Archive for the ‘Current Affairs’ Category

What’s working in CBA fiction these days?

July 27th, 2015 | CBA, Current Affairs | 12 Comments

I’ve been getting all sorts of follow-up questions to my posts on CBA fiction…

In CBA, what genres do well in fiction and which ones do poorly? Is there a growing movement toward spec fiction and fantasy? 

Romance continues to lead the way in CBA fiction, though we’ve seen a bit of a shift from historicals to contemporary stories. Romantic suspense also does well, followed by straight suspense novels. There’s a random sampling of other genres (some women’s fiction, some historical sagas, the occasional apocalyptic thriller), but we’ve seen very little in the way of speculative fiction, fantasy, new adult, YA, horror, or paranormal stories do well in CBA. I keep hearing there’s a growing market for those kinds of titles, and there may be… but to this point, it’s pretty much been limited to indie-published titles and some very small presses who consider it a huge success to move a thousand copies. You may think it makes sense for this to be a growth category, but it hasn’t proven to be true in CBA, at least not yet.

What was it that made the novel The Shack a runaway success after it had been rejected by traditional publishers?

I think The Shack told an intriguing story, had an interesting depiction of God that had some appeal (if you’re not aware, the role of God was pictured as an African-American woman, and the Holy Spirit was portrayed as a rather ethereal elderly Asian woman), and spoke to an audience of people who wanted to feel they were reading something deep about God. (They were not, by the way. The story has major problems, and the writing is weak.) The big picture of the novel is that the lead character had a bunch of crud in his past that needed to be brought out into the light and examined – which is certainly a good message. It was also controversial, which garnered it some attention. The book did well, sold copies, and took off via word of mouth among spiritual seekers. Then FaithWords at Hachette bought it, pumped a bunch of marketing money into it, and the book blew the roof off. I think they sold more than six million copies. Many people used it to suggest we’d arrived in a new place with Christian fiction. My thought? Mencken was right. Don’t get me wrong — I appreciate a surprise hit. But I read the book and thought it was really weak. There were many other, better books that could have been used as examples of the good stuff being produced by writers of faith. CBA fiction has hit a place where there are some wonderful writers, telling excellent, thought-provoking stories. But this was an example where great art can be a much tougher sell than bad art masquerading as something deep. It was the painting equivalent was Thomas Kinkade, who somehow convinced much of America that his nostalgic paintings of cottages were great art. They weren’t bad, by any means – I owned one, and I liked it. But they were safe and easy and romanticized pieces of fluff that made you think of an idealized American pastoral scene, not really great, thoughtful pieces of art that spoke to your soul about anything. Again, I’m not complaining, only explaining that “deep” doesn’t always sell. I mean, who sells more records — the London Philharmonic or Miley Cyrus?

What do you think made the curious little book The Prayer of Jabez so successful a few years ago?

That’s easy: It was a very short book (so it would be easy to read), that was inexpensive (so it would be easy to buy), and it claimed to offer magic words that would give the reader the power to force God to do something (so it had a broad appeal). I know the book well. The author, Bruce Wilkinson, was a friend of mine who I’d worked with on some writing projects. The editor, Dave Kopp, was an acquaintance who has continued working in the industry (he is an excellent editor and is now running the Convergent line for Random House). I don’t think either of them intended the book to be viewed as a “Magic Potion to Make God Do Your Bidding.” Yet the simple promise of the book made it take off unexpectedly, and it generated a pile of money. But again, this happens occasionally in publishing, and you can’t always figure out why one book did great and another book did not. I think anyone who picks up a copy of Henry Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus will find a life-changing manuscript, but most have never heard of it. On the other hand, we’ve all seen books like Your Best Life Now or Going Rogue do well and wonder, “Am I missing something?”

Would love to know books you think are overlooked masterpieces, OR books that made it big and you thought were somewhat less-than-stellar… 

Maybe Family Christian Stores survive after all…

July 23rd, 2015 | Current Affairs | 7 Comments

Some news bits that relate to writers who do books in CBA…

First, Family Christian Stores may, in fact, survive… and thus surprise everyonebookstores_2 in Christian publishing. As previously talked about here and here, FCS was in danger of shuttering its 266 stores due to declining revenues, a tough publishing market, changing tastes among people of faith… oh yeah, and an inability to actually run the whole operation as a profitable enterprise. They did $230-million in business last year, but the Richard Jackson-owned chain had wracked up $127-million in debt, owed publishers $14-million, had $20-million in consignment merchandise they hadn’t paid for, and were basically swimming in a sea of ill will. Two companies that specialize in killing businesses, Gordon Brothers and Hilco Merchant Services, were pushing to have the court declare FCS bankrupt, so they could sell the remaining stock for pennies on the dollar and close the stores. Instead, the judge had the company go through a sale, then nixed it when he found out the CEO of the company, Chuck Bengochea, was making secret late-night phone calls to Mr Jackson to apparently map out an insider strategy in violation of the law, then set up a NEW sale, and this time it’s got a buyer.

