This interview with Steve Laube is based, in part, on a month-long, online discussion. This version of the interview has been adapted, corrected, and expanded into something that we hope can help you get to know him and the publishing industry a little better.
[updated April 17, 2021]
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Born in Anchorage, Alaska. Moved to Honolulu when I was 14 and attended high school there. Thus I’ve lived in the Arctic, the Tropic, and the Desert. The desert has been my home for the last 40+ years.
I experienced the ’64 earthquake in Anchorage (9.2 on the Richter scale), experienced a typhoon in Hong Kong, and witnessed a lava flow on the Big Island of Hawaii. And just missed being in a tornado by a mile in Oklahoma City. A “microburst” dropped a 70′ tree in our back yard several years ago. So I’ve experienced my share of natural disasters.
I grew up wanting to be an archaeologist and uncover an Egyptian tomb. Then I wanted to play in the NBA. That daydream was dismissed when I met my first seven-footer in college! Later aspirations ranged from wanting to be a classical guitarist to becoming a professional radio disk jockey.
Where did you go to school, and what did you take?
B.A. from Grand Canyon University (Phoenix) with a major in Bible and a minor in business. I’ve lived in Phoenix ever since. I was honored by the university by induction into their alumni hall-of-fame for their Theology department in 2013.
What is your family situation? (Married? Kids?)
Married to Lisa. We have three adult daughters and two grandchildren.
What church do you attend?
Camelback Bible Church in Paradise Valley (a suburb of Phoenix). I teach an Adult Fellowship class every week – we have been working through the Bible in chronological order since 2007. [The pandemic has put a crimp in that activity for quite some time.]
When did you become a Believer?
Made a profession of faith at age six during the famous revival sermon of R.G. Lee called “Pay Day Someday.” I knew exactly what I was doing. That sermon is now included in many collections as one of the “best sermons of the 20th Century.” It was one of those hellfire and brimstone messages.
Have you always been a “reader”?
I was a voracious reader. In Junior High, I had a required Reading class where each student had to read ten books during the quarter. I read over 100. Dozens of Scholastic book club titles and every Chip Hilton sports novel were devoured. After we moved to Hawaii I became more interested in sports, primarily basketball, but I was still a reader. It was in late high school that I discovered Pellucidar, the land in the Earth’s core, and Barsoom (John Carter of Mars) via the novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. An older brother gave me the Chronicles of Narnia as a Christmas gift when I was sixteen.
Now I have the privilege of reading for a living and still get to read for fun. I read 75+ thriller, espionage, legal thriller, science fiction, or fantasy novels a year. It is my mind candy.
Did literature (“Christian” or not) have any part in bringing you to Christ?
Not really. But it did impact me later. The book Knowing God by J.I. Packer was the most influential book in my life when I was 19 years old. This was followed by How to be a Christian Without Being Religious by Fritz Ridenour and many others that became the punctuation marks of my spiritual life.
Why did you become an agent?
In early 2003 I was offered a job by the head of The Literary Group, a New York agency. The offer came during the short window between the announced sale of Bethany House Publishers and the official takeover by the Baker Publishing Group. After nearly a month of research, discussion, and a visit to New York, I made the decision to join the agency. I stayed with them for a little over a year. In early summer 2004, I formed my own agency, The Steve Laube Agency.
How specific was your work at Bethany House? (Were you covering everything, or fiction in general, or what?)
Early in my career, I was a jack of all trades – fiction and non-fiction were my playgrounds. In the later years, I became the editorial director of Non-Fiction but continued my acquisition efforts in the fiction genre right up to the day I left the company. This experience is invaluable in my role as an agent where I have an equal number of clients writing in both categories.
How big was your “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts when you were at Bethany House?
Ridiculous. Even now as an agent I see loads of manuscripts that simply are not ready for prime time. I personally receive approximately 30-50 new unsolicited proposals each week.
