Steve Oates is the VP of Marketing for Bethany House Publishers. Recently, after I had blogged about the significant changes we’ve seen in Christian fiction, he contacted me with some thoughts. I invited him to send me a blog post to use — and here is his initial response…
Hardly a week goes by without another announcement from someone that they are getting out of the Christian fiction market, or another retailer is going out of business or shutting down. So, is it time for all of us working in Christian fiction to quit and find something else to do?
Before we all leave town, let’s check on the data and see what we can actually know about this market. I recently did the second year of a study of what is selling in all markets under the Christian and Amish fiction categories as reported by Bookscan (these are the data folks behind the ECPA bestseller lists). What I found is surprising: While there is a lot of upheaval in what is selling, what is remarkable is that both unit and dollar sales of fiction actually rose slightly from 2016 to 2017. And we are not talking digital here, this is just print, and just in the trade paperback and hardcover formats.
So if sales are growing rather than declining, why so much pain in the market? The pain is real, and there is consolidation taking place. What we are seeing is a migration in the market out of the “C” level books that is going into the “B” level books. By this I mean a movement out of the bottom tier (based on sales of less than 7,500 copies) in to the next tier — let’s say books that sell in the 7,500 to 15,000 range. The shrinking shelf space has harmed stocking of these lower-potential books, stores simply can’t put them all out there, and their marketing
So if you could sit down at Starbucks with a literary agent, and ask him any question you wanted, what would you ask? I’m taking a few months to let writers ask those questions they’ve always wanted to talk over with an agent…
Does being a self-published author with several books help or hurt your chances of getting an agent to read something?
If the books are well written and have a good track record of sales, that will improve your chances. If the books are poorly done, or if you can’t show that you’ve sold many copies (or worse, the Amazon numbers reveal you haven’t sold many books), it will hurt your chances. I guess that’s not a surprise to you. But understand that indie-pubbed books don’t disqualify you from landing an agent, nor does having a printed book you did on CreateSpace help your cause very much. An agent is going to be looking for a great idea, expressed through great writing, from an author with a great platform who has a strong track record of sales.
What advice would you give a first-time author? I’ve been trying to network, but not sure what else to do.
Know your audience. Take charge of your marketing. Have goals. Talk with someone who really knows how to market. Go to everyone you know. Do everything the publisher asks you to do. Research where your likely readers are online — maybe make a list of the top 100 sites your potential readers are gathering — then find ways to get onto those sites and get your name and book title in front of those readers. Learn to talk about your story in a way that’s interesting, and find venues to do that. Solicit reviews. Use the Amazon tools. Figure out some strategies you are comfortable with, and which you think will be effective, then do them. Don’t expect miracles. Don’t give
As I write this, it’s Mother’s Day, and I happen to have been born on Mother’s Day oh those many decades ago. I’m home, my mom is long gone, and I realized writers have been sending in a LOT of questions, so I thought I should take a Sunday afternoon and try to do a bunch of them, in order to catch up on the pile a bit. Again, all this month we’re inviting authors to send the question they’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent, if only they could be face to face. Here are some that have come in recently…
I know many agents are looking for an author to have a big “platform.” How do you define a platform. And what does a big platform look like to you?
A platform is a number. Do 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, more people you have the potential to reach out to, 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
All last month I was 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? I’d like to continue down that path for another month. 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 manuscript, 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 novelists 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. Does that help?
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 with strong female leads
I’ve been taking the month of April and asking readers to send in their specific questions of literary agent. So if you could have lunch with an agent, sit down face to face and talk, what would you ask? Here are some of the questions that have come in…
Recently a publisher stated that he thinks an author ought to plow some of their advance back into marketing — which upset me, since it seems wrong-headed to expect authors to bear the financial burden of book promotion. Why pick on the weakest financial link in the chain? Am I hopelessly naive? Or is that the new normal?
I saw that interview, and I’m of two minds. First, I agree that every author needs to throw himself or herself into their own book. Let’s face it, NOBODY has more at stake in a book than the author. Nobody knows the story better. Nobody has spent more time on it. Nobody is counting on the the success more than the author. So I understand a publisher trying to encourage an author to go “all in” on marketing. But second, I think it’s crazy for a publisher, who is hopeful for the book to do well but not completely tied to its success (because the publisher has other books to sell), to say, “The author ought to take his advance check and use that money to pay an outside publicist.” Um, maybe there are times where that’s exactly what needs to happen. But it comes across as out of touch and unrealistic, since most authors are trying to live on advances. I mean, I could just as easily say to a publisher, “If you want to be more successful, you need to reinvest your paycheck into training your people.” So no, this is not the new normal. I do think publishers are expecting more out of authors when it comes to marketing these
Okay, so I’ve been 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? 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. 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’re all facing 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?
