Archive for the ‘Current Affairs’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happens if Family Christian Stores goes away?

June 15th, 2015 | Current Affairs | 48 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Faith Happenings: A Guest Blog from Casey Herringshaw

May 15th, 2015 | Current Affairs | 0 Comments

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

So how do you get involved?

It’s simple.

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

OR…

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

Got the idea?

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

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

I’m excited to see your content submissions!

What’s going on with Family Christian Stores?

April 17th, 2015 | Current Affairs | 58 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask the Agent: Book groups and great books

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World

Khalid Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavaleir and Clay

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections

Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible

Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried

Ian McEwan’s Atonement

Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy

Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road

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

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

 

Ask the Agent: If I have a contract in hand…

March 25th, 2015 | Agents, Current Affairs, The Business of Writing | 2 Comments

Some fascinating questions have come in recently…

“I know of several agents who edit or write on the side. Is there anything wrong with that?”

I’m on record as having said, “You’ll do best if you find a full-time agent.” But I also recognize the times are changing – now we’re seeing agents help authors self-publish, or help with marketing plans, or have some other part-time position, so I know our role has changed. An agent who also edits or writes on the side has become fairly common. My feeling is that those agents need to be careful not to mix the two – and I’ll use myself as an example. While I will always go through a proposal and make sure it’s strong, editing and tweaking as necessary, I don’t freelance edit. I tell authors that my company is not an editorial service, so if they need a full-blown developmental edit, they’re better off hiring a freelance editor. I generally will give authors three or four names of editors who I like and trust… but I always explain that I don’t care which editor the author approaches, and I’m always quick to say these people don’t work for me, and I don’t get a kickback for recommending any particular editor. So if an agent wants to do some freelance editing, I think they have to create a bright line about separating the two aspects of their business (I recently saw one agent tell authors, “I’ll represent this if you’ll hire me to edit it first”). They have to be very careful that they don’t try to sell their editorial services to clients, which will get them kicked out of the AAR. Similarly, I know of a few agents who also work as freelance writers. So long as they’re not selling their writing services to clients, and basically running two separate businesses, I think they can make that work. I understand why they need to do that financially, but I think they have to be very careful that the two services don’t sell each other. The same holds true for an agent who works part time as a publicist – you don’t try to sell your marketing services to your agency clients. The bottom line seems clear to me: If I am paid to edit or write it, I shouldn’t also try to represent it. To do so is unethical.

 

“I’ve heard it said that one way to get an agent is to get a contract. Let’s say an agent was willing to look at a contract and offered representation. Am I correct in assuming the agent would take the usual cut on that first contract, although the agent didn’t shop the manuscript? Or does this type of thing even happen?”

This is a question that I am frequently asked at conferences, so I’m glad to see it come up on the blog. Yes, there are agents who will step into a deal that’s already in place. (In fact, I know of one agent who has publicly stated, “If you’ve got a contract offer, call me!”) Is that acceptable? Maybe… but if an author ever comes to me with a deal in hand, my first advice to him or her is to say, “Check out a good contract review service, or research getting an experienced publishing lawyer to review your contract.” You see, once you have a deal in hand, the hard work has been done. The agent didn’t help you concept the book; didn’t help shape your proposal; didn’t shop it to publishers. All they’re doing is stepping in to read the contract and get paid. So in my view the agent should not be taking a full 15% commission. Maybe the agent can help improve the deal, or help with the marketing of the book. Certainly he or she ought to help you with career choices. But I’ve regularly seen authors pay 15% to an agent who did almost nothing to earn the money, and that bugs me. I think authors need to check out other sources. (And I think agents need to have the integrity to recognize when they don’t deserve a full commission.)

 

“I need some advice about USA Book News Awards. Is this a legitimate contest or some sort of scam? I’m curious about them and other contests like this, where you have to pay a tidy sum to enter the contest, and there sure are a lot of finalists.”

