The Downside of Publishing Better Books

By Mike Duran

As you would expect, Thomas Nelson’s recent decision to cut its work force and publish less books — which includes a 50 percent cut in new author titles — has generated some animated discussions and hand-wringing amongst Christian authors. While Michael Hyatt, CEO of Nelson, concedes the business aspects of this decision, he inevitably cites quality as the driving force. In his initial blog post, Too Many Books, Too Few Shelves, Hyatt writes:

As a heavy book reader myself, I contend that we need better books not more books. I can’t tell you how many books I started this past year and never finished. Why? Because, frankly, they weren’t worth finishing. Most of them left me underwhelmed. The authors would have done better to boil down the content and make it a magazine article.

But publishers appear to be addicted to cranking out more and more titles. It reminds me of a scene from an old episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy and Ethel are working in a chocolate factory. Finding themselves in the Wrapping Department, they must keep up with the increasing speed of a factory conveyor belt. Since the ladies initially appear to be keeping up with the flow, their supervisor increases the speed of the belt until Lucy and her friend are overwhelmed.

Editors and book marketers face a similar predicament. “If only we had just a little more time to spit-shine this title,” they mutter under their breath. But the conveyor belt keeps delivering a seemingly endless flow of titles. Worse, Publishers desperate for growth keep piling additional titles onto the backs of their already-overworked employees.

It’s time to stop the madness. We don’t need more titles. We need better titles. The only way this is going to happen is if publishers stop focusing on quantity and begin focusing on quality. (italics mine)

Though Nelson’s decision has potentially uncomfortable ramifications for book makers and aspiring authors, the appeal for quality above quantity should resonate with readers. Who doesn’t want to see better books? In this, Hyatt’s statements recall another industry giant.

Patrick Goldstein’s The Big Picture appears weekly in the L.A. Times and is one of the most informative Hollywood insider columns out there (in fact, Goldstein recently launched his own blog, which is equally rich in content). Earlier this year, in a column entitled Mouse House Tops Studio Report Card, Goldstein handed out year-end report cards to the studios. The overall score consisted of three grades: first for box office and profitability, second for film quality, and third for overall success. At the top of the list was Disney with an A-.

While finding Disney at the head of the class is not surprising, what is noteworthy is the reason given for their success:

…Of the 11 movies it released in 2007, eight were Disney label movies, allowing the company to remain relentlessly focused on its brand. By releasing so few films, Disney was able to make more high-quality films by putting extra time into solving script, production and marketing issues than competitors like Sony and Warner Bros., who roll out more than 20 a year.

“We’re probably in a different business than our brother and sister companies,” says Disney studio chief Dick Cook. “We’ve learned that it’s not how many you do but how good they are. If you only make 11 movies a year, you’re not putting your movies through a meat grinder; you can be very specific about quality. That way, if we do stumble, and I’m sure we will, it will be because we were pushing the envelope instead of not keeping our eye on the ball.” (italics mine)

After watching Ratatouille, a delightful film that made many critics’ Top Ten ‘o7 lists, who could argue about the meticulous detail that goes into Disney’s animated films — a signature that will, no doubt, be continued with Wall-E, its most recent release. But as with any quality product, there’s a downside — perfection takes time. And this is exactly what differentiates Disney from its competitors. So while competing studios crank out 20+ films a year, Disney is content to limit its lot… and polish the heck out of them.

Can Thomas Nelson be slighted for going a similar route?

It’s not a coincidence, I think, that both executives have come to eschew the mass production mentality that drives so many in their respective fields. Hyatt calls it a “conveyor belt,” Cook a “meat grinder.” And that’s from the guys in charge! Either way, breaking this “addiction” (Hyatt’s term) is not without consequences. The downside of publishing better books, in part, means taking more time with less titles. Therein lies the rub.

The fallout of TN’s decision, marketwise, is pending. Will other Christian publishers follow suit? Will more amateur novelists now choose self-publishing over the big name houses? Will more small, independent presses arise, willing to take on the unpublished, middlin’ authors left in the lurch? With the big boys seeking, primarily, brand name authors with shelf cred and the cream of the “breakout novel” crop, it makes sense that aspiring authors should look toward new, creative ways to get their story into print. But perhaps the biggest question is, Will we really see more, better books?

Whatever happens, I for one, applaud Thomas Nelson’s decision, even if it makes the climb that much harder for aspiring authors like me.

Ron Benrey ~ Guest Blogger on Hearing Voices

Ron Benrey and his wife Janet have co-written three different Christian romantic suspense series for B&H Publishing, Barbour Books, and Steeple Hill. Their latest novel, “Grits and Glory,” from Steeple Hill will be available in early June. Ron is also the author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Christian Fiction,” published by the Alpha imprint of Penguin. His next non-fiction book, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Christian Mysteries” (which examines the most difficult Christian teachings) will be published in early August.

