Conventional Wisdom No. 2:
Story Collections Don’t Sell
What is it about collections of stories that scares editors and marketing people at Christian publishers? They insist collections of stories of God at work in Christian’s lives have had a spotty sales record. Memoirs are persona non grata because marketing people insist they do not sell. I first ran into this conventional wisdom as editor at Moody Press in the 1970s, when I had to fight a marketing team opposed to a collection of conversion stories.
Recently I had an editor reject a collection of stories because of the overwhelming success of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, insisting they had saturated the market. Yet the reality is that even when the authors of the first book in that series tried to find a publisher they were unsuccessful. In fact, the first Chicken Soup for the Soul book was self-published and sold at flea markets because no publisher wanted it.
My suggestion is that as evangelicals we are so enamored with propositional truth that we have long been suspicious of stories. Pastors who tell stories are accused of being shallow. That was an accusation I heard against Chuck Swindoll in the 1980s by Christians who felt his books were “not deep enough.” I had a fine book by a rather well-known pastor turned down by a publisher because, marketing said, it had too many stories. In trying to convince pastors at a seminary that they ought to tell stories I was repeatedly told their congregation would not stand for them to tell stories. I casually asked if their congregations were growing and discovered that none of them were growing. I was not surprised.
Yet is a story collection still out of favor? Several years ago I received a book proposal for a book of stories based on a doctor’s experiences in the emergency room. I felt duty bound to alert the author that I was having strong resistance from editors to collections of stories. Yet as I read Dr. Robert Lesslie MD’s sample stories I recognized he was a really fine storyteller with a clearly biblical message, so I agreed to represent his collection of stories in my role as literary agent. When I sent the proposal with sample stories to editors, three of them responded quickly that they would pass because collections of stories did not sell, confirming what I knew was conventional wisdom at publishers.
The editors at Harvest House, however, recognized potential and put the book under contract. What they did next helped them counteract conventional wisdom. At the suggestion of their editorial director, LaRae Weicket, they changed the title to Angels in the ER, which contains two popular words, angels and ER. Anything about angels has been a surefire seller, all the way back to Dale Evans Rogers’ book Angel Unawares, about Roy and Dale Roger’s daughter, who lived two years with massive physical complications. That had been turned down by a series of editors based on the conventional wisdom that personal stories don’t sell. Dale Evans took her story to the biggest name pastor in New York City. A protective secretary tried to keep her from the pastor, but he overheard the conversation and invited Dale into his office. He listened to her story, called his editor friend at Fleming H. Revell Publishing, and convinced him to give the story a chance. Angel Unawares sold two million copies for Fleming H. Revell back in the 1950s.
Yet it wasn’t only the title and the very good collection of stories that sent sales of Angels in the ER soaring. Harvest House marketing introduced it to the buyers at Choice Books, who recognized its sales potential on its racks in airports, supermarkets, laundromats, and hotel lobbies. The Lord blessed that decision with sales of more than 100,000 the first year, with strong sales beyond that. The second in what is becoming a series, Angels on Call, is now off the press and I saw it on the Inspirational Books rack in the Charlotte, NC airport recently.
What brought all of this to mind was reading Chapter 13 of the Gospel of Matthew. Now I’ve been citing Matthew 13:34 for several decades to demonstrate how important Jesus considered stories: “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.” Maybe evangelical pastors and all those who read this verse got side-tracked by the use of the word “parable,” because that does not sound anything like a story—until you read Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Matthew 13:34-35: “All Jesus did that day was tell stories—a long storytelling afternoon. His storytelling fulfilled the prophecy:
I will open my mouth and tell stories
I will bring out into the open
Things hidden since the world’s first day.”
I had to go back to verse 10 in Matthew 13 to discover that even Jesus’ disciples were nonplussed by his constant storytelling. After all, Jewish teachers had been teaching propositional truth for centuries. Eugene Peterson gives us this fresh angle on what happened there. We need to start with verse 9. Jesus asks: “Are you listening to this? Really listening?”
It appears that his storytelling had failed to fully engage their attention. It’s easy to let one’s mind drift when listening to story after story. Caught with minds not fully focused on what Jesus was saying the disciples “came up and asked, ‘Why do you tell stories?’” Let’s join the scene:
He replied, “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight.” (Emphasis mine)
That’s the master communicator speaking—and his words have application as pointedly today as they did then.
I’m delighted to report that AMG Publishing, a relatively small publisher, was not put off by collections of stories. First they decided to tackle Bryan Davis’s dragon fantasy series when no one in Christian publishing was doing YA fantasy. Then in their God and Country imprint they introduced a series of 365-day meditations entitled Battlefields & Blessings. All of them contain Stories of Faith & Courage from different periods of American history. I asked them if sales were supporting their choice to release a series of meditations that are in fact simply collections of stories. I was told that sales were very good. From my perspective, packaging was again the secret, with “God and Country Press” a most pertinent imprint name for such a time as today.
Now if only more publishers could creatively overcome conventional wisdom and become open to collections of stories!
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