Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, June 05, 2006

What Publishers Want

Last week, Stephanie added to my blog. So this week it’s time for turnabout. (Besides I spent the whole weekend cleaning out the garage and I’m too tired for creative thought.) I loved hearing what people are looking for in LDS fiction. And doesn’t it really come down to much the same thing we are looking for in national fiction? A great read that holds our attention, moves us in some way, and doesn’t offend our sensibilities too much. Make us laugh, make us cry, make us shiver, just don’t bore us.

And so—with advance apologies to frog and the rest of the amphibians—I’d thought I’d take a stab at the other side of the arrangement. We’ve talked about what LDS readers want; now let’s examine what LDS publishers want. Since I have never been or worked for an LDS publisher, I won’t claim to be an expert—and frogman I expect you to keep me on the straight and narrow lily pad here. But having worked with, interviewed, sold to, and hosted roundtable discussions with a number of LDS publishers, I think I have a pretty good idea of how they think. With that in mind, let me present my thoughts on what an LDS publisher wants from an LDS author.

1) LDS publishers want to sell books. Sounds obvious right? And yet I hear people complaining all the time when publishers tell authors that they are focusing on what sells. Wonder why the big LDS publishers are not doing the “literary” fiction that everyone on AML is begging for? It doesn’t sell in their market (meaning LDS bookstores.) If it did sell, they would happily publish it. Also wonder why they don’t push the envelope harder with language, sex, or violence? Again, it is about the audience they sell to.

Imagine going to see a G rated Disney movie and hearing four letter words. What would happen to your confidence in Disney? (Assuming you have any.) Would you go see another Disney movie? The majority of LDS readers have certain expectations of the large LDS publishers. If that trust is broken, they will stop buying books from those publishers. Are there LDS people who want profanity or sex in their LDS books? Sure. Are they the audience that buys Anita, or Rachel, or Kerry, or Chris H., or any of us on this blog? Very seldom. So why would an LDS publisher risk alienating their target audience to appease a very small minority?

Another thing people don’t grasp is the value of shelf space. Say you run a corner grocery store. In your cooler you have a cola section with Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper. Along comes a vendor with a great new cola. Even if it tastes wonderful, would you carry it? How much new sales will it bring in? Probably not much—people who drink cola are already buying one of the big three, so a fourth cola would only cannibalize existing cola sales. Since every inch of inventory costs you money, you’d be much better off with something that does not compete directly with your existing products. But you also have to consider the marketing dollars being spent and the potential audience. You might carry the new cola product if they were spending lots of money on primetime television to promote it. And you might pass on a brand new product with no marketing dollars to spend or that didn’t appeal to many shoppers.

The same thing is true with bookstores. Ever new book they purchase costs money and takes up shelf space. They will not stock an unlimited number of books, so a publisher can’t just throw mud on the wall and see what sticks. They prefer known authors and genres that already move well. The best shelf space will always go to the biggest sellers, so in order to purchase a new book they have to feel that it will attract readers and know it will be marketed well. Which leads me to number 2.

2) If you want to sell to an LDS publisher, know your market. Know your market. Know your market. The biggest mistake I see LDS authors make is not having a clue what LDS fiction is about. This is not just about avoiding bad words, gang. It’s about understanding what is being written, who is writing it, whether or not it is selling, why it is or is not selling, and what’s been done before. In a nutshell, if you have not read LDS fiction and talked extensively to your local LDS bookstore about movement in the market, do not have the audacity to write LDS fiction.

A successful LDS author who I know mentioned casually that he/she does not read much LDS fiction. Just too busy. Hmmm, not to be overly obnoxious here, but could that be why your books are not improving? Could that be why you repeat the same clichés that appear in dozens of other LDS novels and consider your writing original? Would you be cocky enough to believe that you could be a successful writer in any other market if you didn’t keep up with the works of other writers in your market? “Gosh, think I’ll write a Sci-Fi novel about aliens who try to take over earth, only the twist will be the aliens are really us. Bet that’s never been done before.”

"But,” you say, “the writer is successful in the LDS market, so reading other LDS books isn’t necessary.” Reading other LDS novels may not be necessary for an author who already has a big following—and even that is debatable in the long run—but for you and me, it is a requirement. LDS novels are getting better all the time and if you want to write the next big LDS children’s fantasy you better have read Jimmy Fincher, Leven Thumps, Mice and Magic, Serpent Tide, etc.

And please don’t tell me that you are afraid to read other writers for fear that you will copy their style. First of all, if you don’t know what they are doing, you might very well copy it without knowing. And second, your writing style is a hodgepodge of what’s inside you. If you could suddenly become Dan Brown by reading his novels, there’d be a couple gazillion Dan Browns running around.

3) Start with action, stay with action, and end with action. I am not talking here about just thriller action—although you can’t go too far wrong with a good chase scene. What I am talking about is, avoiding things that slow down the story—infodumps, flashbacks, flowery over description, long internal monologues. Keep the story moving. You have one and only one first sentence, paragraph, and page. They are what sell most of your books. Don’t believe me. Stand around a bookstore for awhile and watch what happens. Customer enters store, browses covers, picks up book, checks back and inside of cover blurbs. Reads first page. Puts down book and moves on.