You should hear voices when you read a well-written Christian novel.

From a reader’s point of view, voice is the “sound” that the novel creates in a reader’s head—the soundtrack, if you like, of the “fictional dream” that puts a reader in distant places and inside different characters.

Although we typically talk simply about voice, there are actually three kinds of voices that novelists need to worry about:

1. Authorial voice—the overall “sound” of the author. We all agree that Charles Martin has different authorial voice than Angela Hunt. This is the “voice” that editors seem to have in mind when they talk about “strong voice,” “new voice,” “authentic voice.”

2. Narrative voice—the distinctive “sound” of the first-person narrator (in a novel written in the first-person Point of View) or the all-knowing storyteller (in a novel written in the omniscient POV).

3. Character voice—the characteristic “sounds” of the various characters. A sassy female private eye should have a different character voice than a hero from the Bible, or a pioneer bride in a prairie romance, or an abused homemaker, or the alien captain of an intergalactic cruiser. Because readers soon catch on to the differences, character voice helps to establish who is currently telling the story. A common criticism editors level at new writers is, “your characters sound too much alike.”

When the three kinds of voice work together in a novel, they yield much the same effects that music achieves in a movie. For starters, voice helps to define the genre in a readers mind. Serious vs. scary vs. suspenseful; grim vs. cheerful vs. funny; romantic vs. smart-alecky—all of these “perceptions” can be brought about by appropriate voice.

Similarly, voice can sets the stage in your novel by communicating locale and time frame. First century Judea will have a unique “sound” compared to present day New York City, or a mountain pass in 19th century Utah, or a distant galaxy, far, far away.

Finally, voice can create the psychic distance between reader and character. A close voice is perfect in a suspense novel when you want the reader to feel threatened by the antagonist along with protagonist. By contrast, a more distant voice is useful for describing setting that the reader doesn’t need to “see,” “smell,” or “touch” through a point-of-view character’s consciousness.

Agents and editors—the principal gatekeepers who decide whether or not a novel is publishable—care about voice because it plays a critical role in how readers experience a novel, and ultimately, how much they enjoy reading it. Voice is also one of the first attributes of your work that each gatekeeper gets to evaluate. S/he knows if your voice is strong long before the quality of your storytelling or characterizations shine through.

The bottom line: voice is important. It also seems to be the one critical aspect of writing publishable fiction that can’t be taught. A quick Internet search will yield a gazillion surefire tips to help you plot your next novel, but you’ll find little useful advice about how to improve your voice—other than the suggestion that you read lots of novels you respect.

Voice is hard to teach because it encompass the countess decisions that we make when we sit down to write: choice of words, point of view, sentence length, balance between narrative and dialog, kinds of figures of speech, amount of humor, past or present tense, balance between narrative and dialog, use of flashbacks, use of dialect … the list of key ingredients goes on and on.

I also believe that good voice reflects confident writing; if you’re uncomfortable with (or lack knowledge about) the subject matter of your novel, your voice will change for the worst, probably becoming hesitant and tentative.

Because voice is such a complex critter, it’s difficult to diagnose voice problems. Consequently, while agents, editors, and critique group members may make vague criticisms—e.g. “your voice needs work”—they rarely offer practical advice for fixing what’s wrong, other than the generic suggestion to read, read, and read some more.

While it’s probably true that great voice is instinctive, good voice can be developed and/or nurtured—both by reading and by writing.

On the one hand, reading other writer’s work seems the best indirect method of strengthening your fiction-writing voice. Reading good writing trains your “authorial ear.” Once your internal voice sensor has perfect pitch, so to speak, you’re equipped to find your own voices.

On the other hand, as with other aspects of writing, the more you write the better your authorial voice will become. Your voice ultimately reflects your skill, knowledge, history, taste, preferences, sensibilities—and mileage behind the keyboard.

Now, you might think that for this kind of ad hoc voice training to work, you have to read the kind of fiction you want to write, then write solely in your target genre. Not necessarily. I sharpened my fiction voice by reading and writing non-fiction. Over the years, I developed three distinct voices:

1. Chatty and cheerful.
2. Neutral and authoritative.
3. Pompous (ideal for pretentious corporate publications).

However, now that I write fiction, I do try to prime my authorial ear by reading authors who have the kind of voice I want to achieve. After two or three novels, my authorial voice moves closer to theirs, but never becomes identical.

The other side of the coin: when I’m writing a novel, I don’t read fiction written in significantly different voices. I find that upsets the cadences of my work-in-progress.

Many new authors wonder if authorial is voice unique. Well, conventional wisdom says that it can be—that Stephen King, Charles Dickens, James Michener, and other distinguished novelists have unique voices which readers can identify merely by perusing short excerpts of their novels.

