About Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson founded WordServe Literary in 2003. More importantly, I'm the husband of Becky, father to Troy and Drew, stepfather to four, and grandfather to five grandsons. In previous years, I've been a Campus Life leader (10 years), Breakaway magazine editor (5 years), author or coauthor of 21 books. But for the last 18 years, I've been a literary agent privileged to work with a great family of authors and staff trying to make a dent for the Kingdom.

Ambition, Aspirations, and Obsession: Part Two

Last time I posted to the Water Cooler, I discussed some of the ways that having dreams and aspirations can affect you in a positive way.

CliffWSThis post I’d like to look at some possible dangers of having ambition.

Dangers of Aspirations:

1. Assuming it’s God’s will.

I’ve had authors so single focused, so full of energy and passion, that they interpret this to mean “It’s God’s will that I write for publication.” I’m not the end-all expert on God’s will, but I don’t believe it is simply feeling passionate about something. Yes, feeling passionate about a cause or a new adventure makes you feel alive, but so does war. The men from Band of Brothers who have written books say, “Never have I felt so alive as when I was in battle.” An activity may get your heart moving and leave you with an adrenaline high, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily God’s will.

2. Overly ambitious writers won’t always listen to counsel.

So many authors have come my way and said, “God told me to write this.” Or, “This will sell millions of copies because these are God’s words.” Too many to count. The danger in this approach is that writers begin to feel their manuscript is so divinely inspired that it would be almost a sin for an agent or editor to suggest changes to it.

Having aspirations without seeking and listening to wise counsel will often lead to a big waste of weeks, months, even years. So if you’re a writer, you must temper your aspirations with the reality of counsel. If everyone who isn’t a family member says your baby is ugly, it likely is.

The best writers are the ones who seek out critique groups, writing partners, and then when they strike gold (they finally get a professional writer or agent to look at their work) they listen. And when they hit the mother lode by finding a publisher, they should realize how much God can use these professional partners to make their work even better.

3. Overwhelm those not sharing the train you are on, going in your direction.

People with writing aspirations can be overwhelming in their single-mindedness. They feel they somehow need this to accomplish something of value. If you’re one who says, “I have to write. I cannot NOT write,” be careful of those around you. They don’t understand. (Unless they are writers, too!)

Aspirations that lead to the neglect of people you love most (for more than a few weeks when you’re on a deadline) are probably not from God. They are more likely from your own need to find significance in having published something with your name on it.

I became an agent because I was faced with a choice. I had written 15 books, had a big platform in youth ministry, and came to a crossroads: Do I write and speak and try to be more famous? Or do I stay involved in the process of books (which I loved) and be able to hang out with my own two young sons instead of other people’s kids? I made the right choice and never looked back.

If aspirations aren’t in balance with your family goals, then I’d question if they are God’s will for you.

To keep ambitions and aspirations from turning into obsessions, they need to be:

• Tempered with counsel, prayer, balance.
• Put up against the harvest of fruit.

If something you’re pursuing doesn’t seem to be yielding the desired results, then there is a good chance that this aspiration may be a stepping stone to a bigger aspiration God has in mind for you. I’ve discovered that most of our lives have a building block-like history to them that makes sense as you reach the middle or near the end of your story.

My biggest revelation on aspirations is that they must be tied to a soul, especially the souls of those you love.

Aspire to feed your family. Writing for money isn’t a bad thing. If publishers hadn’t paid C.S. Lewis to write Chronicles of Narnia, who knows if he would have written it.

Aspire to make a dent for God’s Kingdom. Great. We all want to live our lives for something that will outlast us.

But make sure your ambitions and aspirations are always tied closely to the souls of those whom God has put into your life. In other words, how is your calling to write also blessing those nearest to you?

What about you? What have you done to keep your aspirations from becoming an obsession?

Ambition, Aspirations, and Obsession: Part One

Are you in a season of fresh aspirations?

WomanCliffWSSeveral years ago I had aspirations. (Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say, they had me.) I was obsessed. I’d stay up late at night, sadly, on my computer, surfing…dead relatives. That’s right, I had an Ancestry.com obsession. I aspired to know everything about all of the branches of my family tree. Soon I had more than 4000 strangers (and a few hundred names I actually knew) attached to my electronic tree, many with pictures and whole histories about their life. Fun and time consuming, but now it’s done.

