Should you make people pay for a book about the Gospel?

I have some great news for you about the free gift of God’s amazing grace. And, I’ll tell you about it for only $19.95.

Is it just me, or does something seem very wrong about the idea of making people pay to learn about the Gospel?

I’m wrestling with that as I try to decide what to do with my Gospel book. I would guess that it’s now about 60% complete and I need to start making some decisions about what to do with it. I started this project primarily for my own benefit and for my church. So, I don’t have a lot invested in actually publishing it. But, I would like to make it available to people when it’s done.

A very large part of me just wants to put it up on the internet for free and let anyone download and use it as they will. It’s the Gospel! Use it well; spread it widely. I’ve also considered self-publishing so I could charge a low price for a hard copy and still make it available for free on the internet. But I’ve heard some stories about how much work self-publishing actually entails. And, I also understand the benefits of having a publisher who will work with me to ensure that the book is done well and who can make sure that people actually hear about the book. Free (or cheap) isn’t very helpful if people don’t know it’s there.

Thus, my quandary. What do you think? I don’t do a lot of polls on this site (actually, none). But, I thought I’d give it a shot on this one. So, please cast your vote below. And, feel free to offer some comments below if you’d like to engage this question a bit more.

Also, please  spread the word about this poll. I’d like to get as much feedback on this as I can.



About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on January 20, 2011, in Gospel and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 51 Comments.

  1. You know many people don’t believe something is worth anything if it doesn’t cost something. Value is tied to cost. I say publish it with a traditional publisher and secure enough copies to give away free where you can for those who can’t pay or who are skeptical about paying. Or give ebook copies away to those people.

  2. I’m not going to vote, but I do find your attitude about the subject refereshing and I wish more gospel writers had it.

  3. Bryan, that’s a good point. I talk about in the book as one of the reasons that we’re constantly trying to find ways to earn God’s grace – we just don’t get the concept of something being both free and valuable.

    But, if just charging something is the issue, wouldn’t that make the self-publishing option worth considering? That way I could still charge something (to give it value), but still keep the price point lower than would be possible with a traditional publisher.

  4. Mike, thanks for the encouragement. But I’m sure most of those other authors went the traditional publishing route for the same reasons that I’m considering it (help with quality and marketing), even if they didn’t publicly wrestle with the issue.

  5. I like the idea of self-publishing. Of course, Bryan is right that books that appear free usually rub me as low-end propaganda material. If you can strike a balance between receiving due for your work, showing the value of the book, and also giving copies away to those who need it, that would be great.

  6. John Piper gives his books away online and he uses traditional publishers. (I am not sure this is possible if you are not John Piper, though.) C.S. Lewis donated all the money from his books to charity… after getting them published with a traditional publisher.
    Personally, if a book is not published by a traditional publisher I just assume it is not worth reading. Things may be changing as self-publishing is becoming easier and easier… but that is a difficult stigma to overcome.

  7. Marc, you pose a hard question. Of course if it weren’t hard I doubt you would be looking for suggestions. Something to consider is who is your target audience? I don’t know for sure, but I would imagine that the vast majority of religious publication is purchased by those already religious themselves (i.e. self identifying Christians). If that is who you are writing to primarily then there shouldn’t be an issue in charging them for the book. If your primary intended audience is presenting the gospel to those who have not yet believed, You might try self-publishing with the free internet option, and then distributing by making available to churches to order as part of their evangelism ministry.

    I haven’t looked at any of your material yet, so you have probably considered this already, but if your target audience is non-believers, you will probably want to do full quotes of any scripture references since they may not have Bibles.

    That is my 2 cents worth.

  8. Marc –

    From what I know of your work, I imagine this book will be a great blessing to those who don’t yet follow Christ, and to other disciples who want to be more effective at sharing the good news.

