Archive for the ‘Current Affairs’ Category

How does an acquisitions editor acquire books?

October 15th, 2015 | Current Affairs, Publishing, The Business of Writing | 18 Comments

Someone wrote with this question: “When someone is hired by a publishing house and allowed to acquire new books, are they trained or do they just ‘go and do’? Is this something they do individually or as part of a team?”

An acquisitions editor has usually spent time with the company and has a feel for what he or she should be acquiring. Most are brought up through the system. They know if the company does well with historical novels, or if they like self-books, or if they struggle to sell memoir. So most ack editors know the list and the company culture — and yes, personal tastes will shape the books they bring in. If an editor likes thrillers, and is charged with building the list, you can pretty much expect his or her preferences will begin to be reflected in the books they’re doing. (Though not always — an editor at Harlequin is generally responsible for acquiring romantic novels, no matter how much she happens to like spec fiction… Again, knowing the corporate saga and culture is essential.) Editors shape houses. That’s the way it’s always been in publishing. So a publishing house that hires a bunch of new acquisitions people gets reshaped by the editors who work there.

That said, few editors (just a handful of executive editors) have the authority to simply go acquire. The system looks like this:

Step One is that the editor must like the presented idea. He or she works with the agent and author to sharpen the proposal and make it as strong as possible.

In Step Two the idea is usually taken to the editorial team. In this meeting the merits of the book are discussed, several people read it, the team evaluates it, they determine if it fits the corporate identity, they explore other factors (such as “is this book too similar to one we did last season?” and “don’t we have enough Regency romances already?”), and try to determine if the entire team feels they can get behind the book,. They may ask for further changes, they may reject it, or they may decide to continue the discussion. If the team likes it, the project then moves on to the next step.

Step Three is yet another committee, known as the publishing board (or publishing committee). This is the decision-making body at most every publishing house. It includes the top sales people to talk about market response, a representative from marketing to suggest ways the company could help get the word out, somebody from finance to count the beans, the publisher of the line to make sure and give strategic direction, some senior management types to improve the overall status of the group by wearing nice suits, maybe a sub-rights person, and various others. The editor presents the proposal. The participants read it, discuss it, explore sales and marketing potential, check their horoscopes, and do everything else possible in order to try and figure out if they should do the book. Sometimes they table the project in order to push the discussion to a later date. Eventually they make a sacrifice to the gods, throw the urim and thummin, and decide to publish something.

So the decision to publish a book really doesn’t reside with one person. It starts with one person (an editor, who is the champion for the book and essential to the process), but the decision is really made down the line, by a much wider group of people. That way they can all take credit for the project if the book hits the bestseller list, or blame the editor if the book tanks. Does all that make sense?

How I got screwed by Delta (your Happy Traveler Note of the Week)

September 2nd, 2015 | Current Affairs | 22 Comments

So last week I was supposed to fly from Denver (where I was having publishing meetings) to Nashville (where we were hosting a marketing seminar for our authors). I’m the type that Deltaalways tries to keep travel expenses low (in the technical term, a “cheapskate”), so I used some Delta miles to purchase a one-way ticket  back in April. I made sure to get a ticket in the late afternoon, figuring if there’s any sort of problem, Delta could always stick me onto a later flight. I had to be in Nashville at 9 the next morning to speak.

So I get to the airport in plenty of time, go to one of those Delta machines… and it won’t check me in. It says there’s a problem, and I have to go stand in line. Grrr. Okay, so I stand in line a half hour, am greeted by a very nice Delta employee who looks sharp but, unfortunately, has the attention span of a Cocker Spaniel, and who informs me that my flight, which routed me through Atlanta, was changed, and they’d be getting me to Nashville, not that night, but THE NEXT DAY. AT 1:30 IN THE AFTERNOON. She smiles sweetly as she says this.

I keep my cool, explain that no, that plan won’t work, I’ve got to speak in the morning, and they need to find some alternative. She looks around, as though I’m speaking a foreign language, then says she can’t find any alternatives. “Um… really?” I ask. “Because I used to live in Nashville, flew in and out all the time, and there are plenty of flights into BNA. It’s only 4 PM, there’s no weather, so maybe you could look again?” She does, but I can’t tell if she really understands the routes, since she twice talks about getting me to Charlotte — which, technically, isn’t Nashville, although I hear they also have great ribs.

