FAQ and not-so FAQ with Alive Communication’s President Rick Christian…on negotiation strategy and all things literary, lying, his manliest possession and most terrifying moment, his own ultimate demise…and everything in between.
Q. Let’s start with some quick basics and relative trivia and then wade in deeper. First, you’ve got a funny name. S. Rickly Christian?
A. My friends call me Rick or Rickly, my mom’s maiden name.
Q. What is your manliest possession?
A. My chainsaw. I live on 25 acres in Colorado’s Black Forest.
Q. Your most feminine possession?
A. I carry a male bag, like the Europeans. My kids call it a purse.
Q. Do you have a hero?
A. I’d have to say Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda. He’s undertaking the greatest reconciliation effort in the world by integrating the Hutus back with their Tutsi neighbors. The movie “Hotel Rwanda” several years back details what he dealt with following the 1994 genocide in which a million people were killed in three months. We’ve been working on a book with him, written by Stephen Kinzer, a 21-year vet of the New York Times. The book, A Thousand Hills, has recently been published by John Wiley & Sons and is being adapted as a motion picture by the producer of Will Smith’s “The Pursuit of Happyness,” in partnership with Tribeca Productions and Veralux Media.
Q. Is there a living person you’d never represent?
A. The list would be long, but at the top would certainly be Joseph Kony, the Ugandan warlord who kidnaps children.
Q. When were you most afraid?
A. Hunting cape buffalo in Zimbabwe, hands down. Moving in for the shot from 200 yards to 100 and then to 50 was terrifying, because capes kill more hunters than any animal in the world. They’re big as an SUV, short legged, black as midnight, have a rack of steel, are horribly vindictive, and on top of that they hate being shot. The web is covered with clips of capes that erupt after being shot and rip the hunter to pieces. I was with a guy who’d been gored twice, so I was ready for the worst. As soon as I stepped off the plane in Africa, I entered the food chain and so my will was up to date.
Q. What are the traits you most dislike in others?
A. Sloth and bigotry.
Q. How about in yourself?
A. Greed and pride are ugly in any incarnation.
Q. When you spot them in the mirror, what do you do?
A. I’m not sure you always see your own stuff clearly, and so I take preventative action. I told a friend that I didn’t want to get soft at this stage in life and asked if he’d take me someplace in the world where I could experience the true reality of life. Everything came into focus after two weeks in Calcutta, working in the worst of the slums and AIDS hospices. It was there that I developed the “Buckets of Love” idea with my wife, which has been implemented through the compassionate outreach of Global Action. Actively helping those who live in extreme poverty and suffer from pandemic but preventable disease is my reality check.
Q. Do you have a favorite quote?
A. On my desk, I’ve framed a piece from Siegfried Unself that makes authors smile and publishers nervous. It goes, “One of the signs of Napoleon’s greatness is the fact that he once had a publisher shot.”
Q. What is your most disgusting habit?
A. I’m fond of an occasional cigar.
Q. Do you have a favorite Bible verse?
A. It really depends on the season of life and particulars of the moment. But I resonate with the theme of John 9:4. “All of us must quickly carry out the tasks assigned us by God, because there is little time left before the night falls and all work comes to an end.” I’m big on staying engaged and not sitting on the sidelines.
Q. What’s your best life tip?
A. Put extra trash liners in the bottom of each trash can? Don’t quit your day job? Aside from that, I’ve suggested that my kids identify one person in each of the decades ahead of them–somebody in their 30′s, 40′s, 50′s, 60′s, etc.–who they truly admire. I tell them that these “decade mentors” didn’t just wake up at a later stage in life to find they were admirable people, but had incorporated certain traits and habits in their lives along the way and had practiced what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction.”
