Ask BHP: Who Starts Trends?

Back to BHP’s virtual mailbox to answer questions today! Here’s the one I chose for this month: “Do publishers purposely start trends (setting, genre, issue, etc.) or does one book with a unique angle get large sales, so others jump in with similar books?”

And the answer is…drumroll please…both. And sometimes neither. And sort of, but it’s complicated.

Let me unpack that a bit.

Sometimes publishers start trends by what they choose to publish, though not always intentionally. For example, Beverly Lewis grew up in Lancaster County and thought it would be interesting to write a novel that introduced readers to the Amish. The Shunning became a huge success, and since readers couldn’t get enough of the journey to a simpler lifestyle, other authors began writing Amish fiction. Beverly Lewis and Bethany House started the bonnet novel trend…but without meaning to start a trend, much less a whole new sub-genre of Christian fiction. The editors just enjoyed the intriguing story and responded to it.

There are times when publishers see an existing trend early on and want to publish something in it by requesting manuscripts of a certain kind. For example, one of our acquisition editors might tell her contacts in the industry that she’s looking for say, romantic suspense. That lets agents know which queries are the best ones to send that editor’s way.

Other times, writers, agents, and editors will see something that’s taking off in the general market and see if it can translate to the Christian market. That doesn’t always work, of course. Sometimes, certain categories don’t “take off” in the CBA. For example, there are some Christian YA dystopian series, but they didn’t find nearly the success of The Hunger Games, Divergent, and the rest of their ABA counterparts. And some trends just don’t have a chance—you didn’t see any Christian publishing houses dying for novel similar to Fifty Shades of Grey, for obvious reasons.

Sometimes, though, this strategy does well. For example, with more Americans watching British period dramas and TV series like Downton Abbey, British-set books increased in both the ABA and CBA, especially in the Edwardian and Regency time period. Julie Klassen was one of the first Christian authors writing Regency, and Bethany House has added several new authors whose tales are set across the pond, including Roseanna White and Kristi Ann Hunter.

Other trends seem to go through ups and downs—military novels are all the rage, and then you can hardly find a uniform anywhere. Biblical fiction is popular, then sparse, then swings a comeback. Chick lit is everywhere, then nowhere. One year middle grade books about horses see a surge in popularity, the next year…no, let’s face it, elementary-aged girls will probably always buy horse books. But you get the idea.

Maybe an experienced sociologist can parse the evidence and determine just what led to the rise and fall of these trends. (And some have—for example, comedies tend to do better in times or war or economic hardship because people want to be able to forget their worries and laugh.) For the most part, though, many factors contribute to why a theme, setting, or plot rises or falls in popularity.

(Incidentally, this is why it’s not always good for writers to “write to a trend.” They might be getting on a bandwagon just as readers are getting off. It’s better when writers write the stories they feel most passionate about, because they’ll usually be better at writing those anyway…and no matter what’s trending, a compelling, well-written story is always going to appeal to readers.)

Occasionally, trends just happen by sheer coincidence, even when the authors are from the same publishing company. At Bethany House, we tend to notice them and shake our heads: a season where fully half of the leading ladies are redheads, for example, or two new fantasy series releasing within a few months of each other where the heroes names are Wilek (KINSMAN CHRONICLES) and Wilet (THE DARKWATER SAGA). At that point, you just shrug and say, “Great minds think alike!”

What are some trends you’ve seen in Christian fiction lately? Any trend you’d like to see but haven’t yet?

Ask BHP: What Should Authors Post on Social Media?

Welcome to our monthly Ask BHP series. Here’s a fun question: “As a marketing person, do you ever advise authors on what not to post from their author pages on Facebook, especially on controversial issues? I’d be interested to hear what you think is wise for authors to say online.”

I often see agents writing blog posts on this topic, since they’re very focused on the authors’ careers and the choices they make that can alienate readers, but that’s not really my role. Occasionally one of our authors will run something by me and say, “What do you think about this?” And at that point, I give my honest opinion. But otherwise, I don’t like to meddle in what our authors are doing, because it’s up to them to use their own best judgment.

That said, here’s a good principle for Christian authors when considering what to say on the Internet (or, hey, Christians in general).

