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]
Daan Van der Merwe says
Rachel, Thank you very much.
Mary Hawkins says
This is very timely for me as I’ve been looking at manuscripts by an unpublished relative of mine who has manuscripts using time travel and another with futuristic, end times. The time travel returns to the days of the crucifixion – not a manuscript I’ve read yet but if anything like his other unpublished ones I’ve read will be fascinating. He is a great story-teller but still learning some writing techniques. And yes, he does have your 101 Fiction course, Randy!
Many thanks Randy and Jeff. Looking forward very much to your next blog
Carrie Neuman says
I loved the Runelords series by David Farland because it was fantasy with my kind of morality. I thought that was the only way you could do Christian spec-fic – slip it in quietly and don’t call it Christian.
I’m definitely interested in hearing more about how niche publishing works. Great topic, Randy!
Mary E. DeMuth says
One: But what if I have a book where potpourri and cute little stories about knitting shapshifts into seven headed potpourri monsters who eat folks who knit?
Two: There’s a typo that made me laugh…Christian speculalative (Note the “LaLa” in the middle.
I’m very interested in hearing Jeff’s marketing plan. I’ve been watching the development of his publishing company from the sidelines – a silent cheerleader you might say.
Steve Lewis says
I have one question. Jeff said that fantasy was the single most popular genre in secular fiction. Every other source I’ve ever read has always put romance as the first, mystery/thrillers second (usually just lumped together), etc.
I’ve always heard that Fantasy and SF make up about 6-7% of the market with Fantasy outselling SF about 6 to 1, and that’s even after LOTR and the Star Wars prequels. Not trying to be contrary just wondering because this is different from what I’ve heard.
Robert Treskillard says
I’ve also been keeping my eyes on Marcher Lord Press and your efforts, Jeff. When I am finished writing and editing my Christian fantasy novel (hopefully sometime in 2008) I will be considering your press. I’m rooting for you!
Question: It would appear to me that Realms (by Strang) *is* trying to publish books similar to what you are trying to do. Is the difference for Marcher Lord Press that you will be able to publish books they would not consider because your economic models are different? Or is there also a difference of opinion regarding content?
Great topic, Randy. Your Mad Scientist hat is showing!
I wonder if Jeff Gerke’s efforts might encourage men to read more. While I was church librarian, I noticed men treated fiction by female authors like toxic waste. Most all the female authors dealt with romance to some degree, so I guess it is a conditioned response.
So, what’s a female author to do? Hide behind a penn name, write like Clancy, and sell to 20% (male) of the readers, or stuff in romance whether they want to or not and reach 80% (female) of the readers?
I can’t thank Randy enough for his discussion on “dewussing” the male characters. I tried various scenarios on hubby and got some real eyeopeners. Made for some interesting conversation around the dinner table too. 🙂
Lois Hudson says
Looking forward with great interest to Jeff Gerke’s revelations, grateful for his imaginative daring, and
Randy’s lifeline connection.
What about a mildly weird, “near-future” (in the realm of “what if” possibility), medical but not space related premise? Is there room for that type in your speculation?
Mary, I love your monsters! (But wouldn’t they be shapeshifters instead of shapshifters? Forgive me, but I couldn’t let that pass after the lala!)
ML Eqatin says
I’m with Jeff. The publishing industry is like the railroads fifty years ago. They are stuck in an outdated system that seems to lose them money no matter what. Being a ‘seat of the pants marketer’ I have researched them and come to the same conclusion. The market is going to custom niches, because thanks to the internet, we can reach them. 2000 copies is a success for a niche. But a publishing house doesn’t want a book aimed at a niche, because 2000 copies will ‘lose money’. (Not because of real costs, but because of the money-wasting ‘system’ still in place from the offset-press, brick-and-mortar-only decades.)
Since the amount paid your typical author doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, why not forget the fantasies of $$$ and go straight for those 2000 readers? If you are good enough, you’ll get them. Marketing straight to the market is a lot easier than marketing to the agents to market to the editors to market to the publishers to market to the bookstores, who will stuff your novel on the bottom shelf because they make their money on the 10% bestsellers and the publisher must eat the cost even if they never bother unpacking it from the box in the warehouse.
