Thursday, April 10, 2014

daily grace

I wrote and compiled most of A Daybook of Grace a couple years ago and "packaged" it for Fall River Press (an imprint of Sterling Publishing, owned by Barnes & Noble). After three years in the market, the publishing team at Falls River recently updated and upgraded it with an exquisite new cover. (Thanks Stefan and Betsy.)

This project will always be near and dear to my heart for a couple of reasons. Of course I like (and really need) a daily devotional book to help me focus spiritually and emotionally each morning. I also like the title and the theme of daily grace. There are certainly some mad-dash sprints in life, but overall it is a marathon that takes daily endurance.

But what really makes the project special to me is how many problems I had during the process of preparing it for publication. I can't go into details, but one of my vendors had a personal crisis that spilled over into the development and timeline, which meant unplanned late night and early morning writing sessions, and a couple rounds of re-budgeting. (What I dealt with paled in comparison to what my friend had to go through.)

My wife likes to remind me that when strange, idiopathic challenges arise, "something good is about to happen." And as Daybook went to press that was indeed the case. The new release is another good thing to happen. It is even better that it happened a couple years later - that means the book has done well.

Daybook of Grace is my lovely reminder that grace really is a daily need and blessing.

Daybook of Grace is available at all Barnes and Noble stores and B&,, and other fine booksellers.

Monday, March 31, 2014

how to make march madness even madder

a fun play-in tournament to make march madness even madder
On "Selection Sunday" each year, a committee appointed by the NCAA selects and seeds the top 64 Division I men's basketball programs to play in their championship tournament. Oh, in case you missed it, there is an Opening Round that started in 2001 where two teams played for the final spot in the tournament. Starting in 2010 there were four play-in games, so 68 teams get selected for the tournament. The winner of each play-in game would go to one of the four regions, except this year, when two went to one region. Go figure.

What most of us think of as the first round is actually the second round. But on to my point of how to make March Madness even madder.

Even with 68 teams making the tournament, there is angst and gnashing of teeth and cries of "no fair" for those "bubble teams" that don't make the tournament. No matter where you draw the line this would be the case, of course. (Note: Just because the top four NCAA DI college football teams play a mini tournament starting this year, don't believe for a second that there won't be impassioned cries of "unfair" from the next few teams in the final BCS rankings or whatever rankings they use.)

Why not let more teams in? I counted 160 teams with winning records this year. If each region gets a play-in team, that would be 96 teams playing tournaments in four regions - four 24 team tournaments.

Wouldn't that take forever? Not necessarily. Pick four venues where you can have multiple courts, probably domed stadiums or convention centers. Monday afternoon would be the four games that got the tourney to a sweet 16. That evening - eight games on four courts. And yes, four teams would play two games the first day. That's half a typical summer day for most players and less than they played in a day growing up on AAU tournaments.

Tuesday morning would be the four Elite 8 games. Tuesday evening would be the Final 4. Wednesday morning or afternoon would be the "championship" game in each region. The winning team would get on an airplane or a bus and head for their first round NCAA game. Nice guy that I am, I suggest giving them Thursday off and scheduling them for the Friday game.

Would anyone show up? You bet. I lived in Kansas City for years and would spend at least one day at Kemper Arena ("the hump in the dump") to watch three or four NAIA games pitting small colleges in tournament action, many that I had never heard of. The games were great. (And yes, being Kansas City, barbecue was involved.)

Keep the tickets reasonably priced and give basketball junkies a chance to watch a couple games of basketball.

Would this hurt the NIT Tournament? (The what?) Probably. But playing for a chance to compete in the NCAAs actually makes it a much more meaningful tournament.

Incidentally, no #16 seed has beat a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament - though top seeds have fallen to low seeds - Weber State beat North Carolina, George Mason beat Connecticut, and a host of other powerhouses like Indiana, Arizona, UCLA, Syracuse, and others have lost first round games to low seeds.

Sound crazy? Undoubtedly it is. Maybe that's why it would work so well with March Madness.

Monday, March 3, 2014

a look at the Christian fiction category

Publishing professional and friend, Dan Balow, recently took a look at the Christian fiction category in his blog for the Steve Laube Agency. His analysis includes some counterintuitive insights for publishers and some very specific advice to retailers that I wanted to share here. (Since my novels are considered "tweeners" - somewhere between the Christian and general markets, I especially appreciated what he had to say.) Dan - thanks for permission to use the following!

