March 31st, 2007 | Publishing, Trends | 11 Comments
In the world of publishing, we have what we call "evergreens" — topics that are always of interest to readers. Books on money, health, relationships, purpose, living more effectively, and finding spiritual peace always seem to resonate with people. And every generation needs its own voices, so every few years the culture needs new books on all those topics. In addition, what works for one may not work for another, so alternative viewpoints create publishing opportunities for more writers (that’s why one person can write a book that tells you she lost weight eating nothing but meat, and another can write a book claiming she lost weight cutting all meat from her diet). Recently I had a couple questions sent to me that were connected to the notion of evergreens…
Joy wrote to ask, "What makes a topic universally popular?"
I think you need to write to a universally felt need. That means you might write a book that says, "I want to save money" or "I want to lose weight" or "I want to feel closer to God." Think about the needs and desires that are common in our world — "I want to feel better and have more energy" and "I want to worry less" and "I want to find something interesting to do with my life" and "I want to experience healthier relationships." Think of the needs we all share, the emotions we feel, and you’ll be on your way to locating an evergreen topic.
When I worked at Time Warner, you could pretty well assume that every season one of our imprints would do a personal finance book. We were going to have a handful of diet and exercise books each year. We were going to offer a book aimed at helping people develop better relationships, another for those who want to move closer to God, and something else aimed at moms and their roles. Why cover the same ground each year? Because people want something new that speaks to their current situation. And yes, I’ll grant you that it’s funny, since there is a similarity in the answers. (Every diet book basically offers similar information: eat less, move more. Every finance book presents the same basic solutions: spend less, save more. Every spiritual book gives similar guidelines: talk to God, listen to God…and send a donation to my ministry. Glory!) Sometimes you’ll come up with a whole new way to approach an issue. Other times you’re simply repackaging answers for a new audience.
Dave wrote to ask if evergreens work with magazines — and they definitely do. Take a look at any popular woman’s magazine: You’ll find health stories ("ten tips to trimming your thighs" and "how to lose that belly forever"), money stories ("how to invest in an IRA" and "cheap places to take your family on vacation"), relationship stories ("discover what he really wants" and "how to talk heart to heart"), faith stories (how some celebrity found peace), and all sorts of self-improvement stories (checklists, to-do’s, ideas to try, etc). You’ll also find reviews, sexual insight that is tough to put into a book, and stories on travel. All evergreens, all useful when moving into magazine writing.
One thing to keep in mind is that every magazine has a unique readership, so almost every article you write will have to be reshaped in some way. It’s rare that you write one article and sell it to ten different magazines with the same wording…but every professional knows you can use the same basic article and create ten or fifteen similar stories in order to fit the magazine specs or reach the correct audience. As I mentioned once before, my friend Dennis Hensley, who runs the Professional Writing Program at Taylor University in Fort Wayne, Indiana, has sold his time-management principles more than a dozen times — and each time it takes a unique slant for that magazine’s readership.
Changing directions completely, Brad wrote me to say, "I’ve noticed you generally feel free to be critical of things you don’t like. But that seems rare in Christian publishing, where every review is positive and apparently all novelists are geniuses. I’ve just been asked to review novels for a publication. If I see something I really don’t like, how should I respond?"
This is a tough question for me, since I am always SO nice. I think as writers, Christians have often made the mistake of being far too polite. We have a tendency to assume, "We’re nice religious people, so we’ve got to respond with nice, religious words." And that sort of attitude almost niced us out of publishing.
Really! A while back CBA publishers were producing some bad novels, claiming they were great, and pawning them off on an unsuspecting Christian readership. But readers aren’t stupid, and caught on. They forced publishers to improve the quality of writing in Christian novels. We are currently seeing some excellent writing from Christian novelists (along with some crud…but that doesn’t make CBA any different from the general market, which also produces a fair bit of crud), and I think CBA gets painted unfairly with a broad brush that suggests those writing from a religious perspective can’t be great artists. Rot. Some of the greatest artists of all time were very devout. I don’t see how faith negatively infuenced the works of Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Sayers, or the myriad other faith-infused authors.
On the other hand, Christian writers need to figure out that it’s time to give up the notion "because I intend this for God, it is good and meaningful." I hear people talk about their writing in spiritual terms ("God GAVE this to me!") and assume, because they claim to be speaking for Him, their words carry great weight. What presumption. Using that logic, to criticize their writing is to criticize God.
Similarly, I see authors act as though I owe them my attention because they "write about God" or because they’ve had a spiritual event happen to them. Since it’s God-related, I’m supposed to pay attention? Baloney. To a reader, or to a publisher, why is YOUR story any more important than the story of someone who embraced krishna? Why is it automatically more meaningful than someone who claimed to feel a burning in their bosom and joined the Mormons? Or somebody who has struggled with their sexuality? (A side note: Our culture seems to put value on "struggle." So if somebody has "struggled" with their decision before making a really stupid choice, the struggle has somehow sanctified it. The husband of Terry Schaivo really struggled before making the decision to end her life, so he must be a good guy…)
Look, just because something happened to you that was significant in your spiritual life does not necessarily make it significant to me. Just because you think God spoke to you doesn’t automaticlaly grant you an audience. Just because you’ve reflected on some deep truth doesn’t qualify your musings on it for publication. Even the best stories/reflections/theology require good writing skill to communicate them to readers.
So…to begin with, if you’re going to review novels, I think you need to know your stuff. You need to know writing and books, which means read widely and understand the craft of novel writing. I’ve spent my life with books and words, so I don’t feel a need to create an apology for negatively critiquing a bad book. But it’s not like I intentionally am looking to say something bad. I’m not trying to burnish my reputation as CBA’s bad boy. If I dislike a work, I still try to figure out what is wrong with it, where it could have been improved. And while I generally tried to say something positive about every book I reviewed, I felt compelled to tell readers the truth, not to sugarcoat a bitter pill. In other words, I think we need to feel free to say "this isn’t very good, and here’s why." And I don’t think we should have to apologize for doing so. You can’t argue that Christ was always nice, or never used pointed words (ask the Pharisees about that one).
But be warned: You’ve got to have a strong ego, and know how to shake off counterattacks. Reviewing means you can sometimes be put in an awkward situation. The first time a friend does a book you don’t like, you’re going to be in a tight spot. I have a friend who was asked to review a book from one of his artistic heroes. Unfortunately, the author had gotten old and, in my opinion, lazy. The book was weak. I thought the review my friend created was fairly generous — it pointed out the problems, but also revealed some hero worship. That wasn’t good enough for the author. He sent a nasty note to the reviewer, went out of his way to say uncomplimentary things about him, and took the whole thing much too personally. In fact, that author went to his grave never "forgiving" my friend for writing a bad review. It can happen. Make sure you’re ready for that before you dive in. Be fair. State what you like as well as what you don’t like. Try not to go into a book with huge expectations (one of the reasons we sometimes see scathing reviews is that the reviewer was hoping for something else). Offer coherent reasons for your opinons. Then let it sit overnight before you send it — just in case you want to temper your sentences. (It seems like the words I rushed into are the ones I most regret.) Once it’s been sent, learn to forget about it. Move on to something else, and don’t pay any attention to those who want to "review the reviewer." It’s the only way I know to survive the difficult role.
Oh…and since you’re generally CRITICIZING THE WORDS OF GOD, you should also plan to SPEND ETERNITY IN HELL WITH OTHER CRITICS, rather than with all those soft, cuddly Christians who never have a bad word to say about others. :o)