Archive for the ‘Trends’ Category

If you could sit and have a beer with a literary agent…

April 18th, 2014 | Agents, Career, CBA, Conferences, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Trends | 1 Comment

I’m taking the month of April and letting people send in ANY question they have about writing and publishing. If you could sit down for an hour over a beer with a literary agent, and ask him anything you wanted, what would you want to know? Here are questions I’ve been sent recently…

If I am offered a contract, should I then get an agent?

That depends on the situation. Although I’m a longtime literary agent, I’m not an agent-evangelist, insisting everyone needs an agent. So think about the big picture here — your agent didn’t discuss the idea with you, or help you sharpen your proposal, or introduce you to editors, or send it out to publishers, or offer career advice. Once you’re offered a contract, the agent is going to step into it and earn a commission. So here’s my thinking… IF the agent can bring value, in terms of doing a great negotiation, and improving the contract & terms, and getting involved in the marketing, and stepping in to help with dramatic and foreign rights, and offering advice for your future, then it might be worthwhile to have an agent step in. But if all he’s going to do is say “yes” to the offer, it may not be worth paying him 15%. Consider talking with a good contract evaluation service, which might only charge a couple hundred dollars. (Or you might talk with an attorney, but be careful — they tend to charge by the six-minute increment and want to keep the clock running, so it can be expensive. Maybe consider this option if you’ve got something complex, such as a series offer or a movie deal.) But don’t sign with someone just so you can have the honor of saying, “I have an agent!”

If my novel is women’s fiction, is it best to target a female agent?

It’s best to target an agent who does a lot of work in your genre. If you write historical romance, you don’t need an old romantic to represent you — but it helps to have an agent who has sold a bunch of historical romances. I’ve sold as much romance over the past fifteen years as anyone, I think, and I’ve done pretty well for the authors I represent. Of course, you need to feel comfortable with your agent, so don’t sign on with the first person who offers you representation. Check them out and make sure they’re legit. Have they done deals? How many in your genre? Who were those deals with? Do they have authors who have stayed with them and grown their careers? I occasionally do conferences, and I’ve been amazed at the lack of experience I see in some of the people posing as agents.

If you are a member of a group that has an interest in a certain period of history (say “the Old West”), and you are allowed/encouraged to peddle your novel to the group, does that count towards your platform? If there are 9000 members in the group, can I claim that number, or does it have to be people who are actually following you on Facebook?

Sure that counts toward your platform. Those are people who are interested in what you’re writing. By all means include them. My one caution: Don’t push writing organizations too hard in your pitch. A romance writer who tells me, “I belong to RWA” isn’t really impressing me — LOTS of people belong to RWA. And while the organization is fabulous (for those who don’t know, RWA puts on one of the best writing conferences on the planet), it’s made up of writers who won’t really buy a lot of your books. Your friends will buy books, of course, but they’re buying the books because they are your friends, not because they belong to RWA.

Building a platform is one thing, but how does one build a real-world platform if they don’t live anywhere near a big city?

You build a platform by developing contacts and friendships. So you use the internet to connect with some folks. You write articles that get noticed, then interact with readers. You do blog posts or interviews, and interact with the people who come on to comment. You tweet and discuss things with online groups. Maybe you do webcasts or radio interviews from the comfort of your small-town home. You work to get endorsements and reviews. You partner with organizations and peers to get in front of others. You seek out your target audience and get in front of them — not to sell books, but to engage them as possible friends. You don’t need to be in a big city to make that happen; and I can tell you of several successful authors who don’t live in big cities. (Case in point: Tracie Peterson is a New York Times bestselling author who has built a career living in, um, nowhere. But I like to use her as an example because it allows me to tell everyone that Tracie and her husband Jim once named their dog after my son. Really. “Here, Colin MacGregor!”)

When my book was declared out of print, why wouldn’t my publisher give me the rights to the cover art?

A fiction publisher wrote me to say, “Authors never hoid any rights to the artwork for their book’s cover design. Publishers license those images for their product use or have staff photographers and designers create the covers. Once print rights revert on the book, in all but a very few cases the publisher can’t give the author that artwork, since the cover art is contracted between the designer and the publisher.”

I know you do a lot of inspirational fiction, so can you tell me why it is that modern day CBA agents and publishers seem to shy away from fantasy in Christian literature?

Because it doesn’t sell. It’s the same reason most publishers currently shy away from westerns — they don’t sell in big numbers. As soon as they determine the genre will sell well, publishers will start producing more of those books. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about publishing, it’s to be patient. Things come into style, then they go out of style. Jane Austen books were huge, now they seem to be waning. Dystopian was all the rage, now nobody is contracting them. Be patient. Fantasy is big with young people, so my guess is that as this generation moves toward adulthood, fantasy will make a comeback. As I like to say, publishing is a tidal business — the tide comes in, the tide goes out.

What is the most creative or memorable pitch someone has made to you?

Um… you won’t much like my answer. Most of the authors I represent are people I knew, or friends of current clients whom I met and started working with. My list isn’t really filled with authors who wowed me at a ten-minute pitch session at a conference (although I realize this would be a considerably more fun answer if I said that). So the really memorable ones, to me, were the authors who came in with a great idea, and showed me some fabulous writing. Christy Award winner Ann Tatlock simply showed me a proposal at a conference, and the writing was so good I think I fell off my chair. Sheila Gregoire got up and spoke at a conference in Canada, and immediately had the audience in the palm of her hand, making me want to read her work. Bonnie Gray (who you don’t know, but her book White Space is releasing later this spring) had a great story to tell. Romance writer Vickie McDonough handed me a wonderful idea at a conference in the mountains of Colorado. Holly Lorincz showed me a proposal over coffee that made me laugh out loud. Gail Martin was speaking at a conference with me, and had so much wisdom to share with people that I think I pitched myself to her. Kimberly Stuart met me on a shuttle bus, and I was so charmed I had to read her work. Every one of them was a writer, with a strong voice, and I was impressed by their professionalism. While I like each of them, I’m not representing them because I like them — I’m representing them because I like them AND THEY CAN WRITE. That’s probably not the answer you were looking for. But I do have one great story…

I was at a conference, and talked on a panel about the pluses and minuses of working in the CBA/religious/spirituality market. I said to the audience that one of the interesting things about it is that I’m an Anglican, and CBA is populated with a variety of religious types — the ultra-conservatives, the leftist social types, the wild charismatics, the quiet fundamentalists, the angry, the loud, the wacky… all sorts of people, most of them very normal, and some of them wondering if I’m “Christian enough” for them. And at times some of them can be sure they have “the call of God” — which makes it a bit awkward when I have to say, “God may have told you to write your book, but He didn’t give me any instructions about having to represent it.” Anyway, that night there was a fancy dinner, and as I walked up to my table, I noticed someone had left a card on my chair. It read, “GOD TOLD ME HE WANTS YOU TO BE MY AGENT!” I laughed, as did the woman who wrote the card. We became friends, and I’m proud to represent romance writer Jennifer Johnson, who is a hoot.

What is the most fun you’ve had at a writing conference? And what’s the worst experience you’ve had at a conference?

