Category Archives: On Acquisitions

Writers Conference “Dos and Don’ts”

From an editor's perspective, writers conferences can be a mixed bag. For those of you planning to attend one in the near future, or wondering whether you should, let me offer some dos and don'ts that apply to any writer's conference you might attend as an aspiring author…

Do know your genre. Everything may be expanding into new genres and sub-genres, but there will always be a line of books that precede yours in content and style, both informing it and categorizing it for a quick comparison. You may not like that others have written books like yours, but the fact is, it's your duty to know them and how you're improving the mold. Categories help us know what we're getting, even as barriers are breaking down between CBA (Christian Book Association) and ABA (American Book Association). Some people may not like categories, but they help readers. Some people may not like books that push the boundaries, but they're a sign of health and vigor.

Do get a publishing professional to sit on a panel and use you as an example of a fresh, and engaging voice. It was at the Northwest Christian Writers Renewal conference (in 2008 or 9?) that I was introduced to Ann Voskamp. She asked me to help her edit, and went on to publish an amazing book called One Thousand Gifts. Her distinctive, individual voice is what makes that book work, a voice she developed for years of writing and blogging and seeking out gifts for which she was thankful. So many things go into making a book a best seller, but her experience in writing and reading developed her voice and that was absolutely a factor in getting her published, not to mention talked about. Don’t be conniving and crafty, but do be a crafter of unmistakably unique work.

Don’t simply go to the conference to be fed. I hear this often: “The singer / food / accommodations / teaching is so wonderful!” Well yes, but these are compliments for the organizers, and they need to hear them. When you’re with a pro, don’t gush. They're not interested in your experience of the trappings. Would you be here if it was the worst, backwoods conference on the planet, just to deliver my the book that’s going to make me fall out of my chair? (more on this in a bit) Which leads me to,

Don’t be a sycophant. If you don’t have the definition memorized, please go do so now.

Don’t miss the point. IN 2005, on a panel at ACFW, I recommended The Time Traveler's Wife as the best book I’d read that year. In a rare moment of foresight, I included a warning that it might be offensive to some, but for months after that, I still heard about grumbling: “I can’t believe a Christian editor would recommend that book.” Dear ones, you have a responsibility to know what’s being written and read currently. Professional editors, agents and writers are readers. If you aren’t, that’s a serious handicap. Yes, do skip the sex/language/violence, but don’t misunderstand: you need to find out why an editor is recommending a book. Understand what that author did and that’s your ticket into his stable.

Do pay attention. Much of the benefit, if not all, of a writers conference is what you learn while there. Authors' and editors' names, literary terms, methods of writing, clarifying, editing, working, thinking, appealing to the muse. Don't waste your time worrying about your pitch, selling your idea, trying to force your way up from the place you need to be to learn. It's not about getting published. It's about being in a place where you are being courted because you've acquired so much knowledge, and your book begs to be published. While many bad books do get published, publishing the good ones is inevitable. 

Don’t listen to amateurs. There is more slippery sludge thrown around by well-meaning Christian newbies than any of us can shake our fingers at. The blogging world has made this bad advice proliferate, and there’s far too much posturing and speculating that goes on in absence of good data and some honest humility. Pride and ego can get the best of anyone—so be smart and listen to those who know.

Don’t tell me your entire story. Just stick to the P’s: Pitch, Package, Platform. PITCH: Give me the essence in as few words as possible. (caveat: “Aliens meets Blue Like Jazz” is not helpful. “Philip K. Dick meets Don Miller” is better, but explain that genre with a more specific comparison like, “Dean Koontz meets Graham Greene.” (I've actually heard this one. And that gave me a great picture.) PACKAGE: Tell me about series potential, what else you've written, what your "brand" is, any foreword or endorsements you’ve got, good-sized* publicity and promo opportunities, which leads right into PLATFORM: How big and how wide is your network? Are you bringing any guaranteed pre-sales through your blog, business, website, contacts in ministry, media, or miscellany (schools, churches, professional organizations, etc.) *total network of 1000 or more is fairly baseline for mid-size Christian publishers. That won't get you in the door a big of NY publishers.

Do know something about what publishing houses publish. Know the catalog and general sales figures (CBA top 50 titles, at least), especially for books like your own. You can find info on sales figures by asking questions: an author/agent/editor or clerk at a larger bookstore.

Do get in a crit group with real writers. When you say you’re in a crit group with a promising author or authors I recognize, it’s a big indication you’ll be an author I want to take more seriously. This is an alternative to getting a respected agent’s highest regard, though having both would probably make me fall out of my chair.