I don’t know that the USA Book News Awards are a scam, but they are a vanity award. You pay a fee (I think it’s currently $69), you’re sent stickers to put on your book, and some unknown entity selects the winners. (For the record, the USA Book News Awards are owned by a PR firm, JPX Media.) There are a bunch of these, and have been criticized for creating numerous categories so that everyone who enters wins some sort of award. Just so we’re clear, there are certainly legitimate writing contests and awards. But if you’re paying a fee and are guaranteed an award, that’s a scam, not legitimate contest.

 

“I recently read somewhere that you don’t necessarily need an agent if you write for children, and that it might be better use of your time to submit directly to a publisher. Is that true?”

I’ve never been an agent evangelist – the type of person who insists that EVERY author have an agent. The fact is, you might be able to survive just fine as an author without an agent. Certainly there are children’s authors (as well as adult authors) who do. The children’s publishing market is its own world, quite separate from that of adult publishing. Right now it’s certainly possible to work directly with an editor with your children’s book… but in my view, it’s getting harder. If you’re simply talking to an agent to try and land a deal, you may want to simply go to a good Society of Children’s Book Writers and Editors conference, and try pitching your idea to some editors. But if you’re looking for story help, editorial direction, career advice, contract experience, and connections to the industry, an agent may be what helps you move forward.

 

“With the novel I wrote, I took on the role of a packager and hired editors, illustrators, photographers, graphic artists, and then put it all together in Adobe Indesign. I was only thinking of myself as a self published author, but your blog makes me wonder if I should try to attract the attention of a publisher. Would a publisher consider this, particularly if my novel is similar to a recent hit movie?”

If the movie you’re referencing is already out, it’ll be too late to tie your novel to it – but you might be able to reference the movie as something trending in the culture, and therefore link your novel’s appeal to that same trend. But overall, interest in previously-published novels goes up and down. For a while you couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to a book that had already been released. Then things changed, and publishers were looking for novels that had been self-published and had some success. Now it’s turned again, and you’ll find it hard to have a publisher pay close attention to your self-pubbed novel, unless it’s done very well… and the problem with that is simple: If your self-published novel has done well, what’s your motivation for giving it over to a traditional publisher and making less money on each copy sold? To do that, you’ll need to think carefully over all the issues – can a traditional publisher reach people you’re not reaching? Can they improve the product? Can they take it off your hands, and thus free you to do more writing? If not, you may not have much incentive to go with a legacy publisher.

Ask the Agent: On Memoir, Bookspan, Facebook, and Writing Resources

March 11th, 2015 | Agents, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms | 26 Comments

I thought this was a very insightful question: “Can you clear something up for me? You have said you thought memoir was a growing category in publishing. But you’ve also said personal stories are hard to sell. How can that be?”

 

We have to define our terms. A memoir is the thoughts or reminiscences of a writer – usually based on celebrity (Justin Timberlake is doing a book!), significant events in the culture (I shot Osama bin Laden!), or fabulous writing (Have you seen what Jeannette Walls just released?). It doesn’t have to be linear. It usually touches on a number of significant themes. In the last couple of years we’ve seen huge growth in the memoir category, in all of those areas. We’ve had good celebrity memoirs (Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, etc), good event-based memoir (American Sniper, Lone Survivor, etc), and good memoirs from writers (Ann LaMott, Annie Dillard, etc).

 

When I saw to be wary of “personal stories,” I’m talking about people who aren’t creating a memoir, but wanting to write a book that basically says, “Here is what happened to me, and it’s cool.” It’s generally linear. It might have some lessons to share, but rarely touches on many deeper themes. The writing is pedestrian – more of a prescriptive how-to book than reflective musing. These aren’t discreet categories, of course – is Lone Survivor a deeper memoir or simply a scary retelling of how Marcus Luttrell survived? But by and large we see personal stories as someone who has gone through something they found profound, and they want to tell their story because their friends have said to them, “You should write a book!” And, in my view, those books rarely get picked up.

books2

Someone asked, “What is Bookspan? What all do they do? And how do you get picked up by them?”