Second, the buyer of Family Christian Stores is none other than Mr Richard Jackson and his new company, FCS Acquisitions. Um… go ahead and read back over that if you need to. We’ll wait… Okay, you with me? Yes, Mr Jackson, who made a fortune in health care,  and who purchased FCS and more or less ran it into the ground, then tried to form a new company to buy his old company but got slapped down by a judge for what was termed “reckless… insider” moves, has formed a NEW company, and that new company is buying the OLD company — and thus allowing it to get out of some bad leases, to start afresh with some accounts, and to do what we used to call on the playground “a do-over.” For those who pay attention to this sort of thing, he tried this before, offering to pay as little as $28-million to try and gain control of the company and its assets, but there was a hue and cry against it. This time, he’s putting up nearly $55-million, paying back a fair portion to publishers, and settling with all those consignment folks who felt cheated.

Third, the CBA publishers basically went into court and, no doubt looking as glum as possible, agreed to the plan. I can’t imagine anyone in leadership at a CBA publishing house is high-fiveing over the current regime remaining in control, but it’s better than having 266 retail outlets for their books completely shut down. So they all coughed, made grimacing smiles, straightened their ties, and agreed this was an okay plan. And it is. (Feel free to pop that cork in celebration!)

Fourth, it looks like the bulk of the FCS stores will remain open, and many of the 3100 employees will retain their jobs. That’s actually very good news for Christian writers, since CBA publishers have been slow to move their focus away from brick-and-mortar stores. Christian authors rely on the stores to help get their books in front of readers, so having 266 stores (or however many actually survive — word is FCS will shutter at least 20 locations) is better than nothing.

Fifth, one of the really bad aspects of this bankruptcy has been the impact on consignment vendors, who were still taking their wares into the stores when it was on the brink of collapse because, well, apparently the leadership at FCS forgot to tell them, “Oh yeah, if you bring that in here, we won’t actually be able to pay you for it.” Those vendors banded together, filed suit, and its been the nastiest part of the proceedings. FCS had $20-million in consignment inventory that was, in essence, going to be stolen from vendors. The stores have sold about $6-million of it, and are settling on the rest. (And, while people will try to put a happy face on this, the real reason everyone agreed to this plan is because if the liquidators step in, nobody gets anything. Or, as one business owner put it to me, “With the old plan, we got Jack Squat.” You can just feel the love and enthusiasm, can’t you?)

This should all get settled in mid-August, with a “new” ownership, new leases (that will certainly save the company money), the closing of some money-losing stores, and some fresh capital to try and save the business. Will it work? Beats me. They’re claiming they have “improvements” that will make them more “productive” and “valuable.” Maybe they do — I hope so, since I represent authors in the genre who really could use the shelf space to promote their titles. I’d love it if the stores shrunk, started focusing on books instead of John 3:16 socks and Precious Moments Statuettes, and found ways to build readers. But the past ten years have shown us that bookselling is a tough business, and possibly more of a small mom-and-pop business than a big, superstore chain business. So here’s to you Mr Jackson, and Mr CEO Bengochea (assuming you can refrain from making any more late night calls and stay out of jail). None of us are actually rooting for you — but many of us are rooting for your stores to succeed.

 

Would love to hear about your great local bookstore. Where are you buying your books? 

 

Can CBA novelists move to the general market?

July 20th, 2015 | Current Affairs | 98 Comments

What with the struggles of Christian fiction over the past couple of years, one of the most frequent questions I’ve been getting has to do with the potential shift of writers from CBA to the general market — specifically, Can a CBA novelist move to a traditional publishing house in the general market?

My answer is quick: Potentially you can, but it’s very tough to do successfully. 

I understand why inspirational authors want to explore this shift — CBA fiction is pen and inkshrinking, there are fewer legacy publishing houses releasing fiction, and those that do focus on fiction have generally been trimming the number of titles they release. That’s particularly true with literary fiction, where there are just a handful of traditional CBA houses who do any literary titles at all. And while there are a number of new, smaller presses popping up with titles aimed at religious readers, few have shown staying power and nearly all of them are focused on category fiction (most often romances, though there are also some cozy mysteries, romantic suspense, and even some spec fiction titles available).

In addition, traditional CBA publishers have heavily relied on brick-and-mortar stores to move their books, and the disappearance of so many Christian bookstores has hit publishers extremely hard. The potential closing of Family Christian Stores, the largest chain of religious bookstores, has been a scary proposition for CBA publishers, as I’ve noted on this blog in the past. A recent study done on the buying habits of those who read Christian fiction demonstrated their reliance on finding titles in brick-and-mortar stores. So we have as many writers as ever, but trying to do books in a market with fewer publishers, who are doing fewer titles, available on fewer stores shelves. That’s the problem, in a nutshell.

The potential answer for many authors has been to try and take their stories to the broader general market… and it hasn’t been working. Why? First, understand that much of CBA fiction is dominated by the conservative evangelical brand of Christianity, and the general market isn’t interested in those types of stories. It’s not that they are closed to faith, but people who aren’t part of that culture can’t be expected to embrace it. A writer who grows up in the evangelical culture, who is surrounded by the American evangelical milieux, often isn’t going to know how to speak to a broader audience. (Again, I happily represent a bunch of Christian authors, so I’m not criticizing — only trying to explain the issue.)

We can argue over this point, and I expect a bunch of CBA writers to tell me that, no, they know how to interact with the culture, etc. I’m sorry, but I’ve been working with both religious and non-religious texts for years now, and in my experience, most novelists in CBA struggle mightily to write to a broader audience. They don’t know how to stop using religious language. Their examples are often Bible-based. The situations they describe are frequently the things talked about in church. They over-worry about sex and strong language. Again, I’m not slamming these folks; I’m explaining that many writers in that situation will logically struggle when trying to reach a non-churched audience.

