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Category : Current Affairs
I thought this was a very insightful question: “Can you clear something up for me? You have said you thought memoir was a growing category in publishing. But you’ve also said personal stories are hard to sell. How can that be?”
We have to define our terms. A memoir is the thoughts or reminiscences of a writer – usually based on celebrity (Justin Timberlake is doing a book!), significant events in the culture (I shot Osama bin Laden!), or fabulous writing (Have you seen what Jeannette Walls just released?). It doesn’t have to be linear. It usually touches on a number of significant themes. In the last couple of years we’ve seen huge growth in the memoir category, in all of those areas. We’ve had good celebrity memoirs (Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, etc), good event-based memoir (American Sniper, Lone Survivor, etc), and good memoirs from writers (Ann LaMott, Annie Dillard, etc).
When I saw to be wary of “personal stories,” I’m talking about people who aren’t creating a memoir, but wanting to write a book that basically says, “Here is what happened to me, and it’s cool.” It’s generally linear. It might have some lessons to share, but rarely touches on many deeper themes. The writing is pedestrian – more of a prescriptive how-to book than reflective musing. These aren’t discreet categories, of course – is Lone Survivor a deeper memoir or simply a scary retelling of how Marcus Luttrell survived? But by and large we see personal stories as someone who has gone through something they found profound, and they want to tell their story because their friends have said to them, “You should write a book!” And, in my view, those books rarely get picked up.
Someone asked, “What is Bookspan? What all do they do? And how do you get picked up by them?”
Do you remember
This question was sent to my personal email: “Do you think there is any rush for an established writer to get his/her next book published in the current climate? That is, are things likely to get better or worse in the next few months?”
My crystal ball is in the repair shop, so I don’t know what the next few months will bring. If I guessed, I’d probably get it wrong. But no, I don’t think there’s any rush to get your next book published. Every writer who has worked with me has heard me say something numerous times: Good is better than fast. I’d rather an author took the time to make something really good than to rush it out quickly.
And this came in as well: “I was wondering what your advice would be to an unpublished writer interested in writing a 3-book series. I understand those are much harder to sell, and publishers prefer if each book ties up the story enough that they can be read individually/out-of-order.”
What’s easier to sell – a car, or a fleet of cars? When you’re starting out, it’s much easier to sell ONE book. That doesn’t mean it can’t be the first part of a series (and you may very well want to mention that when you create your proposal, pointing out the sequel possibilities so that the publisher knows what would come next if they were to contract the book). But keep in mind when creating a series that most publishers want each book to stand on its own. So the first book in your proposed series needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And your second book needs to be the sort of project that readers can pick up, get into the story, and appreciate without feeling as though they’re stepping into the middle of something they don’t understand, or that doesn’t
I’m trying to catch up on all the questions people have sent me, so let me see if I can tackle several of them having to do with current affairs…
First, a couple of people have asked what I think the biggest story is in publishing right now.
To me, that’s easy… Harper Lee, who wrote one of the most iconic books in American publishing history, is releasing a second book. I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, and thought Lee’s personal story (assisting Truman Capote with In Cold Blood, winning a Pulitzer for her only book, withdrawing from the public eye, starting and stopping but never finishing anything else) was fascinating for any writer. But her second book, Go Set a Watchman, was actually written before she started on Mockingbird — and Lee agreed to let a publisher produce her earlier work. Watching this play out is fascinating to anyone interested in a writing career. There’s still hope for that bad first novel you wrote years ago!
Second, someone sent in a simple question: “What’s the biggest problem facing publishers today?”
I suppose it would be easy to point to profit margins, or discoverability, or the issues facing illegal sales and copying, but I don’t think any of those are really the biggest problem. To me, the biggest problem publishers face was made clear in the Publisher’s Weekly salary survey. Less than 1% of those working for publishers are African-American. Hispanics make up about 3%. Asian-Americans make up another 3%. Various others combine for roughly 4%. And that means 89% of everyone working for a US publisher is white. Eighty-nine percent. Yikes. That’s shameful — and perhaps the first place to look when wondering why we’re not building more African-American readers. You want to diversify your readership? Hire some minorities, fer cryin’ out loud.
Third, I had several people ask me, “What’s the biggest news in CBA publishing recently?”
Whenever I speak at conferences, I get the “what’s hot?” question asked me. I generally offer what I’m seeing, but I try to always temper it with, “That’s just my opinion, of course… others might see things differently.” So I was happy to see the Nielsen folks put out some facts on publishing trends with hard evidence to support them.
