Tag Archives: Christian publishing

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!

Answering Cross-Market Questions

Welcome spiritually-curious readers and writers. If you have questions about the audience of The Shack or wonder about the best ways to reach this nebulous psychographic of readers, you're in the right place.

 

Ready to look at our burning questions from last time?

 

Q: Why are these [spiritually-interested] books without a clear goal or “take-away” so vastly superior for this audience?

 

This is an answer you need when it comes time to pitch your book. Bottom line: the experience of these books IS the take-away. The story is the appeal. Fiction and non-, the point is in the journey, not the goal or destination. This means the emphasis is on allowing the entire progression of the narrative to “teach” the message, and not offering the usual didactic, message-driven approach propped up by illustrations or manipulated scenes in a novel. Authors of these books start at a different place, often intending to discover alongside the reader, not to design a coersive read. Largely, these are writers seeking after mystery and beauty, not answers or reassurance.

 

Q: What's the best way to prove I can reach these readers?

 

By doing it. Reaching this audience absolutely requires a satisfying read like the one I just described. Whether that’s self-help, memoir, fiction, or investigative journalism, you have to get people talking about the amazing and unique experience your book is. And that writing skill goes hand-in-hand with your skill in marketing. The shift toward more author-driven marketing is strong proof of our increased desire to hear an authentic individual’s story as opposed to the familiar hard-sell coersion tactics of ad campaigns and publicity spin-doctors. You either embrace this new-world thinking and feel passionately about it, or you don’t. As I always point out to potential authors, if you’re onto something and you know it, it’s just a matter of time before others know it too. Ultimately, your marketing should be an extension of your passionate search in your writing. How you prove that is by being an authentically passionate connector (We’ll get more specific about this in next week’s post).

 

Q: Should I just self-publish my spiritually-interested book?

 

Good question. It follows a more important one: Do I have one book or several? If you are a career writer, you need to put in the time to your craft and learning the business to find a partner you feel best understands you and serves your ambition level. If you have one book or one burning story within you, it might be best to look outside of professional publishing. I make this distinction when it comes to spiritually-interested books because few writers can (or want to) write several. Staying in a perpetual state of searching is hard to keep up (ask Don Miller). There’s something of a life-stage consideration here—an age where self-awareness and spiritual evaluation is where you are, and a possibly more spiritually-mature stage where you are more decided in your outlook. Your comfort with mystery vs. assurance may change over time and that’s normal. Another reason is producing your book on your own can actually be a benefit in reaching this audience since you aren’t affiliated with any established, traditional house and won’t have to cater to them or compromise to fit their assumptions about the audience. Smart readers like yours are very aware of that dynamic and actually like the idea of an undiluted read (The Shack as exhibit A here again).

 

Q: Are some publishers and retailers really actively seeking these books?

 

Absolutely. In fact, I’m not sure you can find an adult general trade publisher in Christian or general market who wouldn’t be open to looking at a book for the spiritually-interested audience. All will have their own particular flavors and assumptions, but again, self-publishing is a great way to prove you have an audience and can connect with them before attempting to find a publishing partner. Of course, you need to consider how well a potential Christian publisher partner is able to reach the general market, because the place these readers are generally not is Christian bookstores or the Christian shelves at Barnes and Noble. If you see yourself next to John Eldredge and Bruce Wilkinson, you might want to reconsider your approach.

 

As always, your questions, comments and complaints are welcome and appreciated. Next time we’ll talk about what you can specifically do to find readers and build a following. Until then, don’t sweat any of this–and keep writing!

Doubleday Religion joins WaterBrook Multnomah

The announcement was made today that the religious publishing team of
Doubleday Broadway will be consolidating under the newly-termed Doubleday Religious Publishing Group, joining with WaterBrook
Multnomah under president, Steve Cobb. The majority of the change is in reporting structure, and day-to-day business will continue as normal, as well as the distinctive visions and acquisition strategies of each individual line. Yet as Doubleday publisher Steve Rubin pointed out in a company memo today,
this is a first in the industry, encompassing "the full array of Judeo-Christian traditions."

Most exciting to me about the reorganization are the
new areas it will open up for our so-called "religious" books to reach a broader audience. In fact, one could argue that Christian authors should be very encouraged by this sign: the opportunities for excellent writing to gain a wider cultural recognition have never been greater. So for all of us who share the concern about Christian books being unfairly limited, you can add your cheer to the chorus.

I’ll keep you posted. Keep that hope alive.

Depicting life vs. Sanitizing

Lauren Winner on alcohol in Christian books:

"…the increasing willingness of Christian publishers to show casual imbibing may be another step in the direction of depicting, rather than sanitizing, ordinary American life."

I love the way Lauren says this, distilling the distinction (so to speak). "Depicting rather than sanitizing." If art reflects life, isn’t including real depictions of ordinary American life in Christian books a worthwhile goal? Can Christian books honestly portray the tension we all feel living, working, and writing in the real world? What is the difference between depicting evil and glorifying it–and is there a right answer for everyone or is it up to the individual?

