Free Books, Free Shipping: How to Sell Christian Books without Amazon

The Christian publishing industry is at a crossroads. As Tim Challies recently mentioned in  The Power Over Christian Publishing We’ve Given To Amazon, the validity of a book is measured by its presence on Amazon. This means that Amazon ultimately controls the promotion (or absence) of orthodox Christian doctrine.

The problem is not Amazon, folks. The problem is us. We want 1) free books 2) popular books 3) famous teachers 4) free shipping.

Wanting to watch our budget is by no means bad. But at what cost do we get free books and free shipping? Wanting ‘vetted’ teachers is not bad, but distinguishing between vetted and worldy-popular is a challenge.

Christians are often “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). Without proper shepherding, we follow what tickles our ears.

“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Tim 4:3).

The Church Pushes Back

Few people really think about the subject of “historical theology,” but there is a current that pushes us this way and that. And this wave tends toward heresy. Tends toward compromise. Tends to push us away from the truths of Christ and what he did into the much-more-tasty ideas that fuel the wisdom of this age. The True Church has always been pushing back.

So if Amazon controls the CURRENT, and Amazon isn’t concerned to keep God’s Church on the ‘straight and narrow,’ as Tim Challies says, we need to rethink the way we publish books. I thought about this all night, as this conflict has always been a big issue for me. Our discussion is timely and necessary. And we need to promote this dialogue.

It’s hard to say “NO” to free. (But…”There’s no such thing as a free lunch”)

What are we willing to do to keep TRUTH in front of the church?

Honestly, it is a lot to ask of anyone to give up free books and free shipping. “Pay for shipping! I’ve got Amazon Prime!”

Whew. But this is one simple step we can make. They are not free. Someone is paying.

Another simple step is knowing FACTS. In Amazon’s model, authors (using any other small press but Creative space) lose 99% of their royalties for all paperback books sold on Amazon. In other words, all their work goes into Amazon’s coffers. What do they get out of it? Hopefully a review. Hopefully more books sold. Hopefully SPIN.

That, my friends, is where the free shipping comes from.

In this new model Amazon has fostered– print-on-demand and ebook– the only profit an author makes is through the sale of ebooks (40% of the take goes to the author). New authors, and indie authors pay a lot just to be seen on Amazon. So your purchasing a book on Amazon increases the book’s popularity, but Amazon gets paid for what the author has written.

Image result for old fashioned weight scale

In the Bible, this is one of those “unjust weights and measures” that God speaks of. But why would an author do this? Because “if your book is not on Amazon it is not really a book.”

Even I look on Amazon to see if a book is valid. It’s what we do. What Amazon has taught us to do.

Tim’s article challenges this thinking.

A Truly Christian Publishing Model

So we need ANOTHER PLAN. One that promotes truth, one that enables the author to eat.

Ideally, good authors will be fully supported and can write and give the books out for free. This is a perfect world.

I am so thankful for John Piper’s Model of this “not peddling the Word of God.” But other authors aren’t at that point yet. John Piper has a built-in audience and salary, so he can “afford” to give his books away. His whole life philosophy requires this of him. But he still sells his hardcover books on Amazon! That’s where the action is.

Other authors have started a “pay what you can” for their books. And this can work, too. But using this concept, I’m going to suggest another model.

What we want is

  • books in our hands
  • not to pay a lot for them, &
  • the author to be paid.

The way we can do this is by cutting out the excesses and putting the risk onto the person who wants the free stuff.

First, let’s look at the two popular publishing models today. Then I’ll suggest a third model that pushes us toward that “ideal” of free books (for readers) and grassroots promotion (for authors).

Current model 1)

BIG BOOK PUBLISHERS

1* Write a book

2* (Beta readers)

3* Find an agent

4* Edit the book

5* Agent finds a publisher

6* Publish & Promote (publisher takes big or small risk, book is ‘found’ on Amazon)

—————–

Purchased by: Kindle (high price for Kindle) via

         –Amazon

        –Publisher’s website, physical bookstores

         –ebook on publisher’s website

Financing: Publishing company, agency, Amazon, author

Profit: Divided between these four

Promotion: Publisher’s connections and efforts, social media, ‘platform’ and ‘followers’ needed

—————–

Positives:

  • Everyone is used to this system, since printing became industry.
  • Mass printing costs less than print-on-demand.
  • Predictable.
  • Christian books are vetted by the big publisher.
  • Big publishers have ‘validity.’
  • Big Publishers have capital they can invest with measured risks.