Second, CBA authors struggle reaching out to a general market audience because there really is no “crossover” market. Listen, I represent both Christian and general-market fiction, and I’m regularly pitched book ideas by writers who want to appeal to both markets. That almost never works — the books end up being too Jesus-y for the general readers, and too worldly for the Christian readers. What’s intended as a blending of the two cultures ends up in no-man’s-land. They appeal to neither side, and nobody buys the book. (And yes, it’s true that on rare occasions a book like The Shack will find an audience in both markets… but it’s the exception that proves the rule. Books like that are so rare that, when one pops up, it’s news.)

Third, writers of Christian fiction, particularly Christian literary fiction, tend to write small, quiet stories. That makes sense, when you think about it — the notion of faith is a personal thing, and a story about it is often one about thoughts, motivations, and internal decisions. I would argue the bulk of literary novels in CBA have been rather quiet stories about people who face some life event and make an internal decision. They are often small stories, and largely thoughtful. And that’s a problem in the general market, where they are usually looking for big, noisy, banging-around-in-the-mess stories. (Yeah, I’m generalizing. There are examples of big CBA literary stories, and examples of quiet general market stories. But overall, this has been a problem for authors trying to move from CBA to a broader audience.)

Fourth, I believe there is a significant difference between CBA and the general market in terms of the purpose and the perspective of fiction. To many Christian novelists, the purpose of art is largely theological (i.e., it should evangelize, it should glorify God, it should illuminate Scripture, etc), and their perspective is therefore to write books that demonstrate that truth. To many writing non-religious novels, the purpose of art is varied — to entertain, to reflect, to challenge, to reveal, to make a statement. I think it’s fair to say many artists would say art has no purpose; it just exists. And their perspective is that art is a means of expressing ourselves, even if that expression is unkind or unfair or unholy. That’s a far cry from the CBA purpose and perspective. So someone who is outside of the American evangelical camp tends to look at CBA fiction and think, “Why are you spending so much time on God-talk?” or “Why are you trying to proselytize me?” The two groups are speaking different languages, and going after different goals. There are certainly some similarities, of course — in both technique (characters we like, a strong story arc, etc) and in tropes (good vs evil, redemption, etc). But there are fundamental differences, and it’s why most CBA novelists won’t make it in the general market.

Now, having said that, I continue to believe in inspirational fiction, and to hold out hope for a more varied publishing landscape for Christian writers. I’ve helped some authors move successfully from CBA to the general market, but they’ve had to change how they view their work. There is a movement among many Christian novelists to make fiction more realistic and less theological, though they struggle with finding traditional publishers and sales venues. There are also discussions at some CBA houses to create new fiction lines that won’t be limited by the old strictures of Christian fiction (“no sex,” “no language,” “no bleak views of the world”), but that still offer stories of hope and faith and a moral compass. And I know there is a movement afoot to try and get those titles mixed in with other literature at stores, and not stuck in the Christian fiction ghetto of Barnes & Noble. So I continue to believe in the value of Christian fiction, but I also believe we’re beginning to see a much broader world of literature, some of it still Christian, but outside the historical boundaries of CBA fiction.

The Great Christian Fiction Debate

July 13th, 2015 | CBA, Current Affairs | 79 Comments

It’s always interesting when you create a blog post that blows up, since you never know how people are going to respond (or what sort of biases they’re going to bring to their reading of it). I found that out last week when my post on Christian fiction, in the words rsz_19780312309282-1of two different publishers, “blew up the internet.” Seems I struck a nerve, and everybody wanted to talk about it… but a bunch of people got it wrong. So some notes on the debate:

I said that CBA fiction is facing hard times for authors. It is, no matter how much of a happy face anyone wants to paint on it. A bunch of houses have simply gotten out of fiction, several others have reduced the number of titles, and the slots available at traditional publishing houses for authors is considerably smaller than it was a few years ago. By my count, we’ve seen the number of slots for Christian fiction cut in half over the past six years. That’s troubling.

I did not say that CBA fiction is dying. In fact, I believe just the opposite. This is the Golden Age of publishing — we’re selling more books than ever, we have more readers than ever, and we have more opportunities than ever. (And, since it’s conferences season, I should add that we have more great training and conference opportunities than ever.) The struggle is with connecting books to readers. In my view, that’s the biggest challenge we face.

I said that sales numbers for CBA fiction are down. They are — at least for rsz_9780060545697traditional houses. Ask any CBA sales person. Numbers for fiction titles from traditional publishers may be stabilizing, but at a much smaller number than they were at a few years ago. One can argue that the numbers overall are still greater because of indie-published titles — and that might be true, but there isn’t adequate research on that, at least in CBA. And the problem I’m dealing with as an agent really isn’t “how many indie novels have released,” so much as “how much less money authors are making because of the changes in the industry.”

I did not say that indie publishing is bad. Anyone who has read the blog or heard me speak about this over the past eight years knows I am a huge supporter of authors having a career plan, and in today’s market that will probably include some aspect of self-publishing. I will note that I’m tired of authors-who-have-sold-two-hundred-total-books coming onto the blog and haranguing us with their “indie is the way to go speech.” Indie publishing has opened up all kinds of doors for authors. It has also dropped prices, reduced earnings, and made discoverability harder. We have to find ways of dealing with those challenges.