In the most recent issue of Publishers Weekly, they gave a summary of the Nielsen BookScan report, which tracks the bulk of printed book sales, and a handful of things stood out to me…
First, Christian fiction is really struggling. That’s become obvious to me over the past couple of years, and I’ve discussed it with many other agents. Several houses have stopped doing inspirational fiction, others have trimmed back their lists, still others have simply put a “freeze” on new acquisitions, so it’s become evident that it’s a tough time to be trying making a living writing Christian fiction. But the Nielsen report proved the depth of the problem. Of all the categories in publishing (and BookScan tracks about 50 genres), Christian fiction took the second biggest drop. In the past year book sales were down 15%. Coupled with the previous year’s drop of 11%, we’re seeing the category shrink considerably. (The only publishing category to do worse? Occult & horror fiction, which is down 26%.)
Second, YA fantasy and sci fi is the fastest growing category in all of publishing. It was up 38% in the past year, after having grown in double digits the previous year. So yes, all those Harry Potter and dystopian (Hunger Games, Divergent, etc) readers have made their mark. And the study noted that inspirational and holiday YA novels (an odd combination in my mind) was up 16%, and YA family & health stories (hello The Fault in Our Stars) were up 17%.
Third, adult fiction overall is struggling. Romance is down
Okay, so I’m a little late… I always try to make some predictions for the coming year, just to test out of my gift of prophecy. This year it took me a while longer to put together my list, but I’m trying to squeeze this into the month of January, so it still more or less counts as a “start of the year” column. As I gaze into my crystal ball, I see…
1. Barnes & Noble will make a comeback. Honest. I think they’ve shrunk, re-focused their stores on profitable items, and I think this year they’re going to see a lot of growth with B&N.com. So while they’ve had a few tough years, I believe authors and readers will renew their appreciation for the country’s largest book retailer, and they’ll once again be seen in a positive light. (Note that I said nothing about the Nook. My crystal ball is smoky whenever I ask about the Nook. No idea.)
2. Subscription services are going to explode. Oyster, Scribd, Entitle, and Kindle Unlimited have all been growing, as people begin to look at them as the Netflix-for-books. But the reason we’ll see even more growth this year? Google will get into this in a big way.
3. Authors are going to fight like mad over Kindle Unlimited. I have a couple authors whose earnings are down significantly due to KU. They’re not happy, and they aren’t alone. I think a number of successful self-published authors are going to pull back from the service. It’s great for helping a new author build a readership — not sure it’s as great for successful authors who watch a bunch of their book get read without earning much money.
4. The legacy publishers are going to drop their e-book prices. The research is pretty clear that low-cost e-books is the way to go, but the Big Five haven’t wanted to play along, since
The shooting of writers, editors, and cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris last week should be remembered by every writer, and everyone in publishing, because it’s an attempt to shut up people who want to tell stories and influence the culture.
I represent a lot of suspense writers. Imagine one day you’re sitting at your desk, writing the latest bomb-in-the-briefcase story featuring a con man and a bad cop, when suddenly some nut bursts in, yells something about your stories pulling people away from thinking moral, uplifting thoughts, and tries smashing your computer. I represent a lot of Christian writers. Imagine one day you’re at a signing at a Family Christian Store, when you’re interrupted by a violent atheist who wants to stop everyone from reading about God. I represent several Catholic writers. Imagine coming home to find your place defaced because some crazed Protestant disagrees with your theology. We just don’t appreciate violence aimed at shutting up someone who wants to tell a story, and we need to take a stand to defend those who are being persecuted for nothing more than writing a joke.
Look, I find several of the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo offensive and immature, and would never post them on my blog. But the quality of their work is not the point. I value the freedom writers have in our culture to say what they want, to explore crazy ideas, and, yes, even to say something offensive. Humor and satire are ways of pointing out what’s wrong with the world or the government or the culture, and it’s the sign of a mature person to be able to laugh at himself or herself. Laughter can offend, but it can also offer perspective.
Jon Stewart’s Daily Show is very funny — sure, it slants decidedly to the left, and his mash-ups of Fox News clips and conservative speakers can be misleading and unfair… but
So one year ago I offered ten predictions about the future of publishing. I thought it would only be fair to have a look and see how I did. My notes from January 1, 2014…
1. I predicted that Amazon was going to finally start a series of brick-and-mortar stores. Accuracy: Moderate. They started some kiosks, and have created some pop-up stores in Seattle and San Francisco, and are exploring a store in New York. But they haven’t gone after retail stories in a big way yet.
2. I predicted Barnes and Noble would be sold, but remain in business. Accuracy: Not exactly. Instead of being sold, the original owners came back and repurchased the company from others. They bought out a bunch of shareholders, cut ties with Microsoft, and have tried to re-take control of their brand. And hey, they’re still in business, which is a good thing for writers.
3. I predicted we would see a bunch of publisher mergers. Accuracy: Pretty good. HarperCollins bought Harlequin, and Hachette bought Perseus, Hyperion, Black Dog & Leaventhal, as well as several smaller presses. We didn’t see a Simon & Schuster and HC marriage (or a S&S and Hachette marriage), but the number of players in New York dwindled.
