An embarrassment of riches. You remember the supply and demand concept from your Econ 1A class, right? Scarcity and abundance drive each market. So, what has this to do with writing? Let me explain.
The Christian publishing industry has changed greatly over the last fifty years. We’ll take fiction as an example. Carol Johnson from Bethany House Publishers is said to be the first editor to publish fiction specifically for the Christian market with the publication of Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly in 1979. That success opened the option for CBA fiction. In those early days there were a handful of beloved novelists.
Over time, more and more publishing houses added fiction, mostly historical, to their vast nonfiction options. Early writing conferences, like the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, began to offer classes on fiction. More authors stepped forward with manuscripts. Then in 2000 six authors decided to start an organization for fiction writers, now called American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW). Over the years members of this organization have mentored thousands of aspiring writers and encouraged hundreds of established authors.The quality of Christian fiction kept improving with serious scholarship. This has led to an embarrassment of riches.
Oxford dictionary defines an embarrassment of riches as “more options or resources than one knows what to do with.” That’s exactly what has happened in the publishing industry. Editors have far more fine manuscripts offered them than they ever could acquire. And by fine, I’m talking about books that are as good as anything else published– ready for prime time. It is a buyer’s market and, unfortunately, we, both the writers and the agents, are the sellers.
Here’s how that happened:
The computer— When manuscripts were hand-written or painfully typed on a typewriter using onion skin and carbon paper, it wasn’t as fast nor as glamorous to be an author. It was grueling. Then when the internet came along, it was much easier to understand how to become a published writer. Thus, the proliferation of serious writers and writer wannabes. If you have ever identified yourself as an author at a gathering, you know the very next thing someone will say, “I’m going to write a book someday.”
The writers— In the Christian market (CBA) writers are very different than what I observed at ABA (the general market) conferences. At the ABA and SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) most of the writers consider other writers their competitors. I’m guessing they’re reacting to the scarcity of opportunity. In the CBA, writers mentor and share opportunities. An entirely different spirit (Spirit?) despite scarcity. The outcome? Many more highly qualified writers.
The agents— Agents are the ones who offer carefully developed manuscripts to the editors. As they’ve come to know us, they trust us to curate those offerings carefully and they give our books a serious look. As more agents come onboard, it’s great for writers in one way, since it gives new writers a better chance at finding an agent. However, the more agents, representing more clients, mean the editors are getting far more publishable manuscripts. That’s an embarrassment of riches.
The editors— Editors are our fellow book lovers. They love story and idea, and they love writers. So why is it that, even as agents, we may send a proposal and never hear back– the black void. It’s because it’s rare for a Christian publishing house to add acquisition editors, so each editor is doing more than anyone would have considered decades ago. And many houses have the acquisition editors also doing substantive edits on the books they acquire as well.
The publishers— When the recession of 2008 hit the publishing industry, only a handful of publishers didn’t layoff editorial staff. Book sales were down, and most Christian publishers have done significant re-visioning of the categories in which they saw growth and those in which they predicted decline. Very few houses increased the numbers of books published each year, and many slashed slots.
By slots I’m referring to the publishing plan at each house. They may have four slots for devotionals, two slots for theology, twenty-five slots for Christian Living, three slots for historical fiction, etc. each publishing season. When you add those up and multiply it by the number of publishing houses, that sounds like a lot of opportunity, right? Not when you realize that most of those slots will be filled by tried and true theologians, longtime authors, and big names. In fiction and important nonfiction categories, like parenting or marriage, it’s likely that the only way a new writer will get a slot is if an established author graduates to heaven, retires, or loses his slot by a downturn in his book sales.
Very few publishers have increased slots since they cut the number of books produced during the recession. Many publishers dropped fiction since it takes the commitment of a number of books to grow a significant novelist. That’s a big investment. A few publishers entered the industry and either failed or failed to find those elusive sales.
The booksellers— We know what has happened to brick and mortar bookstores both in the Christian market and in the general market. Poof! Even large retailers like Borders couldn’t stay in business through the recession. In the Christian market it was far worse. One huge chain went bankrupt, leaving publishers holding receivables they would never recover. The demise of so many booksellers meant the end of hand selling. That was the way new writers were generally discovered. Readers ask the salesperson for a recommendation and, voila!, a new writer is discovered. Amazon tries to replicate this with if you like this, you may like that recommendations, but we miss the trusted fellow book lover.
The readers— Here’s the rub. The consumer. If readers increase, demand increases, publishers add product slots, and we sell more manuscripts. The pandemic that has devastated our world has actually been a boon to publishing in early statistics. For instance, book sales were up an incredible 22% in January. Print sales were up 8% for all of 2020. That marks a whole new upturn for publishing. People are reading!
So. . . all this to discourage you? Absolutely not! I’ve outlined this to help you strategize. As an agent it’s important for me to acknowledge the state of the industry as well. I need to be the very best curator of manuscripts and know the market far better than anyone had to while this market was in its infancy. We work harder and smarter and pray for favor. Right?