Monday, September 20, 2010

Interview With Marcher Lord Press Founder Jeff Gerke

Many speculative-fiction authors have had cause to lament the sparsity of options in publishing their works, and especially so among Christian spec-fic authors. As a result, it’s little wonder that Jeff Gerke’s Marcher Lord Press, which specializes in Christian science fiction and fantasy, has been burning down the publishing runway, conquering both writers and readers with its passion and professionalism. Jeff Gerke was kind enough to take a few moments from his busy schedule to talk about publishing, science fiction, and his three best tips to any writer looking to publish with MLP.

AC: What’s your background in writing?

JG:  I have had six of my novels and five of my nonfiction books published. On the fiction side (and for a couple of my nonfiction books), I wrote under the pen name Jefferson Scott. I’ve done two trilogies: a near-future technothriller trilogy for Multnomah back in the late 1990s and a trilogy of military thrillers for Barbour between 2001 and 2003.

I’ve co-written a few nonfiction books. I’ve also written two books about writing better fiction. The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction released in 2009 and continues to sell well, especially at the Christian writers conferences where I teach. And then in October my new craft book, Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach To Writing Great Fiction, releases from Writers Digest Books in October of this year.

Now I make my living as a freelance editor and writing coach helping writers—primarily Christian novelists—better do what it is they’re wanting to do. I also run my own small publishing company.

AC: What’s the story behind your decision to start up an independent publishing house?

JG: It’s a story born out of frustration as much as inspiration. Beginning in 1994 as a Christian novelist, and then from 1999 on as an editor, I championed Christian novels of the strange variety: science fiction, fantasy, spiritual warfare, superhero, time travel, end times, etc. My own first trilogy, the near-future technothrillers, fell into this category.

But with the exception of Frank Peretti’s novels and the Left Behind series, novels of this kind did not do well in the Christian bookselling market. I was forever finding great SF or fantasy proposals and bringing them before the various deciding committees at the publishing houses where I was (I’ve served on staff for three Christian publishing houses over the years). But the books would usually get shot down in the committee process. The few I was able to get through to publication would usually crash and burn sales-wise.

At first I thought this happened because the books didn’t get enough marketing push. Or maybe they needed better covers. Or maybe the books themselves weren’t good enough. But by 2006, I had finally watched a few Christian SF or fantasy novels get the deluxe treatment—great stories, great edits, great covers, great marketing push—and the books still crashed and burned.

That’s when I began thinking that maybe it had nothing to do with those things. It finally dawned on me that it wasn’t the product that was the issue but the buyers of the product.

I started thinking about who goes into Christian bookstores and who reads Christian fiction. They weren’t people like me, I realized. They were (and are) white, Evangelical women of child-rearing to empty nest ages. Now, I love this demographic. My wife and my mother are in this group! But as a buying population, this demographic tends to like bonnet and buggy fiction a lot more than fiction about mutant alien vampires who will eat your brain. No wonder the strange fiction wasn’t selling!

When I finally grasped what was going on, I instantly saw the silliness of continuing to try to sell weird fiction to this group. They might be terrific stories, but the main buying population doesn’t want them. The secret isn’t to do a better job giving these books to a group that doesn’t want them but to find the people who do want these books and get the books to them where they are.

So began the dreaming and strategizing that led to the launch of Marcher Lord Press. MLP publishes Christian speculative fiction (that’s the umbrella term for Christian science fiction, fantasy, and all the other weird genres) and nothing but Christian speculative fiction. We don’t try to get into Christian bookstores because the people who go into those stores are not looking for this kind of fiction. We get it to them directly over the Internet.

(But to be clear, we do publish regular print books, not e-books only. Our primary sales channel is the Internet—like Amazon and CBD Online—but the novels themselves are regular hard copy books.)

AC: What’s your best tip for authors looking to be accepted by Marcher Lord Press?

JG: Employ craftsmanship, creativity, and patience.