A famous former Pharisee once said all things are lawful for those covered by grace. All things. Does that give us a license to kill? Of course not. But for those who know grace, the law is no longer our measuring stick. We now consider which things are beneficial, which things build up, which things educate, enlighten, and bring deeper appreciation of God and his work.

There can be no right or wrong about truthful depictions of ordinary American life. The law does not apply. The question every grace-covered reader must ask is, does this truthful depiction benefit me and my view of the world and God? (And if it isn’t a truthful depiction, should I be reading it?) It’s no good to blame the creator for his accurate depiction of life. If we fail to grasp Paul’s distinction here, we pay artists a huge disservice.

No Christian book should portray the decision to drink as anything other than a personal value judgment. But in accurately depicting American life, non-drinkers must accept that alcohol exists in the world and is therefore within the purview of all our lives, whether we like it or not. We can’t hide from it; it will influence us anyway. And what good would hiding from alcohol do for those locked in its grip? I would argue that many of the books Winner refers to here would do little to change the law-based restrictions placed on Christian books if they didn’t depict the consequences of a predisposition to alcoholism. Casual drinking by responsible adults doesn’t accurately reflect the damage alcohol has caused to countless lives–and again, the truth is, we’re all affected. I greatly appreciated Lisa Samson’s novel, Straight Up for this reason (among others). Books like hers do a lot to educate readers while entertaining.

The familiar complaints about slipping standards in Christian publishing will continue to come in. But I’m trying to welcome them and agree with Lauren: there is hope on the horizon. We may well continue to see the standard in Christian publishing shifting from "clean" to "true."

We the People (In and) Of the Book

Happy belated 4th of July! Hope you had a good one. My own family celebrated in style, on our butts, transfixed by the kaleidoscope of imported explosive devices that screamed and flashed and with any luck, helped to feed many underprivileged Chinese families for another few months. But sitting there, pondering the freedom we so often take for granted in this country, it got me thinking about our role as the privileged recipients of liberty and what specifically we should be doing as participants in and contributors to this Christian book industry. Sure, it seems like a bit of a jump from the House of Congress in 1776 to the trade show floor at the first CBA convention in 1950, but if you look hard, there are similarities.

 

Today, there are all sorts of abuses of our liberty that undermine the original rewards our progenitors won for us. It’s the natural order for systems to decline—governments and industies alike. In CBA today we see artifice being rewarded and books being judged by their covers. Polished stage manner will get you much further with publishers than a well-written sample, and well-known speakers outsell little-known geniuses.

 

But those little realities are no big offense in the end. That’s just the world system. Sure But looking closer, you realize how strange it is for Christian authors to be forced to become public figures who claim Christ as Lord and Savior in one breath and ensure a massively appealing, calculated brand image in the next. In scripture we’re told things like, “Man looks upon the outward things, but God looks upon the heart.” “Do not be concerned with the things of this earth, but set your mind on the things above.” “Blessed are the poor for they will inherit the kingdom.” Jesus denounced the idea of seeking man’s approval and surely creating a personal (self-focused) public image is dangerous work. And I’m still every bit as concerned by the apparent complicity of our Christian book industry–from authors to editors to publishers to sellers to bookstores to buyers to readers—in promoting the very values of the world system which God himself says he detests. We claim, “Valuable!” and God sits up on his throne and shakes his holy head. Sure, we’re only human. And sure, the system is designed to allow us to absolve ourselves of all blame (“That’s what the buyers want.”/“That’s what other publishers are producing.”). But in fact, I’m afraid—terrified—of what this will mean for us as participants in and contributors to this industry.

 

It makes me wonder where we’re headed. If we’re responsible for our country as members of it, we’re certainly responsible as Christian book readers, writers, and editors. The commodification of Christianity currently taking place in our free country encourages it more every day. Christian products sell to the tune of $4 billion per year, and many of them, by promising a better life and favor with God and happiness of a kinds and all assortment of unbelievable things if you’ll just pray a prayer / read your Bible / go to church / believe and recite the words that unlock the secrets. It’s all to give Christians something worthwhile to spend their money on, but some of it seems pretty far from what Jesus intended.

 

Our country was founded on the principles of freedom and liberty of all to practice whatever ideas about business and religion they might choose. We can mix them and mash them all we like because that is our right as citizens of America. And we may not have to answer in this lifetime for our participation in the less than honorable elements of this industry. But I'm very grateful for those who agree with me that the price of my eternal freedom is no match for this world’s cheap copy.

 

Anyway, fireworks are illegal in my city, but that didn’t stop our entire neighborhood from calling a civil mutiny to light off hundreds of noisy rockets to honor our freedom from oppression of all kinds. Including our own laws. That probably says something about our relative respect for these sorts of thoughts. But it was still a pretty sweet show.