f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 02/01/2005 - 03/01/2005

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Blink – Expert Opinion

The last section I’m going to talk about in our conversation on Blink is Malcolm Gladwell’s take on how the first impression of an expert is very different from the first impression of the rest of us.

His examples in this chapter are fairly wide ranging involving everything from eclectic music to Pepsi vs. Coke. The larger question for debate is when do we listen to the “experts” and when do we listen to the “masses.”

The conversation strikes close to home because in his description of an “unknown” musician who wowed countless industry insiders but failed to ever gain widespread appeal because radio market testing on his songs was weak, I think we see a mirror image of the publishing world. Time after time, books that editors love and critics love will fail to gain “popular” success. You’ve heard my song and dance on that one.

Gladwell’s point is fairly obscure here because, in the end, enjoyment of music is so subjective. The artist who wowed people, often did so in person. But his songs seemed not to translate to recorded listening as well. I admit to tracking this dude down online and listening myself. I, apparently, am one of the great unwashed masses when it comes to Kenna, because the music did little for me.

Gladwell’s other point involves an interesting retelling of the genesis of New Coke and the world of taste. He interviews two “expert” tasters and in the book, and essentially the take home message is that these people taste differently than you and I.

This isn’t Gladwell’s strongest chapter because I think he’s talking about something other than “first impressions.” I think he’s talking about the notion of complexity…which is a theory dear to my heart. So we’ll talk about that theory next week.

The question for publishing is “Who is the expert voice?” The easiest answer is me…mostly because I’m being paid to find books to publish. But I balk at the term a little. I bring some level of expertise, I hope, but expert sounds a bit too heady.

Instead, I like to think of our publisher as a whole standing in as the “expert.” The books we publish, we feel, are books worth reading—to at least some segment of the market. The combined understanding and opinions of the folks here take us, on average, to books with a better-than-average shot at succeeding.

I think this goes against the “too many chefs” principle many of us believe. But reading, like music, is too idiosyncratic to be left to only one opinion.

Tomorrow, links. Next week, complexity theory.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Blink – Speed Dating…for Editors

In Blink, one of the interesting findings involves “speed dating.” Do you know what this is? Essentially, singles get together and, in an organized fashion, spend 6 minutes talking to each member of the opposite gender. You rank everyone you meet, they rate you, and if you’re compatible the organizers will let you know.

What some psychologists found is that a person’s parameters for what they want in a date change when involved in speed dating.

For instance, a woman may say at the outset that she’s most interested in meeting someone smart, honorable, and successful. The men she ranks highest during her 6-minute dates, however, turn out to be funny, self-deprecating, and charming.

Because of this, the next day, asked what she wants in a date, she’s more likely to say, “funny, self-deprecating, and charming.” A week or two later, though, she’s back at smart, honorable, and successful.

This doesn’t mean the woman doesn’t know what she wants. Instead, it means that her parameters shift when forced to evaluate someone in a brief time. Funny translates well to 6 minutes. Honorable, not so much.

If you asked any editor to describe their ideal book, you’d get a variety of answers. I’ve spent over a year partially talking about what I’m looking for in a book. The fact is, that I’ve not yet acquired that ideal book. And yet I’ve acquired books I’ve been thrilled with.

The reason isn’t that I’m looking for the wrong thing. The reason is because when faced with actual manuscripts, my response isn’t based on whether a book is hitting each ideal point I’ve set up. Instead, I look at whether a book is working at some very fundamental levels. Is it unique? Does the writing flow? Is it a story that fits our publisher?

I think each editor has one major parameter on which a book must work.

For me (and I’m thinking of the books I’ve signed), I think that parameter is voice. The writing is strong, but it’s also strong in a way that creates, in my mind, a distinct and engaging voice. This can be first-person, third-person, whatever. But it’s like the difference between hearing something in mono, stereo, and dolby stereo. Everything is richer and more vibrant. That is the experience of reading I treasure and books that offer that to me are ones that gain my instant attention.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Blink – Rejected After Three Pages?

Some editors, when they are feeling snippy, will claim to know whether a book is publishable after three pages. They’re wrong, but it sounds imperious and impressive, doesn’t it? (We usually say it with a sneer and a cackle, too.)

My process is more like this:

Read ten or so pages. Ten pages is enough to tell whether the nuts-and-bolts writing is impressive enough for me to keep reading. Rare are the books that are written in cliché and weak language for fifteen pages that suddenly turn into Joseph Heller.

