Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Since 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of our agency, I thought you would enjoy a behind-the-scenes peek at some little-known details. Among my ruminations about the agency’s past are my first clients. Looking back on their careers is an instructive exercise; it displays certain truths about a writing career that benefit us all to keep in mind. So here we go…
A trio of wannabe writers who were friends and young moms came to me through the recommendation of an established author who had been mentoring the group. Here are their first-book publishing experiences:
I recall being at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference when I received a message to call an editor at WaterBrook Press. I couldn’t imagine what business issue was so demanding that it couldn’t wait. I made my way to the pay phone (this was 20 years ago, after all) and called the editor. To my delight, I discovered she wanted to offer a contract for a beautiful gift book on marriage that Joanna Weaver had written entitled With This Ring. In short order after that offer, Joanna also received a contract for a series of children’s books from David C. Cook. She and I were exuberant about such a grand beginning to her writing career.
Our jaws would have dropped if we had realized Joanna’s next book, which also was published by WaterBrook, would sell more than a million copies. Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World still sells tens of thousands of copies each year of its sixteen years. This, I must add, was Joanna’s first, full-length manuscript.
After writing Mary Heart, Joanna’s writing dreams were put on the shelf for five years before she was able to take them down, dust them off and write her second full-length manuscript. Joanna has written a total of three full-length books. Each one was agonizing for her, a perfectionist, to write, but each is rich with spiritual insight.
Cindy Coloma and I met at Mount Hermon, and I recall that she was pregnant with her third child. Despite being in the later months of her pregnancy, she climbed to the cross, which is up a pretty steep hill from the conference grounds, but is a sunrise Palm Sunday tradition. Cindy seems to slip through life with grace and makes everything she does look easy, just like climbing that hill.
I received news of Cindy’s first sale over the Christmas holidays and remember returning the Tyndale House editor’s call making the offer from my mother’s home, where we were deep into Yuletide celebrations. I also remember the next summer attending the International Christian Retail Show and having several editors and marketers from Tyndale request a meeting with me. They wanted to ask more about Cindy because, as one of them said, “She’s a very special, very talented writer. We want to be a part of building her career.” To newbies Cindy and me, we were pretty gaw-gaw about such praise.
Her first novel, Winter Passing, went on to be a Christy Award finalist and a Romantic Times Reader’s Choice Finalist. But Cindy didn’t stop there. Here’s an abbreviated list of the awards her books have won: Beautiful (2010 Christy Award Finalist for YA and 2011 Revolve YA Tour Book of the Year); The Salt Garden (2004 Library Journal’s Best Genre Books); Song of the Brokenhearted (co-author Sheila Walsh) (2013 ECPA bestseller); Orchid House (2008 ECPA bestseller). Pretty nice, eh?
The final young mom in the trio is Tricia Goyer. Tricia’s writing trajectory started out very differently from Joanna’s and Cindy’s. While Tricia’s two friends were busily writing away on contracted book after contracted book, I couldn’t sell any of Tricia’s many projects. For a couple of years, her job was to rejoice with her friends, work hard on new ideas…and get nowhere. She worked faithfully and remained unremittingly happy for Joanna and Cindy. Perseverance and optimism mark Tricia’s career.
Finally I snagged a contract for her with Focus on the Family co-writing Mealtime Devotions. That book was re-released in 2013 as Whit’s End Mealtime Devotions, showing it still has lots of life left in it. Shortly after that sale, I placed her WWII novel, From Dust and Ashes, with Moody Press. And Tricia was loping off into her prolific career.
Since then she’s: become a USA Today and ECPA bestselling author; published fifty-three books (both fiction and nonfiction); and is a two-time Carol Award winner, as well as a Christy and ECPA Award Finalist. In 2010, she was selected as one of the Top 20 Moms to Follow on Twitter by SheKnows.com. Tricia is also on the blogging team at TheBetterMom.com and other homeschooling and Christian sites, has adopted seven foster children and is homeschooling all seven. About once a week Tricia writes me an email with the subject line “Idea.” That missive will consist of at least one very good book idea that Tricia has dreamed up. Keeping up with Tricia could leave one breathless.
