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Friday, September 12, 2014

Because the Story Matters Most

by Allen Arnold



Many years ago, a hallmark of publishing houses was their ability to continually discover and launch new voices.

The editorial, sales, and marketing team would gather around these proposals with two primary questions:

How big is the idea and how good is the writing?

That was then.

Now, the first—and often dominant—question when considering a new voice is usually: 

How big is the writer’s platform?

It would be easy to shrug and say—well, that’s just how it works today. 

But that would miss the cost to both publishing houses and authors.

In publishing houses, the shift is in how new authors are being selected. Publishers used to find content that they would then introduce to readers – growing the author’s fan base book by book. Now publishers expect new writers to have a pre-existing fan base before taking them on.

When social media and platform influence the gatekeeper’s decision about a new voice more than the quality of the story and their passion for the writing itself...something is lost. The criteria for internal evaluation shifts from the potential of the words and ideas to the potential number of facebook followers a personality has.

The shift is deep and changing the DNA of how publishing houses select tomorrow’s new authors. 

I say that as a friend of publishing houses and a believer in social media. I spent two decades with one of the world’s largest Christian publishing houses – the last ten years as Fiction Publisher. It isn’t an easy business. At the end of the day, a publishing house has to sell enough books to keep the lights on in spite of the fact that a large percentage of book advances never earn out. And as industry consolidation continues to grow, staff continues to shrink...as do marketing budgets. 

As a result, it becomes more difficult to bet on unproven voices. 

It feels safer for a publisher to go with someone who – while unpublished – has a “proven” on-line following. And sometimes that makes sense. But other times, it’s like choosing which high-school writer has the most potential based on how popular they are in the halls rather than on whether folks will actually read their book. A large social media following doesn’t automatically equate to a robust book buying audience.

And that brings us to a somewhat hidden cost to new writers.

As publishers elevate this criteria as a top reason for signing a new author, it creates a culture of writers who feel they must spend as much time growing their social media presence as they do writing. Even if that isn’t their gifting or passion. Even though it leaves far less time for them to actually create their stories. Because, it seems, that’s what matters most.

I think we’ve lost something here.

It would be fun to see what we could gain simply by trying something different...and a bit disruptive.

If you’re part of a publishing team, I invite you to try this in your next pub board meeting. Discuss the proposals from new writers without any mention of their platform or social media presence.

Focus on the writing. Savor the ideas. Feast on the story.

Sure, there will be time later to strategize ways to grow or maximize that writer’s social media skills. Just have that discussion after you’ve decided to use your publishing strengths to make the book a success.

You can’t do that with dozens of books. But you can start again with one.

If you are a new or unpublished writer who feels a bit overwhelmed by the ever-present, ever-changing world of social media, I extend to you an invitation of freedom.
Forget blogging, tweeting and growing a following while you write your next book. Simply fall in love with writing again without worrying about social media for a season. Imagine creating without the pressure to simultaneously grow a readership and give birth to a story.

If God has called you to write, he will see you through. 

He doesn’t stir a desire in you to leave it unfulfilled.

Spend the time in creative fellowship with him – and then trust him with the destiny of your story. I’m not saying he will make your book a bestseller or that you should avoid social media after taking a sabbatical from it. As I said earlier, I believe in social media. I just believe even more in your gifting and in God’s ability to help your dreams come true.

My hope is more new voices will be discovered by publishers who savor the content so much they – at least momentarily – forget to check the writer’s social media following.

Because what the world needs is more artists who spend time in the presence of God and then create from that experience. And more publishing teams who savor the content so much they have no choice but to champion those books.

Because the story matters most.


Allen Arnold loves the epic adventure God has set before him. From the mountains of Colorado, he leads Content & Resources for Ransomed Heart Ministries (led by John Eldredge). Before that, he spent 20 years in Christian Publishing - overseeing  the development of more than 500 novels as founder and Publisher of Thomas Nelson Fiction. He was awarded the ACFW Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012. But that doesn't really describe the man. Allen savors time with his family, craves the beach, drinks salsa by the glass, is hooked on the TV series "Once Upon a Time" and is passionate about helping storytellers tell better stories from an awakened heart.

11 comments:

Joan said...

Excellent article, Allen!

Henry McLaughlin said...

Thank you, Allen. This is awesome!

Nicole said...

"At the end of the day, a publishing house has to sell enough books to keep the lights on in spite of the fact that a large percentage of book advances never earn out.

And as industry consolidation continues to grow, staff continues to shrink...as do marketing budgets.

But other times, it’s like choosing which high-school writer has the most potential based on how popular they are in the halls rather than on whether folks will actually read their book. A large social media following doesn’t automatically equate to a robust book buying audience."

The above quotes tell the bulk of the story. Brilliant thoughts.

Sometimes the bigger questions come down to, "Why aren't these books earning out?" and "Why are we having to cut staffing?" Ultimately the answers point to perhaps making the wrong decisions in selection(s) and/or promotional strategies.

Michael Ehret said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Ehret said...

"When social media and platform influence the gatekeeper’s decision about a new voice more than the quality of the story and their passion for the writing itself...something is lost."

This is the nugget for me ... and I say this as someone who makes his living in social media. What platform becomes the first deciding factor, that means artistry becomes, at best, second. Important thoughts.

LadySaotome said...

Very good article. It's a bit of a "cart before the horse" situation, I would think.

T.A.Galloway said...

THANK YOU

Janice L. Dick said...

Nice to hear this viewpoint for a change. Thanks.

ashleewillisauthor said...

Oh, wow. I wholeheartedly agree! Great article ... sharing! :)

Tami said...

AMEN. I would much rather read a book by a wonderful author with a great story to tell than one written by the BMOC who is 'liked' by everyone he has ever met and more than a few that he hasn't.

Alton Gansky said...

I rise and say the, "Amen." Spot on Allen.