Cover Bands Don’t Change the World

Years ago, while reading and thinking about creativity, I came across the title of today’s post as a chapter with this phrase in a book called The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice by Todd Henry (published 2011). It stopped me in my tracks. I knew he was right. A cover band plays other people’s music. Often it is a new interpretation of a familiar song; and sometimes it is a direct copy, like a tribute band. While popular and entertaining for the moment, they rarely have lasting impact.

What sells in our market, also known as trends, moves like a chased rabbit, very difficult to capture and quickly shifting its path. To our detriment we often chase these trends in order to find success. After forty years in the book business, I’ve seen this happen time and again. Hot trends of the past include nonfiction books on prophecy, angels, spiritual warfare, Bible promises, heaven, racial reconciliation, and even martyrdom. In fiction it has been novels that revolved around prairie romance, Amish, supernatural battles, and chick-lit. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it betrays original thinking.

Be sure you understand this isn’t a criticism per se, merely an observation. There is nothing wrong with writing what has captured your imagination or what has captured the attention of the buying public (i.e., following a trend). Plus, you may be very good at writing this type of book. But look again at the title of the post: ”Cover Bands Don’t Change the World.” Todd Henry says that when one of these bands declares, “Now we’re going to play something we wrote,” the audience protests vigorously. Their audience didn’t come to listen to the band’s music; they came to be entertained by the familiar.

Thomas Merton said it a little more forcefully in New Seeds of Contemplation:

“People are in a hurry to magnify themselves by imitating what is popular—and too lazy to think of anything better. Hurry ruins saints as well as artists. They want quick success and they are in such a haste to get it that they cannot take time to be true to themselves. And when the madness is upon them they argue that their very haste is a species of integrity” (quoted in The Accidental Creative, page 201).

Publishing veterans have seen thousands, even tens of thousands, of book ideas and proposals. We have heard so many similar things that there can be a tendency to become cynical or at least immune. I know I struggle with that. I fear that creativity can be squelched by the desire to write what sells.

But I also fear I’m about to be misunderstood writing this. If possible, visualize flashing disclaimers, so this is not taken wrong. Please see these words as a call for creativity, not a condemnation of the marketplace. Nor am I skewering any one particular author or book. Instead, I stand here, almost shouting, “Be creative!” “Take a risk!” “Follow your passion, not the passion of others!” “Be a difference maker.” If you cut your teeth on the familiar (see above), then use that foundation to find new ground.

Write what is a passion for you. Your intensity will be found in the words you write. Your ideas will be refined by the fire of life and the forge of Scripture. The slogan for our agency is “To Help Change the World Word by Word.” The books that stir hearts and point readers to redemption are the ones that become agents of change. These are the books that can make a difference. Write your passion, and by God’s grace the market will find you. Hey, you might even set the next trend and spawn “cover bands” in your wake.

Below is an interesting counterpoint video to this entire post. If you are able to close your eyes and not watch some of the images in the YouTube video below, you’ll hear almost a half-hour of songs you might recognize from the 80s. But the hit version is actually a cover of an older original. I suspect you will be surprised by some of these once obscure songs that became hits. But the point of this post is still the same. Try to be brilliant so that a cover band will follow your trendsetting work. Remember, ears only with the video.

(A version of this post came out nine years ago this month. The ensuing years have only proved the point, time and again. Feel free to object or help me clarify in the comments below.)

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Today Is a Good Day to (re)Read

by Steve Laube

What was the favorite book you read, cover to cover, in the last year or so? Why is it your favorite? (It can be fiction or non-fiction. Faith-based or not.) Feel free to tell us in the comments about yours.

Read it Again

Now that you’ve identified the book. Read it again. As Vladimir Nabakov wrote:

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” – from Nabokov’s speech “Good Readers and Writers” (pdf link) delivered in his 1948 Lectures on Literature (Amazon link).

That may seem like an overstatement. After all we have only so much time in a day. Why am I suggesting this?

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Books Are Signposts Along the Way

By Steve Laube

The novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is a series of stories linked together in the small town of Macondo in South America. It is surrounded by a swamp and thus is known for its isolation.

One day the town was infected by a plague which causes insomnia. The people of the town were not unhappy at first because it meant there was more time to get things done. But there was more to this plague. In addition to insomnia they began to lose their memory. Marquez called it the loss of “the name and notion of things.”

They countered these symptoms by writing names on things or pinning signs to them. You would walk around the town and see the words “clock,” “chair,” “dog,” “wall,” and so on. But they were afraid they would forget the purpose of the items. So they would write longer and more elaborate signs with instructions.

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The Story We Bring to the Story

by Steve Laube

With all the discussion about the craft of fiction and the need to write a great story there is one thing missing in the equation. The one thing that is the secret to great fiction. And it is the one thing the writer cannot control.

That one thing is the story the reader brings with them to their reading experience. As a reader I have the life I have lived, the people I’ve met, the books I’ve read, and the places I’ve been that I bring with me into the world your novel has created. This makes the reading of every story unique. No two people can read the same story the same way. This is why one person’s favorite book is another’s thrift store giveaway.

In the new memoir The End of Your Life Book Club author Will Schwable writes about the books he read with his Mom during the last years of her life. In his introduction he wrote something profound:

We all have  a lot more to read than we can read and a lot more to do than we can do. Still, one of the things I learned from Mom is this: Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother’s favorite books without thinking of her—and when I pass them on and recommend them, I’ll know that some of what made her goes with them; that some of my mother will live on in those readers, readers who may be inspired to love the way she loved and do their own version of what she did in the world.

This is the secret to the greatest novels of all time. They were written in such a way that my story, the essence of who I am, merged with that story and it became something new. Something unique. Something inexplicable. A new story. And then became a part of who I am…and a part what I bring to the next story I read.

That’s the story I want to read. Can you write it? I can’t wait to read it.

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Book of the Month – March 2021

I like to occasionally recommend a book on the writing life. Art + Faith by Makoto Fujimura (Yale University Press) is one you might enjoy. The author is a well-known painter and frequently speaks and writes on the intersection of art and faith. In 2009 Crossway publishing commissioned him to …

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Fun Fridays – November 9, 2018

Today’s video is designed to make you think more deeply about art. Especially the intentionality of great art. Understanding the use of light and shadow, which directs your eye when looking at art, can help you view book-cover design in a new way. Bad cover designs make you look at …

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Writing Thoughtful Books

There has always been a hierarchy in fiction distinguishing “literary” from “popular” books, with lines drawn between both topics and reading levels.  Authors of each are different, somewhat like actors who work on stage versus those who work on screen. Comparisons of literary vs. popular and stage vs. screen are often done …

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Write Like Jazz

Years ago, I was helping a friend brainstorm and outline a book, and at some point in the course of our conversation about writing, I said, “Writing is like jazz.” Both of us were jazz aficionados, so the phrase was apt, and it stuck. He has reminded me of it …

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Real Life is Edgy

A major topic of discussion among writers of all types of Christian books is the issue of how far is too far when showing someone’s life before they surrendered to Christ, and how real you show their journey of sanctification once they exit the broad road. It’s called the “edge.” …

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Lyrics as Literature

I normally steer away from controversial topics in this blog but the announcement that Bob Dylan, the popular musician, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature gave me pause. My first thought was “What?” To place Dylan alongside previous Nobel laureates like Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck, Kipling, Hemingway, Camus, Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, and Churchill? …

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