Recently Ben Denny, who runs The Agent Canon, called to ask me some questions about publishing and agenting. I thought you'd find some of it interesting, so I'm going to share some of the questions and answers in today's blog. It began with, "What can you tell me about your history with books and words?"
I've been in the writing world for more than 30 years, having started as a magazine editor back in college in Portland, Oregon. I worked in magazines, then in newspapers, but have spent most of the past 20 years in book publishing. I made my living as an author and freelance writer/editor for several years, and have 20-some books with my name, another bunch for which I was the collaborative writer, and another dozen where I was the ghostwriter. I worked as an editor for Vision House, moved up to being a Senior Editor at Harvest House, was eventually an Associate Publisher for Time-Warner Book Group. Twelve or thirteen years ago I started working with authors, helping them get their proposals in shape and shopping them to publishers. I worked as a literary agent at a large agency for several years, became the senior agent, then started my own literary agency a little more than three years ago.
"What sort of success have you had with the books you represented?"
I've represented a multitude of books that have hit the bestseller lists. Titles I've worked with have hit the lists at the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Denver Post, LA Times, Barnes & Noble, and the Amazon Top 100. And, of course, I've had a bunch of books hit the CBA bestseller list as well. "Let's Roll," a book I represented that was written by Lisa Beamer, widow of Sept 11 hero Todd Beamer, hit #1 on the NYT list and became the bestselling nonfiction book of 2003. "Quaker Summer," a book by LIsa Samson, and "The Shape of Mercy," written by Susan Meissner, were both chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the top 100 titles of 2007 and 2008, respectively. Last year "Through the Storm," a book by Britney Spears' mother Lynne, hit #5 on the NYT list. This year I've had a bunch of books hit the lists, including Irene Hannon's "Against All Odds," which debuted on the CBA bestseller list, then stayed there for four months. In the past year I've done deals with Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Wiley & Sons, Hachette (formerly Time-Warner Book Group), Thomas Nelson, Zondervan, and numerous other companies. I have a pretty good reputation with publishers, I guess, and the Publishers Weekly "Dealmakers" list says I am one of the busiest literary agents in the country. Um… actually, right now it says I am the busiest agent in the country. Not just in CBA, either. I'm sorry if that sounds like I'm blowing my own horn. You asked. The fact is, I represent great writers, and that's been the one thing that has helped me be successful.
There are hundreds of literary agents. What sets you apart?
Two things probably make me a bit unique… First, I have made my living as a writer, editor, publisher, and agent. So I know what it's like to be a writer trying to finish a project, and I know what it's like to be a publisher trying to sell that project. That's fairly rare for an agent. Second, I did my doctoral work at the University of Oregon, and while there I had a Graduate Teaching Fellowship to serve as an Associate Director at the Career Planning and Placement office. Since my undergraduate degree was in theater, my focus at the career office was in helping those with a career interest in the arts. That's proven tremendously helpful in talking with authors about their careers. My experience is that most agents talk about "career planning," but when it comes right down to it, many don't know what that is, therefore offer little practical help. So I do very focused work with the authors I represent on creating a career plan for their writing.
"Does your agency work only in the religious market?"
No. My first year, I did about half my business in the CBA market. The next year that figure was a bit higher, but it fluctuates between 35 and 70 per cent, depending on the year. I don't just represent religious books — I represent authors who happen to be Christian. That means I work with a variety of manuscripts, as well as a wide variety of publishers. So I'd say the theme in my career has been to represent books that are redemptive in some way, though they&
#39;re certainly not all clean, Christian titles. There are some things I refuse to represent (porn, lunatic spirituality, the name-it-and-claim-it crowd), but I prefer to focus on the things I DO rather than the things I DON'T DO.
"What is the big difference between CBA and the general market?"
Both are huge markets — an author can be successful selling only in the CBA, for example. And they certainly overlap. But there are several differences in terms of audience. The CBA market has a large fiction audience, but they want certain things in their stories — a redemptive theme, cleaned up language, no explicit sexual scenes, etc. Those types of expectations are not much different from any other audience — they all have certain requirements. My wife is a quilter, and she's looking for certain things in quilting books — fresh ideas, clear instruction, advanced designs, to-the-point writing. I'm a big creative nonfiction reader, and I have certain expectations in the books I buy — I want big stories, and great writing, words that make me think, and insightful connections to the culture at large. To succeed in the world of Christian publishing, you need to keep the readership in mind.
"Are you finding it tough to be successful in this shaky economy?"
This lousy economy is shaking everyone. Publishers are moving slowly, retailers are trimming both staff and book purchases. That's true in CBA as well as in the general market. Membership in CBA has been in steep decline in recent years, as the distribution patterns of bookselling are reshaped. Religious bookstores are no different from any other bookstores — consumers have figured out how to shop online, or order at Borders, and stores have had to take a "speciality" mindset in order to survive. But we're a culture that loves specialization, so those who focus on good selection, knowledgeable staff, and great customer service will do better than those who try to maintain the old model. As for Christian publishers, the industry has changed significantly, and we've seen that in the shift from CBA as an organization to ECPA, as well as in the broader choices those publishers are offering, and the marketing techniques they're relying on. So… is it tough to make a living in publishing these days? You bet. But… when has it ever been EASY to make a living in the arts?
"What writers should we be watching for?"
That depends on what you like to read. I represent a lot of good writers. Lisa Samson has been writing some of the best redemptive novels for several years now — she's finally being discovered by the marketplace. Susan Meissner's latest novel has raised her to a new level, and she's bound to be discovered by new readers. Mindy Starns Clark has developed a big following because of the intricacy with which she researches and writes her novels. Claudia Mair Burney and Kimberly Stuart are fabulous writers who haven't received the attention they deserve. Ginger Garrett and Mark Bertrand are two young writers who are going to be well received. Jenny B Jones makes me laugh out loud, and Rachel Hauck tells a great story. An as-yet-unpublished Gina Holmes is doing her first novel with Tyndale and it's going to knock your socks off. And on the more popular level, a cop novelist by the name of Mark Mynheir is creating excellent books.
