Friday Five Interview – Terry Whalin

January 14, 2011

If you’re a writer, editor, book publisher, agent or anyone associated with publishing, it’s likely you know my friend, Terry Whalin.W. Terry Whalin understands both sides of the editorial desk–as an editor and a writer. He worked as an editor for Decision and In Other Words. His magazine articles have appeared in more than 50 publications including Writer’s DigestThe Writer and Christianity Today. He is the creator and webmaster for Right-Writing.com.

Terry has written more than 60 nonfiction books and his latest is Jumpstart Your Publishing Dreams, Insider Secrets to SKYROCKET Your Success. (WTW Press). Another recent book is Running On Ice: The Overcoming Faith of Vonetta Flowers (New Hope Publishers). See more about his writing and purchase books at: www.terrywhalin.com. For more than 12 years Terry was an ECPA Gold Medallion judge in the fiction category. He has written extensively about Christian fiction and reviewed numerous fiction books in publications such as Faithful Reader.com and BookPage. For over five years, Terry was an acquisitions editor in the book divisions of David C. Cook and Howard Books.A former literary agent, Terry is now a publisher at Intermedia Publishing Group. On a regular basis, he writes about the Writing Life. Terry and his wife, Christine, live in Scottsdale, Arizona.

On a personal note, when I have always looked and read Terry’s informative blog for help sharpen my writing skills. And when I got my first book contract, Terry was available to give me some good and personal advice. Today he was kind enough to stop by and chat with me:

1) You’ve lived such a wide and varied career in Christian publishing and ministry. What motivates you to continue to create words that inspire people to connect with Jesus?

First, I appreciate the question about motivation because it is one that I’m rarely asked yet I have a consistent force that drives what I do day in and day out.  In college, I chose Indiana University, one of the top ten journalism schools in the nation for a reason. I loved chasing stories and I believe I was going to be a career newspaper journalist. Like many students, when I said good-bye to my parents, I also left any connection to Christianity even though I was raised in the church.  Among the books in my dorm room, I had a copy of the Living New Testament and when a fellow student, Lucy, spotted it on my shelf, I downplayed the importance of that book. Now I know she was looking for signs that I was a Christian. At that time, I had no relationship.

I lived and breathed writing and storytelling. I captured the story of when my life changed in a magazine article originally published over 20 years ago in 1988 called Two Words That Changed My Life: http://terrylinks.com/twowords If you carefully read this story—and I hope you will. You will learn my faith journey began from a conversation with a fellow student who remains one of my best friends today. We need to be bold about telling others about what motivates our lives—Jesus. Also in this story, notice the role of a Christian bookstore and a book, Jesus the Revolutionary. An old, yellowed copy of this book remains on my office bookshelf.  From firsthand personal experience, I understand the power of the printed word to change lives because the printed page changed my life.

This experience of how the printed page changes lives drives my daily motivation whether writing a blog post or a magazine article or a book or anything else.

2) Some people may not realize this, but you were a missionary at one point in your career. Has that experience impacted your writing?

My journalism colleagues could not understand why I went into linguistics from college but it was a great decision in my view. I spent 17 years with Wycliffe Bible Translators. In particular I worked three years in Guatemala, Central America among the Southwest Cakchiquel people (a Mayan language). National translators completed the New Testament and I was at the dedication in 1990 (another prized book on my shelf).

My years in missions broadened my perspective and vision for the world. It impacts my writing because I’m keenly aware that God is at work in much more than the United States.

I wrote my first book because of my involvement in missions. I started writing for magazines (a course of action I recommend for every writer). During a writers conference I met Cathy Davis, the children’s editor at David C. Cook (Chariot Books at that time). She described her need to me. “Terry, our mission statement says that we encourage children to reach the world for Jesus Christ yet our array of children’s books doesn’t have a single title focused on missions. What types of ideas do you have for me?” This editor knew I had spent years in missions and wanted my ideas. When I heard the question, I breathed a quick prayer then gave her the first idea that came into my head. Now I had some background in children’s books (another key from my perspective). My own children were small and I was reading many children’s books and aware of what was going on in the marketplace (another key). Also I was writing about children’s books and reviewing them in magazines (another key). I knew children have a keen imagination from cartoons so I suggested, “What if we combined real photographs in different occupations with a cartoon character to show children they could be anything and go anywhere in the world for Jesus.” My idea wasn’t original because Steve Lawhead (Stephen Lawhead is his formal name as a novelist) had published a series of children’s books with Lion about Howard that combined real photographs with a cartoon character named Howard. Yet none of the Howard books were focused on missions.

Cathy listened to my pitch and said, “That’s a good idea. Please write it up and send it to me.” A few weeks later, I followed up and sent her my idea (another key). You would be surprised at how many authors I meet at conferences and listen to their idea. I use the same line, “that’s a good idea. Write it up and send it to me.” Yet repeatedly these authors do not follow-through. I followed through and worked back and forth on my manuscript numerous times (another key that many authors aren’t willing to do—rewrite). Ultimately my first book for children from 4 to 7 was published in 1992 called When I Grow Up, I Can Go Anywhere for Jesus (Chariot Books). This book had a good run but is long out of print. It was my start into book publishing and I’ve written more than a dozen children’s books through the years.

