All In Print Is News That Fits
I am suddenly awash in questions, so let me jump in with a couple of recent requests…
1. Tina wants to know, "What steps would you say are important for an author to try and study the market? (I'm trying to match a project to a particular publisher, and I'm not sure how to go about doing that.)"
If you want to get to know the market, read frequently, and read outside your genre. If you're trying to target a particular publisher, by all means get their catalog or study their website, figure out which books they do well with, and read several of those titles. Study the bestseller lists (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, your local paper, etc) and take a close look at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. com to see what's working in the market. Make sure to pay close attention to who publishes the type of books you like to read, and who does a good job getting books onto the bestseller lists, since all publishers are not created equal. Stay on top of Publishers Weekly and the online Publishers Lunch (and, if you're interested in CBA, take a look at Christian Retailing Magazine) to find out the most recent news in the industry. Keep tabs on the economic climate in publishing and bookselling (right now it can be summed up: "stinko"). Many pubishers produce a style guide — ask for one and follow it carefully before submitting. And by all means talk to some people who know what they're doing, so that you don't get steered in the wrong direction.
You raise a good point: It's important to study a publisher before sending them a proposal. HarperOne may be a great place for your memoir, but it's a probably all wrong for your YA novel. Harvest House may love your gift book about dogs, but they're all wrong for that commentary on
Here’s What’s New in PublishingThere have been a number of fascinating things going on in publishing recently. Let me catch you up to date…1. In October, Esquire Magazine will feature something that's never been done before: an animated cover. Their 75th Anniversary issue, coming in October, will use 3-mm-thick e-paper (the same material used in Amazon's Kindle), and will have images that change and turn on and off. Think of this as a simplified version of the newspapers you saw in the Harry Potter movies. The data and batteries behind all this are actually baked into the paper, but they fully expect hackers to be able to get inside and reprogram the images. Fascinating stuff ahead for the world of publishing. Covers that shift and change. (I was even told the magazines will have to be delivered in refrigerated trucks. Interesting.)2. New York Magazine says that book publishing is dead. You can read it all for yourself at www.nymag.com/news/media/50279 — it's an interesting exploration of the current economics of publishing.3. It looks more and more like Borders could be in serious trouble. They picked a bad time to re-finance, and it looks like they may have to sell the company after all. That's a bummer. Borders is a wonderful company to those of us who work with books and words. As an author, you want them to remain in business.4. Google has announced they are (finally) making their book previews and searches available to data bases everywhere. And Random House is participating (surprise!). After all the talk of lawsuits and warfare, it looks like publishers are beginning to see the potential benefit of this type of arrangement.5. One of the most important, but under-reported, publishing stories of this year has been the behavior of some publishers over Sherry Jones' novel, The Jewel of Medina. In case you don't know, it's the story of Ashia,
I’ll miss you, Swick
Celebration of Life for “Swick”
Saturday – October 4th at 2:00 pm
Mike Swickard passed away after his long battle with cancer, at age 54. A celebration of Swick’s life will be held on Saturday, October 4th at Community of Hope Church in Wilsonville. The memorial service will begin at 2:00 pm.
In honor of Swick, uncover those hot rods and join us for a memorial “cruise in.” To honor Swick’s love for cars, please dust off those hot rods and join us for a cruise in car show in the church parking lot. Pray for sun!
Since many people are about to board a plane for a huge fiction-writing conference, let me continue in that vein… Some people have written to ask about creating strong characters in their fiction. If you're going to establish strong characters, the best things you can do are to give them dialogue that demonstrates who they are and give them something to do. Don't feel like you have to spend a lot of time describing your characters (unless there is some unique reason for doing so, like they are seven feet tall or they have a tattoo of Ohio on their forehead). Often writers will offer one descriptive fact, as sort of an advance organizer. But don't bother describing everything about their history, physical description, dental records, etc. And, of course, to create a great character I think you have to have somebody in mind — a real person, whom you've met and found interesting, and who you can talk about from your experience… not just some mystery individual you created in your head.
With that as an introduction, let me offer six tips for keeping readers talking to your characters…
1. History is made by big people. Big personalities, big dreams, big ideas. However, most stories need more conflict than "the big guy doesn't get what he wants." Interesting stories are often made by small, weak people. So give your characters (even your big characters) some weakness and you'll discover the readers can relate to them.