I also have to mention, as I reminisce about clients who have been with me since the beginning, a client I plucked from the slush pile. Early on in the agency, I read manuscripts while sitting on the porch swing at the front of our house. I recall swaying gently on the swing, reading the first chapter of a novel from some fellow named Dale Cramer. I was enjoying the story immensely when I came to a line that made me burst out laughing because it came as such a surprise but was delivered with perfection. I knew I had to represent this author.
Dale Cramer’s novel, Sutter’s Cross, was a challenge to sell. Editors didn’t seem to appreciate how very good it was. Then, after about a year of searching for a home for it, in one week, two publishers took a shine to it. Bethany House ended up publishing it, and Dale went on to write six more best-selling novels, winning two Christy Awards and having two novels receive designations as Publishers Weekly’s Best of the Year and Library Journal’s Best of the Year.
Fun facts about Dale: He’s an electrician by trade, doesn’t have much of an education, and didn’t start to write until he became a stay-at-home dad in his 40s and took an online writing course. His sense of humor is Southern and wicked, and he is a stunningly fine writer.
While it’s fun for me to reminisce about the first buds of each of these author’s careers, lessons abound here for other writers. Among them:
- No two careers look alike.
- None of us can guess a career’s trajectory.
- Hard work + talent eventually pay off.
- The sweetness of bringing a book idea to fruition never wanes.
What other lessons do see in these brief descriptions of four writing careers?
What can we learn by looking at four writing careers? Click to tweet.
A long-view of four writing careers. Click to tweet.
Thanks for sharing these stories, Janet. They should be an inspiration to everyone in this community.
* The lesson and common thread I see is that character counts. It’s clear that each of these individuals impressed you not only as writers, but as people…their characters shone through first through their stories, but it’s very clear that you have a strong affection for each of them as friends.
* Pursuant to that, it would seem to me that as you got to know them, they synergy of your relationship with each one became the fuel that gave them the confidence and hope to offer their very best.
* We none of us succeed alone, and I think that if you would ask Joanna, Cindy, Tricia, and Dale for the wellspring of their success, the first word out the mouth of each would be “Janet”.
Andrew, each author is very dear to me. We’ve been working together a long time. But I doubt “Janet” would be the first utterance when it comes to the wellspring of their success. “God” would be a more appropriate–and obvious–answer.
Oops. You are of course, right, Janet! ( I hear growling…does God growl, or is that one of the dogs?)
* But I do believe that ‘Janet’ would be a close second. Having someone, especially a skilled professional, enthusiastically in your corner, and committed by love and contract to helping you succeed is something that can’t be underestimated.
* It might be a good blog post for the future…that particular benefit of representation. I know that its lack, for me, is hard, because I don’t really know the professional value of my work, or if indeed there IS any. Knowing that a professional believes in you…even through years of dry submissions…can, I would think, provide the spark to keep hope alive.
* I would be curious to know if any of your represented writers have ever expressed thoughts along these lines to you, or how others in the Between the Lines community feel.
Andrew, my clients say this all the time to me…when I’m not able to place any projects; when I finally find a home for a project; when the author hasn’t been able to write for a long season. Often they say, “Finally I’m making money for you!” I know some agents just look at the bottom line, but I weigh lots of elements when I look at the agent-author relationship. Not that the bottom line is inconsequential, but the relationships is more nuanced for me.
Janet, the depth and love in your relationship with your clients (and this community), as well as its Godly basis, comes through loud and clear in every post you write (and in the other Books and Such staff posts).
* You clients, and everyone here, are blessed by your grace, compassion, and wisdom, and privileged in your friendship.
Thank you giving us a peek into the agency’s history, Janet. Any new business venture has its moments of doubt. Your story is a beautiful affirmation that God had you and your clients were right where he wanted.
Yes, God, was at the heart of it all.