I said the demise of Family Christian Stores is a disaster for CBA novelists, and that relying on Lifeway Stores is a problem because many publishers don’t want to rely on Lifeway. This seems to be the thing that really set some people off… I actually had people write to me and tell me that I’m not really a Christian, or that I shouldn’t be selling CBA books. Good grief. Here’s news: Lifeway is a chain of stores that happens to be owned by the Southern Baptist Convention. That means they’re going to sell books that fit their theology. I’m actually fine with that. But when I was at Time-Warner, we had the biggest selling Christian book of the time: Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now. Lifeway wouldn’t carry it, since Joel is Pentecostal. We also had the best-selling author of that era, Joyce Meyer. Lifeway wouldn’t carry her, either. You think traditional CBA publishers, who are used to selling books through brick-and-mortar stores, aren’t worried about that sort of thing?

I did not say that Lifeway is bad company, or that I opposed them. My actualrsz_19780684857435-1 words were that they’ve been “a huge disappointment.” Which, in my view, is true. If they’re the biggest Christian chain, that’s a disappointment, because I’m not Baptist, or even a conservative evangelical (I’m an Anglican), so some of the books I represent will never see Lifeway store shelves. But many people took this as a slam at the Lifeway fiction buyer, Rachel McRae, which I did not intend. I reached out to Rachel, we had a nice discussion about our respective roles in the industry, and she’s created a blog post about all of this you can read here.

I said that Christian literary fiction is really struggling. Again, in today’s market, that’s just a fact. I’ve represented as much Christian literary fiction as any agent on the planet, and right now, if I get in a great new literary novel aimed at CBA, there are going to be fewer than ten houses to talk to — perhaps as few as five. That doesn’t mean genre fiction is bad, only that literary fiction is facing a tough time.

I did not say CBA fiction suffers from being unrealistic. This was one of the criticisms I got from several people who wrote me, and I kept wondering if they had bothered to read the blog post. There are PLENTY of great, realistic writers and stories in Christian fiction these days — writers who want to dig into the struggles we all face and the great questions of life. To me, that’s what good fiction does. But right now, category fiction (contemporary romance, historical romance, romantic suspense, etc) rules in CBA, and literary fiction is hard to find. Meanwhile in the general market, literary fiction is king. We certainly see some real-world experiences in CBA category fiction, though it tends to lean more toward the violent side, since we’re a violent culture. (That’s not a criticism, by the way — I sell a lot of suspense and thriller novels.) But sooner or later, I believe we’ll see a return to more thoughtful books being published and sold.

I am not a pessimist about Christian fiction — in fact, over the past several years, I believe I’ve sold more CBA novels than any other agent. (Look it up.) But we’re in the midst of a sea-change in Christian fiction. The way things used to be aren’t working any more. We’re training writers to create great books, so we’re going to have to create new and better ways of linking stories to readers. That means we’re going to see changes in the marketing and selling of CBA fiction. From an agent’s perspective, we also have to re-think how authors make money at this, and that’s what this blog is all about. (And there was a study commissioned about CBA fiction recently, to determine buying patterns. It was flawed, but interesting — I’m going to explore that study tomorrow.)

By the way, if you dig into the comments on that last blog, you’ll find a wonderfully thoughtful note from the owner of an independent Christian bookstore, and some GREAT thoughts from Daisy Hutton, the fiction publisher at Thomas Nelson and one of the true forward thinkers in the field. So jump in — I would love to hear how you see Christian fiction changing, and what you think the solutions are for moving forward.

 

What’s going on with CBA fiction?

July 8th, 2015 | CBA, Current Affairs | 144 Comments

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about CBA fiction lately… [And I updated this column recently.]

Is fiction aimed at the CBA market (that is, the “inspirational” market) growing or shrinking? Those of us who write for that market keep hearing different things and, frankly, I’m not sure who to believe.

CBA fiction is in a world of hurt. When I started my literary agency nine years ago, KeyboardChristian fiction was the fastest-growing segment in all of publishing, and continued to be a growth category for a couple more years. But, as I’ve said so often, publishing is a “tidal” business — the tide comes in, the tide goes out. Seven, eight, nine years ago, it was in. Then the tide started to recede, and now it’s out. Way, way out.

Several CBA publishing houses that used to do fiction don’t do it any more. (Today, Abingdon announced they’re killing their fiction program, for example.) Several others have cut back their lists. There are fewer slots for authors, and shopping for inspirational fiction has become harder. Barnes & Noble sort of sticks all religious fiction off into one corner, so if you don’t walk in specifically hoping to find that section, you’re not going to stumble onto it. Books-a-Million does a better job, but they’re not a huge chain. The potential demise of Family Christian Stores is a looming disaster — it leaves Lifeway Stores as the biggest chain, and the fiction decisions at Lifeway have been a huge disappointment to many of us in the industry (meaning the company only wants VERY safe Christian romances where nothing truly bad happens, sex doesn’t exist, everyone talks like they’re living in Andy Griffith Land, and in the end the characters will fall to their knees and accept Christ so that All Life Problems Will Be Resolved). Sales numbers have fallen, so that the novelist who used to routinely sell 18,000 copies is now selling 9000, or sometimes 4000. With that decline has come a drop in advance and royalties, so that far fewer CBA novelists are earning a living than just a few years ago.