Anyway, the line behind me begins to build, and it’s clear she’s getting nervous. So she calls someone, who tells her to put me on another airline. The gal isn’t sure what to do, so I explain that United, Frontier, American, and Southwest all can route me from Denver to Nashville. I watch her call American, wait on hold, stare at the growing line, and get more frantic. Eventually she talks with someone briefly (and by briefly, I mean REALLY briefly), then hangs up the phone and says to me, “Because of the lateness in the day, I can’t seem to get a seat. But if you’ll go to one of the other ticket counters and purchase a ticket, Delta will reimburse you.” 

Now, I may live in a small town in Oregon, but I’m no fool. “Um, no,” I explain to her. “They won’t. I know because I went through this with United one time. The gate agent said United would reimburse me, but they never did. I got screwed for about $300. Why don’t you try again?” She looks around, as if she’s forgotten where she was, then calls someone, never actually speaks to anyone, and finally looks at me and says, “If you purchase another ticket, Delta will reimburse you for the cost. I’ll even put that in the notes on this ticket.”  

Well, by now I’ve been at this an hour, and I’m no closer to Nashville, so I take her word for it. I walk ten feet away, find the cheapest last-minute fare I can get, and buy a one-way ticket to Nashville that night on Southwest for $457. I grab my boarding pass and receipt, and go back to the Delta line. I wait another 20 minutes, get to the front of the line and say to Miss Cocker Spaniel, “See? I bought another ticket! I’d like Delta to reimburse me!”

Of course she shakes her head and says, “Oh, we don’t do reimbursements here. You have to call for that.” 

A red light goes off in my head. “I knew it. Delta is going to screw me, aren’t they?”

“No! I’ve put it right here in the notes. When you call, just give them the ticket number and they’ll be able to find my notes explaining it all.” 

Uh-huh. Note to travelers: Don’t take the word of gate agents who remind you of cute puppies. I fly to Nashville, do the marketing seminar, meet with publishers… and call Delta. About a dozen times. I fill in the online forms. I give them my ticket number. I send a complaint letter. Nobody knows anything about my flight to Nashville. They can’t find out anything. I kept expecting one of them to say to me, “Perhaps you dreamed it all…” They lie and stonewall and intend to stick me with a $457 bill that I shouldn’t have had to pay. One person offers to put my miles back into my account — which, um, isn’t exactly a “win” in my book, since I never, you know, actually took a Delta flight. Giving me back my own miles on a flight they screwed up doesn’t strike me as making them eligible for “Customer Service Giant of the Year.”

Finally, a week later, on roughly my fifteenth call, I lose it. When the woman says there are no notes about me buying another ticket, and that no Delta ticket agent would ever suggest buying a seat on another airline, I start yelling… “I run a business! I know that I’m responsible for what the people who work for me say. If they make a promise, I’m on the hook. I bought this ticket because your gate agent encouraged me to — over my own objections! So screw Delta! You people are liars and cheats!”

Her response: “Sir, I’m reporting you to Delta.” 

Well… ouch. THAT certainly hurt. I mean, what’s going to happen now — on my next flight, Delta is going to give me crappy service? (And, to ask a rhetorical question, if Delta decided to give me crappy service, how would I recognize it?) 

So there you have it. I’m still sitting here, looking at my receipt for the Southwest flight that I didn’t want to buy. Screwed out of $457 by Delta Airlines. Thanks Delta!

The View from the Bookstore (a guest post)

August 31st, 2015 | Current Affairs | 3 Comments

In response to the posts we’ve had on the Family Christian Stores debacle, we’re received a number great letters from people involved. Authors, editors, publishers, and agents have all written with their thoughts. But I wanted to share one note from a bookstore owner in Green Bay, Wisconsin, who I think offers some perspective on the situation. This is shared with her permission…

