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The Coming Catholic Book Revolution

March 6, AD 2012 17 Comments

It’s common wisdom that people who self-publish books are hacks that couldn’t write well enough to get published by a real publisher.

I’m one of those hacks.

And I’m going to tell you why this wisdom, which used to be fairly accurate, is now mostly wrong, and how you can now get your writing out to throngs of people like never before.

The Old Way of Publishing

A writer writes something, then shops it around to publishers. One of them bites, works with the author to hammer out a workable book idea, then edits it with the author and publishes the book. The publisher is indispensable because 1) they print the physical books, 2) they market them, and 3) they have the relationships and clout with the bookstores to get the book in front of customers.

This paradigm is being fundamentally changed as we speak by the e-book revolution, social media, and Amazon, the digital monster.

The New Alternative

A writer writes something. Publishers reject it. Writer self-publishes and sells thousands of books anyways.

Sound unlikely? I thought so too, but this is exactly what happened to me and my book.

The publisher can now be bypassed because 1) print-on-demand services like CreateSpace and Lulu allow authors to self-publish and still get books printed, only as many as are ordered at the moment, 2) blogs and social media allow the author to market her book and reach thousands of people easily, and 3) the bookstores are (sadly) becoming less and less important as readers can buy books over the web, usually for a cheaper price.

This revolution is already occurring in the secular book world, and the casualties include the giant bookseller Borders. The Catholic book world is several years behind the secular trend but is heading the same way.

New Pitfalls

I am not an editor. Nor an artist, much less a graphic artist. If I had designed my book’s cover and done the editing, it would not have done nearly as well. So I hired a freelance editor and graphic artists to do the work they’re good at. And I paid them well for it, hoping that the finished product would more than pay back their fees. And it has.

With self-publishing, you can stumble easily on any step and hurt your book’s chances. Poor editing, ugly cover, weak theme or topic, no marketing, no platform, and bad pricing are some of the bigger pitfalls that can and have occurred. Know your strengths and be willing to pay people to help you complete the areas you’re weak in.

The marketing step is key. You need a platform, which should almost certainly be a blog, or a website with a blog. You need to make connections with people, not for the sole purpose of using them to promote your book, but because you want to network with them, get to know them, and have a mutual digital relationship with them. Long before I even thought of writing a book, I had started making friendships and getting to know other Catholics, and that made a big difference as my book got several reviews from friends’ blogs.

The Killer Kindle

I have a love-hate relationship with the Kindle. I published my book and formatted it for the Kindle long before I ever owned the device. The trend is that people are expecting a lower price for the e-version of the book. I priced mine at $2.99, and this had treble benefits: 1) many people impulse-purchased it because it was cheap, 2) this led to Amazon advertising the book when customers looked at other Catholic books, and 3) the sales volume has kept the book in the top twenty of all Catholic books sold, giving it higher visibility.

The e-sales have helped promote the paperback sales and vice-versa. Like it or not (and truth be told, I don’t like it or at least don’t want to like it), e-readers are the future because digital books are the future. My e-book sales have been easily double my paperback sales.

Catholic Traditional Publishers Still Matter

Catholic bookstores are not owned by one huge conglomerate. They are mom-and-pop, individually owned businesses. If you self-publish, you have to connect with each of these on your own. Unlike big Catholic publishers, you don’t have a catalog of books you are offering. You have one, or maybe two. Why should they pay attention to you? How do you even reach them all without thousands of phone calls? These are high hurdles and are one reason that Catholic publishers still matter. They have the relationship with these stores, have booths at the tradeshows they attend, and are tapped into the marketing networks that reach them.

A publisher also offers editing, proof-reading, cover design, e-book formatting, printing, marketing, and credibility. You also get the benefit of making connections with a publisher, which could lead to more books or talks or radio appearances. Publishers have wisdom and know what their audience or customers are looking for. They can help make your book a lot better, and usually do.

The Way Forward

Writers need to realize that the onus of marketing and building a platform falls more and more on them, even if they go with a traditional publisher.
Publishers need to realize they are in the business of connecting their customers with the information they need, and not with selling paper.

A new role is going to be demanded: self-publishing consultant. This consultant, whether at a traditional publisher or a free-lancer, will help an author to get his book out there, offering services and wisdom to make his book a success. Some books just aren’t going to have a wide enough appeal to warrant a publisher spending the time and money on it, but for some authors, selling five hundred or a thousand copies might be a goal that thrills them. A consultant can help them do this, taking a one time fee or a small percentage of the royalties.

My hope is that Catholic publishers (and bookstores) will not go the way of the dodo, but will figure out how to adapt to the changing landscape of digital books and e-readers. This is possible, but we’ll have to discard or modify the old ways of doing things and embrace the new trends. There’s much more to self-publishing than I’ve gone into here, but hopefully this whets your appetite and has given you inspiration that it can be done!

