Chip MacGregor

July 26, 2008

The Leftovers from ICRS


There are a handful of leftover things happening in the world of publishing that should be mentioned. In no particular order…

1. The Christy Salon: In case you didn’t hear, at this years’ Christy Awards (given for the best religious fiction), they featured a "salon" — a discussion of experienced people talking about the history and future of Christian novels. It was an interesting discussion, with Dave Lambert of Simon & Schuster, Karen Ball of B&H, and Carol Johnson of Bethany House (who was also given a lifetime achievement award at this dinner for her 20+ years in the industry). The most interesting part of the salon was the talk about the books that have shaped contemporary Christian fiction. Once you got past Grace Livingston Hill and Catherine Marshall (the Christies are named for her novel), the panel suggested these books have had the most influence: Jeanette Oke’s Love Comes Softly, Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness, Bodie Thoene’s Gates of Zion, Jan Karon’s Mitford books, Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love, and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind. It was pointed out that each of these books broke the mold. Each was different from the current popular reads, and each had a publisher who believed in them and worked to promote them. Interesting to think about in our "me-too" world of writing.

2. The Man We All Must Thank: I was glad to hear people in several venues say nice things about Jerry Jenkins. The fact is, we all know Left Behind doesn’t qualify as "great literature," but Jerry’s books hit at the right time, changed Christian fiction, and opened up the rest of the world to the whole notion of religious books. Borders, Books-a-Million, and Barnes & Noble used to have one shelf devoted to religious fiction. Now they have an entire aisle. The New York Times used to not count Christian books when compiling their bestseller list — but they couldn’t ignore the millions of copies Left Behind sold. I was working as an agent at Alive Communications at the time, and we represented that series (don’t get me wrong — I had nothing to do with the success… Rick Christian helped make this one successful; I just worked there). I got to see it all happen first hand. Suddenly Christian fiction was a real part of the publishing world. The Left Behind series largely led to Time-Warner, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and Random House moving into the CBA. It opened up doors for hundreds of writers. So while someone can criticize the books, we all should send a note of thanks to the guy most responsible for kicking the door open. Thanks, Jerry.

3. More Good People: As long as I’m mentioning my old stomping grounds at Alive, there’s a great story with another agent who works there… About six years ago, I remember Lee Hough (pronounced "huff") walking into one of our weekly meetings and telling us he’d found this great book. It was the true story of a white art dealer in Houston who had befriended an African-American homeless guy who had formerly lived as a modern-day slave. The story was good, but it needed a great writer on the project. We brought in Lynn Vincent, who is a reporter with World Magazine, and she crafted a strong proposal. Lee worked on that project for years. Everybody rejected it. It didn’t fit any genre. It was a personal story. It was sort of an odd memoir. The whole thing was too difficult for anyone to get excited about. But Lee, to his credit, believed in the book and kept badgering publishers about it. Really, it’s remarkable, since an agent is only paid when he or she actually sells something — so Lee was hammering away at this book that nobody wanted, and he kept at it when it was clear he wasn’t going to make a dime on it. Finally, after several years of trying, he convinced Thomas Nelson to take a crack at it. I tell this story because the August bestseller list just came out, and guess who is #3? Same Kind of Different As Me: A Modern-Day Slave, An International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman who Bound Them Together. A tribute to hard work. Way to go, Lee.

4. The Kindle: Amazon reported that a significant portion of ALL their sales are now digital downloads for the Kindle (their electronic book reader). I asked around at the book show, and I’d say people were split at to which they liked better — the Kindle (a better screen and easier to use) or the Sony e-Reader (has more applications and doesn’t feel as cheap). But the amazing thing is that everybody in the industry seems to be getting one. And that’s leading to a problem… What will publishers pay authors for digitally downloaded books? Amazon is currently selling all Kindle titles at $9.99, which doesn’t exactly leave a lot of money for authors. At the same time, there’s almost no cost after the intial investment — once the book is edited and designed, there is no ink, paper, or binding costs with a digital book. There’s no shipping. There’s no packaging. They press a button and POOF — it’s in your reader using cel-phone technology. Mark my words: This is shaping up to be the next big fight between agents and publishers. Authors have to make a living. Publishers have to turn a profit. With books at ten bucks a pop, there’s not much wiggle room.

5. The Kindle Oops: One strange thing happened with NavPress… they discovered that all their books were suddenly available on the Kindle, even though they hadn’t negotiated those rights yet. Oops. Turns out the folks at Amazon had accidentally taken everything that offered the "search inside" feature and made it available for the e-reader. Back to the negotiation table!

6. The Future of ICRS: is looking grim. Word is that several publishers have already decided to pull out of next summer’s show, opting instead to participate in the ECPA book show in Dallas next March. ICRS is too expensive, doesn’t lead to enough sales, and doesn’t get the media it used to. I can’t see most of the publishing houses choosing to attend both the ECPA and the ICRS. I would assume the Christian Book Awards (formerly the "Gold Medallion") which is sponsored by ECPA will move to the new show. And there’s a rumor that the Chi Libris group (for novelists) will be aligning with the new show. That would probably mean the Christy Awards would move as well. So… what’s left for ICRS? There are permanent gift shows for the Jesus Junk types to display at. I’m still predicting they’ll go one more year before they close it down, but it’s not looking good. (And I take no joy in saying that. I’ve loved attending the CBA convention for the past 15 years.) The toughest choices will be faced by the mid-level publishers who have deep roots in CBA — do they stay with the organization out of loyalty? Will enough independent bookstore owners show up at the new show to make it worth their while to attend? A hard call. This could hurt some of the smaller publishing houses.

7. Sad News: On July 21, novelist Kristy Dykes passed away. She had been diagnosed with a brain tumor last fall, and had written her way through her disease by turning her blog into a public journal of the experience. Her words touched many lives over the past few months as she’s walked through it. Our prayers are with her husband Milton and her family.

It’ll be back to publishing questions next time — if there’s something you’d like to ask about books and publishing, send it along and we’ll try to answer it.

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