2. At the same time, page-turning novels are stories about special days, not ordinary days. So take that small, weak character, put him or her into an extraordinary circumstance. Kurt Vonnegut once said the best thing you can do in a novel is to create wonderful people and have the most awful things happen to them. He was right. So get the character to act big and strong after showing they are not
Advice for Novelists
Since many of us are heading off to the great ACFW conference in order to rub shoulders with novelists, I should probably take on a "novel writing" question. Somebody wrote to me and asked, "As a first-time novelist, what advice can you give me to create a great, page-turning novel?"
My reply: Dialogue and action. That won't necessarily make for the deepest, or most thoughtful, or the most life-changing sort of book, but it will make your book a page-turner. A high sense of drama is necessary, of course. So is telling an interesting story at a brisk pace. (Whoever read a slow, rambling thriller?) Unresolved conflicts help. So do plot twists, and fascinating characters, or characters I like who are placed in tense situations. But if you stick to dialogue and action, you'll make your book more of a page-turner.
This leads to the age-old writing question about plot vs character, I suppose. When it comes to page-turners, I think the plot takes precedence. The action and situations dominate the nuances of character in a thriller or suspense novel. People in publishing have a saying: "Editors love characters. Readers love plots." That's a nice way for highbrows to basically tell you "deep thinkers love interesting characters in their novels, so if you focus on plot you're probably shallow." I've never really agreed with that assessment — in my view, everybody loves an interesting character…but it's the action that gets me turning pages in order to find out what happens next.
Years ago, in an interview in Saturday Review, novelist Elmore Leonard was asked what made his novels so successful. Here is a guy who has written at least a dozen bestsellers, and has kept up his success for a couple decades, so I was really focused on his answer. It was brilliant in its simplicity: "I tend to leave out the parts people skip."
That's great writing advice.
Ben wants to know, "Are there any genres that are hot right now? If a new writer is trying to break into the market, is there any merit to ignoring the type of books he or she would normally like to write, and focusing on books that are in a hot genre, in hopes of being more likely to get published?"
Sure, there are genres that are hot right now. In Christian fiction, it seems like all you have to do is to put an Amish person on the cover of the novel and it will sell. In general market circles, there seems to be a huge growth in vampires (also Obama, Sarah Palin, Batman, and Eckhart Tolle). And that goes to show the silliness (in my view) of chasing trends. I suppose you could try writing a book in which Eckhart Tolle becomes a vampire and attacks Sarah Palin, who tried to escape the media attacks on her family by fleeing with Obama to an Amish community, where they are saved by Batman, but… I don't know. The idea of Obama becoming Amish seems far-fetched.
I rarely see authors achieve success by chasing the market, Ben. It always seems that by the time we've all recognized a trend, it's too late to contract another book on the subject. That may not always prove true (certainly there are plenty of Christian novelists who have sold books based on little more than having an Amish setting), but as a rule, I don't see authors breaking out with this sort of thinking.
Carolyn wants to know, "How does a writer find out how many copies of a book sold? Someone told me recently that an author had sold 'millions of books.' How can I find out for sure?"
It's hard to get a firm number. If you have a connection to the author, you can ask him or her. If you have
Talking Agents and Agenting
Here's how this blog works: You send in publishing questions, and I give you a straightforward answer. Nearly all of the recent questions relate to agents…
Rita wrote to ask, "I've been offered a contract on my novel… When an author is offered a deal and they don't yet have an agent, should they seek one at that point? And if an agent accepts, should the agent still get 15% of the royalties, even though he or she didn't market that book or secure the deal for them?"
Ten agents might give you ten different answers to this, Rita. Here's mine: Unless you know publishing, contracts, negotiations, and what's considered standard in the industry, you'd probably benefit from having an agent. So yes, I'd seek out an agent to help you, in most cases. However, I wouldn't feel right about taking the full 15% commission unless I somehow improved the deal for you. If I didn't sell it or find you the deal, it would seem unfair for me to take a full commission. Not every agent agrees with that perspective, so be aware as you talk to people.
Julie wrote regarding a related question: "If I already have an offer from a publisher, will an agent negotiate the contract for a fee?"
Negotiate it for a fee? No. But some will do a contract reading or contract evaluation for you for a fee. Or you could pay a lawyer to review the contract and make notes (be prepared to pay a good sum of money), OR you could pay someone who specializes in contract evaluations to look it over and make suggestions. When someone does an evaluation, they go through the contract, mark it up, tell you what's fair, and suggest things you can ask for in order to improve the deal. But that requires you to actually do some negotiation — so if you're really not comfortable negotiating,
Kristy and Karen and Mike
When my son Colin was about five years old, we took him to the Rose Parade in Portland. He got one of those helium balloons that have a Mickey Mouse head inside a second, larger balloon. Colin loved it, and enjoyed bouncing it around the car and the house, but then we walked outside, he let go, and… off it sailed into the Northwest sky, lost to the winds.