Q. Do you have decade mentors?
A. Peb Jackson in his 60′s. Eugene Peterson in his 70′s. I don’t expect to live to my 80′s.
Q. Cape buffalo?
A. No, I expect I’ll take a bullet to the back of the head, courtesy of a publisher.
Q. How did you get interested in things literary?
A. I had a couple of paper routes from the time I was in junior high, and so read the news at 5 a.m. as I was folding the papers on my doorstep. Words were tattooed in my brain from an early age. I collected book lists from my grandfather, read broadly, and after college was a newspaper journalist, magazine and book publisher, and freelancer before I put it all together and hung out my shingle as a literary agent.
Q. How did Alive come to be?
A. An author friend, Ken Gire, suggested I become an agent because I’d lived on both sides of the fence, first as a writer and then as a publishing exec. I was good with both words and numbers, and once I’d seen how the business side of publishing worked I frankly got mad. I saw how authors got hosed in negotiations and why they became “starving artists”. I saw books that went unread-not because they were poorly written but because nothing was spent to let people know they existed. Houses could spend a million bucks to promote a runaway bestseller but not five grand to help a worthy book find its audience. And so I thought I could do something to help even the playing field, to change how publishers did business, to expand markets for key titles, to become a warrior for authors’ rights. I had all the passion in the world, but no budget, no nest egg or rich uncle. And so I took all the equity I had in our home, hung out my shingle, and figured I had a year to live. At the end of those first twelve months, I was scraping the bottom of the barrel and sold my car to get by another month. I then sold a driveway-full of books to get by yet another month. Finally flat broke, I sold our home in California at the peak of the cycle and bought at the low ebb in Colorado. That gave me breathing room, and by then some of the projects I’d signed early began to take off. But it was a tough haul at the beginning. I corralled every warm body that stumbled my way and literally prayed for the phone to ring. It’s ringing off the hook now.
Q. Your agency is in Colorado not New York, and yet you have represented books for everybody from Billy Graham to the President of Rwanda. How do you manage from the Rockies?
A. All agents here have long track records and established relationships, and so we could do what we do from a tree house in the Caribbean, providing the tree is wired. Ultimately, I chose quality of life over convenience. We get back to New York and the major publishing cities on a regular basis, but we can’t lunch with editors daily in Manhattan. And so we do business differently by giving editors and publishers life experiences they’ll never forget. A great number of them like to vacation and visit here, and so we catch them in their jeans. We hang out with them, ski with them, ride horses, hit the rivers and fish the high lakes. The Rockies have been very good to us, and it’s on the mountain that we’ve inked our monster deals.
Q. You’ve had a string of out-of-the-blue successes. With Eugene Peterson’s runaway bestseller, “The Message”, Lisa Beamer’s “Let’s Roll,” Brennan Manning’s “The Ragamuffin Gospel,” and amazingly fresh works from first-timers like Donald Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz” that have become contemporary classics. Alive seems to have a special touch.
A. Everybody is endowed with special talent. I can’t sing or paint or solve for x, but I can sell book ideas. But make no mistake about it. This has little to do with me anymore. I can work with only a couple of authors personally. I’m aided and abetted by a terrific group of agents here who are the best at what they do.
Q. What living person would you most like to sign?
A. I find Condi Rice intriguing, and there’s a few Supreme Court Justices we’d be interested in. But I’ve not gotten very far when I’ve chased prospective clients. The biggest fish have consistently jumped in our boat. And so I’ve come to count on this ongoing grace of God, come what may. When the phone rings, it could be anybody.
Q. Why do authors need agents?
A. Because publishers have roomfuls of accountants, attorneys and editors who work to ensure the best interests of their company are met. They utilize sophisticated financial analyses and legal maneuvering to get what they want. They may seem like your best friend, but they’re working for their bottom line. We balance efforts, ensuring that every clause in the 20-page legal document outlining the publishing relationship is aggressively negotiated on behalf of the author. One client saw the before-and-after efforts and wrote a letter saying that the contract we’d negotiated for him was a “work of art.” I take pride in that. We are the author’s champion and best cheerleader. We can brag authors up and say things about them that are awkward if coming from their own mouths. Proverbs says it best: “Don’t call attention to yourself; let others do that for you.”