Marcher Lord Press is thriving. But at present I’m not needing a bunch of new authors and books. In fact, right now I’ve all but closed down my acquisitions process. This is because of two developments, both of them good.

First, I acquired trilogies and series. That means that I’m not having to find new authors for every release list. Books 2 and 3 of series are coming available now and those go right into my release lists. That means there are currently fewer slots open for new books.

Second, I’m working to acquire some well-known Christian speculative novels and novelists. For instance, we just signed beloved Christian SF author Kathy Tyers to a 3-book deal. I’m currently in talks with a couple of other very well-known Christian speculative novelists about becoming the publisher for their classic works that have gone out of print. My goal is for Marcher Lord Press to become the go-to place whenever anyone thinks of Christian speculative fiction.

Between those two factors, I don’t have a lot of open slots for new authors or books. I do have the MLP acquisitions portal technically open, but aspiring authors have to exercise a lot of patience. Because the urgency to find new authors is low (for now) and because I’m only one guy doing all this, authors are warned that they’ll be waiting a year or more for me to get back to them on the proposals they submit to the MLP site. So, yes, patience.

But when I do finally get to reading proposals, I’m looking for craftsmanship and creativity. Creativity in that the story must wow me. It must take me somewhere I’ve never been. It must fire my own love of fantastical fiction. Mundane stories need not apply.

Because I teach fiction writing and coach it and write books about it, I have strong ideas about what constitutes well-crafted fiction. I don’t need more than a page to see if the author knows her craft. I might love a story’s idea, but if the author hasn’t done the hard work to learn her chosen discipline, that book gets a quick “no.”

I’ve written two books on how to write good fiction. I’ve got 96 fiction writing tips available for free on my WhereTheMapEnds site. I teach at writers conferences across the nation. The tools are there for virtually anyone to learn how to write well-crafted fiction. But it takes self-discipline and lots of elbow grease. I respect novelists who have put in the work to learn their craft.

AC: What’s the most common downfall in the manuscript submissions you see?

JG: Poor craftsmanship. Lazy writing. Telling instead of showing. Point of view errors. Undifferentiated characters who are all essentially the author’s personality. Basic craft errors.

Sometimes I wonder if writers of Christian speculative fiction don’t work hard enough to elevate their craft. Maybe they think that because their books are so different in topic that the mainstream techniques of good fiction don’t apply to them. But I’m here to tell you that the principles of good fiction apply to every genre.

There’s no rush to send me your novel. God willing, Marcher Lord Press will be around for years doing this kind of fiction. But even if other publishers take the torch, room will always be found for works of excellence. A novel produced with mediocre craftsmanship will probably sink like a rock, so why hurry to that end? Why not take the time to truly learn the craft and produce a book that will have a better chance of standing the test of time?

AC: What changes, for better or worse, do you see happening in the publishing industry in the near future?

JG: I think we are seeing the end of the Christian publishing industry as we’ve known it. For decades, we’ve had a group of publishing companies that have served the Christian bookstore market. That dyad—bookstore/publisher—has been the controlling force in our industry, way more than the influence exerted by individual authors or genres or anything else. If the church ladies don’t buy it, no one publishes it.

Because Christian bookstores have been such an integral part of the process, they’ve were able to make incredible demands on publishers, things like getting books from publishers at a discount of 60% or more off the retail price, requiring that publishers accept returns for full refunds, etc.

Those days are over. Bookstores are dying. One industry person, speaking on a panel at a Christian writers conference this year, said that at that time Borders was 90 days behind in paying its bills, and in August, Barnes & Noble put itself up for sale. If major players like that are struggling, it’s no surprise that Christian bookstores and chains are having trouble. They’ll no longer be able to make demands as they have in the past.

Publishers are also feeling the pinch. They’re folding or slimming. We hear on an almost weekly basis about new rounds of layoffs. The old guard is losing power.

In my opinion, this is not entirely because of the recession we’ve been in. I think it’s part of a larger trend across our society. The old power bloc, the old system that said what books could and could not be published, is being pushed aside. Rather, it’s being ignored.