I love writing conferences, since it’s a chance to see friends and share some fun in what is largely an individual business. I’ve got great memories of dancing into the wee hours while being the only male at the Harlequin party (me and 500 women getting down to “It’s Raining Men”). Gnoshing with fellow faculty members Michael Chabon, Yann Martel, Katherine Peterson, and Francine Rivers at the 2008 Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, or at the 2006 Festival with Lauren Winner, Walter Wangerin, Alice McDermott, and Salman Rushdie (who, I must be honest, I only met for a moment). Ditching the way-too-uptight Mount Hermon conference with editorial friends one night to (1) hear a blues band, (2) accidentally wander into Lesbian Night at a dance club, and (3) take a dip in the Pacific Ocean at 3 in the morning. But my favorite time at most conferences is usually late at night, having quiet conversations over a glass of wine. I was introduced to the fabulous novelist Lisa Samson one time, and she immediately said, “You’re always saying nice things about my books!” We’ve gone on to work together for years. I had a great conversation with the wonderful writer Susan Meissner at a conference, and later got to work with her (Susan is one of those authors that I simply have to tell everyone about — her craft is so great that she inspires other writers). I met #1 best-selling novelist Mindy Clark at a conference, sitting in the restaurant and watching a terrible karaoke show, and she turned out to be one of the most fun people, and one of the most dedicated craftspersons I’ve ever known. (She won’t sleep until she gets the sentence right.) I met the incredibly gifted Rachel Hauck at a conference, and was struck right away with the way she processes a story. It’s the late, quiet conversations I think I like best.

My worst conference experience? This is a true story (and one that keeps showing up in other people’s writing)… I was at a Northwest writing conference at Seattle Pacific University years ago. (I remember the location, since two of my kids graduated from college there.) I had this weird guy who kept following me around, trying to pitch his book to me. Every time I turned around — BANG! There he was, holding his damn manuscript. Once, in trying to get away from him, I walked into the men’s room. As I was standing at the urinal (and that’s not an exaggeration: AS I WAS STANDING AT THE URINAL) I realized he was beside me, and he said, “um, if you could just take a look at my book sometime…” as he slipped it in front of my face. True story. I yelled at him, “NOT NOW!” and if I’d have been thinking, I would have turned and yelled at him, if you get my drift. A memorable experience.

Hey, we’ve invited writers this month to send in the questions they have always wanted to ask a literary agent. Drop me your question, and I”ll get to it next week.

If I could sit down with a literary agent and ask ANYTHING…

April 16th, 2014 | Agents, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Publishing, Self-Publishing, Trends | 10 Comments

This month I’m trying to get to all the questions people say they’d like to ask an agent, if they could just sit down with him or her for a few minutes and talk privately. Here are questions that people have asked recently…

Are the low costs of e-books costing authors money?

Sure. I mean, if a retailer sells a book for $20, the royalty is higher than if he sells it for $10. The average e-book is way down — many below $5, and often you’ll see specials where the books are 99 cents. That doesn’t leave much for an author. The argument is made that people want a deal, and the low prices build readership by finding readers who will spend a dollar or two without even thinking about it. And I think that’s true, to a point… but at some point, we have educated readers that they only need to spend a buck or two on a book, and that means the only people really making money are the bestselling authors.

I’m thinking of setting up my own publishing company. Do I need to trademark or copyright the company? Is there a contract template for doing that?

If you’re just doing it to keep the words “Amazon Publishing” off your title page, then create a business name, do a search to make sure the name & domain are available and not a copyright infringement, and start a bank account in the name of the company. In some states you’ll have to register the company name, so check your local laws, or talk with an attorney if you have greater legal questions. (For the record, I’m not an attorney, nor am I giving you legal advice.) You can find people willing to sell you all sorts of business-planning materials, but most authors who start their own companies simply start them online with a domain name and a bank account.

Can you recommend an affordable entertainment lawyer (i.e., “one who doesn’t charge $400 per hour”) but is still credible? Or can you recommend someone to look over movie/TV rights contracts?

I won’t recommend anyone by name on the blog, but there are plenty of good attorneys who specialize in entertainment law and intellectual property rights. You’ll want someone in your state, so do some research online. The AAR keeps a list of people by state, by the way. I would say the one thing to look for is experience — make sure you’re talking with an attorney who has done movie contracts in the past, since entertainment law is tricky and the average guy doing wills and rental property agreements won’t know what he is doing. That said, many literary agents have experience with this, and can help you with basic questions, and there are some “contract evaluation” companies that will review your paperwork for a flat fee.

How does a literary agent plan to make money with indie-published authors? I mean, if a writer is doing her own books on Amazon, and an agent is helping with things like planning and marketing and career strategies, how does the agent get paid?

There are several ways. First, the author might do a deal with a traditional publisher, so the agent makes a standard commission. Second, the agent might help with things like Amazon deals, Smashword deals, movie rights, foreign rights, and other subsidiary rights, earning a commission on those. Third, the agent might arrange for services that are paid (though you have to be careful not to run afoul of AAR guidelines with that). Fourth (and something we’re doing here at MacGregor Literary), the agent may help authors set up a writing community, where authors in a genre band together to do books in a genre. The books look and feel like a line from a publishing house, but they are owned and operated by the authors as a sort of co-op. The agents role is to manage it. We are doing this with a western line (www.DustyTrailBooks.com) and a romance line (www.ForgetMeNotRomances.com) and a cozy mystery line (www.SpyglassLaneMysteries.com).

What do you project as the future possibilities with audio books?

Audio books are exploding. Amazon bought Brilliance Audio just to make sure they had the capability of cornering the market on audio. More are being created and sold every year, and in a mobile society people are discovering the joy of hearing a well-read tale. The future is bright — but I think we’ll all begin to see audio books as something completely different than print or e-books, just as movies are different from books. Audio offers its own experience, and I think needs to begin to be viewed as a completely separate category of entertainment.

A couple years ago, you were touting the Google Book Settlement as the wave of the future, then it was challenged, and eventually the whole mess sort of disappeared. Can you tell me where that situation (of having Google control hundreds of thousands of out-of-print books) is now?

Sure — Google won. Hands down. It was a huge rights-grab by the company, they hired a plethora of lawyers, and they won in court (proving once again that the Obama administration is no friend of authors — they seem willing to take the side of every freaking corporate entity that comes along). Google now plans to make all those titles available, often for free, and everyone is hoping they’re going to treat authors fairly by not giving away the words others created. (Um… that’s a fool’s desire. Google is in this to make money and seize content so as to have control, and the hell with artists getting a fair shake.) The Authors Guild has proposed that Congress create a collective licensing organization — they have said, “something like ASCAP or BMI to deal with mass digitization and orphan books. Such an organization could pave the way for a true national digital library, but it would be limited in scope, just as ASCAP is.” In their letter to members, they noted that their key requests are the (1) authors get paid, (2) authors can say “no” and opt out if they want to, (3) this would be strictly for out-of-print books, and (4) there would be some sort of mediatory agency to handle disputes. My guess? The Obama administration will laugh and disseminate a photo of the Attorney General having drinks with the CEO’s of Google, Amazon, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft, and any other company who can buy their way into the White House. (Um… yeah. I tend to think our current government is not exactly looking after the little guy any more.)

It’s been a while since you shared anything crazy, Chip. What’s the worst query you’ve received recently?

“Dear Literary Agent – Prior to earth, our immortal Santa lived among the Tarwoos on the planet Tsixodi where male Tarwoos were called Manwoos and female Tarwoos were called Woos…” I kid you not. I also had a query about a fantasy novel where people get “a magical disease” which causes body parts to break off, fly around, and start talking — and the young lady in the story discovers “adventure and science” when “a detached talking penis…” Well, you get the idea. And, to top off this fun-filled trilogy, we received a proposal for what I can only guess is a crappy porn novel about two high schoolers that features “342 pages filled with numerous bazaar sexual escapades.” That’s right — “bazaar.” I assume that means the couple is having sex in an open-air market, but I didn’t bother to check it closely. I don’t think I’m old enough for bazaar sex.