People have talked about how much Family has lost in this bankruptcy, what the vendors have lost, what the authors have lost, and I’m sure what you may have lost also. However, no one seems to have mentioned the problems this has caused for the entire independent Christian bookstore industry. We have read how the vendors had to have Family stay in business because “they needed to have someone to sell their books to.”
  I am a part of the Munce Group, and we still have nearly 500 independent stores. The Parable Group has a large group of stores, too. The Covenant Group has independent stores that have faithfully served the market for years. And there are many who are not a part of any marketing group. These were stores they could sell to also.
 These were stores who have been paying their bills, and have most likely been paying more for their product than Family did. We didn’t get consignment offers, and if we did we would have understood that product was not ours – it still belonged to the vendor.
  Family talks about all their profits going to widows and orphans. If there were no profits how many widows and orphans were helped? In contrast, many of these independent stores have ministered in their own communities, and brought the gospel to thousands of people? We will not know that until we all reach heaven and see who has been touched by our ministries.
  Who is going to champion for the independent stores? Many of us have been in business for 40 years or more, and continue to see our business eroded by a number of things, including vendors who have had to go out of business. We’ve had sales reps and inside sales people we’ve known for years lose their jobs over this situation. We’ve seen some of our companies have to close.  We’ve seen some of our bookstores have to close. And to top that off, the vendors now have less money to spend on our catalogs, and some of the distributors are having to make decisions that cut our discounts. The whole industry has suffered, and that includes the “forgotten independent stores” who have been quietly watching the industry implode around them.
  Thank you for the insightful blog. You are one of the only commentators on the Family situation who has presented an alternative view, recognizing the damage done to the entire industry. Keep up the good work.
  Your comments would be appreciated.
Karen Grosse
Lighthouse Christian Books
Green Bay, WI 54304
38 years in business this year

“Why are you picking on Family Christian Stores?”

August 27th, 2015 | Current Affairs | 32 Comments

Okay, so my recent posts (here, here, and here) on the bankruptcy, reorganization, and sale of Family Christian Stores (FCS) has created a bit of a stir. Four publishers wrote me to say thanks. Several independent bookstores wrote to tell me I’ve not told the whole story. And a few folks wrote in to say, in essence, “Why are you picking on Family Christian Stores? Don’t you want them to stay in business? And don’t lots of businesses go through bankruptcy?” 

I think there are four things to note…

First, this isn’t your typical bankruptcy. Look, I’m a small businessman. I know that bookstores_2sometimes the market can turn on you, and you lose money. I had a friend who went big into microfiche, just as the ‘fiche industry was made obsolete by digitalization. Tastes change, technology creates new products, and a business can suddenly be facing hard times. Um… that’s not what’s going on here. According to vendors, the folks at FCS were ordering products in, knowing they were not going to be able to pay for them. Some small businesses delivered orders within days of FCS shutting down — and they have claimed the company simply had to have known it was receiving product for which they’d never pay.

The worst example? Bibles — and at least two publishers have said to me, “This was all about Bibles.” Of the $14 million FCS owed to publishers, about $10 million of it was in Bibles. The vast majority of money they owed to HarperCollins was for Bibles that Family had ordered in. So look at the money for a moment… FCS orders in $10 million in Bibles. But instead of paying ten million, they end up, after their re-org, paying roughly one-and-a-half million. AND they get to keep that product and sell it at full retail price, so somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 to $25 million. This is why a couple of the publishing houses insisted they be paid full value for all books ordered in the last three weeks before FCS files for bankruptcy — because some publishers felt they were being scammed. So, in my view, this isn’t all due to a change in the market. (Of course, there’s also the weirdness of having the owner of FCS turn around, create a new company, and buy out his own company in order to save millions… something everyone is holding their noses over.)

Second, the reaction of FCS administration was shockingly off-kilter. We all got to hear CEO Chuck Bengochea declare this was “God’s plan” and state that he was “celebrating.” Worse, he went back to an earlier company line about using money to help “widows and orphans.” Try to read that and not want to barf as you think about the various companies that went out of business, the publishers who lost millions, and the authors who aren’t getting paid for their books. Or think about the fact that FCS is going to shut down stores and lay off workers, even though they’ve argued repeatedly that’s not going to happen. Hey, Mr Bengochea (who was reprimanded by the judge for making a late night call to the owner in order to apparently work a backroom deal) may be a wonderful human being, but his tone-deaf response and that incredibly stupid-sounding “we’re just in it for the ministry” jingoism makes him look like an out-0f-touch corporate raider. How about a bit of “we take full responsibility” or “I’m sorry for the people we hurt”?

