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Rich Christiano[Jeff Gerke]


Interview: Steve Laube

[Steve Laube] Steve Laube is a literary agent for The Literary Group International. Among others, he is the agent for Karen Hancock (who wrote the Christy Award-winning Arena and her new fantasy series beginning with The Light of Eidon), John Olson (who, with Randy Ingermanson, wrote the Christy Award-winning book Oxygen and the sequel The Fifth Man), Michael Warden (who wrote Gideon's Dawn), Donita K. Paul (whose new Dragonspell will be published by Waterbrook), and Bryan Davis (whose series Dragons in the Mist will be published this summer.) Steve was formerly an acquisitions editor at Bethany House, and brought us Kathy Tyers' Firebird trilogy and her forthcoming Shivering World, John Olson and Randy Ingermanson's books Oxygen and The Fifth Man, and Karen Hancock's Arena. In other words, those of us who have been pining for some decent fantasy and SF from CBA publishers have cause to be grateful to Steve. He was born in Alaska, holds a B.A. in Bible and Business from Grand Canyon University, and has wide experience in the Christian publishing industry. Steve took part in the list in April, 2004. Diane Joy Baker, Bob Blackman, Donna Farley, Jo M. Grove, Lee S. King, Laura Lond, Mark McKean, Shannon McNear, Greg Slade, and Tony Zbaraschuk asked the questions, and here is an edited version of the question and answer sequence. You can learn more about Steve from his web site at www.stevelaube.com.

GS: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

Born in Anchorage, Alaska. Moved to Honolulu when I was 14 and attended high school there.

GS: Where did you go to school, and what did you take?

B.A. from Grand Canyon University (Phoenix) with a major in Bible and a minor in business.

GS: What is your family situation? (Married? Kids?)

Married, with three daughters ages 21, 19, and 16.

GS: What church do you attend, and why?

Camelback Bible Church in Paradise Valley (a suburb of Phoenix.) Too long of a story to tell here as to why we ended up at Camelback.

GS: How did you become a Christian?

Made a profession at age 6 after the famous revival sermon of R.G. Lee called Pay Day Someday. I knew exactly what I was doing.

GS: What was your first exposure to fantasy or SF?

Probably the Star Trek TV show. Also in late high school I discovered the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

GS: Did literature ("Christian" or not) have any part in bringing you to Christ?

Not really. But it did impact me later. The book Knowing God by J.I. Packer was the most influential book on my life when I was 19 years old.

GS: What prompted you to become an acquisitions editor?

I'm not one. I'm an agent. :-) I was saved at one time when I was an editor for Bethany House. But most feel that I have now fallen from grace by becoming an agent. :-)

GS: Why did you become an agent? How did you gain such awesome power over struggling scribblers?

I was offered the job by the head of the NY agency I now work for. They pursued me, not the other way around. It was a "God thing." I had a short-term window between the announced sale of Bethany House and the official takeover by Baker Publishing. In that window Frank Weimann called and offered me a job. After nearly a month of research, discussion, and a visit to NY I made the decision to join the agency.

I don't have "power." It just seems that way. I am in the business of helping to change the world word by word. God has brought me to a unique place to utilize my experience and gifts.

GS: How specific was your work at Bethany House? (Were you covering everything, or fiction in general, or fantasy and SF in particular?)

I was the editorial director of Non Fiction but continued my acquisition efforts in the sci-fi category right up to the day I left the company.

GS: How big was your "slush pile" of unsolicited fantasy and SF manuscripts when you were at Bethany House?

Ridiculous. Even now as an agent I see loads of fantasy/sci-fi manuscripts that simply are not ready for prime time.

Clients I currently represent that you may know in this genre include:

With a couple others in current conversations

GS: What kinds of failings make books "not ready for prime time"? (I mean, a lot of the stuff which actually gets published isn't "ready for prime time" in my opinion. How much worse can it be?) From your intimate experience of slush, could you draw up a list of the top three (or five, or ten, or...) failings in "not quite there yet" efforts, and say that those failings would cover most of the works you've had to turn down?

Poor writing. Flat clichéd characters. It is always easy to criticize books that get published. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that folks don't understand. A book may get published because it is the next one they really want. Or a bestseller creates demand and the writer doesn't take the time with the craft on the subsequent volumes (see the later Robert Ludlum books for example).

The story is weak and uncompelling. This happens a lot. The author thinks the story is cool, but I have to roll my eyes. This is the subjective nature of the business. You may love a book that I was bored with and vice versa. Neither person is right or wrong – it is a matter of personal taste.

GS: And, in a related vein, which failings, in your experience, are those which writer wannabes can "grow out of" and improve to the point where they are publishable, and which are signs that this person is probably never going to "graduate"?

I've met folks who cradle their one story year after year at conferences trying to "make it work." It is time to put the story aside and start a new one. But we are rarely heard.

In other cases it is a matter of adding texture and pace to the story. Read Self Editing for Christian Writers by Browne and King. It will transform the way you write.

SM: Is it ever considered acceptable to submit the same work twice to the same editor or agent - that is, if a writer has realized that his original submission was not ready, and did some serious work to the piece, and the original "no thanks" was not necessarily because the story didn't fit the editor's accepted genre, etc.?

Yes. If the material has been improved or changed. I have a number of cases where the first go round didn't work but subsequent ones did.

GS: Out of the books you bought for Bethany House, which one was the hardest "sell" to the company?

Arena by Karen Hancock. Fantasy was a no-no, but her book was a blend of allegory and science fiction in a sort of fantasy setting. I called it science fiction allegory and did not use the "F" word.... fantasy. That success opened up the company to The Light of Eidon.

SM: Do you see the CBA market in general opening up to fantasy as a result of this?

It is a huge "wait and see" game. Until something really breaks out the publishers will be cautious. Remember that it is a $40,000 investment on the part of a publisher to put something into print with any sort of meaningful launch.

I had one book that I know lost our company at least $30,000. This was a disaster. So before bemoaning the lack of "foresight" or "vision" from publishers remember that if it were your money you might think twice before throwing it into a risky venture.

GS: Out of the books you bought for Bethany House, was there one in particular which you figured deserved a lot more attention from the market than it got?