UPDATE: I’ve had several people take me to task for being hard on Lifeway. Just so I’m clear, my criticism is of the larger Lifeway chain and its decisions, not of one particular buyer. I’ve found the chain has been very reluctant to take in much realistic fiction — but several have told me it would be unfair to blame the buyer. I’m sorry if I hurt feelings.

And this is happening at a time when more fiction is being sold than ever before. I’m the guy who is always saying, “This is the Golden Age of Publishing,” since we’re producing and selling more books to more readers than any other time in history. With all the fiction being sold in this country, one would think every publisher would want to go after the inspirational fiction market, since Christians have proven they buy books. And yet… that isn’t happening. This is clearly a sales and marketing issue, not a readership issue. There are plenty of good CBA novelists. There is certainly a readership for Christian fiction. There continues to be a handful of bestselling CBA novelists. But publishers are having a tough time matching up books and readers. And they’ve yet to figure out how to overcome the lack of shelf space for hard copies — which is interesting, since everyone in the industry acknowledges that sales of print copies has stabilized, as the numbers of ebooks has leveled off.

In other words, the talent and readership are there, but so far it’s proven to be a very tough task trying to link them. Some CBA publishers (notably Thomas Nelson, Revell, Bethany House, Love Inspired, and Tyndale) continue to sell a lot of fiction. Others (FaithWords, Waterbrook, Howard, Harvest House, Barbour) continue to make a good effort, even if there are fewer titles and the numbers are sometimes a bit skinny. And there are a few smaller houses (Whitaker House is one) who continue trying. But we’ve seen several houses step away from fiction in recent years, or at least put it on hold (Cook, B&H, Nav, Worthy, Abingdon, Moody, Crossway, etc). And, to be fair, there are a bunch of smaller startups that have tried to reach genre readerships, with mixed success (as an agent, I often question if the authors would be better off simply self-publishing than going with a micro-publisher who isn’t going to do much more than post a file on Amazon with a so-so cover).  All of this points to an industry in transition. I don’t think Christian fiction is going away, but I also don’t think it’s seeing much success outside of a handful of bestselling stars. So yeah, it’s a tough time to be a fiction writer in CBA.

 

Ask the Agent: What if my story doesn’t fit a genre?

June 22nd, 2015 | Agents, Current Affairs | 1 Comment

I’ve been getting all sorts of interesting (if sometimes random) questions from readers lately, and wanted to offer some notes on genres, writing style, and the contemporary publishing market. Here are some questions that came in recently:

What do you do when your story doesn’t fit into the box of any specified genre? For instance, if characters and/or objects in a story symbolize something deeper, but the story can also be taken as a literal story (e.g., The Le Petit Prince or Pilgrim’s Progress), is it going to be classified as inspirational, or drama, or children’s story? Is there some other genre out there that I’m missing?

If you have a story that uses characters or objects that symbolize something deeper, you’re probably writing an allegory. And right now there is very little market for allegory. A bit, perhaps, with “business fables” that teach organizational principles, or the occasional sci-fi novel, possibly with some children’s books. But for most part, allegories are one tough sell.

I am a freelance editor and writer, so editing is what (barely) pays the bills, but I have a couple of novel projects I feel need to come out of me. However, my writing style tends to reflect the style of books I love to read—the descriptive, long-sentence style of Dickens, for example. Dickens is one of the greats, but nowadays the passive construction has a bad rap and “show, don’t tell” seems to be the motto of the industry. My question is this: is there a market for descriptive writing anymore?

The truth? Not much of one. Maybe you could capture a new audience and re-start it, but no, the culture has moved on from that style. Remember, writing is art, and art needs its own new expressions in each generation. That’s why it’s hard to go back and read James Fenimore Cooper – his prose just doesn’t work in contemporary culture. (For that matter, try going back just fifty years and reading Jack Kerouac or Ernest Hemingway – great writers, but they feel dated to most contemporary readers.) The same is true in any art – most of us probably aren’t listening to a lot of Gregorian chants or hanging wall art of medieval paintings. You might do so occasionally, because you value the artistry of another age, but few people want a steady diet of art from another era. I’m a huge Dickens fan, and love reading his stuff, but I realize he’s a tough sell in our own generation.

Would you please tell about publishers who market only to the Library Market? 

There are some publishing houses that have a direct-to-library division. These imprints usually produce expensive (roughly $35) hardcover books with sturdy bindings – perfect for the rough handling many library books get. The printed books are not carried by bookstores, though sometimes print copies can be ordered from Amazon (again, they’re a bit pricey). The ebook was formerly not commonly available, but is now often made available not long after the print release. These imprints are usually looking for topics that might appeal to schools or enthusiasts, but which would not have a broad commercial appeal. I’ve done sports books, history, and memorabilia titles with library imprints.

What would be the average number of copies they would print for an average book, or print run?

That depends on the size of the publishing house and the projected sales of the book. A small house may only print 500 copies of a book that is seen as having limited sales potential, but may print as many as 2500 copies of a book they are hoping finds a readership. A medium sized house may print as few as 3000 copies of a debut novelist, but may print 10,000 copies of a book they think will have some breakout potential. A large house may start with as few as 5000 copies of a book, will often have two or three times that in the warehouse, and has been known to print hundreds of thousands of copies on a surefire hit.