After 20 years as an agent, I’ve seen literally thousands who have writing aspirations. It starts with an ambition, “Gee, I think I could write a book.” They give it legs by feeding their aspiration, “Wow, I really need to write this book, so I’d better learn how to do it—and then spend weeks doing it.” But oftentimes a good desire to write turns into an obsession, “I have to get this book done and in print if it’s the last thing I do.”

And oftentimes they throw God in the mix as Supreme Instigator.

“I’m so excited about this manuscript, it must be God’s will that I become a famous novelist. Therefore, I will do everything possible to make this God-given dream come true.”

Ambitions and aspirations can certainly be clues to God’s will for us, though ambition alone is not enough to discern God’s calling. My own history of aspirations has had mixed results, with joys and dangers along the way.

The Joys of Aspirations:

1. They Bring Energy.

I’ve got some aspirations about a new project/business I’m working on that will help my authors and, hopefully, help the Kingdom for years to come. As my wife Becky would attest, it’s brought me more energy and motivation about work than she’s seen in a long time. I love being an agent, but with the changes happening in publishing, I’ve been restless. I’ve seen too many great books go unpublished because some publishers are concerned about the lack of social networking tribes in an author’s portfolio. I aspire to do something about that (more on that in a later post).

2. They Bring Focus.

The Apostle Paul had ambitions and aspirations. “…This one thing I do, forgetting what is in the past, I press ahead to the goal of the upward call…”. He wanted to live in the moment and not be hamstrung by his past: a helpful goal that brought focus to his day-to-day life. One of his other aspirations was “…to see Rome…”. He eventually did, and was able to preach the Gospel to likely hundreds.

3. They Bring Fruit.

Aspirations to write books gave me hope that perhaps my life could count for something; that my words on paper could outlive me. That’s what books do. They allow God to use our stories and life lessons in ways that bless others. And with digital books, our stories could live forever on Amazon and other platforms. Granted, they might be ranked at four million, but at least our books are there!

4. They Bring Passion.

About 20 years ago when I was writing as a hobby and working a day job, my routines were to get up at 5 a.m. and write for two hours before work. Then after the kids were in bed, I’d write for another hour or two. That’s what aspirations do; they give us so much passion that we’d rather not sleep.

Next time I’ll discuss some of the dangers of aspirations. What about you? How does having dreams and aspirations affect you in a positive way?

The Myth of the Crossover Book

My last post I talked all through the dilemma with book categories that bookstores expect to see when your book is finally published. You either have a clear one or your book will get lost.

BookwormBut what of the intended audience—and message–for your book? Does this also have to be perfectly obvious to get any traction in sales; to make any impact in the world?

I hope I don’t harp on this too much, but I’ve got 20 years and about 2,300 books I’ve had the privilege of representing. About 10% of my sales over the years have been through general market houses. In all of that time I’ve heard hundreds of authors and potential authors tell me they wanted to write the book for “the crossover market.” Read: I want to do some appropriate, hidden preaching so that the reader will consider faith or make a conversion.

Here’s what I know: New York editors don’t want books that surreptitiously preach or try to win anyone to faith. And they really don’t want overt Christian books unless you’re got a massive sales history and platform. “That’s why,” they infer, “our parent company bought a specific Christian publisher…so that we wouldn’t have to see/publish these books.”

So if you tell me you want me to sell a proposal to a general market publisher, saying something to the affect of “let’s be bold and take the Cross over to a secular publisher,” I’ll be sympathetic with your goal, then immediately talk you out of it. Your heart may be in the right place, but your realistic knowledge of what publishers want is lacking.

The truth: It can’t be done. General market houses care about great books that serve readers … and sales. They don’t want to hear from a Barnes and Noble manager that books were returned from angry customers who felt duped (or offended) by the content. My opinion is that those few books that do escape the religious section in B&N (perhaps 1 or 2 a year) really aren’t making a lasting impact. They’re not even planting seeds. Why? Because there likely is not another actual human to help the reader take their seeds of faith and make sure they have been placed on fertile soil.

The small percentage of adults who ultimately do come to faith do so after watching a genuine believer over time, getting their specific questions answered, and usually finding a community where they feel loved and accepted. They rarely (if ever?) stick to the faith because they bumped into a book at B&N.