This brings tears to my eyes because the first thing I ask myself is … why I am bothering your agency? But your sweet words remind me that these amazing writers were and are just normal people … mothers, wives, friends. With ideas and the courage to put them down on paper. Congratulations and thank you for always offering hope. You all are so loved by this girl.
Shelli, how do we know your writing isn’t just as wonderful as any described here? Don’t let my next comment keep you from wearing turtlenecks, but I’ve read your blog. I think you have a true gift and fully expect you to be a success story someday.
Thank you, Carol.
Shelli, I’m so glad that Joanna, Cindy, Tricia and Dale never asked themselves why they were “bothering” me. ‘Tis no bother, ’tis our job and our joy.
We used Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World as the basis for a women’s retreat a couple of years ago. It is excellent. I can see why it continues to sell so well after so long. If must be a source of pleasure to be part of selling a book that helps so many people for so many years.
*These are wonderful tales from the past. I can imagine the excitement and joy of launching these careers together. I looked up the publication date for the first novels: 2000 (Cindy Coloma), 2003 (Tricia Goyer), and 2003 (Dale Cramer). All were from before the tyranny of platform before product. Would an electrician-turned-stay-at-home-dad would have developed the social media following to get through the first door today? If he hadn’t, would anyone take a chance on him, no matter how captivating his writing?
Carol, of course, social media wasn’t an issue for any of us in that era. But, trust me, each of these authors knows the importance of it now. Each of them would have had to build some sort of presence, if they tried to publish now, and some of them wouldn’t have had the heart to do it. That’s the sad truth of publishing today.
Thanks for the encouraging post. A couple of years after I started studying the craft of writing, an author told me the average time to get published was ten years. As I approach the ten year mark, I’ve started to question my ability. Your words today encourage me to keep trying. Thanks so much!
Jackie, that would be about right. 🙂 Of course there are the lucky few who manage to land a contract within a year or two of finding an agent, but these days, not so much. At least that’s my observation. And my experience in finally landing the contract of my dreams … yes, it took just under 10 years. That’s including publishing with a small press, but my dream from the beginning was always to be with a big house. And now here we are, five months away from the release of my first novel with Thomas Nelson. Yep, that was a LONG wait. 🙂 So you keep writing, keep studying the craft, keep believing and trusting God has a plan. Now I think I must go write another blog about all this!
Congratulations on your upcoming release! And thanks for your encouraging words!
Happy 20th anniversary, Janet and thank you for sharing the inspirational stories of your first clients. It’s clear that your belief in their work and a personal dedication to see them published was the key to their success. What an amazing agent and client relationship.
Lara, it helps to have a stubborn agent who believes in your writing. I just couldn’t accept that Tricia and Dale weren’t finding publishers. Cindy and Joanna were readily placed. But that’s the beauty of publishing: In God’s time, each found a publishing home.
Janet, thanks for sharing those fascinating stories. You’ve probably forgotten, but I still remember my first writers conference when–with a great deal of trepidation–I signed up for an appointment with you…and didn’t show. It wasn’t until I’d given up writing that God brought me back with a start, I gained representation by another B&S agent, and now I’m a multi-published author. That sound you hear is God chuckling. As with the stories you’ve shared, the bottom line is to keep on keeping on. God’s timing is sometimes slower than ours, but always perfect.
Richard, I hadn’t remembered you’re missing an appointment. It happens. Often in a writers conference, attendees come all ready to sign an agent, only to discover, as the conference unfolds, that they aren’t ready. At the beginning of the conference, agents are swamped with eager writers wanting to talk; by the end, we’re kind of lonely. 🙂 I’m so glad you found your way back to the B&S fold.
Dale Cramer is such a wonderful writer. Just so naturally gifted. He really revolutionized CBA fiction for me.
When I first discovered him I was in University and working part time at a general market bookstore. I knew he was CBA because of the Bethany House logo but had no trouble selling him to non-CBA readers because of his absolutely arresting voice and literary quality. He never forces religion either: especially not in his first three books.
I was so happy to discover he had released another book more in the vein of his earlier work last year.