Firebird by Kathy Tyers. She is a marvelous writer but the ultimate reception was modest. That is the problem. There are not enough fans of CHRISTIAN science fiction / fantasy to generate sales numbers of enough significance to make the publishers salivate over the next book in the category.

GS: What was your most satisfying moment at Bethany House? (Like, a book which really took off, or won an award, or just knowing that you had printed something really excellent, even if the market didn't pay it the attention it deserved.)

Working on the last two revisions of Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin. The first had Hank Hanegraaff as general editor, the second was with Ravi Zacharias.

Developing and creating Jesus Freaks II with dc Talk. An amazing volume of the revolutionaries of the faith.

Working with Kathy Tyers, Karen Hancock, John Olson and Randy Ingermanson. All are brilliant writers and great people.

Very satisfying to take a new talent like Donna Partow and see her book Becoming a Vessel God Can Use sell over 200,000 copies.

GS: So, what made you decide to become an agent? How does one become an agent? What does an agent do, anyway? What's your average work day like? (Or is there such a thing as an "average work day"?)

See above.

It is too easy to become an agent. Just hang out a shingle and call yourself one. That is why there are so many crooks floating around in this business. What do I do? I work on content every day with authors developing new projects. I work on developing each authors career in helping them make choices. I negotiate contracts.

Today, so far, I've answered a question on an author's taxes, critiqued the cover design on a new series, strategized a sales approach for a new proposal, read a first chapter in a new novel from a client, checked on the payment of a advance royalty check for a client, communicated to authors about rejections I've received in the last 24 hours, took an unsolicited phone calls from a fellow pitching his new idea (I asked him to send it instead of verbalizing it). That is in the last three hours. Yesterday I worked till 10 pm to try and clear the desk. I wrote 33 e-mails yesterday.

GS: Do you cover CBA only, or do you handle "secular" titles, too? Have you pitched titles by Christian authors to secular publishers (as, for example, Theodore Beale or Brenda Clough)?

I specialize in CBA but have also worked with general market houses. I've sold projects to a cookbook company in Canada, to HCI, and to Jossey-bass. But no fiction yet. If I receive a manuscript that will work for the ABA I will pitch it there. Our agency has 20 years experience with ABA, I've opened up CBA to them.

GS: How much of your current work is fiction, and how much of that is SF/fantasy/horror?

About 40% of my authors are novelists. In this category I would put:

GS: (I just know somebody's just dying to ask this one.) Let's suppose somebody has written the great Christian novel. What are the steps they need to go through to get it published? (Do they fire off the manuscript to you unsolicited, or have you just made a big mistake by agreeing to this interview?)

I can teach for hours on this subject so I can't give all the details. I look for a short synopsis (1/2 page – like back cover copy) a long synopsis (3 single spaced pages) and the first 3 chapters or 50 pages of the manuscript. This is enough for us to get a feel for the project.

GS: Somebody sent me a (pretty bad) e-book self-published by a guy who starts out with a rant against a publisher who had turned him down. (Apparently, the only publisher he even attempted to pitch it to.) When you have a manuscript which you think is a winner, how many markets are there to which you can pitch it? How many publishers will even look at Christian F/SF novels?

There are only about a half dozen publishers really looking seriously at the F/SF market. It is still quite fledgling.

GS: Do you handle short fiction, too? If so, how many markets are there to which you can pitch short SF/fantasy/horror?

No. There is no market for that unless you are an amazing writer.

LL: As an agent, do you think that a catchy first paragraph is absolutely necessary in a novel? Many publishers and agents believe it's a must in our day and age when the majority of people seem to have a short attention span so you have to hook them right there, or you will lose them. Do you agree?

I agree wholeheartedly. See Noah Lukeman's book The First Five Pages. The opening is critical to your success. To use the line from Jerry MacGuire, "You had me at hello."

SM: Since I'm compiling a list of Christian westerns, are there any writers of that genre you represent? (I do know that Stephen Bly is represented by your agency, but wasn't sure whether that's you specifically or someone else.)

Yes, I do represent Stephen Bly. He is the only western writer under my care. Sharon Gillenwater has a new romance based in the West coming from Steeple Hill. But I don't classify her as a western writer per se.

SM: Another question, submission related ... several CBA publishers (well, secular, too) won't accept unagented fiction, but there are several agents who won't look at a proposal from an unpublished writer unless they are referred by someone else, an already-established author or another agent. If someone was blessed enough to get that referral, is there any specific protocol in using it? Does the person referring need to write a separate letter to accompany the submission, or is a paragraph within the body of a query or cover letter sufficient?

Excellent question. If I receive a claim of a referral I go to that person and ask if it was legitimate. Better yet. I now have a client where I received two pre-endorsements. These authors wrote me and said they had a great talent I needed to give credence to. Neither author knew that the other was writing me. I signed the new talent and we have already written contracts for four books and two novellas.

BB: Is there much potential of publication for an author who has finished a novel, and believes it's good but has no inclination to write another one?

Most publishers want a long-term relationship with an author. If this is a one-time-only thing it reduces the chances of a contract. However, there are many cases where a single book is extremely well written and sold well and the author never writes again. But this is very rare.

In the sci-fi world see Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith as an example.

SM: I find it interesting that almost everyone prefers a different format for the long synopsis – single- vs. double-spaced, length, etc. Do you have any "quick tips" for someone seeking to write a snappy synopsis? And is it considered more professional to give the story overview/background, then character introductions, then clearly delineated plot points and crises, or do editors/agents prefer a straight narrative? And am I correct in assuming that the short synopsis is the part that's usually included in the query/cover letter?

Yes there are all sorts of "preferences." The common thing for fiction is the three page single spaced synopsis. It is to be a straight narrative of the whole story. I have yet to meet a fiction editor that does not like that format. All the other variants... are variants. Don't point out plot points, character intros, etc. That is a waste of time unless you do that for yourself already.

The "short synopsis" can be used in the cover letter. I like to push my clients to create this short form... sort of like back cover or catalog copy. It helps focus on the "hook"... the words that make the book sound interesting.

SM: Now, that's heartening! Should subsequent submissions be treated as new ones, or is it beneficial to point out the changes made?

