February 27th, 2007 | Questions from Beginners | 9 Comments
1. Candice (who is obviously not well, since she said that she reads my blog faithfully) noted that her book proposals are sometimes rejected because they are too much like other books that have already been published. She asked, "How can we get around that?"
That’s funny, since I recently noted that publishers have a tendency to look for things they are comfortable with — something similar to what they are already publishing. But my guess here is that you either (a) have had the bad timing of showing around an idea similar to someone else’s recent idea, or (b) are showing around an idea that just isn’t fresh. Because in general publishers look for ideas they already know how to sell. Make sure you’re not chasing a trend, because by the time a publishing trend has been identified, the momentum for that trend is probably already gone.
2. Tracy wrote to ask, "How do we obtain sales figures?"
ABA retailers have a software program called BookScan that reveals recent and lifetime sales for all titles, though it only accounts for participating stores, and the Big Box stores like Wal-Mart aren’t included. CBA has its own program, called STATS, that offers some of the same information from CBA retailers. Within most publishing houses, there is a decidedly mixed attitude about the usefulness and accuracy of those numbers. If you ask your editor, he or she can try to get you sales figures, though there is no guarantee. (That said, your publisher ought to be able to furnish you with THEIR OWN sales numbers…I’ve never understood a publisher’s reluctance to share accurate and timely sales figures with the author of the book.) Sometimes you can take an educated stab by doing some research or by emailing friends — editors at various houses will often call each other to ask for accurate sales numbers of books. And if you can’t get them for your proposal, leave them off. Better to ignore sales numbers than to guess and get them wrong.
3. As a follow up, Pam asked if writers should do comparisons of picture books.
In my view, that’s an easy yes. Showing comparable titles helps a publishing house type your book proposal, giving them an advance organizer when they begin discussing it.
4. Another question referenced a blog interview I did a few days ago. In that interview, I told the story of Elizabeth Kostova, the author of THE HISTORIAN with Little, Brown. I was an associate publisher with Time Warner (a sister company to L/B), and I told everyone that Kostova’s manuscript was in-house for nearly two years. That allowed editors, marketers, and sales people to get excited about her novel, and really build a lot of buzz for it. THE HISTORIAN holds a unique place in publishing history — it’s the only time a first-timer has debuted at #1 on the New York Times Fiction Bestseller list. Someone asked regarding that situation, "Was that buzz created by the author, agent, publisher or a combination?"
The incredible buzz surrounding that book was due to a combination of factors. First, Kostova had an incredibly fresh idea. Second, she wrote a wonderful book. Third, she worked with her editor, and let the manuscript work its way around. Fourth, the marketing people really did their homework, making sure the book was reviewed everywhere, and was getting all sorts of happy talk on the web and in print. Fifth, the publisher didn’t feel they had to be in a hurry to get it published. (A lesson I’d like more CBA houses to explore. Too many Christian novels are raced into production, thereby not leaving much room to either correct errors or built momentum.)
5. After my discussion of Christian fiction last week, Mark wrote to ask, "(In CBA novels,) Do characters need to be Christian? Do they talk Jesus a lot? Does the conflict resolve with conversion? Does the story need to evangelize the reader?"
No, no, no, and no. Or at least "not necessarily." When I say "Christian ficiton," I’m basically referencing novels that are created by Christian readers, largely for the Christian market. The novels may contain characters who are and are not Christians. Many don’t "talk Jesus" very much, though I think most have a redemptive message. Rarely do many modern novels resolve with a conversion, since that can seem trite (or, if you prefer, it’s too easy to have the conflict resolved by having the nemesis suddenly announce that he’s repenting and becoming a nice Christian). And while some novelists probably write to evangelize readers, in my experience few of the good novelists do. The goal is to write a great story — a story that reveals characters I care about, in interesting situations, struggling with the deeper questions of life and making decisions…decisions that are not always correct or easy to evaluate, so as the reader I am forced to reflect on my own choices.
What you seem to be asking about is the difference between a parable and story. Or perhaps you’re just viewing art from a utilitarian point of view ("If I’m a Christian writing a story, I need to write a religious story that preaches the Gospel"). That’s not a view I ascribe to. Art doesn’t need a utility. It doesn’t need to "represent" something else. We don’t need to paint "John 3:16" on a watercolor in order to make it worthwhile. Writing is a way of creating beauty, of helping to understand our selves and our world. Good Christian art, in my view, springs from the lives of Christians. It will probably, in some measure, reflect a Christian worldview. So I can see a Christian novel where there are no overt Christian characters, they don’t talk Jesus, there is no conversion, and the author doesn’t have a goal of evangelizing.
A LOT OF BAD NEWS TODAY: A friend just emailed to say that Phillip Yancey, a pastor and successful author, has been in a very bad car accident in New Mexico and has been life-flighted to a hospital. Earlier today longtime Christian writer and mentor Cecil Murphey suffered a tragedy when his home in the Atlanta area burned down — and his son-in-law was lost in the blaze. Please say a prayer for both of these friends. Thanks.