Rick Christian is the amazing force behind Alive Communications Literary Agency and Bondfire Books. Christian could attribute his achievements to his persistence and insight into the universe of publishing, but instead he believes it is due to his strong faith. As the President/CEO of both businesses, Christian has earned a much admired high level ranking among his competitors, writers, publishers and everyone who has dealt with him businesswise or in a personal nature. He is a constant thinker, who explores ways to introduce writers to the best of their potential while marketing their work into higher exposure that will translate into sales.
Rick Christian grew up in San Diego. He graduated from Stanford University, where he studied communications and creative writing. He also studied at Caperway Bible School in England and the University of Southern California. He has donned many hats in the publishing world, as an associate editor of Campus Life magazine, an executive editor of The Saturday Evening Post and as an executive in book publishing. Along the way, Christian sharpened his business skills to establish Alive Communications Literary Agency in 1989. Alive represents books which have sold more than 150 million copies, with many of them being # 1 on the NY Times best-sellers lists, and USA Today. It should be mentioned these titles have been optioned for films by Disney, Columbia, Sony and many indie filmmakers.
Alive Communications Literary Agency represents many best-selling authors. It represents The Left Behind series, which has sold over 66 million books with more in 27 languages, Eugene H. Peterson’s The Message, selling more than 15 million books, Karen Kingsbury’s novels, which have sold more than 20 million copies and a whole slew of famous authors. Best-selling author, Todd Burpo of the acclaimed Heaven Is For Real which has been in the # 1 spot for more than 72 weeks and still running, is represented by Alive Communications Literary Agency.
Now Christian has launched Bondfire Books, a sister to Alive Communications Literary Agency, the leading literary agency for Christian and inspirational titles. Bondfire Books is a full publishing company for e-books. Bondfire has begun with the strength of such titles as 40 Days with God, Meditations for Moms, Holy Luck, I Can Only Imagine and many other choices for readers.
Alive Communications Literary Agency and Bondfire Booka are based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Rick Christian graciously accepted to give readers of The Miami Examiner this interview:
RS: First, I would like to thank you for the interview. Heaven is for Real was one of my selections for best non-fiction books of 2011.
RC: Yes, it’s a great little book—particularly for those who have faced or are facing loss because it sparks unbelievable hope. The fact that it’s been the No. 1 New York Times nonfiction bestsellers for well over a year says something about how hungry readers are for solid spiritual answers in difficult times. And you’re right about its honest simplicity. A three-year-old kid can’t “spin” anything.
RS: I would like for you to tell me something about your background.
RC: I’m a Cornhusker by birth, but really grew up in San Diego. My dad worked for a heating and air conditioning company, starting there as the youngest employee and ending up as the oldest. He was extraordinarily loyal to the firm for decades, but when the owner died and his son took over, my dad was forced out at 62. He was naturally devastated because loyalty turned out to be a one-way street, but I did my best to honor him. I gave him a crystal sculpture of a lion’s head and told him, “You’re still king of the jungle to me,” and it’s the only time I remember seeing him cry. That experience made me hope that someday I’d have my own business, which eventually happened.
My mom taught for a while, but quit when my little brother was caught throwing rocks at cars from an overpass. My big sister was goody-two-shoes. I was the sandwiched kid, and ran for president of everything. My campaign slogan was always, “Stick with Rick.” It worked from elementary school to study body president in high school. The Watergate era turned me off to politics and on to journalism, so I pursued that track and creative writing at Stanford University, where I graduated in 1977. I always thought I’d write the great American novel, but a guy’s got to eat so I took a job as a newspaper reporter. While my Stanford friends were raking in big bucks as investment bankers and dam builders after graduation, my first paid job was writing obits for the Turlock Journal.
RS: How about your immediate family?
