Everybody knows that the digital revolution has changed publishing. You can read long analyses of what is new and where the industry is going, if you want to. A lot of that will bore to tears anyone who isn’t directly involved. For most people, only two questions matter: are good books being written, and can I get them? The answers are yes and yes.
However, I think you might find it interesting to gain a close-up view of the problems of publishing as I experience them—problems that mirror some of the problems of American society today.
I’ve published many books over the decades, and I have absolutely no reason to complain. However, I’m writing a different kind of book than any I have in the past, and I’m experiencing a different reality.
I’ve written a novel, and it is far-and-away the best thing I’ve ever written. I say that with confidence because I’ve had six or eight readers review it and they’ve been strikingly positive. Besides, I feel it in my gut.
It’s a contemporary story based in an urban gospel mission. In fact, that’s my working title: Gospel Mission. It focuses on a handful of people involved with the mission’s residential drug and alcohol rehab program. The ethos is fundamentalist/evangelical. It’s a story of addiction and recovery, life and death, God and destruction, plus a developer trying to move the mission out of a neighborhood he wants to gentrify, and his skullduggery that almost wrecks the mission. It’s a compelling read, by all accounts.
The problem is getting somebody to publish it. Sure, I know, that’s a problem for most novelists. But this is an interesting case, best summed up in an email I recently received from a literary agent.
She liked the book, a lot. This agent can be blunt, but everything she wrote was laudatory. After considerable prose devoted to the book’s virtues, she wrote:
“Having said all that, I am stymied as to what sort of publisher would be interested in the project. It’s told mainly from men’s point of view, and [Christian publishers] struggle to make books written mostly about men work. It’s hard to find the audience. I don’t, by any means, think this is a book that would only appeal to men. (I certainly enjoyed it.) But women have to be given encouragement to read such books, and publishers seem inept at finding readers for novels that don’t have a “just right” sort of hook. A summary of the story wouldn’t drive women to the book, nor does the title. I couldn’t think of an angle that might work.
“And it’s not a general market book–way too much religion in it.”
According to her, I’m stuck in a publishing black hole. General publishers won’t give the time of day to anything so evangelical. And Christian publishers only know how to publish inspirational women’s fiction.
Isn’t that a reflection of our post-Christian western world? Religion remains an important reality to a great proportion of society, but that reality doesn’t make the cultural mainstream—except, maybe, in some exotic or historical form. People of faith are cordoned off—or cordon themselves off–into a cultural ghetto.
And when you turn to specifically Christian institutions, they have become extremely narrow. They only embrace a small slice of society, and they don’t have the money or the imagination to take chances on a wider audience. They stay in their ghetto.
This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, but I think it’s gotten worse with the changes in publishing since Amazon became the biggest player and bookstores fell on hard times. There is less bandwidth in books that get published, and less willingness on the part of publishers to take on risk.
Fortunately, another change in publishing means that I can publish myself. I will, if that’s my best option, though I would far rather leave the publishing to somebody who knows what they are doing. Leave me to write! One way or another, Gospel Mission will get published. I’ll let you know when that happens.