It comes from a Bethany House potluck.

chili

We recently had a chili cookoff, complete with miniature testing cups, fancy voting scorecards with different categories, and fabulous prizes. I’m not much of a chili person, so I decided not to enter and made bread instead. (Don’t overestimate me as a chef—bread is one of the few things I can consistently make well.)

As I sat there trying my fourth sample of chili, I had a revelation: there are two ways to win a chili cookoff.

The first is to be the best at making chili among several tough competitors.

The second is to be the only one who brought homemade yeast rolls.

If you aren’t seeing parallels between that and social media posts, here’s how it relates: there are two ways to win the Internet.

The first is to be the best at the contest everyone else is having—shouting the loudest, posting the most articles, responding to comments that disagree with you with the best arguments and shutting everyone else down.

The second is to be the only one entering a different contest. Continue reading

Ask BHP: What Do You Think About Libraries?

Another year, another series of monthly Ask BHP posts! We got some great ones in our survey (feel free to add more anytime), and here’s our first: “Since libraries provide books to people for free, are libraries a benefit or detriment for authors and publishers?”

Almost every publishing employee and author you meet sincerely loves libraries. This is not just a line we use when speaking to a crowd of librarians, or a crowd that might possibly contain a librarian, or a crowd where someone might quote us to a librarian friend of theirs. We really mean it.

Now, we might be slightly biased, since authors and publishing employees are devoted “book people” who often practically grew up in a library. Objectively, though, libraries are helpful to publishers. Here are a few reasons why.

One of my favorite library-related cartoons ever.

One of my favorite library-related cartoons ever.

First, libraries buy books. They have a budget set aside for that purpose. Your tax dollars at work, making the public literate, exposing people to great works of literature and fun pieces of entertainment, and keeping kids off the streets and safely tucked inside adventure novels for days at a time (or was that just me?). Even when the economy is down and bookstores decline, libraries stay fairly constant in the amount of money they send our way.

That said, certain authors/series/genres do tend to do better in libraries than others. Sometimes the reason is easily discernible, sometimes it’s a mystery. Overall, though, the sales groups that handle library orders show up in our top customers all the time.

Second, libraries introduce people to authors. As I think through my personal shelves, many of the books there were ones I first checked out of the library. Recommendations from friends are all well and good, but I am a choosy reader. I prefer to read before I buy…but I do buy. Like me, many readers will buy an author’s book or entire backlist after finding a book they love at the library.

As for the most voracious patrons whose library cards have long faded due to over-use and who never purchase an actual book for themselves…if the library wasn’t there, maybe they’d buy more books. Or maybe they’d borrow from friends or buy used or whatever. There’s nothing wrong with any of those options. It’s just to say that there’s no evidence that library usage corresponds to a loss of potential sales.

Third, libraries contribute to a general love of books. That seems vague, but hear me out. Libraries teach children to be readers, so they’ll grow up to contribute to book sales when they’re older. They also host book signing events and author chats, sponsor book clubs, recommend and display their favorite novels, a provide a space for readers to pursue the best hobby around…all of which tends to lead to more sales for us.

And if that went from “vague” to “money-grabbing” for you, just a reminder that even publisher—and even people on the marketing “dark side” of publishers—do love books. That’s why we’re here. And while there are bottom-line reasons we’re glad libraries stay in business, mostly, we just can’t imagine life without them.

lovelibrary

So, if you’re a librarian, here’s a heartfelt thanks for all you do! Keep supporting books, readers, and authors. And if you’re a reader, don’t forget to request your favorite authors from your local library (even if you already own the books) so others can enjoy them.

Ask Bethany House a Question!

Here’s your chance readers, aspiring authors, and people generally interested in books in any way! I’m collecting questions for next year’s Ask BHP posts, where I answer your questions (or, in some cases, find someone more knowledgeable to answer them instead).

This is an open call for anything you’ve wanted to know: about prices, cover designs, marketing, what frustrates our editors, how to correct a spelling mistake on a cake in frosting (yes, that happened on a cake delivered to one of our company celebrations), or anything else you’ve been wondering.

I won’t get to them all, and we might have already addressed your question in a past post, but that’s okay! Ask away so I won’t resort to making bad book spine poetry every Thursday of 2017.

13700-bhp-quill

Click the quill to enter the survey.