This month we’re encouraging writers to ask the questions they have always wanted to ask a literary agent. So what’s your question?

Sitting down with a literary agent over a cappuccino…

April 11th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Proposals, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Resources for Writing, The Business of Writing, Trends | 16 Comments

So I happen to be sitting at Cafe Greco in North Beach (the Italian section of downtown San Francisco), and thought this was the perfect place to suggest authors sit down to have a cappuccino and talk. This month we’re just inviting authors to send the question they’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent, if only they could be face to face. I’ve been sent a bunch of questions, and I’m trying to get to each of them…

I know many agents are looking for an author to have a big “platform.” What does a big platform look like to you?

A platform is a number. You speak? How many people do you speak to over the course of a year? You write a column? What’s your readership? You’re on radio? What’s your listenership? You blog? How many hits do you get? You do a column? How many people read your work? You belong to organizations? How many people are you connected to? All of those are numbers — just add up the numbers, and you’ll know how big your platform is. The bigger the number, the happier a publisher is going to be. More important is how many people you actually have some sort of relationship with — that is, how many of those folks do you speak to or consider an acquaintance? Can you suggest what percentage might actually purchase a book? A small publisher may be happy with a platform of ten to twenty thousand. A medium sized published may be looking for a platform that is at least forty to sixty thousand. A large publisher may not be all that interested if your platform is less than 100,000 — possibly not interested if your platform is less than 250,000, depending on the project.

Is it pointless to seek publication before launching a blog? I have substantial Facebook and growing Twitter followings, but haven’t launched my blog yet.

I’m not sure a blog is as vital as it was a few years ago. Some authors have built a platform using Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook. Others have really used GoodReads and Amazon in lieu of a blog. I think the important things to consider are (1) the numbers, (2) the connection they have with you, and (3) the content you’re sharing. Here’s what I mean — if you have a bunch of friends on Facebook because you’ve shared a lot of conservative political flamethrower stuff, but you’re writing a contemporary romantic suspense, the content doesn’t connect with the book’s expected readership. You may or may not need a blog, but the important thing with a blog these days is to get noticed, just like in publishing a book. There are currently roughly 20 million blogs available… how is yours going to grow a readership?

I’ve been asked to write a column for an online magazine which sounds good, but they refuse to tell writers what their numbers look like. Also, they pay, but they demand all rights. As an agent, do you think I should participate?

That depends on your expectations. If you need the money, a paid writing gig like this is great. As for demanding rights, lots of magazines these days are moving that direction — you have to be at peace with the fact you are basically using this as a work-for-hire. You could do some research on third party sites to find out some basic numbers for the magazine and make an educated guess at the numbers they’re hitting.

Do writers these days write specifically for the ebook market, or are they really writing for a print market and settling for a digital book?

Love the question, because for all the excitement about dedicated e-book authors, I find most writers are still hoping to land in print. Not all, certainly, but most. Why? Because traditionally that’s where success has come (and yes, that may be changing), and because legacy publishers can get authors into stores around the country. So it’s really a “reach” argument — that legacy publishers offer greater reach. That said, we’re in an era of revolution, and there are plenty of writers who have basically given up on the notion of working with a legacy publisher, and have become focused on creating their own ebooks and taking them to market via Amazon, Nook, and the iBookstore.

I heard you say at a conference that the one thing you look for most in a book proposal is “voice.” What are you really looking for when you say you want to see a strong voice in a proposal?

Voice is personality on the page. I love seeing proposals that offer strong personalities. Too many of the proposals I see are flat — they all sound the same, and could have been written by anyone. So I love seeing a project come in that seems different — big, unique, funny or insightful, with words/grammar/style/thought patterns that reveal your unique personality. If you read writers with great, unique voice, you just don’t confuse them with other writers. Great ideas come and go, but great voice lasts a long time. I see lots of ideas each month; I see very little great voice. And if you’re really interested in this topic, go to Amazon and pick up a copy of Les Edgerton’s FINDING YOUR VOICE. A wonderful book to help beginning writers figure out how to get their personality onto the page.

Do you still teach “proposal” workshops? Does a proposal still matter in these days of self-publishing one’s ebooks?

I do still teach my one-day proposal workshop. (Commercial: If your writing group or regional conference is looking for a cost-effective one-day seminar, you should get in touch.) Proposals continue to be vital for nonfiction books, and the way we usually start the conversation with fiction. I asked a senior editor at a Big Six publishing house about this, and she wrote me back to say, “One thing I think aspiring writers need to know about proposals is that they function as a business plan for a book. That is, they demonstrate why and how a project will be viable because of the idea, the author platform, and the market environment. In nonfiction, as you know, publishing a viable book is not so much about writing as about what will happen (either because of the author or the publisher) in the market to get people to buy it. Most people don’t want to hear that because they want to believe it’s all about writing, but that is very far from the truth these days. New writers need to understand this basic fact and see the proposal as an opportunity, not a chore to be gotten past.” A great proposal can help you find success, in my view. It won’t overcome a lousy idea, but it will certainly help you sell a good idea.

Who puts a manuscript or new book into the running for awards and contests? Does the author seek them out herself and submit her entries? Does the publisher submit completed manuscripts automatically to certain contests? Would an agent make recommendations for contests and/or award to go after?

Most major writing awards are submitted by publishers. Mid-level awards can be submitted by publisher or author. Most smaller writing awards are submitted by author. These usually cost money. And yes, in almost every case the entire completed manuscript is sent (though I know of no publisher who “automatically” submits to contests). An agent will certainly make recommendations for contests and awards, and I encourage authors to have that discussion with their agent. Publishers tend to like manuscripts that proved themselves by winning contests.

I’m working on a non-fiction manuscript for which I have some personal experience, but I don’t really have the full technical expertise to completely address the topic. Would an agent consider my proposal and connect me with an expert in the field? Or do I need to do the legwork myself to find the expert?

I have occasionally connected a writer and an expert, but it’s rare… Much more commonly I’ll just say to the writer, “You know, this would be a much stronger idea if you were to partner with an expert in the field.” An example: I once did a healthy lifestyle book, and encouraged the author to connect with a nutritionist and exercise physiologist, since her personal story was great, but I felt publishers were going to insist on some sort of recognized expertise.

I notice you do a bunch of religious/inspirational fiction. Do you also do fiction for the wider market?

I’ve received this question a hundred times… YES, take a look at my list. I do Christian fiction AND lots of general market fiction. So do Sandra, Amanda, Erin, and Holly, the other agents at MacLit.

I did a book with a smaller publishing house earlier this year, but the information on Amazon is incorrect. Try as I might, I can’t seem to get them to fix it. What do I do?

Talk to someone in the marketing department at your publishing company, tell them EXACTLY what is incorrect and EXACTLY what you would like it to say. Be clear, be polite, don’t blame, and don’t act like your life depends on changing this information. Amazon sometimes gets this stuff wrong, and publishers often try to fix it. I ran this question by a senior editor at a large house, and she replied: “Amazon is an automated system, at least with us, but I suspect with most other publishers. Amazon’s system goes into our system and pulls the data it wants when it wants it and then puts it up on the site, often as long as 4-6 months in advance. That’s why the data are often wrong. Authors get upset when they see incorrect data and copy but that’s because Amazon is pulling the early stuff before it gets polished. Pre-orders are good, but this is what comes of it. And this is Amazon’s doing, for their own mysterious and not-so-mysterious purposes.”

Okay — got a question you’ve always wanted to sit down and ask a literary agent in some face to face setting? Send it my way. Meanwhile, I’ll be here, eyeing the cannoli and ricciarellis. Ciao!

