This is our regular column of frequently (and not-so-frequently) asked questions with Alive’s Founder and CEO, Rick Christian. Over the weeks, we’ll cover everything from negotiation strategy and all things literary, lying, his manliest possession and most terrifying moment, his own ultimate demise…and everything in between!
What does Alive look for, fresh writers or established writers?
Ultimately it boils down to words on the page. How good are they? Freshness counts. We’re always looking for new voices and great writing. Always. Having said that, I recently received a proposal from an unknown. I circulated the material and the agents raved about the author’s unique style, thought-provoking insights–and then reminded me that publishers wouldn’t be interested. In the genre this particular project fell into, publishers prefer authors with names and established platforms–people who bring large constituencies to the table.
That’s discouraging for the first-time writer who doesn’t have a national TV show.
It’s a tough biz. But the reality in bookstores isn’t much different than grocery stores and hardware stores. Name brands sell. This becomes even truer as small retailers lose ground to the big boxes.
Books have become commodities and have shorter lives on shelves than a box of Cheerios. And yet, the cream always rises. If the words are great, the manuscript will eventually get published. Great writing is noticed, and eventually an agent or publisher will get excited and become the personal champion for the project. We can’t take on everything we like from first-time authors, but we generally
try to advocate for a half dozen unknowns and up-and-comers each year. It may take shopping them to twenty publishers and getting turned down 19 times, but all we need is one yes.
I feel stories coming on.
OK, well, I’m reminded of the mass rejections we received for a book called Same Kind of Different as Me—a story I told at the 2013 memorial service for our long-time agent Lee Hough. The authors
had never written a word before, but Lee believed in this book and shopped it for two years. He was pummeled by rejections, but he came up swinging each time. In life, there’s often a point of
diminishing rewards, when you have to let go of something. But I believe in instinct and never stand in the way of an agent who is crazy about a project and willing to go to the mat for it. Lee finally sold
it to a publisher who’d turned him down twice before. His passion finally won the day. Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz is another example. He was unknown at the time and it was tough getting anybody to dance. The one that did is smiling pretty now, and that book was a best-seller for years. There’s dozens of stories like this.
What is a common reason you reject manuscripts?
They forget to print their name in the upper right hand corner? Actually, we receive thousands of submissions a year that don’t make it through the first reader. For many, it’s death by adjectives. “It was a dark and stormy night, so very icy cold it made my capped teeth itch.” No thanks. Other killers are what I’d describe as naïve awe, often paired with a shazaam! tone. Everything is just too bright and grand. Pass. In other cases, the work has no heart and it’s clear the information being conveyed is theoretical.
Any other tips for authors?
Read books in your genre. If you’re doing suspense or legal thrillers, study how guys like DeMille and Grisham do what they do. What grabs you about their particular works? How do they sustain the drama and build believable characters? What makes you keep reading? How do they turn the corner whereby you’re dying one minute and laughing on the floor the next? If you want to conquer the marketplace, you need to know what readers want, what they devour. These authors do it better than anybody else. If it’s suspense you’re after, give readers the same can’t-put-it-down intensity. The same white knuckle fear. But then make it your own and make it distinct.
What about book and writer’s conferences, are they worthwhile? Do such affairs generate good leads and connections to top-notch agents?
Wherever two or three authors and an agent are gathered, go. Here’s a secret. Even when an agency doesn’t accept unpublished authors, they’re always prowling for the next big book from an unknown. Though we’ve landed many dozens of titles on the New York Times bestseller list, our agents still attend eight to ten conferences annually. Other agencies do the same. And so, get thee to a conference and corner an agent in a hallway, after a session, during a meal, or after hours.
Do you get a lot of “I’ve written the next Lord of the Rings” from potential authors?
Yes, ad nauseum. Over the years we’ve received countless proposals, proclaiming a novel to be the “next Narnia” or the “next whatever.” While their mother may believe it, that’s our cue to trip the trap door. Bye now. Every work needs to stand on its own. Authors frequently equate their work with whatever is hot at the moment. A better strategy is to instead just write the best story you can, take the feedback you’ve been given, revise accordingly, and if it’s good it will eventually be published. If it’s really good, people will buy it.
What do you say to authors who are toying with quitting their day job?
Don’t. Maintain a job (or get one), and only quit if there’s a significant track record of writing income exceeding what you’ve made elsewhere. The reality is that most authors have regular jobs and write in the stolen hours–when everybody else is sleeping or watching TV or going to dinner or the mall, etc. They conceive books while they’re ironing or showering or driving, and then carry the book in their heads until they have time to get it on paper. It’s not an easy life. And so, if you can not write, don’t. If you can’t not write, then yes, start looking for a job, do what you need to do to get by financially, and steal the writing hours wherever and however you can. Somehow in its own time the book(s) will get done. What you don’t want is to compound the pressure of being broke atop the already difficult and emotionally draining job of writing.