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Why You Want to Drive Some Readers Away

Photo: Kenny Louie
For the first time in several years, I am participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I’m blogging through the experience on my author website if you are interested.

Writing 50,000 words in one month is a daunting task at first, but really, a person only needs to write 1,667 words a day to reach 50,000 words in a month.

That’s doable.

But as writers, we find all sorts of reasons not to put words on the page. One of the obstacles is the fear that our writing won’t be good enough, or worse, that even after we revise it, many still will not get it. Here’s the problem with that thinking though – every book has its detractors. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s a good thing.

As a reader, you either love Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Drive Life” (the best-selling nonfiction hardback of all time), or you don’t. As of this writing, it has 901 five-star reviews on Amazon.com and 330 one- and two-star reviews.

Not everybody who loves Christian memoirs loves Anne Lamott. Her book, “Grace (Eventually)” has 55 five-star reviews and 25 one- and two-star reviews.

Not everybody who likes Christian fiction enjoys the “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis. Fifty-six readers have given it a one-star review.

It’s not important for everybody to “get” your book. You only need people in your target market to get it. And even within that market, you’ll find a dividing line, and that’s okay. If your book doesn’t create a dividing line between people who get it and people who don’t, that’s a pretty good indication you are trying to please everybody, and in the process your message or your method is muddy.

You have a relatively unique perspective on the world, and on your topic. I say “relatively” because your idea probably isn’t truly unique. It fits within a tribe of thought. Write for that tribe. Forget everybody else.

If you believe singles should court rather than date, then write a book about courtship and forget about your detractors. By the way, Joshua Harris wrote such a book, called “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and it has 148 five-star reviews and 49 one- and two-star reviews. He also changed some minds along the way.

If you love character-driven gentle fiction (think Jan Karon), then write for the people who love character-driven gentle fiction and forget about the people who will say your characters don’t do anything. You aren’t writing for them.

Your job as the writer is to create a dividing line and chase away the people you don’t get your book while at the same time creating a book that resonates within your tribe. I love how Bryan Allain described this in his e-book, “31 Days to Finding Your Blogging Mojo.” His quote is about blogs, but it applies to books as well:
Whatever your perspective is, you should put it front and center in as many places as possible. Get it on your About Page, use it in the subtitle of your blog, and anywhere else it fits. Doing so will drive away people with no interest in your angle on life, but will attract those who want to hear more from you. In this way, focusing on your perspective always makes your blog better.

#15 Consider Doing Work-for-Hire

Continuing with the 25-part series about how to build your freelance writing business ...

“We have an idea for a devotional book and I’m wondering if I can run it by you to see if you might be interested in writing it?” an editor said to me on the phone.

“Sure, let’s talk about it.”

He proposed a 31-day devotional as a work-for-hire project. He needed a synopsis by the end of the week so he could take it to the pub board. I listened to his vision for the book, wrote a synopsis, sent it to him and shortly thereafter he offered me a work-for-hire contract.

Since then, I have a done numerous work-for-hire books, curriculum and other products. Work-for-hire has been a good source of income for me. It can be for you too.

Before we go any further, let me explain what a work-for-hire contract is. The Copyright Act of 1976 defines a work-for-hire agreement this way:
In the case of a work made for hire, the employer or other person for whom the work was prepared is considered the author for purposes of this title, and, unless the parties have expressly agreed otherwise in a written instrument signed by them, owns all of the rights comprised in the copyright.
So, the publisher who issues you a work-for-hire contract is considered the author and they own all rights to your work. That’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it? These terms often drive writers away from such contracts. I understand why, in some cases, especially if the writer wants to use his or her material in other works.

But I take work-for-hire contracts for a number of reasons.

First, the pay is good. A book packager once paid me several thousand dollars to write fifty vignettes that appeared in a book with another author’s work. My name is not on that book, but the pay was worth it.

Second, with fewer writers being willing to do work-for-hire, there is more work available for those who do.

Third, publishers tend to use work-for-hire writers over and over again. I’ve written several books for one publisher and created several other products.

