More Wisdom from a Fiction Publisher

October 27, 2007 | Written by admin

So long as I’m talking with fiction types, I figured I should contact the guy who bought my first book (lo, these many years ago). Dave Horton is one of the good guys in the industry, and a longtime voice for quality Christian fiction. He has successfully discovered and published numerous authors, and now he’s going to be stepping into a new role at Bethany House Publishers. We exchanged emails recently to talk about the industry and the changes going on…

Dave, what do you see that is working (and not working) in fiction for Bethany House?

"I’m often asked why historical fiction works so well at BHP. Part of the reason for its ongoing demand is that so many reader got into the habit when Christian fiction offered little else. And habits, once formed, aren’t easily broken. In addition, while other publishers have been in and out of historial fiction, we’ve never waved inour commitment to it. Retailers and readers know who to call (and what to expect) when they want historicals.

"Even though historical fiction has succeeded marvelously at Bethany House for nearly three decades, we’re experiencing sales success with contemporary titles, too. In fact, the latter group figures among our bestsellers every year. There are growing numbers of readers who didn’t come of age in the glory years of Janette Oke and Bode Thoene, or who simply have other preferences, and we’re working hard to offer them options. Do those options work as well as historical fiction for us? Not all, but some certainly do. Actually, it’s probably an unfair comparison, even in the general market. Historical fiction is a broad category, and we often try to compare it to categories that are quite narrow by definition. In any case, we’re making some encouraging headway in suspense, women’s fiction, books geared for men, and others, and we are committed to maintaining breadth in our fiction line."

You’ve been in the industry since, um, the Harding Administration, I think. What changes do you see going on in Christian fiction these days? And is there anything about the future you can tell us about?

"Yeah,  me and Warren G go way back. One change I’ve noticed is that the Christian fiction ‘box’ has expanded a great deal, especially in the past ten years. Make no mistake about it, we’re not generally ‘outside the box’ yet, but in terms of genres (or sub-genres), time periods, settings, character types, subject matter in general, and writing quality, things have changed considerably. Christian fiction is harder to define (or completely dismiss), its realitic intended audience is broader, and the number of writers being published successfully has increased dramatically. Recent encouraging signs: Fantasy fiction has a small but growing audience, historical fiction no longer has to be deadly serious, and wildly imaginative work is making inroads where once it was completely marginalized.

"Another change I’ve seen over the last few years is an increasingly cinematic orientation in the author community. Movies are more talked about than books, or so it seems. There is a big push to write ‘cinematically,’ and the cultural validation that presumably comes with having a novel adapted for the big screen or DVD  seems more and more to be the brass ring. But we may be losing sight of the fact that the novel is its own art form. It’s not a movie. It need not — in fact, cannot — replicate a movie. Of course, novels can be adapted into movies, but a screenplay is never the same as a novel. Among the so-called ‘faith- based’ movies, the screen adaptations seem significantly inferior to the novels, in terms of the faith element, as well as in terms of the story itself. Hopefully the situation will improve, but writing a novel with a movie in mind, or writing a novel based on a movie concept, doesn’t seem to me to be the best way to serve readers.

"We seem to go through phases of expansion and consolidation in publishing. Success in ficton (or with a particular genre) incites others to jump on the bandwagon. There is an ensuing flurry of publishing activity, followed by a few successes and more failures. Changes are made. Companies are sold. Editors are laid off or reassigned. Authors are displaced. Novels are orphaned and fade into oblivion.

"Nobody is perfectly able to forecase the future, and who can blame someone for wanting to pursue a publishing model that seems successful? But the ramifications for authors of this ‘now-we’re-in/now-we’re-out’ industry see-saw are particularly difficult. I worry that writing careers may get off on the wrong track, or get sidetracked altogether, because some publishing executives mistakenly think fiction publishing is easy money. "

Though it has had a track record of big success, your own company, Bethany House, was sold a couple years ago to the Baker Group. Can you tell us what is happening with your role during all these changes?

"You’ve probably heard that Gary and Carol Johnson will be transitioning to part-time roles here at Bethany House in March ’08. I’ve been asked to step into Carol’s current role (Vice President, Fiction Editiorial) at that time. Following in her footsteps would seem daunting to anyone, I’m sure, but it helps a great deal that I’ve worked with our gifted, experienced editorial staff for nearly a decade already. Given the strong foundation Carol and Gary have established here, I thnk we have a lot to which we can look forward. "

My thanks to Dave for stopping in to join us. Interesting stuff on the "cinematization" if fiction, as well as his thoughts on career-building for authors. Let me know what you think.