What kinds of failings make books “not ready for prime time”? From your intimate experience of slush, could you draw up a list of the top three (or five, or ten, or…) failings in “not quite there yet” efforts, and say that those failings would cover most of the works you’ve had to turn down?
Poor writing. Flat cliched characters. It is always easy to criticize books that get published. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that folks don’t understand. A book may get published because it is the next one they really want. Or a bestseller creates demand and the writer doesn’t take the time with the craft on the subsequent volumes (see the later Robert Ludlum books for example).
The story is weak and uncompelling. This happens a lot. The author thinks the story is cool, but I have to roll my eyes. This is the subjective nature of the business. You may love a book that I was bored with and vice versa. Neither person is right or wrong – it is a matter of personal taste.
And, in a related vein, which failings, in your experience, are those which writer wannabes can “grow out of” and improve to the point where they are publishable, and which are signs that this person is probably never going to “graduate”?
I’ve met folks who cradle their one story year after year at conferences trying to “make it work.” Editors, time and again, tell them that it is time to put the story aside and start a new one. But we are rarely heard.
In other cases, it is a matter of adding texture and pace to the story. Read Self Editing for Christian Writers by Browne and King. It will transform the way you write.
Is it ever considered acceptable to submit the same work twice to the same editor or agent – that is, if a writer has realized that his original submission was not ready, and did some serious work to the piece, and the original “no thanks” was not necessarily because the story didn’t fit the editor’s accepted genre, etc.?
Yes. If the material has been improved or changed. I have a number of cases where the first go-round didn’t work but subsequent ones did.
Out of the fiction books you brought to Bethany House, which one was the hardest “sell” to the company?
Arena by Karen Hancock. Fantasy was a no-no in the Christian market (and it still struggles to find a foothold). I had been looking for the right project to bring to the committee. I searched for seven years! Karen’s book was astounding and a blend of allegory and science fiction in a sort of fantasy setting. I decided to call it science fiction allegory and tried not to use the “F” word…. fantasy. Because I had waited for the right time and for the right manuscript the publishing committee gave her a green light. Karen won four consecutive Christy Awards (including one for Arena) for the best fantasy novel of the year. She was eventually inducted into the Christy Award Hall-of-Fame.
Do you see the CBA market in general opening up to science fiction or fantasy?
It is a huge “wait and see” game. Until something really breaks out the publishers will be cautious. Remember that it is a huge dollar investment on the part of a publisher to put something into the market with any sort of meaningful launch.
I had one non-fiction book that lost the company (Bethany House) at least $30,000. It was a disaster. So before bemoaning the lack of “foresight” or “vision” from publishers remember that if it were your money you might think twice before throwing it into a risky venture.
This particular genre still struggles in the CBA market. There are only a few publishers who are interested and they have their authors already in place. It takes the right editor who knows the genre’s idiosyncrasies and can spot the best writing. Unfortunately, the genre is an acquired taste. It is so much more than being a fan of science fiction or superhero movies.
And thus I bought Marcher Lord Press in January 2014 and rebranded it as Enclave Publishing. We publish 10-12 new magnificent science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural novels each year. Visit the site to see what we have done lately.
Out of the books you bought for Bethany House, was there one in particular which you figured deserved a lot more attention from the market than it got?
In non-fiction, it was Ricky Byrdsong’s Coaching Your Kids in the Game of Life. He was a former basketball coach for Northwestern University. While I was working with him and before he finished writing the manuscript he was tragically murdered by a white racist while walking home from the park with his kids. (See the documentary about Ricky Byrdsong called “Fly Like the Byrd” and the book No Random Act: Behind the Murder of Ricky Byrdsong) Because of the nature of his death, the media focused on racial violence and did not give the book its due. It is a great book and is, in my opinion, a parenting book that a man will actually read.
In fiction: Firebird by Kathy Tyers. She is a marvelous writer (with more than one NYT bestselling “Star Wars” novel under her belt) but the ultimate reception was modest in sales. That is the problem. Fans of Christian science fiction/fantasy would buy these books if they knew they existed. For the major publisher, they need a significant audience to generate sales numbers of enough significance to make them salivate over the next book in the category. This is why I have continued to publish her books under Enclave Publishing. I believe they are still strong books that only need an audience.
