Mistakes Publishers Have Learned the Hard Way

– by Vinita Wright 2018

The publisher and author cannot tell a reader what she needs.

The reader knows already what she feels that she needs. She sees her need in a certain way, and she uses her own words to name the need. Unless the publisher and author provide material that uses that vocabulary and agrees with how the reader feels, they will not connect to that reader.

For instance, the reader says, “I need to experience God’s joy more in my daily life.” How does an author and publisher translate this?

  •       What does the reader mean by “experience God’s joy more”? That she wants to feel joyful all the time? That she wants to be rid of doubts, disappointments, discouragement? Does she want her daily life to feel more like she feels when she’s at church on Sunday?
  •       The author must dig deeper, to the various issues fueling the reader’s desire.
  •       Perhaps she thinks that a person who walks closely with God never experiences doubts, disappointments, and discouragement.
  •       Perhaps she thinks that home life should be more like church life, and so she is gradually rejecting the gritty details of the typical day at home, believing that they shouldn’t be that important.
  •       Perhaps she believes that God is blessing her only when she feels joy.

The author needs to respect how the reader expresses her need. The book should, indeed, commit to helping the reader experience God’s joy more in daily life. However, in unpacking this topic, the author will open such questions as

  •       What is God’s joy? How is it different from happiness? Is it mostly emotional, or, if not, what else is involved?
  •       Which characters in Scripture experienced God’s joy? Did they experience all the time? What else did they go through? How did they come to view joy, God’s presence, God’s blessing?
  •       What is involved in experiencing God’s joy? Where do forgiveness, honesty, humility, and openness fit in?

The larger the marketing focus, the harder the sale.

A book that tries to reach too broad a market will likely not reach the specific market it fits best. “This book is for people who want to enhance their prayer life” is not a narrow enough focus to find its market. The book will get lost among the thousands of books on prayer. Major book buyers will pass it over because it is not unique. “This book offers seven specific practices to help the young professional pray throughout a typical busy day” will have a much better chance.

Blog posts, sermons, journal entries, popular speeches/presentations, and collections of articles do not translate automatically into sellable books.

If the author is already famous, then he or she can publish all sorts of material and it will sell. But if the author is not among the handful of famous people . . .

  •       She cannot expect to publish a book of her most popular blog posts and sell it successfully. Why would people pay money for material they get for free on your site?
  •       Sermons are presented in person and orally; most excellent sermons do not translate well to the written page.
  •       Journal entries were created privately for the good of the person writing them. This material must be reworked to be helpful to other people.
  •       Popular speeches and presentations are also in-person, which is why they are so well received; like sermons, they usually do not translate well to the written page.

Trends are just that.

  •    Anyone who claims to understand current trends and where they are headed suffers delusions of omniscience. Publishers can do more than put forth their best guesses. Furthermore, a trend today can change in months or weeks, and most book publishers require nearly a year to produce a book, so they are always a few steps behind.
  •    Effective publishers understand that a trend is always a current expression of a fundamental need. If we address those fundamental needs, we will find the readers. If we dress up those needs too much in today’s phrases and philosophies, our books will become outdated quickly.

Very, very few books become bestsellers.

  •    If we base our budgets on the expectation that every book will not only pay for itself but make a fine profit, then our spreadsheets will disappoint and demoralize us year after year.
  •    The market will bear only so many bestsellers across each category. This is true regardless of the quality of many other books that do not become bestsellers.
  •    An effective publisher plans for one or two books in a season to do very well, for most books to do reasonably well, and for a (we hope) very small percentage of books never to pay for themselves. Many religious publishers produce what we call “mission” books: books that we know will not have high sales but that serve our core mission.
  •    Effective publishers plan for most of their books to sell for a long time and steadily. We don’t expect everything to sell high right away but try to ensure that most of our books continue to sell for years. This is what is called “the long tail”—the book that is a success because of its longevity. This is also called a strong backlist.