Chip

Posted in Resources for Writing

  • http://www.pamhalter.info Pam Halter

    I took a screen writing course a few years back. Yeah, totally different animal from novel writing.
    I think most of us are not willing to wait and work for the time it takes to be successful. We live in a microwave society and want it now.
    Thanks, Dave, for your time and wisdom.

  • http://www.angelfire.com/ok2/weakandfoolish Rob Sargeant

    Most of my earlier writing was done in the form of screenplays, because that was my educational background. People have commented that my first book, an action/adventure would have made a good movie. I don’t think it was intentional. I tend to view a scene with a directors eye while writing, so it has this cinematic flow. Is this good, or bad, or just different?

  • Linda Harris

    Yeah, I remember when Janette Oke and Bodie Thoene were the only Christian novelists. My father-in-law enjoyed westerns like Louis L’Amour. But there wasn’t anything comparable in Christian literature. So we bought him Janette Oke’s first books. But I don’t think he enjoyed them too much, because of the romance.
    Yes, historical fiction is a broad category. Just comparing the early historical fiction of Oke and Thoene shows the difference. Genre fiction nowadays is so much more specialized. But the same is true in the music industry. In the 70s and 80s, Christian music and literature were just making an appearance. It’s taken this long for Christians to catch up with the secular world. Perhaps that’s because before the sexual and feminist revolutions of the 60s, Christians didn’t need their own sources of entertainment. But Christian and secular have diverged every decade since then.

  • http://blog.myspace.com/hillbillybible Stevie Rey

    HiDee Chip!
    Well, ye know, I cain’t tell ye the last time I read a Christian fiction book honestly, but I can say I have seen that section expand quite a bit at the BN. When I worked there way back yonder as a bookseller, it wud’n nuthin’ but three books and they all was dry as saltines.
    I’d like to write some fiction some day maybe, if’n the good Lord gives me a chance. I got me some ideers.
    Ye know I take that back. I been readin’ ole Joel Rosenberg’s books. I reckon that counts as Christian fiction, but they sell ‘em in the regular fiction section. I always been interested in arky-ology and what not. The Copper Scroll is just fascinatin’ readin’.
    Thankee kindly fer these words a wis-dumb, Chip! (I always spell it that way in my blawgs cuz God’s got the “wis” part covered and I got the “dumb” part covered. HEE-HAW!)
    Bless ye bro,
    Stevie Rey

  • http://www.timothyfish.net Timothy Fish

    There are some aspects of the cinematization of fiction that I think are good. Movies are designed to get the audience’s attention at the beginning and never let go until the end. Movies tend to be very tight. Anything that isn’t important is removed. Both of these things can be good for a novel. The problem I see with a novel trying to mimic a movie is that what is exciting in a movie is different from what is exciting in a novel. Men in Black begins with an insect getting splattered on a windshield. It is exciting in the movie, but in a novel it would be very boring. In a movie, you try to avoid having people sit around and talk. Instead you might give them dialog to say while they are wrestling or running. You might have a person doing something as simple as folding clothes while talking on the phone, but you always want some kind of movement to speed things up. In writing, detailed descriptions of what a person is doing while talking slows things down. A scene where two people are sitting and talking can be one of the fastest paced scenes in a book. Blowing something up on page one or killing an unimportant character does not has the impact in a novel that it has in a movie.

  • http://www.brandtdodson.com Brandt Dodson

    There’s a whole lot to chew on here.
    Yes, CBA fiction is changing – and for the better. I’ve been the beneficiary of some of that change. But fiction publishing in general has changed also.
    I agree with Dave’s comment that cinematic fiction is becoming more common. There was a day when a writer could take the time to describe the settings in his/her novel with painstaking care. Not anymore. Now we begin with a bang and speed through.
    Is all of this change bad? No, but neither is it all good. It just “is” and we who write need to adjust.

  • Angie Farnworth

    David, I like the point you raised about novel-to-movie adaptation becoming the new brass ring. Why, indeed, can we not be happy with novels in their purest form? Though we may live in a postmodern, microwave, bigger-is-better society, it was the mesmerizing power of a good ole paperback that kept me awake til two o’clock in the morning twenty-five years ago and still keeps me up all hours of the night to this day. I rue the day that pdf downloads and virtual art replace bound copies of the written word and a tighty stretched, painted canvass.