I won’t argue the point, except to say that many successful writers don’t have unique voices. A best-selling author of Christian women’s fiction told me, “I wouldn’t recognize my authorial voice if it called to me.” And a popular Christian suspense/mystery author added, “When it comes to a recognizable authorial voice, I’ve always believed that I have laryngitis.”

This is encouraging news for the rest of us. Voice may be the sine qua non of successful fiction (Ooops! I slipped into my pompous voice. Sorry!). I mean that, voice may be an essential ingredient of a publishable novel, but strength and confidence seem to be more important virtues than uniqueness. Consequently, we all can develop the kind of voice that’s necessary to write compelling Christian fiction.

A killer tries to make the hurricane that blew through Glory, North Carolina, look like the bad guy. But Storm Channel cameraman Sean Miller knows the body buried under the rubble wasn’t the victim of a fallen church steeple. Feisty secretary Ann Trask seems to be the only person who agrees with him. But the woman of Sean’s dreams is busy being romanced by a phony celebrity weatherman, who cried on cue and hid during the fi rst strong gust of wind! Which means it’s time for Sean to invite Ann for some serious off-the-air investigation….

Humorist Phil Callaway ~ Interviewed

Phil Callaway is an award-winning author and speaker, known worldwide for his humorous yet perceptive look at life. He is the best-selling author of twenty-two books including Laughing Matters, Who Put My Life On Fast Forward? Making Life Rich Without Any Money, and Family Squeeze. Phil’s writings have been translated into languages like Polish, Chinese, Spanish, German, Dutch, Indonesian, and English (one of which he speaks fluently!)

Phil’s list of accomplishments also includes shutting off the TV to listen to his children’s questions (twice), taking out the garbage without being told (once), and convincing his high school sweetheart to marry him (once).

Described as “Dave Barry with a message,” Callaway is a popular speaker for corporations, conferences, camps, and marriage retreats. He is a frequent guest on national radio and television. Phil’s writings have won more than a dozen international awards. His 5-part video series The Big Picture is being viewed in 80,000 churches worldwide. Callaway is editor of Servant magazine, which he started in 1989 with the goal of encouraging, edifying, and educating readers. A general interest magazine, Servant is now read in more than 100 countries. Subscribe or read it here. Phil is a syndicated columnist and has published hundreds of articles in such publications as Marriage Partnership, Focus on the Family, New Man, Christian Parenting Today, Christian Reader, Home Life, Decision, and Faith & Friends. He lives in Canada with Ramona and their three children.
Share a bit about your writing journey.
I began writing a column called Family Matters back in 1990. An editor at Harvest House Publishers somehow got a copy, took the president out for lunch, and read him one of my stories. He laughed until indigestion became a problem for him, then said, “See if he’d write a book.” They phoned and I suggested Honey, I Dunked the Kids. It was a hit back in 1993 and launched my writing career. I’m absolutely astounded at the responses to my books and so thankful for every opportunity to tell of the joy Christ can bring.
What came first for you — the platform or the book(s) and how did/do the two mesh?
The book came first. People assume that if you write, you speak. The problem for me was that I was terrified. I didn’t sleep all night before my first radio interview. I got on a TV show and the host asked me, “What does it take to be a good dad?” And I said, “Well…it’s like Martin Luther once said…” and my mind went blank. I stammered and stuttered. I said, “he said that we should never forget what he said, and I don’t have a clue what it was.” They laughed and I learned to go with my strengths. People laugh when I talk, so I try to use it the best I can.
How would you sum up your platform, expertise or message?
I come at life from a humorous and warped perspective. I write and speak about bringing joy back to life. My wife Ramona battles Epilepsy and I’m part of a family that battles severe Depression and Huntington’s Disease, so the things I write about are very real, and they are things I’m trying to put into practice on a daily basis. I think readers want to hear from someone who is a fellow pilgrim, more than they want to hear form someone who has it all together at all times.
What’s more important to your platform, education or personal experience? Why?
Without a doubt, experience. I was home-schooled until the age of five at which point my mother gave up on me and handed me over to the government. I learned lots in school but forgot most of it by recess. I suppose I haven’t let learning get in the way of a good education. My writing is about real life stuff: children, failure, hardship, success, and money. Apart from failure and hardship, all of these things came about after I graduated. And though I make fun of my education, I will stand in front of 8,000 public school teachers in a few months, doing the very thing I got in trouble for back in school: making them laugh.
How does your message or your book(s) meet a need that others do not?
My latest book Family Squeeze looks at life from the vantage point of middle age, of being stuck in a house with three teenagers and my two aging parents who lived for a time in a suite we built for them. Most books about this time of life are clinical and a wee bit preachy. My take on this has been to tell the story and let readers find themselves in it.
What are your major marketing strategies?
Radio and TV and spare no expense on a website . It’s the best business card – apart from a book – that I know. The building of an email list has been a help. I speak to about 50,000 people live each year, and have a sign-up sheet for my goofy email update. I do all I can to stay in touch with those who market my books, and make it easy for people to buy bulk quantities of books. I have two agencies who promote my speaking, but the best promoters are those who have been deeply touched by what you have to say, those who have attended an event where they were moved and as a result want to hear more, and tell their friends.