Finally, most of the material I produce as work-for-hire isn’t something I want to reuse. For example, occasionally I write Sunday school curriculum for a publishing house that has a theological bent that is quite different from mine.

By now, you are probably asking how to get work-for-hire contracts.

Publishers want seasoned writers for such contracts. They are compiling material for a project and don’t have time, or the desire, to do a lot of hand-holding. So they look for writers who have a strong resume in certain genres. Typically, they find these writers at writers conferences. But that’s not always the case.

Sometimes I hear about work-for-hire opportunities from other writers who are already doing work for a publisher or book packager.

You can find a list of book packagers (who need writers) on the American Book Producers Association website (http://abpaonline.org).

Many children’s book publishers offer work-for-hire contracts (Capstone, Mitchell Lane, Enslow Publishers, and many more).

Some royalty publishers also offer work-for-hire contracts for ideas they develop in-house. They don’t often publicize this, but if you are a member of a writers group, attend conferences, and participate in publishing email loops, you’ll hear about these opportunities.

One work-for-hire contract tends to lead to another one, if you’ve submitted solid material, making it a great way to build your freelance writing business.

Q & A with Literary Agent Terry Burns, Part 3

In this third and final part of the Q & A interview I did with author and literary agent Terry Burns last week at the CLASS Christian Writers Conference, we discuss how writers are impacted by the continuing trend of general market publishers buying Christian publishers and turning them into imprints.

HarperCollins owns Zondervan and Thomas Nelson. Random House owns WaterBrook Mulnomah. Harlequin owns Love Inspired (formerly Steeple Hill). Simon & Schuster owns Howard Books. Hachette owns FaithWords (formerly WarnerFaith). Agent Steve Laube has written a more in depth post if you want to read more about the subject.

As general market publishers began purchasing Christian publishers, many of us in the industry were nervous, wondering if they were going to water down the gospel. Some of those general market publishers made some mistakes early on, but so far our message doesn’t not seemed to be affected. Should we be concerned and what do we as authors need to know?

What have you seen come out of those houses?

Meaning?

Seen any books? These big publishing houses were drawn to the market because they saw that the Christian book market was selling a lot of books. And, as you say, Christians were nervous about what they were going to do with the content. As a result, the big houses – about the only people they’re publishing are the really big name people who would have had books out there anyway. They really, so far, have not been a market for particularly new or other authors with less publishing credits.

One of their big criteria [for agents] is that you don’t take anybody to them unless they’ve got a significant fan base already.

Good information. So that’s a difference from when these publishers were their own entities.

As an example, you see houses like Thomas Nelson and Zondervan coming under Harper – well, as soon as they came under Harper, they raised their criteria that they were looking for. All of a sudden they weren’t that interested in seeing a brand new writer. 

Now that doesn’t mean these houses won’t take a brand new writer. It means they have fewer slots. They have to have X number of writers making X amount of money to give them the excess money they need to take a chance on some new people. So they have some number of new slots and once they are filled up, they are pretty much through for the year.

So this means authors who don’t have a huge fan base should be thinking about creating one through mid- to small-level publishers instead, doesn’t it? 

Yeah, plus the fact that if your book is a niche book – you know what the market is and you know it’s not this great big general market – big presses don’t do niche markets. That’s what the small presses are for. They will come back to you and say, “We don’t serve niche markets.” But that’s where the small presses came from.

*****

Many thanks to Terry Burns for taking the time to talk to me about the changes going on in the Christian publishing industry. I hope you find his insights helpful in your publishing journey. 

If you would like to read the other parts of this interview:

Terry Burns is a literary agent with Hartline Literary Agency. He is a member of the Association of Author Representatives (AAR) and a signatory to their rules of practices and conduct. He has also authored more than 40 books.

Q & A with Literary Agent Terry Burns, Part 2

In Part 2 of this Q & A interview I did with author and literary agent Terry Burns last week at the CLASS Christian Writers Conference, we discuss why writers need to keep up with the industry, even if they have an agent, and we talk about current changes to the manuscript submission process.

