Self-Publishing: Vanity or Necessity?

by : Athena Dean

Over the last decade, I have watched Christian publishers shift their focus away from being “message minded" to being “dollar minded." Rather than Christian publishers setting the trends, they have chosen to follow those of the secular book publishing market (also known as the ABA or the American Booksellers Association). Since I’ve been involved in the publishing industry I’ve watched the general market focus more on publishing “celebrities" than authors with something important to say. Christian publishers as a whole have followed along with this mentality. Painful but true. Why is that? Because many Christian publishers have been bought out by secular conglomerates. The bottom line is no longer ministry but profits. A recent Writers Digest article sadly portrayed the state of Christian publishing as well as secular.

Brian DeFiori, former editor in chief of Hyperion Books, said, “Every publisher focuses on one or two books. We have room for the 10 million-copy novel everyone’s heard about, but everything else flies under the radar."
Writers Digest, January 2006
“The State of the Industry"

Because of the current state of the market, more and more writers are investigating their options for alternative ways of getting into print, out of necessity. Here are six simple reasons why self-publishing is fast becoming the obvious choice for many Christians who have a message to share but are not “big name" enough to attract a traditional publisher.

1) Guaranteed publication. The truth is you may not have any other option for getting your book into print.

2) More profit. On my first experience with self-publishing, almost twenty years ago, the ministry I worked with self-published 10,000 copies of a 144-page book. The profit to the ministry for the sale of those 10,000 copies was approximately $40,000. When Multnomah picked up the rights, over an eight year period, they sold another 40,000 copies. How much did the ministry make in royalties and personal sales from those 40,000 copies? Only $21,000. You do the math, and it’s easy to see that if you have a market for your book and it sells well, it is much more profitable to self-publish.

3) Create a track record for your book. In sixteen years, we have had many authors who have proven the market for their book. They’ve self-published their book, sold out their initial printing of 5,000 or 10,000 copies, and been picked up by a traditional publisher.
4) Retain control. Many authors choose self-publishing because their message is hard hitting, controversial, or cutting edge, and they do not want to risk that a traditional publisher might “water down" the message. When you sell your manuscript to a traditional publisher, you no longer retain editorial rights or control. When you self-publish, you stay in the driver’s seat. I can’t tell you how many authors I know who were disappointed with the editorial changes that were made in their manuscript when they went the traditional route.

5) Turnaround time. With a royalty publisher, the typical time it takes from signing the contract to publication is eighteen to twenty-four months or more. With self-publishing you can have a quality book in print in as little as three to six months. This can certainly be important if your message is timely or current events might help boost sales for your book. Carol Vandesteeg wrote a book called When Duty Calls for family members of active duty military who are being deployed. The book was in print by August 15, 2001, just six months from the time she turned the manuscript in, and just three weeks before 9/11. Because of the timeliness of her message, she sold over 25,000 copies and ended up getting picked up by Cook Communications. If she had tried to get a traditional publisher, she would have missed that window of opportunity.

6) Establish or expand your speaking ministry. As I participate on Editor’s panels at Christian writers’ conferences across the country, I constantly hear editors say that unless you have a platform, a following, a successful speaking ministry, then chances are slim that they would be interested in taking a risk on an unknown author. However, in order to establish a platform or speaking ministry with any measure of credibility, you must be a published author.
New alternatives like print on demand enable you to get into print, without a large financial risk, and thereby establish or expand your platform and prove the market for your message.

The important thing to keep in mind is that excellence is the key to a successful self-publishing project. The last thing you want to do is look self-published, so working with a professional in the self-publishing process is of utmost importance. Sally Stuart made the following comment which punctuates my point:

Although the stigma attached to self-published books is blurring, it is still true that in order for such a book to get equal attention, it must also maintain the highest quality of workmanship.
“Sally Stuart’s Market Update,"
The Christian Communicator, Nov/Dec 2001

There are many pitfalls in the road of self-publishing. That’s why I always advise working with a professional custom publisher, one that is recommended by Sally Stuart in the Christian Writers Market Guide.

So, is self publishing really vanity publishing? Not any more!

“The general, prevailing theory used to be that if you self-published, it was because you couldn’t find a publisher—it was vanity publishing," says Rick Wolff, an executive editor at Warner Books. “That’s changed dramatically"
Writers Digest, January 2006
“The State of the Industry"