Common Questions/Discussion for New Authors

Traditional Publishers Remain on the Quest for the Big One. The emergence of super-seller books like the Left Behind series, Purpose Driven Life, and The Shack continues to move religious publishing into the big leagues. Many of the major Christian publishing houses are owned by “The Big Six” secular publishers. Zondervan and Thomas Nelson are owned by Harper Collins, which is owned by Rupert Murdock. Simon and Schuster owns Howard Publishing, and Random House owns Waterbrook/Multnomah.

The hope by most decision-makers at the larger companies is that they will strike gold with another Rick Warren book or another series like Left Behind. And why shouldn’t they dream big? They have the clout and the resources to continue to chase the top authors of the world. It is obvious, however, that new writers have little chance with the larger companies. Publishing is a risk business, and publishing new authors is even more risky. But these publishers DO find ways to look for new authors and DO find fresh voices that become the future stars of writing. And some of those writers are found through Writer’s Edge Service (www.writersedgeservice.com) every year.

Changing Distribution PatternsThe book industry has also changed, with the decline of small dedicated bookshops and the emergence of the big chains, including the general market outlets. The largest distributors of Christian books (in order) are: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and CBD. There are also the Christian chains, such as Family Christian stores, Lifeway, etc. Rapidly disappearing are the independent bookstores, which would stock the unusual or unknown title. Those small bookstores were more open to an ordinary “good book” than the big chains. Amazon gives “virtual” stock to just about everything…and then there is the eBook emergence.

The eBook Explosion! It’s become clear to all that eBooks and eReaders are here to stay. This is now the fastest growing segment of book publishing and sales. While print will be here for a long time, eBooks promise to not only keep new books coming, but coming at a faster pace than ever before. eBooks and Print-on-Demand have “leveled the playing field” for authors to find ways to get noticed. Many traditional publishers are exploring ways to capitalize in greater measure on these new technologies. It provides less risk for them to try new authors and try new things. This is good news for writers.

How Acquisition Editors View and Evaluate Potential New Authors

First, what are “positive” things they look for? (i.e. the things Publishers pay instant attention to): . . .

The author’s “platform” or zone of influence. We have heard editors say “we don’t publish books–we publish authors.” This means: If you have a “constituency” or a following, their heads will immediately turn. Examples:  a national radio or TV broadcast; a history of other books that have sold well and given you a loyal following; newspaper or magazine appearances on a regular basis (e.g., a column); a regular speaking schedule at events, the larger the better; a large church which you lead or have lots of loyal influence; a blog or social network presence with a huge following; fame as a musician or entertainer or other celebrity status. You get the idea. This is the celebrity juggernaut that everyone laments but is still a reality.

Your promise to buy lots of books. Example: your organization will take 5000 copies of the first printing. How could the publisher lose? They can print 6000 and still do well. And your copies will help promote their copies in the word-of-mouth reputation of the book. Some publishers would be thrilled if you agreed to take 1000 copies at discount off the retail price.

Significant topic in an area of significant interest. The key phrase is significant area of interest. The publisher sees that you are writing on cult deprogramming (for example) just as that turns up in the news and you are being widely quoted on the subject. If nobody is interested in your specialty, it’s no help in the success of your book. And fiction is a wild card since the story carries its own appeal. There are, however a few “trendy” categories (Amish fiction, End Times fiction and non-fiction, Near Death experiences with visits to Heaven…no one is quite sure if all these are  non-fiction) which continue to mystify why so many in some of these trendy categories keep selling and selling and selling.

General credibility: Some areas that help would be your academic credentials, especially in the area of your writing, official standing with an organization or church. Example: a faculty position in a college or an ordination with a recognized denomination. Clarity, integrity, good reputation–these all aid the plausibility of your work.

Second, what are “negative” things to publishers? (i.e. the things that can raise “red flags” that can “turn off” Publishers):.

Writing projects that are way beyond your expertise. The world looks for credentials in many areas of publication (non-fiction) and if you don’t have some credibility as a knowledgeable authority, your manuscript is probably going to be rejected. We see some areas of religious writing that stall out here. Examples:  completely new insights into a field of theology by a writer who may not be aware of what is completely new. Serious students of these areas usually have something that gives them credibility, not just the claim to have studied something for years. You can often work around the problem by securing endorsements from reputable scholars who back you up. And of course there are exceptions to the rule, such as inspirational writing, devotionals, biographies, autobiographies – none of which require heavy academic pedigrees. Fiction is something else, since your expertise is revealed entirely by your storytelling ability.

Topics with low market potential: The publisher hopes for multiple printings–first 3-5,000, then a reprint, then another reprint. But tiny markets, with sales exhausted in the first 1,000 or so copies, are usually negatives. This is the problem with publishing poetry: there just aren’t enough people who buy new poetry from unknown writers. It’s a tiny market.

