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A Year in Review: A Look at 2019

It’s that time of year to reflect on the past year, to learn from our experiences, and to count our blessings. Here are some thoughts on the last tumultuous twelve months.

The Industry

The publishing industry seems to survive the bad press that loves to find the negative in everything. Each publisher continues to pursue the best content possible. The market is ever-changing, and some really smart people are constantly evaluating it to find new and better ways to get the books out there. I like to put it this way: “When retailers seem unhappy, why are publishers smiling? Because they are always finding new ways to sell their books!”

This past year saw the official demise of CBA. This was the trade organization that supported Christian retail stores for almost 70 years (founded in 1950). It was marked by an annual convention, which was where the industry gathered every summer to display their new titles and discuss industry issues. Unfortunately, the last convention was held in 2018; and the announced convention for 2019 never happened. It is a sad ending to what was a great event. I attended for 36 consecutive years; and it was a huge part of my formation as a bookseller, an editor, and an agent.

Lifeway made big news announcing that it was closing all 172 of their physical store locations (in 30 states) by year’s end. Their plan is to move all their commerce online to serve their constituency more effectively. In September they announced a partnership with 290 authorized dealers in 44 states to distribute Lifeway-branded products in non-Lifeway stores. This was a big move since, until then, those branded products were only available from Lifeway stores or online.

The demise of the Cokesbury, Family Christian, and Lifeway physical store locations has been a blow to the “showcasing” of new Christian books, Bibles, and gift products. There are still a number of independent and small chain operations around the country. A new organization was formed by Bob Munce to fill the void left by the demise of CBA (see above). It is called the Christian Retail Association (CRA) and will be a part of the ongoing Christian Product Expo (CPE), sponsored biannually by the Munce Group. The first was in Murfreesboro, TN in August.

So while the Christian retailing industry as a whole is smaller than a year ago, Christian publishers continue to sell books at a record pace. I wrote last year, “Amazon.com remains as the number one account for most publishers. Many do 50% of their business with Amazon. But don’t forget the other half!” This still holds true.

The biggest news in the general market was the sale of Barnes & Noble (with 627 store locations) to Elliott Advisors, a private equity firm. (The sale price was $683 million.) The new owners also control the UK Waterstone chain and made their CEO James Daunt also the head of B&N. 2020 will be the year of watching the reinvention of the chain. Mr. Daunt has already made some encouraging statements regarding inventory mix and in-store experience. Stay tuned.

We saw another group of great editors and executives retire this year. And there was the tragic death of one key executive as well. Losing the connection and institutional memory of these influential people makes our job that much harder. We will miss working with these great men and women on a regular basis. However, each company has found some great new people with new ideas and perspectives. We look forward to developing new relationships.

Our Agency

I had the honor to speak at eight events during the year (including one in Australia) and was a guest on a number of podcasts. As an agency, all three of us traveled the country from East coast to West coast, attending nearly 20 different writers conferences and meeting with hundreds of writers.

I was so proud that both Tamela Hancock Murray and Bob Hostetler were nominated for the Agent-of-the-Year award by ACFW. Well done!

Thomas Umstattd left the agency in February to focus on his many other ventures.  But he continues to do a great job with our weekly podcast, The Christian Publishing Show. We have hundreds of listeners every Tuesday. Check out our past shows and subscribe. He is also the vice president of The Christian Writers Institute. (See more info below.)

The agency has the privilege of working with more than 300 authors. Our collaborative work secured contracts for 137 new books, fifteen for first-time authors. It is encouraging to see that our publishing partners continue to look for new voices.

It was quite a year for author recognition. Many of our clients were honored in various ways:

  • We had twelve finalists for the Christy Award (Carla Laureano, Susan May Warren, David Rawlings, Joanna Davidson Politano, Mesu Andrews, Connilyn Cossette, Lynette Eason, Nancy Mehl, Morgan Busse, Kathy Tyers, Patrick Carr, and Nadine Brandes). Connilyn Cossette won for the best historical novel, David Rawlings won for best first novel, and Kathy Tyers won for best speculative novel. It was exciting to see the awards event in person and accept Kathy’s award on her behalf (both as her agent and her publisher, see below).
  • Four of our authors won the Carol Award: Connilyn Cossette for best historical romance, Kimberley Woodhouse for best novella, Morgan Busse for best speculative novel (second year in a row), and Nadine Brandes, for best YA novel.
  • Carla Laureano won the RITA award (her second). And Susanne Dietze was also a finalist for the RITA award.
  • Morgan Busse won an ISPY award for best speculative fiction.
  • Ronie Kendig won the Realm Makers award for best fantasy novel.
  • Sami Abrams (short novel) was honored as a Genesis Award winner by ACFW.

The Christian Writers Institute and The Christian Writers Market Guide

The Christian Writers Institute continues to provide opportunities for writers to further their education via our online audio and video courses. In his role as VP of the Institute, Thomas Umstattd has brought considerable expertise in communicating our offerings and has created some new content for us as well.

The new 2020 edition of The Christian Writers Market Guide is available now in paperback and ebook. And this year we dropped the annual subscription price of the online version of the Guide to only $9.99! The reason for the price reduction is to remove price as a barrier to this incredible resource. If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the information online and have access to up-to-date content all the time, on any device. We will continue to release the new paper/ebook edition each December and keep the online version updated throughout the year.

