Some categories of books in the Christian market have very limited potential for publication. A publisher may do just one every year or every ten years on a particular topic or category.
When you send your proposal to an agent or ask your agent to pitch a title in one of these categories, our first reaction would be how limited the potential is to sell.
I am not writing about the potential for sales of a particular book to a reader. As an agent, I define a “limited market” for a book as one very few publishers desire to publish or a category published so infrequently it is probably not worth trying.
At least enter into it with eyes wide open and know the limits.
Sticking to non-fiction categories today, here are the categories of product that have very limited potential: (Again, I define limited potential in this case as the opportunity to be published, not potential sales to consumers)
Devotionals – Whether they are 30, 40, 60, 90, 180 or 365-day devotionals, the market is limited. Some publishers don’t do them at all, some do one per year and a couple publishers do a number of them each year. For the most part I recommend authors of devotionals use the material for daily social media posts or a free subscription to a daily devotional delivered via email.
Bible Studies – Seems like it shouldn’t be this way in the Christian market, but an average publisher will focus on one Bible study line over a ten-year span. They also want to eventually create studies for the entire Bible. How are you with the minor prophets? Only exception is if you have a unique approach not done by the typical writer of Bible studies, who is generally a respected Bible scholar.
Memoirs – Some publishers have a strict “no memoir” policy. Others will look at memoirs with a strong message and borderline miraculous themes. Most memoirs are done by celebrities or people already with a measure of fame. Memoirs are viewed as short-term publishing (here today, gone tomorrow), which is not attractive to most publishers trying to build their company.
Personal Evangelism – Just about every publisher considers the “how to share your faith” book as something they do once in the history of their company. Maybe twice.
Topical – Defined as something very specific, like parenting children with special needs or dealing with infidelity with your spouse. Publishers generally view very specific topics as a once-per-decade kind of book.
Men – Covered last week in my post “Writing to Men.” Funny when a hundred million persons in the US are considered a niche.
Teens – Probably because publishing is relatively slow and kids grow up fast, books for teens are short-term prospects for publishers, which is not good when you have a company wanting to publish books for the long-haul. Non-fiction books for teens seem to have built-in obsolescence (often due to cultural references that change rapidly). Not a good thing. Publishers who do it well know how to do it, but most publishers avoid them.
Pastoral resources – These are a good market for the right author, but since they are a long-term market (opposite of teens) the books tend to be relevant for a very long time, limiting the potential for new entries.
Denominational – If your work takes on a distinct theological perspective (most do in the Christian market) not all publishers will be interested. Publishers have theological perspectives as well. Calvin, Luther, and Wesley were different dudes.
Maybe there are more, but these are the ones coming to mind. I am not insinuating that authors should not write in these categories, but do so with eyes wide open. If you write a certain type of book listed above, make great effort to show how you are the exception to the “limited” rule.
Can you tell us what categories you see as being more open? Other than Women’s, what categories are left in non-fiction?
Books for women are a substantial majority of the opportunities. Overall books as an outgrowth of a successful public ministry (platform first, book later).
Most publishers look at the potential sales markets and desire things they feel would have the widest appeal. Much as we would like to think it was different, Christian readers tend to gravitate to a small number of devotional titles, do not study the Bible in great enough numbers to warrant more options there and are generally not interested in learning how to share their faith.
Realists in publishing see the market and gravitate to proposals that solve problems quickly, have a compelling promise for a reader and most importantly have authors who are well known and can assist in promoting the work.
Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now is a perfect example of this. Possibly the most perfect title of all time. Every word is exactly what readers want. The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren is another perfect title and the 30 million copies it sold attest to the desire.
The more an author focuses on what they feel a reader “needs,” like strong medicine or a vitamin and less on what the reader wants, the less successful they will be.
Agree or disagree, it is reality and always has been. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking was published almost 65 years ago and exploded in sales…and still sells today.
Thanks for this great reply. You’ve changed much of my thinking on my current project. Give them what they want, not what they need. Of course, I know that doesn’t mean just tickle their ears, but rather approach their needs through their wants in a manner that perks a publisher’s ears as well. And build my platform first so they can hear me. Thanks, Dan! Love this blog!
Interesting post, Dan. Thank you. Even though I write fiction, there’s only one non-fiction topic I’ve considered writing about. Your post helps put it into perspective.
Sheri Dean Parmelee
Dan, I would love your “take” on self-help books. That is my current topic of interest….. what do you think about someone whose book covers how to cope with suddenly running a household on one’s own, when a former or deceased spouse was responsible for certain tasks that the person unexpectedly unmarried now must complete. (I realize that this is not the question you posed today, but it is one that I would really love knowing the answer to!)