Negatives:

  • Author can only be published if they pump popularity. Like running for election in High school office.
  • Publisher’s fear: lots of books sitting around if bad investment, tied to publisher’s whims, rights are fully publishers. 
  • Amazon and publishers share control of your visibility,
  • High kindle price (the market wants to pay less than $5 for an ebook),
  • Big Publishers will vet what the predict will sell, not what is orthodox. (Small publishers can be more particular and discerning.)
  • Small presses scramble to make ends meet, cannot afford to take many risks, so have a small number of books published per year.

RISK: On the publishers, taken for what WILL sell not what SHOULD sell. Most authors can’t make the cut.

Current model 2)

INDIE PUBLISHING

1* Write a book

2* Edit the book (author investment)

3* Use Beta readers to fine-tune

4* Set up a launch team

5* Publish (no investment)

Purchased by: Kindle/ Kindle Unlimited

         Ebook also available on author website

         (optional, print on demand company)

6* Promote (investment of author, ‘found’ on Amazon)

—————–

Financing: 100% author

Profit: shared with Amazon, author gets minimal profit on print books

Promotion: Social media, platform & followers

Positives:

  • Can afford to offer free, 99c, and $3.99 books.
  • Higher profit for author, quicker turn-around,
  • If you are a good writer, you will get traction,
  • Your book is seen as ‘valid’ because you’re on Amazon.

Negatives: Amazon gets 99% of the profit on print books, Amazon gets 40%-60% profit on ebooks. All effort and risk is on the author. But most of the benefits go to Amazon. Amazon has control of your visibility. Heavily using Amazon’s new publishing formula, books not eligible for most awards.

RISK: On the author, taken for what HAS sold not what SHOULD sell. Most authors pay the piper so they can be seen.

–>Both of these systems have a risk system that functions solely on POPULARITY rather than TRUTH. The RISK spins on the producer.

My suggestion 3)

FUNNEL SYSTEM

1* Write a book

2* Edit the book

3* Enter…

FUNNEL

  • Investors Set up financiers
    • (ie: Patreon-monthly/Go Fund Me-one-time)
    • -All risk is on the backs of financiers
    • -Promotion fees and editing fees are included in financial project
    • -Rewards: book, relationship w/author, goodies, benefits
    • -Investors who promote book are rewarded with benefits
  • Small Christian publishers (threatened and limited by Amazon/Big publishers) find their new authors from this clearinghouse of *financed* projects, low investment; they provide ISBN, Ingram, validity, books are eligible for awards
  • Promotion Network** promotes the books with the author.

4* Use Beta readers to fine-tune (directing them to Funnel)

5* Set up a launch team (using Funnel)

—————–

Promotion: Social media, platform, word-of-mouth, Funnel, Goodreads

Positives:

  • Benefits for investors include more than a book, but a relationship with the author and other goodies;
  • Readers can earn free books (goal of readers!) by promoting books they like;
  • Christians can know where the “new Christian bookstore” is.
  • Reviews can include a check-off regarding orthodoxy;
  • ebooks are sold from author’s website,
  • good books will naturally surface
  • Naturally filters out those who want popularity over truth

Negatives:

  • Will take some time at the start-up for buy-in.
  • Need to pull in influencers, get small publishers on board.
  • Will increase the output of small presses (time-wise);
  • filtering out heresy is job of small-presses;
  • ebooks still on Kindle platform;
  • need shipping included in price of book (free-shipping);
  • still popularity-driven

RISK: On the CONSUMER, taken for what THEY WANT to buy, filtered by what SHOULD sell. Authors invest their time in the writing. Publishers risk is offset by the consumer’s investment.

**Promotion Network

If we are concerned about the orthodoxy of a book (non-fiction or fiction), which is the point of this entire discussion, we need to include this factor. We need to not be “cross-over” or to dilute our message so we will be acceptable to “more people.” Cross-over is, in my opinion, discussed clearly in Revelation 3:16.

Soli Deo Gloria

Instead, as Christian authors we have, as our first priority, the responsibility to be found holy and blameless in our choices and deeds. Living and working for God’s glory alone. The SOLI in Soli Deo Gloria.

I struggle with this in my craft. When I see how “they say” I’m supposed to promote myself in order to sell my books, I can’t do it. I can’t promote me. I can’t build that platform in any way but the slow and steady. I’m not into promoting me. I’ll say all sorts of things to promote Christ. But that platform is not one I want to stand on. So I’ll tell my own network of friends and family about my plans and my books, and they’ll tell theirs if they want, and I keep going forward.