At this point, I will reject books based on their writing not meeting our standards. Many books I’ve seen from you guys make it past this stage.

The next step is to read another 50-60 pages. At this point, I’ve gained a feeling for your actual storytelling ability. Lots of people can write 25 pages of intriguing set-up and strong voice…only to have it go nowhere from page 26-60. This amount allows the book’s themes to be developed, the characters to emerge more, and most importantly, the book’s internal structure to emerge.

For me, this is where I reject the majority of the manuscripts that come to me. Many books become aimless. Many books lose their strong voice and become mundane. Many books devolve into expositional dialogue. Usually when I reject books at this stage, my comments are something like, “You’re writing is decent, but you’ve got to work on….”

Writers chafe a bit at this, I know. “You need to read the whole book to get the full experience. I write a wonderful conclusion.” Maybe so, but how many readers are going to bear with a boring story for 100 pages to get to the good part. 60 dull pages out of a 300 page manuscript is 20%. My feeling is that a manuscript from a first-time novelist needs to be 20% great, 70% good, and 10% less-than-good to be considered heavily by me. I don’t expect you to hand in perfection. But with these numbers you’re turning in twice as much wonderful stuff as bad stuff. And so it seems far more likely that we can fix the 10% and bump up a good portion of the 70% to “great.”

If I get past 75 pages or so, I usually try to make it through to the end. Books can still end up not working…for a variety of reasons. (Which is why I feel you need to finish the manuscript before trying to sell it to me.) Even so, the elements present are strong enough that I want to try and discover, specifically, where the writer’s weaknesses are. These writers tend to receive my most detailed feedback. Perhaps the story is salvageable. Even if not, the writer has proven herself to be perhaps only a step or two from turning in a workable manuscript and that’s someone I want to keep in touch with.

Books get rejected for lots of other reasons, too. Sometimes, I may find a book decent after 75 pages, but the direction it’s going simply doesn’t match what BHP wants to do. That’s hard to hear as an author, but all we can do is shrug and part ways. If there’s one thing I know about this business is that as a writer you NEED to be with a publisher who is EXCITED about your writing. That’s a must. Otherwise, the chances for your book achieving success are pretty slim. (Unless you have 35,000 relatives waiting to buy a copy.)

Another thing I want to say is that my rejections are never meant to be the death-knell for your writing career. I’m not Simon Cowell. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone to give up writing. I welcome hearing back from writers later in the future as they improve and mature and try new things.

Those early ten pages are critical though in making your story favorable in my mind. The best thing to do is have an acquisition editor wanting a story to be good. We’ll forgive things and read further. So be talented. Be innovative. Revise. Perfect. And let’s see what comes of it.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Blink – What First Impressions Mean in Publishing

So I’m reading Malcolm “Tipping Point” Gladwell’s Blink, his latest compulsively readable foray into the world of social and human behavior. In The Tipping Point, Gladwell tried to get behind the mechanics of word-of-mouth phenomenon. Blink meanwhile is a look at how our gut reaction controls our decisions and behavior a lot more than we might expect…sometimes to our benefit and sometimes to our detriment.

Gladwell is no practicing psychology Ph.D.—he doesn’t bury you in proof. Instead, he finds people and events that illustrate his principles. It’s entertaining reading, though I always feel I’m only getting about 30% of the story from Malcolm. Plenty though, I suppose, for cocktail party chatter…or a blog post.

Over the next few days I’ll draw a few applications from the book as related to the publishing world.

The first the to remember is simply that first impressions are incredibly important. You’ve heard this elsewhere, but how you present yourself and your work, the professionalism of your proposal, how informed you are—these factors all play a part in an editor’s viewpoint of you. This is especially true if you meet an editor at convention.

To me, these things while important, are still secondary to the more major issues—Can you write a novel? Many of you have submitted ideas and you may find me a little less rigorous than other houses.

I don’t expect full market write-ups or elegantly printed writing resumes.
I don’t want glamorous head-shots or twenty-nine ways you’re going to market yourself.
I don’t want eighteen page plot synopses.
I do want bribes deposited in a numbered off-shore account, but none of you seem to fall for that.

Instead, I just want your book.

Maybe I’ve not been at this long enough. Maybe at some point I’ll get jaded enough to realize that I’m looking mostly for a “consumable product” not just a book. But for the moment, I’m happy to read your pages and base my decision on the heart and soul of the industry—your story.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about something that’s mentioned frequently around publishing houses. Namely, that editors can typically tell within two-to-three pages if they’re going to reject something. Is this true? How? Why?

