Letter to a Young Author: So You Want to Write a Book . . .
Your book idea -- one dealing with the criticality of religious faith in both personal and societal life -- is an excellent one. Because I haven't sought to publish in more than a decade, I have to think some about your questions regarding possible agents and publishers.
One (brief) research project you might do is to look into the nature/background of The Secret, which is essentially another "think good thoughts" book, but has somehow become the nation's bestselling book (at least according to amazon.com).
I used to write a couple of lines in my speechwriting days, "First, you have to conceive it. Then, you have to to believe it (can be done). At that point, you're in a position to achieve it." Maybe I should have used that simple concept as the foundation for a book -- and perhaps I will.
Your strength as a potential book-writer is that you understand the world around us (including the roles of people like Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears, who are 'significant for their insignificance" -- quoting myself). My point here is that you truly don't want to write an academic book, one that would have an adoring audience of 700 readers but would mystify everyone else.
You're dead right about the difficulty at this point of selling a collection of your essays, which I'd read avidly, but might be a little early in your career for the rest of humanity. When you have 25,000-plus readers (a la William F. Buckley, Jr.) who will buy anything you write, then the essay collection will work.
In your research, you might find the success story of The Secret a little depressing. Books that sell well generally solve "the riddle of the universe" in 25 words or less -- then expand (somewhat) on those 25 words.
The core of The Secret is that "thoughts become things." In essence, the book says that if you think the right thoughts -- positive ones -- you will be happy, healthy, and wealthy. There's at least some truth to that idea, which most academics greet with disgust. You may have noticed that most academics aren't especially happy, healthy, or rich. :-)
I realize I'm not giving a lot of practical ideas (e.g., recognizing that you must have an agent who loves the idea, understanding that most agents rely more on volume of clients than on quality of a book proposal, and realizing that the most likely publishers are ones who've published books something like yours). What you want to get across is that your idea is different -- but not so distinctive that it won't sell big.
Your own "secret" here might be with your online publishing at a certain conservative web site, where the editors and contributors can give you good ideas on agents/publishers.
My old agent -- I won't give his name -- is someone I wouldn't recommend. He's a "volume" guy, a churner of book proposals. He ended up making $200,000-plus a year, while most of his authors were in the $10,000 range.
As a conservative writer with an "attitude," you need to look into who publishes Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, and others like them. However, recognize that you're not really a bomb-thrower like Ms. Coulter. Your target audience is thoughtful Christians concerned about modern secularism and a-morality.
Let's keep talking about this subject, with a view toward getting yourself at a point where thinking will lead to action -- getting the right agent and publisher.
One important thing: publishers want you to prove to them that your work will sell. So, keep a copy of the responses (thousands) you've received to your web site pieces.
Publishers do like to have bestsellers -- which I'd define as 25,000 hardbound copies (or more). The way you get to that level of sales is not to conduct focus groups, but rather to write a clear, compelling book on a subject that has real interest to many people.
I tend to "think things to death," but the move -- the action -- is the key.
I once read a book about how to write a book. It was excellent in that its advice was to write, write, write, set tough deadlines, edit, and then send it off. As you know, it's possible to spend weeks perfecting a paragraph, but that's the worst way to write a book.
To have a book, you'd need about 60,000 words (200 pages in book form). You already have the core. It should take somewhere between 90-180 days to have a manuscript in hand. As you're aware, people "who are going to write a book . . . someday" won't.
Your book audience would be the people who already like your work, plus a much larger group (evangelical Christians and traditional Catholic-Christians).
There are religious publishers, some of whom think big in terms of sales, most of whom might be difficult to abide. I'm talking about publishers who might be uncomfortable with your tendency (a good one) to write/live on the edge. They may wonder, for example, if their readers might be shocked by a mention that Britney Spears didn't always wear underpants or that Bill Clinton did some nasty business in the Oval Office.
Ken Follett (Eye of the Needle and many other blockbusters) wrote about 10 books that didn't sell -- and then he caught his stride with Needle. (He got a $20,000 advance on the American hardbound edition of that book -- and an $800,000 advance on the paperback edition. As an educated guess, I'd say his royalties after the advances on Needle are probably about a million or more.
Do I think you could make it "just" as a book writer (without continuing reliance on your day jobs as an academic? I do, but it could be a couple of tough years because it takes time for any money to flow.
One big question to ask yourself is: Could I live with my idea for a year? Could I retain my energy and interest?
Overall, you have a great idea. Let's keep talking -- in a focused way -- about this subject.