Want to sell books? Don’t start with, “The brisk salty breeze blew back Tortella’s long golden locks. The smell of the salty air mixed with the aroma of the waving pine trees, reminding her of the first time she and Oliver kissed on this very spot. If only he was here now.”

Want to see how to start a book? Read the first page of “Mummy’s the Word.” Nothing like a stakeout and doughnuts to get things rolling.

4) Stay within the model for your genre, but don’t copy what’s already been done. This goes back to number 2. If you are writing YA fiction, don’t write about a kid who gets transported back to Book of Mormon times through a crystal cave. If you are going to write romance don’t write the same thing as Rachel Nunes and Anita Stansfield. There are several Covenant authors who write mysteries, but what and who we write about are very different. KLB loves humor and word play, BBG has a cast of characters set in a small southern town, I push the envelope between mystery and thriller. It all works well together, but if I suddenly started writing about this small southern town, it wouldn’t benefit, Betsy, me, or the publisher. And likely they wouldn’t carry it.

5) Send in your very best work. Again this would seem to go without saying, but for some reason people tend to think that an editor will overlook a messy story with lots of errors. When you mention that there is a lot of clean up work to be done, they say, “Oh, the editor will take care of that.”

Let me give you a brief lesson in LDS publishing. Most new LDS novels do not sell more than 5,000 copies. Many sell 3,000 or less, and the smaller publishers may only sell 500. Let’s stick with 4,000. Let’s assume that the book wholesales for $7. (Is that about right Kermit?) So we have a gross of $28,000. Out of that comes printing costs. Say $1 per book. So if the print run is 7,000 we have $7k there. Then there is the royalty cost. Let’s say another $4k. So now we are down to $17,000. Next we have the cost of marketing ($2500?), cover design ($1000?), layout ($1000), staff ($5500?), sales, rent, and other various overhead. There isn’t a lot of profit left in this book. Built into the cost is how much editing and proofreading time is necessary. So if your book looks like it will take twice as much editing as mine, who do you think will get the slot?

6) Lastly, have a marketing plan. I’ve beaten this theme to death in previous blogs here and on my own site, so I won’t say much more on the subject except that you can’t calculate the value of a marketing event by how many royalty dollars you earn off the particular event. Marketing is about name recognition with both store employees and readers, publisher good will, future sales, earning out the up front cost of the book, and a dozen other things they may not stand out at first glance.Again, remember the grocery store scenario. I am going to be marketing the heck out of mystery series. Robison is doing the same with his series. If you don’t market, how do you expect to get the shelf space?


At 6/05/2006 4:55 PM, Blogger Steven said...

In a lot of ways nothing remarkable here. All common sense advice. I hear the same kind of thing on non-LDS writing sites. Know your market. Know the publisher's market. Clean up your manuscript the best you can. Etc, etc.

And yet, it's always amazing to see the newbies who say "yeah, but...(fill in blank here)."

It really should be a big 2x4 sized clue that ALL the writing sites basically reiterate the same things.

At 6/05/2006 5:08 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Yup. It's funny how often you see those rules and still assume that one or more of them doesn't apply to you or your market.

Of course I could have been controversial and said not to include a SASE with your query. But that always gets me into trouble.

At 6/05/2006 7:41 PM, Blogger Mean Aunt said...

I'm not a writer (I don't even play one on TV) but I found this post fascinating. I am guessing because it was well written.

At 6/05/2006 11:50 PM, Anonymous Brianna said...

You had a great marketing plan for House of Secrets. All the employees at the LDS bookstore I work at were excited to read the next letter from Shandra. It also gave us something to talk about with the customers. Just discussing the clever marketing ploy helped sell the book.

At 6/06/2006 1:53 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Thanks so much, Brianna. I wanted something that would stand out to the employees. I have something even cooler for the next book that I will be sending out. I think if you can win the hearts of the store employees, you have a good chance at winning the hearts of the readers.

At 6/06/2006 11:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff, I'm not the frog, but I do work for an LDS publishing company (again, why I must post as anonymous), but you are right in a lot of what you said. One thing I would say is that the overhead cost and marketing cost is actually a lot higher than that, which is why it's so important that an author sell 5,000 copies of their book. Another thing I would add is that authors need to learn to trust their publisher. Sure they're not perfect, but they have the best interest in mind for the book. They may have to move the release day to help with sells, and you need to trust them. They know the behind the scene of the publishing world and really want what's best. And probably one of the most important things for an author to do once their book has been accepted is to meet their deadlines! I've seen editors stay at the office until midnight working on a book that has to go out tomorrow, but they didn't get the final stuff back from the author in time. Help yourself by helping your editor. Trust me, it will come back to you.

At 6/06/2006 12:42 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

All I can say is: Hearken! Jeff is the master at this! Have you read the Shandra short story on his website? Love, love, love it!

Another splendiferous post...

At 6/06/2006 4:06 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...


You sound very familiar, in which case I promise I'll have my synopsis to you by tomorrow morning.

At 6/06/2006 7:18 PM, Blogger Sweebler said...

Not at all on topic, but I read House of Secrets today. (I was on jury duty, but never got selected, so basically I just sat and read for 6 hours.)

I loved it. Good twists!

And as far as marketing goes, I would have never even purchased it if it weren't for this website. So, you see, this is good marketing too!


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