Friday, February 18, 2005

New Trend

Fridays are always the toughest day to write for me. So from now on I think I'm going to focus on outside links every Friday. There's a lot of stuff worth reading out there so we'll see how that works starting next week.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

No Need for a Magic 8-Ball

I think other genres give us the best indication of what will happen to Christian fiction. Going back to what I wrote on Tuesday I think our chances for achieving a sun-shiny #1 are incredibly slim. Most likely, we will slip comfortably into #2.

However, my bet is that every now and then there will be a book that will emerge from the CBA that brings the spotlight over for a fifteen or twenty minutes of fame.

That’s how it is in other genres, right?

Graphic novels and comics seem to be getting their moment in the sun. Marvel seems to churning out crappy movie after great movie after crappy movie. Big names like Frank Miller and Alan Moore are seeing their master-works readied for film. A few years back Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter sent readers scurrying to uncover other fantasy works…and found themselves faced with a century of writing to slog through.
Who knows what the next trend will be?

But it certainly can happen to Christian fiction. And certainly will. Some novel—Tim Downs’ Bug-Man or some midwest prairie heroine—will make it to the big screen in reputable fashion and magazine and newspapers will trip over themselves trying to learn about this crazy new genre. Something will flip a switch and we’ll bask/flop-sweat in the glory of bright lights. And then the next thing will emerge and we’ll go back to our corner sulking about how nobody pays attention to us.

The important thing, though, is to keep improving the products on the shelves so when the lights/camera/action comes we’re ready for our close-up, Mr. DeVille.

Worth Reading

Two posts, very different, but equally worth your time.

Lisa Samson - "humbling moments"

ragamuffin diva - "found in the city of god"

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Love Songs

One more music post.

On Valentine's Day our local public radio station played nothing but love songs for five hours starting at 7:00pm. Here's the playlist.

A few of my favs...

Jeff Buckley's rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
The Buzzcock's "Ever Fallen in Love"
Jayhawk's "All the Right Reasons"

I also liked Madalyn Peyroux's "Dance Me to the End of Love" which I'd never heard before.

Lots of great music.

Desperate for Approval

I sometimes get the feeling that writers spend more time and energy worrying about the people who DON’T like their books, than those who do.

Genre writers get in a tizzy because those “bastard-people” critics dismiss their writing. Literary writers mount their high-horse about how the unwashed masses simply don’t appreciate great writing. Everybody thinks that that if the other side would just TAKE THE TIME to READ THE BOOK rather than IGNORING IT OUT OF HAND, they’d enjoy it.

We are human. Since Day 1 we’ve longed for that which we can’t have. We covet. We think the grass is greener with a Pulitzer on the shelf. Or yearn for a NYTimes list when we have enough critical adulation to wallpaper a Cape Cod.

And us Christian writers…we just want to be treated like “normal” writers.

Some would turn this into a diatribe against the danger of seeking the world’s approval. Is it the approval that we’re seeking though or merely the “chance” to be judged according to our own merits, come what may? Are those the same thing? Is the mere fact that Christian books are lumped together further proof that Jesus is a stumbling block, a foul smell to those who don’t know him? Or is it proof that—collectively—we’re not such good writers and deserve each others’ company?

The biggest question is what do we get if, for whatever reason, ABA decides to treat CBA like any other book? Because that’s our “dream” isn’t it?

In the end, I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. Or I guess I know my answers but I don’t know if they are yours.

All I know is that I think we are called to a few things. I think we’re called to be excellent writers, honoring God in using our craft to His glory. I think we’re called to be honest writers, favoring Truth in its myriad of forms. I think we’re called to be humble writers, reflecting praise back to the One who gave it.

Whether that gets us a place on the front table or a place in the back corner, I think it’s fulfilling our part of the equation.

Springsteen

Many won't care, but I was stunned to hear news that Bruce Springsteen has a new album due out late April. Devils and Dust. And a new tour, too. I'm giddy.

And for those seeking a touch of inspiration today, linger over a few of his lyrics. He's more than just Born in the U.S.A..

My City of Ruins
Land of Hopes and Dreams
Badlands

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Which Way Next? - Gazing Into the Liquid Crystal of Our Future

Yesterday I opened a door so we could look in at the clockworks and see a little bit of the machinery which makes the business of publishing chug along. These processes pressure which books we sign, our ability to promote them, and their sales potential in finding the right outlet.