I’m spending the month answering questions authors say they would ask if they could sit down and have a conversation with me. I’ll be doing this the entire month of April, and I’m trying to get to all the questions that get sent in.
Can I query an agent if I’ve posted one or more chapters of my book online?
It depends on the agent, but with MacGregor Literary (and with many other agencies) YES we would look at a book that has been posted online. That’s one of the things that has changed over the past couple of years.
When an agent receives a standard commission, does it all stay with the agent or is it split with the agency?
If the agent works for a medium-sized agency, then yes, that commission is going to be split. Part of it will be paid to the agent, and part will remain with the agency. If the agent works for a large agency where he or she is paid a salary, the commission goes to the agency, but a bonus will probably be paid at the end of the year, depending on the size of the deal. Of course, at a small agency, the agent is probably keeping the bulk of the commission.
How might I find the most appropriate agents to query? The usual advice seems to be to read agent blogs and websites, read the Guide to Literary Agents, and comb the acknowledgements in books by comparable writers. I’ve done a good deal of that. The problem: By vocation I’m an academic. I write non-fiction for a non-academic readership. Most people in my line of work write for other scholars and don’t have agents, and I haven’t been finding people like me on agency lists of authors — though my search has not been exhaustive. Like most of my colleagues, I sold my first book without an agent. Now
Okay, so if you could sit down to a meal 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. Here are some of the questions I’ve received…
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?
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, because 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, Hungary, New Zealand, and Austrlia, so I’m familiar with the expectations.) 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 the Clintons, when most Americans tend to be exceedingly tired of them), 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
So this month we’re going to let you ask whatever you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent. You send me the questions (or send them to me on Facebook, or stick them in the “comments” section), and I’ll try to answer them, or get another agent to answer them. First up, some questions that came in last month…
Suppose you have a character in your novel that would be perfect for a particular actor. Should you tell your agent about it and let them handle it?
You could… but it probably won’t get very far. It’s rare that a project gets pitched to an actor in a role, unless it’s a major author with clout. (So, for example, if you had a role that was perfect for Leonardo DiCaprio, you could try and talk with his agent. Um, and you would be author #5962 who has the “perfect” role for him.)
If I have an agent, then decide to write a self-pubbed novel, how can I include my agent in the process?
This is one of the things happening in publishing these days that is still in process, so there’s no one right answer for every situation. You could ask your agent to help you with it — the editing, the copyediting, the formatting, the uploading, the cover, etc., then pay a percentage as a commission. OR you could see if your friends are producing a line of books, make it part of that line, and pay a certain commission to him or her. (For example, we helped our authors create a co-op line of clean romances.) OR you could do it all yourself and not pay the agent anything. OR you could do it yourself, but work with your agent to help with things like marketing and selling, and pay a commission.
I am brand new to the industry, and delving into the potential of writing fiction. So
A guest blog by novelist Elizabeth Musser
I’m home now. After almost twenty-five years on this writing journey, I’ve finally found my way home.
I certainly don’t mean I’ve found my permanent publishing house. I’ve had four different American publishers and four different international publishers along the way, and the book I just launched was my first indie novel.
I don’t mean I’ve finally settled into the perfect routine, finding the way to balance my 30+ year career in missions with my calling as a writer. I still juggle, after all these years.
Nor do I mean that I’ve become a savvy marketing-social-media-writing genius.
What I mean is simply I’ve come home to accept that my writing life will always be on a roller-coaster.
And boy, am I thankful to have an agent who rides that roller coaster with me.
A little over ten years ago, I met Chip at a writers’ conference. I took his Professional Writers track and greatly appreciated the advice he offered. Chip was just starting MacGregor Literary, and because of my blockbuster sales on my already-published novels, begged me to let him be my agent…
Ahem. Okay, it wasn’t exactly like that.
I was looking for an agent, but I wasn’t sure I needed an agent. I had four published novels, a contract for two more novels, and I had been working with the same acquisitions editor and substantive editor for ten years.
Didn’t I have it made?
I knew very few people in the American book industry, and I lived in France, so I wasn’t meeting many other professionals on a regular basis.
AND (foreboding music) the publishing world was changing!
So Chip took me on, fully aware that he wouldn’t even get to negotiate a contract with me for a while.
Fast forward to the present. Did I need an agent? The answer is a resounding YES in the midst of this