Just how well is Christian fiction doing?

Last year, two Christian publishers downsized or suspended their fiction programs. Currently, some Christian publishers are nervous about fiction and in a wait-and-see mode before they attempt to expand it or try new things. Others are excited about growth potential in the category and are taking an aggressive stance toward it. 

Similarly, some Christian retailers are doing quite well with fiction, others are lukewarm with it and some are not doing well at all.

The answer to the question, "Is Christian fiction thriving?" is no, but it is certainly interesting to explore the reason behind such widely diverse opinions on the subject of Christian fiction today.  How can one group see great potential and another see little or none?
Here is why I think Christian Fiction is causing some publisher and retailer confusion right now:

First and foremost, fiction is the segment of book publishing and retailing most affected by the sales of eBooks. In some cases, 50% or more of unit sales on a particular title can be digital.  Because eBooks are cheaper than printed editions, overall revenues to the publisher will decrease or remain flat, all the while readership increases. For a particular novel, digital sales might be 50% of the units and 20% of the revenue. 

A new business model eventually emerges, but it takes time for publishers and retailers to adjust to new realities.

Retailers can easily recall how the decline in physical product sales were affected by music downloads (iTunes started in 2001), video download/streaming and audio book downloads. The migration to digital delivery in music, video and audio resulted in a corresponding drop in physical product sales at retail.  But knowing the cause doesn’t make it easier to handle.

The second major contributor to publisher and retail confusion about fiction is the relatively small number of titles published.  Even in good years, the total output of new Christian fictions titles by the main ECPA Christian publishers are not more than 250-300 annually.  (I am not counting the various Harlequin Love Inspired and Heartsong mass market lines which publish over 200 titles per year.)

According to R.R. Bowker data from a couple years ago, the entire U.S. publishing industry (not self-publishing) released over 250,000 new titles annually, of which about 40,000 are novels. There is not completely accurate data available on Christian publishers, but not long ago the total output of books from Christian publishers was around 10,000 new books annually. If Christian publishers followed the same ratios in fiction as the general market, there should be over 1,000 new novels each year, not 250-300.  Not every category growth problem is solved by doing more books, but in this case, I believe it has something to do with it.

Similarly at retail, when a category suffers a slowdown, reducing shelf-space for the category only hastens the decline.  The huge disparity between fiction in the general market retail and that in the Christian market would leave one to wonder whether some are giving up too early on it.

The final reason for confusion about fiction is there are a limited number of genres published by Christian publishers. For reasons that may or may not be obvious, Christian publishers cannot publish in as many genres as a general market publisher.  For instance, erotica will never be a category in Christian publishing, while it is a major category in the general market.

Combine these three things…eroding physical sales due to digital delivery, a small number of titles in relatively few categories  and maybe we can understand why it is rather confusing time in the Christian fiction category.

What can retailers do about it? (other than stocking current best-sellers and new titles)

  • Begin with the inventory. Carry the classic backlist.  Not just In His Steps or Pilgrim’s Progress but the authors who made the category successful over the last 30 years…Janette Oke, Frank Peretti, Jerry Jenkins/Tim LaHaye, Bodie and Brock Thoene and Francine Rivers to name a few. 
  •  Decide to add a new genre of fiction that heretofore you have not carried or promoted.  This is to grow your customer’s taste for a wider type of fiction.
  • Consider rearranging the fiction section by genre to help readers find new authors. Perhaps using a variation of the umbrella categories that the Christy Awards uses to separate the genres.
  • Encourage fiction reader groups among your customers. This will show how fiction can communicate spiritual truth in an effective manner.

Steve Laube, the founder and owner of the literary agency with whom I work, was a Christian retailer himself before getting into the publisher side of the equation over 20 years ago.  In 1989, his Berean Store in Phoenix, Arizona was named the CBA Store of the Year.  I asked him to give his perspective on how retailers can sell more fiction:

The key was that great story that got people telling their friends. Word-of-Mouth.  Second was a staff that was knowledgeable about the various fiction offerings. Hand-selling is still a critical piece of what makes the physical store a destination. Hand-selling is a form of word-of-mouth. For example, when Mrs. Sally came in the store each month and asked us, ‘What's new?’ we could direct her to the latest and greatest because we knew the type of stories she liked and the type of stories that were on our shelves.  That principle has not changed over the years. I am always attracted to the part of any bookstore that has a ‘Staff Recommendations’ section. I find it fascinating to see what other people think is worthwhile to read.