For some it may have sounded pretty bleak.

The fact is, though, that not too long ago hardly ANY Christian fiction was getting into ABA bookstores at all. Now we have one of the quickest growing areas around. More CBA books are finding their way to front tables—where there are no signs, other than “New.” Things are changing.

Few things in life change overnight. The question is one we need our magic 8-ball to answer though: “What’s going to happen in the future?”

Here are some potential replies.

Outlook Good
The expansion of CBA fiction continues. More titles gain general market praise. A sustainable market for a broad range of titles and genes emerges. Cross-over titles appear that find huge success.

Reply Hazy. Try Again

CBA fiction plateaus and simply hovers in this nebulous middle ground. Only a sporadic title or two finds general market success. Christian fiction becomes fully enshrined as a genre.

Very Doubtful
CBA fiction hits a wall. The exodus of readers from Christian bookstores to cheaper venues like Wal-Mart translates into sales for a very narrow list of books, but doesn’t filter down to other titles. Publishers cut back lists and focus on replicating these winners rather than going for broader readership.

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My gut says the third is unlikely. Christian fiction is making strides that aren’t likely to be lost in a day. Christian retailing must adjust to changing economics, but they won’t disappear. This is evolution on a economic scale and it’s interesting to see all the adaptations being forced by new pressures.

The question is whether we stop at #2 or achieve what I’d guess is our long range goal, #1. We’ll discuss some dynamics in that quest the rest of the week.

Then next week I promise we’ll get back to writing.

Confessions of a Christian Writer

Pat Loomis' blog has been very active with writing about the world of Christian fiction, including her launching a "carnival of writing," linking to articles around the Web that tackle the issue.

New Sites

You all may know these sites but they're newer to me and I like them a lot.

Writing to a New Rhythm - Marilynn Griffith's Homepage
Rhythms of Grace - Marilynn Griffith's Blog
Word Praize - Marilynn Griffith's Christian Fiction Blog
ChristianFiction - Dee Stewart's Christian Fiction Blog

Word Praize and Writing to a New Rhythm are at right, too.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Changing Course…Slightly

After four days I think it’s time to cut my losses with this whole taxonomy thing. Dragging on for four more days simply isn’t worth it…for you or for me. So we’ll call it quits on this topic.

Except not. Because, like it or not, classification of books is part of our lives as writers and readers. It affects how we find books to read, how we sell our book, how our book is then sold, and the how eventually other readers will, theoretically, find our words.

The question before us is: “How should ‘Christian’ be used in classifying fiction?”

I’ll tell you how it is in the market today:

‘Christian’ is an adjective used to define NOT the content of the book itself but instead, the theoretical audience/market for the book.

The ABA sales representative for CBA publishers pitches their books not to the fiction buyer of B&N or Borders, but to a specially-trained “Religion Book Buyer” instead. Later when the books are shipped, the major chains take the books and put them on their shelves in their Religion section, usually on special shelves marked “Inspirational” or “Christian” Fiction.

The proposed market for those books, then, is seen to be as specific as the market for “Romance” or “Fantasy/Sci-Fi” or “Mystery” or any other genre that has its own special group of shelves.

What’s interesting, too, is that because the customer who shops in the Christian fiction at B&N is seen, generally, as the same customer who would shop at a CBA bookstore, the Religious Book Buyer takes their lead from what sells well in CBA. So the argument that this CBA book will appeal to general market readers falls pretty much on deaf ears…because bookstores assume general market readers aren’t going to look for books on the Christian fiction shelves.

So here’s the thing at this moment in time within the greater publishing industry….

Right or wrong, if you publish a novel with a CBA publisher your work is “Christian fiction” and you are a “Christian fiction writer.”

But that can’t be the end of the story, can it? We’ll talk more about this upcoming.

Two Random Things

Happy Valentine's Day! Salon.com hosts an interesting lead article that I think shines an uncomfortable spotlight on their perceived audience. How depressing. The assumption is their readers are either tragically single or in a relationship with the wrong person. Woo-hoo!

And read the first sentence of this article about Barry Bonds. That's a rough way to start the morning when both your sexual and professional ethics are called into question in 13 words.

Grammys

I caught seven minutes of it last night...and those seven minutes were Kanye West performing "Jesus Walks." Say what you want about the Grammys as being a barometer of talent, but when their live acts work, they really, really work.