Third, the lack of reporting on this story, particularly among religious media, has been appalling. I’m not sure what Christian magazines and news sources are hoping to gain by not being clear about this story, but have a look — there’s been very little in print. Maybe it’s that whole “we’re all Christians so we don’t want to hammer each other” mentality. Perhaps it’s simply, “If we say something, FCS may not carry our products any more.” I don’t know… but in my view, a lot of people should be ashamed for failing to report on this. I’m no crusading journalist, but I don’t want to sit on the sidelines while the authors I represent and the publishers I do business with get taken for millions of dollars.

Fourth, I’m not rooting for FCS to fail… I’d just like them to be held accountable. I represent authors whose books sell in their stores, and losing all that shelf space would be painful — just as it was painful when Borders closed a thousand stores. (Of course, nobody at Borders was claiming they were going to be giving their profits to widows and orphans.) So I’m glad FCS is remaining open, at least for a while. I’m also a fan of all those great indie bookstores out there, including the member stores that are part of the Munce Group, the Parable Group, and the Covenant Group — all indie-owned, and mostly appalled at the behavior of FCS. Of course, I hope this spurs CBA publishers to stop being quite so brick-and-mortar focused, but my reason for writing about this is basically because it felt like nobody was telling the story. I love this business, and if you’re really involved it you’re going to hear both the good and the bad. If you only want to hear good news, I guess you should stop reading my blog… and maybe you could start reading “The Bengochea Celebration Blog.” No doubt it’s happy. And there’s probably a button so that you can contribute to all those widows and orphans.

The Family Christian Follies

August 17th, 2015 | Current Affairs | 24 Comments

Okay, it’s all settled. After months of arguing, pointing fingers, and making late-night calls that threatened to screw up the entire deal, the country’s largest Christian retail chain is going to remain open. That’s good news for writers (in a way). It’s also a mess (and I’ve reported on it here and here).

Late last week a bankruptcy judge approved the sale of Family Christian Stores (FCS) to a “new” entity, called FCS Acquisitions, which happens to be owned by the same folks who owned FCS. The price tag? About $55-million — which is interesting, since FCS owed about $127-million. So by going through a Chapter 11, they shed millions of dollars in leases, rent contracts, loans — oh, and debts to publishers. According to two sources, Credit Suisse (the largest of the creditors owed money, and the bank that kept FCS in business with a huge loan a few years ago) will be paid roughly 17.5% of what it’s owed.

Publishers, on the other hand, who were owed roughly $14-million, will be paid about 15% of what is owed them. Several publishers, including Baker, Harvest House, Tyndale, B&H, Crossway, Barbour, and others, are taking huge losses — many in the half-million dollar range. HarperCollins is having to write off millions. Gospel Light Publishing had to file for bankruptcy. And this means authors, whose books will be sold from store shelves, won’t actually receive any royalty from those sales because the publishers will never be paid for the books they shipped. I also heard from at least two suppliers that were going out of business because of the money that had tied up in products FCS took in and will never pay them for. And, despite their claim that all 266 stores will remain open and nobody will lose their job, estimates are that they’ll close at least 20 stores. It’s been a total black eye for Christian publishing.

So what was the response of the guys running Family Christian Stores? Did they apologize to suppliers for cheating them out of product, or to publishers for ordering books they knew they’d never be able to pay for? Did they do an interview, hat in hand, telling of their remorse over their past mistakes? Um… not exactly: “We can celebrate!” exclaimed CEO Chuck Bengochea, apparently checking in from the planet Mars. “God has a plan for Family Christian!” Yes — and hopefully that plan includes arranging to have the company run by people who can actually make money and pay their bills, and who won’t cheat their suppliers.

