Archive for the ‘Current Affairs’ Category

Ask the Agent: What’s the biggest news in publishing?

February 16th, 2015 | Current Affairs | 27 Comments

I’m trying to catch up on all the questions people have sent me, so let me see if I can tackle several of them having to do with current affairs…

First, a  couple of people have asked what I think the biggest story is in publishing right now. 

To me, that’s easy… Harper Lee, who wrote one of the most iconic books in American publishing history, is releasing a second book. I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, and thought Lee’s personal story (assisting Truman Capote with In Cold Blood, winning a Pulitzer for her only book, withdrawing from the public eye, starting and stopping but never finishing anything else) was fascinating for any writer. But her second book, Go Set a Watchman, was actually written before she started on Mockingbird — and Lee agreed to let a publisher produce her earlier work. Watching this play out is fascinating to anyone interested in a writing career. There’s still hope for that bad first novel you wrote years ago!

Second, someone sent in a simple question: “What’s the biggest problem facing publishers today?” 

I suppose it would be easy to point to profit margins, or discoverability, or the issues facing illegal sales and copying, but I don’t think any of those are really the biggest problem. To me, the biggest problem publishers face was made clear in the Publisher’s Weekly salary survey. Less than 1% of those working for publishers are African-American. Hispanics make up about 3%. Asian-Americans make up another 3%. Various others combine for roughly 4%. And that means 89% of everyone working for a US publisher is white. Eighty-nine percent. Yikes. That’s shameful — and perhaps the first place to look when wondering why we’re not building more African-American readers. You want to diversify your readership? Hire some minorities, fer cryin’ out loud.

Third, I had several people ask me, “What’s the biggest news in CBA publishing recently?”

And, of course, it’s that Family Christian Stores, the largest purveyor of Christian books in this country, has filed for bankruptcy. This is a company that was purchased by a small group of people in Atlanta a year ago, and “donated” to a ministry. (There’s more to that story. Being part of a ministry allows them to be tied to a non-profit group. Think “tax deductions.”) Then they shuffled the senior staff around, hiring a brand new senior exec just a week ago. Then they announce they basically owe money everywhere (reports said they owed 7.5 million to HarperCollins Christian Publishing, and almost 2 million to Tyndale), and that they’re going to re-organize. And who is going to take over? Another part of the ministry! Color me excitement. This looks like a mess, being glossed over with the veneer of “you can trust us — we’re all Christians here.” They owe big chunks of money to some smaller houses, by the way. Imagine the damage that can be done to a smaller house when one of your biggest accounts claims they can’t pay the $100,000 they owe you. This affects authors, so if you’re a CBA author, you need to pay attention.

As big news, this just beats out (1) the fact that Tyndale had to recall a bestselling book about a boy going to heaven because, um, it turns out the guy who wrote the book was a liar who made the whole thing up. (Maybe the author’s name, “Malarkey,” should have tipped them off?) For the record, I think Tyndale acted with integrity here. And (2) the fact that presidential hopeful Ben Carson has admitted plagiarizing his bestselling book (as usual, he claimed it was the editor’s fault). I’m surprised this tidbit of news hasn’t gotten more airplay. And (3) everybody finally wised up and yanked their Mark Driscoll books off store shelves in the past month, seeing as how they finally had to admit that he was a plagiarizing, scheming, bullying, misogynistic, horse’s ass. I guess the fact that there was a mountain of evidence to that for years didn’t mean much. Happy trails, Mark. Don’t let the screen door hit you on the rump on your way out the back door.

On a happier note for all you CBA writers? Religious books were up 4% last year. So look on the bright side of all this — people still care about truth. Something to smile about, as you ponder that next great book.

Ask the Agent: What’s hot and cold in publishing these days?

February 9th, 2015 | Current Affairs, Trends | 17 Comments

Whenever I speak at conferences, I get the “what’s hot?” question asked me. I generally offer what I’m seeing, but I try to always temper it with, “That’s just my opinion, of course… others might see things differently.” So I was happy to see the Nielsen folks put out some facts on publishing trends with hard evidence to support them.

In the most recent issue of Publishers Weekly, they gave a summary of the Nielsen BookScan report, which tracks the bulk of printed book sales, and a handful of things stood out to me…

First, Christian fiction is really struggling. That’s become obvious to me over the past couple of years, and I’ve discussed it with many other agents. Several houses have stopped doing inspirational fiction, others have trimmed back their lists, still others have simply put a “freeze” on new acquisitions, so it’s become evident that it’s a tough time to be trying making a living writing Christian fiction. But the Nielsen report proved the depth of the problem. Of all the categories in publishing (and BookScan tracks about 50 genres), Christian fiction took the second biggest drop. In the past year book sales were down 15%. Coupled with the previous year’s drop of 11%, we’re seeing the category shrink considerably. (The only publishing category to do worse? Occult & horror fiction, which is down 26%.)

Second, YA fantasy and sci fi is the fastest growing category in all of publishing. It was up 38% in the past year, after having grown in double digits the previous year. So yes, all those Harry Potter and dystopian (Hunger Games, Divergent, etc) readers have made their mark. And the study noted that inspirational and holiday YA novels (an odd combination in my mind) was up 16%, and YA family & health stories (hello The Fault in Our Stars) were up 17%.

Third, adult fiction overall is struggling. Romance is down 11%, adult fantasy is off 13%, suspense is down 9%, and action/adventure stories are down almost 15%. The entire category of adult fiction is down 8%. Remember, this study was just of print book sales, so perhaps much of this can be attributed to readers migrating to ebooks. Still, it’s interesting to see the declines.