 

Do you remember the old Book of the Month Club? Or the Literary Guild? Well, Bookspan purchased and combined those companies, along with the History Book Club, the Mystery Guild, the Military Book Club, Crossing Christian books, and just about every other mail-order book club. They own 19 of those, at last count, are privately owned, and they contract with all the major publishers to produce and sell books. They have on very rare occasions contracted a couple of self-published books, but that is not how they normally acquire titles.

 

Someone sent this: “Do you think a Facebook tour can be useful for marketing your novel? I had a friend offer to post things on FB, because she doesn’t have a blog, and I wondered if it might be helpful.”

 

I want to think that Facebook can be useful for marketing a novel, but I’m not seeing much empirical evidence that confirms it (and believe me, I’ve looked). My guess is that Facebook is one good strategy for getting the word out to your friends upon your novel’s release. Used in conjunction with other marketing strategies, it probably helps. But does a Facebook-focused marketing strategy work? Not in a big way, in my view. It needs to be one plank in a larger platform. But I tell you what… I’m going to ask a couple marketing professionals what they think about this question, and come back to it, okay?FB-f-Logo__blue_512

 

And here’s one that’s a bit off the beaten path: “Do you have any counsel on how to edit systematically–with a goal of editing the same document a dozen times (or less) rather than twenty, thirty, or forty?”

 

Hmmm… I could think of a few tricks that might make the editing process easier. First, put other eyes on it. That is, get some other people to read it and comment, or simply hire a freelance editor to clean it up. That will speed things up. Second, create an editorial list of things you want to check for each time – homonyms, numbers, the use of the word “that,” circle all your adjectives, etc. Your list will be different than mine, of course, but figuring out what you need to check for can be helpful, and can speed things up.

 

A fascinating question from an author: “How do I know a good agent from a bad one? I’m unpublished, but looking for an agent for a teen girl book. Any advice?”

 

Sure. Let’s set some basic rules: First, I think there’s no one agent that’s a fit for every author. Second, you’ll do best if you know what you need in an agent, in order to find who is a “good” agent for you. So I think to find a good agent, you need to know yourself and how an agent can best help you. Do you need someone with whom you can talk through ideas? Do you most need an editor? Do you need someone who focuses on contracts and negotiations? Do you need a career counselor? Do you need a personal manager? Do you need someone who can manage things beyond book contracts – speaking engagements, money management, etc.? Figuring out who you are and what you need allows you to start doing some substantive research on the various agents out there. It can even help you decide that you don’t need an agent at all.pen and ink

 

But third, there are certainly some basic expectations every author should expect from a “good” literary agent: A knowledge of the current market. An ability to evaluate the salability of your idea. Some sort of helpfulness on your ideas and writing. Connections to editors and publishers. Experience with publishing contracts. An ability to negotiate. A willingness to take your part and handle the difficult discussions that tend to arise in every author/publisher relationship. Perspective on the big picture of your career and the current market. Integrity in handling author monies. Honesty with you about your manuscript and your place in the world of publishing. A guarantee that they won’t charge you a fee or make a secret profit from any transaction on your work. If you’re interested in this topic, I urge you to visit the Association of Author Representatives website at aaronline.org, and check out the “agent’s code of ethics” on the first page. It lays out what every author should expect (and, um… NOT every agent abides by it).

 

And this reader offers a wonderful suggestion: “I think it would be fun to ask your readers to write in and compile a ‘best of’ blog with a list of favorite books or writing resources. My favorite books on the craft of writing are Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne MaMott’s Bird by Bird, and I would be interested to hear what other informed blog readers think. For that matter, it would be fun to find out their favorite conference is.”

 

Love the idea. So to readers of this blog, what’s your favorite writing resource? And what is the best writing conference you’ve attended?

