Jeff Gerke has been called the de facto gatekeeper of Christian speculative fiction. After writing his own speculative fiction and spearheading the launch of a fiction imprint dedicated to Christian speculative fiction at a major Christian publishing company, Jeff branched out on his own to launch Marcher Lord Press (www.marcherlordpress.com), an Indie publishing house billing itself as the premier publisher of Christian speculative fiction. His fiction how-to book The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction is available through Amazon or Marcher Lord Press and his new craft book from Writer's Digest Books is due out in late 2010. Jeff lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, teenage daughter, 9-year-old son, and 20-month-old adoptive daughter from China.
American Idol Meets Fiction Publishing
by Jeff Gerke
When Marcher Lord Press had released its third successful list, I decided to try an acquisitions experiment.
I had recently been approached by a man in Chicago who had an idea for a new way to do acquisitions. He called it American Idol meets fiction publishing. The idea was that "the people" would read samples from a group of candidate manuscripts and then vote--and the winner would be published. Like American Idol, the contest would go through multiple phases, narrowing down the list and showing more of the remaining mss. After thinking and praying and talking about this with peers, I decided to go for it.
Marcher Lord Select launched on November 1, 2009 and concluded at midnight on New Year's Eve.
In talking with folks before we started the contest, I realized I needed to have two contests going on simultaneously. One would be the primary competition, the winner of which would be given a contract and become my next Marcher Lord Press novel. I was limiting that contest to mss. I had already read or one or more of my volunteer readers had already read. I needed to know that the pool of contestants would include only books I would be comfortable publishing.
But that left out many novelists who had completed their mss. and submitted proposals to me, but which I had not yet gotten a chance to read. Those couldn't go into the main contest, because I hadn't vetted them yet, but they could certainly go into a secondary contest if the prize were simply to be put at the top of the list of mss. I would read for careful consideration.
So I began sending out invitations to authors--most unpublished but a few published novelists. I originally thought I'd begin with 15 full mss. for the primary competition, but I quickly realized I had many more books and authors I'd like to see given this opportunity. We ended up with 36 full mss. in the first round of voting for Marcher Lord Select. Everyone knew that one of those 36 would be the next MLP novel.
In the secondary competition, I began with 49 entrants. I announced that the 3 entries receiving the most votes at the end of the process would receive a full ms. request and priority acquisitions reading by me.
On November 1, the fun began. In the primary contest I posted specs for each entry (title, genre, wordcount), a 20-word premise, a 100-word blurb or back cover copy, and a 1-page synopsis. Voters had to decide which 18 (of 36) to vote for, based only on those things. This was to emphasize the importance of pitch or marketing writing, even for novelists. If an agent or acquisitions editor doesn't like your front matter, she many not go on to your sample chapters.
In Phase 2, I posted (via secure download that did not violate the "published" status of the authors) the first 500 words of the remaining 18 entries. So now the voter got something like a bookstore experience: title, genre, back cover copy, and first few pages. Based on that, voters had to pick their top 6 favorites.
Phase 3 began with a list of 8 semifinalists. Voters got to read the first 30 pages of those entries--and were allowed to vote for only 3.
Phase 4 featured 3 finalists. Voters read the first 60 pages of these books and were allowed to vote for only 1.
The winner of the primary contest was [insert title and author of winner when voting is complete].
Over in the secondary contest, voters were working with less content. Phase 1 consisted of the 20-word premise only (plus title, genre, and wordcount). Phase 2 added the 100-word blurb. This knocked the field down to 20. Phase 3 added the 1-page synopsis and cut the list to 10. This was all front matter material: the sizzle. Phase 4 added the first 500 words of the finalist entries, allowing voters to see some of the steak.
The top three winners of the secondary contest were [insert titles and authors of winners when voting is complete].
I'd have to say Marcher Lord Select was a major success. I hosted the voting and discussions over at my forums site, The Anomaly. Before we began, we had like 200 registered members. By the final day of Phase 4 voting, we had more than 2,300. The contest has increased awareness of Marcher Lord Press and continued the core market penetration we're after--and introduced us to secondary audiences (the people who registered just to vote for a friend in the contest), who may spread the word to ever expanding circles of potential buyers.
Even before we launched the competition proper, and then along the way as needed, we instituted a number of measures to try to prevent the competition from being nothing but a popularity contest. I didn't want the person with the most friends on Facebook or the greatest charisma to win. I wanted to put all entries on equal footing and have people vote based on the entries' quality and attractiveness to the reader.
The measure that seemed to work best was requiring that everyone vote for at least 3 entries (except in the final round) or their vote would be thrown out. That seemed to diffuse the impact of the very popular person, because two other authors would get the benefit of every voter's presence.
But I didn't want to completely reject the popularity factor. American Idol is, in a sense, a popularity contest. It's not necessarily the person with the most talent who wins. It's the person who can gain the largest number of votes--whether through talent or cuteness or compelling story or whatever else. With Marcher Lord Select, I wanted the book that won to be popular--because if X number of people vote for a book that wins, that's X people who are very likely to buy the book they helped get published.
This has been an experiment. I would do some things differently if I were to do it again (and I might: next fall), but on the whole it met all my goals and was fun, to boot. And I know of at least 2 authors who "got voted off the island" but who have been approached by other publishers and may receive a contract out of it all. It's also not a negative that Marcher Lord Press in general and me in particular are seen by many key people as the nexus for all things pertaining to the publishing of Christian speculative fiction.
Thanks to Annie Jones for inviting Jeff to blog for us.