We talked about it a little bit. I didn’t scold him. Accidents happen. He was sad, and crying a bit, and upset that he’d done something so silly as to let go of the string. "Papa," he said to me (for he has always called me Papa), "when I grow up, I’m going to have a job where I go around and collect all the lost balloons, and take them back to the kids who lost them."
I don’t tell many "little children" stories — too much W.C. Fields in me, believing that children and dogs should be offered in small doses. But today I’d love to be five years old again, with dreams of doing something great for people; something big and nice and sweet, without being held back by an adult explaining why you can’t do it. Here’s why…
A month ago, my friend Krisy Dykes died of a brain tumor. Kristy was a writer, and a very nice person, always opening her emails with the same words: "Greetings from sunny Florida!" Late in her career, she called me and asked if I could help her. As it turns out, I couldn’t. Not very much, anyway. But I always appreciated her positive, joyful spirit, and her willingness to be an ambassador for Christian writing.
Then last night, I got a call from someone. An author I represent, Karen Harter, is in the hospital suffering with the late stages of cancer. They don’t expect her to last more than another
The Christian Book Expo
Next spring, everything about the marketing and selling of Christian books is going to change. The ECPA (Evangelical Christian Publishers Association) is going to host the Christian Book Expo in Dallas, March 20-22. Modeled after the very successful Guadalajara Book Fair and the Los Angeles Festival of Books, I think this is going to be the next big thing for Christian publishing.
Why? Because of the direction the organizers are taking. Instead of being focused on retailers, the focus of this show is going to be on authors and content. The public will be invited, and the whole idea is to expose readers to authors and their work. Think about this: there are going to be 180 workshops at the Expo. They are planning readings, and performances, and dozens of speakers. There are going to be mini-events where authors discuss contemporary and theological issues. There will be activities for families, and an entire area dedicated just to children’s books. They are planning 11 different panels, with world-class participants, to explore what the authors have to say about today’s significant social issues. (The panels are going to be sponsored by Christianity Today.) And they’re expecting major media, the participation of every ECPA publisher, as well as most general market publishers who produce Christian books. I think this event is going to raise the awareness of Christian publishing in this country. Best of all, this will be a books only event, meaning all of us get to focus on authors and their works.
Here’s something that might surprise you: The Guadalajara Book Fair attracted 525,000 people last year. The LA Festival had 140,000 attendees earlier this year. The fact is, people are still interested in books. And since last year was the biggest year ever for selling religious books, it’s fair to say that people care about Christian books (even if CBA and their retailers convention is struggling to survive). So
The Future of CBA and ICRS
I’ve had a bunch 0f questions about the future direction of publishing, especially the future of CBA (the Christian Booksellers Association). Let me try to tackle some of the questions that have been posed to me or posted in the "comments" section…
Carol asked, "How is the much-touted Christian Book Expo different from the current ICRS?"
ICRS (the International Christian Retailing Show) is a collection of everyone who sells into religious stores. It includes jewelry companies, art distributors, t-shirt and tie manufacturers, card companies, music and entertainment corporations, and all the wacky stuff from Testamints to Gospel Golf Balls. There’s a sense that the show has lost its momentum. Next March, the ECPA (Evangelical Christian Publishers Association) will host the Christian Book Expo in Dallas. Many are viewing it as an alternative to ICRS. The focus will solely be on books, it will be open to the public, and they are hoping t0 line up major media for the authors at the show.
I have long advocated Christian publishers focus on BEA (the annual general-market book show) by sending editors, setting up media, and asking the folks who run it to put all the religious publishers in one location. But BEA just doesn’t thrill the old CBA crowd. Too expensive, too much competition, and too much liberal nuttiness to make Christian publishers comfortable. (They all attend, but it’s more of a sales show, so they don’t bring many authors or editors.) Will the new Christian Book Expo work? Beats me. But when your current plan isn’t working, you need to try something else. One of the weakest aspects of ICRS this year was the lack of media, so the ECPA types have decided to focus on a Bible-belt city, try to draw commercial crowds, and make it a "happening" that will attract TV/radio/print people. I’ll be hoping for the best.
Another person asked, "Will the new ECPA show make up