RC: My wife Debbie and I have a blended family of seven children. We met on a ski lift in Breckenridge during a particularly rough stretch of life. I happened to sit next to her on the 8 ½-minute rides up the mountain, and asked the typical question, where are you from? Most people say Texas, and that’s the end of the conversation. Sorry to all my dear friends in Dallas and Houston, but you guys are taking over our ski slopes! Anyway, she said she was from Orlando so I kept talking. I asked what she did and about her family and she said she was a mom with four kids, that her husband was a sports agent. What do you mean was? I asked. When she said he died in a plane crash, light bulbs went off and I asked if by any chance he was on the plane with golfer Payne Stewart that crashed in 1999. She said yes, that he was the president of the agency that represented him and a number of other PGA golfers and NFL coaches. My eyes were big at that point. You won’t believe this, I said, but I’m a literary agent and one of our collaborators, Ken Abraham, worked with Payne’s widow on the book about his life that was a New York Times bestseller.
In those 8 ½ minutes, we compared notes about our respective losses in life. Mine was like a bloody, gaping wound, while hers was more sudden, having kissed her husband goodbye one ordinary morning and hearing of the crash by lunch. We spent the remaining short minutes on the lift comparing how God had helped us through our respective broken spots.
Several months later, I was in the Orlando area and asked her out for breakfast—in part, just to see what she looked like, because you sure can’t tell when you’re wearing helmets, scarves and twenty pounds of ski clothes. Long story short, I fell in love on the spot . . . flew back the next weekend to tell her . . . and asked who the people were in her life that had to sign off on me before I could marry her. I met privately with each member of what I called her Committee, and she did the same with mine. It was a fascinating and quite daunting process at the time, but our committees signed off and we’ve been married ten years now.
RS: What motivated you into founding Alive Communications Literary Agency?
RC: Over the years I’d written several books of my own, one of which was a devotional for high schoolers called Alive that’s still in print and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It’s part of Tyndale’s One-Year series now. Anyway, I thought my next book deal would be better based on its success, but I got hosed by my publisher in the negotiation. I knew that wouldn’t have happened if I had an agent, somebody to cheerlead on my behalf, but there weren’t any agents I could find in New York who cared about Christian content. So after years of experience as a newspaper reporter, then as a magazine editor at Campus Life and The Saturday Evening Post, then as a book publisher, I got it in my head that I could pool my knowledge of the industry and help other writers, that I could be the agent I’d so desperately wanted for myself.
I did tons of research on book deals and found that advances and royalties for general market books were much higher than in the Christian arena. But I figured a book is a book and a buck is a buck and the relative value of each should essentially be the same. That wasn’t the case, however, and I concluded the disparity was due to Christian authors being unrepresented, and complicated by traditional Christian sensitivities associated with money. In my negotiations for myself, for example, I consistently caved in. I didn’t want publishers thinking I was greedy or that I was interested more in money than ministry, you know? Despite the fact that publishers have rooms full of accountants and attorneys watching out for them, I took it all very personally, felt guilty about everything and rolled over at the hint of pushback. But after five years of working in a publishing house, I saw how little money actually flowed to authors and decided to do something about it. We had three young children and no savings, but we took a huge risk in 1989 when I started the agency in Los Angeles. We took all the equity out of our house and essentially had a year to live. Either the agency idea worked or we’d be back where we were when first got married 15 years before–without two nickels to rub together. In those days, I literally prayed for the phone to ring. Thankfully it did and we had some big fish jump in our boat early on. We moved the operation to Colorado Springs in 1991.
RS: What are two factors you attribute to your agency’s success?
RC: First and foremost, the favor of the Lord. When I launched the business, I decided to start reading the One-Year Bible every day. With everything on the line, I didn’t want to be out of step with God’s purpose for my life, and figured those plans and directions would be found in Scripture, which I think of as God’s owner’s manual for the human race. So I’ve been doing that for almost 25 years now, pleading with God from the outset for wisdom and knowledge, because there was just one of me versus the many publishers who clearly had all the power and weight of tradition on their side. Those early years were my David and Goliath period.