What was your most satisfying moment at Bethany House? (Like, a book which really took off, or won an award, or just knowing that you had printed something really excellent, even if the market didn’t pay it the attention it deserved.)
Working on two revisions of the classic reference book Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin.
Developing and creating Jesus Freaks: Martyrs with dc Talk. An amazing volume of the revolutionaries of the faith.
Having Legislating Morality by Dr. Norman Geisler and Frank Turek III win the ECPA Gold Medallion award in 1999.
In fiction, working with Kathy Tyers, Karen Hancock, John Olson and Randy Ingermanson. All are brilliant writers and great people.
The honor of being named the Editor of the Year in 2002. Also receiving the Special Recognition Award at the Mt. Hermon Writer’s conference in 1999. Both awards were a surprise and quite humbling.
Very satisfying to take a new talent like Donna Partow and see her book Becoming a Vessel God Can Use sell over 250,000 copies.
To acquire and edit a book like The King James Only Controversy by James White … and to see a 10th anniversary edition released in 2009. Thereby proving the staying power of what could be classified as an “academic” work.
There were many other first-time authors who are now quite successful after having “discovered” them. These include Ellie Kay, Rene Gutteridge, Kristen Heitzmann, Deborah Raney, Anne Tatlock, Dave Meurer, and others.
What have been your more successful projects since becoming an agent?
Cindy Woodsmall’s have consistently landed on the NY Times bestseller lists. When the Soul Mends soared to #13.
Having over 60 of our clients hit the bestseller lists (defined as NY Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and ECPA bestseller lists)
Stephen M. Miller’s Complete Guide to the Bible received the Gold Book Award from ECPA for sales of over 750,000 copies.
Lisa Bergren’s God Gave Us Christmas received the Gold Book Award from ECPA for sales of over 800,000 and consistently landing near the top of the children’s bestseller list.
Having 15 of our clients win the Christy Award.
Having four clients win the coveted RITA award.
Working with Michael Reagan, son of President Ronald Reagan, on his book Twice Adopted and In the Words of Ronald Reagan.
Being able to participate in the discovery, development, and release of over 20 new A.W. Tozer books 50 years after his death. Discovery of over 400 never-before-transcribed audio tapes led to the production of these new titles. First published by Regal Books and now published by Bethany House Publishers.
There has been an extraordinary success for David Gregory’s Dinner with a Perfect Stranger and the sequel A Day with a Perfect Stranger. Both have sold enormously well and landed on many bestseller lists. And both were made into movies and a short TV series. Dinner has also been adapted into a stage play. And as a musical in Korea.
The first true Christian “chick-lit” author, Kristin Billerbeck was a client for her books She’s Out of Control and With This Ring I’m Confused (Thomas Nelson Publishers).
How does one become an agent? What does an agent do, anyway? What’s your average workday like? (Or is there such a thing as an “average workday”?)
It is too easy to become an agent. Just hang out a shingle and call yourself one. That is why there are so many crooks floating around in this business. What do I do? I work on content every day with authors developing new projects. I work on developing each author’s career in helping them make choices. I negotiate contracts.
One day I logged my activities to help others see what a typical day is like…
Today, I’ve answered a question on an author’s taxes, critiqued the cover design on a new series, helped strategize a sales approach for a new proposal, read the first chapter in a new novel from a client, checked on the payment of an advance royalty check for a client, communicated to authors about rejections I’ve received in the last 24 hours, took an unsolicited phone call from a writer pitching his new idea (I asked him to send it instead of verbalizing it). That was in the last three hours. Yesterday I worked till 10 pm to try and clear the desk. I wrote 33 e-mails yesterday.
Do you cover CBA (Christian) only, or do you handle general market titles, too? Have you pitched titles by Christian authors to general market publishers?