A few years ago at the Heart of America Christian Writers Conference in Kansas City, you gave an address to conferees in which you told them they must keep up with the industry, the market and with what the culture is thinking. Gone are the days, if they ever existed, in which an author could write a book in a vacuum and send it out, hoping it will be published. Is that message still relevant in 2012?

It’s just as true. We’re working in an industry where it’s really not, “How is the industry this year over how was it last year?” We’re hearing a lot of people right now saying, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” and in the publishing industry it’s, “Are you better off than you were last month?”

Things change so fast. As an example, it used to be that with fiction, you had to have the novel finished to sell it, but nonfiction you could sell on proposal and three chapters. Nowadays publishers want the book to be finished.

I did a survey and 85% of the publishers said, “I want to know the book is finished – even nonfiction.” And one of the reasons is, the time frame. The length of time it takes to get a book out – if an author signs a contract and the publisher gives you six months to write the book, a year and a half from now, they might not want that book. So they are trying to condense that time frame so they are not working so far into the future. Publishers right now are buying books for 2014.

We’ve always been able to sell nonfiction books with a proposal and sample chapters. That allowed publishers to give authors feedback about the content of the book before it was written. So are publishers still wanting to give suggestions regarding feedback and what does that look like under this change to the submission process?

There are some publishers who say, “We don’t want it finished because we want to provide heavy input,” but others are saying “No, we at least want the first draft done and we’re still going to have a lot of input in it, but now we’ve got something to work with.”

Books are not written, books are edited. Until you have something written, you don’t have anything to edit. I tell writers who are just starting who tell me they need to learn this or that to just write a book. Then you can learn to work on it. But you can’t work on anything that doesn’t exist.”

Is this something publishers are telling you behind the scenes? I’m not seeing any writers guidelines that say publishers want the entire nonfiction manuscript finished before a proposal is submitted. 

Quite frankly, most writing courses are still saying to send a proposal and three chapters. That’s what they’re still teaching. I’m telling you, that with my clients, I’m not going to send the proposal unless I have the complete book.

I’ve done 170 books deals so far this year because I take the time to find out exactly what publishers want before I send it to them.

Why aren’t publishers being more upfront about that and telling us to have the complete manuscript done first?

I don’t know. Why don’t they tell authors why they didn’t want their book?

Probably because they don’t have a lot of time to provide that type of feedback.

That’s pretty much it.

Publishers will tell you – unless they are doing a workshop somewhere, standing up in front of a class – it’s not their job to train writers.

Here, at a conference like this, they can tell a class something without hurting somebody’s feelings because they’re talking to a group of writers. And they will tell the group something they wouldn’t tell the individual writer because it is going to be too pointed.

Good information. Let’s go back to the topic of the importance of understanding the publishing industry. Can agented authors just sit back and allow their agent to keep up with the industry for them? Or is it important for even agented authors to stay informed about the industry?

It’s best to know all you can about the industry, but for someone who doesn’t spend all of their time monitoring it the way an agent has to, that knowledge is going to be insufficient. I tell my clients though that it’s not my job to sell their book – it’s our job, and I expect them to find information and to be proactive. To do that, they have to be as knowledgeable about the industry as they can, even though they have an agent.

And they do that by joining writing email groups, going to writers conferences, getting involved in local writing groups, etc. 

You never know when you are going to hear something that is just exactly what I need to sell your book. I tell people, the phrase you really want to list for is, “I was asked to send a full manuscript, but they turned it down.” That tells me that, number one, an editor was interested in a certain type of manuscript and, number two, he didn’t get it.

That’s a golden opportunity. I know who, I know what he’s looking for and I know the opportunity is open.

*****

In Part 3 of this interview, Terry discusses what authors need to know about large ABA houses as they buy CBA houses. You might be surprised by what you hear.

To read Part 1 of this interview, click here.

Terry Burns is a literary agent with Hartline Literary Agency. He is a member of the Association of Author Representatives (AAR) and a signatory to their rules of practices and conduct. He has also authored more than 40 books.

Q & A with Literary Agent Terry Burns

I interviewed author and literary agent Terry Burns at the CLASS Christian Writers Conference last week. We discussed the changes in the publishing industry and what writers need to know to adapt.