Q. Why aren’t all authors represented?
A. Maybe for the same reason some people build their own homes. They just want to somehow try and do it all. It generally doesn’t end well, and authors who handle their own negotiations leave much on the table. It’s even worse when they have a spouse handle the negotiation. Or their personal attorney, who generally has no experience in intellectual property law. On a recent trip to New York, I asked a top editor when she’d last signed an unagented author. She said it had been about ten years ago. When the manuscript first arrived, the editor said, she called the author, suggested she get an agent, and gave her the names of four or five she’d worked with. The author declined. The editor then sent her the names of several authors who were represented and asked her to call them to get their perspective. The editor said she went to those lengths because she didn’t want the author coming back five years later, complaining that she’d been taken unfair advantage of. She also said it helped preserve the editor-author relationship to have a professional handling the business details.
Q. What are the details of the financial arrangements you handle for authors?
A. Among an agent’s many jobs is ensuring that all marbles end up in the right bags. The specifics are clearly detailed in written agreements between author and agent, outlining the agreed upon split (with the agent getting 15% of all monies payable to the author); and author and publisher, reflecting the financial terms we negotiate on the author’s behalf. At the end of the day, an author’s marble count depends on their agent’s negotiation strength.
Q. What impacts your negotiation ability?
A. It is always boosted by the power of an author’s words and things like prior acclaim and current platform. Having a strong agent who’s not afraid to swim with sharks is a huge benefit. Having time to work the deal is always in the author’s favor. We can do better for an author if mortgage payments and taxes aren’t in arrears and there’s food in the pantry. It’s never good for an author to be anxious for a deal in the next week. We can move that quickly if necessary, but it can have a negative impact on the advance. As desperate as an author may be, it’s best not to let the publisher hear your stomach growl.
Q. How are payments in the agreement typically doled out?
A. With major houses, typically in thirds: on execution of the agreement, delivery and acceptance of the manuscript, and publication. Some publishers pay in halves; others in fourths, with the final payment coinciding with paperback release or a year following initial publication. Once the advance is earned back, royalties typically pay between 10% and 15% of a book’s cover price. Payments are often routed through an agency, which will bank the money in an escrow account and forward the percentage due the author. We do things differently at Alive Communications. To get money to authors quickly (and avoid the temptation of sailing to Tahiti on their nickel), we specify that publishers send 85% of the advance and subsequent royalties straight to the author, and 15% to us. It keeps things simple and honest and fast.
Q. Do authors agent-hop like some musicians, always hoping that will get them further faster? How does one change agencies without hurting feelings or burning bridges?
A. Most authors are loyal to the hilt and stick by their agent through thick and thin. Regarding the core issue on making a change, regardless of whether there is merit to such a decision, breaking up is hard to do. But as Jerry McGuire said, “This ain’t about your friends, it’s about your business.” All to say, if an author is intent on the axe, he/she shouldn’t teeter around forever and a day agonizing about it. Sharpen the blade and do the deed. An agent isn’t making anything if the author isn’t, and so losing a non-earning client doesn’t generate significant emotion. Allude to this in the letter, mentioning that a relationship should be mutually beneficial, and that the time has come for all parties to derive more benefit. Courtesy remains an enduring quality. One shouldn’t waver by saying this is something you’re thinking about. It’s something you’ve decided. Though changing agents may not land an author a seven-figure contract, don’t hesitate. Writing is demanding, emotionally draining work. The last thing anybody needs is the encumbrance of an agent who’s not getting the job done, however that’s defined.
Q. I understand that your agency commission is 15%. Is that ever negotiable?
A. Everything is done at 15%. We’ve held to this standard consistently, citing value-added services like hands-on attention before, during, and after contract negotiation and execution. Also, the consistent presence of an author advocate all along the way on a host of issues, often involving other projects for which we receive no income because we are committed to long-term support and career success. We don’t just make deals and disappear. We monitor publishers’ performance and lobby constantly for our clients, not simply to hold publishers accountable but also to help infuse creative ideas and spur action they might not otherwise have taken. And then there’s the need to stimulate cross-promo efforts between publishers when an author has active titles with several houses. This has been critical with the rise in sales of Karen Kingsbury, for example. When we spurred her various publishers to work in cooperation with each other, her first year sales jumped from less than 50,000 units a year to about 250,000 in less than four years.