I specialize in CBA and that is where my network and relationships are strongest. I will occasionally work with general market houses (having sold projects to Golden Books, Health Communications, Kensington, Triumph Books, Putnam, and Jossey-Bass). Since Simon & Schuster bought Howard Books and Random House bought Multnomah, the lines have really blurred. Harlequin has the Love Inspired imprint, etc. That is why I have to be a rabid student of the industry and have been for nearly four decades. I’m comfortable in either arena, but I try to keep my focus on my strength which is the CBA market.
How much of your current client base is fiction?
For me personally, about 50% are novelists. Of course, the number is always fluid and I work with a number of authors who write both fiction and non-fiction. Our other agents in the firm are diverse. Tamela works mostly with fiction but has some great non-fiction authors. Bob’s clients are about 25% fiction, the rest non-fiction. Dan is exclusively non-fiction at this time.
Let’s suppose somebody has written the great Christian novel. What are the steps they need to go through to get it published? (Do they fire off the manuscript to you unsolicited, or have you just made a big mistake by agreeing to this interview?)
I can teach for hours on this subject so it isn’t possible to give all the details. I look for a short synopsis (1/2 page – like back cover copy) a long synopsis (3 single-spaced pages) and the first 3 chapters or 50 pages of the manuscript. This is enough for us to get a feel for the project. See the guidelines page on my website for some help in this regard.
As an agent, do you think that a catchy first paragraph is absolutely necessary for a novel? Many publishers and agents believe it’s a must in our day and age when the majority of people seem to have a short attention span so you have to hook them right there, or you will lose them. Do you agree?
I agree wholeheartedly. See Noah Lukeman’s book The First Five Pages. The opening is critical to your success. To use a line from the movie “Jerry MacGuire”, “You had me at hello.”
Can you give us a sense of what proportion of the manuscripts in your slush pile which you try to pitch to markets?
Less than 1/2 of 1%. That’s right, 99.5% of what I see gets rejected. Not the most pleasant news you’ve read in a while.
And now, Steve, would you please tell us what the books in that 1% have in common (regardless of genre) that put them there?
What do they have in common?
Great platform (most important for non-fiction)
It is pretty simple when boiled down that way. Since I receive over 1,500 proposals each year, and there are only so many clients that I can properly manage, you can see the problem. I have to decide what to “spend” my time and effort (money = time) to work on. I’ve turned down some authors who have been previously published because I simply could not take more work at that time, or their ideas were not necessarily strong enough to get behind.
Publishing is full of daily rejection. I get rejections on behalf of clients nearly every day. I have to reject proposals nearly every day.
How much of a work do you normally have to read before you get a reliable “go” or “no go” sense about it? (Does it take more reading to decide one way than the other?)
I can know if it doesn’t work on the first page or two. To know if it really works I’ll find myself many pages into the material before I realize how much I’ve read. In other words, I’ve been transported. This is a great sign that the book works. If I and my reviewers like the first three chapters we usually ask for the rest of the manuscript. Then we can know if they really sustain the project.
Another question, submission related … most publishers won’t accept unagented fiction, but there are several agents who won’t look at a proposal from an unpublished writer unless they are referred by someone else, an already-established author, or another agent. If someone was blessed enough to get that referral, is there any specific protocol in using it? Does the person referring need to write a separate letter to accompany the submission, or is a paragraph within the body of a query or cover letter sufficient?
Excellent question. If I receive a claim of a referral I go to that person and ask if it was legitimate. Better yet. I now have a client where I received two pre-endorsements. These authors wrote me and said they had a great talent I needed to give credence to. Neither author knew that the other was writing me. I signed the new talent and since then we have written contracts for eight books and two novellas.
I would guess, then, that providing the email of the one offering the referral would be helpful if the referral is just a paragraph within a query letter?
Sure, but even better is to have that person contact me on their own so I don’t have to verify it.
Is there much potential of publication for an author who has finished a novel, and believes it’s good but has no inclination to write another one?