If you were sitting down for tea with an agent…

April 9th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing, Trends | 26 Comments

All month we’re inviting writers to send in their questions — if you could sit down and be face to face with a literary agent, what would you ask? Here are some of the questions that have come in…

At a big writing conference last summer, I noticed that most agents and editors now insist on seeing a “completed manuscript.” I have a manuscript I’ve rewritten several times — you even once took a look and suggested I work with an editor to improve it. So what is the definition of a “completed manuscript”?

I have two answers for you… First, when an editor says they’re only looking at completed manuscripts, that means they aren’t going to seriously consider a proposal and sample chapters. They insist on an author showing them a finished book, so that they lower their risk (no worries about missed deadlines, or the story going off the rails, etc). That’s the industry norm for first-time authors these days. But my second answer is that “completed” to an agent can also means your manuscript has been revised, rewritten, and is ready to show to a publisher. I frequently see novels that have promise, but they need more work, so I’ll suggest changes to the manuscript, or I’ll encourage the author to work with a writing coach, or I’ll just give the author the names and emails of half a dozen editors and encourage them to get some professional assistance.

I know you represent a lot of thrillers. Is it possible to have a female protagonist in a thriller? Does she have to be teamed with a strong male in order to survive?

Sure, it’s possible. In fact, there are some publishers right now that are looking for strong female leads in some contemporary thriller novels. Examples of books wit strong female leads include Mercy Gunderson, V.I. Warshawski, Vanessa Michael Munroe, Kathleen Mallory, Jade de Jong, Jane Whitefield, Eve Dallas, um.. Charlie Fox. All great characters; not all require a male backup to save them.

Is it possible for an indie author to get his books onto bookstore shelves? I have copies of my book ready, but the local Barnes & Noble won’t carry it. Is there anything I can do?

Your local independent bookstore may take a few copies, if you go in and talk with the store manager. But outside of face to face meetings, you’ll find it’s awfully tough to get your book onto store shelves. Stores are used to dealing with publishers and distributors, not directly with authors (except in the rare instance). And big chains like B&N and BAM generally won’t take hard copies of self-published books. That’s why most indie authors are pushing hard on the web. But again, I encourage authors to think about becoming a big deal locally — so if you’re close to a major city with a bunch of bookstores, invest in getting around to all of them, meeting the store owners & managers, and chatting up your book. Offer them great terms, and show them how you’re supporting the book locally and online if you want them to partner with you.

I have a mid-grade reader, a women’s self-help book, and a contemporary romance novel all completed. When you have a variety of projects like that, do you need separate agents for each category? Or should you try to find one agent to represent everything?

I know some authors who have a separate agent for their children’s books, and several who have a separate agent for their film or screenwriting projects, but the majority of authors have one agent who represents all their work. That allows the author and agent to create a more comprehensive career plan, and it keeps vital information (like finances and marketing plans and release dates) with the same person. Either can work, though you’ll eventually find the more spread out things are, the more tension there is in your life.

I sent my agent a manuscript three months ago, and he has yet to read it. Is that normal? Should I be concerned? He sent out a manuscript of mine nearly a year ago, and he says people are still considering it, and things are simply slow in the industry these days. Is that correct?

I don’t want to hammer someone — maybe there’s a reason your agent hasn’t read your work yet. But yes, I’d say three months is a long time to wait for someone who is already your agent. I’d encourage you to call and have a chat about it. My guess: The agent doesn’t really believe in this project, and is too nice (or perhaps too conflict-resistant) to want to tell you. As for the wait with publishers, I would agree that things are very slow at the moment. Publishers are taking a long time to decide on projects. Still, if a publisher has had a manuscript for a year and not decided… well, they HAVE decided. If they had any enthusiasm for the project at all, they’d have said so. By not saying anything, they’re really rejecting it.

How do I find out if the novel I just completed has similar books in print? I want to include that information in my proposal. Do I look by topic?

You do some research. Go into a great bookstore and spend some time perusing the store shelves. Talk with the sales staff, or with a librarian, or with your writer friends. Then go onto Amazon.com and search by key words, and perhaps by likely authors who have also written on the topic. Finding comparable titles is simply a matter of time and deduction.

Like many of your readers, I dream of the day when I can be a full time writer. (Unfortunately, these things called “mortgages” and “car payments” and “college tuition” keep getting in the way.) In your role, have you found there are certain jobs that are tailor-made for writers who have to work?

That’s a fascinating question… There probably are day jobs that many writers have — jobs that aren’t taxing mentally or physically, so the writer still has some energy left to exert on the creative process. But I’m not sure I have any real-world wisdom on this. I’ve represented several beginning authors who worked in food service (i.e., waiter or barista) and on the telephone (chatting up customers) or doing retail sales. But I’ve never really noticed there was one job that attracted a bunch of writers, so let’s ask readers: Do you have a job that you find meshes beautifully with your writing life? Could you share your thoughts in the comments section?

If you could sit down with a literary agent and ask anything you like, what would you ask?

Having coffee with a literary agent…

April 7th, 2014 | Agents, Career, CBA, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing, Trends | 5 Comments

Okay, so this month I’m asking people to send in questions — What is it you’ve always wanted to talk with a literary agent about? If you could sit down over coffee and just have a conversation, what would you ask? Send those in, and I’ll do my best to answer your questions. Here are some questions that came in…

Do you recommend self-publishing with your authors?

Absolutely. I think authors today have to think about doing a variety of projects through a number of venues. That could mean they are working with traditional publishers, non-traditional publishers, niche publishers, and self-publishing some projects. I’m a big supporter of what I consider the “hybrid” author.

What are the challenges of agenting in today’s publishing climate?

Well, agenting (like writing) has never been easy. You have to understand the market, have relationships with the editors, know what each house is looking for, keep current on things like trends and publishing contracts. Most importantly, in today’s market agents are called upon to be part of the marketing effort — something that we didn’t used to do much of. But in terms of the recent challenges, I would say advances are down, and slots are limited, making a debut for an author harder than ever. There are more books available, so it’s tougher to help an author get noticed. And there’s also been a bit of an anti-agent movement going on among the indie-publishing crowd, which I think is fueled by people who really do not understand the publishing business. But I have faced that a bit over the past couple of years, and it’s been interesting — people who really don’t know the industry, but are absolutely certain they know that an agent is unnecessary. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a challenge we face today.

I’ve heard you mention a couple times that you have some reservations about Amazon — can you explain to me in simple terms what the problem is?

Sure. I love Amazon. A great, forward-thinking company. They do a fabulous job selling books, and have positioned themselves to be the sole purveyor of ebooks. But… if the entire indie publishing movement is based on one company, we’re going to have a problem. Because Amazon, while I generally love them, is definitely a cut-throat, predatory company. (I’m not criticizing them. I’m just offering an opinion on their tactics.) We can say they’re just practicing good business when they lower prices to the point that they squeeze out other companies, but be aware that, as soon as it’s clear they are the only company selling ebooks online, they will cut their royalty rates. (They currently pay a 70% royalty on self-published projects. If there is no one to compete with them… why pay out 70%? Why not pay out a much smaller amount?) Lest you think that’s a scare tactic on my part, recently Amazon realized they didn’t have any real competition for self-published audio books. So what did they do? They cut their royalty rates from 90% to 40% Overnight. With no warning. And no negotiation, either — if you want to work with their ACX service to do your self-published audio book, you can expect to make 40% from now on. What happens when B&N.com and the iBookstore and the Kobo bookstore go out of business? You think Amazon will still pay 70%? Not if they don’t have to. So I love them… but I tend to think monopolies are dangerous. We’re in the Golden Age of publishing at the moment. A huge shift in royalties will mean far less money for authors, and an end to the halcyon days of indie publishing.