Q. So sales aren’t based just on the quality of writing?
A. Some writers get better with each book and you see an incremental increase in sales over the years. But in general, you’ll find there’s a really good agent attached to projects where there’s been a runaway increases in sales. That’s the difference an agent makes. It’s the agent who ensures the publisher is thinking and performing strategically for authors when vision and implementation get diffused across multiple people, departments, and years. It’s the agent who pushes marketing and sales teams to position and support books intelligently across all markets. It’s the agent who does the fine-tooth combing and negotiating of the contracts. That’s why good agents earn every dollar. I know there are agents who charge 10% and others who charge 20%. We’ve stuck to the middle ground from Day One and don’t spend a lot of time justifying it by knocking those whose fee structure is different than our own. When asked to justify our percentage, we cite all that I’ve mentioned, coupled with a gentle reminder that in this life you generally get what you pay for.
Q. How long do you receive your commission on a particular project?
A. The commission continues for the life of the project, as do the benefits authors derive from our work on their behalf. If this weren’t the case, a client could decide on a whim they don’t like the way I do my hair or drink from a straw, and thereby change provisions to which we’d agreed.
Q. What is the term of your agency agreement?
A. Most agencies have 2-5 year terms to protect themselves from termination, but I don’t believe in that. We can be fired at will. An author will know if we’re doing a great job from our first negotiation, but if things sour I don’t want us artificially bound by a period of time. Everything we do is about relationship and service. We’re superb at both, which is why our clients are extraordinarily loyal.
Q. What does Alive look for, fresh writers or established writers?
A. Ultimately it boils down to words on the page. How good are they? Freshness counts. We’re always looking for new voices and great writing. Always. Having said that, I recently received a proposal from an unknown. I circulated the material and the agents raved about the author’s unique style, thought-provoking insights–and then reminded me that publishers wouldn’t be interested. In the genre this particular project fell into, publishers prefer authors with names and established platforms–people who bring large constituencies to the table.
Q. That’s discouraging for the first-time writer who doesn’t have a national TV show.
A. It’s a tough biz. But the reality in bookstores isn’t much different than grocery stores and hardware stores. Name brands sell. This becomes even truer as small retailers lose ground to the big boxes. Books have become commodities and have shorter lives on shelves than a box of Cheerios. And yet, the cream always rises. If the words are great, the manuscript will eventually get published. Great writing is noticed, and eventually an agent or publisher will get excited and become the personal champion for the project. We can’t take on everything we like from first-time authors, but we generally try to advocate for a half dozen unknowns and up-and-comers each year. It may take shopping them to twenty publishers and getting turned down 19 times, but all we need is one yes.
Q. I feel stories coming on.
A. OK, well, I’m reminded of the turndowns Lee Hough got here for a book called “Same Kind of Different as Me”. The authors had never written a word before, but Lee believed in this book and shopped it for two years. He was pummeled by rejections, but he came up swinging each time. In life, there’s often a point of diminishing rewards, when you have to let go of something. But I believe in instinct and never stand in the way of an agent who is crazy about a project and willing to go to the mat for it. Lee finally sold it to a publisher who’d turned him down twice before. His passion finally won the day. Don Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz” is another example. He was unknown at the time and it was tough getting anybody to dance. The one that did is smiling pretty now, and that book has been on the best-seller list for months. There’s dozens of stories like this.
Q. Any other tips?
A. Read books in your genre. If you’re doing suspense, be a student of words and study how guys like DeMille and Grisham do what they do. What grabs you about their particular works? How do they sustain the drama and build believable characters? What makes you keep reading? How do they turn the corner whereby you’re dying one minute and laughing on the floor the next? If you want to conquer the marketplace, you need to know what readers want. These authors do it better than anybody else. If it’s suspense you’re after, give readers the same can’t-put-it-down intensity. The same white knuckle fear. But then make it your own and make it distinct.