Most publishers want a long-term relationship with an author. If this is a one-time-only thing it reduces the chances of a contract. However, there are many cases where a single book is extremely well written and sold well and the author never writes again. But this is very rare.
I find it interesting that almost everyone prefers a different format for the long synopsis – single- vs. double-spaced, length, etc. Do you have any “quick tips” for someone seeking to write a snappy synopsis? And is it considered more professional to give the story overview/background, then character introductions, then clearly delineated plot points and crises, or do editors/agents prefer a straight narrative? And am I correct in assuming that the short synopsis is the part that’s usually included in the query/cover letter?
Yes, there are all sorts of “preferences.” The common thing for fiction is the three-page single-spaced synopsis. It is to be a straight narrative of the whole story. I have yet to meet a fiction editor that does not like that format. All the other variants?… are variants. Don’t point out plot points, character intros, etc. That is a waste of time unless you do that for yourself already.
The “short synopsis” can be used in the cover letter. I like to push my clients to create this short form… sort of like back cover or catalog copy. It helps focus on the “hook”… the words that make the book sound interesting.
Now, that’s heartening! Should subsequent submissions be treated like new ones, or is it beneficial to point out the changes made?
Treat subsequent submissions as new ones. If you have a relationship with the editor it is a good idea to let them know that this is a newly revised and vastly improved version of something they have seen before.
How does one tell if their story is more character-driven, or plot-driven?
Is the pace driven by action (battles, natural disasters, chase scenes, etc.) or by arguments or conflict between people?
We had female readers of Kathy Tyers’ Firebird say “My husband loved the action scenes, but I loved the romance.”
LOL, that seems to be a fairly common gender-based reaction… there are exceptions, of course, but I’ve noticed the tendency of men to be more action-oriented and women more relationship-oriented, in their preferences across the board. As an editor/agent, then, do you read with an eye toward what will appeal to both sides, particularly in one story?
I read with an eye for a good story that is well written. I don’t even think about plot vs. character-driven issues. It is the writing and the story that is the compelling feature. It helps that the agency’s reviewer is female and as such brings that flavor to the evaluation process.
And what can a writer do to make the most of a writer’s conference?
Make friends of the editors and agents that are there. You are there to learn and take the opportunity to float your ideas for a reaction. If you feel the pressure to Sell, Sell, Sell you will ruin your experience. Treat them like a one-day college course.
What has been your most satisfying moment as an agent? (Like, a tough sale you pulled off, one of your clients winning an award… that sort of thing.) What makes it worth getting up in the mornings?
Big sales are always wonderfully motivating. It is a measure of success. One of the most satisfying moments (and it has happened twice now) is selling the fiction series of an author who had given up when I first talked to them. In both cases, the writer called and asked if I would be willing to consider agenting them despite recent poor sales figures and an inability to get anyone to look at their new proposal. Each time I came alongside and gave them the confidence they needed to refine and redevelop the proposal in such a way that big publishers (like Waterbrook and Zondervan) said they wanted to move to contract. That is very satisfying.
I have seen “spoof” sites that talk about things for authors (not) to do in order to get their works considered, like using fluorescent colored paper, over-packaging a manuscript, and so on. What kinds of things can writers do which make your job easier?
Simple is better. Gimmicks end up being used as writer’s conference fodder of what not to do. Realize that your proposal is really a job application. You want your “resume” to look professional and competent. A publisher is “hiring” you to do a “job” and will pay you to do it.
I have read a number of Christian novels which I considered “not quite there yet”, and yet I felt that the authors showed real promise, and would like to see those stories “fixed up” and republished. Where should I point the author in this kind of situation? Conferences? Books? Editing services? Agents? All of the above?
All of the above.
Conferences are a great place for concentrated learning.
Self Editing for Fiction Writers, 2nd Edition (which I mentioned earlier) is a great book. Editing services are a mixed bag, but it can’t necessarily hurt.