And while I’m at it, thanks for being great, readers! It’s always fun to chat with you on the blog and see your responses on social media.

The Perfect Gift for Book Lovers: December 2016 New Releases

As you glance at our December new releases, you may well find yourself asking: were red and green intentionally dominant colors on these lovely covers? (The answer is no, but hey, it works!)

Or you might just find yourself asking how you can get ahold of one as soon as possible because they look so good. (You’d be right on that one!)

294196_dec16-bhpfiction_fbcover

Here’s a quick overview and sneak peek at each title. Click on the cover if you’d like to read an excerpt.

For the Record by Regina Jennings

for-the-record

Main character: Betsy Huckabee, a curious and charming writer in small-town Missouri.

Plot: Betsy Huckabee dreams of being a big-city journalist, but first she has to get out of Pine Gap. To that end, she pens a romanticized serial for the ladies’ pages of a distant newspaper, using the handsome new deputy and his exploits for inspiration. She’d be horrified if he read her breathless descriptions of him, but no one from home will ever know. . .

Recommended as a gift for: Readers who love witty dialogue, fast-paced romances, or Western settings.

Other people say: “This is such a delightful read with an adorable romance and a fun and entertaining storyline. . . . The interactions and dialogue between the main characters are sheer perfection. The mystery and drama with the hero’s backstory and the masked marauders keep the momentum of the story going at a nice pace and allows for no dull moments. There is so much to love here in this little gem, it is easily one of Jennings’ best.”—RT Book Reviews

If this book were wrapped for Christmas, it might look like this:

I could see either of these cute, old-fashioned-but-still-fun holiday designs fitting For the Record.

I could see either of these cute, old-fashioned-but-still-fun holiday designs fitting For the Record.

The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill by Julie Klassen

innkeeper-of-ivy-hill

Main character: Jane Bell, a determined and gracious noblewoman-turned-innkeeper.

Plot: The lifeblood of the village of Ivy Hill is its coaching inn, The Bell. When the innkeeper dies suddenly, his genteel wife, Jane, becomes the reluctant owner. With a large loan due, can Jane and her resentful mother-in-law, Thora, find a way to save the inn—and discover fresh hope for the future?

Recommended as a gift for: Anyone who appreciates BBC series, Jane Austen, or fascinating characters.

Other people say: “Klassen launches a heartwarming new series set in the Regency era that delivers everything fans of gentle historical-romance novels could ever want, including a beautifully realized English village setting, a memorable cast of characters, and charming hints of love for more than one of the residents of Ivy Hill.”—Booklist

If this book were wrapped for Christmas, it might look like this:

Something about this just said "classy British read" to me.

Something about this just said “classy British read” to me.

Conspiracy of Silence by Ronie Kendig

conspiracy-of-silence

Main character: Cole “Tox” Russell, a loyal and courageous paramilitary group leader.

Plot: When an archaeological dig unleashes a centuries-old virus, paramilitary operative Cole ‘Tox’ Russell is forced back into action. With the help of archaeologist Tzivia Khalon and FBI agent Kasey Cortes, Tox searches for answers—and becomes entangled in a web of deception. As the team races to stop a pandemic, a secret society counters their every move.

Recommended as a gift for: Men or women who enjoy pulse-pounding thrillers.

Other people say: “Kendig keeps the tensions high and the pace lightning fast, with military action scenes worthy of Vince Flynn. Especially noteworthy is watching the character development of elite modern warriors forced to confront and accept ancient history, faith, and supernatural power. Kendig fans will love this opening novel in her new series.”—Publishers Weekly

If this book were wrapped for Christmas, it might look like this:

Black because secret operations and danger...and is that mistletoe? Because Tox does have a heart of gold.

Black because secret operations and danger…and is that mistletoe? Because Tox has a heart of gold.

Are you hoping for any books this year for Christmas? Which ones? (I put To Kill a Mockingbird on my list, because I realized to my shock I didn’t actually own a copy.)

Ask BHP: What’s Your Favorite Thing About Christian Fiction?

I’m excited about today’s Ask BHP. I was secretly hoping someone would ask this question at some point: “What is your favorite thing about Christian fiction? And what do you dislike?”

