It's been an interesting couple of days. For those not in the know, the annual ACFW Conference took place just a few miles from my house. I've spent the past four days learning more about the craft, meeting with editors and agents, and mingling with fellow authors, including many speculative fiction types.
And the one man I saw quite a bit of was Jeff Gerke. As a matter of fact, I worry that he might have thought I was stalking him on Friday, since I was in both of his classes and I attended the Late Night Chat he led. Jeff is an incredible guy. He's published six novels. He worked in the industry for twelve years at Multnomah Publishers, Strang Communications, and finally at NavPress. He now works as a freelance editor. He also maintains a website dedicated to speculative fiction, namely Where the Map Ends. And if he wasn't busy enough, he's launching a new publishing company, namely Marcher Lord Press.
This past Thursday, I sat down with Jeff and two other speculative fiction authors (hey, Stuart and Steve!) and we had a conversation about this latest venture:
LRB: When did you first think of Marcher Lord Press?
JG: Probably the first inklings of it came in the last couple of years I was at Christian publishing companies. After twelve years in the industry, it finally dawned on me what the real problem was with publishing Christian speculative fiction. I had thought all along that just the good fiction hadn’t come out yet, so the solution was to get good fiction out there. And then I thought, well, we’ve got some good fiction out there but it didn’t sell so now what? Maybe people just didn’t know about it, so the solution is to get good fiction with good marketing. And we would do that at whatever house I was at and it still wouldn’t go. Well, we need good covers, good stories, and good marketing. So we got all of that and they only did okay.
My theory all along had been that if I could get everything together, the books would go. People want this. But I realized, no they don’t. It isn’t that the book isn’t great or doesn’t have a good cover and people don’t know about it, it’s they do know about it and they just don’t want it. It finally occurred to me that the problem isn’t the package, the problem is I’m trying to sell something people don’t want. If you run a golf store and you start selling paint, the people who come in there don’t want that. They came in for something else. So why are you doing this? They don’t want what you’re selling.
So right around in there, I started asking what demographic does CBA publishers, with their fiction, reach? And I started thinking about who that is. It’s white American evangelical women from child rearing to empty nest age. Those are the people it reaches. So the books that are going to do well are the books that will appeal well to that demographic. Those aren’t the people who like speculative, by and large, as a group. They don’t like alien mutants who will eat your brain. They don’t. I do! Well, not in reality, but a story about it. The industry is not reaching the market that would be interested in this kind of book. So what do we do?
So I started thinking, what would you do and how would you reach those people? Where are those people? I wouldn’t go to Christian bookstores because they’re not going in there anymore. And they’re not in the Christian shelves at Barnes and Noble. Where are these people? They’re on-line. They’ve banded together in these blog tours and alliances and forums. They have found each other, but they’re not in family Christian anymore, at least, looking for this kind of fiction. That’s kind of when I started thinking about what I would do, what I would offer, who I’m going for, and where are they, and how I could reach them?
LRB: And that’s why you went with print-on-demand also?
JG: People hear print-on-demand and they think, "Oh, vanity press, subsidy publisher, self-publishing!" I guess that’s because the first companies to embrace print-on-demand were those kind of companies.
Print-on-demand is just technology. I had been in the publishing industry for twelve years and I kind of knew the different parts of publishing. And I knew the headaches. Some of the big ones are the big discounts you have to give to retail chains and distributors to get them to take your book. And then, after they’ve ordered fewer copies than you wish at lower discounts than you want, then they send them all back and demand their money back. And sometimes, they send them back to you in an unusable condition. You’ve got warehousing, you’ve got shipping, you’ve got warehouse staff, you’ve got the whole distribution thing, you’ve got to get sales staff to go out and meet with all the chains to see if they’ll take your book at all, you’ve got returns, you’ve got refunds ... it’s just crazy. Why are we doing this? So I said, if I ever do a company, it won’t play that game at all.
So what about print-on-demand? Then I could print exactly how many copies as I have orders. No warehousing, no sales staff, no returns, no big discounts. The problem is, I don’t have stores all over the country featuring the book, but I saw how that worked and it usually didn’t work. If you’re not Tyndale or if your book isn’t by Jerry Jenkins or whatever, it’s not going to get big coverage, so why would I even go there at all? So that definitely influenced my decision to use print on demand.
LRB: What do you like best about speculative fiction and what do you like least?
JG: Best is easy. It’s cool. It makes my imagination soar. When I read a book that takes me to a place, even just in a moment, that I just thrill at, in that moment, the world is real, the adventure is real, and I’m there. My brain has opened up and I’ve seen a whole new reality. That’s the power that you guys bring as speculative authors.
It’s cool because it helps you look at the normal through a new lens. You can examine any kind of issue you want to, but people are distracted by the weirdness so they don’t realize you’re talking about redemption or forgiveness. Not that you want to write it as an agenda-driven story. It’s this experiment table where you can mess around with things because you’ve taken it out of reality to a certain degree.
I don’t think there’s anything I like least about it. It’s cool, 100%.