    With that in mind, here’s a multi-pronged suggestions:

    a) Publish traditionally – this gets the book out there to help others… realistically, it will probably get more traction in the ‘Christian’ market, but that’s ok, because the info will then be useful to other believers in their efforts to share the Gospel.

    b) Make some sort of “summary” (or as the software guys say: cripple-ware) version that contains the heart, but is much smaller (20 pages max) and give it away freely on web… this then serves as resource that is free, and as promotion for the other project

    c) It’s ok to let readers know you struggled with this decisions, and that you’re reason for publishing was not profit, but to aid is spreading the info to a wider group of people, in the hope that they would spread the material even further….

    d) Most of all thank you for wrestling with this, and sharing your heart…


  9. Marc,
    I agree with most of the sentiments expressed here. We tend to devalue those “things” that don’t cost us something. I have had this conversation about “selling the Gospel” with Jehovah Witnesses. Typically, they ask for a donation for their materials. If the gospel is free, why are you charing me for your materials? Their usual response is in the form of a question. Who paid for the Bibles you give away or did you steal the materials you give away or purchase them? The point being . . . it costs something to produce the materials you are giving away or it costs you when you purchase them to give away.

    Unless you own a publishing house, have access to unlimited free paper, etc. you will have to depend on a publisher of some kind. It will cost $$$$ to produce this work. If you want to pay all of it in order to give it away freely, great! But I doubt you have the resources to do so . . . . even on a seminary professors salary! 🙂 🙂 If a trust gives you the funds, great! But the bottom line is: it costs someone somewhere along the line to produce the material. You can’t get away from the money aspect. It is a different culture and set of circumstances then when Paul was writing his epistles.

    I also agree with a3w275 that it depends on your audience to a degree. Most Christian books are purchased by Christians for their growth or for giving away to a non-Christian friend or family member. In some cases, a break on the cost would be nice but most of us can afford it and if not, perhaps we could give up coffee for a day or two and use those funds to purchase the book. For non-Christians I would say give the book away freely. It would be great to see you rank up there with Piper and publish through a publisher while being able to give the books away or at publisher costs . . . not sure how that works but I like it.

    Looking forward to reading your book!

  10. Thanks for some really good feedback. The question about the intended audience for the book is a good one and definitely comes into play here. The book is aimed primarily at your average church attender. I definitely think a non-Christian could read the book profitably, but I haven’t focused it specifically in that direction. Instead, its aim is to help your average Christian understand the Gospel better.

    I should also say that it’s most particularly aimed at a younger audience (late-teens to late-30s). I certainly don’t think it’s limited to this audience, but many of the analogies and illustrations will probably resonate best with that age group.

    • Marc,
      I am glad you pointed this out. I was confused in the poll when it said a book about the gospel. I was thinking free is good if the book is primarily to non-Christians as a gospel presentation. However, since you say it is for Christians, i think traditional is good. perhaps since it is especially for young folk, trying to get the publisher to offer it at a cheaper ebook price point would be good.

  11. Adam, I definitely like the idea of a both/and – using a traditional publisher but still giving the book away for free online. But, I’m with you in that I don’t know if you can get away with this unless you’re a Piper (which I’m clearly not!).

  12. Marc:
    I have an honest question for you. Do you really think your book is unique and there’s nothing like it available or no book that does it better? If yes then I would go with an established well know publisher if possible who can put marketing behind it and get wide distribution. If it’s not but you still think its good and worth publishing I would go with a cheaper publisher or self publish. If you go the 2nd route I would still try to make it look as good as possible and not cheesy or amateurish.

  13. It seems to me that if someone really wants to understand the gospel they should be willing to sell everything they own to buy your book.

    I vote traditional publishing (no surprise I suppose). You’ve already mentioned the biggest pros: higher quality and better marketing/reach.

    And, if it makes you feel better, you’ll probably still make little or no money off it, unless it’s a romance or a thriller. 🙂

  14. Everything costs something.
    Our salvation is free to us from God, but it cost Him something.
    If making money off this book seems wrong to you, then pick a charity and donate the proceeds to them.
    (Water Missions International is a really good charity.)

    But I do agree with others that using a traditional publisher is going to get the word out there so people can read your book. The most gifted artist in the world would mean nothing if they could not share their work.

    I buy alot of books, most of them are to further my journey with God. Here, I don’t have alot of money, but compared to most of the world, I’m so stinking rich its sickening. (And so are you.)
    God bless, and good luck. I look forward to reading your book!