For time’s sake, to get a list of my pet peeves in Christian fiction (or, in some cases, any fiction), just take the following points and reverse them. That way I can spend the whole blog addressing the first question with examples from some of the books I’ve recently read and enjoyed. (And yes, I picked four things I like about Christian fiction, but hey, I’m writing this blog so I get to make the rules.)

Me with fall colors, because nothing says seasonal office decorations like piles of books.

Me with fall colors, because nothing says seasonal office decorations like piles of books.

Christian fiction doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Are there novels on heavier topics where humor would be totally out-of-place? Of course! But I love that Christian fiction isn’t somber or dull, and that some writers dedicate books or entire writing careers to making people laugh.

For me, Melissa Tagg’s delightful rom-coms hit right on my sense of humor, for others, Mary Connealy’s comedy and cowboys or Jen Turano’s zany turn-of-the-century romps are just their style.

It’s a good feeling to laugh out loud, especially when the fun is clean and hope-filled. We all need it, and I’m glad that Christian fiction provides it.

Christian fiction challenges me to think and change.

Maybe not everyone reads fiction for this reason, but I appreciate a book that takes a little thought. For example, I loved Jill Williamson’s King’s Folly because it helped me think biblically about subjects like idolatry, justice, and systemic evil (big-picture evils like racism, sex trafficking, poverty). Obviously, the book was a fantasy novel with engaging characters and a page-turning plot, but it also made me think, and I appreciated that.

Another one coming up in January that I just finished is Jocelyn Green’s The Mark of the King. Not only did I learn about an entirely new historical setting—French colonial Louisiana—but several scenarios had me wondering, “What would I do if I were in this character’s place?” Any book that makes me think that—I’m in. Continue reading

Ask BHP: What’s a Hard Part of Your Job?

Today’s Ask BHP question is more specific to me, Amy Green, BHP’s fiction publicist: “What’s one of the hardest aspects of working in the publishing world?”

If we’re talking “hard” as in “What part of my job is the hardest?” I have a few frontrunners:

  • Planning book tours, because so much goes into it: arranging times and flight schedules and hotels and sending posters and trying not to mess everything up so the authors/bookstore owners/librarians don’t hate me forever.
  • Fixing HTML errors in the things I code. Let’s face it, I am significantly more creative than detailed, and finding one tiny mistake in a page of code is like a treasure hunt…if the treasure was a missing </p> and there’s no map and you’d rather just leave it for the next pirate to find.
  • Cutting things out with an Xacto knife. (If you think I’m joking, you have never seen me trying not to hack off a finger cutting out a mounted book cover for an author. I have our designers print me an extra, because I almost always have to start over at least once. I can mess up straight lines even when using a ruler, which, come to think of it, is pretty impressive.)
I was going to make a joke about Mondays, but since I'm basically Anne of Green Gables, I'll go with this instead.

I was going to make a joke about Mondays, but since I’m basically Anne of Green Gables, I’ll go with this instead.

But if the question is asking what is the hardest part of working in publishing in general, I’d say that one thing that tends to frustrate me as someone who works in marketing—and I’ve heard the same thing from coworkers in editorial—is when a really talented author’s books don’t “take off” the way we’d like them to. They’re getting great reviews, but not the blockbuster sales they deserve, and no one is quite sure why.

The good news is, you can help with that! Probably right now you’re thinking of a book you read that isn’t by a super-famous author. Maybe none of your friends would recognize the name. Maybe the book is in need of a little love on Goodreads.

So leave a review. Post a picture of you with the book on Facebook to recommend a cozy fall read. See if the author has a contest or sale or announcement you can share on social media. Write the author a note of encouragement via his or her website. Buy another copy of the book and give it to someone as a present. I always love seeing readers doing something a little bit extra for their favorite authors, so thank you!

We can start it right here: what’s a book you read recently (or not-so-recently, if you like) that you want the whole world to know about?

Ask BHP: Who Are Some New Authors I Should Know?

Love this question from our Ask BHP poll: “Sometimes I tend to default to my favorite authors, but I want to branch out. Who are some up-and-coming authors I should be aware of?”

Well. I’m so very glad you asked!

I enjoy nothing more than introducing new authors to the world, so without further ado, here are three authors whose first Bethany House novel released in the past year and a half or so. They may be new to you since they haven’t been in the inspirational fiction world for long, so go ahead and add their novels to your TBR list!

