Religion, Christian, and Spiritual Books
In an economy of rapidly changing technologies, it is no longer accurate to make a strict distinction between so-called “traditional” publishing and self-publishing options. In the area of religion and spirituality, the preference between traditional and self-publishing is fluid.
At one end of the spectrum, some successful writers self-publish their books by themselves or with the help of other publishing entrepreneurs (who may provide marketing, book design, legal counsel, and other pertinent services). In the Christian market, Adam Hogue has published prolifically by this route with highly profitable sales.
Other writers who self-publish exclusively (and sometimes style themselves “authorpreneurs”) are profiled in Write and Grow Rich: Secrets of Successful Authors and Publishers (Exclusive Tips from Publishing Experts), by Alinka Rutkowska, Adam Hogue, et al.
Though several years old, this resource for self-publishing remains useful by way of overview: The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, Fourth Edition – Everything You Need to Know About the Costs, Contracts, and Process of Self-Publishing, by Mark Levine. (See the note at the end of this article for a couple of other useful links regarding self-publishing.)
At the other end of the spectrum, academic scholars of religion rarely self-publish. Academic presses (such as Oxford University Press and many others) will grant a book contract on the merits of a book proposal in conjunction with factors like one’s professional status, institutional affiliation, and scholarly reputation. In turn, to self-publish can backfire since it may seem to violate protocol (depending on the institution and one’s specialized expertise).
Between these two extremes, there exist multiple publishing options for writers, depending upon one’s goals. An author (known or unknown) may choose to self-publish as an end in itself or as a means for landing a book contract. Once the sales and popularity of the book are proved, a mainstream publisher may take notice and offer to take over. Established publishers can often provide international distribution and sophisticated marketing campaigns (like media appearances and book tours) that exceed the capacity of self-publishing operations.
Christian Book Publishing
In the Christian niche, The Shack (by William P. Young) began as a self-published work. The Hatchette Book Group now publishes this bestselling novel.
In the broader spirituality market, James Redfield’s Celestine Prophecy, a cult classic from the 1990s, got launched by self-publishing before being picked up by Warner Books in 1994.
Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life was originally self-published.
The Self-Help Niche
In the self-help and spirituality field, more recently, Jake Ducey self-published his memoir, Into the Wind: My Six-Month Journey Wandering the World for Life’s Purpose. Thanks to its sales and popularity, Ducey now publishes with the Penguin Group.
Marketing: A Case Study
An instructive case study for publishing success in Christianity is offered by Malcolm Gladwell in his New Yorker article, “The Cellular Church: How Rick Warren’s congregation grew” (Letter from Saddleback; September 12, 2005). As Gladwell discusses, a successful book in the genre of “Christian Living” may sell thirty or forty thousand books per year.
Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? had sold twenty-three million copies three years after its publication, making it “among the best-selling nonfiction hardcover books in American history.” Warren relied on extensive church networks of small groups, both domestically and overseas, in order to publicize and distribute his book. Church-building and book-selling prospered simultaneously and cooperatively.
Independent and Specialized Presses
Smaller presses constitute a third way, beyond the alternative between traditional publishing and self-publishing options. In the area of religion, a variety of independent publishing houses exist, which can be hospitable to new authors. Services vary in quantity and quality. (See below for a representative sample of publishing houses.)
One ought to research, in each case, the specifics of their publishing contracts. Some publishers offer only very limited marketing and editorial services, for instance; others may have small budgets for distribution.
Biblical and Christian Studies
The niche area of biblical and Christian studies maintains a fairly cohesive network. (See the Christian Writers Market Guide – 2018 Edition.) One may query presses without an agent. An author may sometimes land a book contract based on the specialized content of one’s manuscript if it serves a well-defined audience and demographic. Catholic presses (like Ignatius Press or Liturgical Press) and Jewish presses (like the Jewish Publication Society), likewise, publish books with appropriate subject matter. Note that these specialized publishing houses do not always restrict their purview and clientele; they may solicit books on inter-religious and interdisciplinary topics.
Special Interest Presses
Other such special interest presses, in the field of religion and spirituality, include Non-Duality Press (which is eclectic) and Shambhala (which is primarily Buddhist). Various denomination-owned presses appeal to a mainline Christian audience. Skinner House Books is run by the Unitarian Universalist Association, and Church Publishing Incorporated by the Episcopalians.
Publishers of Christian and Spiritual Books
The larger Christian publishers, like Zondervan or Baker Publishing Group, will accept unsolicited manuscripts only in limited domains. Otherwise, a literary agent or the equivalent is required. In the larger arena of popular spirituality, publishers like Hay House, which publishes “self help, inspirational and transformational books and products,” will not often take an author seriously unless he or she has garnered a sufficiently large following, already, whether through social media, by entrepreneurial means (e.g., workshops, classes, and webinars), or thanks to one’s celebrity or professional status.
New World Library has published hits like The Power of Now and Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualization. Eckhart Tolle had no reputation to speak of when he rose to the top of the spirituality marketplace with a rocket-like immediacy. Yet, such stars are the exception, and generally a variety of factors (including professional status and social media presence) play into the likelihood of publishing in the area of spirituality. It is granted, here, that the quality and content of the manuscript itself, in terms of craftsmanship and research, are fundamental and the sine qua non for all publishing success. Sounds True is another mid-size press that specializes in spirituality and related areas.
Hay House has a paid or self-publishing option (called Balboa Press) which remains competitive for authors. (“We’re a self-publishing company focused on self-help books with a positive message.”) Another publishing enterprise that offers a paid option for writers (sometimes called “subsidy publishing”) is Dove Christian Publishers. Many new publishing enterprises are cropping up. Coaches and entrepreneurs offering programs for authors sometimes have their own in-house editorial or publishing services.
Corporate Publishing Houses
Larger publishing houses, like Penguin Random House or Simon and Schuster, almost always require that authors be represented by literary agents. Note that these brand names are the umbrella for multiple imprints. Thus, it is crucial that authors learn to find and query appropriate literary agents. If a book proposal is invited, one ought to learn the proper format and have the document vetted by an editor and other professionals.
Editing is Indispensable
To get a sense of the self-publishing market, in the area of spirituality and religion, take a look at relevant articles from Publishers Weekly, such as this one: July Religion Bestsellers: Self-Published Authors Take Over, Wanda Brunstetter Stays #1.
The Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing page offers useful instructions for self-publishing. This page gives tips for choosing titles and keywords that fit within specific sub-categories of the religion and spirituality field.