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!