Do make me fall out of my chair. I really am a nice guy. But I have to be efficient as an acquisitions editor making pitches against the competition of other editors and publishers. A vast majority of the pitches I hear at conferences are not good. Learn what you're doing. Read this blog, have a professional help you, and if you’re pitching know the person, their house, and publishing guidelines. Even better, know their publishing goals. Follow what they've published and read their blog! The professional in the chair across from you is looking to see that you get it, you understand the situation, and you’re well-prepared. Do that, and you won’t have to quiver and freak out. Learn the criteria of a good proposal. Read the publishing trades (mainly PW & GalleyCat for ABA, CBA Marketplace and Christian Retailing for CBA market) and relevant editorial (Christian Communicator, Books and Culture) so you know what’s happening in the business you’re hoping to join. And remember, it's a business.

So go to writers conferences and soak up the knowledge and the community of like-minded individuals, and help someone grow! When you do that, you win. You get noticed. You get inspired. And those around you will remember or realize for the first time how great it is to be in a place like this, doing work they love, with people who are making a difference.

I mean, that's what I hope for…

 

A repost from the archives as I head out to the OCCWF conference this weekend. Maybe I'll see you there!

The Speed of Publishing

Just back from the Christian Writers Guild’s annual conference at The Broadmoor where I was once again impressed and not-just-a-little concerned about the level of stardom attributed to such a nerdy, pitiable person as myself. And yes, I know it’s just the title and the house I work for, the perception of the power I wield over poor writers’ livelihoods and long-term happiness, not to mention personal and even spiritual fulfillment of life-long dreams. There’s a reason we acquisition editors are collectively known as the gatekeepers (of course, I’d argue that my assistant reader owns that title, or at least shares it).

But it was a great time as usual and just the right amount of inspiration and practical teaching from the little I was able to gather between appointments, presentations, and panels. If you haven’t checked out the most professional Christian writers conference in the country yet, I’d suggest you do so next year. It’s truly a well-oiled machine, which speaks to Jerry Jenkins’ commitment to assisting writers and his generosity to the deeper cause of our industry.

In chatting around the tables with the talented folks who waited in line–some for over half an hour!–for the unsurpassed pleasure of eating with me (I told you; it’s ridiculous), the questions that came up most often centered around the surprising 12-to-18-month lead time of the book publishing process and what trends and changes are taking place just out there on the horizon. I’ve long hoped for something significant and informative to say in such situations, so imagine my glee to run across this recent article in the New York Times. The author not only shares the point I’m constantly explaining to new authors (about the lead time necessary for publicity to generate healthy interest in titles from unknown authors), she also seems to share my frustration. Why do we have to wait so long for books to come out? Not only do my predictions of current trends and the larger felt needs diminish over time, but my ability to sustain personal interest and excitement for the books I do acquire is severely tested by lead times of more than a year. Simply, I’m forced to move on to the books coming out next year.

If you read to the end of the article, you’ll notice there’s a "riddle": what can be done to shorten this lead time between acquiring the book and releasing it? I believe PW writer David Rothman may have finally given me the answer–or at least an answer–to this conundrum. If the goal is shortening the time it takes to release a book, and the bottleneck is generating publicity, why not generate publicity and critical word-of-mouth with electronic and POD releases first? Publishers have long relied on advance-release copies (ARCs) of especially worthy books to send out for review–but these are hard copy and often rushed to press since printing and distributing require 2-3 months on their own. If you want a hard copy out early, it’s got to be very early. But release the book for download and POD and you’ve got word-of-mouth happening that much faster.

Yet aside from his helpful articulation of many of the arguments for such a move, I do think David is willingly suspending our disbelief that his solution could have one major roadblock: the perception of a publisher’s commitment when it produces a widely-distributed ARC. Much like covers touting "Over 1 million copies in print," such reassurances go a long way into getting a book recognized by booksellers. Forcing them to rely on their own instincts and maybe the recommendation of a tuned-in industry friend may not be as powerful an aphrodisiac. And I won’t even mention the old "I-love-hard copy" argument. We ALL love hard copy (even the Lorax agreed to be sold in hard copy). Market perception is king and hard copy still carries a higher regard virtually across the board. As adults, we may move on from chewed up copies of Pat the Bunny, but we never give up our affection for them.

