Beyond the Smoke
Terry Burns

Terry Burns writes inspirational fiction and is an agent with Hartline Literary . He is one of ten agents nominated by the American Christian Fiction Writers as Agent of the Year. As a writer he has a series that began with Mysterious Ways from River Oak Publishing and the series bears that name. The second, Brothers Keeper came out Feb 1, 2006 and Shepherd's Son came out January 1, 2007. That gives him 24 books in print counting the nonfiction and short story collections. Other fiction includes Trails of the Dime Novel, a trade paperback from Echelon Press and in audio from JBS Publishing. He has published over 200 articles and short stories. A popular speaker at workshops across the country, his available works as well as a daily blog can be found at As an agent Terry says "I'm looking for a good book, well written, aimed at a market that looks promising, and where I feel I have the contacts appropriate to be able to sell the book in that market."

Hartline Literary

Publishing in Today’s Economy

The last time I wrote this column I had just finished working up and presenting the program on “Publishing in Today’s Economy.” Next week I have to give it again at the North Texas Writer’s Organization (NETWO) at Lake Shiloh, Texas, so I’m pulling my thoughts together on it again.

In case you have been sequestered for months in a mountain cabin away from all media, finishing up that manuscript on deadline, we’ve had a little financial situation crop up. Everybody started pointing fingers and yelling about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but the average Joe on the street paid little attention, figuring the state of the economy was political campaign rhetoric with one side or the other trying to capitalize on it.

Then we got diverted by Thanksgiving and Christmas but were starting to hear about the economy being bad. Over a half million jobs were cut in November, the worst single month in thirty-four years. But Americans love Christmas, and though sales were down, they weren’t down as much as many feared. We all thought maybe it was a little glitch in the market and would straighten itself out.

Besides, we’re writers; what we really care about is the writing industry. And when times get bad, movies and entertainment gets better with people looking for escape, right? And books are entertainment.

But then came Black Wednesday in publishing, and we watched with our jaws dropped as publisher after publisher laid off people and announced consolidations and cost-cutting measures. We told ourselves that “things are just not as bad as people are making them out to be.” There’s an old story they used to tell around the chamber of commerce profession that a man could be the finest, most moral, upstanding man in town, but if all of his neighbors thought he was sleeping around, the fact that he wasn’t was insignificant. Perception is truth.

That means it doesn’t matter what we think the reality of the impact of the economy on the industry is; what matters is what the publishers perceive, and their actions speak louder than words. For months now we have watched continuing layoffs, pay raise freezes, reorganizations to streamline operations. We’ve seen a lot of top people get the axe and imprints consolidated. Just yesterday we got word that Howards is moving to Nashville as part of streamlining by Simon & Schuster.

A lot of editors and book employees are looking for work, and

even some agents have closed shop. Granted, these are subtle signs and easy to miss, but it does appear somebody thinks the publishing industry is being impacted. It’s important for a writer watching the mailbox for word on their submission to know these things.

But lately the stock market has been doing better. Sure, you can start a cat and dog fight on almost any corner about whether the stimulus package is helping or hurting, or what people think about the bailouts and the auto industry, but some people are saying we’ve turned the corner. The best word I hear is that the economy will start to improve when employment picks up and keeps growing. I understand the best prognosis is another six months.

But the economy can’t be impacting the publishing industry—after all, books are still coming out, right? It takes the better part of a year to get a book out from a larger press once the contract is signed. That means most of the books coming out now were already in the pipeline before the downturn. New book deals being made, though slowly and cautiously. Publishers are looking for sure sales, which makes it harder for newcomers to break in right now; they are paying smaller advances; and though it used to be that platform and marketing plans were more important on nonfiction titles than fiction, it’s pretty significant across the board now.

Small presses are making strides during the current economic situation. They have smaller runs and smaller investments and therefore don’t have as much at risk on a single title as the major players. I see authors who have numbers that would interest major players doing projects with small and midsize houses because that’s where a lot of the action is.

This means we’re seeing a shift in the distribution mix as well, with an increasing number of books being formatted for Kindle, e-Books, and downloads. It is a very good time to keep our ears to the ground and to be flexible on the opportunities that might come our way. They’re out there, but it’s going to take some patience. Above all it’s a great time to get another book ready to go when publishers finally decide it’s time to kick open that acquisition gate.

In other words, positive signs indicating a turnaround are emerging. Though it will not happen fast, when it does there may be significant pent-up demand and some real opportunities.