Time for the Weekly Readers’ Mailbag. This week I will be dealing with three questions that have come in about my books and writing habits. If you have any questions you would like me to address in this format, go ahead and ask!
Which of your books didn’t do well? I’ve often guessed that your least-selling trade book would be either
The reader who asked this question was referring to my comment that I’ve now written seven books with my publisher HarperOne and that of the six previous ones, five sold extremely well. The questioner wants to know which one did not.
So I have been very fortunate with my Harper books. The first one I did was Misquoting Jesus. To everyone’s enormous surprise, it became a bestseller. The reason everyone was surprised was, at least in part, because of the topic: it was about the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Who in the world wants to read about that? It turns out that the answer is: lots of people. It made the New York Times bestseller list and eventually reached #5. That was entirely because of the media attention I got for the book; I did tons of radio and TV, some of them amazing venues, from Fresh Air with Terry Gross and the Diane Rehm Show to both the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report. That was an amazing time.
Four of the other five books also got good media attention and also made the NY Times Bestseller list: Jesus Interrupted, God’s Problem, Forged, and most recently How Jesus Became God.
The one that didn’t make it was a book that my publisher was not eager for me to do and that we almost didn’t publish as a print-book: Did Jesus Exist. We knew going into it that this would be a very small niche market, since the vast majority of human beings on the planet know that Jesus existed, and those who doubt it are not only in a tiny minority but are not, as a rule, interested in learning why they are wrong. Our plan was to publish the book only electronically, but we decided at the last minute to go to print. So we never thought it would it get much media attention and we were right; even though the sales have been fine, it is not one of my best sellers.
I can’t wait to read your new book Jesus Before the Gospels. At some later time I wonder if you can comment more on how you research, prepare for and write a new book like this. It sounds like you have a good system down. I’d like to know more.
I may devote a whole post or two at some point to my writing process, as there is a longer story to be told. But here I’ll give just the salient points. Basically, for me the vast majority of the work for a book, in terms of time commitment, is in the reading and research. My policy for a long time now has been to publish a new trade book (for a general audience) every two years, and to squeeze in my scholarly research and my text book writing somehow in between.
So, for the trade book. All my books so far have been about topics that I have thought, read, and taught about for years – usually since my early days in graduate school at the end of the 1970s. Most of the books have involved topics I have taught PhD seminars on. So I usually have a good idea about the scholarship in the field before even deciding to write the book. But when I agree to write it, I then have to throw myself into the scholarship big-time.
And so I start with a bibliography of essentials (normally I know these off the top of my head, since I’m already familiar with the topic and the issues) and I read-read-read, amassing new bibliography all the time based on what I’m reading, mastering that bibliography, learning of new books in related fields, reading those books, getting more bibliography from them, and so on – hundreds of books and articles. On my good weeks, even when I’m teaching and giving lectures here and there, I can usually get through about four or five books. I take notes on everything I read.
I do that for, usually, about a year and a half. Then, when I’ve read everything that I think I need to read, I review every single note I’ve taken on every single book and article, and start outlining the book. I make a basic outline of the whole thing, with a sense of what each chapter will focus. On. I then go through the outline and expand it by adding the detailed arguments I need to make. Then I expand it some more. I end up having a different large outline for each chapter. I then reread all my notes again and plug in what I want to say into each large outline. By the time I’m done, I have a very detailed outline.
And then I write the book. The writing itself only takes about two weeks. I write simply as fast as my fingers will fly over the key board. My process is to write a chapter a day – with maybe two hours the next day to wrap it up. I then spend the rest of that second day revising. The third day I do the next chapter. And so on for two weeks. On a typical day I’ll write solid for about seven hours, get a work out in, have a nice dinner and a glass of wine or two (OK, or three), get a good and long night’s sleep, then get up and do it again.
I then revise it a couple the whole thing a couple of more times. I then send it to friends in the field for comments. When I get their comments back I revise it again (for style and substance). I then send it to my editor. He makes suggestions on style and comment. I make a final revision. And then it’s done. The process ends up taking about two years. Then it’s on to the next thing!
And when you get a chance, give us a little hint about your next trade book.
Yes, I am hot on the trail of the next book, in my research phase, reading massively for it, with shelves full of books to get through. I will say a lot more about the book soon on the blog. For now: it’s about how Christianity went from being a tiny, unknown, sect of Judaism located in Jerusalem, to becoming the religion of the Roman empire. How did that happen? If Jesus’ followers after his death numbered, say, 20 people (lower class, illiterate, peasants from rural Galilee), how, actually, did they convert so many people that within 300 years (by the time of the conversion of the emperor Constantine) there were some 6 million Christians in the world? That by the end of the fourth century they were some 30 million, half the empire, and the official religion of Rome? How do you get from 20 people to 30 million in 350 years?
Specifically, what is it exactly that Christians were telling people to get them to convert? Why were people willing to leave the pagan religions they were born and raised in to become Christian? What historical, cultural, and social factors — not to mention religious issues — came into play? And what did Western culture both gain and lose through these massive conversions?
The plan right now is to call the book The Triumph of Christianity: How Faith in Jesus Destroyed the Religions of Rome.