Okay, I’ve been accused of being too hard on the FCS brass. Maybe I am, though I’m just trying to report as I see the facts. The creditors voted 162 to 7 to take this deal, so while I doubt any of them are doing the Bengochea Happy Dance, it’s safe to assume most of them must have come to the conclusion that getting something is better than getting nothing. (The only other bidder in the proceedings was the combination of Hilco and Gordon Brothers, who take over distressed businesses, liquidate the inventory, and close the stores.) The fact is, I’m glad they are staying in business. Family Christian is one of the few chains that has great shelf space available to Christian books, and I represent a lot of Christian books. I genuinely hope the stores remain open, do well, and sell LOTS of books. But… this has been a mess, and I’ve been surprised the media hasn’t made more noise about it. I mean, we’ve had (1) FCS promising to donate all their profits to widows and orphans; (2) the owner of FCS insisting he be paid before his suppliers; (3) the owner try to buy back his company on the cheap, only to have the judge reject the whole proceeding as flawed; (4) the CEO of the company get reprimanded by the judge for calling the owner late at night in the midst to the proceedings to work an insider deal, nearly throwing the whole plan into chaos; and (5) vendors claiming FCS was taking in product up until the last moment, knowing full well they’d never be able to pay for it. In other words, it hasn’t exactly been our best hour.

But, um, yeah — we can certainly celebrate. I’ll celebrate that writers in CBA still have some brick-and-mortar store shelves to sell books from. I’ll celebrate that publishers in CBA showed enough grace that they were still willing to work with people who took their product and sold it but never paid for it. And I’ll celebrate that, at least for the time being, there will still be a chain of stores that aren’t owned by a denomination, so readers can find books that aren’t in a very limited theological window. But I’ll also remember that a lot of people didn’t get paid, some lost their jobs, and others lost their entire companies. So forgive me if I don’t go all Bengochea over the news.

What’s happening with Christian non-fiction?

August 6th, 2015 | Current Affairs | 5 Comments

A couple of times over the past month, I’ve talked about Christian fiction and its future, since it’s clearly going through a tough time. I haven’t talked at all about Christian non-fiction, but I’ve had a number of questions come in on the topic over the past few weeks, so I thought I’d try to get to several of them…

People seem to talk about CBA and ECPA… can you explain what those organizations are?

CBA is the Christian Booksellers Association, and it’s an organization for anyone who creates and sells Christian products. The organization allows members who are store owners, publishers, jewelry-makers, fine art providers, greeting card companies, t-shirt purveyors, and the like (including the guys who create Pope-soap-on-a-Rope, John 3:16 Socks, Ash-From-Sodom-and-Gomorrah Necklaces, and every other sort of Jesus Junk). They put on a big annual sales convention each summer. ECPA is the Evangelical Christian Publishing Association, and it’s the non-profit trade association for Christian publishers. Although they often overlap (and people in the industry will frequently use the term “CBA” interchangeably with anything that relates to religious publishing), they are different organizations. ECPA is conservative, evangelical book publishers. CBA is for anyone selling religious stuff.


A few months ago you said there were “fewer” books in CBA coming from pastors. As a pastor who aspires to write, I was intrigued by this observation. How do you understand the fact that pastors seem to be making such a small impact on readers through the written word?

CBA used to be filled with books by pastors, who were seen as the spiritual celebrities in our culture. Think about it — pastors went on speaking tours, led conferences, hosted their own TV and radio shows, and they did a LOT of books. We still see plenty of books from pastors, though they tend to be restricted to pastors of mega-churches, but there are certainly far fewer than there used to be. In my view that’s partly because of the job of pastors (who have a flock of people to take care of, complete with the administrative headaches that come with the duties of a huge volunteer organization), and partly because the culture has shifted away from listening strictly to pastors as spiritual advisers. Instead, Christians tend to buy nonfiction books from counselors, doctors, conference speakers, celebrities, professors, and, sometimes, writers. (That’s not any sort of criticism, by the way. Just an observation that has grown out of three decades in this industry.)

Do you think Christian Manuscript Submissions is an effective way to get noticed by Christian publishers and agents? 