Fourth, memoir and self-help are the growing nonfiction categories for adults. Sales of self-help books were up 15%, and memoir is up 12%. The sale of Christian nonfiction books and Bibles were also up 12%. I’d find it more helpful if they broke out the “Christian living” books from bible sales,  but it’s still helpful to see that memoir and books dealing with personal & spiritual growth are on the upswing.

Fifth, there’s always room for surprise in this business. That’s why I can read this and go, “Sales of books about animals are up 19%? And kids’ hobby books are up 33%? Really?” I had no idea. It’s another reminder that nobody has a lock on what the next big thing will be in publishing. We’re all muddling along, trying our best to do good books and hope that they hit.

Would love to know what trends you see happening.

My Ten Publishing Predictions for 2015

January 28th, 2015 | Current Affairs | 31 Comments

Okay, so I’m a little late… I always try to make some predictions for the coming year, just to test out of my gift of prophecy. This year it took me a while longer to put together my list, but I’m trying to squeeze this into the month of January, so it still more or less counts as a “start of the year” column. As I gaze into my crystal ball, I see…

1. Barnes & Noble will make a comeback. Honest. I think they’ve shrunk, re-focused their stores on profitable items, and I think this year they’re going to see a lot of growth with B&N.com. So while they’ve had a few tough years, I believe authors and readers will renew their appreciation for the country’s largest book retailer, and they’ll once again be seen in a positive light. (Note that I said nothing about the Nook. My crystal ball is smoky whenever I ask about the Nook. No idea.)

2. Subscription services are going to explode. Oyster, Scribd, Entitle, and Kindle Unlimited have all been growing, as people begin to look at them as the Netflix-for-books. But the reason we’ll see even more growth this year? Google will get into this in a big way.

3. Authors are going to fight like mad over Kindle Unlimited. I have a couple authors whose earnings are down significantly due to KU. They’re not happy, and they aren’t alone. I think a number of successful self-published authors are going to pull back from the service. It’s great for helping a new author build a readership — not sure it’s as great for successful authors who watch a bunch of their book get read without earning much money.

4. The legacy publishers are going to drop their e-book prices. The research is pretty clear that low-cost e-books is the way to go, but the Big Five haven’t wanted to play along, since it devalues their product and reduces income. But I think the market will drive them to lower their prices (and that will mean another round of cost-cutting at the major houses). Look for overall lower prices from all the majors by late summer, and a bunch of very-low-priced value e-books as they all decide to mine their backlist.

5. There’s going to be an explosion of author coalitions. Most writers now see the value of being a hybrid author (some traditional titles, some small-press titles, some self-pubbed titles), so we’re going to see a LOT Of authors get involved in a coalition — authors banding together to share editors, cover designers, book consultants, and marketing experts.

6. But I think we’re also going to see a drop in the number of self-published authors. I could be wrong, but it feels like all those wannabes, posting bad novels with horrid covers, are slowing. Maybe they’ve figured out that Amazon isn’t Amway; that the mere fact of posting your crappy book on Amazon doesn’t make you an author, bring you instant recognition, and certainly doesn’t make you a pile of money. There are going to be plenty of success stories, and certainly more hybrid authors, but I think we may see a slowdown in the Tornado of Crap (as my friend Randy Ingermanson has referred to it).

7. There will be peace in our time. Or at least Amazon and the Big Five will have moved out of the era of open hostility.

8. But all the publishing houses will move to try and sell more books directly, rather than going through Amazon. Could they focus on selling through Facebook? Through Pinterest? Through Twitter? I could see this sort of thing, as well as a renewed push for publishers to market and sell through their authors’ websites.

9. Local bookstores are finally going to start working more closely with authors, particularly local authors. Your local indie store is eventually going to offer you front table space for a fee, even if you’re a self-published author. They’re going to negotiate highlighting you on their website, in their store, and through events — all for a fee. Why? Because indies need to figure out ways to generate more income.

10. And the big areas of publishing we can expect to see grow this year will include… You tell me. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to tell me we’ll see a bunch of books from hopeful presidential candidates (Hello Hillary! Hello Bush Family! Gosh… you’re back! Again… And we haven’t really missed you at all.) I have heard others say we will see a flood of Cuban literature, now that the barriers to Cuba are coming down. I’ve also heard people suggest that books on marijuana will be huge, with everyone in a rush to legalize. (The best part of that? Tokers will potentially purchase your book several times, since they’ll constantly forget they already own it!) My own prediction is that we’ll see renewed interest in travel books, since gas is now below two dollars a gallon in the US. And I think we could see several major names weigh in on racial reconciliation in our post-Ferguson world.

What do you see as the areas of growth in publishing for 2015? 

Je Suis Charlie

January 12th, 2015 | Current Affairs | 42 Comments

The shooting of writers, editors, and cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris last week should be remembered by every writer, and everyone in publishing, because it’s an attempt to shut up people who want to tell stories and influence the culture.

I represent a lot of suspense writers. Imagine one day you’re sitting at your desk, writing the latest bomb-in-the-briefcase story featuring a con man and a bad cop, when suddenly some nut bursts in, yells something about your stories pulling people away from thinking moral, uplifting thoughts, and tries smashing your computer. I represent a lot of Christian writers. Imagine one day you’re at a signing at a Family Christian Store, when you’re interrupted by a violent atheist who wants to stop everyone from reading about God. I represent several Catholic writers. Imagine coming home to find your place defaced because some crazed Protestant disagrees with your theology. We just don’t appreciate violence aimed at shutting up someone who wants to tell a story, and we need to take a stand to defend those who are being persecuted for nothing more than writing a joke.