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Devin Rose is a Catholic writer and lay apologist. After his conversion from atheism to Protestant Christianity in college, he set out to discover where the fullness of the truth of Jesus Christ could be found. His search led him to the Catholic Church. He blogs at St. Joseph’s Vanguard and has released his first book titled “If Protestantism Is True.” He has written articles for Catholic News Agency, Fathers for Good, Called to Communion, and has appeared on EWTN discussing Catholic-Protestant topics.[/author_info] [/author]

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About the Author:

Devin Rose is a Catholic writer and lay apologist. After his conversion from atheism to Protestant Christianity in college, he set out to discover where the fullness of the truth of Jesus Christ could be found. His search led him to the Catholic Church. He blogs at St. Joseph’s Vanguard and has released his first book titled “If Protestantism Is True.” He has written articles for Catholic News Agency, Fathers for Good, Called to Communion, and has appeared on EWTN discussing Catholic-Protestant topics.
  • Great post, Devin! And it carries much more weight coming from someone who walks the talk.

    I think traditional publishers will soon realize that they’re not so much in the paper business but in the publishing business. Because of the digital revolution, a lot of their strengths are becoming obsolete: getting your book on shelves, mass producing it, helping you past the gatekeepers. But many other strengths are needed more than ever: marketing and publicity, weeding out the rubbish, and professional editing and design.

    My hope is that traditional Catholic publishers see where the market is going (digital) and respond accordingly. By no means are they heading toward extinction. But they do need to reinvent themselves.

  • Fr Longenecker

    I did the same thing with my book Gargoyle Code. I now have three or four titles which are going out of print. The rights return to me and I will self publish and publish e books. I co operate with the publisher to get the book to Amazon and into book shops. Would you please drop me a line Devin, so we can talk about this further? Thanks, Fr DL

  • Great post! I’m currently in the middle of doing this very same thing for a non-fiction book about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m also months away from starting a fiction publishing imprint using a combo of ebooks and POD. Technology lowers the barrier to entry in publishing by bypassing gatekeepers who select books to published based on several criteria, only one of which is quality. Your comment about how catholic publishers increasingly rely on the platforms of their authors rings true. If I’m going to spend the time building it, I’d like to reap the maximum benefit from my labor.

    Given the relatively small number of Catholics who frequent Catholic bookstores, I think an ambitious author can fairly easily match the reach of “traditional” Catholic publishers by carefully building up and utilizing their platform. Anyone interested in exploring this route should spend some time reading the Writer’s Cafe forum on Kindle Boards ( It’s filled with a friendly and knowledgeable group of pioneers who have been navigating the reefs and shoals of self-publishing for years. I have over 12 years’ background in traditional publishing, and I’ve learned an amazing amount from that community in just several months of reading.

    Again, great post, Devin!

  • A very timely and perceptive post, Devin. I am especially intrigued by the point about the need for consultants to aid Catholic e-publishers.

    I, too, am setting out into the deep on the waters of digital self-publishing. Last summer I founded a children’s entertainment company, Trojan Tub Entertainment, which features my series of humorous adventure stories for middle grade readers. I am also preparing to publish a novel for adults.

    Thanks for encouraging Catholics to make good use of this sector of digital media. It’s a huge opportunity for us.

  • Brett Salkeld

    Father Longenecker,
    I hadn’t thought of self-publishing an out-of-print book whose rights return to me. That’s a great idea!

    Great post. I, for one, would never publish a book without an editor. Never. If you’re going to try self-publishing, getting an editor is an absolute must. Of course, if you’re self-publishing an out-of-print book that has already been professionally edited through a good Catholic publishing house, you have no worries.
    One question: Is getting an imprimatur tougher for self-publishing authors? Catholic publishers usually have a relationship with the censor in their home diocese.

  • JA Konrath, a secular fiction writer, has a blog on self publishing, which he supported from the get go and he and many other successful authors hash out price points, freebies, editing, cover art and much more.

    The only reason I would be careful with some Catholic book is, as stated by a PP, the need for an imprimatur.

    It actually never occurred to me to go with a traditional publisher at this point. If the book sells well enough, they’ll find you, if you still want them (I’ve been around publishing for years).

  • Briana and Brett,

    I’m looking at a number of books recently published by a traditional Catholic publisher and most of them don’t have an imprimatur at all. While as a faithful catholic author I might feel better if my book had one, they don’t seem necessary in order to publish. I’m not sure if the imprimatur would be more difficult to get for a self-published author, but it does stand to reason that a Catholic publisher would have a better relationship with the diocesan censor.

  • Brett Salkeld

    It may depend on one’s subject matter. I published a book about purgatory and no one said boo about an imprimatur. I published a book about sex and dating and the publisher (Paulist Press, the same publisher as the purgatory book) said that you don’t dare publish a book about sex without an imprimatur. Of course, it will also depend on the culture. The sex and dating book was first published in Canada by Novalis and no one cared about an imprimatur, but Paulist said publishing a book on sex in the US without an imprimatur is just asking for it. If you’re venturing into a controversial topic like sex, an imprimatur is a great insurance policy.