Who’d invest their sweat in a system where 60-80% of the product is destroyed before the buyer has a chance to consider it? Hooray for internet marketing, print-on-demand, e-books, on-site printing machines, and everything else that reduces unnecessary waste. Power to the consumer. OK, I’m done now.
Jeff Gerke says
Thanks for the comments, folks.
Mary D., you got me! Guess I was in lala land…
Steve, I probably should have said that fantasy is the hottest or fastest growing genre in secular fiction. You’re probably right that romance remains #1 overall. And perhaps that “hottest” tag is no longer appropriate, either, as the craze may be dying down a bit. But my point is that fantasy remains a very strong genre in secular publishing but Christian publishers can’t seem to make a go of it. I, too, have heard that fantasy outsells SF by a ton.
Robert, Realms was my first attempt to really make Christian speculative fiction fly. We had a great launch with four books: a fantasy, a SF, a time travel, and a heavenly thriller (don’t know how else to categorize “The Fall of Lucifer”). I left Realms shortly after that and the imprint foundered for 18 months as they tried to determine where they wanted to take it. They’ve finally decided to concentrate on spiritual warfare pretty much primarily. That’s one of the differences between Realms and Marcher Lord Press, which might include spiritual warfare novels but won’t focus on them exclusively.
Lynda, some female authors do hide their gender behind pen names or initials. I’ve seen this mainly with women whose fiction would appeal to men as well as women. It’s a good strategy. However, there just aren’t that many men left reading CBA fiction in the first place, so such semantics may not have as big an impact as they might’ve. But for an online readership, where there are many more men than in Christian bookstores, it may be the perfect answer. (I’ve also seen at least one male novelist use a female pen name to try to gain the primarily female readership in CBA.)
Lois, near-future stories might qualify as speculative. It depends on the subject matter. I wrote a near-future (or rather an indeterminately modern-future hybrid) series that would not qualify as speculative (my Operation: Firebrand novels, see www.JeffersonScott.com) and another near-future series of technothrillers that definitely would be counted as speculative (my Ethan Hamilton trilogy).
Power to the shapeshifters.
Publisher, Marcher Lord Press
a.k.a. Jefferson Scott
Jeepers, ML. Do you mean to blow up the blessed system I’ve just learned to accept? Forget the agonizing process of selling a novel to a major publisher and all the blood, sweat and blogging to market it, all the platforming, and all the schmoozing in the commercial publishing world for roughly $1 per copy?
So maybe my 22 year old knows something I don’t, after all. Since he and I are dueling novelists, I share with him what I’m learning about the publishing world, like all normal moms do, and he just pounds away at his laptop on his Specu-lala-tive Fic novel, shaking his head and giving me his typical polite nod and faint smile.
I confess: I’m a CWWH.
Heather Goodman says
I don’t understand how 80% sell less than 100 books–do these authors not have family and friends?
D.E. Hale says
Randy, that’s terrible leaving us hanging like that. HA!
Well, this is very exciting to me! This is exactly where my novels would fit, when they’re all edited and polished. (Of course, that could take another two years…lol).
Pam Halter says
I get Jeff’s newsletter and am very excited about Marcher Lord Press! I’m also a Christian who watches Heroes, is a trekkie, and reads Terry Brooks and Mercedes Lackey, etc. Give me elves, druids and dragons any time! Some sci-fi has grabbed me, like Randy’s Oxygen and Tess Gerritsen’s Gravity.
James Byron Huggins wrote a wonderful novel called Leviathian, where scientists recreate the leviathian of the Bible, keep it drugged and in an underground cave in Greenland and it, of course, gets out, bent of destroying the world. A 7 foot tall viking named,(what else?) Thor. Thor is a Christian. He also goes hand to hand combat with the dragon. It’s one of the best thrillers I’ve read and would make a great movie!