Look, I find several of the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo offensive and immature, and would never post them on my blog. But the quality of their work is not the point. I value the freedom writers have in our culture to say what they want, to explore crazy ideas, and, yes, even to say something offensive. Humor and satire are ways of pointing out what’s wrong with the world or the government or the culture, and it’s the sign of a mature person to be able to laugh at himself or herself. Laughter can offend, but it can also offer perspective.

Jon Stewart’s Daily Show is very funny — sure, it slants decidedly to the left, and his mash-ups of Fox News clips and conservative speakers can be misleading and unfair… but so what? He’s funny, and points out the foibles of politicians and media spokespeople, and if anyone tried to firebomb his set I’d be on a plane to New York to join the crowds who would march in support of his show. Similarly, Rush Limbaugh’s program has a decided slant, and he’s sometimes funny, and I hate the thought of some left-wing nutjob attacking him simply for offering up one of his parodies.

You see, as writers we all understand that words matter. Your ability to tell a story, without government or religious interference, is an essential part of democracy, and part of what we hold dear as writers. You don’t have to get your priest’s approval to say something. You don’t have to wonder if your murder scene will offend the local government. You don’t have to make sure your thoughts on God are in line with the powers that be. The cowardly act of shooting the creators of Charlie Hebdo is an assault on freedom of speech, and it’s exactly what America’s founding fathers intended to resist when they set up a government with no state religion. (If you don’t know your history, they were largely deists, worried about the religious and class wars happening overseas, and they made sure America would not be a theocracy. It’s why Americans need to resist sharia law, which wants the religious leaders to also be the political leaders. Do you want Pat Robertson as president? Do you want some local redneck pastor as your governor? Because that’s what they’ve got going in the Middle East these days — the Arabic equivalent of redneck pastors running cities and states.)

So I don’t care if you’re offended at Charlie Hebdo printing immature cartoons of Mary and Joseph having sex, or of the Prophet Muhammed kissing his gay lover. Offensive? Yes. Worthy of violence? No. And by the way, don’t believe the common notion that all Moslems reject depictions of their prophet. That’s just not true. It’s not in the Koran. In fact, there is plenty of art from the Middle East portraying Muhammed. What they have is a desire to not elevate any man into an idol, so they don’t want images of him in their mosques… and that has led the uneducated and the violent to make this into an issue worth killing for.

There are times I wish contemporary Christianity had something in print that was the equivalent of humor and satire, to poke fun at the Mark Driscolls and Wine Presses and the Ted Haggards. We don’t — we did have the late, lamented Wittenburg Door, but it seems like most evangelicals these days are WAY too angry to laugh at themselves. (Though if you’re interested, take a look at an assessment from Robert Darden, the longtime editor of The Door, in the Huffington Post.)  Still, don’t buy into the whole argument that “Christians do the same thing” when it comes to this type of violence. In our contemporary world, that’s bull. We’ve all watched Father Guido Sarducci, read Mark Twain on the faith, and listened to Lenny Bruce riff on the church without rioting. We’ve seen numerous depictions of bad priests and evil pastors in Hollywood films, and listened to both stupid and heretical lessons via countless TV talking heads — all without resorting to violence. The notion of killing someone for making a joke, even a tasteless or racist or heretical joke, is considered evil by any thinking person.

So the attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on all writers. It was an attack on everyone who wants to tell their own story and speak their own mind. It’s why I think we need to be outspoken in our belief that freedom of expression matters — even to those who we disagree with. I’d like to see Jon Stewart, and Rush Limbaugh, and Jerry Seinfeld, and Lewis Black, and Ellen Degeneres, and others who are both funny and acerbic, get together and say, “We insist on one another’s right to freedom of expression, because artistic freedom is a key ingredient in contemporary democratic societies.” I’d like to see the New York Times and Fox News stop acting afraid and reveal the cartoons that got people killed. (For all their chest-thumping, they’ve been totally frightened by the terrorists.) And I’d like to see writers, including people I know in the industry, publicly state that, while they may not appreciate the art of Charlie Hebdo, they stand with the creators.

Twelve people died defending your right to write what you want. Let’s remember them.

 

Looking back at my predictions…

January 7th, 2015 | Current Affairs | 7 Comments

So one year ago I offered ten predictions about the future of publishing. I thought it would only be fair to have a look and see how I did. My notes from January 1, 2014…

1. I predicted that Amazon was going to finally start a series of brick-and-mortar stores. Accuracy: Moderate. They started some kiosks, and have created some pop-up stores in Seattle and San Francisco, and are exploring a store in New York. But they haven’t gone after retail stories in a big way yet.

2. I predicted Barnes and Noble would be sold, but remain in business. Accuracy: Not exactly. Instead of being sold, the original owners came back and repurchased the company from others. They bought out a bunch of shareholders, cut ties with Microsoft, and have tried to re-take control of their brand. And hey, they’re still in business, which is a good thing for writers.

3. I predicted we would see a bunch of publisher mergers. Accuracy: Pretty good. HarperCollins bought Harlequin, and Hachette bought Perseus, Hyperion, Black Dog & Leaventhal, as well as several smaller presses. We didn’t see a Simon & Schuster and HC marriage (or a S&S and Hachette marriage), but the number of players in New York dwindled.