"Jesus Walks" complete with an interlude of "I'll Fly Away" from the Blind Boys of Alabama was good stuff.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Happy Friday!

Wiped out today. So we'll rejoin the conversation on Monday.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Day 4 of a Taxonomy of Writing – Order

This is where I make a confession. Sometimes in my search for something to write about I charge into things without a 100% understanding of where I’ll end up. We’ve reached that point in our taxonomic discussion. Actually that’s not quite true. I know where we’re going…but the problem is that where we’re going is simple familiar road. I’m not headed anywhere new—and I thought I would.

The next logical step in the taxonomy for novels seems to be this:

Kingdom – Prose
Phylum – Fiction
Class – Novel
Order - *Specific Genre*

This is where I thought I’d have more issues. So often we argue about how inadequate genres are to categorize books. And yet what step would come next?

Would you want your books categorized by POV?
Would you want your books categorized by character gender?
Would you want your books categorized by time period or setting?


Those classifications would be ridiculous at this point. So instead we are left with genre. Which we’ve talked about before and which I seem unable to escape.

Here again for those who missed my post of July 26 are my recognized genres.

Adventure
Chick-Lit
CBA Fiction
Erotica
Fantasy
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual
General
Gothic
Historical
Horror
Mystery
Romance
Science-Fiction/Futuristic
Suspense/Thriller
Western

The question before us is: Is there any different and/or better way of grouping novels? Or to put it in other words, Does genre serve as our best classifying principle or is there something else we can look at?

My gut still says genre forces us down a path we’re not ready to trod yet.

And the problem is that in this list, those categories are talking about different things.

Westerns are defined by a setting. Mystery by plot structure. Romance by character. GLB, Christian, and Erotica are all defined by specific adjectival content. And then there’s the whole debacle of general of non-genre fiction. Genre simply does us no good in this spot. Do you see that? Doesn’t this seem to be the place where paths divide? Where books start getting labels that so often need to be shed?

I still think there’s a better way. Not sure what it is though. And since this has gone long I want one more day to think this through. We’ll revisit this split tomorrow.

In the meanwhile, please, please, please read the GQ article mentioned below. A few folks have already offered their praise of it. It’s really worth your time.

Terrific Article

GQ isn't the first place I go to for substantive writing on the nature of faith, but this article by John Jeremiah Sullivan (which Chris Well, author of Forgiving Solomon Long passed on to me) is really excellent. Seriously. It's long, but I promise you'll like it.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Day 3 of a Taxonomy of Writing – Class

So if we were to classify my first novel Ezekiel’s Shadow according to our ongoing taxonomic system this is what we’d have so far.

Kingdom: Prose
Phylum: Fiction
Class: ?

The most logical progression is to form, i.e., the three biggies of novel, short story, and novella. To these I would add flash fiction (or micro fiction) and what we’ll have to call either the fragmented novel or the linked story collection. And since I’m picking, we’ll go with linked story collection.

How should we define these? The worst way seems to be by hard word count, and yet that’s pretty much what we’re left with. Here are my breaks. These are not “official” and you’ll see there’s some overlap. (Here’s a random site with their own distinctions.)

Flash Fiction – Fiction under 750 words
Short Story – 500 words to 100 pages.
Novella – 85 pages – 175 pages.
Novel – 150 pages and up.

The oddball here is the linked story collection. For this, I’m referring to specifically to a form of writing that doesn’t simply collect unrelated stories in a single volume, but is itself tied together through the path of the stories. For those more familiar with music terms, this is your rock opera. The Who’s Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars or, more recently, Green Day’s American Idiot.

Some literary examples are James Joyce’s Dubliners, Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, Jim Crace’s Devil’s Larder, and You’re an Animal Viskovitz by Alessandro Boffa. I know Barnes in particular gets annoyed when people call his work anything but a novel, but to me they are particularly different reading experiences.

Am I missing any forms? Let me know.
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Continue to Day 3 of Writing Taxonomy.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Day 2 of a Taxonomy of Writing – Phylum

Yesterday I proposed three Kingdoms in the writing sphere: Poetry, Scripts, and Prose. Today we’re going to begin zooming in on Prose. If others of you would like to zoom in on Scripts and Poetry, feel free.