The topic you mention is good, but should be a book only after you are presenting the topic in person to “suddenly single” groups or divorce recovery groups. Many churches offer ministries to people in the situation you mention. You could become the “picking up the pieces” person giving practical advice.
A book could be an outgrowth of the personal ministry, but not the first thing you do.
Become known for giving practical help…blog, speak, newsletters, etc.
“The more an author focuses on what they feel a reader “needs,” like strong medicine or a vitamin and less on what the reader wants, the less successful they will be -”
Dan, I found this part of your comment interesting because I think it’s a real challenge to determine what a reader “wants.” How do you determine that? If you check the bestsellers for guidance, your book might have too much competition. Do you take a poll, or…?
I’ve always thought an author, especially one who writes non-fiction, should write about topics with which they are knowledgeable. How does that compare with what interests the reader?
Here’s the rub…readers don’t know what they want. This is why book publishing is so much more an art than a science. Maybe a few books are a result of a research study, but most bestsellers just happen.
Every piece of the publishing world (reader, retailer, publisher, agent, author) is a moving target. It would be good to compare getting published and being successful to orbiting planets aligning.
This is why it is important to have a book be an outgrowth of some successful work or ministry…a presentation to a group is a great research study. A book should never be the first thing you do. Especially for non-fiction.
Daily devotional books on Amazon show over 26.000 titles. The first on the list by popularity are by writers or motivational speakers who are already well-known. Joel Olsteen, who is in that first tier of offerings, is tapping into what a reader wants – concepts to make them feel good about themselves.
Non-fiction is the same as fiction in the fact that it needs to engage the reader and make them feel the story or content is worth their time. Few people want to be challenged and grow by their reading. They’re looking for some little gems to help them along.
I have been writing devotionals for magazine for a few years and am putting together a book of my own. I’ll first try the traditional route, but have also considered publishing as an indie author.
So, Dan, I gather you wouldn’t be recommending I submit a query to you for Bible studies directed at logic-oriented people who want to be equipped to share their faith? Does that concept have “indie only” stamped all over it?
Pretty much…however it would fun to pitch to some editors to see their responses! Definitely would get a lot of, “Doesn’t fit with our current publishing plan,” which is a nice way to say, “Are you crazy? What were you thinking?”
Christine made a good point, sometimes things like devotionals are best pursued in a non-traditional way. I have been writing devotions for a magazine for years, as that seems to be the best way to get into print with those projects. In fact, most of the other opportunities for non-fiction publishing have come from being trusted by one of the senior editors at this magazine. As a result, I was also given the opportunity to write a devotional series for a fairly major christian musical group. That is how doors seemed to have opened for me. As well, I have taken to heart much of the great advice on this blog, and focused more on growing my speaking ministry. Having a book published will come if and when my audience wants one. I very much appreciate the advice we receive here! 🙂
Thanks. I appreciate this.
Linda Riggs Mayfield
LOADED with valuable information, as usual, Dan. Now I’m very curious about why reps from two publishers at a conference invited me to submit the 12-week women’s Bible study I wrote and have taught on the times, travels, and prayers of Paul. It seemed very strange to me that both of them specified that I would need to take everything in the student workbooks, the teacher’s manual, the weekly handouts, and the PowerPoint slides for each lesson, and somehow put all that content into a book before I submitted it to them. Had I done that, do you think that because I’m not a famous theologian, they would have just said, “Doesn’t fit with our current publishing plan”? It’s getting harder to stay on the positive side of the line between “realistic” and “jaded.” 🙂
My assumption is the editors were looking a “work-around” or alternative to the issue their companies didn’t want straight Bible studies. Taking the thinking and putting it in a book.
Bible studies are like cookbooks, guiding a user to create something good. But they take time and effort.
Most publishers assume readers want a prepared meal that can be microwaved and eaten.
“Don’t tell me how to think, tell me what to think.”
Everyone would not agree with the above statement, but much of publishing is the latter rather than former.
Authors and Publishers need to find ways in which fiction can be used to teach Christian values to people of all ages. A Christian Book store should have a wide range of books, both fictional and non-fictional to cater for the interests of their readers. It should be remembered that people enjoy different types of books, and the core message must be spread using all these available channels.
Know about christian fiction and non-fiction publishing here: http://kingdompublishers.co.uk/2017/10/23/can-fiction-be-used-to-teach-valuable-christian-life-values/ #christianpublishersUK