Independently published authors have seen tremendous growth in the last decade, and the trend is increasingly advantageous in the Christian market. Often shortened to indie publishing, this category is defined as authors who act as their own publisher, excluding vanity or custom published authors who pay others to produce books for them.
Early challenges of indie publishing, such as acceptance and visibility, were even greater for Christian authors, according to Sarah Bolme, director of the Christian Indie Publishing Association (CIPA), which recently changed its name from the Christian Small Publishers Association to better accommodate the growing number of indie authors.
“The Christian market didn’t [initially] embrace indies like the general market did,” Bolme told PW. “Stores knew that books from certain publishers were theologically sound, but retailers weren’t sure about indie books.”
Amid the shrinking Christian retail space of today, however, readers who shop online are more willing to try indie authors. This, coupled with the ease of publishing platforms such as CreateSpace and fewer openings on traditional publisher lists, has led to a growing number of Christian authors acting as their own publisher.
Shannon Popkin and Kate Motaung are new to the indie market with Influence: Building a Platform That Elevates Jesus (Not Me), which released in January through CreateSpace and is available in print or Kindle e-book. Both authors were previously traditionally published.
“The primary positive we saw was the faster turnaround,” said Popkin. “We saw a need for [the book] and knew we needed to get to readers. Traditional publishing just takes so long.”
The pair paid $250 for a cover designer, and combined with an interior designer, the total cost of creating the book was less than $500. As of early March, they had made over $800 on Amazon alone, they said.
“Our target audience [of Christian writers and speakers] is quite narrow, and we knew where we wanted to promote this book,” said Motaung, who spoke of guest blogs, podcasts, attending writer’s conferences, and connecting with online writing communities. “We don’t need a marketing person to do that for us.”
Heather Day Gilbert first went the indie route in 2013, and her most recent novel, Guilt by Association, was shortlisted for a Christy Award in 2018. On average, the cost to publish each of her eight books was around $300, according to Gilbert. She does all the marketing herself.
“My biggest struggle is marketing all the time instead of writing. But we indie authors know what works—BookBub feature ads, first-in-series permanently free, putting out new books—and what is a waste of time,” Gilbert said.
James Scott Bell, author of books on writing such as The Last Fifty Pages (Feb.) as well as novels under his Compendium Press, has used feature deals on BookBub to sell 30,000-40,000 units in a day. He has published 25 books with traditional publishers, and has self published 20 more. He bought back rights on most of his traditional titles and has since republished them himself.
“I started testing the indie waters in 2011 and was pleased with the results,” Bell said. “When it came time to decide between another traditional contract and going indie, I took the leap for three main reasons: I wanted to control my content, keep my rights, and receive 70 percent royalty.”
Bell said that while indie publishing remains his career path, it’s also a path toward traditional publishing. “If being traditionally published is the author’s goal, a good indie track record can help. Of course, the flip side is also true. A run of mediocre sales and/or bad customer reviews will hinder.”
Dave Lewis, executive v-p of sales and marketing at Baker Publishing Group, points to several indie authors who have made it onto BPG’s Revell lists in recent years, including Lisa and Matt Jacobson (100 Words of Affirmation Your Husband/Wife Needs to Hear, Oct.), Lisa Bevere (Adamant, 2018), and Paul Stutzman (Hiking Through, 2012), which has sold over 120,000 in all formats for Revell, after the author sold 20,000 copies of his indie book.
“The idea of indie publishing has nearly always been a significant part of Christian publishing,” said Lewis, citing Christian TV and radio personalities, pastors, and bloggers who indie publish. “We can help them reach an even wider readership and take the burden of printing, shipping, marketing, and finance from their shoulders.”
Bringing such authors to traditional publishing requires “excellence in the editorial, titling, cover, trade and consumer marketing, and promotion and sales processes,” Lewis said. “We [are] collaborative throughout, allowing for author input at every step.”
As the advantages mount for indie authors, Bolme of CIPA predicts that more and more authors will opt in.
“The growth will go both ways,” she said, “from authors with traditional publishers choosing to go indie due to a large fan base, more retail profit, and quicker publication, to indie authors with enough sales going with a traditional house.”