People mostly buy books because of word of mouth. And they come to faith by watching a consistent imperfect life, and then likely directly interacting with God’s Word in some meaningful way.

Yes, there is the very rare exception. But so rare it borders on impossible.

So if you want to write anything that may make the life of Jesus more attractive, write it to those already in the faith, and hope that they are able to naturally hand the book off to someone they know; someone who if they do come to faith will then have a natural tie back into a community of real people helping each other through life.

Books are a powerful tool for good. People do get moved to consider faith because of them. But 99% of those books were published by a Christian publisher written primarily to Christians.

And let me say a word about the middle. If you try to hit the middle, you likely lose both audiences. The middle isn’t looking to be converted or for Christian content. If you want to write a book for the general market audience, build your platform or skills and write it without expectation you’ve taken the Cross over. If you include Christian content in your book, fiction or nonfiction, do so in a natural way that communicates a strong and obvious message.

Question: Do you know of any book that has made an impact with your friends as it relates to faith?

The Joy of Categories

From actual query letters…

“I’ve got a novel that’s sort of a historical fantasy magical realism.”

GregsBooks“My new nonfiction is for everyone. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. There’s nothing as good or like it on the market. It should be stocked at the front of the store in the ‘bestseller’ section.”

“The graduation gift book I’m proposing will be the kind of book retail will stock all year around.”

One thing new (and sometimes veteran) authors don’t understand is that every book must have a recognizable category. The queries for books listed above have none. The moment you go outside of a known category, retail doesn’t know what to do with it. They don’t know where to stock it; they don’t know how to describe it to their customers. In short, they won’t know how to sell it. And that’s the point of writing books you’d like people to read . . . to sell them.

It starts with what is known as a BISAC code. It’s those few words on the back of the book that give retail and consumer a clue as to what the book is about. Every book gets a maximum of three. Here are the categories from the Book Industry Study Group:


Handy dandy, but did you notice there are only TWO categories for fiction: Fiction and Juvenile fiction.

When you toddle over to Barnes and Noble, here are the categories you’ll find as you browse the aisles:

Fiction Books & Literature
Graphic Novels
Mystery & Crime
Romance Books
Science Fiction & Fantasy

Ages 0-2
Ages 3-5
Ages 6-8
Ages 9-12

African Americans
Antiques & Collectibles
Art, Architecture & Photography
Bibles & Bible Studies
Business Books
Christian Fiction
Computer & Technology Books
Cookbooks, Food & Wine
Crafts & Hobbies Books
Education & Teaching
Foreign Languages
Game Books
Gay & Lesbian
Health & Fitness
Home & Garden
Humor Books
Judaism & Judaica
Medical & Nursing Books
New Age & Spirituality
Parenting & Family
Politics & Current Affairs
Psychology & Psychotherapy
Religion Books
Science & Nature
Self Help & Self Improvement
Social Sciences
Sports & Adventure
Study Guides & Test Prep
True Crime
Women’s Studies

Not bad. A little bit more descriptive in fiction, which is helpful, but if you wanted to find “historical fiction,” for example, you have to browse a few thousand books and hope you bump into a title that screams “historical” from the spine.

How about at a Christian bookstore? At a local Mardel, here is what we found:

Bible Reference
Bible Studies
Christian Living
General Interest
Gift Books
Marriage & Family
Spirit-Filled Life
Teen Interest

Again, ONE designation for fiction. (Really? Do they really NOT want to sell novels?)

And then there are award categories. Here are the categories for the “Christy Awards,” the yearly fiction awards:

Contemporary Romance
Contemporary Series (sequels and novella)
Contemporary Stand Alones
First Novel
Historical Romance
Young Adult

The American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) has their own set of categories for determining the “Carol Awards”:

Long Contemporary
Long Contemporary Romance
Long Historical
Long Historical Romance
Romantic Suspense
Short Contemporary
Short Contemporary Suspense
Speculative Fiction
Women’s Fiction
Young Adult

The INSPYs (Bloggers Awards of Excellence in Faith-Driven Literature) has yet another set of categories:

Literature for Young People
General Fiction
Speculative Fiction
Mystery & Thriller

The ECPA has their Gold Medallion Awards in these categories:

Book of the Year
Bible Reference
New Author

If all of this seems confusing, well, I suppose it is. When in doubt take comfort that you don’t have to pick from the Amazon.com categories. Just try to find three categories to mention!