Got a question you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent? Send it in, and we’ll try to get to it this month!

What happens if Family Christian Stores goes away?

June 15th, 2015 | Current Affairs | 49 Comments

An earthquake hit CBA this past week. You may not have noticed it, since the news was buried on the back pages, but if you’re an author who sells into the Christian market, it’s going to affect you — possibly in a huge way.

If you haven’t heard, Family Christian Stores (FCS), the largest Christian bookstore chain and easily the largest seller of religious books and merchandise, is in trouble and has filed for Chapter 11 to reorganize their debt. They have 266 stores, did $230-million in business last year, and are facing a real crisis. They are in debt $127-million, much of that in store leases and rents. They owe publishers about $14-million, nearly that much to card-and-gift vendors, and even more to consignment companies. So the owner, Richard Jackson and his team, made a bid to creditors to keep the company in business. (If you don’t know about any of this, you can read about it in an earlier blog post that I wrote here.)

Jackson is a difficult guy to root for among authors, since he and his partners own FCS, but they also loaned money to the company and have been trying to repurchase the company for a lower price, paying themselves back but cutting out many of the publishers and vendors who are owed huge sums. Another group submitted a higher bid, but  that group, Gordon Brothers and Hilco Merchant Services, exist only to take over the locations, liquidate all the assets, and close up the stores. All the employees would lose their jobs, all the stores would eventually shutter, and, most significantly for authors, all the books would be sold without any money making its way back to authors. The books and other products would be considered surplus inventory to be sold as quickly as possible, with the money used to pay off the largest lenders (Credit Suisse holds $34-million of secured debt, and is pushing this idea). Even worse, all that shelf space that has focused on Christian novelists and nonfiction writers would simply disappear.

Those with a memory of Borders Bookstores, Coldwater Creek women’s clothing stores, the Bombay Company furniture stores, The Sharper Image, Circuit City, Wolf’s Camera Stores, or dElia’s Clothing will know the Gordon Brothers and Hilco names — they are the people that stepped in after the crash of 2008, pushed the inventory out the doors, and closed all the locations of those stores. And that’s what is very likely to happen to all the FCS stores.

Book publishers and other vendors would like to see FCS remain open, both in order to receive some of what is owed to them, and because of the loss of bookstore selling space that would happen if FCS completely shut down. If you’re writing books to a CBA audience, you know there aren’t a lot of retail outlets for Christian books, so the closing of all the FCS stores would be a huge blow to Christian authors. There are the independent stores, which are great and have seen a bit of a resurgence of late, but indies aren’t everywhere, are hard-pressed by Amazon, and tend to focus on blockbuster titles. Barnes & Noble, while a wonderful retailer, tends to stick religious books onto some shelves hidden away in one corner. With the closing of Cokesbury stores and other small chains, it would mean LifeWay would be the largest remaining Christian bookstore chain. And while nobody wants to say it, that’s problematical. LifeWay stores are run by the Southern Baptist Convention, meaning most charismatics, Catholics, Anglicans, novels that offer much beyond historical romances, and anyone not holding to the far-right-wing branch of conservative evangelicalism are basically not welcome. (I’m not anti-baptist, by the way — but I’ve watched all sorts of troubles occur when publishers go to LifeWay with books that were thoughtful or challenging. There are some hilarious stories of novels being turned down because certain words were used, and frustrating stories of nonfiction books being rejected because the writer dared to question some dogma.) Frankly, the news is bleak for authors.

The court decided to give FCS more time — until October 9 to reorganize and get creditors to agree to the new plan. It also pushed out the mediation talks with vendors over consignment inventory, linking those results to the overall bankruptcy. But all of that is being challenged by companies intent on swooping in and shutting everything down completely. The story isn’t done yet, but it isn’t looking good. And that’s a shame for publishers who are owed money, small mom-and-pop vendors who were cheated out of consignment products, and for CBA authors, who are about to see even fewer places to sell their books.

 

Faith Happenings: A Guest Blog from Casey Herringshaw

May 15th, 2015 | Current Affairs | 0 Comments

FaithHappenings is a new site from longtime literary agent Greg Johnson, who apparently didn’t have enough to do… Okay, maybe he saw a need in the culture for people of faith to share information on what is going on in their local area. It’s gotten off to a fast start, as authors have been using it to announce book signings, release parties, writer gatherings, and other events, so Iinvited Casey Herringshaw, who is coordinating things for Greg, to talk about the new wrinkle they’re starting. There are good options here for writers, so have a look…

 

Looking for more ways to build your platform, sell books and create awareness about your ministry?

If so, FaithHappenings.com is launching a new feature to do all of that. It’s called “FH D7K0A0014-2aily.”

Have you heard about or browsed around FaithHappenings.com? If not, in a nutshell it is Your Complete, Tailored, Faith Resource. Long-time literary agent Greg Johnson at WordServe Literary developed this site as a one-stop national resource for all books, music, videos, counselors, family fun options, wedding venues, speakers, bloggers and much, much more.