Treat subsequent submissions as new ones. If you have a relationship with the editor it is a good idea to let them know that this is a newly revised and vastly improved version of something they have seen before.

SM: Forgive yet another question about presentation, but I would guess, then, that providing the email of the one offering the referral would be helpful, if the referral is just a paragraph within a query letter?

Sure. But even better is to have that person contact me on their own so I don't have to verify it.

SM: How does one tell if their story is more character-driven, or plot-driven?

Is the pace driven by action (battles, natural disasters, chase scenes, etc.) or by arguments or conflict between people?

The Honor Harrington books by David Weber are pure space opera. Very plot driven. However there is a tremendous amount of character conflict that adds to the action. However I remember the battle scenes more than the characters.

We had female readers of Kathy Tyers' Firebird say "My husband loved the action scenes, but I loved the love story."

Few sci-fi or fantasy novels are character driven.

SM: LOL, that seems to be a fairly common gender-based reaction... there are exceptions, of course, but I've noticed the tendency of men to be more action-oriented and women more relationship-oriented, in their preferences across the board. :-) As an editor/agent, then, do you read with an eye toward what will appeal to both sides, particularly in one story?

I read with an eye for a good story that is well written. I don't even think about plot vs. character driven issues. It is the writing and the story that is the compelling feature.

SM: And what can a writer do to make the most of a conference, besides pray, trust the Lord's leading, and keep ears and eyes open to what He has for you?

Make friends of the editors and agents that are there. You are there to learn and take the opportunity to float your ideas for a reaction. If you feel the pressure to Sell Sell Sell you will ruin your experience. Treat them like a one-day college course.

GS: What has been your most satisfying moment as an agent? (Like, a tough sale you pulled off, one of your clients winning an award... that sort of thing.) What makes it worth getting up in the mornings?

Big sales are always wonderfully motivating. It is a measure of success. One of the most satisfying moments (and it has happened twice now) is selling the fiction series of an author who had given up when I first talked to them. In both cases the writer called and asked if I would be willing to consider agenting them despite recent poor sales figures and an inability to get anyone to look at their new proposal. Each time I came alongside and gave them the confidence they needed to refine and redevelop the proposal in such a way that big publishers (like Waterbrook and Zondervan) said they wanted to move to contract. That is very satisfying.

GS: I have seen "spoof" sites which talk about things to for authors (not) to do in order to get their works considered, like using fluorescent coloured paper, over-packaging a manuscript, and so on. What kinds of things can writers do which make your job easier? (Note: I'm not asking for tricks to make it more likely for you to say "yes", just the kinds of things which make life easier for you, and therefore a Christian writer should be doing out of sheer charity.)

Simple is better. Gimmicks end up being used as writer's conference fodder of what not to do. :-) Realize that your proposal is really a job application. You want your "resume" to look professional and competent. A publisher is "hiring" you to do a "job" and will pay you to do it. Buy my tapes on book proposal preparation from one of the conferences (The 2003 Mt. Hermon conference has 8 hours of my teaching from last year's major morning track. Even fiction writers say they received help from those sessions. By the way Mt. Hermon gets all the money for the purchase, so this isn't a commercial.)

GS: There has been a good deal of discussion on this list in the past over CBA fiction, and how much constraint that particular market places on authors. At the same time, there have been signs that CBA fiction is starting to mature and get more realistic and less formulaic. From your understanding of the CBA market as it stands now, what kinds of plot elements are (still) going to make a book "unpublishable" by any CBA house?

Impossible to answer definitively. Gratuitous sex, violence and language will never be acceptable.and for good reason. Beyond that I don't really see any restrictions per se. Heresy like the type found in The Da Vinci Code wouldn't work either. I saw one manuscript that basically rewrote the events in the Garden of Eden to create a plot device. That is a no-no. In other words, this author rewrote the Biblical story.

You've all heard that some publishers don't want divorce or incest or pornography or prostitution as plot devices. Every publisher is different, and some writers can write about very ugly issues in an amazing way (see Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers.) Most beginning writers don't have the talent or developed the ability to tackle this type of thing and then blame the publisher for being too narrow.

Read This: It isn't always the publisher's fault.

GS: We have also been told things like 90% of the buyers in Christian bookstores are women, which is why even traditionally "guy" genres like SF tend to have pretty strong "romance" elements in them. In your experience, are there certain authors or publishers to which guys like me can turn for CBA fiction with as low a dosage of romance as possible?

It is more like 70% of the CBA buyers are female.

In the general market, for all fiction sold (hardback and paper):

These statistics come from The Romance Writers Association for 2002. CBA reflects a similar breakdown except that Left Behind is considered "futuristic" and is thus classified in the same group as sci-fi.

Read Ted Dekker. While you may not like some of his technique or complain about certain plot devices, in general he is a great read. Blink, Thr3e, and the new Black are really good. Also read his books co-authored with Bill Bright. T. Davis Bunn's books with Waterbrook/Doubleday were very well done. Shane Johnson is good. Randy Springer does good legal thrillers as does James Scott Bell (his Zondervan titles.) Brandylin Collins' Eyes of Elisha is fascinating (a vision is a predominant plot device.) Angela Hunt wrote The Truth Teller that is pretty interesting. Most of her other books are very romance oriented. Some folks like Robert Whitlow's legal thrillers. I didn't like them as much as Randy Springer's. Bill Myers' Blood of Heaven is a fun read. I hope you all have read Gideon's Dawn by Michael Warden. Ghostwriter by Rene Gutteridge is a fascinating debut by a budding writer. (I helped her craft the plot since it is based in the publishing world.) Ezekiel's Shadow by David Long. He won the Christy Award for best new writer for this book. See his unbelievably fascinating web blog at www.faithinfiction.blogspot.com.

Yes, you will probably hate all of these as not being as good as Tolkein, Grisham, or Donaldson. But then few books are. No book will be universally loved, that is the beauty of fiction. So instead, enjoy the discovery of some very popular writers and realize that some books are for you, some are for other people.