What helped you the most when attempting to clarify your call or platform?
The confirmation of others helped a lot. The feedback from readers who felt I was filling a need that no one else was…the need to laugh about things that we all share in common, and to laugh with some hope attached. In time I made the decision to never travel alone, and that has been huge because the friends who travel with me keep me rather humble and tell me the truth.
Any books or classes that you’d suggest to other writers?
I would recommend all of my books. They have changed my life. Seriously, I’m a fan of writing conferences for budding writers. There’s very little real work done, but lots of networking.
What career would you pursue if you couldn’t write or speak?

Court stenography. I’d be awesome. I type fast. I’m a good listener. And I can smile when criticized.

Novel Journey Welcomes Christine Lynxwiler

Christine Lynxwiler considers herself richly blessed to be living the crazy writer life with her husband and two daughters in the beautiful Ozarks of Arkansas. She sold her first Christian fiction story to Barbour Publishing in 2001. A four time winner of the ACRW/ACFW Book of the Year Award, she now has 12 books in print, including Arkansas, Promise Me Always, Forever Christmas, and her newest release, Along Came a Cowboy. She has 2 more on the way and recently signed a contract for a brand new six book series. Christine loves to laugh and when asked to choose a movie, almost always picks a comedy. A romantic comedy, of course. Or as her husband calls it, a chick flick.

To learn more about Christine, visit http://www.christinelynxwiler.com/

It Takes More Than a Cool Pair of Shoes by Christine Lynxwiler

I’d like to start exercising. I just have to get out of my chair. And someday I will. But occasionally I hang out with a few friends locally who aren’t going to do it someday. They’re doing it today. When they talk about running marathons or (if they feel like slacking off a little) 5k runs, I get excited. Me, me, me!! I want to do that. I want to do that now.

My sweet husband helped me pick out some gorgeous running shoes. We dropped a nice amount of money into the hand of the very young saleswoman and I bounced out of the store. Oh, I forgot. After we checked out, I saw padded socks for runners, so I made another cash register run and got those, too.

I came home and dressed in my running clothes. We all know reasonable goals are the key to success, so I picked out a short distance on the gravel road in front of our house and determined to run it. I planned to go a little farther each day. And away I went. I chugged along but before I even reached the turnaround point (still within sight of my house) I turned my ankle and fell to my knees in the gravel and the rest is history. I retired with a wicked-looking battle scar and loads of Band-Aids. My daughters fixed me a tall glass of ice water while I relaxed in the safety of my chair.

Sometimes we’re like that in our writing. We want to be a writer. And we want it right now! We have a laptop. We have a website. Where are the contracts?

People often approach me at book signings and tell me they want to be published authors. I welcome questions about writing and am always thrilled to talk to writers who are working to get published. My advice to those who want to be published is almost always the same. First, learn the craft. Find a good place like American Christian Fiction Writers, or attach yourself to a published author who has time and a willingness to help you, and be a sponge. Keep an open mind and a humble spirit. And grow very thick skin. When I first started writing, I thought every word was magical. Once I figured out that I could actually put together those magical words and make stories (stories my family loved, I might add), I was a monster. I’d stop at nothing to protect my babies. . .um, stories.

Thankfully I got into a couple of critique groups and I kept hearing the same thing. Literally the same words—“The delete button is your friend.” I remember the first time I deleted a whole scene. The pain was very real. But so was the reward.

You may be the best storyteller in the world. And I won’t tell you that if you are the best storyteller you’ll never get published without learning about goal, motivation, and conflict or how to stay in a character’s point of view. But I will tell you this. No matter how good you are at telling stories, learning these things will only improve you. So if you think you could be a published author now and you’re right, then just think. . .with a good grasp of basic skills you could be a multi-published, best-selling, award-winning (and all those other hyphenated words) author!

Unfortunately 9 out of 10 times at book signings, the questions I get aren’t “How can I hone my skills so that publishers are interested?” or “Where do I learn how to write in one character’s point of view?” Instead I hear, “How do I get a publisher to look at my story?” or “How can I get an agent to sell my story?” or even “Would you ask your publisher to buy my book?”

And I totally understand.

I want to be a runner. Not a walker. Not a stretcher. A runner. But deep down, even while I was buying those beautiful shoes and padded socks, I knew that if it was that easy, everyone would be doing it. So it’s back to walking for me. For now. But someday when I’ve got the walking part down, you’ll definitely see me run.