FH Daily is a new feature set-to-go-live-on-May 15th. It provides authors, such as yourself, with a new and exciting marketing vehicle to reach out and snag the attention of the everyday reader.

Much like the newspapers of old, FH Daily will contain inspiring quotes and stories, interviews, recipes, spotlights, prayers, top ten lists from books (and other sources), instructional or encouraging lists and much more. Many features will be changing daily, drawing readers in on a regular basis to see what is new.

So how do you get involved?

It’s simple.

FH Daily is in need of Author Interviews. Are you planning a book launch or just released a book in the last six months? Then you’ll want to do one of our interviews.

OR…

How about writing some Top Ten lists? Think ten bulleted points to explain your title. For example: “Top 10 Ways to Show Your Husband Love Before He Leaves for Work in the Morning.” Or… “Top Ten Ways to Get In and Out of the Grocery is Twenty Minutes Flat with Three Toddlers.”

Got the idea?

FH Daily will be arriving in reader’s emails in the next couple of weeks, reminding them to check out, share on social media and spread the word about the great, fun and inspirational content they have available to them on a daily basis.

Interested in submitting content? Just email me at: casey.herringshaw@faithhappenings.com

I’m excited to see your content submissions!

What’s going on with Family Christian Stores?

April 17th, 2015 | Current Affairs | 59 Comments

I’ve had a number of people write to ask about the bankruptcy of Family Christian Stores, and specifically if it will affect writers who publish in CBA. A bit of background: FCS has 266 stores, did $230M in business last year, and were the largest purveyor of religious books, bibles, t-shirts, and inspirational ephemera in the country. They were originally part of Zondervan, but were bought out by Richard Jackson (remember that name — it will come up often) and his partners a few years ago. Jackson and his buddies said they were going to use the stores to sell products, make money, and use the profits to fund other ministries around the world. Certainly a noble idea. The only problem? They didn’t know what they were doing.Old Books

Sales dropped. Bookselling turned into a tough business. Profits were slim. So a few weeks ago, the chain filed for Chapter 11, a reorganization bankruptcy. They have huge debts — close to $127M. They owe $7M to HarperCollins alone, largely for bibles, which is an expensive (and lucrative) business. They owe another $2M to Tyndale, and a half million each to Baker, B&H, Harvest House, Crossway, Barbour, Presbyterian & Reformed, etc. Their debts to publishers total roughly $14M. They owe greeting card and gift companies about another $13M.

In the world of Wall Street finance, that may not look like much. (Borders had nearly a thousand stores, and owed publishers much more.) But in the world of Christian publishing, this is huge. Imagine you’re Harvest House — a very well run, medium-sized publishing house that is privately owned, and trying to compete with the Random Houses and Simon & Schusters of the world. If a giant corporation is suddenly told they won’t be paid a half million dollars, you can bet they won’t be happy, but they’ll weather the storm because they have the financial resources to get through the rough patches. But Harvest House? A half million dollar hit is awfully painful. It can mean mean people lose their jobs (and no, I don’t have any insider information on Harvest House — I’m simply using them as an example). At a small house like P&R, a half million dollar loss can spell disaster.

What does that mean for authors? It certainly means fewer places to sell your books, and possibly fewer companies to approach with your manuscript. In the immediate, it means that all those books your publisher sent to the various Family Christian Stores won’t be making you any money, since FCS won’t be paying your publisher for them, and they’ll likely have to write them off. (The total debt for “unsecured receivables,” which means books and stuff they took in but haven’t paid for, is about $40M — the rest of the debts are in leases and equipment, presumably. So they have $40M in product that likely won’t be paid for.)

Worse, FCS began offering consignment sales a couple years ago. It worked this way: If you have, say, a jewelry company that you run out of your garage, they’ll take a bunch of your jewelry and put it on display in their stores, but will only pay you if the jewelry actually sells. So it’s on consignment, and you’re trusting FCS to display and sell your products, then track and pay you the money. But if they suddenly shut down, you get nothing — and you don’t get your product back, either. FCS got into consignments in a big way, since they were a means of making money with nothing down. I’ve seen reports that they had nearly $20M in consignment products (and, as usual with a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the numbers can sometimes be convoluted)… which means little mom-and-pop operations who sent them products are just out of luck. THAT will shut down small businesses, since you can bet when it’s time to divvy up the proceeds, the big banks will get paid first and there won’t be anything left over by the time it gets to the small creditors.

One of the real concerns here is that Family Christian Stores apparently was still ordering more books and taking in new consignments, even when they had to have known they were not going to be able to pay for them. That’s the point where people stop wondering if they were done in by a difficult retail environment, and start wondering if they were simply unethical, or even possibly corrupt.

So Richard Jackson, the guy who bought the company a few years ago? He’s put together another company, and wants to buy FCS. (You read that right — the guy who owns it wants to sell it to himself.) But, of course, he only wants to pay a fraction of what is owed — $28M in cash, and he’ll assume the leases. And who is in line to get paid? Um… one of the creditors is Richard Jackson. Yes. The guy who owns the company, and who wants to buy the company from himself, also wants to be a creditor, so he gets paid before others. What a guy. I’m sure he’ll use the money to fund other great ministries!