GS: You mentioned critiquing the cover design for a series. In my experience, covers for CBA fiction tend to be less, well, compelling than covers for secular SF. (I was going to ask you to compare, for example, the cover for Oxygen with the cover for James White's The Silent Stars Go By, but when I looked at them, I realised that the White cover is by Vincent Di Fate, which hardly makes for a fair comparison, but there you go.) Do artists have agents, too, or do publishers have artists on contract and say, "Do up a cover for a book about this topic"?

The big time artists have agents, and they are very expensive. You have no idea what I had to do to get the Oxygen cover used as you see it. The other options looked nothing like sci-fi. At least the final cover has an astronaut on it!

The problem is that sci-fi is a new genre for the CBA market and making it look like the covers you see in the sci-fi book club is simply too "out there."

Get used to it. Publishers are conservative. Very conservative and will take many years to venture into the wild covers Del Rey uses.

The key is sales. If you all buy (not borrow) copies of good Christian sci-fi there will be more titles published. If not, the entire genre will go away as simply a grand experiment.

I really hope you all are buying Karen Hancock's Light of Eidon and the sequel being released this summer. That is what speaks to publishers. Accolades mean little. Sales mean everything.

GS: How much say do you (or the author) have over a cover?

Zip. Zero. Nada. However, most publishers want their author happy so they run it by the author. But unless the author absolutely hates it...

GS: Is there a cover for a Christian SF/F book with which you have been involved which particularly pleased you? If so, who did it?

I've liked them all. Look inside the front cover for the designer's name.

GS: I can't recall the last time I saw any CBA fiction book (SF/F or not) which came in a "mass-market paperback" format. Why do CBA publishing houses avoid that size?

Economics. The unit sales would likely be the same if in trade paper (5"x8") vs. mass paper (4"x7"). The Trade paper can get $12 retail while a mass paper can get a max of $7.99. You do the math.

GS: Hmmm... and nobody questions the assumption that the unit sales would likely be the same? That would tend to go against what little I understand about business. (Supply and demand, and all that stuff.) The two complaints (besides the quality of the writing) that I hear most often about CBA fiction (and not just on this list, either) are the extra cost and the inconvenient size of trade paperbacks. Have any CBA publishers even experimented with mass-market paperbacks for fiction, and compared whether the change has an impact on sales?

JMG: I very, very strongly second what Greg said. Sometimes I wonder if CBA publishers think that all of their readers have vast amounts of discretionary income, and can afford to buy large (or even moderate) quantities of trade paperbacks without ever blinking an eye at the price? I have had an extremely tight budget for "non-essentials" (i.e., those things that don't pay the bills or keep my family fed) ever since my children were born, and even though my finances have improved in recent months, I can still only afford to buy about one or two trade paperbacks per month (that is, two if at least one is "on sale"), or 3-4 mass-market sized books for the same amount of money. And I'm an avid reader who likes to keep a book on hand for those rare moments of free time I get, so if I have to choose between 2 oversized books that are harder to carry around, or 4 smaller books that will easily slip into my purse, guess which I'm going to buy? Yes, I know that the CBA is capable of producing mass-market sized books, because I've bought a few. My first Dee Henderson book was a mass-market sized paperback, although I don't think it's available in that format anymore. I'm quite addicted to her "O'Malleys" series, but if that first book in the series hadn't been available in mass-market paperback, then I wouldn't have brought it home, gotten hooked, and bought her other books. I think I currently own many of her titles, but I haven't bought them all yet, even though I very much believe in supporting my favorite authors by purchasing their work, so that their publishers will ask them to write more. I simply cannot afford to support my favorite Christian authors as much and as often as I would like to at this time, primarily because their books cost more than my budget usually allows for. So when I do buy a CBA trade paperback, it is almost never an impulsive, "Gee, I think I'll drop $12 today and see what this author is like," but a conscious, "I want to support this author and encourage the CBA to publish more fiction like this, despite the fact that it's way overpriced", sort of decision for me.

Christian authors whose work I've enjoyed and whom I would dearly love to support more (financially, that is, not just by singing their praises wherever I go) include Ted Dekker, Karen Hancock, Kathy Tyers, Michael Warden, Randy Ingermanson, Stephen Lawhead, Dee Henderson, Bill Myers, and Francine Rivers. (I'm sure there are others, but those are who pop into my head at the moment.) I own one Bill Myers book, which I took a chance on because I found it in mass market size. I'm intrigued enough to want to read more, but not quite intrigued enough to do so if it means not being able to afford the books of other CBA authors whose works I'm already hooked on. I own several of Lawhead's "Pendragon" series books, because they're readily available from an ABA publisher in mass market size, but I've only read one book in his "Song of Albion" series. I would dearly love to finish the series, but afaik, the other two books are only available in trade size, and they're not readily available in my area. If I can't afford to buy trade sized books on a regular basis locally, I sure can't afford to pay for them with shipping costs added, unless I can find them somewhere like Half.com... but then, I'm not supporting my author! I took a chance on Hancock's Arena because I read enough of it online to get me hooked. It's one of my very favorite CBA works, but if it hadn't been for that first chapter online (and also Karen's marketing of it on another mailing list I'm on), I would never have taken a chance on it, because of the trade price. I read Dekker's books avidly, but would never have bought any if my first exposure to them hadn't been "loaner copies" from someone else. I own a few now, but only because I found three of them very much marked down at a clearance sale (something like "33% off, buy 2 and get 1 free," so I splurged, and even so, I spent more than I normally like to spend on books in a given month.) Same sorts of stories for the other authors, with the exception of Randy, whose books I don't actually own yet (sorry, Randy!), because at this point, as I acquire new authors whose habits of eating and living indoors I want to help support, it gets harder to do so without jeopardizing my own habits of doing the same. (Although when I finally get my own copy of Oxygen, Randy, and have a chance to re-read the last few chapters, I'll have a question for you. It's been a year or so since I read my library's copy, and I don't recall exactly what the question was anymore. :-D)

I used to have ABA authors I tried to support, but with the exception of Lois Bujold, I don't anymore. (I can only afford her because I can get her hardbacks from Science Fiction Book Club at the same price I'd pay for a CBA trade paperback, which is also the only way I was able to afford Kathy Tyers' Firebird books. I have the SFBC 3-in-1 hardcover "omnibus" version, which would've cost me three times as much if I'd paid full price for these books separately in my local CBA store!) I simply can't afford both ABA and CBA books too, and at the moment encouraging lesser-known (to the general public) CBA authors, especially SF ones, is a higher priority for me, so I haunt used bookstores, libraries, Fictionwise and Half.com for most of my ABA reads. (I do, however, sometimes buy CBA books at Walmart or Books-A-Million, because the prices at those stores are usually more affordable than at the CBA bookstores, and Books-A-Million offers membership discounts and frequent sales, making it easier for me to buy more books there. CBA stores and publishers, get a clue here!!!!)