4. I predicted huge growth for reader subscription services. Accuracy: Right on the money. Oyster, Scribd, Entitle, and Kindle Unlimited took off in 2014. Amazingly, authors participating saw sales rise, and income drop.

5. I predicted that libraries would finally resolve their tiresome debate with publishers. Accuracy: Yawn… Yeah, so Hachette finally put a plan together that libraries liked, and several smaller publishing houses started making their ebooks more available to them, but basically everyone in the industry got sick and tired of hearing about this topic. We all recognize that libraries serve an important role in our culture, and that they’re struggling to figure out how to stay in business in today’s publishing environment. I was correct in saying some publishers finally just said, “You can have our backlist for this price,” but that hasn’t really resolved the bigger issue… because the issue isn’t with the cost of content, it’s with the direction of libraries.

6. I predicted ebook prices would drop and remain low. Success: yes and no. You could basically make a case for this to be right or wrong. The overall ebook price from major publishes has gone up slightly this year. But the cost of getting ebooks through subscription services like Kindle Unlimited has meant there are a bunch of super-cheap methods for getting ebooks — and the number of authors posting 99-cent self-published ebooks has exploded. So there are plenty of cheap ebooks, though perhaps not the one you want to read.

7. I predicted the rise of publishing co-ops. Success: Meh. There are certainly a few groups where authors and agents have banded together to create successful and cost-effective organizations to get good covers, arrange for a solid edit, get the manuscript formatted and posted, and find assistance with marketing. But, um, this hasn’t really become what you’d call common yet, most authors think they can do all of this without a group of people badgering them with ideas, and small publishers have frequently stepped in to fill the gap. So while this may be happening a bit (check out Wild Blue Press, for example), it’s not exactly taking the industry by storm.

8. I predicted that legacy publishers would boost their author services. Accuracy: Ha! Are you kidding me? I was sure the fear of shrinking market share would move the major houses toward significant organizational changes. Here’s what I wrote a year ago: You overcome negativity by improving customer relations and offering better perks. That’s still true. But have we seen a significant boost in author services from major publishers? No, we have not. We’ve seen quarterly newsletters that say, “Gee, don’t we all feel like one big family?” — usually coming from the CEO whom we’ve never actually met.

9. I predicted a bunch of agents were going to get out of the business. Accuracy: Right on the nose. Lots of agents moved out of the role. It’s tougher than ever to make a living when you’ve got a handful of bestselling authors claiming, “you can do it all yourself and make millions!” (A message that is comically overdone, by the way. I get people all the time on this site telling me how fabulous they’re doing, but I notice few of them are making any real money.) At the same time, I continue seeing editors get axed by publishing houses, then announce they’re becoming agents. I always wonder who is giving these people career advice. It’s tough — and I don’t say that to whine. I love what I do, and make a good living at it. But just as becoming a full-time author is an uphill climb, so is becoming a successful agent. Simply having worked in the industry for a few years is no guarantor of success.

10. I predicted we were going to start seeing content in all sorts of new places. Accuracy: Way to go, Captain Obvious. Looking back, I could have said something much more significant, like “it will get dark at night” or “it will rain a lot in Oregon.” But it was fun to hear Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, state that he thinks eventually some young whippersnapper will come up with a new idea that will push Amazon to the curb — the fact is, we love content, and we’re always looking for new ways to find it. So whether it’s the Apple Watch or the FitBit monitor, the new fridges that have built-in TV’s or the Amazon’s new Echo speaking system, we can’t get enough information. So… I’ll try harder to not cherry pick the easy answers this next time.

Your turn: What do YOU see happening in 2015? 

Ask the Agent: What do I need to know to speak at a conference?

December 22nd, 2014 | Conferences, Current Affairs | 2 Comments

Someone wrote and said, “I’ve been asked to speak at a writing conference next year. What advice would you give to prospective conference teachers?”

Well, I’ve taught at a couple hundred writers’ conferences, and I’d probably say there are a few things to consider…

1. If you’ve only done something once, you may not be an expert. Wait until you’re experienced at your job before giving too much advice on it. My friend and fellow literary agent Steve Laube and I were at a conference once with a brand new agent. I’m sure she was a very bright girl, but her answers on the panel were awful — she was an amateur, and her responses in front of a group made her look that way. The difference between her replies and those of an experienced person like Steve were dramatic. Had she waited a year or so, in order to learn her new job, she’d have done much better. Maybe you don’t have to be in a hurry to teach. (This lesson isn’t just for agents — it’s for anyone working in an area of publishing that would be of interest to conferees.)

2. If somebody is already covering one topic, pick something else. Writing conferences have a tendency to repeat the same information, and much of it is aimed at entry-level writers. Take the time to consider some niche or alternative topics that might be of interest to that group. (Here’s an example: Most conferences these days need someone teaching a “creating an ebook” workshop. Every conference needs something on the changing face of publishing, career paths, and contracts, but few choose to cover those topics.)

3. Give participants the real deal. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like there’s a lot of inspirational hopnoodle at conferences. Too much of the “let’s stand up and cheer” stuff, which gives people a short-term rush, but doesn’t provide them with tools they can take away and use. It’s one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of general sessions that come across more as pep rallies than reflections on the craft. When I teach my writing workshop, I have students actually WRITE stuff. When I teach my contracts workshop, I actually go through a contract. When I do my focusing exercises, people are taking the time to write their answers. You’ll find you quickly get popular with the conferees if you give them practical information. (And I’m sorry if this makes me sound like some sort of hero. I’m not. Others do this much better than I.) One example: a couple years ago, author & speaker Ellie Kay did a day-long training session at a writing conference on “how to do interviews on camera.” It was real, usable information, complete with video camera and rehearsal time, and I don’t know of anyone who didn’t come away thinking they got their money’s worth with her material. A couple years later, people are STILL talking about her seminar. That’s the real deal.