Meet Susan Anne Mason…

Susan Anne Mason

Connilyn Cossette…

Cossette_Connilyn

And Kristi Ann Hunter!

Hunter_KristiAnn

I decided to ask all of the authors a few quick questions so you can get to know them and their writing.

Amy: Tell us what inspired your novel. Did you start with a character? A situation? An image?

Susan: The first whisper of Irish Meadows began with me wanting to create a sweeping saga about a big Irish family, along the lines of The Thornbirds. Part of the idea for the story was based on my own grandfather’s family who came over from Ireland and settled in Brooklyn, New York. They had many children, some of whom were born after they came to the USA. But instead of living in the tenements of Brooklyn, I wanted my fictional family to have achieved success and be members of the upper class. And so I came up with the horse farm, Irish Meadows, and the assertive patriarch, James O’Leary, who would wreak havoc on his children’s lives in order to maintain the status he had achieved.

Connilyn: Counted with the Stars was inspired by a study I was doing on my own into Exodus and the roots of my faith. I ran across the verse in Exodus 12:38 that said “a mixed multitude went up with them.” I thought to myself—who were these people that went with the Hebrews on the Exodus? I wondered whether some of them might be Egyptian and what would have inspired them to follow an invisible God into the wilderness when all they had ever known were the gods of Egypt? In my mind an image appeared—an Egyptian woman standing on the bank of the Jordan River waiting to enter the Promised Land. Kiya’s story was born from that vision and from my curiosity about the motivations by those we would call “Gentiles” who journeyed with the Hebrews.

Kristi: I started A Noble Masquerade with Miranda. I got to know her while writing A Lady of Esteem. She was a much more guarded person that I originally thought she would be and I knew that someone would have to get under her guard in order to really get to know her. That meant she had to meet Ryland in such a way that her normal defenses would be shaken. Continue reading

Ask BHP: Where Can I Meet With Bethany House?

This week’s question is probably from an aspiring writer who asks, “Where could I meet with Bethany House’s acquisition editors? Which conferences will they be attending?”

This year, Bethany House editors are only going to be at the ACFW conference. Usually they’re at a few others, but if you’re planning to talk to Dave Long or Raela Schoenherr in 2016, you’ll need to do it there. (For more on what BHP acquisition editors are looking for, there are some detailed and helpful tips here and here.)

ACFW

I (Amy Green, fiction publicist) will be at Taylor University’s Professional Writing Conference, explaining how to get published by going through examples of proposals from debut authors who received a contract with Bethany House. Since I’m not an editor, I won’t be taking pitch appointments, but I’d be more than happy to look at proposals and give the “inside scoop” on dos and don’ts. The conference is still taking registrations for a limited time, so it would be fun to see you there!

This week’s post is short because I’m spending my time getting ready for our BHP Book Banter over on Facebook! I’d love it if you’re able to join in the fun. You can find out more about that event here.

See you soon!

Ask BHP: How Much Christian Content Should a Christian Fiction Book Have?

Welcome to this month’s Ask BHP, and it’s a doozy. First of all, thanks to whoever in Internet-land thought to themselves, “I’m going to ask Bethany House a seemingly innocent but extremely complicated question.” I see you there, chuckling sinisterly, waiting for this post to come up.

Fortunately…I love complicated questions. But you might have to content yourself with a less-than-simple answer.

Another way of asking this is if you see this sign at Barnes and Noble, what does it mean?

Another way of asking this is: if you see this sign at Barnes and Noble, what does it mean?

 

We’ll start with this: I don’t like the term “Christian content.” Maybe it’s the only helpful way to discuss this topic, but I think the terminology is flawed. Here are a few reasons why.

One: Content can’t be really Christian. Are the rows of chairs in your church “Christian chairs” just because of their location or use? Nope. Same thing with a novel and its content. People are Christians—“little Christs,” followers committed to living out the gospel and becoming more like Jesus. Content can be written for a Christian audience, written by Christians, or contain characters who are Christians, or all three…but the content itself hasn’t had a conversion experience.