Family Christian Stores has come out with a statement that says all their stores will re-open and all their employees will be retained. This is what public relations experts refer to as “spin,” and what the rest of us call a total, stinking pile of bull-pucky. I don’t know what Richard and his friends are smoking, but there’s no way on God’s green earth they keep all the stores open, and even their employees have laughed off the claim that everyone will keep their jobs. And what do you think the folks at Harvest House are going to say when Richard and Buddies call them to order more books?

So, yeah… this is a disaster. For readers, for publishers, and for authors working in CBA.

UPDATE: So Richard Jackson and his friends have indeed dropped their plan to buy out their own company and therefore cheat publishers out of millions of dollars. They faced a lot of criticism as word got out about their plans, and this week a hearing was held that had the current owners, publishers, and lawyers representing the various businesses negotiating for a settlement. A judge set a May 21 auction date for Family Christian Stores, the winning bid will be announced the next day, and the sale must close by early June. What does this mean? It means that either some companies will get together, buy FCS out, and keep some of the stores open, or everything will go into the hands of a wholesaler that will slash prices and sell all the stock, displays, and fixtures in order to close them out. Either way, there’s going to be far fewer selling opportunities for CBA authors.

Ask the Agent: Book groups and great books

March 30th, 2015 | Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms | 2 Comments

We’ve tried to tackle a bunch of questions quickly this month…

“I want to start a monthly fiction book club to bond members of my writing group. Do you have any suggestions? I thought about reading a book together, then critiquing it so members can learn how to write better. For example, how does a fiction writer work in a description of his characters, or how does the arc of the story change from beginning to end? Any suggestions?”

Yes. Give people plenty of time to read the book. Start with a book you know well and have studied, so that you can intelligently talk it through. Consider bringing in an outside editor or a high school or college writing teacher, who knows the book you’re talking about and uses it in his or her classroom. Choose novels that have clear strengths to them at the start, so that you don’t go too deep, too fast. If you’re reading a contemporary book, think about trying to bring the editor or even the author into your group via phone or Skype, to talk about the artistic choices they made. Let someone else lead the discussion sometime, since we all learn best when we have to teach the material.

 

“Do you know of any successful book clubs led by writers and what is the key to their clubs’ success?”

Sure – there are a lot of successful book clubs led by writers. I think some of the keys to success is to have a diverse group, rather than having it just be your close friends. Diversity will bring more life to the discussions. Figure out ahead of time what sort of group you want this to be. In other words, what is the atmosphere we want to have? Scholarly? Bonding? Social?

Pick a time and place, let the group select the books you’ll all be reading well in advance, and don’t pick super-long books. (Some groups do their meetings 100 or 200 pages at a time.) Have a leader, to keep things on track. If you want to focus on one aspect (characterization, for example, or “the hero’s journey”), let participants know in advance. Have food and drinks, since we all tend to relax and have something to do with our hands when there is a cracker and a glass of wine handy. Let everybody speak, even if they haven’t read the entire book. And have a couple takeaway activities for the writers to try and emulate, so that they’re putting to use the choices they found in the book. By the way, some book groups enjoy going to movies as an alternative, or having everyone bring a book and simply tell the others about it. Doing alternative activities to mix it up can keep things fresh.

 

“I am new to writing, but my book was just published by a small press, and I’m curious about the role of publicist. From what I have experienced so far, the publisher is doing very little to promote the book. I was thinking about hiring someone to help me, but I don’t have a clue where to start or if it is a good investment to do so. Do you have any advice on this subject?”

The role of the publicist is to discover avenues for getting your book in front of readers at no cost (interviews, articles, etc). In your case, I suggest you start by talking to your marketing connection and ask him or her what the company is doing to help promote the book. Find out what they’re already doing, then look for ways you can fill in the gaps. You might search for a freelance publicist who has worked on a couple of successful books in your genre. But that costs money, so think of educating yourself first, to see if there are things YOU can do. Publicity is a funny business – there are no guarantees. You can spend a fortune on a great marketing plan, and still not see a ton of success. There’s not necessarily a correlation between “activity” and “sales.” So if you’re hiring your own freelance marketer, don’t just interview one person. Talk to a minimum of three publicists, find out what they charge, and ask if they’ll state exactly what they’ll do for the money paid them. A good publicity person will give you the details, in writing. And by the way, I never really talk with a writer who feels the publisher did enough marketing for them. As a writer, you’re committed to your book; the publisher is committed to a list of books. So be thankful for whatever they do, and decide you’re going to step in and help wherever you can.

 

“On several occasions you’ve talked about the best classic books of all time. What do you think are the seminal works of fiction since 1995, and what makes them so? Why did these books make an impact? It would be interesting to see if they were mostly established authors or new authors.”

Wow. Love the question. In no particular order, books that have certainly made an impact over the past twenty years would probably include:

Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World

Khalid Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavaleir and Clay

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections

Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible

Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried

Ian McEwan’s Atonement

Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy

Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road

There are doubtless others. I think one could make a case for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park or Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, or even J.K. Rowlin’s Harry Potter series, but “popularity” and “greatness” don’t often come in the same package. Nevertheless, all three of those authors, while perhaps not having the same impact on the way we see our lives, at least inspired thousands of other writers to pick up a pen and start creating. Still, nobody is going to confuse those novels with great literature, so consider my list above. There are doubtless some titles missing (many readers would probably include Cutting for Stone as one of the best books of the past twenty years.

I’m curious what you think. What would you say are the great books of the last twenty years?