On books and sales figures

By , 25 November 2006 2:11 pm

About three years ago, I completed the last of my projects with the British evangelist, J. John. It was a summary of the life, teaching and work of Jesus called The Life: a portrait of Jesus. It was meant to be a ‘one-stop’ shop for everything on Jesus and the something of an antidote to ‘Jesus was an alien, Jedi Master, mythical figure, ancestor of the royal line of France etc’ book. So there was a chapter on Jesus’ birth, teaching, miracles, trial and resurrection, etc. Originally, we set the word limit at 80,000 words but it got squeezed down to 60,000 in order to make it a small book. It was a tough challenge, but I was fairly pleased with the result. It was released in the Christian bookshops and never seems to have got beyond them. This was a source of some irritation, particularly as it got extremely good reviews from people and filled an obvious empty niche in the market. This week, out of the blue, I got an e-mail from the publishers to say that total sales had now reached 50,000 and they were going to give it a new cover. (Perhaps, this time, they can actually get it into the secular bookshops, which is where it was designed for).

So there was much rejoicing. But it also gave rise to some thinking about the value of books. Let’s say, I went into the ministry and did regular preaching slots, two times a week. So let’s do the math: thirty minutes a time to the typical British Baptist congregation of fifty people; that’s fifty contact hours a week or 2,500 a year. Now consider the book: although a light read it is densely packed and will probably take at least five hours to read. So 50,000 copies times five hours gives you 250,000 contact hours. Now unless my math is very dodgy that is a hundred years worth of preaching.

Of course, it might be argued that some books are unread, but we can probably also assume that some books are read by more than one person. (You have no idea how my heart sinks when I hear someone say ‘We like your books, someone got one and the whole church read it.’) And you can’t daydream while reading a book. So the statistics suggest that I have reached numbers that only big star preachers get. Gratifying, hey what?

Tolkien’s curse

By , 17 November 2006 8:22 pm

It had to happen I suppose, but it occurred sooner than I had expected. An early reader of Dark Foundations came over at church to compliment me on the book and then proceeded to tell me that in one section I had copied from Lord of the Rings. As it is impossible to describe the plot point he was referring to without spoiling a great deal, I will leave readers to guess the particular moment. Suffice it to say that consultation with my domestic editor (my wife) confirmed that there was only the most tenuous linkage with the Professor Tolkien’s epic trilogy.

But I am hardly surprised: writing a large-scale fantasy these days is like living at the foot of Mount Doom itself. Tolkien’s work casts such a wide and sombre shadow that you cannot escape it. So when you write your fantasy epic, stumble upon some attractive plotline and pursue it you almost inevitably find a little engraved stone. ‘J. R. R. Tolkien was here first’. So, the hero has a faithful friend, who sticks fast by him in battles? Be careful: it’s Frodo and Sam. You have a disinherited king looking for his throne? Been there, done that and got the banner of the House of Elendil. Flying monsters? The Nazgul. The quest with its companions? The weapon that must be destroyed? Done, all done! And it’s the details too; the deadly stairway, the gleaming city, the broken sword, the treacherous companion. It’s all there in Tolkien, and cursed is he who tries to repeat it. It’s a pain, trust me, and part of my exasperation at being accused of borrowing is that I spent long, long hours, trying to avoid simply that.

So what’s going on here? Ultimately the very strength of the Lord of the Rings is because Tolkien uses so many of the great archetypes of epic fiction. The problem for those who write in his wake, is that if we do go back to these archetypes, we are now accused of plagiarism. He took what was universal and made them his own. In my darker moments, I feel that Tolkien was like a boy who, reaching a banquet before everybody else, helped himself to most of the best things on the table, leaving the rest of us with mere scraps. When I try to approach many of the great fantasy themes with a view to appropriating them, I seem to hear a little voice with an Oxford accent that whispers ‘Thief! We hates you. It’s my precious!’

On using the ‘J-Word’

By , 11 November 2006 6:05 pm

Normally, I’d prefer to talk about writing, and I am reluctant to replace the previous post because it had some really rather nice responses. But this present topic has been bobbing around in my brain this week and I thought I would share it, because it does have relevance to the matter of writing.

More years ago than I care to remember, I spent a year on a reasonably remote university campus. We were so distant from the nearest town that we evangelicals would all turn up at the college chapel to hear preaching from whoever was passing through. We had an extremely varied diet, including many academic theologians who felt that here, amongst students, they could use words with more than two syllables. Very soon we developed an index of the preaching, simply based on how long they could preach without using the word Jesus. Some managed the whole thirty minutes without using the word. After some months, we felt that this was a pretty sure indication of whether or not a preacher was spiritually alive or dead.

