These days, Christian self-publishing has moved from the Rodney Dangerfield era to the Aretha Franklin age. Once they couldn’t get no respect, but now self-publishers in the category are singing Aretha’s chorus and asserting themselves as an important and viable option for faith-based authors.

An emphatic illustration of that shift came this January when Jerry Jenkins, coauthor of the bestselling Left Behind series, announced that his Christian Writers Guild was launching CWG Press to help go-it-alone newcomers. A longtime critic of self-publishing for “poor writing, little editing, sloppy proofing, bad covers,” Jenkins says his about-face was prompted by an “epiphany” that, even with the training his organization provided, worthy new writers without the platform required by many traditional publishers were not securing contracts. Jenkins’s new program—which he calls “come alongside” publishing, for its integral educational and mentoring component—joins around 20 other options for aspiring faith-based writers who are bypassing traditional publishers.

Other programs—variously described as self-, co- or custom publishing, depending on the specifics of their services—range from divisions at major Christian houses to small businesses started by editors and marketers who used to work at those and other houses. Packages are priced from $500 to $15,000 or more, from the creation of a simple POD file to an offset print run, e-versions, and distribution and marketing support.

Self-publishing has been an option for well-heeled would-be writers for years—albeit one with significant marketing and distribution hassles—but POD and e-books have brought it within virtually anyone’s budget. “Three or four years ago there was still a perception that self-publishing was your second choice if you couldn’t make it to the big leagues,” but no more, observes Chad Nykamp, v-p and general manager of Xulon Press.

Launched in 2000 and acquired by the Salem Communications multimedia group in 2006, Xulon has produced more self-published Christian books than anyone else—10,000-plus—and seen 85% annual growth in the past couple of years. “Self-publishing is evolving in perception from being the fallback position to a preferred model,” Nykamp says, noting that some who have previously published with traditional houses have recently turned to Xulon. Among them is former NBA star Jayson Williams—author of Broadway’s 2001 New York Times bestseller, Loose Balls—who chose Xulon for last year’s Humbled: Letters from Prison.

Pioneers and Newcomers

Though the category has gained more visibility and acceptance recently, self-publishing is not new to the Christian book world. Founded in 1991, WinePress Publishing has released about 3,000 titles, with some seeing respectable sales, like Dan Miller’s Living, Laughing and Loving Life (80,000 copies). ACW Press, established in 1996 by Steve Laube, now a leading agent, has had several hundred releases including Hallelujah by J. Scott Featherstone, a 2003 finalist in the Christy Awards for Christian fiction. And Charisma Media (formerly Strang Communications) opened the doors on its co-publishing arm in 1999; since then Creation House has released more than 500 titles. Cindy Trimm’s 2008 spiritual warfare guide, The Rules of Engagement, has sold more than 150,000 copies.

Thomas Nelson added further respectability to the business when it started its own self-publishing division, WestBow Press, four years ago. Some of its 3,000 titles to date have been picked up for traditional publishing, some by Nelson’s competitors. William Sirls’s novel, The Reason, became one of Nelson’s top five fiction titles of 2012 when it was rereleased as a traditionally contracted book. WestBow is serviced by Author Solutions, the largest self-publisher in the game, bought last year by Penguin. The division similarly delivers what Keith Ogorek, its senior v-p of global marketing, calls a “soup to nuts” service for Inspiring Voices, a self-publishing imprint launched in 2011 by Guideposts.

The other big Christian publisher that entered the field is Southern Baptist–owned B&H Publishing Group. Potential projects for its CrossBooks program undergo a theological review using a 3,000-word statement of faith. Among more than 1,000 titles released since 2009 is Mitchell Hollis’s spiritual and physical fitness program, Run for God, which has sold almost 20,000 copies.

In 2010, former Christian publishing and distribution executive Larry Carpenter started Christian Book Services, which offers packages from content development to sales and marketing. Its Carpenter’s Son Publishing arm has just released radio talk show host Neal Bortz’s memoir, Maybe I Should Just Shut Up and Go Away!

Game Changer

Perhaps the biggest impact on the broader book world has been the shift in power from the publishing house to the author, says John Topliff, who in 2010 founded Somersault Group with several other Christian publishing veterans. The publishing services company has worked on a number of projects, including Clare De Graaf’s The 10 Second Rule, which was picked up and revised by Howard Books for release this February after selling 20,000 copies in a self-pubbed edition.