4. If you’re going to be teaching a group, make sure you’re prepared. I don’t know about you, but I HATE walking into a class and sensing that the teacher is winging it. I figure the participants are saying, “I paid money to come, this clown is getting paid to be here, and he couldn’t take the time to organize his notes?” I also hate walking into a class and seeing the teacher look like he just rolled out of bed. They gave him the schedule weeks ago — buy an alarm clock and figure out how to iron your shirt! Most of the conferees are beginners — they need a strong example.

5. Speaking of examples, I was at two conferences last year where somebody important cancelled at the last minute. Okay, I realize that things happen. Emergencies can arise. But I happen to know that in one of these instances, that wasn’t the case. The teacher was just busy and decided not to attend at the last minute, and I find that a lousy example. People have paid money to attend these conferences. Sometimes fairly big money. I realize that, on occasion, some of those people signed up because they wanted to meet folks like me, or at least introduce themselves, or maybe pitch me their idea. To cancel at the last minute, after my face has been in the ads, and after people have paid money to attend, seems unconscionable.

6. If you go as a teacher, take some time to talk to people. YOU are one of the reasons they chose to attend. Look, in reality, I’m not a big deal, and I always figure people are going to be disappointed when they finally meet me. But giving writers the  opportunity to meet a “real agent” or a “real editor” or a “published writer” is part of the reason people attend. So don’t try to skip out on actually talking to the newbies. Schedule one-on-ones. Sit and talk with people at your table. Don’t ignore the beginners — they’re paying the bills.

7. If you’re evaluating proposals, don’t tell everybody “send it to me.” Doing so officially qualifies you as a weenie. (Besides, your in-box is going to be swamped with bad proposals for weeks.) If you’re looking at proposals, find something good to say about each one, then give the writer a couple ideas for improving his or her craft. But if it’s not very good, be honest and tell them it’s not ready. If you know if doesn’t fit your organization, tell the author you won’t be publishing it. If it’s a bad or wacko idea, tell them you don’t think it is salable, or doesn’t reach a wide enough audience, or is only going to appeal to people on medication. But don’t give a bad writer the false hope of thinking that he or she is GOOD when they are not.

8. Learn to speak the truth in love. Yeah, I’ve been accused at times of being too blunt. And yes, I’ve had people start to cry because I didn’t like their book idea. I once snapped at a guy for trying to hand me his proposal while I was standing at a urinal. (Yes, that’s a true story. It was at a conference at Seattle Pacific University. And yes, I yelled at the guy. I should have just turned to talk to him…) But the goal at a conference is to help people WRITE better, not just help them FEEL better. Authors who work with me know I don’t have a mean streak — I’m not trying to hurt someone’s feelings by saying a manuscript isn’t ready, I’m trying to help them understand how tough it is to be good enough to get published. Part of my job is to help them improve as writers. We have a tendency to “nice” ourselves into accepting bad work at conferences. We see crap and call it creme brulee. But that’s lying. Learn to tell an author something isn’t great. Learn to share lessons with writers that will help them improve.

9. Go to some of the sessions. You might learn something. Even if you’re an expert. (And don’t misunderstand me… I rarely go to the big-group gatherings at a writing conference. Usually they’re at night, and I’ve been teaching and meeting people all day. I’m worn out, and I won’t be bringing any value to the big group meeting. But that’s me – you might love the general sessions.) Again, this doesn’t mean I can’t get something from some of the workshops. I always like to hear what other experts in the field are saying, and I try to make it to one or two workshops at every writing conference. At ACFW last year, I went to Cara Putnam’s workshop on contract language, and found it very insightful.

10. My friend Cecil Murphey likes to ask a good question of prospective conference teachers: “Why do you want to teach?” I was away from conferences for a while, thinking I’d said everything I really had to say, and, besides, people needed a break from me. Then a few years ago I did a bunch of conferences again, frankly because I needed to let everyone know that I had started my own agency. I wanted to get my name out there and remind people that I really do know what I’m doing, even if I got the axe from Time-Warner. But the fact is, I also find teaching at a conference a ton of fun. I enjoy speaking. A conference gives me an outlet where I’m helping people, not just pitching them. I love the mentoring side, talking to people who are just starting out. I can’t represent them all, but I can certainly take an hour to talk with them in a class, or 10 minutes to review their latest book idea. I probably won’t do very many in the next couple of years – once again, I’m feeling as though I’ve said all I have to say. But the past year or three have been a great time for connecting with newbies. You may find it helpful to think through your own motivation for wanting to teach at a conference.

If you’re a conference speaker, what advice would you share with prospective speakers? 

What’s New about “Faith Happenings” (a guest blog)

December 12th, 2014 | Current Affairs | 1 Comment

One of the key questions everyone is asking throughout publishing is, “How do consumers find out about books in order make a buying decision?” They used to wander the aisles at bookstores and make that impulse buy. With CBA stores down to about 1000 (from nearly 6500 when I first started as an agent), that’s not happening to any great degree. Some publishers are starting their own direct-to-consumer etail sites. But will a consumer go to 20 different sites to find products? Would you? Will Goodreads or Amazon service the less-than-avid reader to get them to find and buy books? Not likely. Can authors and their friends Tweet, Facebook and blog ENOUGH to find anyone but their own tribes to market to over and over again? Most authors know the answer to that one. All of this is part of the puzzle to create awareness and move books, but will it be enough over time to move the needle on our sales numbers as retail continues to decrease and the noise on the web continues to increase?

