Posts Tagged ‘publishing’

Publishing Woes

September 23, 2016

Everybody knows that the digital revolution has changed publishing. You can read long analyses of what is new and where the industry is going, if you want to. A lot of that will bore to tears anyone who isn’t directly involved. For most people, only two questions matter: are good books being written, and can I get them? The answers are yes and yes.

However, I think you might find it interesting to gain a close-up view of the problems of publishing as I experience them—problems that mirror some of the problems of American society today.

I’ve published many books over the decades, and I have absolutely no reason to complain. However, I’m writing a different kind of book than any I have in the past, and I’m experiencing a different reality.

I’ve written a novel, and it is far-and-away the best thing I’ve ever written. I say that with confidence because I’ve had six or eight readers review it and they’ve been strikingly positive. Besides, I feel it in my gut.

It’s a contemporary story based in an urban gospel mission. In fact, that’s my working title: Gospel Mission. It focuses on a handful of people involved with the mission’s residential drug and alcohol rehab program. The ethos is fundamentalist/evangelical. It’s a story of addiction and recovery, life and death, God and destruction, plus a developer trying to move the mission out of a neighborhood he wants to gentrify, and his skullduggery that almost wrecks the mission. It’s a compelling read, by all accounts.

The problem is getting somebody to publish it. Sure, I know, that’s a problem for most novelists. But this is an interesting case, best summed up in an email I recently received from a literary agent.

She liked the book, a lot. This agent can be blunt, but everything she wrote was laudatory. After considerable prose devoted to the book’s virtues, she wrote:

“Having said all that, I am stymied as to what sort of publisher would be interested in the project. It’s told mainly from men’s point of view, and [Christian publishers] struggle to make books written mostly about men work. It’s hard to find the audience. I don’t, by any means, think this is a book that would only appeal to men. (I certainly enjoyed it.) But women have to be given encouragement to read such books, and publishers seem inept at finding readers for novels that don’t have a “just right” sort of hook. A summary of the story wouldn’t drive women to the book, nor does the title. I couldn’t think of an angle that might work.

“And it’s not a general market book–way too much religion in it.”

According to her, I’m stuck in a publishing black hole. General publishers won’t give the time of day to anything so evangelical. And Christian publishers only know how to publish inspirational women’s fiction.

Isn’t that a reflection of our post-Christian western world? Religion remains an important reality to a great proportion of society, but that reality doesn’t make the cultural mainstream—except, maybe, in some exotic or historical form. People of faith are cordoned off—or cordon themselves off–into a cultural ghetto.

And when you turn to specifically Christian institutions, they have become extremely narrow. They only embrace a small slice of society, and they don’t have the money or the imagination to take chances on a wider audience. They stay in their ghetto.

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, but I think it’s gotten worse with the changes in publishing since Amazon became the biggest player and bookstores fell on hard times. There is less bandwidth in books that get published, and less willingness on the part of publishers to take on risk.

Fortunately, another change in publishing means that I can publish myself. I will, if that’s my best option, though I would far rather leave the publishing to somebody who knows what they are doing. Leave me to write! One way or another, Gospel Mission will get published. I’ll let you know when that happens.

 

 

Testimony

March 5, 2013

I was in Kenya when President Obama was inaugurated for his second term. The occasion came as a slight surprise to me, as I had not planned my trip there with Obama in mind. In the odd magic of coincidence, I had been in Kenya the last time Obama was inaugurated. Which meant that, unless the US Constitution had been changed without my notice, it had been exactly four years between my visits to Kenya.

That made me reflect on the changes those four years have brought me. Then, my wife Popie and I had gone for a 3 month visit, wondering whether we should relocate to Kenya. We had spent four years there early in our married life, and always thought we might someday go back. Now, with our kids launched, nothing held us in California. We wondered whether there was a job in Kenya, or a calling that we should answer. We decided to take a sabbatical, a long visit that would give us a chance to really investigate possibilities.

In the background for me was a lot of frustration with my work. Most of it had to do with the stresses in publishing brought on by the digital revolution. Someday publishing is going to find a new normal that will be a lot better than the old one. The transition, though, is difficult. The old economic models don’t work. The problems are different for newspapers than for magazines than for books. But in each case, there is tremendous uncertainty. And uncertainty leads to risk-averse publishing.

For a writer like me, that is bad news. Once upon a time you just needed to be a good writer. Now there’s a level of scrutiny that never used to be. Every discussion is played out against a background of fearfulness: this business could go bankrupt if we mess up. A writer is expected to offer a marketing platform. You are expected to prove that your project will win the day. It’s stressful. It makes for difficult relationships with editors.

So while I went to Nairobi open to new callings, I was also supremely fed up.

In Nairobi I spent considerable amounts of time investigating publishing possibilities. Popie looked at counseling and teaching. We talked to a good many friends. We looked for light. Popie and I asked God to make our direction clear.

And we found opportunities. There was need, and an obvious eagerness to work with us.

Nevertheless, sometime late in our sabbatical we turned to each other and discovered that each independently had no sense at all that we were supposed to live in Nairobi. On the contrary, we had a very clear sense that we were supposed to go back to California and keep doing what we have been doing all along.

It wasn’t the answer we were expecting. But it did bring a certain amount of peace.

