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Conference Notes from the O.C.

This Saturday, I was something that I rarely am — spontaneous. I’d had an eye on this writer’s conference for a while. When I saw that Dave Long, acquisitions editor for Bethany House Publishing would be there, I decided to buzz on out to O.C. all by my lonesome. Dave had two sessions, a Main and a Workshop, and both topics sounded interesting. Being that I am in between books and not pitching anything, I figured I’d go just to listen. And I was rewarded.

But first, some surprises.

Okay, someone who’s familiar with the conference gig would probably not be surprised, but being I am relatively new to the industry — it was only my second conference — I found myself scratching my head.

First, I continue to be amazed at the disproportionate number of women to men at these conferences. Of the 150 people in attendance, I’m guessing there were 25-30 men (similar percentage to the ACFW in Dallas). I’ve puzzled over this elsewhere, but to me it’s a disturbing trend. Are men really literary Neanderthals? Perhaps it’s unique to fiction, but it cannot be denied that 35-45 year old women drive the Christian fiction market. (In fact, Dave L. mentioned that well over 50% of Bethany’s books are considered Women’s Fiction, whether Historicals, Romance or General Lit.) Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised any more, but I was. Either way, it makes things a tad uncomfortable, ya know, having to endure the occasional bad “man” jokes from the majority.

Second surprise: The amount of writers who come to conferences uninformed, unprepared and unprofessional. Maybe I just got good advice early on (thanks Penwrights!) — and I’m definitely not feigning got-it-togetherness — but I felt leagues ahead of the people I spoke to. Take for instance the folks at my lunch table. Seven of us sat with Dave Long and I was shocked at how ill-prepared and amateurish they appeared. The man to my right pulled out a recent book he’d self-published (ta-dah!) and was noticeably bummed to discover that most editors frown upon self-publishing. A cursory study of the subject would have showed him that. The guy on my left was working on a “Christian Star Trek.” Not only was he deflated to learn that first-time novelists must finish a manuscript before being considered, but Dave’s bio clearly said Bethany was not seeking sci-fi. Didn’t these people come prepared? Then a middle-aged lady at the table pitched her work through show-and-tell. I knew we were in trouble when she produced a cigar box filled with WWII artifacts and spoke of her passion for the Greatest Generation. I can’t recall her storyline, but I do remember what toilet paper from a concentration camp looks like. Another individual was working on a YA novel which, Dave reminded us, his bio said he wasn’t looking for. Uh, hello. Along the way, I spoke to several folks that either a.) Couldn’t summarize what they were writing, or b.) Weren’t finished with it. Sadly, I don’t think they’re the exception.
Memo to aspiring writers: DO YOUR HOMEWORK!

Anyway, Dave’s sessions were quite good. His afternoon workshop entitled Peering Into a Dark Glass: The Future of Christian Fiction, had me wishing I knew shorthand. Apart from the tidbits of stuff I will scatter here, having a window into the world of an acquisitions editor for one of the biggest Christian publishing houses is invaluable to an aspiring novelist. I can’t say enough about the writer’s need to simply listen deeply to “the gatekeepers.” Of course, we may, in the end, rail against them and curse the system. But understanding the “economics” of the industry — a word Dave used often — can bring the realities of best-sellerdom into a new / needed light.

Alright, some unconnected bullet points:

  • A second generation of editors / readers is emerging within publishing houses and the ocean liner that is Christian Fiction is slowly changing course. But the struggle between the old guard and their more culturally savvy counterparts is in its infancy. How long it will take and how much blood (and ink) will be spilled in the process has yet to be seen. Its destination: unknown. . .
  • Dean Koontz is now writing more overtly “spiritual” themes than is Ted Dekker.
  • Women’s Fiction is neatly divided into two hot-selling camps: (1) Erotica and (2) Inspirational. While Erotica is ABA, Inspirational is CBA. Dave suggests that an “undeveloped middle” exists in Women’s Fiction that is ripe for plunder; here, sexuality — not so much romance — can be explored from a Christian perspective. However, up to this point, that vacuum is largely unfilled.
  • Men’s Suspense is a potentially up-and-coming genre. I prodded Dave on this because I personally know of male CBA writers who are leaving the CBA because of an apparent lack of male readers. Nevertheless, he’s fairly confident we are seeing the emergence of male Christian authors and complementary readers. Wouldn’t that be cool?
  • The CBA genre of Supernatural Suspense (which is what I write) is really Christian Horror. The term horror has been anathema in CBA circles. So it was refreshing / surprising hearing this come from an acquisition editor, not so much in affirming the genre but acknowledging the distinction was purely semantical. (I wonder that this hair-splitting goes on a lot in religious publishing.)
  • Literary Fiction is building and sustaining an audience in CBA. Yes!
  • Why is SpecFic / Fantasy / SciFi so “under-represented” in the CBA, I asked. B&N and Borders contains aisles of the stuff, but you’re lucky to find two dozen such novels in a Christian bookstore. Why? Dave’s answer: SciFi / Fantasy fans tend to be avid. There’s far more enthusiasm for the genre than actual readers. Hmm. I dunno if I buy it. . .

At this point, you’re probably saying I should be more spontaneous, right? Don’t count on it. Nevertheless, it was a worthwhile trip. Plus, I got to connect with a literary luminary and have one of these.

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{ 12 comments… add one }
  • janet April 23, 2007, 2:34 AM

    Mike, I enjoyed reading about your adventure. Very interesting stuff. Proud of you for being spontaneous!

