Monday, February 19, 2007

Sue Brower Indepth Follow-up--Part 2

5. You spoke of a "category strategy" in your interview. What does that mean exactly, and how do authors fit into that?

First, the category strategy determines how many books we want to publish in a year. If you look at the entire Fiction category, it is composed of 7-8 subgenres. The category strategy also determines how many books we will try to publish in each subgenre. The team looks at trends and the saturation level of each subgenre to determine where our strengths and opportunities are. We also balance the category by determining how many new vs. established authors we can publish. As we look at new proposals, we need to see how that proposal fits in with our goals and objectives based on the overall strategy.

Here’s a hypothetical example. I receive a proposal in the Contemporary category that I think has potential. I will look at our list for the appropriate year of release and see that our goal is to do three Contemporary novels per year. I have already signed contracts for three novels. I can: 1) tell the agent that I like the work, but don’t have room on my list, 2) go to the team and make the case that this is “fresh” and innovative and that we really need to publish it instead of another Western, 3) or I can try to move it to another year.

A category strategy sets our goals and objectives, but is flexible and malleable.

6. What advice would you give to a writer of ETP (easy to place ) books who'd like to publish a breakout novel?

First, I would not assume that an ETP cannot be a breakout novel. Every book you write, should be approached as the one that will launch your career.

One of the most obvious differences is that the ETP tends to be a shorter novel. I also think they tend to follow more closely to an established writing formula. I would advise that you expand your novel through characterization rather than adding a lot of subplots or additional characters. Enhance your ETP writing by spending more time on character motivation and “getting into the scene.” I am NOT advocating that you fill the text with flowery phrases and in-depth self analysis. Your plot still needs to move and the reader needs to be motivated to keep turning the pages. I AM advocating that a book that changes lives or is memorable has an emotional tug or a real connection with the character.

7. What does Z use when looking at previous sales figures before acquiring authors?

We use a variety of resources to evaluate established authors. We look for market share, first-year-sales, and fluctuations in performance.

8. You said in a recent interview that aspiring writers should go down the to easy-to-place (ETP) road but cautioned "THE ONE THING TO KEEP IN MIND! Don’t expect that your fans will automatically follow you to that big epic. These are two different consumers and the fan of shorter, sweet romances may not have the time, interest, or patience for an epic. They may follow, but you can’t expect all of them to."

My concern and QUESTION: In an industry where first impressions are so important and where writers are quickly labeled and threw into a genre bin, couldn't this path hurt a writer's "street cred" for the genre their heart is really in? People tend to see writers and entertainers as what they first present themselves. Do you have any hard facts or clear examples of where an author made a successful transition from writing ETPs to their desired genre or style? If so, does the bigger picture of the literary field concur with this mode to success?

First I want to clarify; I think that aspiring writers can (not should) go down the ETP road without it hurting their ability to later be published in other formats.

Most of my examples would be in the ABA market. Writers like Nora Roberts, Debbie Macomber, Jayne Krentz, and many other romance and women’s writers started out with ETP publishing. Now those same books are being re-released!

In the CBA, there are several former ABA mass market authors that are now successful CBA authors—Francine Rivers, Terri Blackstock, Lori Copeland, and Robin Lee Hatcher among them.

All I can say is that I don’t hold with the idea that ETP books are a detriment to an author’s moving into more substantial writing. The difficulty I have is that sometimes the sales numbers generated in ETP are higher than we can project for a non-ETP book (what IS the opposite of an ETP?). The author just needs to manage their expectations and understand that they may still be treated like a new author—even when they have several ETP’s under their belt.

9. Is there any room in CBA (or more specifically at Zondervan) for Christian writers whose tone is somewhat dark?

You know, this is very subjective. There are several very successful authors in CBA that write what I would call “dark” fiction. However, for a first time author, it is not likely that we will pick it up.

10. Along the lines of "easy to place" work--what type of theological statements makes a contemporary fiction piece easy to place in today's market? Does one's work need to be overtly spiritual in order to be considered ETP? Does a lack of spirituality make a book harder to place within CBA?