For those who don’t know, Christian Manuscript Submissions is an online service wherein an author pays $98 to submit an overview and sample chapters of his or her book. The electronic proposal goes into a database that can be searched by agents and publishers for six months. The site is owned and operated by ECPA, so one can argue that the Christian publishers themselves run it, and have a stake in keeping it working. I find it’s always hard to talk about CMS without making someone angry. The folks at CMS are very nice, and they basically create a good-looking slush pile of projects. They have had a handful of books land with legitimate publishers over the years — Cook, Bethany House, Moody, Harvest House (though the Harvest House book on their site was twelve years ago, and one of the books they have on their “testimonials” page is a book I actually represented and sold to Bethany House). They have an editing service as well, of which I’ve heard both good and not-so-good things, depending on the editor that was involved. So… is it an effective tool for authors? Maybe. On the one hand, it seems like it’s just another slush pile, and why would a busy agent or an editor facing a huge stack of proposals go to a pile of manuscripts that may or may not have been edited? (I don’t go there to review projects, for example.) On the other hand, if you’re a determined writer who is trying to get noticed and can afford the hundred bucks, why not take every shot you can? (I know a few editors who go to the site occasionally to see what’s there.) There are thousands of proposals up, and the numbers of books that have actually landed with a publisher are minuscule… but that’s similar to the odds of talking to a bunch of agents and finding representation. I want to be clear in saying I don’t think CMS a scam, and I think it may or may not offer an opportunity to writers. (And here I expect people to come on and tell me all about “why writers should simply self-publish and make a fortune, blah blah blah…,” so I’ll just insert the note that I also find THAT to be a good option, depending on the author and project.) By the way, CMS has a competitor, called The Writers Edge. I’ve never found the representatives there to be as well-spoken as those at CMS, nor do I think they have much in the way of success stories. Their page of successes has one book with Revell, another with Harvest House, and one with Moody, but they seem to have done a bunch of titles with one very small-time, less-than-stellar house. And, in the (admittedly limited) interactions I’ve had with them or been shown to me by authors, I’ve not found their editorial services to be terribly helpful. One man’s opinion.

What’s the market for bible studies?

Almost non-existent. A few houses like NavPress keep recycling their old, proven bible studies, so there isn’t a lot of new stuff being acquired, and readers often go online for content these days, so there is far less in print with legacy houses. While there are a handful of small presses that have generated new studies in recent years (AMG and Group come to mind), it’s not very lucrative, there are a ton of ministries and organizations giving things away for free online, and there’s a very small market for anything new.

What is the state of devotionals in today’s marketplace?

Regular readers of this blog can tell you that I’ve said repeatedly, “Publishing is tidal. The tide comes in; the tide goes out.” Devotionals (short, thoughtful pieces, usually with a bible verse or a prayer accompanying an insightful story of some kind) were a huge part of the market a few years ago. Tyndale was cranking out their “One Year Devotionals” at a steady pace, and I think every CBA publisher on the planet created a “40 Day” devotional after the success of The Purpose Driven Life. But publishing is tidal. The tide went out, stores found themselves with stacks of unsold devotionals, and suddenly nobody was looking to create new ones. For a while the CBA publishers were simply telling agents, “We’re not looking for any devotionals at the present time.” Now that’s started to turn a bit, and we’re seeing more new titles on store shelves. It’s not a “hot” part of the market at the moment, and it tends to be driven by celebrity authors, but there are a few new titles being added at most houses.

What would you say is the best Christian writing conference to attend?

If we were talking about fiction, I’d mention ACFW, which is one of the really good writing conferences in the country, but today’s topic is non-fiction, so… I like the Blue Ridge Christian Writer’s Conference best, I think — it has a great blend of topics and a strong faculty each year. There are bunch of others (in Oregon, Florida, Chicago, Colorado, Kentucky, Seattle, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Orange County, etc), and many of them offer something of value. The best way to judge them is to check the faculty, see if the lineup is good, then see if the conference offerings fit your interests. But there are also a number of really good one-day writing conferences around the country — maybe too many to mention, though two of my favorites are the San Diego Writers’ Guild and the Faith and Culture Conference. Both tend to be far better than most.

What would you say is the biggest trend in Christian non-fiction?

“Big” in terms of growing? It has to be memoir, which used to barely exist in CBA, and now has become one of the fastest-growing genres in all of publishing. Keep in mind that a memoir is not a biography (a linear retelling of someone’s life), nor is it a personal story (someone who has had something interesting happen to them), but instead a reminiscence on life — an exploration of the themes and lessons and interesting/heartbreaking/hilarious/moving stories that speak to the great questions of life. In Christian circles, we’re all used to seeing “testimonies” in church, so many people of faith have gotten confused and think that anyone with a fascinating story (“I once was lost — but now I’m found!”) can do a book. That’s just not true.