Q. What about book and writer’s conferences, are they worthwhile? Do such affairs generate good leads and connections to top-notch agents?
A. Wherever two or three authors and an agent are gathered, go. Here’s a secret. Even when an agency doesn’t accept unpublished authors, they’re always prowling for the next big book from an unknown. Though we’ve landed many titles atop the New York Times bestseller list, our agents still attend four or five regional conferences annually. Other agencies do the same. And so, get thee to a conference and corner an agent in a hallway, after a session, during a meal, or after hours.
Q. Do you get a lot of “I’ve written the next Left Behind” from potential authors?
A. Every work needs to stand on its own. Authors frequently equate their work with whatever is hot at the moment, and trumpet that it’s the next whatever. Instead, just write the best story you can, take the feedback you’ve been given, revise accordingly, and if it’s good it will eventually be published. If it’s really good, people will buy it.
Q. What do you say to authors who are toying with quitting their day job?
A. Don’t. Maintain a job (or get one), and only quit if there’s a significant track record of writing income exceeding what you’ve made elsewhere. The reality is that most authors have regular jobs and write in the stolen hours–when everybody else is sleeping or watching TV or going to dinner or the mall, etc. They conceive books while they’re ironing or showering or driving, and then carry the book in their heads until they have time to get it on paper. It’s not an easy life. And so, if you can not write, don’t. If you can’t not write, then yes, start looking for a job, do what you need to do to get by financially, and steal the writing hours wherever and however you can. Somehow in its own time the book(s) will get done. What you don’t want is to compound the pressure of being broke atop the already difficult and emotionally draining job of writing.
Q. How do you measure success? If a publisher sells 13,000 copies in the first month, is that good or bad?
A. 13,000 is 13,000. Period. Not great, not bad, not indifferent. It’s just a number. Authors tend to compare, to measure, to quantify. It’s a normal thing I suppose, but one’s ultimate success really can’t be measured by bestseller lists or copies sold. Come the Day of Judgment, God won’t be asking about the number of appearances you made on the USA Today list. Authors should work diligently at their craft, and it’s OK to celebrate honors that come your way, of course. But a bit of perspective helps. Many of the great authors I studied in college died thinking they were failures because their books weren’t wildly popular. Melville never realized the success of “Moby Dick” in his lifetime. It was only recognized as a masterpiece 30 years after his death. He worked on ships and loading docks to keep the wolf away from the door. Chaucer doubled up as a diplomat and secret agent, Milton was Cromwell’s fighting foreign secretary, Ben Jonson was a bricklayer.
Q. What is a common reason you reject manuscripts?
A. They forget to print their name in the upper right hand corner? Actually, we receive thousands of submissions a year that don’t make it through the first reader. For many, it’s death by adjectives. “It was a dark and stormy night, so very icy cold it made my capped teeth itch.” No thanks. Other killers are what I’d describe as naïve awe, often paired with a shazaam! tone. Everything is just too bright and grand. Pass. In other cases, the work has no heart and it’s clear the information being conveyed is theoretical.