  15. Bryan, that’s a very fair question. There are already a lot of books about the Gospel out there (and more all the time). So, I’d be hard pressed to say that mine is absolutely unique and better than all the others. I do think I take a distinctive approach to telling the story of the Gospel, and it’s one that I think could benefit people. But no, it’s not completely new. (It’s still the Gospel, after all.)

  16. Matt, you’d better vote for the traditional publishing option or we’re going to have conversation about personal integrity!

    It does help a little to remember that I’m not going to benefit financially that much either way. Reading your comment, though, I realized that my issue isn’t so much about me making money. I don’t have any problem with someone getting paid for doing ministry. My issue is more on the other end – making someone pay to hear the Gospel. But, if everyone is right and we need to charge people so that they understand that this is something valuable (the Gospel, not my book), then maybe that’s the way to go.

    • Well… if the book is targeted at Christians anyway, you have people who already know the value of the gospel and are paying for it in pretty much the same way that, say, a seminary student pays for a Thm. They know it’s valuable and want to know more. And God willing it will translate to more people telling non-believers about the good news. Maybe for free.

  17. By the way, how messed up does it make us if we can’t believe something good can be free?

    • Messed up, maybe. But experience is a good teacher, and too often books that are poor quality are cheap or free. In part because it has not been vetted by editors who get paid by the proceeds from the book.

      Besides, you already get paid to teach and instruct God’s Word; there is no prohibition against such in Scripture; and there is actually admonition in Scripture that teachers/preachers should be paid for their labors. The bigger question is, “Is the quality of what I am producing good and true?” For example, Joel Osteen shouldn’t get a dime for his published drivel (I’ve read it, btw), because, it is a bait and switch. Yours on the other hand will be wonderful and edifying. But if at the end of the day the money bothers you, feel free to give it to Hope!:-)

      • I completely agree that teachers/preachers can and should get paid for their work. I commented above that I really don’t have any problem receiving the money for my work, it’s the thought of asking people to pay money to hear the Gospel that I seem to be resisting. I realize that’s an odd paradox, but such is life.

        And, it’s good to hear that you rank my writing at least slightly higher than Joel Osteen’s.

  18. If you gave away your books free for the sake of the gospel I think that’s be pretty far out! Going against the grain anyways. 🙂

  19. Hey Marc! As with most here, I think I’d lean toward using a traditional publisher, as they will assist with quality control and marketing, and also lend credibility to the work. I don’t know the ins and outs of publishing, but obviously do all you can to keep the final costs low.

    Posting it online would be great, but unless you hooked up with some kind of organization that had a wide audience, few people would actually “discover” it.

    If it’s going to be physically published, the unfortunate reality is that there’s going to be some cost. Whether it be you, the publisher, some foundation, or the end user, someone is going to pay for it.

    Let us know how it turns out!

  20. It depends on how much you value the effort you have gone into writing it Marc and the information you believe will benefit the Christian community.

    Normally self publishing limits the distribution of the book; whereas if you have a publishing house who believes in the book; they will distribute it / advertise it etc.

    The question I believe goes deeper and how do we pay our Christian teachers / pastors etc… you make a decent living at a Bible college teaching the “Gospel” …. what is the difference from you; a pastor at a church and selling a book?

    If you have problems with making a profit, you can follow John Stott; who gave all the proceeds from his writings to mission. In his case he said he was paid and released by the church to write and why should he profit from that?

  21. In my mind I’ve gone over all the answers to Marc’s question as if he were Jesus asking this question of us His apostles. It’s made for an interesting thought exercise.

  22. I think you should go the traditional route….but give all your Th.M. students free copies.

  23. Craig and Matt, good comments. I’ve been wrestling with the same thoughts most of the day because I’m well aware that I’m already being paid generously by Western and we charge students to receive the instruction that I provide (though I wish we could figure out a way to do it less expensively). So, what’s the difference here?