The other key factor? Perseverance, certainly. Early on, publishers did everything possible to shut me down because I was challenging how the financial pie was split. I felt like the deer with the target on its side in the old Gary Larson cartoon. “Bummer of a birth mark, Hal,” his friend says. I’ll never forget my first trade show as an agent. I was asked to breakfast by one of the top publishers, a very large man with hands like stalks of bananas. Midway through the meal, he looked me hard in the eye and started jabbing the table with his banana finger. “I don’t want to see you talking to our authors and I don’t want to hear you’ve called them,” he said. “You keep your hands out of our pants.” I pushed away from the table, stood up, and blurted back that I certainly didn’t want my hands in their pants. I left a ten at my plate and turned on my heels. We’re doing lots of deals together now, but it was tough, tough sledding early on. I hung in there because I believed I was right and because I discovered I was a great negotiator–for others, mind you.
RS: Where would you be today if you had not founded Alive Communications Literary Agency?
RC: I would have likely stayed on the publisher side of the fence, and probably would have launched a boutique publishing house myself. And certainly along the way, long before now, I would have written that novel. I will get to it soon.
RS: What do you believe new writers need to compete in today’s market?
RC: Working for newspapers and magazine certainly helped me hone my craft, because I wrote every day and had really tough, brilliant editors, starting with some grizzled old newspaper editors with food stains on their ties. Philip Yancey was my first editor among others when I turned to magazine writing. Their red ink kept me from getting soft or self-indulgent. I tell prospective authors I meet to first get a job where they are writing every day and, even more importantly, where others are aggressively critiquing their work. In the absence of that, read Hemingway.
Studying great writers is important. Melville or Fitzgerald didn’t attend writing programs; they just read great writers and wrote. As you read, deconstruct the chapters and scenes. What makes them work? Do that enough and you’ll understand the rhythm and beauty and grandeur of words when they flow well and come alive.
Having said that, I have to add that most writing we see falls apart in the cover letter. We receive 5,000-10,000 unsolicited manuscripts a year, and most cover letters are impersonal and impassionate. There has been no attempt to research Alive or connect the dots with other books we’ve done or give us any reason to care about reading further. Think about going on a date for the first time with somebody you really care about. Unless you’re a total dolt, you do your best to look decent. Shoe polish, cologne, maybe a haircut, and nice clothes. You’re essentially putting the best version of you forward so you have half a chance of getting a return call the next day. So I’m speechless when I read the horrible ways wanna-be authors pitch a manuscript that they’ve sometimes spent years on. It’s like showing up in your bathrobe and crossing your fingers that it’ll all work out.
It follows that if the first paragraph of the manuscript is bad, you’re toast. In agent meeting every Tuesday when the agents are presenting new authors or manuscripts, I always stop the meeting and have them read the first paragraph. I can’t tell you how many projects are also dismissed at that point. If I don’t care about the first graf, I’m not going to read the second. If I don’t care about the first chapter, I’m not going to read the second. Most people put a book down after the third chapter and don’t pick it back up. And so your opening three chapters are critical. I need to see how you set the book up and draw readers in. If they’re hooked, they’ll keep going to the end. But you have to give them a reason to care . . . and then build on that, word by precious word.
RS: Do you see a common denominator among the authors represented by your agency?
RC: I’d have to say they all seem to have a clear sense of purpose, of calling, of understanding that they exist for more than just feathering their own nest. That doesn’t mean they don’t waver in their journeys or get depressed or struggle with doubt, whether with themselves and their ability or with God. That’s all part of being human, and most authors yo-yo through these cycles every day ending with y. But aside from that disclaimer, I’d say our clients seem to all believe they’re here on earth to help people, to make our little blue marble a better place. We don’t work with authors who come from dark places and lead people into the shadowlands. We gravitate to the light.
RS: What is the ultimate goal you would like to achieve with Alive Communications Literary Agency?
RC: When I was a kid in San Diego, all the big general trade books were advertised the same way: “Available wherever books are sold!” That wasn’t true of Christian books, which were only available in small stores in parts of town I didn’t frequent. I wanted to do something about that, and I’m glad to see our books on the shelves now in every major outlet, grocery stores, airports and all etailers.