Agents are not editors and don’t confuse them. As an agent, I help craft the pitch and the concept, but I don’t “fix” writers who aren’t there yet.
Beware of the “fix-up and republish” myth. Publishers rarely reissue a book that has already had its life. There are exceptions, but most publishers will say that a book went out of print for a reason…
Who, if anyone, checks for accuracy during the writing process? Do publishers have researchers to check facts? Is it completely up to the author? Do you have technical advisors whom you ask to check a manuscript over before you try to pitch it? (I ask this because I’ve been sitting on my review of a book that is riddled with such errors, while I’ve been trying to think of something nice to say about it. Not, I must hasten to add, a book by an author you have mentioned as being one of your clients…)
A good copy editor will spot-check facts and some will try to check all of them, but that is expensive. Bottom line the publisher must trust the writer. It is the writer’s reputation at stake. So in your case, be honest and point out all the errors while also telling them that if those were fixed they would have a dynamite story. But if the author stops the reader with a “but that is wrong!!!” the author has failed the reader and lost them forever. There is no excuse for sloppy research. None.
When you, as an agent (as opposed to an author), make a pitch to publishers, how does that go? Do you make “cold calls” when you have a manuscript you consider saleable? Do publishers contact you when they want a manuscript in a particular genre or on a specific topic?
Very similar to an author pitch. The main difference is what I do to each proposal. I rework the author’s proposal into a style I have developed. It is very editor-friendly and gives and executive a quick overview. Most of my editorial contacts are friends in the industry. I have had a number of occasions where the publisher has initiated the contact with an idea they want to be written. This usually happens with non-fiction, but it has occurred twice in the past 3 months with a novel.
Some authors have resorted to “self-publishing” to get into print. Does this help or harm their chances of getting subsequent works published by “normal” publishing houses?
There are many success stories of folks self-publishing and then getting picked up by a royalty house. Gary Smalley, Joseph Girzone (Joshua), Richard Evans, and my client Chuck Black have done it this way.
But the key is the quality of the self-published effort. Far too many are poorly constructed and look cheap. You get what you pay for. It is one of the reasons I founded ACW Press (www.acwpress.com) in 1996 to help people self-publish in a quality fashion without ripping people off. I sold that business in 2005, but they still provide a needed service in our industry.
In your “slush pile”, are there certain plots or themes which have been “overdone”, and should be avoided?
Terrorist themes are overdone. The only no-no is the unbelievably obvious allegory. The “search for the lost book” type of thing.
There has been a good deal of discussion in the past over CBA fiction, and how many constraints that the market puts on authors. At the same time, there have been signs that CBA fiction is starting to mature and get more realistic and less formulaic. From your understanding of the CBA market as it stands now, what kinds of plot elements are (still) going to make a book “unpublishable” by any CBA house?
Impossible to answer definitively. Gratuitous sex, violence, and language will never be acceptable. and for good reason. Beyond that, I don’t really see any restrictions per se. Heresy, like the type found in The Da Vinci Code, wouldn’t work either. I saw one manuscript that basically rewrote the events in the Garden of Eden to create a plot device. That is a no-no. Essentially this author rewrote the Biblical story.
You’ve all heard that some publishers don’t want divorce or incest or pornography or prostitution as plot devices. Every publisher is different, and some writers can write about very ugly issues in an amazing way (see Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers.) Most beginning writers don’t have the talent or developed the ability to tackle this type of thing and then blame the publisher for being too narrow.
It isn’t always the publisher’s fault.
We have also been told things like 90% of the buyers in Christian bookstores are women, which is why even traditionally “guy” genres tend to have pretty strong “romance” elements in them. In your experience, are there certain authors or publishers to which guys like me can turn for CBA fiction with as low dosage of romance as possible?
It is more like 70% of the CBA buyers are female.
In the general market, for all fiction sold (hardback and paper):
17% general fiction
7% science fiction/fantasy
These statistics come from The Romance Writers of America (RWA) for 2002. CBA reflects a similar breakdown except that Left Behind is considered “futuristic” and is thus classified in the same group as science-fiction.