LRB: What can speculative fiction do that the rest of Christian fiction can’t?
JG: I addressed some of it already, but I think fantasy especially is the most native platform for examining ultimate issues of true goodness. What is heroism and what does it mean to be a responsible person and a Christian in the midst of danger? It allows you to put it in this special environment and play around with the idea.
LRB: Are there are any subjects that you would consider taboo? Like vampires or aliens or anything like that?
JG: I don’t think so. Sometimes the weirder the better. I’ve received vampire stories, superhero stories, alien stuff, completely bizarre alternate universe things. For me, if I like the story, great.
LRB: Have you received a lot of over-the-transom submissions?
JG: I have. As a matter of fact, almost all of the submissions I have are over-the-transom and I invite those.
There aren’t many publishers that accept unagented, unsolicited manuscripts; I’m one of them and I’m one of the few that accept this genre at all. That’s great. There’s so much excellent unpublished speculative fiction out there and nobody wants it. They all find their way to me. It works to my benefit because I can cherry-pick the best stuff. This is a neglected genre that a lot of creative people are writing excellent stuff in. I’m in the premiere position. It’s delightful.
So I have received a lot but I don’t request all of them. I have a link and form on the web-page that I have people fill out and a lot of people who would like to submit to me can’t because they haven’t finished their manuscript, or it’s way too short, or it’s to the wrong audience or it doesn’t have any Christian content. I probably say "Okay, I’ll look at it," to too many because I like the premise and I’m an encourager at heart.
LRB: What kind of stories are you looking for and what kind of authors are you looking for?
JG: I get two kinds of authors, and I love both kinds. One is the unpublished, frustrated author. "The big houses say they want fantasy but they won’t accept my weird story or my friend’s." They’re frustrated, unpublished, and passionate. One of my opening novels is by one of those guys. Mitchell Bonds with his Hero, Second Class. Unpublished young guy, 19 years old when I acquired him. You would not believe when you read this book that he’s 19. He’s 20 now.
The other kind I get is the sadder but wiser novelist. Usually published several books before in the CBA industry. "Been there, done that, didn’t do what I thought what it was going to do. Burned and disillusioned. I ended up writing things that weren’t my passion. I want to get this story to the people who will love it, even if it’s the 500 you can reach." So then I can get a Theodore Beale, one of my debut novelists (author of Summa Elvetica: A Casuistry of the Elvish Controversy), who’s written for Pocket Books. I’m friends with a lot of these published people and I want to get them to write for me. A lot of them are considering writing for me because they can write the exact kind of novel they wished they could have published before.
As for what kind of stories, anything weird. That’s the kind of stories I want. I want it to be 65,000 words or more, I want it to be written to an adult audience, not a young adult audience. I want it be speculative, I want it to arise from a Christian worldview and have some kind of Christian component in it. But aside from that, anything goes. I just want to be amazed.
LRB: What advice can you give to speculative fiction authors?
JG: I’ve said this in a couple of other venues and I’ll say it here. It is really a great time to be an author of fiction that is not being served by CBA. It doesn’t feel like it yet because we’re just at the beginning of the small press revolution. The move in technology is always toward allowing people to better produce what they want and get it to the people who want it. It bypasses the big power blocs, which serves most people but leaves some on the fringe. But now all these disenfranchised genres in Christian publishing, whether it’s speculative or literary or men’s fiction or military fiction or whatever is a legitimate genre in ABA but isn’t being served by CBA, can now get it to people through the independent presses. I predict more presses like Marcher Lord will rise up. The model I’m using is one anyone can use for relatively low cost.
So be encouraged, because people who have completed speculative manuscripts will be in demand. It may not be the standard "rich and famous" contract you were hoping for, it may be with a publishing company you’ve never heard of, but if you want to get your book produced and get it to the people who want it, your time is now.
Don’t just rest on the fact that your book is different and weird and an outsider and let that be your distinctive. You have to write great fiction. You have to hone your craft. I have my fiction writing tips column on where the map ends. I’m up to 95 tips. That should keep you busy for a while. Apply it to your manuscript. You have to have great content too.
LRB: This one’s just for fun. Who is your favorite speculative fiction character and why?
JG: I’m going to name a few. Bernard Cornwell is a secular novelist who wrote an Arthurian trilogy. His Merlin character is unforgettable. The first name that popped in my head was Shrek. Shrek is a beautiful speculative character. Another bizarre one is Horton from Horton Hears a Who. That’s a science fiction spectacular story. It is weird and fabulous. He believes this thing that no one else can perceive and that is cool. I could say Farimir in Lord of the Rings. I would have to say Luke Skywalker even though he’s something of an Everyman. That’s a good enough list.
The interview with Jeff was great fun. Like I said, he's an incredible guy with a real passion for what he's doing and it's easy to see he has a heart for ministry. Marcher Lord launches in eight days and I couldn't be more excited. It's going to be great.
Be sure to see what else is pinging around the blog tour:
CSFF Blog Tour
D. G. D. Davidson
Kameron M. Franklin
Todd Michael Greene
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Mirtika or Mir's Here