I don’t have a good feel for what is required in ETP books. I do believe that if you want to write in CBA, you should have an identifiable spiritual theme. No matter where you publish, the spirituality shouldn’t be overt, but rather woven naturally into the story. I do think the author needs to earn a certain amount of spiritual credibility with the retailers and readers. After he/she has reached a certain level of success, the author is a little more flexible in the content of his/her books. Keep in mind, though, that your loyal readers develop certain expectations of your work. You risk losing their loyalty when you deviate from your “brand.”

It continues to surprise me that there are some authors who want their books to be published by a Christian publisher, but want the spirituality toned down or not identifiable at all. I don’t want the spiritual content just plopped in willy-nilly, but Christian characters should reflect their values in the way they act and talk.

11. If an NYT bestselling mainstream author along the lines of John Grisham were to approach you and express a desire to write the same kind of stories that have populated the NYT bestsellers list but without any profanity or any otherwise objectionable content, would you be interested? If so, how would the development track of that author go? Would Zondervan maintain his/her presence in the general fiction isle of secular bookstores or would their work become Christian fiction by default? Is that choice even in Zondervan's hands or is it up to the individual booksellers and/or the buyers for those booksellers?

This is a tough one, I don’t have very many bestselling mainstream authors knocking on my door. :) Seriously, the first question I would have to ask is if the book fits our mission. Just because it doesn’t have profanity or objectionable content, doesn’t mean it “glorifies Jesus Christ and promotes biblical principles.”

It is hard to know where the book will be placed. It will depend on what our Sales and Marketing teams see as the optimal positioning. Our partnership with HarperCollins can help us with a strategy for selling to the appropriate buyers.

Many, many thanks to Sue for taking the time to answer these questions for us!


Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

Thanks for posting the interview. It was quite interesting.
For those of us who don't know the term, would you define ETP ("Easy To Place") books? Sorry to be so dense. I'm just a simple country doctor from Duncanville, not a big city writer.
(Remove tongue from cheek, sign post).

C.J. Darlington said...

Thanks for all these great responses, Sue!

Jerome said...

Brandilyn, as always a very informative post.

Kristy Dykes said...

Great interview. Thanks, B., for posting it.

Sue says, "Enhance your ETP writing by spending more time on character motivation and 'getting into the scene.'"

Waving hand in the air. I'm trying to do this with my published works. Thanks for that great piece of advice, Sue.

Karen said...

I find it interesting that even after authors "have several ETP’s under their belt" they can still be treated like a newbie.

Brandilyn, what does Zondervan consider your stuff? ETP or something else?

Thanks for interviewing Sue, it was very informative.

Eden said...

Loved the information from the past 2 posts! Have an awesome day!!!

D. Gudger said...

B - thanks for taking the time to provide this interview. I'm not sure where else I'd learn as much about this industry as I am from reading your blog. Your blog has been so helpful as I try to journey thorugh the world of writing!

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Doc and Karen, I'll try to answer the ETP question, although the term may mean various things to different people. Keeping it in our industry, I'd say an example of what Sue is talking about are the Heartsong Presents books published by Barbour. They're shorter, therefore more linear in content, fairly simple in story structure, as they follow a set format. The HPs have a wonderful, built-in readership from folks signed up for the club to receive these books. A first-time author can see immediate sales of 20,000 and up. HP is great way for new authors to break in also because they tend to have more open slots for newcomers. There is no question a new author has a better chance breaking into that line than into some other publisher with a full-length novel. Many authors who have gone on to do full-length, shelf-selling novels started with HP, Colleen Coble and Kristen Billerbeck among them. These gals started building a readership as they did one HP after another, and they were successfull there. Then they wanted to branch out into writing other kinds of stories, and made that move successfully.

There are similar lines in the ABA market from publishers who put out lots of books that all target the same specific audience and are all written with a certain formula in mind. Again, these lines are proven to sell; they've got folks lined up to get the next one and the next. These books also tend to be cheaper, and that's a big factor in selling. Or in the HP situation, you get them automatically as being part of the club.

When Sue says an author of several ETP books may be considered a newbie with a full-length novel, that's because the market is so different. The book is more expensive to produce, therefore the cost on shelves is higher. And it's got to move off those shelves by Mr. or Mrs. Browser picking it up and deciding to try it. These books don't have the built-in readership of ETPs, so a new author isn't expected to sell 20,000 to 50,000 copies. In other words, to this different, wider targeted audience this author will be a new name to many.