  • Friends,

    Thanks for the great feedback. Someone actually asked me if my book had an Imprimatur the other day, and I told them no. Most Catholic books don’t. But yes it would be harder to get one if you go the self-publishing route, unless you happen to personally know a bishop. But the good thing is, the blog and new media world being what it is, if a Catholic book touts heterodoxy, people will discover that and let others know.

    I got turned onto Konrath’s blog by Brandon Vogt sometime ago, and it is very good. He’s got some colorful language and plays up the anti-traditional-publishing crusader card, but he and his guest bloggers often have interesting things to say.

  • Great post, Devin. I am successfully marketing my self-published book “A Special Mother is Born” with TV, radio and print interviews, obtained after six years of online platform building. I gave away many more hours than I can measure, but I am edified by the truly beautiful souls who have become my friends in the process.
    I think my book’s success is also due to the attractive cover design from WestBow Press, a division of Thomas Nelson. I think a large Catholic publisher would do well to follow their example. If they had, they’d be sharing in my success!

  • Brett Salkeld

    I think you’re right in general about the new media, but there are some questions (conscience, for instance) that are quite complicated and some things that get condemned by heresy hunters online are not heterodox, though they are supposed to be by the internet magisterium. All our reviews so far have been positive, but I know of at least one person who thinks we got conscience wrong, and it’s nice to have that imprimatur handy when the accusations come in. (Funny story: the Bishop’s ethicist that we ran the conscience chapter by said, “This is exactly right, but some ‘more-Catholic-than-the-Pope’ types won’t know that.”)

    Of course, if you’re not dealing with anything as dicey as conscience, you’re probably safe.

  • Leticia, I’ve watched you and your book and been impressed by how proactively you have promoted it, on Google+, interviews, and other venues. Well done!

    Brett, that’s a good point. The Catholic internet Magisterium is not the true Magisterium, and you can get lambasted even if what you say is orthodox.

  • MarylandBill

    Great post. Just one thought… don’t forget ePub. Granted Kindle probably makes up 70% of the ebook market in the United States, but that still leaves 30%. If the book has DRM on it (I haven’t checked) it shuts out those of us who have chosen to read our books on another platform. If you post your book with Smashwords, they will help it get into other online stores like Barnes and Noble and Kobo.

  • No joke, I am reading a whole lot more now that I use the kindle.
    I don’t know that I have books to publish, but I want our order to publish some of our documents in ebook format, but we’ll see maybe that will be my side job.

  • Maryland Bill, you are right, and I should have clarified that I made an ePub for B&N’s PubIt! e-book service and then used Smashwords to get into Apple and Kobo readers.

    Brother Mark, you might want to check out Calibre or Scrivener, two programs that could help you create an e-version of the documents.

  • You’re so right. With such a limited amount of Catholic fiction publishers out there willing to accept unsolicited manuscripts, and secular publishers limiting their Catholic intake, it’s so difficult submitting a Catholic fiction manuscript. Then once you do, you have to wait months to find out that your submission is just not right for them. it could take a lifetime to publish a book, and acceptance still doesn’t guarantee success. This process is subjective. We authors are told this all the time. But that works to our benefit with self-publishing. If you’re ready to submit your work, then why not to the masses and let your readers decide. Createspace and Lulu allow you to do this without huge out of pocket expenses. I designed my own cover for The Destiny of Sunshine Ranch, a Catholic novel for young adults. Now I can let my readers decide. Hopefully, they agree with me is deciding that…well…it’s a masterpiece:) Good luck to all you Catholic self-publishing authors. God bless and may this process allow more Catholic fiction to surface in the near future.

  • This past August, I self-published a Catholic novel for young adult readers through a Catholic publishing house called Bezalel Books. The title is “Finding Grace,” and it’s available on in both paperback and Kindle form.

    I am in my fifties and this is my first novel–and after getting a rejection letter from one traditional Catholic publishing house, I decided to go the self-publishing route. I know that the strong Catholic content of my book, as well as the fact that I don’t have a literary agent, would make it pretty much impossible to have my work published by a mainstream publisher; and I realized that if I didn’t self-publish, I would probably never live to see my book make it into print.

    My publisher told me that after the book comes out, that’s when the real work begins for the author, and I’m finding that to be very true. I have been in contact with some well-known Catholic bloggers to try to get the word out there, and I am in the process of figuring out other marketing strategies. Obviously, the fact that it is available on Amazon does not ensure that my book will ever be seen by potential readers.

    I enjoyed your enlightening article. It gave me hope for the future of Catholic literature, and it made me realize that there are many others out there like me–people who are writing Catholic fiction and trying to figure out a way to make it available to a wide audience.