Ask Rick Christian: Starting Alive Literary Agency

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!

Rick-Photo-for-Blog-Column-webWere you always interested in things literary?

I had a couple of paper routes in junior high, and so read the news by porch light at 5 a.m. as I was folding papers on my doorstep. Words were tattooed in my brain from an early age. I collected book lists from my grandfather, read broadly, and after Stanford was a newspaper journalist, magazine and book publisher, and freelancer before I put it all together and hung out my shingle as a literary agent.  

Founding an agency is an enormous undertaking. How did Alive come to be?

An author friend, Ken Gire, suggested I become an agent because I’d lived on both sides of the fence, first as an author and then as a publishing exec. I was good with both words and numbers, and once I’d seen where the sausage was made and how the business side of publishing worked I pledged my life to help the most talented authors transform our culture through the power of words. I partnered initially with Orange County attorney and friend Sealy Yates, and then launched Alive independently in 1989. The changes in the interim have been monumental, and I’m especially pleased by the precipitous reduction of “starving artists” in our midst. None of this happened overnight, but I was persistent in my advocacy for authors and kept leaning into the problems. I had an ironclad belief that I could help level the playing field in negotiations on behalf of clients, to significantly improve publishing contracts, to expand markets for key titles, to open doors in Hollywood for adaptations, to become a warrior for authors’ rights. I had all the passion in the world, but no budget, no nest egg or rich uncle. And so I took all the equity I had in our home, hung out my shingle, and figured I had a year to live. At the end of those first twelve months, I was scraping the bottom of the barrel and sold my car to get by another month. I then sold a driveway-full of books to get by yet another month. Finally flat broke, I sold our home in California at the peak of the cycle and bought at the low ebb in Colorado. That gave me breathing room, and by then some of the projects I’d signed early on began to take off. But it was a tough haul at the beginning. I corralled every warm body that stumbled my way and literally prayed for the phone to ring. It’s ringing off the hook now.  

Your agency is in Colorado not New York, and yet you have represented books for everybody from Billy Graham to the President of Rwanda. How do you manage from the Rockies?

All agents here have long track records and established relationships, and so we could do what we do from a treehouse in the Caribbean, providing the tree is wired. Ultimately, I chose quality of life over convenience. We get back to New York and the major publishing cities on a regular basis, but we can’t lunch with editors daily in Manhattan. And so we do business differently by giving editors and publishers life experiences they’ll never forget. A great number of them like to vacation and visit here, and so we catch them in their jeans. We hang out with them, ski with them, ride horses, hit the rivers and fish the high lakes. The Rockies have been very good to us, and it’s on the mountain that we’ve inked some of our monster deals.

You’ve had a string of out-of-the-blue successes. With Eugene Peterson’s The Message, the runaway bestselling Left Behind series Lisa Beamer’s Let’s Roll!, Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel, and amazingly fresh works from first-timers like Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz that have become contemporary classics. And looking over your website deals docket, the lineup on deck looks amazingly rich. Alive seems to have a special touch.

Everybody is endowed by God with special talent. I can’t sing or paint or solve for “x”, but I’ve been given a sense about what works in the marketplace and a love for selling ideas and getting publishers excited about the next big thing. But make no mistake about it, this has little to do with me anymore. I can work with only a couple of authors personally. I’m aided and abetted by a terrific group of agents here who are the best at what they do–true publishing geniuses with ink in their veins. I got us through the first 25 years; they’ll continue the legacy for the next 25. When our team is in their zone, I just stand back and marvel. They remind me of the line from “Chariots of Fire” when the actor playing Olympic runner Eric Liddell says, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” I see that pleasure in our team and feel it myself when I’m doing what I’ve been uniquely gifted at.

Want to learn more from Rick? Check out the Ask Rick Christian column