  • http://rebeccaluellamiller.wordpress.com/2007/10/29/more-fantasy-monday/ A Christian Worldview of Fiction

    More-FantasyMonday

    Saturday Chip MacGregor posted an interview with Bethany House Publishing exec Dave Horton. To the question, What changes do you see in Christian fiction, Mr. Horton elaborated on the redefinition of the genre, then said this:
    Recent encouraging signs…

  • http://rebeccaluellamiller.wordpress.com/2007/10/29/more-fantasy-monday/ A Christian Worldview of Fiction

    More-FantasyMonday

    Saturday Chip MacGregor posted an interview with Bethany House Publishing exec Dave Horton. To the question, What changes do you see in Christian fiction, Mr. Horton elaborated on the redefinition of the genre, then said this:
    Recent encouraging signs…

  • http://confessionsofaheadhopper.blogspot.com Rachel

    I personally find the comments about historicals being popular because readers were stuck in a rut, to be worrisome. I’m a historical fiction writer, that is my passion. As a writer and reader of historical fiction, Bethany is the BEST publishing house out there. Entirely because of the strong emphasis on historicals!
    I don’t read historicals because I’m stuck in a rut, and I didn’t devour historicals 10-15 years ago because that’s all there was. I devour historicals, then and now, because that’s what I want. I’m more likely to read a new historical author who is published by Bethany than I am from any other house. And that is because I know that a Bethany historical author is going to get it right and it’s going to be a GREAT story.
    I for one do not want to see Bethany drift away from their roots. Looking at the bookshelves in my house, we have more Bethany books than any other publisher. And that is because Bethany has such a strong historical presence.

  • http://hopeofglory.typepad.com Nicole

    “There was a day when a writer could take the time to describe the settings in his/her novel with painstaking care. Not anymore. Now we begin with a bang and speed through.
    Is all of this change bad? No, but neither is it all good. It just “is” and we who write need to adjust.”
    This is a pretty good description of what seems to be the trend in current publishing. The Donald Maass philosophy flourishes, is respected and pushed. While I appreciate the style as one kind of writing, I also appreciate the “painstaking” descriptions and absorbtions into the characters. I would agree a writer would be best served to find a publisher using the current model, but it isn’t completely satisfying for all of us as readers or as writers. Not my style.
    “I don’t read historicals because I’m stuck in a rut, and I didn’t devour historicals 10-15 years ago because that’s all there was. I devour historicals, then and now, because that’s what I want. I’m more likely to read a new historical author who is published by Bethany than I am from any other house. And that is because I know that a Bethany historical author is going to get it right and it’s going to be a GREAT story.” Another example of a writer who must tell the stories she is given and wants to read. The passion must be served first, and it’s refreshing to know which house will serve this writer’s/reader’s needs.
    One thing is usually a given with Bethany House: quality. While I appreciate a variety of genres (sorry, Rachel, don’t read historicals) but write untraditional romance, I know I will find quality from Bethany House novels.

  • http://www.melaniewrites.blogspot.com Melanie Dickerson

    I love historicals, and I hope Bethany House won’t throw the historical baby out with the bath water. Personally, I’m always excited to see something completely new, like Polivka’s Legend of the Firefish, Hinck’s The Restorer, and Siri Mitchell’s Chateau of Echoes. Would love to see a medieval now and then. Come on, CBA! God was around then, too, ya know!

  • http://www.noveljourney.blogspot.com Gina Holmes

    Great information. Thanks Chip and Dave.

  • Deb Kinnard

    I’m glad to see someone out there wants a medieval! I can’t count how many times I’m told this is an “unacceptable” era to write about.
    So…ever the salmon swimming upstream, I’m writing one. Now I can go to a pitch, if such an opportunity happens my way, and tell ‘em I’ve got a potential reader (GG).
    The Other Deb

  • http://www.timothyfish.net/ Timothy Fish

    I didn’t take Dave Horton’s comment as saying that readers are stuck in a rut, that there is anything wrong with people reading historical fiction or that they would necessarily choose something else if more things are offered. If is kind of like choosing where to sit at church. It really doesn’t matter which side of the building you are on or which pew you choose, but most people sit in the same place Sunday after Sunday. Adding a pew won’t change that because they have already formed a habit. But with more choices, some people will try new things and over time they may change old habits. Readers may consider new genres and say, “I like that” or they may say, “I think I’ll stick with historical fiction.” People who were reading historical fiction before are still going to like historical fiction, but with more options they may buy less of it than what they did before.

  • http://www.colleencoble.com colleen Coble

    Very good points about the cinemization of novels! I can’t stand a book that has no sense of setting. Books let you delve into the character’s thoughts and motivation so much better than a movie. I sure hope that never changes. I love suspense but it still has to have a balance with narrative and inner dialogue. I’ve read books before that were no more than “talking heads”, all dialogue. I quickly put them down unfinished.