Greg Johnson, a friend and colleague of mine for nearly 20 years, has taken a bold move to help authors (traditional and indy), speakers, bloggers… get noticed. He’s started a new “one-stop resource for people of faith” called www.faithhappenings.com. It’s a first-of-its-kind local and national resource. It has area events (speakers, concerts, author events, fundraisers); serving opportunities; area church and ministry listings; camps, schools, family fun, marriage getaways. Basically, Greg says anything that is “soul-, marriage-, parenting- and church-enriching can be on our site.”

It just launched in June, so out of the 454 local websites active, only about 20 have a broad array of local content. But they ALL have national content like books, music, video, etc. How will it help authors, speakers and bloggers? Um, wow. Here’s his list:

  • When people sign up (free to do so), they can select which categories of books (traditional and indie) to get weekly notices about. They have about 70 different book categories people can sign up for so they never miss a new release in a category they’re interested in. Fiction, nonfiction, kids, teens, leaders. The site does the same for for video and music in a dozen or more categories.
  • You can also sign up for events, so if you’re a speaker and you want to be on the local calendar so people in the area know about your event, people have one website to come to in order to find out about you as a speaker, as well as your events. With the loss of announcements in local newspapers, this feature alone will be a huge benefit to a local area.
  • And what about a book signing that no one but an author’s friends ever hear about? Greg’s philosophy is if someone is doing something Kingdom-related for free, they can have his space and membership list for free. That means, he says, ANY author event, like a book signing, reading, ACFW chapter meeting (or the like), or free workshop CAN ALL BE POSTED LOCALLY FOR FREE. It goes on the Area Calendar for that specific area and people can see it at any point (yes, even months out). He has developed this quick and easy template system for people to post their events. If it’s a paid event or an offering taken, there is a small fee ($50). Monthly or yearly low-cost membership-type groups are counted as free.
  • If you are a speaker and want to post yourself locally as someone churches/ministries or women’s/men’s/student groups could call on to speak, then you list yourself and it goes in the “People You Need” section. They also have “regional speakers” who can be listed in several areas within driving distance. The goal: Get more speaking gigs closer to home. There is a small cost for this, but much less than what you would earn from one speaking gig.
  • You can post your backlist books and independently published books in up to 3 different genres. For example: if you are a contemporary romance novelist and your book is on FaithHappenings, everyone who has requested this genre gets an email about it. All books are linked back to etail sites for easy purchase. And books stay on site in up to three genres… forever.
  • FaithHappenings wants to be a clearinghouse for blogs in 15+ different categories. So if you’re a consistent blogger and want to get noticed, this will be a great way to find new readers who may never have heard about you. The site also does a “Featured Blogger” on the home page that runs for 3 days (small fee to be featured).
  • On the Home Page, they are doing “Featured Resources of the Day.” So if your book is an ebook or print special, you can announce it so those who request to get this feature in their inbox will know when your book goes on special.

For those authors/speakers/bloggers who want to post in these areas above, yes, they will bundle services together at a substantial discount. The discounts range from 50% to 70%, with some variables.

The tagline for this site is “Your Complete, Tailored, Faith Resource,” but Greg also describes this new resource as a “Kingdom Christian CitySearch/Craigslist/Google.” The mission is to “To inform, enrich, inspire, and mobilize individual believers/churches and to enhance the unity of the local Christian Community to better serve the people in their local areas and the world.” Obviously, they need to expand into hundreds of other areas if they want to build a brand and make an impact. And they have a plan to do so.

My advice is to check out the site in your local area, check into how to become a member (they are even giving away 20 free music downloads and a free audiobook just for signing up), create a profile, look around and see if you like it. Greg promises the site is a “politics free zone” (he says, “Others have that mission”) and it fits a broad theological group.

While I’m certain the site is not perfect in every way—there are thousands of moving parts in it—this is a bold and needed endeavor as we see an author/publisher’s ability to find readers becoming increasingly difficult. And like any national website, it will get better as time goes on. Greg’s vision is to serve people locally so they will find our books and ministries.

How else can you benefit from this website? Briefly, here is the list Greg gave me:

  1. Become an Affiliate Partner: Authors who put the FaithHappenings widget on the site to help increase membership numbers can earn points that will pay cash or double their value in going against paid items on his site. If you like the site and believe in the mission, this would be worth checking into. More info is listed in the black bar across the bottom of the Home Page. If you have questions, he says to email herringshaw@faithhappenings.com.
  2. Work part-time with FaithHappenings: If you or someone you know is in need of some income, he is hiring commissioned customer service and sales people called “Community Associates” to build membership and present the site to the 35 or so different types of vendors who pay to be on their local site. You’d go to the “Work for us” link at the bottom of the Home Page to see if you’d qualify. Email hofer@faithhappenings.com if you have any questions.
  3. Create Content to PR Your book: They are looking for consistent bloggers and devotional writers in several areas: women, men, pastors, students. They aren’t paying yet for this, but they will trade some of the other above services for content (that you keep ownership of). Again, email Casey if you would like a list of what they are still looking for. They are open to using older content you might have in your archives.

If you have other specific questions, you can email Greg at greg.johnson@faithhappenings.com.