Here’s where we are at:

Prose
/ \

Fiction Non-fiction

As Mark mentioned in a post yesterday there’s also some chatter about “creative nonfiction” as deserving its own categorization. I simply don’t know enough about what “creative nonfiction” is to make an informed decision. Being uninformed, however, has never stopped me before so in my system we’re going to keep this out of the Phylum level. To me, the very name gives it away—it’s a style/form of non-fiction, which means it would show up tomorrow, in our discussion of Class.

Today let’s spend a moment breaking down our Phylum.

Fiction – Writing in which some meaningful portion of characters, events, dialogue, or narrative emerged from the author’s imagination. This is “created” writing.

Non-Fiction – “Transcribed” writing. In other words, this writing is the attempt to communicate something that has already been—a thought, an act, a life—rather than fashion something new.

Those may seem like odd definitions but I think they work. If you have better suggestions, you’re welcome to make them. I gotta go home and help tend to a sick kid.

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Go to Day 3 of Writing Taxonomy.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Day 1 of a Taxonomy of Writing – Kingdoms

As you know, this blog often veers into areas that appear to have nothing to do with writing. We’ve done mathematics before and today we’re going to steal from the realm of biology. Actually we’re not stealing from biology per se merely the taxonomical classification system developed by Carl Linnaeus in order to get a handle on the nearly infinite variety of living creatures in this world.

The reason I’d like to do this is because I think the current classification system for writing is archaic and generally unhelpful. We end up talking around in circles because our terms of definition aren’t specific enough. Genre is the one true classifying trait being used and all that seems to do is alienate people.

So today we look at the top most level of the taxonomical chart: Kingdoms. In biology, the kingdoms are Plantae, Animalia, Fungi, etc.

In writing, I suggest there are three Kingdoms.

Poetry
– Your sonnets. Your haiku. Your free verse. Your song lyrics. This is writing that focuses on the individual power of words, stresses conveyance of emotion and personal aesthetic, rather than on narrative.

Scripts – Writing designed to underline another art-form be it a film, a stage production, a graphic novel or comic book.

Prose – Everything else. Nonfiction and fiction. Essay, novel, short story, etc. Generally unstructured, this writing focuses on communication of ideas and thoughts instead of pure emotion.

As you can imagine we’ll touch most deeply on prose as we work our way through the rest of the taxonomy. If you have suggested changes, feel free to make them. This isn’t in your high school text books yet so let’s get it right the first time.
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Go to Day 2 of Writing Taxonomy.

Best CBA Fiction of 2004

Tim Frankovich of ChristianFictionReview.com posted his list of the best CBA fiction for 2004. Bad Ground took his top spot.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Day 5 of Agents – The Advocate Hat

Publishing is an industry of relationships. Or should be. Editors should work closely with authors to help work a manuscript into tight shape. Publicists should work with authors to plan the best opportunities for a particular book. There should be a fair amount of give and take.

Sometimes hiccups occur or problems arise. An author doesn’t like editorial changes that were made to a book. Or the cover design. Or feels her book has been overlooked by marketing and publicity. (Every author feels this, BTW.)

Should these problems arise it’s sometimes nice to have someone standing by your side. As well, it adds a buffer layer that can help deflect hurt feelings. Since publishing is a relationship, hurt feelings can quickly become a burden to author and publisher.

Hopefully this is the least used hat in the agent’s wardrobe but it’s one that is important to remember.
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So that will conclude our discussion of agents.

Whether you seek one out is up to you. You’ve heard how very much they can offer you and so my only advice is that should you decide to sign with an agent, you seek representation that offers you all that you want.

Next week we’re going to switch topics altogether and, invoking the name of Carl Linnaeus, begin a look at the rather imprecise way we categorize books and whether there is a better alternative.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Day 4 of Agents – The Negotiating Hat

Were we on Family Feud answering the question, “Name one thing an agent does?” my guess is that this would be the #1 answer out of 100 people surveyed.

Contracts scare the crap out of most of us. We're worried that some boilerplate in subsection IV, Clause 9 will forfeit their first-born if they use a comma in the wrong place. Probably not. Rather, the give-and-take of contract negotiation is mostly about the burden of risk.

A publisher, naturally, wants to take as little risk as possible in publishing your book. Every dollar spent is another inch out on the plank over a sea full of sharks. You’re trying to convince them to take another inch.

Here’s my feeling: you should never sign with an agent solely for the purpose of negotiating a contract. Seriously, it’s not that complicated. This book is an excellent (and readable) resource. If nothing else, hiring a lawyer for legal advice at a flat fee is a cheaper option than losing 10-15% of your advance and royalties.