As an agent, Burns has placed 170 book deals with royalty publishers in 2012, making his insights invaluable to writers of any experience.

Hope you enjoy the interview.

Terry, the industry is changing so much. The royalty publishing process continues to be slow and with e-books becoming more widely accepted, many writers are considering jumping ship on the royalty publishing process and going straight to e-book themselves without considering the business side of the equation. What do writers need to think about when they are considering self publishing or publishing their own e-books?

Deciding to self publish or deciding to bring out an e-book yourself should be a business decision. It should not be a knee jerk decision because of something the market is doing, or because it is taking too long, or because you’ve received too many rejections. Those are the wrong motivating factors.

The right way to look at it is to ask yourself, “What do I get and what do I give up?”

If you have the resources to hire an editor to make it a good book, and if you have the ability to do the cover design so it’s a first class cover and it looks like a professional book, and if you have the ability to do the marketing and promotion, then you have the ability to do the sort of things a publisher is going to give you.

But if it is not well edited and you’re getting ready to self publish, the reason it may not be ready to go [for royalty publishers] is because the book is not good enough yet. So to ignore that and just put out a second-rate book is not good.

But that’s still not the full answer.

Self publishing is going to cost you something – there’s a cost factor involved. With a traditional publisher – if it’s a big publisher – you’ve got the problem of trying to find one that will take the book. But also there is the possibility of going with a small publisher. A small publisher is one step up from self publishing, but they’re going to pay to bring your book out.

These smaller publishing houses are offering low or no advances, but it still might be worth it, right?

Oh, exactly. But they are going to pay to do the book. Of course, they will take a percentage, so it depends what you are getting or what you are giving up.

Chances are, small publishers are not going to put you in bookstores. But they may be able to put you into Ingram’s [the largest wholesale book distributor in the world], where bookstores can order the book. That means somebody has got to ask them about the book, but there’s still an advantage to self publishing because most bookstores won’t sell self published books. They will sell a small press book. So if you approach the bookstore, they will stock your book.

So this isn’t a black and white decision. It’s a what am I getting versus what am I giving up decision.

Let’s dig into the topic of e-books a little deeper. Some people are a little freaked out at the thought of e-books replacing print books. But in reality, at least for now, aren’t e-books just another avenue for writers and publishers to sell books? 

I remember when paperbacks came out and they were going to kill hardbacks. They didn’t. I remember when audio books came out and people wondered who would read a book when they could listen to one. They didn’t kill paperbacks or hardbacks. And I remember when digital books came out and they were going to kill print books. They didn’t.

Every time a new format for reading comes out, there’s a new readership that comes along with it. But the people who read the other formats continue to do so. Maybe at some point we’ll go far enough into the digital world that some of the other ones will disappear, but I don’t see that happening even in my lifetime.

Hard copies are not going to disappear until libraries disappear and we’ve got a lot of libraries. Libraries are capable of sustaining the hard copy book industry.

Many new writers who attend conferences are hoping to sell a memoir. Even though the CBA is more open to memoirs now than in the past, they are still hard to sell. “Felt needs” books, on the other hand, are easier to sell. What is your advice to writers in the CBA who want to sell a memoir?

If you’re writing a memoir or a personal experience book, the hard truth is, for somebody to buy it, they have to know who you are or they have to care about who you are. And for the most part, for people who don’t have a platform, and don’t have a readership base, their memoirs are very difficult to sell.

I ask people, “Why are you writing this as a memoir?” I’ll tell them that these are good stories, “But why don’t you write this as fiction? You can include information in the front of the book that says it is based on a true story.” I’ve had two or three clients who I just could not find a publisher for their book and I told them to turn it into fiction.

Did they do it?

Yes. And they sold. Now all of a sudden, people don’t have to know you, or care about who you are because it’s fiction.

*****

We’ll continue with Part 2 of the interview in the next post.

Terry Burns is a literary agent with Hartline Literary Agency. He is a member of the Association of Author Representatives (AAR) and a signatory to their rules of practices and conduct. He has also authored more than 40 books.