Since you seem to keep your finger on the pulse of fiction, what trends do you see in today’s fiction publishing market?

I don’t know that I have my finger on the pulse… and some days I wonder if there IS a pulse, at least on the CBA side. But some things I’ve noticed: Historicals are struggling; contemporary stories are where it’s at. Amish has waned, but it’s still a sub-genre that works because it’s sort of a blend between historical and contemporary. Paranormal has faded. New Adult has been hot, but unfortunately it’s turning into nothing more than upper-edge YA with explicit sex scenes. (Porn for an early 20′s readership, in other words.) A shame. Of course, romance just keeps selling — especially contemporaries with people who have interesting jobs or live in fascinating places. And romantic suspense seems to be growing as well (at least in our part of the business). I tend to think CBA YA is a major struggle, and wonder what’s going to happen with the genre. (My guess? It blends into spec fiction, and the spec side grows some. But the problem with that theory is that it’s never happened. Sci fi/fantasy has never been more than a slice of the overall publishing market. So what do I know?) On the nonfiction side, memoir is hot, so all you fiction people may want to use your storytelling skills and use your fiction technique to tell a nonfiction story. Books in the evergreen categories of money management, healthy lifestyle, career success, healthy relationships are also continuing to sell.

Of course, ebooks are the rage, and a growing percentage of all publishing. (While only a third of the sales of legacy publishers, they amount for roughly half of all books sold if you include all the startup, mini, and indie publishing ventures.) And, if you want me to talk about the business side of publishing, it should be noted that publishers have all gone to e-contracts (that is, a digital document, rather than a paper one). Also e-royalty reports. And e-catalogues. And e-editing. And e-breakfast, for all I know. Everybody is posting their books, so there is a boatload of under-edited, crappy novels out there, making it harder than ever for an author to get noticed. There are fewer editors, particularly at CBA houses, fewer slots for debut novelists at legacy houses, more expectations for authors to do their own marketing, less editing than ever, smaller advances, but growing royalty rates. And, of course, more crappy agents who don’t know jack and I have to apologize for their stupid errors. (I need to do a blog on this some day.) And more micro-publishers, most doing ebooks only, and starting to make their mark in the publishing market. That help you?

Have you always wanted to sit down with a literary agent and have a conversation? Here’s your chance. Send me a question, or post it in the “comments” section, and I’ll get to it this month.

Sitting down to breakfast with an agent…

April 2nd, 2014 | Agents, Career, CBA, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Trends | 3 Comments

Okay, so if you could sit down to breakfast with a literary agent, what would you ask him (or her)? I’m taking this month to let people send in questions of any sort — whatever it is they want to ask, if they could be face to face with an agent.

As an American who lives outside of the US (and doesn’t have the budget to fly between countries more than once every few years), is there anything I should keep in mind about finding an agent? Are agents going to have different expectations for me than for someone living in the US? Are publishers going to be leery of taking on projects from people like me?

Yes, there are some things to keep in mind… Publishers are going to want to know if you ever come stateside, and if so, how often. They want to know if you’re going to be an active participant in the marketing of your book. They want to make sure you understand the American market, and are willing to market to US readers. (I represent authors in England, France, New Zealand, and Austrlia, so I’m familiar with the expectations.) So you can expect an agent will query you about these types of issues. I don’t think an agent will necessarily have different expectations of you (except for wondering why the rest of the world is always in love with Bill Clinton, when most Americans tend to think he was a good politician and a slimy human being), but the core will be the same — can you write? will you meet deadlines? will you help promote your book? will you be low maintenance?

It’s fair to ask if publishers will be leery… My sense is that US publishers are certainly more cautious with an author selling into the US market who lives overseas. They realize that things like radio and TV interviews are harder, there are few personal appearances, and sometimes cultural differences will arise. So make it clear that you’re an enthusiastic participant.

I’m under contract for my first two books. At what point should I try to find an agent? And should I wait to see how they do, or talk with agents now? I was told by someone I don’t need one now.

Excellent question. There’s no right or wrong time to get an agent. And I’m not an agent evangelist, trying to convince every author they need to sign on with someone. I would say you need to consider some things — do you know the contract you signed? Do you understand it? Did you push for the best deal possible? If there is a problem, can you speak up for yourself and get it resolved? Can you negotiate the next contract yourself? Do you need someone to talk through marketing with? Do you know how to decipher a royalty statement and talk through any problems? Most important, who is going to give you career advice? (Warning: Do NOT go to your publisher for career advice.) You may not need one now, or you may feel it’s the perfect time to start talking with someone, just to create a plan for the future.

For the record, I often hear people give the whole “you don’t need an agent” advice, but I notice it tends to come from people who don’t know jack (unpublished authors or writers who re self-publishing and claim to have it all together, when in fact they’re not making any money) OR from super-bestselling indie authors who hit the jackpot and can’t understand why everyone doesn’t do the same. The authors of THE SHACK were famous for saying they didn’t need an agent… and then it all fell apart and they started suing each other, since the deal was so badly put together. Now they all have agents. Color me surprise.

I’ve not had an agent to date, but I’m considering getting one after having had 15 books published by various publishers. However, I write picture books, middle grade, and YA. Some religious, some secular. Would an agent insist on (and be able to) rep all my future books, considering they are as varied as they are?

Agents tend to be strongest in certain fields. I do a lot of fiction — literary, suspense/thriller, romance, noir, the occasional other genre. I also do a lot of nonfiction — spiritual, business, self-help, lifestyle, memoir. There are also things I don’t do — cookbooks, poetry, children’s books, etc. If you’re going to get an agent, find someone who specializes in children’s book, talk about the breadth of your work, and let them know what genres you write in. That said, you’ll find there are few of us who work with both religious and secular publishing houses. There are a few — all of us at MacLit, Greg Johnson at Wordserve, Natasha Kern with fiction, Deidre Knight’s group, Carol Mann… but the list is relatively small.

Why are agents/editors so completely unwilling to take any risk to appeal to new markets?

Huh? I don’t find that to be true. I tend to represent in certain areas (see the previous question), but I still am open to new genres and ideas. Publishers find success in some areas and tend to stay within those lines, but I frequently have discussions with editors about new markets and new ideas. Perhaps the idea you’re proposing is too far outside the box?

What would you like to ask an agent? Send it along…

And the biggest successes of 2013 were…

March 25th, 2014 | Author News, Deals, Books, Career, Current Affairs, Publishing, The Business of Writing, Trends | 8 Comments

In this week’s issue of Publisher’s Weekly, they have their annual report on the bestsellers of the previous year. I always enjoy reading about it and discussing it with authors, because nothing gives perspective more than a number. You see, authors like to talk about having books “sell a million copies,” and I’ve frequently seen proposals in which writers make wild promises about selling millions, since the audience for a particular topic is considered huge. (“There are 246 million people with dandruff in this country! There’s a ginormous market for my book on hair care!”)

But then every spring PW releases its report, and everyone gets a dose of reality. How many hardcover novels sold a million copies in 2013? One — Dan Brown’s Inferno. How many hardcover nonfiction books sold a million copies? Three — Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus and two of the “Duck Commander” books, Happy, Happy, Happy and Si-Cology. How many trade paper books sold a million copies? One — and it was released decades ago… F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. There was only one mass market book that sold a million copies, proving that this formerly big-number format is quickly dying off, replaced by digital books — George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.

