I was 40 years old when I began acquiring fiction for Moody Press. My background included six years buying fiction and selling it in bookstores, four years of visiting Christian booksellers and interviewing them on why they were successful, and helping a fiction writer gain a publisher for a series of suspense novels.
At Moody Press we developed a cadre of freelance fiction readers to help me evaluate first novels. With our promotional approach and sales reps visiting bookstores, later telephone sales reps talking to smaller independent bookstore owners, we introduced a whole series of debut authors to the public, authors who kept on writing novels—with one still doing it.
Fiction writers approaching me now only too often think that’s the world they are entering. Not so—the publishing world has dramatically changed in ways incomprehensible to most fiction writers seeking my help as agent. So what do I tell them now?
- The number of Christian book outlets has shrunk dramatically, with one-third as many as there were only a few years ago. That means fewer bookseller staff actually reading novels and recommending them to customers. They have been replaced by impersonal sites such as amazon.com, which depend on authors to generate reviews from social media friends. My associates and I at Moody Bookstore used to give customers a personal recommendation. Impersonal reviews just do not have the impact that a bookstore staff member’s eyeball to eyeball review has.
- This lack of personal selling in thousands of bookstores means fiction readers develop favorite authors, giving rise to bestselling authors that make for happy publishers and fiction readers reading narrowly, not broadly. That’s a reason more and more Christians are reading more satisfying fiction from secular publishers. It also means that publishers settle for a collection of better selling authors and largely shut out debut authors. After all, introducing a new fiction author to the public costs a lot more money than delivering a novel from an established author.
So what’s a newly-minted fiction writer to do?
- The easy answer is to write better novels. Far too many first novel writers think writing a story that exploded in their imagination is all they need to get published. That’s a key reason I constantly urge fiction writers to join ACFW and learn from all the helps on ACFW’s website. My fiction evaluator consistently recommends a variety of instructional courses and books to first novel writers—and specific helps available on ACFW. I keep reminding these writers that even bestselling writers had their first five or six novels rejected before they had one that made editors happy.
- Recognize that today’s publishers only spend promotion money on bestselling novelists. That’s why editors have been told by marketing people to acquire novels from writers with a national platform. “But my story will sell itself,” I am told. Others insist, “All I want to do is write.” Writing high quality fiction is an admirable calling, but the realities of the market tell a different story. Developing a community of admiring readers via a newsletter, a blog, or social media interaction is imperative today if fiction writers want to get published by a quality publisher.
- Recognize going indie will take more time away from writing because of the need to develop—and maintain—a significant promotional thrust. I frequently get asked by fiction writers if their self-published book might interest a traditional publisher. The answer to that question is negative. Which publisher will take on a novel that has sold 300 to 400 copies? More than 30,000 copies of The Shack had been sold before a traditional publisher took it over.
Fiction writing is a noble and exciting life—if you can find a formula that helps you become a selling writer. The hard work to achieve that goal is overlooked by far too many first novel writers.