The thing to be careful about, though, is assuming these books are "easier" to write. Depends on what you mean by easier. Shorter? Yes. More linear in nature, meaning less convoluted subplots, etc.--yes. But they also follow a format, and if you can't write that format, it will not be easy for you. I have to confess I admire the HP authors because they do something I could never do. They take the format, insert their own voice, and make it work. I'd fail miserably if I tried to do that. So even though ETP kinds of books afford new authors better chances of being published, they're not for everyone.

You folks who have written these books, please jump in and tell me if I've gotten something wrong.

J. Mark Bertrand said...

If there's ever a follow-up to the follow-up (!), I'd love to hear more on that "somewhat dark" question, especially when it comes to defining what Z or CBA editors in general consider dark. I hear that word and think goth, vampires, etc., but it's been applied by some people to me for what I'd call realism. Presumably serial killers are dark, too. Obviously, it's subjective, but if the implication is that first-time novelists should steer clear of a "dark" tone, it would be interesting to know what's dark and what's not.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Yes, Mark, I have to admit I had the same thought. I don't know how Sue is defining this. I'll email her and ask. Of course, her answer will be her definition, while another editor will perhaps have a different one.

J. Mark Bertrand said...

I'd be interested in your thoughts about it, as well, Brandily -- after all, you do have some expertise on the subject. :)

J. Mark Bertrand said...

Oops, typing too fast -- sorry about dropping the 'n,' Brandilyn!

Lynette Sowell said...

First, great set of questions and answers! As an ETP author, I'm thrilled to be where I am. Like a sonnet or haiku, ETP writing has a specific structure that needs to be followed. But within that structure, there's still freedom. And like Sue suggested, I'm going to expand my work by deepening motivation and perhaps giving my characters more problems to solve. I realized I'm ready to do that, since I ran out of room with my last MS and had to do some cutting. I already saw how much more I could have added to the story, but I had to keep inside my word count. Thanks!

Cara Putman said...

My ETP comes out in the fall, so I'm still really new -- content edits at this point. But what I'm finding is writing a ETP first (with more proposals out) taught me a couple things. One I could finish a book. I could work on craft on a smaller scale. In many ways, I could focus on characterization rather than the plot twists in my suspense. And it let me satisfy my love of history. Verdicts out on if it worked :-)

Thanks for the interview...I've copied the marketing ideas for future reference as I ramp that acitivity up this fall.

Kristy Dykes said...

"...please jump in and tell me if I've gotten something wrong."

I think you got it right, B.

I write Heartsong Presents novels and Barbour novellas, and am grateful for these writing opportunities. I wrote four full-length novels before selling to Barbour, and I continue to sell to them. Maybe one day those novels will see The Light of Publishing Day; maybe not. (I AM confident I will sell long-length fiction at some point.)

As far as ETP - EASY to place, haha. I don't think anything in publishing is easy to place! The slots are few in all Christian publishing houses, and the plethora of writers is increasing every day--and because of ACFW and other education-oriented writers' organizations and beefed-up writers' conferences, there are some GREAT writers emerging! Yeah!
A better moniker would be ETS - Easy to Sell books (for the publisher) BECAUSE of the publishers' market venues and publishing tract records, as you covered - book clubs, direct sales in stores, great covers and titles which are grabbers, etc. Barbour and Steeple Hill fall under this umbrella.

As far as writing short Heartsong novels and novellas, these are unique art forms in themselves. Pros will tell you it's sometimes harder to write short than long because of the word count limitations. You have to develop a full-bodied story in a short format. Pacing is crucial. And there are some Greats who like this format. Francine Rivers comes to mind, with her lineage of Christ novellas.

Thanks, B., for bringing us this interview.

Karen said...

Oh, so Francine Rivers novellas would be considered ETP. I only read the "Tamar" book in that series, but I think her longer novels are FAR better. She's still my favorite author though.

Would young adult books be considered ETPs because of their length or is that a whole different beast?

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

No, Frannie's novellas aren't ETP. Shorter length alone doesn't make an ETP. It has more to do with a built-in target audience. YAs aren't necessarily ETP either. Again, length is not the main criteria.