Enclave Publishing

Due to some unfortunate circumstances I had to take back ownership of Enclave Publishing in February. This unexpected development gave me the opportunity to rebuild the infrastructure for the company and develop a far-reaching plan for the future. In case you are unfamiliar, Enclave is a traditional publishing company devoted to the publication of speculative fiction written by authors who have a Christian worldview. I created the following description to describe the type of books we publish: “Enclave Publishing helps create out-of-this-world stories informed by a coherent theology.”

We have begun to launch new titles every month in hardcover, starting with Ronie Kendig’s Brand of Light and Sharon Hinck’s Hidden Current. We also will launch a new YA imprint, Enclave Escape, in February with the release of Chawna Schoeder’s The Vault Between Spaces.

It was enormously gratifying that one of our titles won the Christy Award (Shivering World by Kathy Tyers). In addition, Ronie Kendig’s Fierian won the Realm Makers award for best fantasy novel. It was also amazing to see Lindsay Franklin’s debut novel, Story Peddler, win multiple awards, including Book of the Year by Realm Makers. Accolades for her book included the Realm Makers award, the Alliance Reader’s Choice award, and the Carol award for best debut novel. It was also nominated for a Christy award.

A Personal Note

My mom passed away in March at the age of 96. (Dad passed away in 2012.) As you can imagine, or have experienced, this loss is a big one. I will literally be eternally grateful for the Christ-centered upbringing my brothers and I had. There isn’t enough time or space to properly honor their legacy. Suffice it to say that I do, and will, miss them terribly.

The Future

It is a difficult thing to predict the future of our industry. We are always at the mercy of a volatile economy and world events. The Christian publishing industry is no longer “recession proof”; but since the sky did not fall last year, many are optimistic about 2020. We still need great stories to fill the fiction market. While politics will engulf the mainstream media, the church and all believers continue to pursue a Christ life. Books and studies are a key help in this pursuit. Hundreds of incredible books addressing every conceivable issue of our day are being written by brilliant authors and published by creative publishers. My hope is that our agency’s efforts via this blog and our ongoing support of clients and aspiring authors will help add to the growth of God’s Kingdom.

 

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How Do You Measure Success?

by Steve Laube

A few years ago while talking to some editors they described an author who was never satisfied (not revealing the name of course). It this author’s latest book had sold 50,000 copies the author wondered why the publisher didn’t sell 60,000. And if it sold 60,000 why didn’t it sell 75,000? The author was constantly pushing for “more” and was incapable of celebrating any measure of success.

Recently there has been much ink spilled on whether Indie authors are better of than authors published by traditional publishers. Pundits have laid claim to their own definition of a successful book using number, charts, and revealed earnings. Following this dialogue can be rather exhausting.

I understand the desire to measure whether or not my efforts are successful. It is a natural instinct. If it is any indication, one of our most popular blog posts has been “What are Average Book Sales?” with thousands of readers.

In one way this is a wise question so that expectations can be realistic.

In another way it is unwise in that the cliff called “Comparison” is a precipitous one. I’ve talked to depressed authors who are wounded by numbers. I’ve talked to angry authors who are incensed by a perceived lack of effort by their publisher. I’ve talked to highly frustrated authors who wonder if it is all worth it.

Ultimately I can’t help but think this is all an exercise in determining a definition of success for the individual author. If you can measure it you can define it. That is as long as we know what “it” is.

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What Were They Reading?

In attempting to declutter, I am culling my book collection. Parting with beloved tomes is one of the hardest parts of decluttering for me since I enjoy books so much! I’m keeping copies of all the books I’ve written and the many I have had the honor of representing. Because …

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To Romance or Not to Romance

According to St. Teresa of Avila’s biography, the battle over romance novels has been going on at least since the 1500s:

Teresa’s father was rigidly honest and pious, but he may have carried his strictness to extremes. Teresa’s mother loved romance novels but because her husband objected to these fanciful books, she hid the books from him. This put Teresa in the middle — especially since she liked the romances too. Her father told her never to lie but her mother told her not to tell her father. Later she said she was always afraid that no matter what she did she was going to do everything wrong.

Those of us who write, represent, and publish Christian romance novels can be made to feel the same way when our brothers and sisters in Christ object to our efforts to provide readers with God-honoring entertainment.  I have spoken with authors whose pastors have derided their writing, read negative blogs, and heard conference speakers criticize Christian romance novels.

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Popular Story Tropes in Current Fiction

When we think of fiction, we put books in genres based on the story line. Then within each genre, they are separated by subgenres. The Book Industry Study Group has defined over 100 different classifications of fiction. These BISAC codes are what you find on the back of the book. …

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We Live in Amazing Times

I shared a table recently with six or seven others at a writers conference. The writer to my right (right?) leaned in my direction and directed a comment to me. “Please tell me something encouraging about publishing now.” Wow. Put me on the spot, why don’t you? But I thought …

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The Automatic Writer

My coffee maker is on a timer. My thermostat is programmed to different temperatures at night and by day. My computer screen even dims to a softer hue as the day progresses. I try to automate everything I can, believing that the fewer tasks I have to remember every day, …

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Change, We’ve Seen You Before

Change always seems to occur faster than you think but often slower than you think. Most things in society or life are at the same time dramatically different than they were a few years ago, but eerily similar to fifty years ago. If you are an observer or participant in …

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Never Assume Biblical Literacy

It wasn’t long ago that a reference to a Biblical character or a Bible verse would be widely understood without explanation. That is no longer true. Researcher George Gallup said “We revere the Bible, but we don’t read it.” This was recently illustrated in our local newspaper in an article …

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