On the children’s side, there were a handful of books that passed the million mark. Jeff Kinney’s Hard Luck: Diary of a Wimpy Kid #8 sold more than three million copies, and was the biggest seller in one format of any book sold last year. But Veronica Roth’s Allegiant and Insurgent, Rick Riordan’s The House of Hades, and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars also hit the mark. (Two other titles probably did: Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Dr. Suess’ Green Eggs and Ham, but the numbers are unclear because of several factors.) Still, when it comes to print copies, that means there were all of thirteen titles that sold a million copies last year. And there were roughly 250,000 books releasing in print last year, and approximately five million books in print for sale. Thirteen books. Makes one pause to think, doesn’t it?

On the positive side, more hardcover novels than ever (a total of 251 different titles) hit the bestseller lists than ever before. But on the negative side, the list of hardcover fiction that sold more than 100,000 copies comes to just 89 titles — the lowest I’ve ever seen. Also on the positive side, there were a bunch of Christian titles on the various lists. But on the negative side, of those 89 hardcover novels that sold more than 100,000 copies, only ONE was from a first-time author. In other words, the best way to be a bestselling author is to have been a bestselling author last year. Sigh…

The ebook sales in PW are harder to discover. PW relies on publishers to send them figures, so self-published books (and, let’s face it, most small e-publishers) simply aren’t included. There were only two ebook titles that, according to their study, sold more than a million copies: Dan Brown’s Inferno and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. With the proliferation of indie publishing (whether by the author, an author co-op, or by a small independent press) we’re in a state where getting complete numbers is nearly impossible. And, I’ll admit it, while I’m very supportive of indie publishing, I tend to discount what some of them report. For example, on Randy Ingermanson’s wonderful “Advanced Fiction Writing Blog,” during a discussion of Hugh Howey’s interesting “Author Earnings” article, Mr. Howey came onto the site to say that he knew of “several (indie) authors who sold multiple millions last year.” Um… I doubt that. Randy’s own analysis (the guy has a PhD in quantum physic) was that there could theoretically be two authors who sold a couple million ebooks, and another handful that sold a million. So the irrational exuberance of claiming to know a bunch of authors who all self-pubbed and sold “multiple millions” may be encouraging to author wannabe’s, but I don’t think it’s accurate.

That said, if you take a look at the article in PW, you’ll see some really good news: the overall number of ebooks reported, even though it’s basically from traditional publishers, reveals that more books are selling than ever before. The explosion of ebooks and self-publishing has been a fabulous step for authors, even though we’re all still trying to figure out how to track the numbers and understand the new systems. Sure, there’s been a migration away from mass market books to Kindles and Nooks and iPads, but the overall numbers of titles selling is greater (and hey, there are still a significant number of mass market titles sold). This is great news for authors — books are continuing to sell, more people are reading than ever before, there is a greater need for content, and there are more opportunities to publish and be read than ever before in the history of the world. What’s to complain about? This is the golden age of publishing, people.

And one last thought comes to mind as you look over the article… Publishing is very much like buying a lottery ticket. (Or, as Joe Konrath once put it, “Publishing is a carny game.”) Some people can work at it, study the probabilities, try their hardest, and never get anywhere. Others stop by 7/11 one day, drop a dollar on a lark, and find themselves living in Beverly Hills and driving a Maserati. Hey – life ain’t fair. But understand that’s the system. Writing is art, and I never knew anyone who felt the world of art was going to be easy. You pick up a paintbrush, take lessons, work with a mentor, practice, and work your way through a thousand canvases before you’re any good, and even then you still might not get noticed. Or you fall in love with the ballet, invest thousands in lessons, spend your life doing plies, and hope to latch on to a little dance company in Toledo. Or maybe you buy a used Stratocaster, invest in lessons, start a band in your garage, and play every school dance and grange hall in hopes of getting discovered. Occasionally something works — your band gets noticed and you’re offered a job as an opener for a headliner, or you get cast in a lead role that gets rave reviews, or your sculpture garners a headline in a major art magazine. You bust out. It happens. Sometimes it’s because of your great craft, your unique interpretation, or your artistic vision. Other times it’s dumb luck — your book hits the same time the culture happens to take an interest in your topic, or your title appeals to somebody at USA Today. That’s life — you do your best, and sometimes you hit the lottery. Or you don’t, in most cases, and you continue to work at it because it’s art and you enjoy it. But there’s no sure thing in publishing. Books are selling (more books than ever, thank God), and opportunities abound. I still think you’ll do better if you practice and get a mentor and learn something about the craft, no matter the success of Fifty Shades of Gray. But this year’s report once again shows there’s no guarantee to success — and some of our best writers may not be selling all that well. Still, there’s a chance of finding success, whether modest or great, and we do it because we love words. That, to me, is always the point of reading about the biggest successes in our industry.

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To see the blog post from J.A. Konrath that I referenced above, go here: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/02/eisler-publishing-is-lottery-konrath.html

Engineered Bestsellers, Rock Star Pastors, and Rosie Ruiz

March 21st, 2014 | Books, CBA, Collaborating and Ghosting, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Marketing and Platforms, Religion, The Business of Writing, Trends | 5 Comments

by Ghostwriter [While this says it's written by Chip MacGregor, it is not. It's written by a professional collaborative writer who is a friend -- Chip just posted it.]

Hi. I’m Ghostwriter and I’m the collaborative author of an engineered bestseller.

The news that Mars Hill Church paid ResultSource about $200,000 to get Mark Driscoll’s book Real Marriage on the New York Times bestseller list shocked a lot of people. For me, that news solved a mystery.

As I already mentioned, I am a collaborative author and occasionally a ghostwriter. Although I am a published author in my own right, I learned long ago that I could earn a much better living helping other people write their books. It’s a good life, and I enjoy my work. Nevertheless, I still hope that someday I’ll see one of my books on a bestseller list—any bestseller list.

This explains my obsession with Amazon rankings and sales figures.

I know, I know…

You have to take Amazon numbers with several hundred grains of salt. I get that. But I still enjoy checking my author page and seeing how many copies of my books have sold in the previous week. Generally, the numbers are unremarkable. Sometimes they are depressing. But a while back those numbers astonished and mystified me.

I’d collaborated on a book with a megachurch pastor and, although it was a contract job for which I received a flat fee and no royalties, I asked for and received cover credit. Because my name was on the cover, I was able to list the book on my Amazon author page and track its sales statistics. Even though I wasn’t going to receive royalties for the book, I was still curious to see how well it was selling.

So I set the book up and waited for the launch date. The first week’s sales stats took my breath away. The book went from zero to 10,000 sales virtually overnight. I must confess that at this point I was kicking myself for not asking for a percentage of the royalties. I figured we had a runaway bestseller on our hands.

Since Amazon posts BookScan sales figures weekly, I spent a week eagerly looking forward to the next report. But when the stats were posted, not only was I disappointed, I was puzzled. In one week, the book’s sales crashed from 10,000 to about 200. The next week it dropped off even further—to about 50.

You read that correctly.

Fifty.

If you do the math, that amounts to about a 99.95% drop off in three weeks.

At first, I thought the church had purchased a bunch of books, maybe to sell in bookstores on their various campuses. But I checked the geographical sales figures, and they were literally all over the map. Ten copies here. Twenty-five copies there. Sixty in another place. Almost every state in the U.S. was represented. I was flummoxed — until I heard about Mars Hill Church’s arrangement with a marketing firm known as ResultSource. Then all the puzzle pieces fell into place.