So… what’s up with the Christian Writers Guild?

December 5th, 2014 | Current Affairs | 23 Comments

Recently the Christian Writers Guild has been much in the news. I’ve heard rumors about problems and threats; there have been questions about new leadership and new directions; and then we got news that the whole thing was being shut down. It seemed odd, since the Guild was purchased and funded by mega-selling author Jerry Jenkins, who wrote the Left Behind series and sold more than seventy million books — at the time it was the best-selling fiction series in history, later eclipsed by Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, and, um, Fifty Shades of Grey (proving that H.L. Mencken was right).

Jerry is not a friend, but he’s certainly a friendly acquaintance (I worked at the agency that represented the Left Behind books), and I knew he had invested his own money into the CWG, and had really built it up. Their annual conference was very good, they were moving into publishing, and for a long time I couldn’t go to speak anywhere without running into writers who had been mentored through their excellent writer training system. So I asked Dr. Dennis Hensley, who is Chairman of the Professional Writing Program at Taylor University, and a longtime insider at CWG, if he could tell me what was happening with them closing up shop. His response follows…
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I have been a close friend and business associate of Jerry B. Jenkins for more than 30 years. During that time I have observed how he and his wife Dianna have anonymously, humbly, and graciously used their personal funds to provide major support for worthy efforts. They have bought automobiles for missionaries, funded college scholarships for needy students, underwritten building projects in third world countries, and provided jobs for writers, editors, and teachers.

A mission close to Jerry’s heart for many years has been to develop a new generation of competent writers who can share the Christian worldview by way of journalism, fiction, social platform outreach, and multi-media communication. To that end Jerry has opened doors on numerous fronts. He bought the Christian Writers Guild from Norm Rohrer 15 years ago and modernized all the correspondence courses for training by way of computerized distance learning. He authorized the creation of new courses, organized a staff of experienced teachers and mentors to work with the online students, and even made arrangements for certain of these courses to qualify for college credits. Additionally, he initiated the annual Writing for the Soul Conference in Colorado Springs, which welcomed participants to hear leading authors and editors give keynote addresses, conduct seminars and workshops, and provide one-on-one manuscript assessment sessions. Furthermore, Jerry took over ownership and management of the annual Christian Writers Market Guide, making sure that freelance writers would have a volume of current marketing information related to magazines, newspapers, online periodicals, and book publishers. And, on top of all this, Jerry himself frequently accepted invitations to speak at writer’s conferences, colleges, universities, retreats, and conventions nationwide, where he would share his knowledge and experience about aspects of professional writing.

In all this, Jerry never made one penny of profit. For a fact, he expended more than three million dollars of personal money just to provide all these various services and opportunities to developing writers. And that does not take into account the hundreds of hours he spent managing CWG and its off-shoot operations, all of which were unpaid ventures for Jerry.

At the start of 2014, Jerry shared with several of his close friends and business associates that he was ready to return to his primary occupation and calling, that of full-time writing. However, it was his hope that the work and mission of Christian Writers Guild would continue. He took on a partner and was indemnified against financial responsibility for new endeavors by CWG, but he granted permission for his name to be used as the new partner segued into total ownership and management.

It is no secret that a host of inquiries and complaints have arisen related to CWG’s management since Jerry stepped out of his leadership role. I am not privy to those specific matters, only to say that I am absolutely confident that Jerry B. Jenkins, himself, has never – never!—shortchanged or cheated anyone. He is honest, fair, and trustworthy in all he does. If anything, he and Dianna are overly generous in their business dealings. Thus, my personal opinion is that any complaints that have arisen regarding problems at CWG in 2014 cannot be laid at Jerry’s feet. Being the exemplary man he is, Jerry has reinserted himself into the business side of the Guild to insure that it is closed with fidelity and honor. He has pledged that all students will be able to complete their courses and all members will get the full benefits of their memberships. To say that this is a magnanimous gesture would be an understatement. Integrity and Jerry B. Jenkins are synonymous in my dictionary.

Dr. Dennis E. Hensley

Ask the Agent: How can a publisher create a success?

November 12th, 2014 | Current Affairs | 3 Comments

I’ve had a number of people ask me about the recent reports of Grand Central Publishing trying to create a big splash with Christopher Scotton’s debut novel, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth. The questions are basically, Why did they decide to put a hundred thousand dollar marketing budget behind an unproven writer’s obscure novel? Why did they choose that book? And Does this happen very often?

The process by which the leadership at Grand Central decided to pick this one book out of the pile and promote it like crazy is interesting and rare. It’s what we call in the industry a “make book” — that is, neither the author nor the project is well known, so we’re going to decide as a company to “make” the book successful. And we’re going to do that by treating it as though the author is already a bestselling writer, the story is already well known, and that big orders and big sales are expected to happen. It’s not as simple as buying their way onto the bestseller lists, as some have suggested. Instead, it’s putting the best resources of the company behind a particular project and risking that everybody else is going to buy into the vision.