The point is, each book gets three known categories on the back. Choose wisely in your proposals, but also try to choose broad categories so your book will get the most amount of exposure. And please, for the love Ernest Hemingway, don’t make up a category and call yourself a “pioneer.” Don’t implore the agent to think “outside the box.” Don’t call publishers “short-sighted non-creatives.” Just pick some categories and color inside the lines. We’ll all be happier.

Have you ever been confused about categories? How did you solve your dilemma?

Please, Pick Up the Phone

True confessions time: I’m a man, and try as I might, I can’t read my wife’s mind. I know that must be shocking to all of you female authors (or not).

A few weeks ago I’d fallen asleep early, but by 11:15 I woke up and noticed Becky had her robe on. “Are you cold?”


RedPhoneSince I’ve got great circulation, I know I can warm her up in less than 10 minutes. So does she. But instead of giving me a nudge or rolling over next to me, she played nice, didn’t want to wake me up, and tried to do the job herself. That’s a lovely thought, but shortsighted. I love spooning. And I fall back to sleep very quickly.

“Scoot over next to me and let me warm you up.”

When I’m sound asleep, and Becky’s shivering cold, whose job is it to let me know my circulation is needed for her warm-up? Since I can’t read her mind when I’m awake, I certainly can’t while sawing logs!

When I or any agent takes on a client, we’ve chosen to say, “I’d love to serve you. I’m betrothed to you literarily and hereby am very excited about managing your career; talking to you about your book (or books in general), the industry, your upcoming release, the future, your kids, the weather…”

Look, we all know every agent on the planet is busy. If they’re not, something is wrong. We get about 100 (or more) emails a day that typically ask us to tend to something. We’re editing proposals, creating or tinkering with contracts, talking to editors, staying abreast of the rapidly changing book industry…doing our job. All that, and often looking at our inbox fill up with 100 to 200 queries a week (notice I didn’t say we actually open these queries).

I’ve got several clients who give me a call at least once a week (or every other week). “Got a minute?” they’ll ask. And 98 times out of 100 I’ll say, “Of course!” They then tell me what’s going on, chit-chat about the weather or their book, I answer a few questions and we’re done.

I love it!

For many authors, being tucked away behind a computer for 6 to 8 hours a day is a fairly lonely life. I’ve been agenting for nearly 20 years, so I know this. Part of the job I love is being the ear they need on the other end of the line.

Please hear this: You’re NOT bothering me if you want to talk on the phone!

Do I have things to do? Always assume that I do.

Do I have time for a spontaneous one-hour call? Well, maybe not an hour. But I always have time for a one-hour call if you email ahead of time and ask for an appointment.

And here’s the $64,000 question: Whose job is it to reach out and meet your human voice-to-voice needs, to answer your questions about your book sales or writing future, even to know when it’s time to talk to marketing about your book?

There’s a reason this particular clause is NOT in any agency’s author-agent agreement: “Agent will periodically, as needed, and without you asking, call or email at just the right time to check in on you, your upcoming book, what stock Amazon has, what your publisher is or isn’t doing for you lately, your personal life, and your future.”

If you can find an agent like this, you’re in literary nirvana. Good luck. It may last for a month or two with a new agent, but it won’t last forever. Unless they have four clients, no agent can make this promise.

On a fair amount of occasions I certainly WILL check in. “Anything I can do for you?” I do this all of the time.

But most of the time, though I’m anxious to do things for you, I can’t read your mind. And while I usually do know where we are in the process, I’m not privy to every detail that every client has on every book project done between them and their publisher: the editorial process of a manuscript, having them email about marketing calls or cover questions (many don’t copy the agent), etc. If you expect for me to warm up the literary chill in your life, you really have to give me a nudge.

So I am hereby now giving any client permission to email (always best to set a time to talk if you want more than 10 or 15 minutes) or pick up the phone to ask:

“What’s going on with my book (cover, marketing, sales, or contract)?”

“Please send me an update about how my proposal is doing.”

“Can we talk about my next project I should be writing a year from now when I’m done with my current contract?”