Read Ted Dekker, he is a great read. Blink, Thr3e, and the quartet Black, Red, White, & Green are really good. Tosca Lee has an incredible literary quality to her books (see Demon: A Memoir and Havah: The Story of Eve). James Scott Bell writes some great thrillers. Brandylin Collins’ Eyes of Elisha is fascinating (a vision is a predominant plot device.) Angela Hunt wrote The Truth Teller that has a very interesting plot device. Bill Myers’ Blood of Heaven is a fun read. Ghostwriter by Rene Gutteridge was a fabulous debut by a tremendous writer. (I helped her craft the plot since it is based in the publishing world. Unfortunately, it has gone out of print.) The Rivers Run Dry by Sibella Giorello will prove that CBA fiction can also be literary.
Yes, you will probably hate all of these as not being as good as Tolkein, Grisham, or Donaldson. But then few books are. No book will be universally loved, that is the beauty of fiction. So instead, enjoy the discovery of some very popular writers and realize that some books are for you, some are for other people.
How much say do you (or the author) have over a cover?
Zip. Zero. Nada. However, most publishers want their author happy so they run it by the author. But unless the author absolutely hates it…
The section below is a lengthy discussion about publishing economics. There were a number of questions raised. Rather than show all the questions and the back and forth nature of the discussion, Steve’s answers have been edited into one essay. This discussion first occurred in 2006 so some of it may seem dated with the advent of the ebook, which changed everything.
I can’t recall the last time I saw any CBA fiction book which came in a “mass-market paperback” format. Why do CBA publishing houses avoid that size?
Economics. The unit sales would likely be the same if in trade paper (5″x8″) vs. mass paper (4″x7″). The Trade paper can get $12 retail while a mass paper can get a max of $7.99. You do the math.
This is a very touchy issue with book buyers. There is usually a fundamental lack of understanding of the economics of book publishing and profitability. Warning: You won’t like my answers but they are based in facts and realities.
Twenty-five years ago the reason there were few mass-market (4″x7″) size paperbacks in CBA was the printing technology. The printers would only do runs of 100,000 copies which excluded nearly all CBA publishers. There were a few exceptions (God’s Smuggler, The Cross and the Switchblade, The Hiding Place), but they were all bestsellers already. Zondervan even did a series of romance mass-market books in the early 80s. They took a huge bath and it virtually killed the idea of mass-market romance for over half a decade because no one wanted a repeat of that disaster.
Then the technology changed so that the print run restrictions weren’t so difficult.
Now let me bring in the bookseller. (Remember, I ran a large store for 11 years.)
Mass-market paperbacks had one unusual facet with regard to returns. The bookseller could just tear the cover off the book, return the cover for credit and throw away the book. That is why you would find coverless books in used bookstores on occasion, they were dug out of the trash by someone. Used dealers don’t take those anymore because the law cracked down on the practice. However, “tear cover” returns still exist. With trade paperback (5″x8″) booksellers must send back the entire book for credit. Higher cost for the bookseller, better for the publisher since they could resell a book that was in good condition.
Back to publishing.
Many CBA houses experimented with mass-market releases. The ABA usually did a book in hardcover and then a year later brought out the mass paper. This could not happen in CBA because of the resistance to hardcover fiction. So the economics crept in. A hardcover release would create a large amount of revenue and then the mass paper was bonus profit. In CBA the trade paper eliminated the need to “take it to paperback.” So to do a mass paper after a trade paper just didn’t seem to make sense to dealers or consumers.
Never did a mass paper original release sell better in unit sales than a similar book released originally in trade paper. Never.
Let’s do some math:
If a publisher could sell 10,000 copies at a retail price of $14 there is a retail potential of $140,000. If a publisher sells 50% more copies in mass-market, 15,000, at $8 there is a retail potential of $90,000. A 75% increase in sales would mean 17,500 copies sold at $8 for a retail potential of $140,000. (Remember that publishers don’t sell at retail prices but at significant discounts… use 50% off for an average net value.) So a publisher in the above model would have to sell about 60% more books to make the same amount of money.