Grand Central is part of the Hachette universe, and I know them pretty well. I was an associate publisher for the company back when it was part of the old Time-Warner Book Group, and the process they’re using on The Secret Wisdom of the Earth is the same they used on some other titles. Robert Hicks’ The Widow of the South, about an old woman tending the graves of Rebel soldiers who died at the Battle of Franklin, was a make book. The company just got behind that book because it liked the story, marketed it like crazy, and saw it rise to the bestseller lists. Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was a great example of a make book. The editor, Asya Munchnik (who is brilliant, and responsible for a string of hits from Michael Connelly, Stephenie Meyer, David Sedaris, and others) read the manuscript and loved it. Instead of quickly pushing it through to publication, she made sure the sales and marketing staff all read it, and that built enthusiasm in-house for the title. I believe the completed manuscript was in house for two full years before it released, giving it enough time for everyone in the company to get on board and treat it as a big book, even though it was a crime novel from a debut novelist, not a big, upmarket story from a well-known author. And all that company enthusiasm got the country to see it as a huge hit. The Historian was another hugely successful make book — Elizabeth Kostova’s lengthy debut novel about an academic going through her father’s papers and slowing realizing he had discovered the truth about Dracula. That was the first instance in American publishing history that a first-time novelist debuted at #1 on the New York Times list, and it was a make book from the same group of people.

What do all those books (as well as The Secret Wisdom of the Earth share? In my view, love and patience. People in-house read it and loved it. The sales guys saw potential in the story. (According to PW, VP of Sales Chris Murphy sent a note to everyone in the company, encouraging them to read it.) Although it was a mid-level deal, the print run was boosted. Then the marketing folks got involved and started pushing it. Soon people were talking about it, the industry buzz was great, and the print run had quadrupled. And nobody seemed to be in a hurry, so that this book had to come out next week — they were willing to take some time and let it build (and this in an industry that sometimes seems intent on racing through a release so they can move on to the next project). So everyone on the Hachette side loved it, they worked it patiently, and… well, it’s going to be a hit.

This doesn’t happen often. It’s got to be an intentional decision on behalf of the entire publishing company. They genuinely have to like it (and, let’s face it… few books have broad enough appeal to be loved by everyone in a company). It’s risky, in that they are putting a bunch of money behind an unknown author, and contemporary publishing runs on The Pareto Principle: 80% of the money comes from 20% of the books. Someone who did a bestselling book last year is your safest bet for dong a bestselling book next year. A publisher just doesn’t have the time and resources to do this with every title. But yes, it still happens, and thus gives hope to writers everywhere that THEIR book will be the next one chosen to be made into a hit.

Ask the Agent: Is a speaker’s bureau worth it?

October 13th, 2014 | Career, Current Affairs | 2 Comments

I’ve recently had a couple people write to ask me about speaker bureaus — How do they work? What do they make? Are they worth it? 

Over the last sixteen years, I’ve worked with numerous speaker bureaus to try and get speaking engagements for authors. Like any other business, the quality varies greatly. Some have been good; others have been terrible. Let me offer some thoughts…

First, a good speaker’s bureau is pro-active, not re-active. This is really the biggest complaint people have about most speaker bureaus. An author will sign with them, give them permission to get them engagements, then wait. A good bureau will make calls, and try to find new places for an author to speak. A bad bureau sits and waits for the phone to ring. (And if that’s all your speaker’s bureau is doing, you can simply have your own phone ring.)

Second, a good speaker’s bureau provides support, not just basic information. A good bureau captures all the details. They tell the author where they are needed, when, how they’ll get there, and where they’ll be staying. They’ll offer to help with travel, offer details on how many times the author is expected to speak, on what topics, under what circumstances, and to how many people. A bad bureau simply gives the date and time.

Third, a good speaker’s bureau will work for their money. Most bureaus take 20% of the speaker fees. So if you’re being paid $1000 to speak at a conference, the speaker’s bureau will want $200 of it… and for that sort of money, you’d expect they would work hard for it, try hard to land new engagements, make sure the proposed gigs were a good fit, and spend some time negotiating the deal to try and maximize it. For the record, I rarely find that to be the case. Many wait for the phone to ring, tend to always give the engagements to the same small group of speakers, and provide minimal assistance to authors who are speaking. Twenty per cent is a steep price to pay for lazy service.

Fourth, a good speaker’s bureau will help build an author’s platform. That means they will take the time to figure out what the author does best, and try to find engagements where the author can shine. A bad agency simply looks for available dates. Several of the legacy publishers have set up their own in-house speaker bureaus, to try and boost the platforms of their A-level authors. That’s a good sign, since it means the publisher is trying to get their authors noticed. And, of course, I’d argue that author website have usurped most speaker bureaus, since those looking for speakers can often find authors who are writing on the topic they need.

Fifth, a good speaker’s bureau will focus on what they do best. I’m a literary agent, so I tend to spend my time on books and writing careers. But since we do a lot of work in the Christian market, I should note that nearly all the speaker bureaus working in CBA have also begun calling themselves literary agents — even if they don’t know anything about the publishing market, haven’t worked at a publishing house, or have any background for offering editorial or career advice. This is why I’ve lost all faith in most of the CBA speaker bureaus. They don’t know what they’re doing with books, yet they want to compete with me for authors. (And yes, on several occasions I’ve had people at speaker bureaus suddenly announce to an author that they’re becoming literary agents, and try to poach authors from me.)

So… is a speaker’s bureau worth it? Perhaps, if you can find someone who will take the time to understand what you do best, and pro-actively seek to place you in speaking engagements that will generate you income and boost your platform. So focus on that when evaluating anybody who invites you to join a speaker’s bureau. For some authors, I think a speaker’s bureau may not be that helpful. Before you sign with one, make sure to ask some hard questions: Who do they work with? What services do they offer? How many speakers do they work with? How many engagements did they place speakers with last year? What were the venues? What sort of marketing will they do? How often will they place you? How do they negotiate contracts? What do they do for their 20%? Getting answers to questions like that will help you figure out if the speaker bureau is a fit for you.