Karen Ball, author, editor, speaker, has served in publishing for more than 26 years. She’s built fiction lines for Tyndale, Multnomah, and Zondervan, and currently is Executive Editor of Pure Enjoyment fiction at B&H Publishing Group. It’s been Karen’s joy to work with such notable authors as Francine Rivers, Terri Blackstock, Karen Kingsbury, Tosca Lee, Angela Hunt, Bill Myers, Robin Jones Gunn, and Gilbert Morris. An award-winning novelist herself, Karen is passionate about story. She lives in Oregon with Don, her husband of 30 years, and their "kids"--a crazy Siberian husky named Dasha and Dakota, a terrier-Aussie mix affectionately known as the “black hole of emotional need.”
Tell us a little about your publisher and your role there.
B&H Publishing Group is the publishing arm of LifeWay Christian Resources, one of the world's largest suppliers of Christian resources in the world. Based in Nashville, Tenn., LifeWay's been meeting people's spiritual needs since 1891 through Bibles, church literature, books, music, audio and video recordings, church supplies and Internet services through LifeWay.com. The company also owns and operates 154 LifeWay Christian Stores throughout the United States, as well as two of the largest Christian conference centers in the country--Glorietta and RidgeCrest.
I'm the Executive Editor for Pure Enjoyment fiction at LifeWay's publishing division, B&H Publishing Group. B&H is a religious nonprofit organization that receives no funding from the Southern Baptist denomination, and reinvests income above operating expenses in mission work and other ministries around the world. It's a wonderful place to work, a place with great vision for what we're doing in fiction. And I've got an outstanding team working with me, from Julie Gwinn, our miracle-worker marketing director to Aaron Linne, our digital guru, to Diana Lawrence, who has designed some of the best covers in publishing. Okay, so I'm a little prejudiced, but it's well deserved! These folks are great.
There are some misconceptions about what is often called inspirational fiction. Can you give us an idea what makes a book suitable for your publisher?
It's interesting, I remember when the Romance Writers of America reinstituted the "Inspirational" fiction category. It was back when Francine came into the Christian market. There was a lot of discussion back then about what "Inspirational" meant, since ALL fiction should be inspirational in some form. But that was the designation RWA gave Christian fiction. The category name has stuck, but you're right, people are often confused as to what it means.
For B&H, it's pretty simple. We look for fiction that excels in craftsmanship, storytelling, and emotive impact. First and foremost, it has to be a great story. We want stories that engage and transport readers, and in the process stir their hearts and spirits. And they have to be written from a Christian viewpoint, meaning the faith element has to be as intricately woven into the story as any other element (e.g., romance, mystery, suspense, and so on). The faith element needs to be a part of the fabric of the characters and story, such that if you pulled it out (just as if you pulled out any other thread), the story would collapse. We DON'T want sermons or preaching, nor do we require conversion scenes. I don't want gratuitous faith or religion any more than I want gratuitous sex or violence. What we're looking for are fully dimensional characters whose faith is a integral part of them.
I know some Christian publishing houses have decided it's okay just to have good, moral stories, that we don't need to speak the name of Christ in our books. But that's not enough for me. And since I'm heading up the Pure Enjoyment line, that's not enough for B&H. There are plenty of good, moral novels out there. I want our books to go beyond just morality to shining a light for a world that will never be saved by morality alone.
That's my vote, anyway.
What are you looking for right now from an author (in a book, query, publishing history)?
I want an author who is passionate about what he or she is writing, who believes that writing is the task to which God has set him or her. I know I'm a bit of an oddball, but I don't see writing as a calling. I believe we have one calling in life, and that's to show Christ to the world. But God assigns us different tasks for accomplishing that calling, and writing is a wonderful task. I can say that as both an editor and a novelist myself. There's no better way to show God to the world than through story, a fact Jesus proved over and over with His parables.
Do sales numbers matter? Well, sure. Publishing is a business, and we have to be fiscally responsible, which means being profitable. But it's not the only part of the equation. I want authors who are passionate about story, who respect and admire their readers, who think outside of the box when it comes to their stories, and who are willing to partner with us to make their books successful.
What kinds of things are Christian houses doing to keep pace with the changes publishing such as epublishing, print on demand not to mention decline in readership/sales?
All the same things general market houses are doing: changing the way we operate to minimize expenses, finding new avenues to promote and sell our books, reconsidering price points, seeking out new ways to drive consumers into the stores...capitalizing on our strengths and doing all we can to overcome the weaknesses. Embracing the changes and new realities, but doing so with reason and research. Some houses have had to cut personnel, some have had to cut lists, some even have cancelled contracts. I'm grateful that I work at a house that is more focused on positive solutions to the painfully negative reality that is publishing today. I'm seeing imaginative, out-of-the-box ideas coming from all areas at B&H, and from a lot of other publishers, and I'm seeing real wisdom being exercised. Yes, that means we're not as willing to take risks as we were in past, but it doesn't mean we're not willing at all. We're working to do things better and smarter. And we're continuing to learn and educate, but not just ourselves. We're working hard to educate our authors so they can meet the changes well. I know folks have heard me say this a lot over the last couple of decades, but now, more than ever, publishing is a shared-risk proposition. We all have to work together to succeed.
Take a minute to brag a little - what book are you really excited about right now? (one you just bought, or one that's just out or one that's coming out soon - or all of the above!)
You do know that's like asking a mother to say which child is her favorite, don't you? Honestly, my favorite is always the book I just edited, because it's freshest in my mind. Right now that's Jeff Struecker's and Al Gansky's Blaze of Glory. It really is a fantastic story. I loved the characters, and the action had my heart pounding. When you combine Al's skill as a writer with Jeff's front-line experiences as an Army chaplain assigned to Army Ranger units...well, this story is as "ripped from the headlines" as it gets.
But then, there's Once in a Blue Moon by Leanna Ellis, which I finished just before Blaze. A wonderfully imaginative story that's full of fun and romance and characters you think about long after you finish reading. And John Olson's Powers, which raises the bar in suspense/thrillers. And Demon and Havah by Tosca Lee, which we're rereleasing and contain some of the most beautiful writing I've ever read. And next I get to work on another T.L. Higley book, Petra, which is cool because normally I'm not that crazy about historical fiction but I LOVE how Higley brings ancient worlds to life and makes them relevant for today...oh, and did I mention Pam Ewen's Dancing on Glass, or Jim Rubart's amazing Rooms, or Robin Caroll Miller's Deliver Us From Evil, Jamie Carie's powerful Angel's Den, Patti Hill's delightful Seeing Things, and Julie Carobini's awesome Sweet Waters?
Yeah, okay, I love 'em all. What can I say, we have fantastic authors at B&H!
Thanks to Annie Jones who invited Karen to blog with us and did everything but post the interview.