Fast turnaround is another draw for authors, and it helped to establish Kudu Publishing. In fall 2011, before Mitt Romney had won the Republican presidential nomination, Andrew Jackson wanted to revise and update Mormonism Explained, previously released by Crossway but by then out of print. “We were able to edit and publish—in e-book and print format—The Mormon Faith of Mitt Romney and have it in readers’ hands by January 3, 2012,” says Kudu cofounder Matt Green.

Not everyone is itching to get on the bandwagon. Baker Publishing Group has “no interest in launching a self-publishing division” because such a venture doesn’t fit with the company’s mission to publish “high-quality writing,” says president Dwight Baker. Back in the 1990s, he notes, the company actually dropped a longstanding self-publishing program that had produced around half-a-dozen titles a year, because it took up too much time and resources. “We maintain that commercial publishing is a demonstrably superior business model for authors who can connect with a wide readership,” Baker tells PW.

At Tyndale House, Christian publishing’s other family-owned giant, president Mark Taylor agrees that “self-publishing is a growing trend, and it is a great boon for authors whose books might not otherwise get published.” Tyndale has considered setting up its own self-publishing operation, “but we have concluded that it is not a good fit for our company.”

While many agree that self-publishing has for the most part lost its “vanity press” stigma and is a legitimate alternative to traditional publishing, self-publishing companies are still quick to point to examples of general market pickups as validation. Exhibit A is The Shack: after many rejections from traditional publishers, William P. Young formed Windblown Media with two friends to release the novel in 2007, and saw it rocket up the bestsellers lists and lead to a marketing and distribution deal with FaithWords at the Hachette Book Group; it has sold almost 20 million copies worldwide.

But Lyndda Ell’s experience is more typical. The retired electrical engineer has released two books of reflections from the Psalms with WestBow, selling “fewer than two dozen copies” in all formats. She is not disappointed, though, having given away more than 7,000 copies through family and friends, at events, and to organizations. “I’ve been overwhelmed and greatly encouraged by the positive responses,” she says. “I feel passionate about helping others.”

It’s that perspective that prompts Keith Ogorek to dub what’s happening in Christian self-publishing as “the second Gutenberg effect,” referring to the way the printing press led to an explosion in Bible distribution. “Most people who write in the Christian and inspirational space really believe they have a message, whether from their own experience or through what they have studied, that they think can impact the lives of others,” Ogorek says.

Too Many Bad Books

Such a ministry focus can also be a weakness, observed Josiah Williams, executive director at WinePress, one of several self-publishers that insist on an edit as part of the package, rather than just offering the option. “Many assume their book will sell if it’s meant to be—no matter how poorly edited, poorly designed, or unmarketable it is,” he says.

Athena Dean, an independent publishing coach and marketing consultant, agrees: “Christians who feel like they have a message that needs to be in print form somehow seem to think that the vision they see for a cover and every word they’ve typed is inspired,” she says, “and so to allow an editor to work on it would be unconscionable.”

Selecting a company to work with can be difficult. While self-publishing providers offer different programs, many agree that buyers should beware. Some businesses will “turn your grocery list into a book for less than $2,000,” says Carpenter. “There are a ton of bad [self-published] books out there,” notes former Xulon executive Jim Kochenburger, who now runs

Getting a book into print or e-format might be easier than ever, but getting it into people’s hands—discovery and distribution—remains the big hurdle. While many self-publishers acknowledge that stores are still reluctant to carry their titles, some believe things are changing. “We are seeing a growing interest from faith-based booksellers in self-published books,” says Ogorek. “They are realizing these books are a new revenue stream, and with interest in book signings by local authors it also allows the bookstore to be more involved with the community.”

Looking ahead, self-publishing leaders see some potential changes. At Somersault, Topliff anticipates a more level playing field, meaning more—and welcome—room for Christian voices from the global south and east. Jeannette Taylor, the company’s research and development architect, speculates on a loosening of the theological constraints of traditional houses, making room for “an evangelical author who may be a little outside the mainstream in terms of belief.”

Pete Nikolai, who oversees WestBow as director of Backlist Development and Publishing Services for HC Christian Publishing, anticipates new hybrid models falling somewhere between traditional and self-publishing. And some fear a glut of self-published books, Allen Quain, manager at Creation House, believes “the cream always has a way of rising to the top.”