I wanted to see them hit the top bestseller lists and for the authors to be featured in leading magazines. I’m thrilled that our long-time client Karen Kingsbury’s latest novel, Loving, hit #1 on New York Times’ fiction list (4/15/2012), the same week Todd Burpo’s Heaven is For Real was #1 on their nonfiction list for the 60th week running and also was the cover feature that week of Time Magazine.
I wanted to see them adapted into major motion pictures, and I’m glad to see that one of our titles, Same Kind of Different as Me, was just optioned by Disney, that Sony/Columbia is hard at work on the Heaven is for Real film, that Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz is getting raved by everybody from the New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle, and that a couple of Karen Kingsbury’s books are currently in production with leading independent producers.
These have all been goals of mine along the way, but not the ultimate goal. At the end of the day, I don’t measure success by being #1 or having a mountain of books in a store or theaters full of people watching one of our movies. More important is that we can partner in presenting new epiphanies of beauty and grace and truth in an entertaining medium, that get people thinking and talking and asking questions about their life and searching for answers to the ultimate questions like Who am I? And why do I exist? If we in our collaborations with authors and publishers get this right, I go home at night thinking I’ve achieved my goal for that day. Then I get up and do it again.
RS: What are your projects within the next two years?
RC: We’ve got some great fiction and lots of powerful nonfiction in development, plus several exciting movies. We’ll also be expanding our college internship program because it’s important that we invest in the future. But the biggest news is that we’re making a play in the digital publishing space with the launch of a new sister company, Bondfire Books. That’s Bondfire, with a d. We’ve been working on this eBook start-up for two years with some very smart people in Seattle and New York and other international places I can’t pronounce. I’m especially excited that Bondfire Books will pay authors on a partnership model, with a net royalty of 50% instead of the industry standard 25%. Quick third grade math, that’s about double. But why shouldn’t authors make more if there are no real manufacturing or distribution costs? All of our Bondfire titles will be available wherever e-books are sold. We will distribute via all etailers, with product sold just as it is now on Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iBook store, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, etc. I hope what we’re doing will be an industry game-changer.
RS: Do you think the self-publishing movement could be harmful or beneficial to writers?
RC: Both harmful and beneficial, how’s that? It certainly removes the gatekeepers from making qualitative determinations, which also can be viewed as censorship. So in that sense it opens the door to anybody and everybody and everything that can possibly be written and levels the playing field. Nobody can tell you you’re not worthy of publication because you don’t have a platform, a stud agent, or a Facebook following of 250,000. Three quarters of what’s being published now is done outside of traditional channels, and that’s very exciting for those waving the democratization flag.
Now for the disclaimers: There’s been recent buzz of course about authors who have launched solo in the digital world, much as certain authors proclaim that self-publishing is the way to go. For them, it’s as freeing as hang-gliding off the coast of Hawaii! Some fare better than others, but there are always extraordinary circumstances associated with those who aren’t swallowed into oblivion. Ultimately, I believe authors need to decide what they’re best at, because just publishing a book is hardly the point if it’s never read. So what if you keep 100% of the revenue if there is no revenue? My pushback: Are you going to focus on being a great writer and surround yourself with a team of publishing partners, or are you going to now start bothering with production and marketing and sales issues and all the rest? With e-books, there’s the digitizing, design, posting, accounting, traffic enhancement and things like avoiding the piracy threat that looms larger on the internet than off the coast of Somalia or on the South China Sea.
Life is choices, and I wish we all could see ahead five or ten years and how all this plays out, but ultimately I’d encourage writers to choose wisely. That is, choose to spend the time doing what only you can do and delegate the rest, because life is short and it’s all over in a blink, and a very quick blink at that.
RS: Please give us a website for the readers.
RC: On the agency side, we can be found at www.alivecommunications.com. On the e-publishing side, at www.bondfirebooks.com. Bounce around there and then we’d be pleased to hear from you. The best books are those yet to be written, and we’d love to wake up tomorrow to find the next Anna Karenina or East of Eden or How Green Was My Valley in our submissions queue. That’s what keeps us alive!