The pastor I collaborated with had mentioned that he had a “consultant” who helped his previous book get on a major (not the NYT) bestseller list, and that he planned to use them again. In my naïveté, I assumed the consultant was a publicist who helped market the book. Now I believe it was either ResultSource or a similar company.

Like it or not, I am now the collaborative author of an engineered bestseller.

How does that make me feel? It makes me feel an uncomfortable kinship with an infamous long-distance runner named Rosie Ruiz.

Ms. Ruiz won the 1980 Boston Marathon in the women’s category with the fastest time in the history of the race. However, her celebration was short lived when it became clear that she did not run the entire race. She wanted the glory of winning the Boston Marathon, but she wasn’t willing to put in the hard work required to do it legitimately. Even if she had put in the work, she might not have been good enough to win. Rosie wasn’t willing to take that risk. She wanted glory and fame. She wanted a guaranteed win. So she took a shortcut — she cheated.

That’s what’s happening when megachurch pastors, conference speakers, and big organizations hire companies like ResultSource to “help” their books attain bestseller status. Like Rosie Ruiz, they want the glory. They want a guaranteed win. So they take a shortcut. They cheat.

Is this done all the time in the publishing industry? Chip MacGregor says no, and I agree with him. This is not a publishing industry problem. I believe engineered bestsellers are symptomatic of an evangelical Christian culture that worships success and elevates megachurch pastors to rock star status.

Boston Marathon officials disqualified Rosie Ruiz and stripped her of her title. Unfortunately, no one is going to strip these pastors and Christian leaders of their phony “bestselling author” status. However, one can hope that the embarrassment caused by the Mark Driscoll fiasco will make them think twice before paying for another engineered bestseller.

And maybe, just maybe, they will remove the phrase, “bestselling author,” from their bios and websites until they attain that status legitimately — through people actually buying, reading, and sharing their books.

Making sure I get the story straight…

March 19th, 2014 | Books, Career, CBA, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Religion, The Business of Writing, Trends | 14 Comments

I was once let go from a job in publishing for “creative differences,” the same week another guy was let go, at another company, for some very different reasons. We worked in the same industry, are the same race and age, and he lived in a city where I had once lived. Several people got our stories mixed up. I had a writing conference cancel my participation at their event, saying they had heard rumors that cast me in a bad light, and that they didn’t want me coming. You can imagine my surprise when I was told they were un-inviting me, since none of what they’d heard was actually true. I invited them to call my former boss, to talk with the people around me, and to check my references. But I also got angry — I mean, they made their decisions based on a RUMOR? They’d never even called me to ask about it? They never checked facts with anyone at my former employer? Nope. They just heard a story and took it as gospel … and, to make matters worse, the other guy (the one who had actually been fired from that other house) was scheduled to speak at their conference. (I didn’t mention that to the conference director. I figured she could figure out the truth on her own damn time.)

I’ve never gone back to that conference, and I’ve never forgotten how much that error hurt. It’s why I want to make sure I get my facts straight on the stories I write, so that I don’t share something hurtful about somebody unfairly. I don’t mind offering bad news, and I realize some people will read my blog to get some information that publishers are too frequently reluctant to share, but I want to make sure I get my facts correct.

Here’s why I mention all of this: I got a couple of phone calls from publishers after my last blog, and they led to share several thoughts…

1. Mark Driscoll, the Seattle pastor who I’ve had bad experiences with in the past, and who I raked over the coals on Monday for having bought his way onto the bestseller lists, offered up an apology yesterday. [You can find it here: http://tinyurl.com/nbajg67 ] I have mixed emotions about this… On the one hand, I tend to roll my eyes at the fact he didn’t own up to plagiarism. He preferred to reference things “we” did, instead of just taking responsibility for books with his own name on them. His solution (to stay away from social media and not do many conferences this year) sounds, to me, like an effort to simply stay out of the limelight. And the concept of sending a private letter to church members only, taking it down so it doesn’t get passed around to news sources, and simply trying to make a private statement about a public error is TERRIBLE. For crying out loud, who is giving this guy advice?

2. BUT, on the other hand, the guy seems to have made an effort to make things right. A couple of people who know him well told me he’s actually been changed by this. That he’s considerably less full of himself than he used to be. That he really does want to make an effort to be more of a pastor and less of a celebrity. And you know what? I think making a good-faith effort deserves respect.

3. One publisher who called me said that, in his mind, the plagiarism was inadvertent — research assistants had done it, and Mark never purposefully intended to steal anyone’s words. So that publisher said it wasn’t really “plagiarism,” but a simple error. I tend to disagree with that notion — not because I think Mark Driscoll was actually trying to get away with stealing someone’s words, but because the book had his name on it. Um… this is MY blog. I type the words. When somebody else blogs, their name goes on the post (for example, yesterday’s excellent blog by Erin Buterbaugh). So if I hire somebody, and they steal some words and post them as mine, then it’s ME who is responsible, not some unnamed assistant. My intention may not be to harm anyone, but when it happens, I’m the one who has to come out, tell the truth, and apologize. If I’m too big and famous to write, or too busy with work to actually check the words, then perhaps I ought not to have my name on the cover, since I didn’t actually write it. All that said, I understand that the plagiarism was probably inadvertent. But, in my view, it’s still plagiarism, no matter the intent, and still requires an author to take responsibility and apologize.

4. Another publisher called to say that ResultSource is a good marketing company, who has worked with numerous bestselling authors, and they do a good job. He noted their speciality is helping speakers get a bunch of books sold by targeting their list of followers, and encouraging them to all purchase the book the week it launches. JUST SO WE’RE CLEAR, I’m all for that approach. I think any marketing an author does is aimed at selling books. An author does a bunch of radio shows, or does a blog tour, or speaks at conferences, and says to everyone, “Go buy my book!” That’s just marketing — getting in front of one’s potential audience and trying to convince them to buy your product. So let’s be clear: I have no problem with an author marketing his or her book. ResultSource apparently does this very well. But I was told, by two different people, that what was unique about this campaign was that those outside of Mark Driscoll’s following were used to purchase copies of the book, and World Magazine reported that numerous credit cards were used to purchase the copies specifically to get around the reporting strategies of the New York Times bestseller list. In other words, it wasn’t the core group, who you would expect to be encouraged to purchase the book, but outsiders who would not normally have bought it. That’s why I said this was a case, in my view, of gaming the system.

5. And that leads to another thing I heard from publishers — that the New York Times is so tight-lipped about what “the system” actually is for getting on the bestseller list, they have no idea how to manipulate it. Nobody really knows what numbers the NYT uses to actually create their list, and publishers complained to me that frequently a book selling particularly well but with an unpopular topic (such as a book featuring conservative politics, or a book about conservative Christianity) won’t make the list, while a book that obviously sold far fewer copies but with a more liberal perspective will make the list. Please understand I’m not arguing, only reporting what more than one publisher told me.

6. And that in turn means that the only way to insure a book sells the required number of copies to guarantee a spot on the list (in current terms, that means selling roughly 11,000 copies in a week), is to have some sort of marketing plan that focuses on selling a bunch of copies all at once. Again, I’m all for marketing books, as evidenced by the content of this blog. Every publisher I talked to said they want to hit the NYT list, and they’ll do all they can to hit it, but they also insisted they would never work with a company that tried to cheat their way on by basically hiring strangers to go purchase copies. I thought I’d mention that, since a lot of people have maintained that “everybody does that.” I made it clear in my previous post, and I still hold to the statement, that NOT everybody is doing this to try and cheat their way onto the list. I stand by these words: “I’ve never known one of the respectable legacy publishers to pull this sort of schtick.”