My "book budget" also has to include any non-fiction purchases I make, so if I'm buying a Bible Study book at trade price, that means I'm more likely to satisfy my fiction needs buying some used paperbacks from Half.com that even with shipping costs included cost less for three or four titles than one new trade-sized book from a CBA bookstore.

Please forgive my rant. I didn't mean for it to go on this long, but can you see why buyers like myself are genuinely puzzled and frustrated when we ask (actually "beg", in my case, whenever a CBA author asks me "what sort of questions or concerns do you have that I can take back to my publisher?") for more CBA mass-market fiction, and we're told, "Oh, trades are more cost-effective for us. Do the math"? We are doing the math! We're doing the math, and simply can't affordto buy more trade-sized books than we're already buying, but if publishers would simply print more mass-market sized ones at the prices that we can more easily afford, we'd actually buy more books!!! And then we'd keep them to loan out to our friends and get them hooked too, rather than having to pick which to keep and which to sell in order to scrape together enough pocket money to buy other overpriced CBA books! :-D

And even my friends who can afford trades more easily than I can would prefer to buy mass-market sized. They're easier to carry around, easier to store in a smaller space (which is a consideration for those in small houses or apartments, or who simply have lots and lots of books to shelve), and they can buy more also, if the books they want are available at lower prices. CBA, please do the math!!! :-D (For help with those calculations, bear in mind that even though I can only buy 2-4 books per month, my reading average is about 3-4 books per week. Think of how much that would mean in CBA profits if I could actually afford to buy more of those books at store prices, rather than borrowing them or getting them used!)

Rant over. :-)

DF: A hearty second to Jo's rant. May I just add – books are even more expensive here in Canada. An ordinary mass-market paperback costs at least $10 here, which is well above an hour's labour at minimum wage, in an economy where accommodation, other necessities, and taxes leave very little over in the mid-to-lower income brackets for leisure spending. Canadians do love their books, but Canadian Christians have a hard time affording all the specialized books they want. I don't know what the answer is, but that is the situation. :-(

LSK: Oh, Jo, I third this sentiment! I read, on average, five books per week. And I am the sort that, if I fall in love with an author, I want to buy all of his/her books. For example, I have two of Randy's but because of the trade paperback price, it will be awhile before I get the others. I can buy twice as many books in the mall as I can going to the local Christian book store. I've only discovered in the last year or so that there are some good Christian authors, and that's only from writing friends online who have energetically recommended certain authors. But I'm slow in buying the books because of the price.

Besides, I can fit twice as many mass-paperback on my shelves (two rows, front and back) as I can the trade paperbacks, and with a tiny house (1100 sq ft) and books in boxes in the closets and under the bed for lack of room, guess my preference?

I too read about three books a week for leisure.

I use the library. Even the guard at the door knows me. I visit at least once or twice a month. I can reserve books, new bestsellers, online and the library phones me to tell me it is waiting for me. I can check them out for three weeks and renew for an additional three weeks online. All of the best Christian fiction is available. If not at my branch then another branch will send it over. Economics are no excuse for not reading the best books available. You can then also test new authors. If you like it so much you can then invest in the book and share it with the family.

When I buy a good novel at least two people in my house read it. Some have been read by all five of us. Now that means a $12 purchase is a major bargain. Five people to watch a movie at the theatre, cost? $60 when you throw in the snacks. A good book? $15 when you throw in the popcorn and cheese. Books are the cheapest form of entertainment anywhere.

I understand the desire to buy books, but if you are choosing a hastily written Robert Jordan because it costs $8 over a crafted Randy Ingermanson because it cost $12... You need to rethink your investment of your time, money and brain cells. A bad Robert Jordan is a waste of time and money and brain cells. A good Randy Ingermanson could possibly speak to your heart. I've heard the complaints for over 23 years and they fall on deaf ears when I see the same person spend more on an inane CD, or DVD. It is a fallacious argument. People will spend their money where they want to spend it. Every person will make their individual entertainment expenditure choice no matter the cost. Don't blame the publisher.

If you want more Randy Ingermanson then you need to show the publisher your wallet. Otherwise the "market" will have voted and the publisher will reject Randy's next proposal. (Vote Ingermanson instead of Jordan.) I've seen it happen over and over and over again. Good authors, great stories, lame sales. Author disappears into the sunset.

I now step off my soapbox.

As for Canada? It is $10 Canadian dollars, not US dollars so the comparison is about the same based on the economics. There may be a slight cost increase factor but it is not the 30% difference stated. As of today the exchange rate is: 1 US Dollar = 1.33440 Canadian Dollar; 1 Canadian Dollar (CAD) = 0.74940 US Dollar (USD)

DJB: All right, I'm probably shouting in the wind here, but I concur with Jo. I hate trade paperbacks, and I don't care if they're Christian or not. They have all the disadvantages of hardcover size, but because they're not hardcover, they don't last any more than a mass market pb.

Yes, I read library books, and probably have about eight out right now (Awards committee time.) I read a lot of CBA books from the library. I buy CBA books from used book stores, library sales, remainder tables, and such; I do the same with ABAs. I'm looking – as most collectors do – for the most books for the least dollar. There are certain authors I buy new – Gene Wolfe, Lois Bujold, Catherine Asaro. I can get them in mass market, or from SFBC, and fortunately, SFBC is pretty equal to hardcover size, these days. But that extra inch around on these trade books – be they CBA or ABA – means I have to shelve them differently. I've now got a special "trade paper" shelf for those books.