Listen: You’re NOT bothering me! And if you are, too bad. I work for you. Don’t ever start a call with, “I know you’re busy…”

I love serving you. That’s why you’re my client. And even though I’m not dead asleep, I truly cannot read your mind about when the exact moment to check in might be. Yes, I will call or email once in a while myself to check in or give you an update, but I’m usually not that Johnny-on-the-spot. And if I don’t check in, it doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about you or doing work on your behalf.

Please, don’t be insecure. I like you lots, and just because I don’t initiate a call according to when you think I should doesn’t mean I don’t care about you or your career. I want to talk. But I can’t read your mind. Pick up the phone. I’ll be there. And I’ll never say I’m too busy to talk (unless, of course, I am at that very moment).

Question: Do you think it’s the agent’s job to check in all of the time . . . or the author’s? Why?

Writing for Money

Motives in life—and the publishing industry–can be squishy.

Keep a secretBut life is all about the motive. The heart of the matter is what we’ll likely be judged by.

I started writing for money. That was my motive. It was 1988 and I was toward the end of a decade-long youth ministry gig. Loved about 8 years of it, but the last year was the worst. Support was low, two small kids, so I had to find more income. Consulting. Singles Pastor. Youth leader. And “writer.” Four “jobs.”

I got $35 each to write the “I Wonder” notes in the Life Application Bible for Students. Sixty-six of them. Big money at a time when I really needed it. (Thank you, Dave Veerman.)

Hmmmm, I thought, maybe someone will pay me to write something else. So I started writing a Bible study; a magazine article or three (thank you, Steve Strang, for publishing my first magazine article); training manuals. (Not a lot of money in training manuals…for me, none.)

But because I needed money and wrote “I Wonder” notes, I got a call from Focus on the Family in the summer of 1989. They were looking for a magazine editor. Someone who knew teen boys. “We’ll teach you commas and periods,” I was told. They did. (Thank you, Dean Merrill.) I soon had a “youth group” of 100,000 teen boys. Um, that was a bit larger than the one I had in Campus Life.

And those 66 “I Wonder” notes became my first book, If I Could Ask God One Question (Tyndale 1990). That led to more books written and co-written…21 of them over the next 12 years. (Thank you, Susie Shellenberger, Mike Yorkey, and Michael Ross.) I also made extra dough on the side writing magazine articles (200 of them). But what I discovered I loved was the idea portion of books; the fleshing out of proposals, and then the selling of those ideas where a publisher wrote me checks I wanted to take pictures of.

Oh, and writing the books once they sent the first half of the advance. That was okay, too.

But leaving my family to get on planes on weekends to speak, constant radio interviews…I didn’t like so much. Even though there were only four others I knew of at the time, maybe I could become a literary agent. That way I could work close to home, still be involved with ideas and proposals and books…and maybe someone would still send me checks for that. (Thank you, Rick Christian.)

Eighteen years later, I’ve been privileged to represent about 2,200 books. I’ve met some of the best hearted people in the world—creative types who write on eternal subjects, tell stories that move the soul, stay up late and get up early to pound out words on their computer, get on planes to speak to the few and to masses…why do they do it? Why did they start? How do they keep going?

I wonder if C.S. Lewis would have written ”The Chronicles of Narnia” if someone hadn’t written him a check of some sort to spend hours at his Royal typewriter; if they hadn’t promised to pay him odd-sounding British coins and pounds for each book sold.

And this takes us back to money. Is it okay to write for money? I ponder sometimes what my life would have been like if someone hadn’t asked me to write…for money. No small percentage of wonderfully inspired prose would have been created (nor a much larger percentage of really mediocre content, unlike seo services), no introductions to talented wordsmiths who could help me know where commas and periods go and who were patient with me as I learned the difference between its and it’s. No lifetime friends in an industry of people dedicated to making their lives count. No involvement with authors and books and stories that are shaping the life and faith of millions of readers.

And maybe no bills paid when I needed them paid.

This is why motives are squishy. Writing only for money isn’t always the best idea, but sometimes it takes you to a place that certain Someone may want you to go; perhaps to a life where your words will outlive you and still make an impact for eternity well after you’re gone.

Nothing wrong with that motive.

Question: How do you feel about writing for money, as well as other motives as it relates to writing?