This doesn’t really speak to your question but I love knowing you discovered and championed that voice. It broadened my view of CBA fiction which, to that point, had been a lot of historical romance. I loved it but I needed to know there were other opportunities to read and explore. Books couched in deft themes and a beguiling voice and some sure-fire Faulkernesque talent.
I think now, after Cramer paved the way, we see a lot more of the same offerings.
I think of Christa Parrish and Julie Cantrell and Billy Coffey. While I can’t say Dale Cramer was the beginning of literary fiction in the CBA, I like to think as a big fan of his that he was one of the pioneers.
What a great recommendation! I haven’t read any of his yet, but If I were to pick only one, which would you suggest?
they are all wonderful! afterwards, he did some amish stuff which isn’t my favourite genre. but i would recommend Sutter’s Cross, Summer of Light or Broken Ground.
Bad Ground and Levi’s Will are my favorites.
Rachel, how fun to know that you discovered Dale while working at a general market bookstore. In actuality, Dale was cognizant that his writing was a step beyond most CBA offerings, and he was so right. His books still appear on lists of those who wish to prove to others that CBA novels can be glorious.
Thank you for sharing. I am encouraged by the stories of others. It is always encouraging to hear that there are differing paths to success.
Congrats on 20 years in the business.
Janet, these kinds of posts really do encourage and give an added oomph to keep pressing on. One theme I see is that God is in control of the timing an an author’s career. I suspect, that between the lines of this post, are personal struggles for each author as he/she learned to keep writing and trusting God and rejoicing for friends who received contracts. This is such a humbling journey, but traveling it with supportive friends and agents strengthens us.
*And, now I have more authors to add to my TBR list. 🙂 That’s always a plus.
Jeane, this post only showcases the authors’ beginnings. Each of them has shifts, sags, disappointments, and joys as their careers unfolded that I didn’t write about. Mountains and valleys constitute every writing career and tell the story much more vividly than sales figures ever could.
Kristen Joy Wilks
I love this, Janet! I can so empathize with those young moms. I first started writing seriously, 2 years before our first child was born. My goal, to be published before we had our first baby. I finally sold a short story when that first baby was 9! What amazing writers you have worked with, I can just see these moms working on their craft amidst their busy families. Thank you so much for sharing their journeys with us and of course Dale’s too!
It’s a long road to publishing career, isn’t it? And it’s a good thing most writers don’t understand that, but the sun slowly rises over the landscape to illuminate how hard building a career really is.
Not to bring out the cold water, but while it’s true that God’s timing is perfect, His answer may still be ‘No’.
* Not every message is going to be embraced by the publishing elite, or the mass of readers, but every message will reach someone…maybe only one person.
* I don’t have what can remotely be called a writing career, and I never will, but I do have emails that say, “Your words meant a lot to me”.
* There is not and will not be fame, and certainly not a living wage, but I’d do it all over again.
Andrew, all four of these authors would echo those sentiments. To touch one life is humbling but satisfying and almost overwhelming. More than any of us could ever ask.
Tricia Goyer’s mother is my right hand as I lead Women’s Ministry in my church. Tricia amazes me. She and Cindy Coloma spoke for one of our WM meeting many years ago. I was in awe, silently dreaming of a writing career of my own. Last summer I participated in a Facebook writer’s group led by Cindy. She is very personable and helpful.
Congratulations on your stunning 20 year anniversary. Wonderful!!! God bless as you keep moving forward.
How very fun that you work with Tricia’s mom and that you know Tricia and Cindy. They’re still comrades in arms, despite the years and varied experiences since that sweet beginning. Thanks for sharing your connection with them.
Thank you for sharing these stories, Janet. It’s always fun to hear how successful writers got started.
I met Tricia several years ago at a writer’s meeting in AR and I was immediately impressed with her humility and transparency. I love how you describe her writing journey and I think it could be included as another lesson for other writers, “perseverance and optimism mark Tricia’s career.”
Encouraging words, Janet. Thank you!
Janet, I thoroughly enjoyed reading these stories! It is encouraging and exciting to know every author has a journey unique to them.
Teresa,thanks so much.