But that $12 price means I'm much more likely to wait until the book comes to Half.com (or the above sources) where I "re-purchase" the book. I browse in Zondervan, but seldom buy: there's just enough of a difference both in size and in price for trade pbs that I'm less likely to get them. But I got The Eternal Warrior right off the shelf in mass market – and now find that the sequels are in trade. Drat!

Looks like it's a vicious circle: either I buy the trades at full price (which makes you publishing guys keep putting books out in this bastard form and continue putting out new authors in this form based on past sales figures – which just keeps this less-than-desireable system going) or I do what I do right now: read the CBA stuff at the library and buy used copies. Which gives the author bupkiss. I don't just read CBA stuff, and I'm more likely to find a better story elsewhere – unless that author is exceptional. Which Tyers, Hancock and Ingermanson are. Understand that I like these authors and read them, but it takes either a price reduction or a sale to make me buy them, partially because they come in trade paper. Incidentally, Tyers had mass market editions of some earlier SF titles. I snapped these up on first sight. They aren't in print now, of course. I found them at Used Book Sales.

Do you figure up all those library "re-reads and used book re-purchases," not in terms of sales but in terms of exposure? I'd like to know that they're getting something from me, even if I do purchase trades at sales, and read / recommend them to other folks – who may not have my hang-up with trade paper.

One solution: Get thee off to SFBC and make deals so Ingermanson / Olson can have an Omnibus edition of their Mars series! Do the same with Hancock!

Boy. I sure touched on a sensitive issue when I spoke of the economic reasons behind mass paper vs. trade paper in the CBA. Your replies show a misunderstanding of the nature of publishing and bookselling. Warning: You won't like my answers, but they are based in facts and realities.

25 years ago the reason there were few mass-market (4"x7") size paperbacks in CBA was the printing technology. The printers would only do runs of 100,000 copies which excluded nearly all CBA publishers. There were a few exceptions (God's Smuggler, The Cross and the Switchblade, The Hiding Place), but they were all bestsellers already. Zondervan even did a series of romance mass-market books in the early 80s. They took a huge bath and it virtually killed the idea of mass-market romance for nearly six years because no one wanted a repeat of that disaster.

Then the technology changed so that the print run restrictions weren't so difficult.

Now let me bring in the bookseller.

Mass-market paperbacks had one unusual facet with regard to returns. The bookseller could just tear the cover off the book, return the cover for credit and throw away the book. That is why you would find coverless books in used bookstores on occasion, they were dug out of the trash by someone. Used dealers don't take those anymore because the law cracked down on the practice. However, "tear cover" returns still exist. With trade paperback (5"x8") booksellers must send back the entire book for credit. Higher cost for the bookseller, better for the publisher since they could resell a book that was in good condition.

Back to publishing.

Many CBA houses experimented with mass-market releases. The ABA usually did a book in hardcover and then a year later brought out the mass paper. This could not happen in CBA because of the resistance to hardcover fiction. So the economics crept in. A hardcover release would create a large amount of revenue and then the mass paper was bonus profit. In CBA the trade paper eliminated the need to "take it to paperback." So to do a mass paper after a trade paper just didn't seem to make sense to dealers or consumers.

Never did a mass paper original release sell better in unit sales then a similar book released originally in trade paper. Never.

Let's do some math:

If a publisher could sell 10,000 copies at a retail price of $12 there is a retail potential of $120,000. If a publisher sells 50% more copies in mass-market, 15,000, at $8 there is a retail potential of $90,000. A 75% increase in sales would mean 17,500 copies sold at $8 for a retail potential of $140,000. (Remember that publishers don't sell at retail prices but at significant discounts... use 50% off for an average net value.) So a publisher in the above model would have to sell about 60% more books to make the same amount of money.

See?

Then add in the tear cover returns. This means every copy not sold at the retail level is thrown away at the store in mass-market. But trade paperbacks come back to the publisher who can resell it or sell them as "hurt or bargain books" and get their print costs back.

You complained about Lawhead. Perfect example. The Albion series was originally published in hardcover by Lion. It sold well for a $20 hardcover in CBA. (Lion was owned by Cook Publishers – Lion also published the first Jan Karon books... in trade paperback. Note that Jan Karon has never been sold in mass paper, even by Penguin.) Sales justified bringing it out in trade paperback. The general market discovered the strength of the Albion series and either Avon or Ace licensed the mass-market rights to the Albion series which circulated for a couple years. Then Lawhead's agent secured the sale of the rights to all Lawhead's past books from Crossway and the trilogy from Lion to Zondervan. A series of licensing agreements got most of those books published in mass-market by NY houses. But they tended to be on the shelves for a few seasons and then disappeared (part of the "here and gone" nature of mass-market publishing.) However Zondervan continued to keep the books available in trade paperback for a while. The Albion series was even put into a print-on-demand format for a period. I tried to buy them during that experiment and the retail for each book was $26. So while you may complain that you can find Albion in mass-market, it only means that you missed your chance when they were available. I could go on and give dozens of examples.

Complain all you want amount CBA publishers being expensive and maybe even greedy. I've heard the litany for 23 years. It just isn't that cut and dried. CBA books are not expensive. Going to a movie is expensive. $24 for three to see The Passion. My whole Bible cost less than that. :-)

I know people vote with their pocketbook. We all do. In every industry. Publishers are trying their best to keep costs and profits in line. They resist price increases because they know the effect it has on the reader. But mass-market is not the solution. It never will be.

You mention Dee Henderson? That was a gimmick by the publisher to launch a new reader. Multnomah has been doing this type of creative marketing for a while. They did this with a $4.97 trade paperback of Al Lacy's westerns. The publisher lost money on the first book but made it up with sales of subsequent volumes. The same with Dee Henderson.

Left Behind was launched in hard cover, then trade paper. The first volume was released in mass-market for one season as a way to seed the market for the series. It was a great success. I think this happened around the release of book 3 or 4 of the series. It got book one in grocery store check-out lines and airports all over the country. They sold about 500,000 copies of the mass-market edition. Created a lot of new readers... 60,000,000 books sold in the series so far.

I hope this helps you understand the biz side of the industry a little better. Most complaints are solved when an understanding of the facts is presented. Most complaints derive from a lack of knowledge which leads to dissatisfaction.