I’m writing fantasy, but mine is for upper middle grade kids, so I don’t have the word count needed to pitch it to Marcher Lord … unless I add about 15,000 words. 😉
If things go well, will you consider publishing fantasy/sci-fi for kids, Jeff?
ML Eqatin says
I would never suggest leaving off the blood sweat and blogging for your book. But personally, I have dropped the smoozing with publishers to free up time, money, and brainspace for more blood, sweat and creative marketing. On your own, you only have to sell ten percent as many books for the same amount of $$. The caveat is that if you don’t do your homework first, you can throw a lot of $$ down the drain, which is the big warning for those who take alternate routes without developing the skill level first. I guess focusing on the old publishing system will at least save you from those.
Problem is: now you already have to have marketing skills, and an internet presence, and a following, and a speaking platform, as well as being a good writer, before the publishers will take you. Well, if you already have developed all that, it isn’t that expensive to get a physical book printed anymore, so who needs them?
I know, bookstores. But bookstores lose money for themselves, lose money for the publishers, and are being driven out of business by Amazon et al. If you want an eye-opener on the retail side of the business, get to know the manager of your local B&N.
Andie Mock says
Can’t get to know the manager of local Berkeley B&N. It recently went out of business along with Cody’s on Telegraph. Black Oak Books is teetering too. Sad.
Paul D says
WOW! This sounds awesome! I’m a Christian who loves to watch Heroes, LoTR, Star Trek, etc. and am writing what I’ve been calling a technothriller. I’ll be watching MLP very closely!!
bonne friesen says
So, Jeff, how Christian does a Christian speculative fiction piece need to be?
Is it enough that the author is a Christian? Tolkien and Lewis never wrote the name Jesus, but had the Christian worldview that was evidence of their faith.
My WIP has a few hints and allusions to God, but nothing blatant. If it turned into a series I would explore that further, but it doesn’t work for Book One.
Thanks so much for participating with us here! Rock on!
Mary Burch says
I’m like Pam, I am a scifi fantasy nut, and write for children and young adults. This means my story is gentler, and shorter(41,00 words).
My fantasy has fairies and elves, pixies and a gabby leprechaun whose best friend is a three-headed dragon. I also drew characters and plot points from Native American legends.
Currently I am working on the first book of a scifi trilogy dealing with genetic enginering on another planet, so I may have something to interest you in a few months.
Sheila Deeth says
Wow! Can’t wait to read on…
Is there a market for the Christian speculative short story (5 – 10,000 words) as well?
Steve Lewis says
Okay…do we have the total? Hmm…this is pretty good. So it’s official? Okay Jeff for personally answering everyone’s questions and being all kinds of helpful, the judges have awarded you a 9.5 on the coolness scale(that guy from Connecticut is a real stickler, sorry).
As a follow up question, do you feel that some Christians might be reluctant to buy/read Christian fantasy because of preconceived notions. I know that I’ve heard more than one person condemn Harry Potter and also lump the idea of Christian Fantasy in the same category. Just wondering because I really have no clue. If this takes us away from the material you and Randy want to cover, feel free to disregard.
Pam Halter says
Wow, Mary, your fantasy sounds fun! I’ve written lots of things, but fantasy is my favorite.
Jeff is a pioneer and I can’t wait to see where God takes him . . . and us!
Pamela Cosel says
If I may also promote another e-book, former editor and now literary agent Terry Whalin also has an excellent book on how to write a non-fiction book proposal. He comes with many credentials (as you probably know, Randy) and years in the publishing industry, having worked for big-name Christian publishers.
Bruce Umpstead says
I’ve been following your e-zine and blog for a while. Thanks for filling readers in on what Jeff Gerke is doing. A couple years back, Jeff provided helpful feedback when my first unpublished novel was still in verse (yes, verse) form.
So much for the modern epic poem …
Sue Dent says
I just wanted to say hey Jeff! *waves from dark cave where she hides most of the time with her vampire and werewolf friends* Glad you’re doing what you’re doing!!!