We’re entering into this brave new world in which authors can reach readers directly via the Internet. The tools and the freelancers (myself included) needed to turn your book into a professionally produced work of fiction—be it in print or electronic or both—are available to anyone. Who needs a publisher if you can do it all yourself? And if you can sell it yourself directly to the consumer, who needs bookstores?

Even the large publishing houses are today relying on authors to do most of the promotion and marketing for their books. Of course the very biggest names will get the full weight of the publisher behind them, but everyone else is pretty much on her own. So if you’re going to be doing most of the work to sell your book yourself, why do you need a publisher? Why should a publisher take 80–90% of the profit from every book you sell (assuming you earn back your advance, which 95% of books never do) when you can keep nearly 80% of the profit by doing it yourself?

True, it’s better to be paid than to pay. If you can get a traditional publisher to give you an advance and take on your book with their money, you should probably do it. But if you fail in that, as most people do, the self-publishing route is beginning to make a lot more sense in our day.

Soon, publishers won’t be saying, “Well, if you want to be actually published, you’ll try to get us to publish your book,” as they sometimes do now. Soon they’ll be saying, “Please come to us! Please don’t self-publish. We can offer you so much.” The foot will be on the other hand, as it were.

The biggest Christian publishers will probably find a way to survive, at least for a while. They’ll compete for the handful of sure-fire home run hitter authors. But this is going to be a brutal five years for small and medium-sized Christian publishing houses. Many of them are going to be combined, purchased, or closed.

Those companies that are built according to a different model, like Marcher Lord Press is, or those that can reinvent themselves for the changing times, might be able to keep going. I personally don’t want to see all those great Christian people put out into unemployment lines. But the terrain is changing beneath us.

I think e-publishing is going to continue to make strides. We’ll see new reader devices and new forms of going portable with what we want to read.

I don’t think the reading experience will end. I don’t think good writers will no longer be in demand. I just think it will look a lot different from what we’ve grown up with.

In terms of what the next 5–10 years will look like to the consumer, to the lover of Christian fiction, I think it will be like a YouTube invasion. Just as with YouTube, in that all you need to be a filmmaker is a camera and an Internet connection, so in this new day of no publisher and no bookstore, all you’ll need to be a published novelist is a word processor program and an Internet connection. If you can make it available for an electronic reader, you can reach an audience.

But, also like YouTube, 99% of it will be absolutely awful. One service the publisher process provided was a solid vetting and a professional edit. You won’t have that in the Wild West of the new publishing model. You’ll suddenly be inundated with the drivel and rantings that would never have been published before—and for good reason—and the good stuff will be that much harder to find.

As with YouTube, the way you will find good novels will mainly be by word of mouth. Someone will tell you he’s discovered a really good Christian speculative novel that is available for X reader at X site, and you’ll go check it out.

I also think services will arise that will review these self-published books and surface the best ones. There are already sites out there that do this to help you wade through all the iPhone apps, so why not one for e-books? (And why not one for YouTube?)

We’ll see tons of online marketing for these books. Facebook and Twitter campaigns and lots of push on social networking sites that maybe haven’t even been introduced yet. The reader devices themselves will advertize to us. It will be everywhere online.

Eventually, authors will realize that their self-published books stand a better chance of “sticking” and taking off if they receive a professional edit. People who can create awesome cover art (even for an e-book with a “virtual cover”) will find their services in demand. The authors committed to excellence will even hire a freelance copyeditor to catch typos and grammar and punctuation errors.

After a period of chaos, things will settle down. New brands and services will appear that people will associate with quality. We’ll probably see a slow repeat of the last 75 years in publishing, in terms of leaders arising and things getting clarified and stratified—only to then be challenged by a new technology and a new model. It’s the way of things.

But in the near term certainly, these changes will work to the benefit of both author and reader. Now any kind of novel anyone wants to write—or read—is possible. (That’s sometimes not a good thing, but I digress.) There’s money to be made in this new day. There are careers to be made. And much awesome Christian fiction to be written and read.
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