MM: I have, btw, seen books (outside CBA) that went HC -> trade -> MM, in that order. (Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, for instance.)

You say that doing MM after trade doesn't make sense to consumers. That, I think, is an incorrect assumption. While I don't expect to see a mass market paperback of a book that's come out in trade, I think it makes perfect sense, because MM is a better price. If I can get a hardcover, and can afford it, I'll buy hardcover, but if the choice is between trade paper and mass market, I'll buy the MM, because it's cheaper, more convenient to carry around, and will last about the same amount of time as the trade. (The smaller type of the MM doesn't make a big deal to me. And for those people whom it does make a big deal to, whether you release a MM is never going to be part of their purchase decision if they can get the larger format.)

Clearly, some ABA publishers see the value in going to MM after releasing a trade edition. They wouldn't be doing it if it "didn't make sense."

DF: Sorry, Steve, I did not mean to imply that the comparison was in US dollars or amounted to a full 30% increase. The exchange rate per se doesn't matter (assuming it remains relatively steady) when you just look at the affordability question. That's why, instead of talking about the US vs Can. $, I mentioned the price of a book vs. the earning power and available spending money we have here. I didn't mention, though, that we pay up to 15% in federal and provincial sales taxes on that price (and since it's a percentage, higher price of TPB vs MMPB = yet more tax= still higher total cost for a book=discouragement from purchasing.) To say nothing of our higher rates of income tax that leave us less net spending money.

I don't know what the difference in cost of books to consumers in the US vs. Canada is in absolute terms; however, I have Canadian book-crazy friends living in Pennsylvania, one of them a seminary librarian in charge of collection development. They tell me that with all factors taken into account, there is no question books down there are a fair bit cheaper (shall we settle for more than "about the same" and less than 30%? ;-) (My friends have been enjoying the price difference thoroughly and looking on it as one of the perks of the move!) Of course there must be some regional variation.

I'm not choosing Robert Jordan, either, never have. (I'm just waiting for someone on this list to pop up and admit to being a Jordan fan! ;-) These days, with the few books I buy from month to month, I'm choosing Connie Willis, Gene Wolfe, Lois McMaster Bujold, Robin Hobb, Louise Marley... It's not that I wouldn't spend the money for a trade pb or hardcover of a book I really wanted to read, and if I thought I might read it more than once and/or lend it enthusiastically to other people. But with authors I haven't tried, the higher price is too much of a hurdle for the risk. This not by way of complaining that it's the publishers' fault, Steve, but explaining why from this end a lot of people make the choices they do.

BTW, here in BC, people have begun to balk at the cost of movies too, so the theatres decided recently to drop prices. Only, while dropping prices overall, they decided to also eliminate the half-price Tuesdays, so that did not quite satisfy customers. I rarely go. About once a year I cough up the big wad of dough for a live play, either Shakespeare or the local professional Christian theatre company; and maybe once every five years a big really expensive touring musical. But a rented DVD, regardless of how many are watching it together, is only about half the cost of a mass-market pb. On the whole I prefer books, but they're certainly only cheaper than a DVD rental if they come from the library or a friend who lends it to you. Oh, and you can rent DVDs from the library too – often the old classics that are harder to get at the local video store.

Editor's Note: I have left out 14 messages at this point, which continued on the general theme of the cost of CBA fiction, and continue with Steve's next response.

We've exhausted the price / mass-market vs. trade paperback issue. I said you wouldn't like my answer. But it is a reality you have to deal with. The Neil Stephenson example is a poor one as it was an aberration, not the norm.

Let me be even more blunt.

I know of an author who had a book in trade paper. It sold 12,000 copies. It was recently brought out in mass-market... it has sold 6,000 copies. The same happened with the mass-market editions of Bodie Thoene and Janette Oke and Michael Phillips books from Bethany House. The sales were a tenth (10%) of the sales in trade paper. So let's end the discussion by admitting that our desires for cheaper books will always be greater than a publisher's ability to provide said prices.

And please remember. I'm an agent. Not a publisher. I'm just volunteering a lot of time to help out a few fans understand the world of writing and publishing.

The library suggestion was a suggestion. It was not motivated on whether or not an author "lost" sales. The point was trying to maximize your reading budget by using the services your tax dollar provides.

As for Canada. I bend to our northern friends. I was getting hammered by the scream of "books are too expensive"... as if I could wave the wand and magically make everything cheaper... by the dozen... :-)

My efforts here have been an attempt to discuss the economic realities of the publishing community. You don't have to like it or even agree with it. But understand that these are the facts. It costs a publisher $30,000 to $40,000 to put a book on the market with any sort of significance. (This includes cover design, editing, typesetting, printing, shipping, modest advertising, and author advances...for an average book.) If it was your money I think you would be very careful about what you spent it on and how you spent it.

Next question?

MM: And there's also the fact that library readership doesn't help support the authors. If you only ever read books from the library, and never buy them yourself, you're not helping that author make a living. So while getting books from the library is a good way for readers to save money, it's not so good for the authors if we all did that instead of buying books.

DF: Unless you live in Canada and can apply for Public Lending Rights payments.

I've learned something valuable and wonderful. The Public Lending Rights program in Canada www.plr-dpp.ca. I did not know that such a thing existed. I'll have to talk to a couple the authors I know who are Canadian to see if they know about it.

GS: I have read a number of Christian SF books which I considered "not quite there yet", and yet I felt that the authors showed real promise, and would like to see those stories "fixed up" and republished. Where should I point author in this kind of situation? Conferences? Books? Editing services? Agents? All of the above?

All of the above.

Conferences are a great place for concentrated learning.

Self Editing for Fiction Writers is a great book. Also if you can find it (it is OP) Dean Koontz wrote How To Write Bestselling Fiction. Editing services are a mixed bag, but it can't necessarily hurt.

Agents are not editors and don't confuse them. As an agent I help craft the pitch and the concept, but I don't "fix" writers who aren't there yet.

GS: One of the things which makes me most likely to mark a book down (at least within SF) is scientific errors. Who, if anyone, checks for scientific accuracy during the process? Do publishers have researchers to check facts? Is it completely up to the author? Do you have technical advisors whom you ask to check a manuscript over before you try to pitch it? (I ask this because I've been sitting on my review of a book which is riddled with such errors, while I've been trying to think of something nice to say about it. Not, I must hasten to add, a book by an author you have mentioned as being one of your clients...)

