Wisdom from a Fellow Agent
November 12, 2007 | Written by admin
Steve Laube (pronounced "Lobby’) is a longtime friend of mine. We first got acquainted years ago, when we were both working as editors and we spoke at some of the same conferences. I always found Steve to be wise and articulate (whereas I’m known more as "wise-guy" and "intemperate"). Once I became an agent, I used to pitch him projects at Bethany House, and our friendship continued. Then Steve succumbed to the dark side and became an agent in his own right, and the two of us started our own little chat group — a couple of literary agents, dishing the dirt on projects and trying to one-up each other. He’s still a friend, we still chat, and I still value what he has to say.
Some people will think I’m crazy, turning my bl0g over to a competitor — but I always appreciate my conversations with Steve, so I thought the readers of this blog would enjoy hearing what an experienced friend has to say on the topics of the day.
Steve, it’s great to have you join us. Let’s start by talking about CBA — what are the trends you’re seeing in fiction?
"This is always a challenge. Three years ago I couldn’t sell a bestselling historical author anywhere. Today everyone wants historicals. Who knows about tomorrow? Publishers and authors alike tend to ‘chase the ball’ in an effort to match the perceived interests in the market. Unfortunately everyone sort of gets the same idea at the same time. For example, there was a sudden flood of chick-lit after Kristin Billerbeck’s first novel was such a success. But here we are, a few years later, and very few publishers are willing to even consider a new ‘lit’ project.
"We get the same problem with science-fiction and fantasy (which are two distinct genres, contrary to common verbiage). I championed that category when I was at Bethany House and we launched Karen Hancock, Randy Ingermanson, John Olson, and Kathy Tyers. Unfortunately the market was soft and the category sort of frittered away to where the 2007 Christy Awards didn’t even have the category designated for an award. However at the same time we have observed the wild success of CBA YA fantasy novels from both Donita K. Paul and Bryan Davis. That success has opened a small window of opportunity in this category for adults too. Only a couple publishers are looking, and I can state that they will probably only release one or two authors, and wait for the market to vote. If the numbers are not strong? The cycle will begin all over again.
"So my advice is to stop chasing the market. Don’t suddenly decide that you must write an Amish novel just because they are popular today. Don’t write a Da Vinci Code knock-off just because it was cool to write a story with a ‘lost manuscript.’ Writers have no idea how many similar proposals we see that simply echo the current bestseller list. At all costs avoid the cliche’d approach to storytelling, i.e., the need to toss in a tornado to create suspense, or an assault on a woman to engender sympathy, or a myriad of other themes and triggers that are overused. Take your writing to a level that causes agents and editors to gasp at its creativity and brilliance. This can’t be done by brainstorming one afternoon. It’s why many bestselling books take years to develop and write."
Amen! So my Amish chick-lit about a girl caught in a tornado while searching for some lost Amish recipes won’t fly?
"And now you’ve got me preaching. let me move to another subject before a blow a gasket."
Deal. What are you seeing with writing and publishing in non-fiction?
"There is a similar problem of chasing the market. The difference is that publishers aren’t as concerned with ‘story’ or ‘craft’ with non-fiction. Instead it is the author’s platform or past sales performance that has become the new threshold.
"In the past an author could create a great idea, get published, and consequently be able to build a platform. This still happens (see Donald Miller and Blue Like Jazz), but it is not the norm. Instead the author must work hard, sometimes for years, to create visibility and a media-ready personae, and then create the great book. I have a client, Jill Rigby, who did this the right way. She spent years developing a ministry in her state for teaching manners to kids. She developed a public school curriculum and became an expert in her field. After ten years she thought it time to try and write a book for parents that would run parallel to her ministry. We worked together, found a publisher (Howard), and her book, Raising Respectful Children in a Disrespectful World came out last year and has enjoyed considerable success — so much so that her publisher signed her to do two more books.
"Unfortunately the majority of people have neither the inclination nor the skill set to develop this type of market visibility. They have an experience to share or a topic they have taught or a modest-sized ministry, and think that publishers are going to want to publish because the book is too important to ignore.
"I know Chip has told the hard news in earlier postings, but let me reiterate some of that so he isn’t the only voice you hear on this topic. I know of more than one publisher who won’t even consider looking at a proposal unless the author’s previous books have sold 50,000 copies or more — or if this is a first-time author, the projections are at a minimum of 30,000 in its first year. Those are some huge numbers. I was rejected by one publisher who said, after reviewing a project whose author has a national TV show in over 100 major cities and a dozen foreign countries and over 3 million books in print over the last 20 years, "His last book only sold 25,000 copies — he isn’t big enough for us."
"How’s that for a slap of cold water on a chilly morning?"
So what’s a writer to do?
"Again, write the absolute best book you can, and then write it better. If you are starting out, ply your talent in the magazine world. Get used to creating snappy ideas that editors love. I have a client who spent 10 years developing a reputation as a top-drawer article writer. The author was eventually asked to write scripts for a radio program. Then she was asked to record scripts of her own for that program. Next thing you know we were able to leverage those scripts into a book contract. She didn’t start out with the book; she started out by becoming a great writer and making contacts in the industry. Now her dream has come true for publishing a book.
"At the same time, work on becoming an expert in your field. Speaking, writing articles, blogging, etc. Give us a reason to pay attention to what you have to say. The market beast is cold-hearted, vicious, and unyielding in its demand for big ideas."
I know you’ve worked as a bookseller, editor, and agent. You’ve seen the industry grow and change. What do you think the future holds for Christian publishing?
"I’ve been in this industry for 26 years. I’ve watched it grow, and personally felt its growing pains. But I believe the industry is healthy, and becoming smarter. One can walk around the convention floor at the annual International Christian Retailing Show (ICRS) in July and either feel despair or feel inspired. I must admit that after 26 consecutive annual conventions, I still get a thrill when walking the sales floor. It is a picture of ‘God on the Move.’ Nowhere else can one see so much incredible talent in one place, and all with the same goal: to help change the world. I remember one New York general market editor who recently came to the show for the first time. She said, ‘I had no idea that I would see such a high level of quality in design and production, and such great content.’
"There are some who see the glass as half empty. They say that Christian bookstores are in trouble and this means the demise of the industry. All I can say is that CBA is a reflection of the market at large. The ABA independent booksellers are struggling just as much as CBA independent booksellers. The chains in both markets are cutting a wider swath. Is this good or bad? Hard to say, but there are more books being sold than ever before, so with that measure it is a good thing.
"It is a privilege to be part of this marvelous industry, and to contribute to the writing and publishing of books that have such an extraordinary impact. I’ve been asked, ‘What do you do for a living?’ I answer, ‘I read.’ When they ask, ‘What do you do for fun?’ I answer, ‘I read.’ It can’t get much better than that!"
You still go to conferences and get hounded by authors who want to show you their latest book ideas. What other advice would you have for authors wanting to move forward in their careers?
"The best advice I’ve heard is to view the conference as a learning experience, not a ‘selling’ experience. So often writers are crushed or disappointed because the conference did not meet expectations. The publishing world is one that will break your heart. Therefore the best thing to do is to learn as much as possible about it. Then you can navigate the labyrinth with a little more confidence. I have clients who first heard me at a conference as many as ten years ago. They spent intervening years studying and learning and writing. Now their material is ready for prime time.
"Use a conference as a way to meet with other writers and make them part of your extended network and support. Editors and agents are always on the hunt for the ‘next best,’ and someday yours may be the exact project we are looking for."
Great advice, Steve. Thanks for joining me on the blog and sharing your wisdom.