Starting a Christian Book Publishing Company

I first wrote about self publishing Christian books last year, and I've heard back from a number of aspiring Christian publishers in the interim. I'm not going to got into the technical and business details about how to start a publishing company in this post, I must have returned to that topic at least a dozen times by now. Rather, I want to write about some of the more recent changes in the publishing industry that allow you to test the waters and start a publishing company on a shoe-string. Start small and you'll grow the business as you grow your skills. Try to make a big splash starting out and all you'll grow is your debt.

I don't see religious book publishing in general or Christian book publishing in particular as just another niche in the publishing world waiting to be exploited. I'm sure there are all manner of publishers out there looking to cash in on the Christian market by adding the word "Christian" to the front of their titles, then bragging to the trade publications about how smart they are. When I look through the Amazon catalog, I see all sorts of books in the religion categories that are promoting activities that are discouraged by any religion I'm familiar with, starting with self obsession. To be a true Christian publisher is to publish books that reflect what your market understands as Christian values. As blurry as that line can get, it certainly doesn't include "Build Your Own Christian PC" or "The Christian's Guide to Lawn Care." Those made-up titles would be obvious attempts to cash in on how people identify themselves, though perhaps a tribute to the size of the market.

Having the sort of captive market that comes from a self-identified group is a mixed blessing to publishers. On the one hand, it may guarantee a subsistence level of sales on niche titles with limited competition, but on the other hand, it largely limits your potential audience to your co-religionists. That's one of the reasons that Jewish publishing turns out to be a much smaller business than most people expect. While there are a small number of Jews who buy a large number of books, it limits a Jewish book publisher to becoming a big fish in a small pond. Christian publishers can build businesses on the scale of the largest trades, because the market for hits is an order of magnitude greater.

The problem with targeting a smaller audience is if you miss your target by a little, there may not be anybody standing beside them or behind them. A self-published book on a niche subject that may have eventually sold a couple thousand copies if it hadn't been limited to the Christian market may only sell a few hundred copies, or much less if it's a serious miss. Before starting a Christian book publishing company, I'd suggest you start a Christian publishing website for market research purposes. The smaller the audience, the more important it is you nail them with the first shot. The most important benefit you can gain from the website is that of watching the usage statistics and finding out if anybody comes. If your traffic doesn't start building after a few months of reasonable promotion efforts on your part, the odds are you are targeting a niche in your community that isn't sufficiently populated to support a new title.

Of course, this method is much better suited to starting a publishing company with an existing stock of manuscripts, your own or your friends’, so you'll have sufficient content to launch the website. Most businesses don't have the long-term view or financing to allow them to pay advances for manuscripts that they may not ever publish if the web interest isn't sufficient. I suppose you could ask your authors for a little Christian faith and charity, but I wouldn't call that a business model. My own rough rule of thumb is I wouldn't even consider publishing a book from a manuscript that couldn't attract 100 casual browsers a day on the web, but it takes a lot more visitors than that to sell significant numbers of a published title. Of course, patience is a virtue, and new publishers often find their titles selling more with each passing year as improved marketing and word-of-mouth show their effects

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr Rosenthal;
This was very insightful, funny and most of all true. Thanks for an honest "
christian" assessment.