When I ask the authors around my table why they write, what it is that keeps them slogging away alone in the darkness, the unanimous response is that they love books. And by extension, they love all the rest–writers, readers, publishing, editors, agents, bookstores, sales reps, publicists and even other formats like e and POD. But who’s going to get excited about it if it’s not a real book? As readers, we’ve already acquiesced to read in paperback, mass market versions, and low-quality hardcovers. We don’t require all books to be leather-bound beauties with the really nice lay-flat binding and thick, cottony pages with the type practically embossed on them. Who would carry that around anyway? …well, some people would.

So where does that leave us? I guess I’m still debating the virtue of this answer to pre-release books as "almost-books." It certainly makes sense. I just don’t know if anyone’s really ready to start reading to their kids off a Kindle, which is what it’s going to take to cure this pandemic, apologies to the Lorax. In a world that’s moving too fast, books just might need to get slower to really capitalize on their greatest potential–to help us slow down ourselves.

You think? Comments welcome.

Edgy Books Are Bad Bets

"You can possess all the ‘must haves’ publishers talk about—an uncommon topic, writing chops, proven interest in your subject, a ‘platform’—but none of it matters if what you’re saying is not what people want to hear."

Ran across this nice reminder today from Linda Konner in the June 30th edition of PW: "No Room for ‘Edgy.’" Konner eventually gave up trying to publish her book about her "living apart" relationship with her partner, concluding that publishers are “followers, not leaders.” It’s a good point and one I think is easy to forget, obvious as it may seem. Big publishers, successful publishers are followers—of trends and market forces. And publishers are followers of these things because publishing is gambling. Every single time, a house is putting money on the horse who they believe has the best chances of winning. Any successful business makes predictions based on piles of market research.

Now for Christians, gambling poses an obvious ethical problem (my own angst with that reality is well-documented over there in the sidebar). But even aside from the inherent pressure cooker of capitalistic opportunism, this game is incredibly and increasingly high stakes. Huge chance and devastating losses.

But can we blame publishers?

They would throw a party if the audience who claims to want “edgy” actually bought more edgy books. I’m not alone in wanting more edgy, innovative books. Far from it. And writers, that’s good news for you. Maybe I’m more foolish in my “edgy” statements, but I’m not arguing that edgy isn’t still risky. A bad bet is a bad idea for any publisher. So "edgy" is a term I think we need to be careful with. If you’re on the edge, you need to realize that publishers see edgy as a bad bet.

What we need are more people able to show that the edge is actually the "new center." The coveted spot to be. There you’d have something. Show publishers the recent research that tracks a shift toward your type of talent. Prove how many people are looking for what you specifically offer. Who are the recognizable names of people who agree, and how many do you have personal access to? This is a big part of what good agents do. They dress up a horse to look like a safe bet. Some are amazing at it—you’d never know it, but there are horses out there that are actually camels. Or waffle irons.

Okay. The metaphor’s getting a little weird. But get this: "edgy" is constantly transforming, just like the publishing game. And like anyone, I struggle with the dynamics. I’ve attacked assumptions where I might have been a better diplomat. I’m learning. But I will say that I will never divorce my heart from the process. I love books.

And for my bet, it’s only by gambling everything on our shared vision for the books that matter that saves me from the despair in those who have stopped struggling to stand on that always surprising, shifting edge.

Developing a Taste for Meat

“Christians are actually, to me, anyway, as a Jew, much more interesting in America. And weirdly, much more misunderstood. Evangelical Christians are the most incompetently portrayed group in America, in TV, in fiction, in the news. When Christians say that the media gets them wrong, Christians are absolutely right. Christian life in this country is really horribly documented, and way more interesting than is done. Generally, in the media, very religious Christians are portrayed as hardheaded doctrinaire knuckleheads. But in fact, from my experience, the most religious Christians I know tend to be incredibly thoughtful, complicated, generous to a fault, very principled and not knuckleheads. Actually, they’re sort of weirdly the opposite of the stereotype, and that includes people from the hardcore fundamentalist faiths.”
Ira Glass (Thanks to Mollie at Get Religion)

By way of counterpoint, according to Barna’s survey data, there are precious few of these “most religious Christians” in America. I don’t think I’m one of them. And there’s little chance of surviving as a Christian writer, publisher, or acquisitions editor catering only to this small group. And yet, there’s little chance of preserving your moral standards if you’re catering to the majority of Christian book-buyers in America. Doing so will almost certainly require compromise. For example:

1.    As Barna points out, most American Christians are hypocrites. We want to follow Jesus, but we’d rather watch other people doing it.
2.    We’re shallow. “Just give me Jesus” isn’t a simple slogan, it’s a cop out. Deep theology and paradoxical spiritual truths are too hard. Keep it simple and make us feel better.
3.    We’re dualistic. We want to live simply, but be complicated. We want to get uncluttered, but we can’t accept the limitation of giving up stuff.
4.    We’re blind. Of course, we can’t really admit any of this because were too smart for that. But by closing our eyes to avoid the uncomfortable realities, we face consequences.