 

Ask the Agent: Are things getting better? (and other questions)

March 9th, 2015 | Agents, Current Affairs, Proposals | 5 Comments

This question was sent to my personal email: “Do you think there is any rush for an established writer to get his/her next book published in the current climate? That is, are things likely to get better or worse in the next few months?”

 

My crystal ball is in the repair shop, so I don’t know what the next few months will bring. If I guessed, I’d probably get it wrong. But no, I don’t think there’s any rush to get your next book published. Every writer who has worked with me has heard me say something numerous times: Good is better than fast. I’d rather an author took the time to make something really good than to rush it out quickly.

 

And this came in as well: “I was wondering what your advice would be to an unpublished writer interested in writing a 3-book series. I understand those are much harder to sell, and publishers prefer if each book ties up the story enough that they can be read individually/out-of-order.”

 

What’s easier to sell – a car, or a fleet of cars? When you’re starting out, it’s much easier to sell ONE book. That doesn’t mean it can’t be the first part of a series (and you may very well want to mention that when you create your proposal, pointing out the sequel possibilities so that the publisher knows what would come next if they were to contract the book). But keep in mind when creating a series that most publishers want each book to stand on its own. So the first book in your proposed series needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And your second book needs to be the sort of project that readers can pick up, get into the story, and appreciate without feeling as though they’re stepping into the middle of something they don’t understand, or that doesn’t really offer a satisfying ending. It’s not impossible to start your career with a series, but the bar is set higher – the publisher is going to look for outstanding writing and a very salable story.

 

This question was a bit out of the ordinary: “Would you please tell me how to set up a proper proposal for a gift book?”

 

A gift book proposal will have many of the same elements that any other nonfiction book proposal will include: title, overview of the book, a description of the takeaway, notes on the audience, author bio, an outline or table of contents, comparable titles, and some sample text. If there is artwork or some sort of high design element, you may include some thoughts on the look of the finished project, but I wouldn’t get married to any particular concept – most gift book publishers have art directors that understand the look their audience is going for. The key questions with most gift books are “what is the gift-giving occasion?” and “who is going to purchase this book?” Gift book publishers are looking for book ideas that have clear answers to those questions. A high school or college graduation is a clear gift-giving occasion. So is a wedding or the birth of a baby. “People who might need some encouragement” is not a clear gift-giving occasion, and will need to have something special for it to merit consideration.

 

Someone came onto the website and said this: “I see that you are not taking manuscripts from unpublished authors, which I can respect. But can you suggest a place that an unpublished author can submit work or search for an agent?”

 

We stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts several years ago, when it became clear that we needed a part-time editor to do nothing but respond to the hundreds of proposals being sent our way. That isn’t cost-effective – particularly when you consider very few of the over-the-transom proposals were projects we wound up representing. So most of the people I represent were recommended by someone I’m already working with. These days, the best place to connect with an agent is probably at a writing conference or an industry event. If you write romance, for example, there are dozens of agents at the RWA national conference in July each year. Do some research, figure out who might be a good fit for your work, and set up a time to meet with them.

 

A good friend sent me this (and gave me permission to use it on the blog): “I’d love to have a bestseller, but the reality is I’d settle for a decent living… is that still within reach?”

 

Sure it is. But writing is art, and it’s never been easy to make a living at art. (How many people who can dance well make a living at dance? How many people who can sing well or play the piano make a living at music?) Publishing, like every other art form, is dominated by a few who do extremely well. You can count the number of million-selling novelists over the past few years on two hands, but I think there are more writers than ever who are actually making a living with their words. Most of them are hybrid – that is, they do some traditional publishing as well as selling a bunch of copies of their self-pubbed titles – and many are doing short form writing such as essays and articles, as well as writing books. It’s hard, and if you’re one of the people who read this blog writing fiction for CBA, it’s become exceptionally hard due to the decline of the inspirational fiction market. But that’s tidal. The tide has gone out… it will come back in, given time.

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.