A good copy editor will spot-check facts and some will try to check all of them, but that is expensive. Bottom line the publisher must trust the writer. It is the writer's reputation at stake. So in your case, be honest and point out all the scientific errors while also telling them that if those were fixed they would have a dynamite story. But if the author stops the reader with a "but that is wrong!!!" the author has failed the reader and lost them forever. There is no excuse for sloppy research. None.

GS: When you, as an agent (as opposed to an author), make a pitch to publishers, how does that go? Do you make "cold calls" when you have a manuscript you consider saleable? Do publishers contact you when they want a manuscript in a particular genre or on a specific topic?

Very similar to an author pitch. The main difference is what I do to each proposal. I rework the author's proposal into a style I have developed. It is very editor friendly and gives and executive a quick overview. Most of my CBA contacts are friends in the industry. In ABA I usually make a modified cold call. I use my boss as the door opener with the general market. When I say that Frank suggested I contact them the doors is opened wide. But I must be very careful not to abuse that privilege. Just because a Christian author wants to be published in ABA it doesn't mean that the editor on that side of the desk is receptive. I have had a number of occasions where the publisher has initiated the contact with an idea they want written. This usually happens with non-fiction, but it has occurred twice in the past 3 months with a novel.

GS: Some authors have resorted to "self-publishing" to get into print. Does this help or harm their chances of getting subsequent works published by "normal" publishing houses?

There are many success stories of folks self publishing and then getting picked up by a royalty house. Gary Smalley, Joseph Girzone (Joshua), Richard Evans and many others have done it this way.

But the key is the quality of the self published effort. Far too many are poorly constructed and look cheap. You get what you pay for. It is one of the reasons I founded ACW Press (www.acwpress.com) to help people self publish in a quality fashion without ripping people off. I don't run that business any more but it provides a needed service in our industry.

GS: In your "slush pile", are there certain SF or fantasy plots or themes which have been "overdone", and should be avoided?

Terrorist themes are overdone. But I see so few SF or fantasy proposals – maybe 30 a year – that I've not seen anything abnormal. The only no-no is the unbelievably obvious allegory. The "search for the lost book" type of thing.

GS: Are there "gaps" in themes/periods/styles/subgenres which you think you could sell if you had any worthy manuscripts of that type?

Pitch me an idea and I'll know if it works.

GS: Are there secular SF and fantasy authors which you consider to be "benchmarks", against which you compare the manuscripts in your slush pile?

General market writers? That is a tall order, but I'll qualify this as these are some of my favorites, but not all of their books are made equal.

If you can write like these, I'll get you published in a NY minute.

GS: How much of a work do you normally have to read before you get a reliable "go" or "no go" sense about it? (Does it take more reading to decide one way than the other?)

I can know if it doesn't work on the first page or two. To know if it really works I'll find myself many pages into the material before I realize how much I've read. In other words, I've been transported. This is a great sign that the book works. If I and my reviewers like the first three chapters we usually ask for the rest of the manuscript. Then we can know if they really sustain the project.

GS: Have you ever started in on a manuscript thinking, based on the premise, that it wouldn't "work", only to change your mind based on the work itself?

Very rarely.

GS: Can you give us a sense of what proportion of the manuscripts in your slush pile which you try to pitch to markets?

Less than 1%.

DF: And now, Steve, would you please tell us what the books in that 1% have in common (regardless of genre) that put them there?

Based on hearing many stories of slush pile horrors, I would guess that that the 1% they have in common is a combination of the following:

– there were no misspellings on the first page
– the first page was typed, not handwritten
– the manuscript was not soaked in perfume
– there was an SASE to get back in touch with the author

I recommend Teresa Nielsen Hayden's comments on her blog:

nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/004641.html#42967

What do they have in common? Great idea, great writing, commercial viability. Pretty simple. When I receive over 1,000 proposals each year (up to 50 in a week) and that there are only so many clients that I could properly manage you can see the problem. I have to decide what to "spend" my time and effort (money = time) to work on. I've turned down some authors who have been previously published because I simply could not take more work at that time, or their ideas were not necessarily strong enough to get behind.

Publishing is full of daily rejection. I get rejections on behalf of clients nearly every day. I have to reject proposals nearly every day.

Yuck.

LL: What do you see as the most essential fantasy elements? World-building, fantastic creatures, different races, magic? Anything else?

This is an extremely subjective question which has no right answer. Personally I like the "young boy/girl (about 18-20) discovering that they have some sort of power/responsibility thrust upon them." For some reason those resonate with me.

I do like some world building elements. I don't really like creatures per se, or different races, as in alien-type. Different types of humanity are always intriguing.

LL: Do you have favorite fantasy characters? Who are they and what makes them stand out?

Hard to recall all of them. The Giant in Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant: the Unbeliever series was an incredible Christ-figure.

LL: The line between "Fantasy" and "Fairy Tale" can be very thin, and I heard that some authors are trying to sell their fantasy works under the fairy tale genre. Do you think it's a good idea?

I see that line as a huge one. Fantasy being for older readers and Fairy Tale for kids. I think trying to pass off fantasy as a fairy tale is a horrible idea, and it doesn't fool anyone.

LL: The use of magic in Christian fantasy can be a very hot topic. What are your thoughts on that?

Hot topic? Not really. A topic with a definitive answer? Absolutely. The answer is that magic is mostly a no-no in Christian fantasy. The typical type, meaning the casting of spells and such is not well received at all. It is too close to the use of the dark and demonic. A more acceptable thing is the "magic" of the force in Star Wars or the powers found in Brennen in Firebird by Tyers.

In my years as a Christian bookseller I carried Lord of the Rings and A Wrinkle in Time. Neither sold in our stores. I just carried them as a "statement" of sorts. But it tells you that the customer in our stores was not looking for that type of literature from our establishment. That has changed in the last few years as better sci-fi/fantasy has been published. But it would be a rare Christian bookstore that would carry Tolkein or L'Engle.


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