Q. How do you know what advance to seek? Do you typically set a floor on the advance you are looking for?
A. I repped a book several years back with the guy who trained cops for the LAPD. Prior to that he handled some of their high profile hostage negotiations. One particular day he was dealing with a loony who was ready to blow up something or other and take a bunch of people out if his demands weren’t met. My client asked the nut what he wanted. Guy says, A million dollars and an airplane. That story comes in handy with many of my negotiations. I tell publishers, me too. I want a million bucks–but I’m negotiable about the airplane. They get a good laugh, and we move from there, up or down, depending on the individual circumstances. In most cases, the agents typically won’t seek a floor, or the lowest acceptable bid on a project. If you ask a publisher to establish the floor at a certain level, they typically expect a last round topping privilege. That sounds fair, but if other houses are involved in the bidding, it makes an auction somewhat pointless, because the floor publisher can step in at the end of the day and get the book for, say, 10% higher than the highest bidder. I’d rather keep the bidding less formal, and allow the author to make the final selection of publisher based on a variety of factors. Our job is to ascertain which house really, really wants the property. It’s not about a trophy hunt or filling a slot in the catalog because of a project that fell through. Our agents look for a publisher who will eat, sleep, and breathe this book. Who will sell it better than anybody else. Who will involve outside designers and publicists to position the book well and let people know it exists. Who will ultimately sell more copies.
Q. Do you always choose publishers based on who pays the highest advance?
A. There’s many cases where an author takes a lower amount because the high bidder may not be the best match. Also, we’re very careful before we move an author away from a house where there’s been a long, abiding relationship and everything clicks.
Q. And when it doesn’t click?
A. Most partings don’t happen suddenly, but over a long period of time. I think of one of our authors who signed her first book with one of the top publishers. This is back when she was a nobody and, to her, they were the ultimate muscle car. They owned the street and they’d thrown open the doors to this dream machine and let her ride shotgun. She was eternally grateful. But then her publisher died, and key staff departed. Years later, the company was sold and by then our author felt like she was sitting in a car that had been stripped. When a company loses heart and soul, authors move on. We had another author shift houses because her publisher went to the wall over an insignificant issue and absolutely insisted on participating in film rights, though they’d never done a film deal. This is about a 20-second negotiation with most houses, but I spent days patiently trying to convince them that holding out was in nobody’s best interest. It would have cost the publisher nothing to let the author retain this particular right, but instead they lost everything. Negotiation is an art, and arm twisting doesn’t work.
Q. Examples of other missed opportunities?
A. One of our authors leads mega seminars in various cities, and goes into an area a year in advance to build the base of support with key influencers and VIPs. Knowing that, it would be nice for a publisher to invite retailers, the ultimate VIPs, to the planning events. These seem obvious, but when we get authors to give publishers their itineraries and key events, it’s amazing how often area retailers aren’t aware an author is coming to town. I lose sleep over this. If I believe a book is capable of hitting the Times list, I need a guerilla publishing partner that wants to strive to reach this goal. I can’t make that happen. Authors on their own can’t make that happen. A publisher alone can’t either. But together, with wide open communication and synergistic efforts, it’s possible. That takes people in the house other than the editor reading the manuscripts and caring about books. It’s so easy to get to the point where we talk about books and authors so much that we forget to read them, forget to honor and serve them as prophets among us. Instead, we talk about them as products, brandable as a box of cereal but with a shorter shelf life, as I discussed earlier. And there’s so much to keep up with, so much e-mail, so much background noise in all of our lives that we lose our focus and calling and pretty soon we’ve quit reading the very books we’re selling and forget our very reason to be.
Q. Sounds like a Braveheart speech.
A. No white horse, but publishers need to do the soapbox thing from time to time, to rally their troops with a message about how we’re here for this moment in time and the work God has given each of us to do really does matter, and it matters that we do it well. We’ve got battles behind us, battles surrounding us, battles ahead. On the particular battlefield of trade publishing, publishers need to build readers among their employees, to talk to them about books and great writing, to reinvigorate them by helping them see their roles in the broader scheme of things. At Alive, we all hang out a lot at bookstores and meet regularly over pizza to discuss current books we’re reading.
Q. What’s on your nightstand these days?
A. I always keep several going at once. Right now I’ve got a Robert Frost collection, David Duncan’s brilliant novel, “The River Why”, John Baillie’s “A Diary of Private Prayer” for inspiration, and Philip Gourevitch’s must-read on Rwanda, “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families”. On deck, I’ve got several client manuscripts. Our agents are all word people and heavy readers-we devour books. It’s our way of staying engaged with distinct voices and great ideas. Reading keeps us alive.