In terms of nonfiction, one obvious up-and-comer is Shane Stanford, who has a very bright future. And two hilarious writers who will be discovered in the next year are Jon Acuff, author of the www.stuffchristiianslike.blogspot.com
And one writer who keeps turning out wonderfully thoughtful books is Keri Wyatt Kent, who I always expect to be discovered and looked at as the next big thing. Another is Karen Zacharias, and author who, like Keri Kent, has a journalism background, and who seems to find ways to tell stories that are important.
Let's see… If I were to choose some of the new writers just coming onto the scene, I'd have to point out Rob Stennett — his first novel was inventive and hilarious, his second was just selected by Library Journal as one of the top ten books of the first half of 2009. (And here let me note how hard it is to do this… I have yet to mention authors like Irene Hannon and Susan Page Davis — good writers who have a strong following. Yikes — what a tough question this turned out to be!)
"Has all the advice you've given on your blog about query letters improved your slush pile? And did you start doing this to get clients?"
Yeah, I think my blogs have helped some writers improve. But I realized a long time ago that I'm not going to be the agent for everyone, so the fact that I can offer some advice and help writers without feeling like I'm going to represent them has been freeing. I feel I have something to say to writers, so this is my way of trying to share some wisdom and experience with people interested in the world of words. And this would be a good place to add that I'm not alone at this — I work with Sandra Bishop, who made her living as a freelance writer for fifteen years, is very savvy, and is way smarter than me. If our blogs have helped people, that's the goal. If it's gained us a few good clients, that's great too.
"But hasn't all this blogging just made your slush pile bigger?"
I work to make the blog relevant and helpful to writers. The pros of the blog — It gives me a voice in the industry, I guess. It's nice PR for my agency. And it's proven helpful to some people, so it's my way of giving back to an industry I love. The cons: I get tired of doing it at times. And I tend to get some of the same questions over and over ("do you represent both Christian and non-Christian books?" "What should I put in my proposal?"). But overall I've enjoyed the writing outlet, and I was built with a heart for sharing information — sort of a natural mentor, I guess. As for it making my slush pile bigger — no doubt about that. Comes with the territory.
"What do you consider your biggest success (as well as your biggest failure)?"
No question on the success… On the morning of Sept 11, 2001, I was in an airplane, flying at 35,000 feet, when the pilot came over the intercom and made this mysterious announcement about there having been "terrorist attacks against the United States" and that "all planes had been ordered out of US airspace." I was on my way to New York, but landed in Omaha (just ahead of President Bush, who was flown there on Air Force One to be protected at Strategic Air Command headquarters). I drove all the way home that day in a big Hertz rental with a group of people I didn't know. A couple days later, I watched the President speak to the nation and introduce the woman standing next to the First Lady — Lisa Beamer. I thought she was poised, gracious, and demonstrated great faith in the midst of crisis. I turned to my wife that moment and said, "You know, she could do a great book." I knew she was going to be surrounded by sharks who would want to cash in and won't know what they're doing. So, believe it or not, my wife and I prayed that night that I'd be able to meet Lisa Beamer and help her do a book. A few weeks later, when I finally made the trip that had been disrupted, I was having breakfast with a woman who was commiserating with me over the difficulty we'd had meeting the first time. When LIsa's name came up in conversation, that woman said to me, "She's certainly been through a difficult time…would you like to meet her? My sister is in a small group with her at a church in New Jersey." No kidding. A couple weeks later I flew to Newark, met with Lisa, mapped out the book, brought in a great writer (IKenny Abraham), and they crafted a book that not only hit #1 on the New York Times list, but was the biggest selling nonfiction book of 2003. A great success, and a book I'm proud to have represented. (In fact, it's been so successful that I notice others trying to take credit for it. My boss at the time, Rick Christian of Alive Communications, shared a laugh with me recently when we saw an announcement from some agent-wannabe claiming to have been one of the agents on it. It's funny how people love to attach themselves to success.)
As for the biggest disaster… that would probably have been when I LEFT agenting. I had a great career, was the senior literary agent with Alive Communications, a company that has done all sorts of things to change the business of Christian publishing for the better. But Time-Warner Book Group came calling, said they were looking for an Associate Publisher, wanted to reshape the way business was done, etc. I left a successful career as an agent, moved across the country, and took a job I thought would offer all sorts of potential to do big things. Unfortunately, I quickly became a corporate suit. My time was spent sitting on the strategic planning committee, arguing with people, and filling out P&L forms. Don't get me wrong, many of the people there were great (my boss even let me stay at his house while I was making the transition of getting our home sold and the kids out of school in Colorado). But I didn't ever feel it was a fit, I ended up axing the entire editorial team, and somewhere between the company being sold to Hachette and the talk about "creative differences," it was made clear to me that they could do without my services. I was 48 years old and had just bought an expensive home in Nashville. Ugh. It was a humbling time. Still, that led to me making some decisions about what I wanted to do with my life, then starting my own literary agency. I now represent GREAT authors, have a wonderful business partner in Sandra Bishop, and am doing something that I'm good at and find fulfilling. So I suppose I need to thank my old boss for pushing me out the door, but the person I REALLY need to thank is Rick Christian, who not only taught me everything I know, but was understanding and gracious about me starting a company that competes with his own. Life has successes and disasters, and it's how we respond to them that shapes us into the people we are.
Got a question about writing or publishing? Send me an email and I'll try to offer some wisdom.