It was good to see all your comments today on how you’ve done with NaNoWriMo. A lot of you have written a lot of words this month. That’s great! There are just a couple of more days in the month, so I’m expecting that more of you will cross the finish line before the deadline.
I’d like to switch gears now and talk about marketing again. It’s been awhile since we did that.
This time, I’m interviewing a friend of mine who has taken on what I would consider to be the impossible challenge:
1) He’s starting his own publishing house.
2) He’s trying to do what numerous big publishers have tried and failed to do.
3) He’s doing it with very little investment.
Who is this crazy guy? His name is Jeff Gerke, and he’s been a good friend of mine for several years. We’ve roomed together at numerous conferences and Jeff has cheered me on as I learned the strange world of internet marketing.
Jeff has worked as an acquisitions editor at three different Christian publishing houses. His big interest is “speculative fiction”–fantasy, science fiction, time travel, and anything else that’s weird. And this has NOT worked very well in Christian fiction (other than for a few big-name authors and a few young-adult authors).
So Jeff has decided to start his own publishing house. I’ll be interviewing him over the next few days to see how he plans to market his books. He is going to need some innovative ideas to succeed. (Some of those innovative ideas came from a brainstorming session he and I had a couple of months ago.)
In Jeff’s comments, you’ll see frequent reference to “CBA”. This means “Christian Booksellers Association” and refers to the niche market in publishing that caters to Christian bookstores. This has probably been the fastest growth segment in the industry in recent years, which is why Time-Warner, Simon & Shuster, Random House, and other major publishers have been buying Christian publishing houses lately–because money talks.
The first question for Jeff is:
Q: Tell us about Marcher Lord Press and why you want to publish books in a niche that hasn’t worked for anyone else.
A: Marcher Lord Press grew out of my frustration that Christian fantasy and SF novels don’t tend to do well in the marketplace. We have Left Behind and Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti, but by and large Christian speculative novels crash and burn, sales-wise.
This frustrated me because I knew there were people who would love these novels if they were aware of them and I knew there were many talented Christian novelists out there wanting to tell these “weird” stories. Fantasy is the single most popular genre in secular fiction and many hundreds of thousands of Christians read it. I knew those people would embrace Christian fantasy and related genres if they could be made aware of them.
Unfortunately, those readers have long ago been driven away from Christian bookstores. This demographic doesn’t exactly like potpourri and cute little stories about knitting for the woman’s heart. They want blood-sucking aliens and fire-breathing dragons.
So if you’ve got the people who want a product and the authors who can create that product, your only task is to get those two groups together somehow.
For years I tried doing so from within the CBA publishing industry. I promoted speculative proposals when I was at the three publishing companies I’ve worked for. I spearheaded the launch of Realms, an imprint of Strang Communications dedicated to Christian speculalative fiction. At NavPress I championed a number of wonderfully weird projects, including Sharon Hinck’s fantasy trilogy (The Restorer series) and a wonderful story by Tosca Lee about a demon narrating the events of the fall of man (Demon: A Memoir).
After years of this I finally came to the conclusion that this wasn’t working (although Sharon and Tosca’s books are doing well, I’m pleased to see). The demographic reached by CBA publishers and booksellers does not embrace the weird. Even factoring in that some Christian novels are being sold through Wal-Mart or Barnes & Noble, speculative novels do not do well when compared to the romances and historicals and female-oriented thrillers that are the bread and butter of CBA fiction.
If I wanted to bring Christian speculative fiction to the people who want it, I realized, I would have to circumvent the CBA industry. They’re very happy supplying the fiction demands of their audience. That’s wonderful for them. I wish them continued success. But it’s not the group I want to reach or the fiction I want to produce.
And so I started playing around with the idea of a small, indie press that would publish only Christian speculative fiction and would use the Internet to reach those Christians who read secular SF and fantasy. I like to say that my target audience is “Christians who love Battlestar Galactica” and “Christians who watch Heroes.” That’s my target demographic–and where are they? They’re all online.
My advantage is the ability to succeed on only a very small number of units sold. While traditional CBA publishers must sell anywhere from 7,000 to 50,000+ copies of any given title to break even, I’ll break even on something like 350 units sold. My experience allows me to do many of the steps in producing a book myself, thus keeping my costs very low, and my network of colleagues and friends allows me to use trusted freelancers to do the steps I can’t do. My own published novels plus my years in the industry give me the credentials to make a go of this.
A Christian speculative novel that “fails” through the traditional CBA publishing and bookselling channel will sell perhaps 5,000 units. If I sold half of that, I’d have a runaway blockbuster on my hands. There’s something wrong with a 5,000-unit selling being called a failure and something right about a 500-unit seller being called a wild success.
Randy sez: It’s an interesting marketing problem, and one that is faced by an enormous number of writers around the world who are writing for small niches. (There are many small niches that simply can’t be filled by the big publishers, because it’s not cost-effective.)
As Jeff mentioned, a book that sells only 5000 copies is losing money at most publishing houses. But let’s remember those brutal numbers that I talked about in my e-zine a few months ago. In any given year, about 98% of all books sell FEWER than 5000 copies. 80% sell fewer than 100 copies!
But let’s remember one other thing: Jeff’s plan is NOT to produce books that will only get read by a few hundred readers. Jeff’s plan is to produce books that will BREAK EVEN if only a few hundred readers buy them. That radically lowers the risk of publishing each book. But Jeff’s plan is to do his best to market his books well so that SOME of them sell thousands or hundreds of thousands of copies. That’s the plan.
How’s he gonna do that? Tune in here tomorrow and he’ll answer the next question:
Q: You and I brainstormed up some innovative ideas for launching your first few books at Marcher Lord Press. Tell us about those ideas and how you’re coming along with them.
A: [in tomorrow's blog]