Topics for markets that can’t be easily accessed. You have a good book with good potential in readership but the publisher can’t think how to reach its intended market and you have few suggestions to offer him. The marketplace wind is not at your back–it’s blowing against you. This has been a problem in the past with books for teens: they aren’t easy to get to since they tend not to frequent the places where a given title is exposed. So you are back to selling the book to someone else who then gives it to the teen. There are still  examples of success, and good marketing is always hunting for ways to connect to hitherto remote readers. But the challenge may be intimidating for the publisher who wants an easy sell.

Impossible production formats. We once received a commentary on Revelation that totaled 5,000 pages. It was not done by a reputable scholar, though obviously by a person who had studied the book deeply. But the usual publisher reaction is negative for huge manuscripts, those that require costly and elaborate printing and design, odd shapes or bindings (like spiral binding–bookstores resist anything that doesn’t fit on a shelf). Expensive coffee table type books loaded with full color are only published by a few publishers. Again, there are exceptions to any rule, but in is highly unlikely to get anywhere with huge novels, costly production, or odd formats for your book.

Excluding children’s books, most marketable non-fiction ranges from a minimum of 30,000 words, to a maximum of 80,000-100,000 words. Most fiction ranges from about 50,000 words to a maximum of about 150,000 words. That is not to say that larger (or smaller) books are not published, but this is the most common range.

Books with no follow-up potential. The publisher hopes to start a string of successes with the publication of a new author. But if this will be the only book you ever write, the investment may not be worth it. Many publishers who find a promising author will want to sign them to a multiple book contract.

Visions and Private Revelations.  Publishers who serve the Christian marketplace tend to keep their distance from anything that strikes them as wacky and potentially heretical. Uncomfortably close is the claim that God gave you this material and sent you out to publish it. You can think it, but don’t say it. If you say God dictated it to you: it’s DOA. You imply everyone must accept it as you say or they oppose The Deity.

We serve Christian publishers, most of whom are sensitive to doctrine and image. This means a writer who takes an unorthodox position or comes from a religious group considered unorthodox will have an extra obstacle to overcome. This is not just “unusual” or “fresh” viewpoints but those considered clearly outside the mainstream. This might become a problem for some books written by adherents of New Age or reflecting New Age viewpoints. In some cases, it might be a limitation for writers from Mormon circles. This is especially an issue with evangelical publishers and with some Catholic houses.

Lack of clear Christian content. If a book has no Christian content at all, or lacks a Christian theme or take-away for the reader, you might not pass the screening of our editors and certainly won’t resonate with our participating publishers. Most of our publishers don’t publish things like cookbooks, travel books, how-to-care-for-your-pet books, or other “neutral” topics that have zero relevance to the Christian life or our walk with God. Our publishers are trying to publish material that speaks something relevant in Christian terms to an audience. This is not always pure theology, but it should not be humanism, anti-Christian, or off general Christian topics either.

Foul Language. Beware of the use of swear words in your fiction. Obviously, some “bad” or “shady” characters in your story might naturally have foul mouths. But the Christian retailers (we call them the “gatekeepers”) will shy away from books that contain four-letter words, which means that most Christian publishers will also shy away from them. Unless they see willingness on the part of the author to find creative ways to make bad guys look bad, without the use of four letter words. Sex scenes fall into the same uneasy category. So beware of how you create and describe the love life of your characters as well.

The Challenge

From the outside, it may appear that there is no way for the unknown or first-time writer to break into publishing and get one’s book into print. This is even more the impression since most companies have literally ceased opening their mail from writers they don’t know. You are entitled to suspect a conspiracy or a cabal of those who are “in” versus the rest of us.

The January 15, 2010 Wall Street Journal has an article on “The Death of the Slush Pile” (p. W1). It reports that Random House, the largest US publisher, has not found one publishable book in its incoming mail since 1991. Their solution: find an agent who will represent you! But the same problem persists in finding an agent. The agent supplies credibility and some minimal evaluation for quality.

Despite the difficulties, publishers need new books and new authors. They are under pressure to find new ones. At times they almost panic with too few for the next list. In a recent year, there were 172,000 new books published by all the legitimate publishers in North America. Where did they find all those books?  They must pay attention to the quest for new books despite what appearances may suggest.

In a recent survey of publishers it was reported that the overwhelming source of new books for them is their present list of writers. A close second is the list of writers published by other companies. This suggests that once your first book appears and you have some credibility as a published writer, the rails are greased for a succession of future books. In fact, it is common for a publisher to want to sign a new author to a multiple book contract. In pursuit of that coveted first base, you can pursue interim steps like partner publishing with Deep River Books, starting a blog, submitting short pieces for magazine articles, journal or academic writing, and public speaking. In other words, start now building a credible platform. Any of those steps will enhance your visibility and credibility.

Writer conferences that feature editors and agents have helped many unpublished writers gain exposure for their work. We recommend them if you can find conferences with your style, content, and genre. There are several listed here at this website.

Beware of Self/Vanity Publishing Scams

Here is an article the every author who is contemplating self publishing should read “Authors Should Get Full Information!”