Four years later, visiting Nairobi again, I was struck by what had occurred since. Three major projects have fallen into my lap. I didn’t seek them. I really had no idea of them at all.

One was my book on miracles. An editor asked me to consider it. I was very skeptical, and put him off repeatedly before eventually deciding to do it.

The second was a book on evolution and creation, which a foundation offered to support financially. I would never have attempted all the research without their support.

The third is what took me back to Nairobi: a Bible with notes on justice, produced as a global project. We call it God’s Justice. I’m the editorial director.  My friend Scott Bolinder approached me with it last spring, out of the blue.

None of these was my idea, but each one I have most thoroughly enjoyed. They use my gifts in ways I could not have anticipated. They have stimulated and educated me– a high value in my life. And I believe/hope that they will prove genuinely significant.

I tell this for the benefit of those who are frustrated and unsure of direction. I can’t claim that your life will work out as mine has. I believe these things are individually tailored. I do want to testify, in thanks to God, that I asked for direction and received it. That direction has led me to surprises that I would not have anticipated, and that I would not want to have missed.

The Romance of Making Books

September 6, 2011

I’ve been in publishing so long that I’ve lost the sense of magic in making books. Don’t get me wrong: I’m as enthusiastic as ever about what’s inside books. But the ink-and-paper-and binding, the book signings and media interviews, don’t do much for me. (E-books still intrigue me a little, but that’s fading fast.)

That is why I take such delight in a new book I’ve watched in the making for two decades: Robert Digitale’s Horse Stalker.

Robert is a reporter for our local paper, the Press Democrat. His work has been prosaic: the education beat, the city government beat, the salmon beat, and lately the real estate beat. We’ve been meeting for lunch for at least 20 years, and I always enjoy hearing about the very real worlds he reports on.

Sometime 15 or 20 years ago—I don’t remember exactly—Robert asked me to read a novel he was writing. That’s not too unusual—many a reporter harbors dreams of literature. What is unusual is Robert’s sticking to it, through draft after draft after draft. I’ve read a number of them over the years, and they kept getting better. A few months ago I read the final go-round, and I had to sit back with a big smile on my face, It’s become a wonderful piece of work. I’ve watched Robert go from ordinary to excellent through sheer determination. How he managed this, while holding down a demanding job and raising three children, I don’t undertand. He had to love it to give up that many evenings and weekends.

Horse Stalker is fantasy, set in a world of horses, magical swords, half-forgotten legends, and monsters. It’s not the kind of fiction I generally read, but I found myself turning pages with genuine pleasure.

There’s another romantic angle to this story. Robert hasn’t found a conventional publisher. That’s a complicated but common tale in this age when conventional publishing is a mess, especially for fiction. In an earlier era, this would have put a sad ending on Robert’s determination. Instead, Robert has launched a small publishing company and the book is available in all the standard outlets. You can do that, in this new time! And Robert has done it with gusto. He’s taken such delight in figuring out the ways of publishing and marketing. He’s found the romance of book publishing all over again, and I’ve regained a little of it just watching his pleasure.

People like me, who have been in publishing a long time, have had our lives disrupted by this new era. We’re likely to complain and worry. I try to remind myself, however, that these are truly revolutionary times. The internet is transforming our lives more than any invention in history—more than the printing press, more than the automobile, more than the telephone. It’s transforming everything from long-haul trucking to the music industry. There has to be romance in that, somewhere. for publishing, I find it here: that the gatekeepers are panicked, and anybody with nerve and a story to tell can now publish for himself. Let’s hear it for democracy!

If you’re anywhere near Santa Rosa, you should drop by Robert’s first book signing at Copperfields in Montgomery Village this Saturday at 1:30. Alternatively, from the comfort of your home you can read sample chapters and hear some of the original music composed around the book at the website http://www.horsestalker.com/horsestalker/home.html.  You can order a book there, or at any of the major bookselling websites (like Amazon.com).

On to Beirut

May 14, 2010

Just to let you know, I’m heading to Beirut tomorrow. I’m helping to lead a writers’ training program at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. They’re drawing in about a dozen writers from throughout the Middle East.We’ll spend four days together.

I’m very aware I can be of limited help. I don’t know Middle Eastern culture, I don’t know Middle Eastern publishing, and I can’t read any Middle Eastern languages. I’ve tried to excuse myself but the organizers are quite confident they need me.  I’m going to be very interested to learn just what they think I can do for them. Fortunately, I’ll be working with several other leaders from the region who will provide the inputs I can’t.

For myself, I’m very much looking forward to gleaning insights about the situations the writers find themselves in. I’ll be checking in with what I learn, so stayed tuned.

Does Information Want to Be Free?

July 1, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell has a worthwhile article in the latest New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/07/06/090706crbo_books_gladwell?yrail), reviewing Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Apparently Anderson, the editor of Wired, celebrates  Stewart Brand’s “information wants to be free” as a kind of economic force of gravity. Gladwell shows that is mostly nonsense. “The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws.”

In other words, we don’t know where we are going in the knowledge business. My sense is that over the past six months people in publishing have finally taken in, sorrowfully, what we’ve all been talking about for years. The Titanic is going down and we can’t stop it. But forget any glib certainty about what comes next.