I guess that’s my gauntlet thrown to agents. Be more than merely contract negotiators. Many, many are. They have editorial and marketing expertise. Those are the ones who earn the percentage they take. Those are the men and women who offer the most to their clients.

Here’s my other comment—and I’m writing this as part of a publisher so…grain of salt and all—the largest advance isn’t always the best offer. Bookselling isn’t like the music industry where artists are often screwed out of money. If your book does well, unless you have the worst contract ever, you get paid. And the better is does, the more you get paid.

So, in the end, your best offer comes from the publishing house that will deliver you the most sales. To be even more specific, which house will deliver you the most sales over the course of your career. Unless, for some reason, you need all your money upfront, a book that sells 100,000 copies at a $20,000 advance is worth more than a book that sells 50,000 at a $50,000 advance. You just get your money a little later.

Figuring out the best offer for your book is the primary reason you have an agent. Look past merely advance, working through all the plus and minuses involved with both houses and when you do that, chances are you’ll end up at the place best suited for your book.
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Continue to Day 5 of Agents.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Day 3 of Agents – The Marketing/Sales Hat

Yesterday we talked about how your agent needed a nose for story. Today we’ll talk about how your agent needs an eye for the shelves.

In part this is because she will want to choose books that will make money—of which she’ll get a percentage. The bigger reason though is that this is going to be one of the primary ways (perhaps THE primary way in today’s business) she’s going to be able to pitch your book to a publisher.

See the role of acquisitions editor (to whom she will talk) is one walked on the knife’s blade between the world of the book and the world of the bookseller. There is a constant yin-yang pull between the search for great stories and the search for stories that sell…acknowledging from the get-go that those things aren’t mutually inclusive.

A book with sales potential is a key that opens many, many doors.

Knowing what will sell is part research, part experience, and part flat-out instinct. Your agent’s knowledge of the industry is huge here. This should include an understanding of customers and retail, PLUS an understanding of which publishers do what best. There’s always an interesting question of whether BHP could have turned Left Behind into what it became? Or whether Multnomah could’ve pulled off Purpose Drive Life? Or Harvest House turned Janette Oke into who she is today?

Many writers talk about feeling called by God to specific publishers and that’s fantastic. I believe and have seen how God works that way. But having your agent know what’s going on never hurts.

In the actual marketing and publicity of your book, your agent may or may not have much of hand. But another trusted and informed voice is never a bad thing. And someone to fight for you when you see a cover that’s going to kill your book can be far more helpful that you might imagine.

This understanding of market and sales potential should really shine through in the proposals that they send out. That’s their pitch. The proposal needs to be thorough and optimistic but not absurd in its projections for your book. It’s great to pitch everything as the next Lori Wick, but we know that’s not going to happen. Your agent’s pitch should compose a “best case scenario”—the publisher can then examine the worst-case scenario and judge the risk/reward of taking on a project.

Focusing only on sales/marketing sometimes means an agent gets enamored by a good story idea but hasn’t read enough to tell that the writer is a hack. As well, someone so deeply into the pitch may come off sounding like a used-car salesman who has no real appreciation for your book or your writing. But are you really going to care if they hand you a $25,000 check?
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Continue to Day 4 of Agents.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Day 2 of Agents – The Editorial Hat

One of the hats that your agent can wear is that of editor and, in practice, many, many agents both in CBA and ABA are converted editors. (Using strict Lucasian vocabulary, we in the business call this “pulling an Anakin.” C’mon, joking.)

An agent who can think like an editor proves valuable both to publishers and to you. To publishers, these are effective screeners who consistently bring high-quality proposals from authors who show real talent.

To you, this person can point out and help you think through larger flaws in the story, can offer input to strengthen your story overall, and most thoroughly communicate the vision of your story since they understand from the nuts and bolts level.

This facet of agent-dom is most responsible for your “writing” career. They focus on the writing. They help you shape a future that makes room for your developing artistry. They’ll support you when you want to take a justifiable risk with your writing or your story. They’ll see that even John Grisham should write a Painted House now and then.

Having only editorial sense, however, could possibly translate to weaker communication on the level the publisher needs to speak—sales. It’s also no guarantee of negotiating abilities or business acumen. So while this is a wonderful trait to have in your agent, it can’t be the only one.
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Continue to Day 3 of Agents.