Reality Check #1: Charisma Sells

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So. A while back I promised some revelations about the inner workings of Christian publishing, for which you’ve all been exceptionally patient. I do appreciate it, as I’m trying to get this silly novel in shape. But I’m excited about some of the discussions going on post-ICRS on the CBA landscape, and I just can’t stay silent ’bout some unavoidable publishing realities no longer!

Now I apologize if some of you are so up on the Christian publishing news and processes that you know this stuff already. There’s always Dave’s insightful and informative blog you can learn more from. But over the course of the next few months, I’m going to be grinding up some sacred cows and a few of you are going to have to drink the water. There’s been a lot of idealism about publishing put forth, some of it by me in the early days of this blog, and I think it’s time some of that was balanced with a healthy dose of reality. So if you stick with me through this process, I think you’ll find some enlightening food for thought.

Fact is, in my weaker moments I worry about how I’m coming off. Oftentimes, it’s just this selfish, like the familiar worry that I’ve alienated allies in this business and that when I do finally pubish my first novel, there will be some major negative reception, like, in the Christian publishing guide I’ll be listed as Mick Silva, See Ignorant Critical Rube, page 289. Every author dreads finding themselves surrounded by bad publicity, shunned by their contemporaries, and/or lambasted in Publisher’s Weekly as a writer that’s “probably good enough for the Christian market.” And as I say, in my weaker moments, that’s me.

In my better moments, I’m more concerned about the kind of works we’re producing in Christian publishing, when the dominant force is sales, and what has sold well previously, either for another house or in another market, like in, say, film, television, or popular music. Even though most people will tell you they’re most interested in what is new, unique, fresh, or different, the fact is, Sales folks know what’s familiar sells. Joel Osteen will sell more with a book on fashionable dog sweaters than any of us with the hottest topic in the country, whatever that might be. And sure, Joel’s dominance is the result of a dynamic ministry that’s taken years to establish, and an incredible message that’s been crafted and positioned to reach the widest demographic possible. But those are intangibles. What you could point to as reasons for his appeal can just as easily be cast as reasons to publish Joe Schmoe’s book on fashionable dog sweaters. Joe’s been speaking for 165 years and has a church of 27 zillion, but you don’t see him getting a publishing deal. So what’s the difference?

In a word: charisma. Now there are arguments to be made for the importance of charisma when you’re a fiction author as opposed to a nonfiction, self-help, motivational author (See Chris Farley as Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker on SNL). Yes, I agree fiction authors should be largely immune to these considerations, but the fact is, many of you don’t have book contracts because you aren’t charismatic about your business in the most complimentary meaning of the term. And you can complain all you want about platform publishing and celebrity-driven projects, but the fact is, the Osteens of the world have something others want, and that’s always going to be more marketable than the no-name dog sweater guy.

So, you know this already? Okay, but have you sat down to work on it? Where’s your charisma coming from? Publishers want people with charisma, and when I realize that, I look at myself sitting on the other side of the table from my editor self and I realize I have some work to do. Sure I’ve got some ideas, some humor and cynicism, maybe a little unusual experience to contribute to my work, but really, what’s marketable about me? Unless I can step up and be comfortable with the idea of selling my ideas and my mission while holding my own in the high water of publicity and promotions, I’m not going to prove to any acquisitions editor the merit of my message. And frankly, that motivates me.

I don’t want to be a Matt Foley, repelling people. I want to make people feel good having been with me. I want them to catch the vision. Fact is, that’s an unqualified skill of the best authors in Christian publishing. There are many more essential qualities that go with charisma–not least of all an ability to phrase your message in a compelling and memorable way. But those skills get plenty of lip-service, and I don’t hear a lot of people talking about the charisma aspect very often.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, that’s been my rumination for the evening. Tune in next time when we’ll look at another large-ish reality influencing publishing decisions. Until then, keep practicing those engaging looks and compelling responses in your bathroom mirror.

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12 thoughts on “Reality Check #1: Charisma Sells”

  1. You asked, “What’s marketable about me?”
    That one’s easy, Mick. I’ll give you a hint. It starts with a Eustace and ends with a Scrubb.
    Everyone loves a rock star.

  2. i’ll pull a jules:
    cha·ris·ma
    A rare personal quality attributed to leaders who arouse fervent popular devotion and enthusiasm.
    Personal magnetism or charm.
    Lord help us all.
    suz.

  3. Man…I’m really close here… I’m a pretty fair writer, and my face isn’t too bad, considering the mileage it’s endured. Now all I gotta do is develop a snappy line of patter. How hard can that be? Yeah…that’ll do it… “I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille!”

  4. “Ignorant Critical Rube,” huh? Since you’ve not, as yet, had the occasion of rejecting any of my work, I’ll have to believe for the time being that you’re a great guy. :)
    I’m working my way through Robert McKee’s very excellent book, “Story,” in which he makes the following statement:
    “Given the choice between trivial material brilliantly told and profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly.”
    My question, in light of your very well stated point, is this: could it be that brilliant writers devoid of charisma fare far more poorly than average writers who simply drip with it?

  5. Well, I saw a pleasantly-smiling guy sitting at the ACFW conference in Denver, in his appointment room between appointments. He looked approachable–and sure enough, when I asked, “Do you have time for a pitch?” he welcomed me graciously and heard my pitch–and rejected my proposal, later, LOL, but that’s beside the point.
    Mick, you are approachable and kind, right off. That *is* charismatic.
    As for me, women who are too beautiful scare people away. I suppose the opposite applies as well. So, I like my face. It doesn’t scare anybody! : )

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