    As near as I can tell, the difference for me is that this project is specifically about the Gospel. We don’t charge students tuition just to come and hear about the Gospel – though we talk a lot about the Gospel, of course. And, as much teaching and preaching as I’ve done in churches over the years, I’ve never made people pay just to come and hear the Gospel. So, the rub for me is the idea of charging for something that should be the preeminent example of a gracious gift. And, that doesn’t really change for me just because the book is geared for Christians. It seems just as odd to charge God’s own people for his own free gift as it is to charge everyone else.

    That said, I can understand the argument that charging for the book might be the best way to make sure that lots of people hear about the free gift. It seems counterintuitive, but it still makes a weird kind of sense (in this terribly broken world filled with odd creatures like us).

    • #1 Best selling book and CBA money-maker: THE BIBLE.

      So the real question is, What Would Jesus Do? Apparently he has gone both the self-publishing and traditional route. If you take the long view, say, four thousand years, I think you could do both.

  24. Back in the day when Barnhart was a pup and minimum wage was about $3.00/hr., musicians like Andre Crouch were criticized for charging $8.50 to attend his concerts where the gospel was allegedly showcased. Andre’s response was “the laborer is worthy of his hire,” and tickets and albums were marked competitively with those of the secular entertainment industry. Fair enough. Then along came a radical named Keith Green who, like Marc, was uneasy with charging for the gospel in music. So he had his work professionally produced and released with the understanding that the albums were free to those who wanted one free and all others were invited to make a donation. (We still have ours; I think we sent Keith $5 for “So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt?”) How he arranged that with his recording company I have no idea, but I do like the approach.

    That’s my meager contribution, but how is God leading? Standing by . . .

    P.S. Now that Barnhart’s making $6.00/hr., I wouldn’t give him one for free.

  25. Jim, thanks for the historical connection. It’s always good to remember that conversations like this have taken place before.

    And, don’t worry, I’m sure that if Dave’s making that much, he’ll offer to underwrite the whole project.

  26. By the way, it also seems interesting that most of the comments have been in favor of a traditional publishing approach, but the majority of votes so far are either for making it free online or self-publishing.

  27. I self published. I think I’ve sold a couple of dozen copies altogether. I’ve given a couple of hundred away. Self publishing will not get many out there unless YOU do all the marketing yourself. If its a message worth getting out, its worth having a real publisher to do real marketing for you. The only other real alternative is to do the free thing, but then you still have the issue of getting publicity. Free does not equal easy. I don’t much care when it comes to my own book because it isn’t a great novel and it isn’t a gospel message either. Its an intense study. That’s what it is and that’s all it is. But if you’ve got something with potential for broad popularity, you’ve got to get help unless you’re good at it yourself when it comes to marketing. If you do self publish, and that’s an relatively cheap way to get hard copies (even if you put it for free online), be sure to get someone who knows what they’re doing to do the editing. Nothing like minor grammar errors and other faux pas to really make an otherwise good piece look like crap. That’s part of why I blog – to get criticism and because nobody cares if a blog contains a typo. And besides, I can still post from my book all I want on my own blog. 😀

    • The marketing side is a real concern for me – particularly since I absolutely loathe anything that looks, smells, or tastes like self-promotion. I just can’t get myself to do it. Even blogging was a real stretch for me at first because it seemed so narcissistic in many ways.

      • I know exactly what you mean. I have years of experience in marketing myself and I still feel that way about anything that’s about me personally. I think that’s why I’ve only sold two or three dozen book. LOL. Want one? I’ll send it to you if you email me your address. 😉

      • Isn’t that what your students and particularly your TA’s are for? 😉

  28. Michael Fletcher

    I like the ebook idea. One reason is because most books that get published only make it through one publication of less than 5,000 copies. Of those copies, the ones which are not sold are given back to the publisher to be recycled and used for printing different books. When you think about the process, it is very wasteful. One of these days, all of the publishing companies are going to start primarily publishing ebooks. All that to say, I would encourage going through a publisher (they know how to market better than any of us) and having an ebook published.

    • Good thought. That’s actually one of the reasons I’ve started buying more ebooks myself. So I’m definitely inclined in that direction as well.

      Sent from my Android phone using TouchDown (

  1. Pingback: Should a book on the gospel be free? | The Western Seminary Blog

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