Years later, I was told that if you wanted to get a book with a Christian framework published by a secular publisher in the UK you had to avoid using the J-word. You could get away with all sorts of things, including discussing spirituality, but somehow that name (the real He-who-shall- not-be-Named) triggered negative responses. At this point, you would expect me to say ‘well, of course, I abhor this view and my books are studded with the word ‘Jesus’’. Well actually, they aren’t and in the present series I think I’ve made a point of using that word just once a book partly because I don’t want to put off the interested reader, who comes from outside Christianity. And after all, as the Bible shows there are lots of other names and titles for the Lord that we can invoke.

What you may ask, triggered this reflection? It’s just that is our country’s leading churchman has a widely noted inability to use the J. word himself. Entire sermons pass without him mentioning it and he achieved a singular feat recently of being interviewed specifically about Christianity by one of our more aggressive radio personalities and never used the word (or, I think, ‘Christ’).

I would be inclined to attribute this apparent ‘Jesus-ophobia’ to some psychological or sociological quirk were it not for the explicit claims of the New Testament, notably in Philippians chapter 2 that one day, ‘every knee will bow at the name of Jesus’. Of course, that is symbolic language but I feel it is interesting that there are so many attempts to whitewash away the very specific and very concrete Jesus that there is in biblical Christianity and replace him by something far, far vaguer.

Are they afraid of something? Or Someone?

Great expectations

By , 6 November 2006 7:45 pm

As previously noted, the books came out last week: The Shadow and Night and Dark Foundations in two lovely hardback volumes. Unleashed on America, delivered by post from Amazon and even available in one or two Christian bookshops in the UK (apologies for the sarcasm). And…


Well, almost silence. All writers of popular fiction, I imagine, have somewhere in the back of their mind, the hope that the phone will immediately ring or the publisher will e-mail you to say, ‘fantastic news. It’s already selling in the thousands, we are reprinting already, you’ve got rave reviews coming up, Oprah Winfrey is going to plug it, the White House is buying copies or the First Church of Purity and Eschatological Truth is going to have a public book burning.’ What you don’t want is…. silence. That utterly deafening public yawn that says ‘oh no, not another book in an already crowded market’.

In some ways, of course, authors are right to have such hopes. As the saying goes, ‘blessed are those with low expectations, for they are rarely disappointed.’ But a small fanfare or two would be nice.

Actually, it wasn’t quite as bad as I have painted it. Within days, there were two rave reviews on Amazon.com (and if you wrote one of them, many thanks, and bless you) and people who finished it have made the comments about it being ‘a real page turner’ and ‘when’s the next one due’. And it is early days yet.

Of course, I could take the ‘my time will come’ stance or adopt the ‘hey who needs fame?’ pose. I’m holding them in reserve.

For the moment.

On self-promotion

By , 1 November 2006 10:14 pm

For reasons that have everything to do with stupidity and my inability to say ‘no’, I am I currently doing quite a bit of speaking and preaching; church, a student Christian Union and a Chinese fellowship. So given that I have a captive audience and we have so many copies of my works cluttering up the house that we are in danger of being buried alive under paper, I have been trying to sell books. Not, I hasten to add, in case the Inland Revenue is reading this site, in anything like large numbers. I think I have sold six in the last week, netting around £25, which is probably what it cost me to send copies to family and friends and people who might conceivably give me a plug.

But the issue, dear reader, is not finances. It’s how to do self promotion competently and consistently. You see in these Christian talks, I try (really) to promote the gospel or Jesus and not myself. (This is the John the Baptist Principle: ‘that I may decrease and He may increase’ see John 3:30.) But if you’re selling books, you have to, at some point say. ‘Oh and I brought these books, and you can buy them and I will sign them.’ But what is the Christian to do here? Is he or she to say, ‘These are absolutely wonderful! I have got fans all over the world who love them! Get out your wallets and buy, buy, buy!’ You don’t have to be very spiritual to see that this is hardly in keeping with the rest of the talk.

Alternatively, you could take the modest approach. ‘Oh and…’ look down at floor ‘… there are some books I have written…. mumble, mumble, mumble. They really aren’t very good. I don’t know why you’d want to buy them. Why don’t you get a Bible or a really good book of theology instead?’ In my usual British slightly bungling manner, I suspect, I manage to do both. The result is that I come over as being a) not very spiritual and b) someone who is embarrassed about his not terribly good books. Hmm.

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