We know a large portion of our audience buys books to feel better about all this, for the psychological freedoms they offer. Lucrative Christian books (indeed, entire publishing programs) are built on these 4 little navel-gazing secrets, using them to apply band-aids: a little encouragement, a little spiritual salve, an easy out. They help us feel for a while that all is within our reach if we buy an inspirational book.

But as publishing professionals, do we have to accept this catering to the masses? Can we resist this? Must we give people easy outs? I don’t mean we give up easy reads, but can we sneak in some real meat with the stuff? Maybe we can trick them into developing a taste for meat by making it cheaper, faster, fresher, newer, easier, and making them laugh and cry at how good this “fast food” tastes.

I guess I have to believe this IS possible, that the first all-important step is looking at how you yourself have compromised, realize you’ve been had, and decide to stop furthering the enemy’s aims. Then, praise God for his grace and repent on your knees. If you’ve been in 1, 2, 3, or 4, you don’t have to stay there. And if you’re just starting out, commit to the higher purpose of Christian “inspirational” books and band with others to fight for balance with God-honoring messages that reach our respective corners of the market.

And together, maybe we will manage to keep Ira’s good impression.

If this is you, then it’s time to get it going.

Reality Check #2: You Aren’t Original

Just FYI, the woman who brought hand cream on a plane is in custody tonight, so you can rest easy tonight. Come on! Ladies, quit jerking around and just give up the lotion already!

Okay. Sorry. That’s done. Originally, this began in my hard drive as a post on creativity, how to be creative and cultivate it and all that. But honestly, I’m not so sure that’s quite The Full M-to-the-onty on what’s really stacked against you in your publishing program, if you get my message.

Now this isn’t an idea that will sell you a lot of books. And it’s not going to make you all warm and fuzzy inside, either. But the fact of it is, creativity is largely irrelevant because, I’ve got to tell you, YOU ARE NOT ORIGINAL. I’ve been noodling about this recently, and I think one of the reasons truly inspiring people are published is that many of them have given up this idea that they’re so creative and unique. Certainly, there are examples of authors who are confoundingly obsessed with being creative and unique (like those who print their proposals on purple paper…I mean, who doesn’t recognize that pure genius?). But most big CBA names aren’t published because they’re so original.

I mean, they’re just not. You think Kincade is unique? How about Jenkins and LaHaye? Or maybe Frank Peretti. Ted Dekker? T.D. Jakes? Joyce Meyer? Phil Vischer? Michael W. Smith? Mr. Jell-O-steen himself? Sure, they’re great. But they’re not original. Was Jesus original? Even he was a few years behind those earlier messiahs. No, the sage was right: there is nothing new under the sun. Okay, I’ll give you Rush Limbaugh. There will never be anyone as creative and unique as Rush. But that goes without saying. And he’s it. Okay, and maybe Jakes. And Dino. But that’s it!

Christian writers, get past this idea of being different and original. I mean, be special, but not because you’re so creative or original, or whatever. Are you smarter, funnier, better-looking, more deserving than others? If any of that was the criteria, we’d all be up stinky creek. None of us measure up. Not only would we have to be constantly changing our identities to stay up with the times, we’d have to rely on the hope that no one prettier, smarter, or funnier came along. And someone always would because the world is bigger than Colorado Springs, at least according to Mapquest. Some people do base their worth on a false sense of specialness, sadly, seemingly unaware that the secret to being special is not any of these superficial things. It’s…well, it turns out Rick Warren was right! It’s purpose that matters. It’s not what you do or even so much how you do it. It’s what comes out of your God-given passion that matters. The piece of him he gave you to share. The sharing of Him who gave you that peace.

You’re a conduit. Yes. That is all. That is enough. The device for transmitting the divine. So forget the false confidence and hyping yourself up to believe something you’re not. Charisma sells, yes. But that charisma needs to derive from your core passion, whatever that is. And don’t accept any less—from anyone. If you really want to change the world, start there.

Alright? So I’m thinking this should apply to the way we view the world, this broken, twisted-up, decaying piece of rock hurtling through space. We need more Christians who understand this, their specialness that’s not about uniqueness. Use your piece of the eternal to affect the present. And when you write, think about the effect you’ll have on generations in the future of your dedicating not to what’s unique, but what’s everlasting.