If you’re thinking, “Amy, that’s 100% semantics, you know what that term means,” here’s reason…

Two: Thinking of books in terms of Christian content tends to make people reach for a checklist. If you’re a writer and feel like you have to have particular moments or themes and force them into your story, that typically doesn’t work well. If you’re a reader and are disappointed by a beautifully written tale that lacked a conversion scene (or, on the other end of the scale, if you’re offended by mentions of a character’s faith), you’ve missed the point.

But this post is in a series called “Ask Bethany House,” not “Amy Green Defines Terms,” which means I should probably give a useful answer.

Christian fiction is a genre, and that means a lot of things to different authors, readers, and publishing companies. Those definitions include, in no particular order:

  • Beautiful writing by Christians. The thinking goes that since we are made in the image of God, and God is a creator, we worship through excellence in all we do, including our storytelling.
  • Books that contain at least some overt references to God and his truth in a way that would inspire and encourage readers in their faith.
  • “Clean” fiction without the problematic content (and everyone has a different definition of what that is) that you find in general market fiction, possibly with a few spiritual references, but maybe not.
  • Stories where the central theme involves truth about God and how to live out your faith (forgiveness, unconditional love, the danger of greed, etc.). It’s more than a passing reference to prayer, but should leave the reader with something to take away and apply to their lives.

Bethany House books are going to be all over the spectrum, though I can’t think of an example of a recent BHP book that is either a fictionalized sermon or only a clean read without any spiritual themes at all.

Our books may fit into one or all of these categories (which I just made up, so I may have missed some).

Christian faith as a major plot element.

Sometimes, the plot of a novel is driven by a crisis of belief. For example, in some of Beverly Lewis’s tales, a character wrestles with Amish beliefs about salvation or community, comparing them to the Bible. Or, in Angela Hunt’s Risen, a centurion investigates the supposed resurrection of Jesus. There is a lot of outright discussion about Christianity because it fits the story. It would be impossible to tell the same story without the faith element being front and center.

Christian faith as a character motivation.

Almost all Bethany House books fit into this category. They feature one or more characters who are Christians, and that comes out in their speech, words, and actions (although imperfectly) because it’s part of who they are. If you make a character a workaholic, that will influence that person’s choices. If you make a character a first-generation immigrant, that character will come from a certain perspective and react in particular ways. If you make a character a Texan…I don’t even know how many aspects of their life that will affect, but I’m guessing a lot. Same thing with Christian characters—including them makes faith a necessary and organic element of the story. (Note that the Christian in the book may not be the main character—for example, Ronie Kendig’s Conspiracy of Silence features a male lead who wouldn’t claim the label Christian, though several supporting characters are people of faith, and his spiritual seeking is one of the themes of the series.)

Christian faith as an underlying truth.

By this I mean that we live in a moral universe. God created the world to reflect truth about him. It’s why even unbelievers consider betrayal in fiction wrong and recognize sacrifice as something deeply beautiful. Our stories—the places we cheer and boo, the emotions we have as we turn pages, whether we feel that the “good guys” have won at the end and what makes us consider them good—work because they’re set in this framework.

Here, I’m especially thinking of our fantasy titles. They might not take place in worlds where the historical Jesus Christ died on a cross for our sins. They might not even be direct allegories of the gospel. Does that mean they’re not Christian fiction, even if they teach us, using a different world, the truths of our faith?

I get a little frustrated with reviewers of our first-in-a-series fantasy novels who critique the imperfect view of religion the novels portray. “Many of the people in Jill Williamson’s King’s Folly worship multiple gods. How can this be Christian fiction?” they ask. Well, I want to explain, because those gods are leading people to pursue empty, hopeless, selfish lives. Because Jill has several more books to bring you to the correct conclusions, but you can already and obviously tell that the series isn’t endorsing sacrificing your son to idols. Because maybe, just maybe, you can see the sin in your own heart more clearly as you read about the wrong pursuit and priorities of a pagan people group.

Christian faith as a reason for hope.

Some novels give you the “moral to the story,” others leave you only with profound, soul-searching questions. Some are testimonies of God’s power to change lives, others remind you what a broken world we live in. But all contain some element of hope. That, to me, would be the biggest difference between Christian fiction and anything else. Our faith has hope, and the best Christian storytellers showcase it well.

What are your thoughts on this question? If you had to describe Christian fiction as a genre, how would you do so? If you’re a writer, what role has faith played in your stories?