So you know, memoir exists in three basic categories: celebrity memoir (for movie stars, music talent, politicians, and those who can easily get major media attention), cultural memoir (stories tied to the big events that have impacted us all — 9/11, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, etc), and craft memoir (those stories that are told with great writing and explore the recurring themes and touchstone events that have shaped one’s life). Read that sentence again carefully… it means that if you’re not a celebrity, and you’re not a part of some significant cultural event, the only real chance you have of getting your memoir published is if you have great craft. Whether it’s funny, or sad, or insightful, or profoundly disturbing, your memoir requires great writing to see print. Something to keep in mind the next time you hear someone say, “You should do a book!”


What do you want to “Ask an Agent”?

August 3rd, 2015 | Current Affairs | 2 Comments

This month I’m going to try and answer a bunch of publishing questions sent in by readers — some of them general, some very specific. If you’ve got a question, I’d love to hear from you. Here are some of the questions that have come in to the blog recently…

Do you think it would be a good career move for an author to have her debut novel published as an ebook only? I’ve been offered an “ebook first” contract with a larger house, and I’m feeling a bit unsure about it.

It could be worthwhile. It can get you in the door, and introduce you to the people at the publishing house. I’d suggest you ask the publisher what they are going to do to help you with your book. Will they edit it? Will they spend money on a good cover? Will they actively sell it? Will they market it at all, or leave all the marketing to the author? If the answer is basically “we’re not going to do much of anything,” then you have to ask yourself if you’d be better off self-publishing and keeping all the money. But if the publisher is going to improve your book, invest in solid editing and a cover, do something on the marketing side, and help you move some copies, it could be a decent introduction to the publishing world. Again, there’s no “one right answer” to these types of questions — it depends on the writer, the publisher, and the story. But what you’re proposing can certainly be a viable option, assuming the publisher is going to do some work. (And, if you’re not great at reading between the lines, that means there are some publishers who don’t edit, don’t spend money on covers, don’t do any marketing, and don’t help you sell copies… which means you’re probably better off indie-publishing.)

I’ve been wondering why an agent who might otherwise reject a query via email would bother to take the next step when approached at a conference? The pitch is the same, the writing sample is the same, the platform (or lack thereof) is the same. All that’s different is that the author paid money to show up in person. Is it because (1) it shows the writer is serious about this, having come to a conference and signed up to see you, or (2) it allows you to have a few minutes and figure out the person isn’t a wacko, or (3) it gives you the time to talk about the proposal, rather than just take a quick look?

All of those are good reasons. But more than anything, I’ll look at a proposal at a conference because that’s what I’ve agreed to do – interact with authors at the conference. If I see something that interests me, I’m much more apt to pay attention to someone I’ve actually met and had a discussion with than I am to someone I’ve never met. But sure — it’s always nice to know this person isn’t a wacko. Um.. are YOU a wacko?

You never seem to talk much about spec fiction, but the fantasy genre has blossomed, and it seems like there’s been an explosion of dystopian stories over the past few years. Do you think the adult fantasy genre will grow among CBA readers due to the popularity of so many YA fantasy novels? 

I don’t have much to say about spec fiction because I represent very little spec or fantasy — it’s just not been my area of focus. That said, I think we could see some superhero and spec fiction stories grow in CBA fiction, but I don’t know that the genre will ever be a dominant force in fiction. (Spec fiction has always been a bit player in the world of publishing, no matter how many Star Wars movies were produced.) I don’t know about the growth of fantasy among adult readers… maybe it will grow, since we’re always getting surprised by the twists and turns in publishing trends, and so many young people have found an escape in fantasy novels. But the shift we’re seeing at the moment in CBA is toward more true stories: humorous memoir, moving and transcendent true stories, perhaps graphic and disturbing books that use fiction technique to tell factual stories. Again, fiction is a tough place in CBA at the moment.

Now it’s your turn… If you’ve got a comment to make about any of the above questions, drop it in the comments section below. (I’d love to hear from some of the authors who have gone the e-first route, to see what you thought of the experience.) And if you’ve got a question you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent, drop that in as well, or email it directly to me, and I’ll try to get to it this month. 

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 | 99 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.