Keep in mind, that if readers don’t find what they need in the Christian store, they will look elsewhere and personally, I’d rather they find a lot of great reads among titles from Christian publishers in Christian bookstores.

Monday, February 10, 2014

the man who killed kennedy

I was in kindergarten when President John F. Kennedy was shot. To say that the Kennedy brothers were popular was an understatement. The two hottest Halloween costumes at the class party that year, less than a month before JFK was shot, had been John and Bobby plastic masks. My first inkling that something big had happened on November 22, 1963, was when I got in the car and the mom who was driving carpool that day said nothing but only sobbed the drive home.

I heard Roger Stone do a radio interview on his book and realized I had read little to nothing on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I didn't go see the Oliver Stone film. I found it strange that I've read books on the Viet Nam War and Watergate - the other two defining political events in my growing up years - but I had never taken the time to accept or reject the Warren Commission. It's interesting that in the back of my mind I've sort of known there are two self-contradictory popular beliefs that guide popular perception on the Kennedy Assassination:
  1. the Warren Report is seriously flawed
  2. anyone that presents an alternative view of the Warren Report is a kook
So who does Roger Stone - longtime political strategist for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush, and George W. Bush - say killed JFK? Since he has a picture of President Lyndon Baines Johnson on the cover and subtitles the book, The Case Against LBJ, I'm not giving a spoiler to tell you where this book is going. (Note: Stone is equally hard on Republicans as Democrats; he is an equal opportunity sledgehammer.)

His attack on the Warren Report - from his rejection of the "magic bullet" (the conclusion that the same bullet went completely through Kennedy's body and then hit Texas Governor John Connelly, breaking bones), to the 50+ witnesses present that said there was gunfire from the grassy knoll and whose testimony was deemed unreliable - was all fascinating.

But what makes the book sizzle is his depiction of Johnson as a psychopath who had at least eight men murdered to protect and promote his political career. (The Box 13 incident that got him elected to the Senate in 1946 is just as surreal as the alleged murders in his wake. And if Stone's later analysis of why Johnson double-downed on the Viet Nam War has any credibility, it is downright depressing.) Stone sets out to show how the parties that would most benefit from Kennedy's death worked together, including the Mob, J. Edgar Hoover, a few renegades in the CIA tied to the Bay of Pigs and several failed assassination attempts on Fidel Castro, a cadre of Texas oil tycoons, and first and foremost, the man who stood the most to gain and who could organize the plot and then perform the most important function to hold it all together - controlling the evidence - namely Lyndon Baines Johnson.

How was the book? If you can get past the typos (it's not self-published but feels like it at times) of this New York Times bestselling outlier, Stone's writing was fine and propelled you through the pages fast enough for you to say "just one more chapter" even past lights out time. It was as or more titillating than many a political suspense thriller.

Did Stone make the case against LBJ? Like any argument based on an historical event; you have to present - and hope the readers / listeners believe - a boatload of circumstantial evidence, assembled cogently, and wrapped up neatly with a bow on top. Did I believe him? I think I can confidently say this:  Even if all Stone's assumptions and dot connecting efforts aren't correct, he made an overwhelming case that the Warren Commission and its report was a sham that was designed to protect powerful participants in a plot that could not be subsumed within a lone gunman theory.

Is this the best book to read if you haven't read anything else about the Kennedy Assassination? Go back to the two popular beliefs: the Warren Report was flawed and conspiracy theorists are kooks. An author like Bill O'Reilly tries to make the case that both of those beliefs are still absolutely true - and yet that he has written a groundbreaking book. (And after reading Stone I'm finding Killing Kennedy decidedly unsatisfactory.) So why not Stone's work? It includes the latest declassified reports. You'll learn about the political winds of the day, the dominant view of what happened, and an alternative view that was present from the moment JFK was shot. If it doesn't go down right, there are a myriad of more traditional primers to tackle.