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.