Humble Approach

This system we’re envisioning needs to be God-honoring in its approach. Then it will succeed. It needs to be one that values and promotes TRUTH. It needs to be one that values and promotes HUMILITY. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

The up-is-down of spiritual physics is predictable.  Pushing UP your own self will end with you DOWN on your face in shame, but pushing UP God’s glory will keep you DOWN in grateful praise and gratefulness– all things where they should be.

So the promotion network will function within the acceptable means of Christian life.

  • Word of mouth. (The most effective means in the end).
  • The Funnel team pays for the book-and-goodies based on the initial project proposal. Investment is an acceptable vehicle according to the Bible.
  • The Truthfulness and God-honoring quality of the fiction or non-fiction will be measured by the ratings.
  • Honor and integrity: People who rate will also be clearly identified by the books they’ve recommended and by their faith statement.

Hypothetical Case Studies

Christian Cookbook (NF)

So let’s take some new author named Joanne Peterson. She’s written a non-fiction book: Cooking for Church Potlucks. The value of her book will be measured by her being able to gain supporters. She does the hard-work of promoting before publishing, getting a strong team of risk-takers who will put in $5 or more to her project and get an ebook out of it, to join the beta team or launch team. A hard copy will be sent according to their contributions, if the book is published (risk). They read the book, rate it and categorize it according to its take on TRUTH. It can fail here if it’s poorly done. They’re out $5, they’ve only risked that much.

At the point she has gained enough momentum for an initial print run, she’ll present herself to a Christian publisher who is interested in these things (or the publisher will be alerted through the Funnel system).

Even Cookbooks can be self-serving or God-honoring. The publisher vets it to see if it matches their standards. The publisher does an initial run, pays the investors their goodies. Arranges other publicity as it desires. But uses the invested money. So it’s not a “vanity press,” it’s a supporter-run system.

The ratings will draw people looking for books. Physical and online promotions will draw people to the book. Cost of print book includes shipping.

After a reader has promoted this book significantly, they are eligible for bonus points in the system, discounts toward the author’s “next book.” This promotes the patronage system, where an artist is supported by people who believe in the effectiveness of their ministry for the glory of God.

The author can cash out or redeposit their profits to fast forward promotion of their next project. Otherwise, the publisher arranges the royalties, factoring in the investments.

Heretical Novel (F)

Johnny Franko has written a cross-over novel that is compelling but does not hold an orthodox view of Christ.

The value of his book will also be measured by his being able to gain supporters. He does the hard-work of promoting before publishing, getting a strong team of risk-takers who will put in $5 or more to his project and get an ebook out of it.

They join his beta team or launch team with the promise of a hard copy for their efforts if it is published. They read the book and it starts to slip because of its language and view of Christ. It fails here because according to the Funnel readers it’s not appropriate for the Christian audience. They’re out $5, they’ve only risked that much, got the book but have kept others from the error. This launch team implodes.

Even if he gains enough momentum for an initial print run, no Christian publisher will take it because the reviews have alerted them. He eventually cashes out with the money he made.

Inherent Problems:

Uninformed reviewers who like heresy. Pirate small presses willing to promote lies for profit.

How to weed these out means Funnel needs a board of directors (as a non-profit), or an alert-system where a reader is categorized by the type of book they like. (Goodreads does this anyway. You can see what books a person reads and know their take on life.)

Self-cleaning system:

I suspect a system like this, that steps out of Amazon, will not attract those who only want to promote themselves. It’s too much work, and isn’t public enough. You are judged for what you say, which goes against the wisdom of this world.

It will attract those who are more discerning, and if the system is promoted among those who are concerned, the TRUTH-FACTOR will “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12) which is valued by Scriptural principles.

—–

I live in a Muslim country. I’m used to being the minority and functioning in a world within a world. As Christians, we ALL live in an embassy in enemy territory being assaulted by war. We’re distinct and separate. “Set apart.” In ALL ways we need to be holy. To NEVER bend to the pollution of idolatry.

James 6:10 says, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”

To be faithful followers, we are expected to keep ourselves from that pursuit of money. From “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 Jn 2:16). In business as well, we can’t look for loopholes–and assume our profit-making is not required to hold to these same principles. As authors we are required to keep that higher standard.

So let us change the Christian book industry.

This are my suggestions. May God use these ideas as he sees fit. Meanwhile, I’m aiming toward pursuing that ideal where truth can be free and can take flight naturally.

Image result for flying books free