Then add in the tear cover returns. This means every copy not sold at the retail level is thrown away at the store in mass-market (after tearing off the cover and only returning the torn covers to the publisher for full credit). But trade paperbacks come back to the publisher who can resell it or sell them as “hurt or bargain books” and get their print costs back.
Stephen Lawhead’s “Song of Albion” series is a perfect example. The Albion series was originally published in hardcover by Lion. It sold well for a $20 hardcover at a time when NO ONE sold fiction hardbacks for that much, in CBA. (At the time, Lion was owned by David C. Cook Publishing – Lion also published the first Jan Karon books… in trade paperback. Note that Jan Karon has never been sold in mass paper, even by Penguin.) Sales justified bringing it out in trade paperback. The general market discovered the strength of the Albion series and either Avon or Ace licensed the mass-market rights to the Albion series which circulated for a couple of years. Then Lawhead’s agent secured the sale of the rights to all Lawhead’s past books from Crossway and the trilogy from Lion to Zondervan. A series of licensing agreements got most of those books published in mass-market by NY houses. But they were on the shelves for a few seasons and then disappeared (part of the “here and gone” nature of mass-market publishing.) So while you may complain that you can’t find Albion in mass-market, it only means that you missed your chance when they were available. I could give dozens of examples.
Complain all you want amount CBA publishers being expensive and maybe even greedy. I’ve heard the litany for nearly 40 years. It just isn’t that cut and dried. CBA books are not expensive. Going to a movie is expensive. $27 for three to see “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” – not including food? My Bible cost less than that.
I know people vote with their pocketbooks. We all do. In every industry. Publishers are trying their best to keep costs and profits in line. They resist price increases because they know the effect it has on the reader. But mass-market is not the solution. It never will be.
Left Behind was launched in hardcover, then trade paper. The first volume was released in mass-market for one season as a way to seed the market for the series. It was a great success. I think this happened around the release of book 3 or 4 of the series. It got book one in grocery store check-out lines and airports all over the country. They sold at least 500,000 copies of the mass-market edition. Created a lot of new readers… Over 75,000,000 books sold in the series.
I hope this helps you understand the biz side of the industry a little better. Most complaints are solved when an understanding of the facts is presented. Most complaints derive from a lack of knowledge which leads to dissatisfaction.
I know of an author who had a book in trade paper. It sold 12,000 copies (at $10.99). It was later brought out in mass-market… and only sold 6,000 copies (at $5.99). A similar scenario occurred with the mass-market editions of Bodie Thoene, Janette Oke, and Michael Phillips books from Bethany House. The sales were a tenth (10%) of the sales in trade paper. So let’s admit that our desires for cheaper books will always be greater than a publisher’s ability to provide said prices.
The advent of ebooks has nearly killed the economic viability of mass market paperbacks. Of all the formats you find fewer titles in mass market. The attraction of mass market has been price, portability, and convenience. The prices are being undercut by ebooks. The portability is still there but can’t compete with a device that carries hundred of books digitally. Convenience is still there with grocery stores and airports the impulse place for sales. But overall you see fewer than in the past.
My effort here has been an attempt to discuss the economic realities of the publishing community. It is my take on the situation and you may disagree with some of the details. But understand that this is a fairly accurate portrayal of the industry. It costs a publisher $30,000 to $40,000 to put a book on the market with any sort of significance. (This includes cover design, editing, typesetting, printing, shipping, modest advertising, and author advances…for an average book.) If it was your money you would be very careful about what you spent it on and how you spent it.
Thanks go to Greg Slade, the moderator of the Christian Fandom site, for the origin of many of these insightful questions back in 2004. Unfortunately, that site is no longer available but you may be able to find some form of it using the Way Back Machine site (link).