  • dayle April 23, 2007, 5:38 AM

    With respect to your second surprise, I had almost the same reaction to my first conference. I had presupposed that I would walk into the C.W.G. conference and discover that I had wasted a year and a half of my life brainwashing myself into some self-deluded fantasy that I could actually count myself as a peer among the myriad of undiscovered literary geniuses just waiting for a selfish, arrogant, elitist editor to give them a chance. Who did I think I was? How could a hick from the swamps of Louisiana with a Cajun accent not stick out like an albino alligator? So I did as much research as I possibly could. (considering first impressions, the expense, and what’s at stake, how could I not?)

    Well, what a confidence booster. I met a lot of wonderful people at that conference. But I was surprised by how many were attending their first one. Even more surprised by how many either hadn’t written anything yet or hadn’t finished anything. Even more surprised by how many didn’t know anything about the publishers or even had a rudimentary knowledge of how the industry works.

    I had similiar lunch table experiences as yours. I personally decided not to pitch my book at the lunches unless asked. ( just seems like the wrong time to me )

    My advice to conference newbies: Do your homework. Be professional. And, most importantly, be professional and do your homework. ( talk to the editors, don’t accost them. pushiness is always a turn off )

    ** also, the editors that I met with were engaging and absent of the arrogance I had mistakenly feared. They are actually looking for writers. And they actually liked the fact that I was from the bayou. It makes a great setting for a novel.

    -dayle

  • Mike Duran April 23, 2007, 12:50 PM

    You’re right, dayle. Setting ourselves apart from the pack begins by simply being informed and prepared. At the ACFW in Dallas last year, I casually spoke to several writers who were not up on basic terminology. For instance, I talked to one man who was pitching a completed novel but did not have a synopsis. Furthermore, he was not even sure what a synopsis involved. To compound this, he’d traveled a great distance to come to the conference. Being that a synopsis of your story is Writing 101, I was befuddled by the man’s naiveté. It made me wonder whether, from an editor’s point of view, setting ourselves apart from the pack is not all that difficult. Heck, simply knowing what you write and being able to state it succinctly gives us an edge over half the competition.

  • dayle April 23, 2007, 2:25 PM

    I agree Mike.

    Look at it from the editor’s p.o.v. They meet with a new writer and sort of like his idea. They then ask to see a synopsis and the response is: What’s a synopsis? Not good. Bad first impression.

    My gut tells me that their unspoken reaction would be something along the lines of “if you didn’t invest the time to learn the basics, why should I invest my time in you. You’re not ready, come back next year.”

    -dayle

  • relevantgirl April 23, 2007, 2:29 PM

    Thanks for this summary, Mike. I appreciate it. The first big conference I attended, I ended up landing a big CBA agent. Why? Because I spent a long time, like you, learning the industry before I went.

    I’m heartened to see Christian literary fiction is on the radar.

  • janet April 23, 2007, 6:21 PM

    Mike, I didn’t know what spec fic was when I read your post. Then, out of the blue I got a comment on my blog from someone who has this blog: http://blog.lostgenreguild.com/
    Looks like something you might be interested in.

  • Michelle Pendergrass April 24, 2007, 12:51 PM

    So glad to hear the Supernatural Suspense/Christian horror thing. I’ve been hanging around almost three years now waiting for that affirmation. I came to Dave’s message board by Googling “Christian horror” and landed smack dab in the middle of a thread that Chris (–dFm) was talking about it.

    I’m glad I ignored everyone when they said Christian horror would never amount to an actual genre.

  • Mike Duran April 24, 2007, 1:08 PM

    Michelle, I don’t think the Supernatural Suspense genre will spawn Christian Horror any time soon. I’m guessing those of us who write it should still use the term cautiously. The first agent who expressed interest in my writing (one that I did not sign with) really balked when I referenced the word “horror” — even though the reference was casual. The industry appears to have a similar knee-jerk reaction. Of course, there are positive signs. The Coach’s Midnight Diner contest, put on by the Relief Journal editors, has a Horror/Weird Fiction category. (I’m currently a finalist over there, to boot!) The fact that Dave mentioned the obvious semantical incongruities also gives reason to believe changes are afoot. Nevertheless, like much in the CBA, we may be a long way off from the actual changes. Thanks for the comments, Michelle!

  • Ame April 24, 2007, 1:43 PM

    It continuously amazes me when people are not prepared for things they deem important to them. My ex, who swirls in the corporate world on many levels always said, “I’m not asking for anything extra, I’m just asking for you to do your job! Just do your job!” If you’re gonna see writing as a “job” or potential “career,” then, *do your job* and know your stuff!!!

    And, when you are in a place where you do not know what you discover you should, be a grown-up and admit it, “You know, I’m not informed here, though I should be, …”

    Kudos for being spontaneous!!! Kudos for doing your homework … continuously … for being responsible and professional! And, kudos for how you wrote this post and your attitude … you do well “assessing” the industry and yet not cutting off your life-line … showing great maturity … a deft ability to be objective and supportive and realistic at the same time.

  • Jason April 24, 2007, 2:44 PM

    Hey Mike – thanks for the insight! We need to hear this stuff. I threw a link to this on a post today. Keep it up!

    Oh, on your recent posts of your testimony, that was powerful. Thanks for your transparency to share with us. As always, you are appreciated!

    Jason

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller April 24, 2007, 7:15 PM

    Mike, Dave’s comment about CSFF was pretty much the same he said to me a year or so ago. I just blogged on how hot the genre is on Friday: http://rebeccaluellamiller.wordpress.com/2007/04/23/how-hot-fantasy/#comments. Well, not the “Christian” side specifically. But it amazes me that people think Christians don’t like what everyone else likes. Almost makes you think we need a “Christians are people too” campaign.

    Glad you went to the OC. Wish I could have afforded it–two long conferences are my limit. 😉

    Becky

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