Ask Rick Christian: Path to Success

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!

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How do you measure success? If a publisher sells 13,000 copies in the first month, is that good or bad?

13,000 is 13,000. Period. Not great, not bad, not indifferent. It’s just a number. Authors tend to compare, measure, and quantify. It’s a normal thing I suppose, but one’s ultimate success really can’t be measured by bestseller lists or copies sold. Come the Day of Judgment, God won’t be asking about the number of appearances you made on the USA Today list. More important is whether you’ve been faithful with the gifts you’ve received—regardless of the results. Authors should work diligently at their craft, and it’s OK to celebrate honors that come your way, of course. But a bit of perspective helps. Many of the great authors I studied in college died thinking they were failures because their books weren’t wildly popular. Melville never realized the success of “Moby Dick” in his lifetime. It was only recognized as a masterpiece 30 years after his death. He worked on ships and loading docks to keep the wolf away from the door. Chaucer doubled up as a diplomat and secret agent, Milton was Cromwell’s fighting foreign secretary, Ben Jonson was a bricklayer.

 

You seem to deemphasize numbers, but what about all the quantification in the Bible? Every Gospel writer talks about Christ being followed by thousands, as if emphasizing he was a pretty big deal.

Right, but it wasn’t the crowds that made him successful, and he surely didn’t lay awake nights thinking about the buzz he was generating. I smile when I recall the day he turned his back on the vast crowd to focus on a man who’d shinnied up a tree for a better view. His interaction that moment with Zacchaeus was as important as all the rest. He was OK with an audience of one.

That should prompt great relief. If you have faithfully exercised your talent and have just 17 readers, celebrate with abandon. Thank God for each. His arithmetic is unlike anything you’ve learned.
He’s the great multiplier, and if you’ve been faithful, expect eternal impact beyond your wildest dreams. You may not see the results until heaven. But when you get there and he pulls back the veil, act surprised.

 

How do you know what advance to seek? Do you typically set a floor on the advance you are looking for?

I repped a book several years back with the guy who trained cops for the LAPD. Prior to that he handled some of their high profile hostage negotiations. One particular day he was dealing with a loony who was ready to blow up something or other and take a bunch of people out if his demands weren’t met. My client asked the nut what he wanted. Guy says, A million dollars and an airplane. That story comes in handy with many of my negotiations. I tell publishers, Me, too. I want a million bucks and an airplane–but I’m negotiable about the airplane. They get a good laugh, and we move from there, up or down, depending on the individual circumstances. In most cases, the agents typically won’t seek a floor, or the lowest acceptable bid on a project. If you ask a publisher to establish the floor at a certain level, they typically expect a last round topping privilege. That sounds fair, but if other houses are involved in the bidding, it makes an auction somewhat pointless, because the floor publisher can step in at the end of the day and get the book for, say, 10% higher than the highest bidder. I’d rather keep the bidding less formal, and allow the author to make the final selection of publisher based on a variety of factors. Our job is to ascertain which house really, really wants the property. It’s not about a trophy hunt or filling a slot in the catalog because of a project that fell through. Our agents look for a publisher who will eat, sleep, and breathe this book. Who will sell it better than anybody else. Who will involve outside designers and publicists to position the book well and let people know it exists. Who will ultimately sell more copies.

 

Do you always choose publishers based on who pays the highest advance?

There are many cases where an author takes a lower amount because the high bidder may not be the best match. Also, we’re very careful before we move an author away from a house where there’s been a long, abiding relationship and everything clicks.

 

And when it doesn’t click?

Most partings don’t happen suddenly, but over a long period of time. I think of one of our authors who signed her first book with one of the top publishers. This is back when she was a nobody and, to her, they were the ultimate muscle car. They owned the street and they’d thrown open the doors to this dream machine and let her ride shotgun. She was eternally grateful. But then her publisher died, and key staff departed. Years later, the company was sold and by then our author felt like she was sitting in a car that had been stripped and keyed. When a company loses heart and soul, authors move on. We had another author shift houses because her publisher went to the wall over an insignificant issue and absolutely insisted on participating in film rights, though they’d never done a film deal. This is about a 20-second negotiation with most houses, but I spent days patiently trying to convince them that holding out was in nobody’s best interest. It would have cost the publisher nothing to let the author retain this particular right, but instead they lost everything. Negotiation is an art, and arm twisting doesn’t work.

 

Examples of other missed opportunities?

One of our authors leads mega seminars in various cities, and goes into an area a year in advance to build the base of support with key influencers and VIPs. Knowing that, it would be nice for a publisher to invite retailers, the ultimate VIPs, to the planning events. These seem obvious, but when we get authors to give publishers their itineraries and key events, it’s amazing how often area retailers aren’t aware an author is coming to town. I lose sleep over this. If I believe a book is capable of hitting the Times list, I need a guerrilla publishing partner that wants to strive to reach this goal. I can’t make that happen. Authors on their own can’t make that happen. A publisher alone can’t either. But together, with wide open communication and synergistic efforts, it’s possible. That takes people in the house other than the editor reading the manuscripts and caring about books. It’s so easy to get to the point where we talk about books and authors so much that we forget to read them, forget to honor and serve them as prophets among us. Instead, we talk about them as products, brandable as a box of cereal but with a shorter shelf life, as I discussed earlier. And there’s so much to keep up with, so much e-mail, so much background noise in all of our lives that we lose our focus and calling and pretty soon we’ve quit reading the very books we’re selling and forget our very reason to be.

 

Sounds like a Braveheart speech.

No white horse, but publishers need to do the soapbox thing from time to time, to rally their troops with a message about how we’re here for this moment in time and the work God has given each of us to do really does matter, and it matters that we do it well. We’ve got battles behind us, battles surrounding us, battles ahead. On the particular battlefield of trade publishing, publishers need to build readers among their employees, to talk to them about books and great writing, to reinvigorate them by helping them see their roles in the broader scheme of things. At Alive, we all hang out a lot at bookstores and regularly discuss current books we’re reading.

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