7. That said, it’s also clear nearly every publishing house is working with ResultSource. Not to have them buy copies via strangers, but to have them work with an author’s platform in order to encourage everyone to purchase a copy the same week. Again, for the record, I don’t have a problem with that. And I’m not here to bash ResultSource, who is clearly doing some good things, since every single publisher I spoke with works with them. (I sent a note to the president of ResultSource about all of this, by the way. I want to make sure the facts are correct. But their website is shut down and the phone not working. Um… I have no idea if this is related to the controversy or not.)

8. Finally, one publisher who is well-acquainted with the situation told me that the financial figure that was reported in the World article (“more than $200,000″) was not accurate. I don’t have any way of corroborating that, but it’s a source I consider reliable, and someone who was not the publisher of the book in question, so this person doesn’t have a dog in the hunt. I think it’s only fair to mention that this individual told me the actual number paid by Mark Driscoll was considerably lower than the number reported in the story.

Again, I once had a bad situation with Mr. Driscoll. He said something to me that I discovered was patently untrue, I’ve not been a fan of his macho crap in the pulpit, I’ve grown weary of the mindless hero-worship I have detected in his followers, so I have tended to be a critic and look with doubt on some of his words. But… well, I want to make sure I have my facts straight, so I’m not doing exactly the thing I have been critical of others doing to me. And if a guy says he wants to change, I need to have the grace to take him at his word. Sure, I’d prefer Mr. Driscoll owned up to the plagiarism in his works, whether he did it deliberately or not. I’d prefer he took responsibility for the problems, and not blamed unnamed assistants, or outside counsel, or anyone other than himself, whose name is on the books. I’d prefer if he were going to apologize, he did so publicly, since the errors were made publicly, instead of sort-of apologizing but then hiding the note away. I’d prefer his board didn’t look like a bunch of sycophants, praising him in the midst of obvious errors, instead of promising to ensure this never happens again. And I’d prefer he was more forthcoming about the whole affair, since Americans have a tremendous ability to forgive when a public person is up-front about his or her errors (but they’ll go after someone who waffles like a reporter digging for a story). So there are things I’d prefer. But most of all, I’d prefer to be correct in the things I share on this blog. I hope I got all of them correct today.

What’s wrong with buying your way onto the bestseller list?

March 14th, 2014 | Author News, Deals, Books, CBA, Collaborating and Ghosting, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Religion, The Business of Writing, Trends | 113 Comments

Last week I made a point of saying that I think a guy who buys his way onto the bestseller lists is a weasel, and I had a bunch of people write to ask me why. This is a worthwhile topic for everyone in publishing, so let me offer some background…

Mark Driscoll pastors a large church in Seattle. Last fall he was accused of plagiarizing the words of another author, Peter Jones, in his latest book, and in addition there were other examples given of him plagiarizing, including pages of text recreated  word-for-word from a Bible commentary and stuck into one of the church’s publications. The people at Driscoll’s church made the situation worse, first claiming it was okay because one of the obviously plagiarized documents had never been sold, then changing their story when it turns out it had indeed been sold, but saying they hadn’t made much, then blaming it all on un unnamed research assistant (even though it had Mark Driscoll’s name on it), then taking pains to criticize the “haters” instead of owning up to their own ignorance and laziness. The whole thing was a mess. Driscoll clearly plagiarized (whether you want to cut him slack and call it something else), and his publisher examined the book and released a statement that admitted there were “inadequate citations,” but defending him for handling the situation well. In the end, the entire mess faded away. I was a bit surprised, since I’ve seen books get cancelled and editorial careers get ruined over less than this. Still, we all moved on.

Until last week, when it was revealed that Rev. Driscoll had paid a marketing firm, ResultSource, more than $200,000 to get his book onto the New York Time bestseller list. The scheme included hiring people to purchase 6000 copies of the book in bookstores, then ordering another 5000 copies in bulk. They even made sure to use more than 1000 different payment methods, so BookScan couldn’t track all the purchases back to a single source. In other words, they cheated to manipulate the system, got the book onto the list (for that one week), and did it so that Driscoll can refer to himself as “a New York Times bestselling author.”

I was critical of him for doing it, since I don’t think gaming the system is the right thing to do. It’s unfair. It’s lazy. It’s dishonest. And it’s basically nothing more than rampant egotism. But I had several people write to me, or post on Facebook, that this is common practice. A couple people said “everybody is doing it,” and some claimed “publishers are doing that all the time.” My response: Bullshit. Sorry if that offends, but we need to call it what it is. This is NOT standard practice. Everybody is NOT doing it. I used to be an associate publisher with Time-Warner, and this is not something we ever did, nor could I conceive of us doing it. I’ve also worked with every one of the Big Six publishers, as well as dozens of smaller publishers and every CBA publishing house, and I’ve never known one of the respectable legacy publishers to pull this sort of schtick.

Are the bestseller lists rigged? Perhaps, to a small degree — certainly Amazon seems to include an inordinate number of their own titles on the Amazon bestseller lists, and occasionally we’ll all be surprised at how a book with modest sales somehow wound up on a bestseller list because of the strange (and secret) way some of them account for the books. But for the most part, the books showing up on the lists are there because of sales. Honest, straightforward sales. Sometimes we get shocked when a crappy book (say, for example, Fifty Shades of Gray) suddenly starts showing up everywhere — but it showed up because, in spite of the boring story and fourth-grade writing ability, the book SOLD. Like it or not, that book wasn’t snuck onto a list dishonestly. Um… do we really want a PASTOR cheating his way onto the NYT list? And, matched with the fact that his name was on books that he now claims he didn’t actually write, what does that say about the guy? 

I find the whole thing incredibly lazy, and was shocked to discover the church itself admitted they didn’t know if church funds had been used to pay the bill. (Really? They spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars to stroke the author’s ego, and they don’t know where the money came from? Let’s just say that stretches the bounds of credulity.) This is the sort of news that is bound to come out, and will hurt you, since it demonstrates your laziness and need for attention. So no, I’m not one of those in the “he’s just spreading the Good News camp.” That’s baloney. If Mark Driscoll just wanted to spread the good news, he could have purchased $200,000 worth of books and given them away. This was done to make himself feel important, and in doing so, he does potential damage to honest authors, who work to write and market their books.

So today Mark Driscoll admits, in an interview in Charisma, the scheme was cooked up and a bad idea… but, of course, he’s not to blame. Nope. He explained that “outside counsel advised us to use ResultSource.” So those pesky outside counselors are to blame, like that pesky unnamed research assistant who plagiarized is to blame. Not Mark. Not the guy with his name all over stuff. Huh-uh. Instead, his board made a statement that they appreciate his “endurance through false accusation.” Um… excuse me, but what exactly was the FALSE part? His book contains the un-cited work of another writer, which his own publisher acknowledged was inappropriate  He had clearly plagiarized materials with his name on it. A company was paid a pile of money to pump his book and dishonestly get it onto bestseller lists. Those are all facts. What exactly is the “false” part? Well, except for the part where Mark claims he actually wrote any of this, I mean. I’m fairly certain that part is false. 

What’s wrong with buying your way onto the bestseller list? It’s an expensive, short-term ego stroke for the lazy and dishonest, and it excludes real writers from actually making the list. My two cents.

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You can find out more information on Mark Driscoll, plagiarism, and buying your way onto a bestseller list by going to World Magazine, Slate, the blaze.com, and the writings of Warren Throckmorton. You could probably also go to Mark Driscoll’s site, but be aware that, even though it has his name on it, he probably didn’t write it, and if there are errors it’s somebody else’s fault.