Karen Watson

Karen Watson has worked at Tyndale for twelve years, serving in all areas of acquisition and product development including Children’s books (overseeing the Left Behind:The Kids series) and Bibles (creating the wildly popular Tyndale Metal Bibles). She also spearheaded the development of Tyndale’s YA imprint thirsty, and acquired books in the adult non-fiction arena. Because of her tenure and variety of experience, Karen has worked with many of Tyndale’s best-known authors including Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, Karen Kingsbury, Randy Alcorn, Stephen Arterburn, Francine Rivers, Kevin Leman, and Dr. Gary Chapman.

When I See It

Tyndale PublishersWhen people learn I work in fiction publishing, I am always eventually asked, “What kind of books are you looking for?” The implication and expectation in the question is that I have a Top Ten Wanted poster in my office with a description of height, weight, and noticeable scars that quantify a can’t miss, next best-seller. I don’t. The answer closest to the truth is: I think I’ll know what I’m looking for when I see it.

I know that’s an unsatisfying response for writers and could provoke a “Why don’t you ask me?” from fiction readers. But if you catch an acquiring editor in a truly candid moment, they’ll tell you: We want to be right more often than we are. What I can tell you is that we are often surprised. Sometimes the surprise is satisfying and rewarding. On rare occasions, the surprise is a shocking success like Left Behind. And more often than we want to admit, we’re painfully surprised by books bearing both author’s and publisher’s sincere investment of blood, sweat, and tears that simply fail to thrive.

The paradox is that people who work in publishing continue to be ultimate optimists. We attack each new concept, editorial, and promotional process with equal enthusiasm and genuine expectation. I find great personal reward in encountering a wide variety of creative, thoughtful people and guiding the process of putting fiction lovers in touch with their stories.

But the truth is that acquiring fiction isn’t an exact science. There are both well-worn paths and odd little rabbit trails that an author’s work may take through Tyndale House to bookstore shelves. Here are three of those stories.

Maureen Lang came to Tyndale in the traditional agent-to-publisher model. Like some of Tyndale’s best-selling authors, including Francine Rivers, Maureen began her career in the ABA romance category. For a variety of life journey reasons, Maureen had taken a ten-year hiatus from her writing and was responding to a heart-led desire to write for a Christian house. Her agent has a trusted relationship with Tyndale and a reputation for a great eye for up-and- coming women’s fiction authors.

Her first book, The Oak Leaves, caught our eye with a dual contemporary/historical storyline and a unique hook involving a family’s challenge as carriers of an inherited genetic disability. In this book, Maureen touched a cord with readers by opening a window on her own experience of raising a child that others see as ‘different.’ In January, we released the follow-up, On Sparrow Hill, and in September, a stand-alone novel titled My Sister Dilly.

Sometimes, getting a first book published involves overcoming a nasty Catch-22. In this scenario, a publisher tells a writer that she needs more publishing experience before she’s ready for publication, but . . . unfortunately she can’t get publication experience here. In the best execution of this Catch-22, all parties

must dance around any knowledge of the concept of “debut author.” So when a manuscript makes its way onto my desk and into our review stack through a “friend of a friend” connection, all expectations are held firmly in check.

In 2006, such a manuscript appeared at Tyndale through just such a connection. Each of us who read the manuscript smiled and nodded in our office, making satisfied humming sounds in response to the beautiful writing. We began to remind each other that good books rarely come to us this way. Finally someone ventured, “This one is special.” Then we met an articulate young mother and pastor’s wife who writes in her “spare time.” Her first novel was written in between the move to a new ministry position, the birth of her son, and the adoption of another from Ethiopia. Readers have found that her time was well invested.

After the Leaves Fall is Nicole Baart’s coming-of-age debut novel that released in 2007, and Summer Snow is the sequel that released this past May. I believe Nicole’s writing typifies the kind front-edge artistic quality that can bring Christian artisans into the larger marketplace. In 2009, we’ll release Nicole’s new stand-alone novel. I’ve read it and I can’t stop talking to people in-house about it. We’re working to see that readers will be talking about it next year, too.

Describing what we don’t publish is usually a lot easier than telling people what kind of books we do. We don’t do fantasy. We don’t do sci-fi. Had I read a proposal for Tom Pawlik’s Vanish, I would have told him that we don’t do creepy supernatural thrillers either. But when Tom’s book came to Tyndale in the list of finalists from the Christian Writer’s Guild Operation First Novel contest, and we read it as one of the entries. We were pulled into a genuinely creepy suspense novel. Some of us slept with the lights on.

Our editorial staff read it and kept invoking comparisons to Stephen King’s The Mist and Dean Koontz. It reminded me of some of the old Twilight Zone episodes I watched as a kid. The writing made us forget about the category and focus on a great story. We chose the book as the contest winner and released it to great reviews this summer. A sequel, The Valley of the Shadow, will release in 2009.

We can’t publish every category or idea or even every good author. But whether God’s hand guides a book our way though normal channels or the odd serendipity, I try and pay attention. That’s why I keep reading. In the end, what do I know? I’m praying I’ll know it when I see it.