So if you are planning on selling primarily on line or in person (aka – not through book stores) feel free to take advantage of the freebee.

In order to publish you will also need to pick the size and type of book you want to create. Of course, you have already figured this out during the design process (because otherwise how would you know what size the cover and the interior pages needed to be, right?) so it’s just a matter of selecting the appropriate option.

This is also the point where you will set your price, pick your genre, enter a description, etc.  But once you’ve walked your way through these steps (there are more, I’m just skipping over the less pertinent, mostly because they’re self -explanatory and somewhat idiot-proof) and uploaded your interior and cover files to the publisher, you can hit the pretty little “publish” button, and off your book goes to be made available for purchase! If you use Createspace, your book will automatically show up on Amazon in a few hours or days.

Step 6: You will need to market your book

I should probably have put this first, because marketing is one of those things that should be started months before your book goes live. You will need to know who your target readers are and develop a strategy on how to read them.

How do you reach them? It’s impossible for me to say, because so much depends on who they are. But it’s very important that you do reach them, because as good as your book may be, it’s never going to sell itself. It’s only going to find its audience if you get involved in the introduction process.