4. I predicted huge growth for reader subscription services. Accuracy: Right on the money. Oyster, Scribd, Entitle, and Kindle Unlimited took off in 2014. Amazingly, authors participating saw sales rise, and income drop.
5. I predicted that libraries would finally resolve their tiresome debate with publishers. Accuracy: Yawn… Yeah, so Hachette finally put a plan together that libraries liked, and several smaller publishing houses started making their ebooks more available to them, but basically everyone in the industry got sick and tired of hearing about this topic. We all recognize that libraries serve an important role in our culture, and that they’re struggling to figure out how to stay in
Someone wrote and said, “I’ve been asked to speak at a writing conference next year. What advice would you give to prospective conference teachers?”
Well, I’ve taught at a couple hundred writers’ conferences, and I’d probably say there are a few things to consider…
1. If you’ve only done something once, you may not be an expert. Wait until you’re experienced at your job before giving too much advice on it. My friend and fellow literary agent Steve Laube and I were at a conference once with a brand new agent. I’m sure she was a very bright girl, but her answers on the panel were awful — she was an amateur, and her responses in front of a group made her look that way. The difference between her replies and those of an experienced person like Steve were dramatic. Had she waited a year or so, in order to learn her new job, she’d have done much better. Maybe you don’t have to be in a hurry to teach. (This lesson isn’t just for agents — it’s for anyone working in an area of publishing that would be of interest to conferees.)
2. If somebody is already covering one topic, pick something else. Writing conferences have a tendency to repeat the same information, and much of it is aimed at entry-level writers. Take the time to consider some niche or alternative topics that might be of interest to that group. (Here’s an example: Most conferences these days need someone teaching a “creating an ebook” workshop. Every conference needs something on the changing face of publishing, career paths, and contracts, but few choose to cover those topics.)
3. Give participants the real deal. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like there’s a lot of inspirational hopnoodle at conferences. Too much of the “let’s stand up and cheer” stuff, which gives people a short-term rush, but doesn’t provide them
One of the key questions everyone is asking throughout publishing is, “How do consumers find out about books in order make a buying decision?” They used to wander the aisles at bookstores and make that impulse buy. With CBA stores down to about 1000 (from nearly 6500 when I first started as an agent), that’s not happening to any great degree. Some publishers are starting their own direct-to-consumer etail sites. But will a consumer go to 20 different sites to find products? Would you? Will Goodreads or Amazon service the less-than-avid reader to get them to find and buy books? Not likely. Can authors and their friends Tweet, Facebook and blog ENOUGH to find anyone but their own tribes to market to over and over again? Most authors know the answer to that one. All of this is part of the puzzle to create awareness and move books, but will it be enough over time to move the needle on our sales numbers as retail continues to decrease and the noise on the web continues to increase?
Greg Johnson, a friend and colleague of mine for nearly 20 years, has taken a bold move to help authors (traditional and indy), speakers, bloggers… get noticed. He’s started a new “one-stop resource for people of faith” called www.faithhappenings.com. It’s a first-of-its-kind local and national resource. It has area events (speakers, concerts, author events, fundraisers); serving opportunities; area church and ministry listings; camps, schools, family fun, marriage getaways. Basically, Greg says anything that is “soul-, marriage-, parenting- and church-enriching can be on our site.”
It just launched in June, so out of the 454 local websites active, only about 20 have a broad array of local content. But they ALL have national content like books, music, video, etc. How will it help authors, speakers and bloggers? Um, wow. Here’s his list:
- When people sign up (free to do so), they can select
Recently the Christian Writers Guild has been much in the news. I’ve heard rumors about problems and threats; there have been questions about new leadership and new directions; and then we got news that the whole thing was being shut down. It seemed odd, since the Guild was purchased and funded by mega-selling author Jerry Jenkins, who wrote the Left Behind series and sold more than seventy million books — at the time it was the best-selling fiction series in history, later eclipsed by Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, and, um, Fifty Shades of Grey (proving that H.L. Mencken was right).
Jerry is not a friend, but he’s certainly a friendly acquaintance (I worked at the agency that represented the Left Behind books), and I knew he had invested his own money into the CWG, and had really built it up. Their annual conference was very good, they were moving into publishing, and for a long time I couldn’t go to speak anywhere without running into writers who had been mentored through their excellent writer training system. So I asked Dr. Dennis Hensley, who is Chairman of the Professional Writing Program at Taylor University, and a longtime insider at CWG, if he could tell me what was happening with them closing up shop. His response follows…
I have been a close friend and business associate of Jerry B. Jenkins for more than 30 years. During that time I have observed how he and his wife Dianna have anonymously, humbly, and graciously used their personal funds to provide major support for worthy efforts. They have bought automobiles for missionaries, funded college scholarships for needy students, underwritten building projects in third world countries, and provided jobs for writers, editors, and teachers.
A mission close to Jerry’s heart for many years has been to develop a new generation of competent writers who can share the Christian worldview by way of journalism,