Greg Johnson is President of WordServe Literary Group, a literary agency based near Denver, Colo.

Whose Fault Is It If Your Book Doesn’t Sell?

Pop Quiz: When your book doesn’t sell to your expectations, who is to blame?

  1. Those picky sales folks in publishing houses. They only want to sell bestsellers and big name authors anyway.
  2. The marketing folks at publishers who never seem to pick me or my book for that infamous 80/20 principle (80% of the money going to 20% of the books).
  3. My agent who takes their 15% and then runs for the hills (with no Internet access).
  4. Stupid consumers who wouldn’t know a good book from, well, a bad book.
  5. Me, the author, who sweats great drops of blood in writing the Great American book, but can’t market and PR my way out of a paper bag.
  6. God, of course. I’m not worthy of His blessings anyway.
  7. None of the above
  8. All of the above

After representing a couple of thousand books, the answer is “8” (minus “3” & “6,” of course). In my last 22 years in publishing, I’ve seen average books go through the roof, and great books struggle to find readers.  I won’t name names or titles, but we’ve all scratched our heads after reading a current bestseller, thinking Really? Naturally, I’ve seen hundreds of books sell just “okay.” And on rare occasions, I’ve even seen great books do very well. Imagine that?

So why are some books unable to find a foothold in retail and with consumers? The reasons are legion.

  • No one has heard of the author, so they’re not looking for their book.
  • A world event happened–war/disaster/crime/election–so the book and author who could have been talked about on media (and was booked on media), is no longer big news. (I’ve seen this happen more than once.)
  • Bad cover. While you can’t “judge a book by its cover,” you certainly may not buy it if it’s awful.
  • A less than scintillating title.  I’m hearing that consumers are buying books based on Search Engine Optimization (SEO), especially felt-need nonfiction.
  • Bad spine. A consumer takes .8 seconds to look at your book spine as they walk down the aisles in bookstores, and if they can’t read the font/script/type, they won’t work hard enough to pick it up to see your great title, subtitle, endorsements and back cover copy. Sale denied. (So always make sure you are sent the spine to make sure it’s readable.)
  • Interior type is too small or squished together. I’ve had several great books die because the publisher wanted to save paper so they put it in 9 pt. type.  Even a great cover and big author name can’t save a book from people saying, “My eyes got tired of reading so I didn’t finish it.”
  • Many bad reviews and too few good reviews to counteract them.
  • Retail doesn’t reorder. While a publisher will often get at least one book of yours on the shelf at most stores, they can’t put a gun to a retailer’s head and make them reorder. Complaining that “my book is not on the shelf” is rarely the fault of the publisher. Believe me; they ARE trying to sell books.
  • No e-book marketing/sales strategy.
  • No buzz. The publisher must create some buzz through TV/radio/blog reviews and all the rest. But it’s not only their job. The author must (MUST) be about the business of creating their own buzz, as well, which is why there are advantages to a bigger agency like WordServe that has a Facebook Fan page, Pinterest page, WaterCooler, and Twitter accounts. We’re doing what we can to help create a little synergistic buzz. Of the 100% of buzz needed/wanted, this is likely 5% of the overall puzzle of how books start getting buzz. (Look for my article next month on “Creating Buzz.”)

I tell my authors that a publisher can sell about 15,000 copies of almost anything if they really want to. (I only wish they really wanted to on every book.) But the book won’t sell more than 15,000 if it doesn’t get word of mouth. Good, bad or mediocre books sell well because groups of people start talking about them and telling their friends and neighbors.  Think about how many times you’ve said, “You’ve got to go see this movie,” or “You’ve got to read this book.” That’s what sells tickets and books the most.

So what causes a book to sell through the roof? (Tongue firmly in cheek…)

“We must personally thank the literary agent. She obviously hand-sold 50,000 copies.”

“I think a bookstore owner in the Southeast region is what helped put it on the list.”

“The author’s Facebook fan page made all the difference…”

You get the picture, individuals outside the creation and sales process likely would only get a very small portion of the credit (or blame).

Bottom line: They heard about it, saw it, bought it, loved it, and then told others.

Do you agree with this conclusion?  Are there other reasons you’ve seen or heard about why books sell or don’t sell (yours or others)?