Also my role in missions allowed me to write my first co-authored book, One Bright Shining Path, Faith in the Midst of Terrorism by Whalin and Chris Woehr (Crossway Books). At the time, I was the director of Wycliffe’s editorial department or responsible for all of the publications, books and brochures from the organization. When the Shining Path, one of the most brutal terrorist groups in this hemisphere assassinated one of our national translators in Peru, I began using my connections to find a writer. I asked Philip Yancey but he turned me down. I had traveled to Peru as a part of my work with Wycliffe and was familiar with the situation. Instead of finding someone else, I did this project with Chris, who was a bilingual journalist. She did all of the interviews in Peru, translated them into English and I wrote the book. It was my first collaboration experience and since then I’ve collaborated with others on about a dozen other books. The roots of that experience came from my involvement in missions.

3) After many years as both a magazine editor and an acquisitions editor for Christian publishers, now you are a book publisher and a mentor to emerging writers. What is your best single piece of advice to a writer who wants to get published?

The majority of new writers begin in one of the most difficult places to actually succeed—books. Instead of working for weeks on a full-length book, they need to first tackle the shorter forms of writing such as a magazine article. A short magazine article will build credibility with the editors and experience. While they may not be aware of it, many writers want to run before they learn to walk—and it just doesn’t work like that. They need to perfect their craft with a short magazine article, get published and build credibility in the marketplace, and then they can run and publish books. Also through a magazine article, they will reach more people than most of them will ever reach through a book. The Author’s Guild, the largest authors group in the U.S. says that if a book sells 5,000 copies in the life of the book, then that is a good result. Many books sell much less than 5,000 copies. It’s fairly easy to reach 100,000 or 200,000 people through a well-placed magazine article. If you have little or no background in magazine writing, I include the basics at: http://terrylinks.com/basics. It’s a great place to get started.

4) You’ve successfully leveraged the Internet and social media to advance your work. How important is it for an author/speaker/communicator to be active in this way online?

Internet is the great equalizer and if you use it properly, an online presence will help you achieve what you want to do as an author/ speaker/ communicator.  People from all walks of life (including editors and leaders in publishing) spend a lot of time reading websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other places. Every time you write online you need to be aware of the public nature of those words. Whether you know it or not, you are branding yourself in a certain direction. I would rather be deliberate and conscious about it because it will help you in the long run.

Publishers and others in the community are looking for writers to partner with them. As you build your online presence (through a blog, a website, a newsletter, an active role in social media), you become more of a magnet for other opportunities. Your online presence is an important way to build your platform as an author. Here’s a free Ebook that your readers can get from me in this area called Platform Building Ideas for Every Author: http://terrylinks.com/pb.

Also writers can be wise about how they use these tools. Don’t forget about the value of repurposed content. A blog post can become a newsletter article, the basis of a magazine article or a chapter for a book. Also use simple applications to multiply your efforts. For example, your Tweets can also appear on your Facebook page. I spend a limited amount of time in such areas. Another valuable and inexpensive tool for Twitter is Tweet Adder: http://budurl.com/wtwadd Download the demo and check it out. My Twitter followers have grown exponentially since I started using this tool.

Finally always be looking for open doors and exploring new opportunities. Many people continue down their same path then wonder why little happens for them. Yes it is important to be active online but in a controlled and conscious manner.

5) What can you tell us about the future of publishing and the prominence of Ebooks?

Change is a constant element in the publishing community. I am constantly reading trade publications such as Publishers Weekly and others to keep up on these changes. For example, look at these predictions from the founder of Smashwords for 2011: http://bit.ly/smash11 In particular, read his fourth point saying self-publishing goes from an option of last resort to a first option among the unpublished. In the last few years, I’ve helped many authors get published for the first time through my work at Intermedia. If your book is edited right, designed right, distributed right and marketed right, no one cares who published it. I’ve seen many poorly produced self-published books. One of the keys is to get wise guidance throughout the process. Sometimes the smallest mistake can ruin your book. Where you turn for this process is a critical decision for every writer.

In general, I believe the statistics we see about Ebooks are overinflated. My evidence for this inflation is that if Ebooks were such a prominent place in the marketplace, then this position would be reflected in the royalty statements of bestselling authors. From what I understand talking with my literary agent friends, it is not in their earnings statements. Yes, Ebooks are a growing part of the market but books are not in any danger of disappearing. The challenge for every writer is to make their books available in different formats for different devices. If you have an Amazon Kindle, then you will read most of your books in that format. It’s why at Intermedia, we produce our books in many different formats.

Also whether you use Ebooks or not, I believe you should be producing them. I have a number of FREE Ebooks. Also look at the success of Bob Bly selling information product. You can get his free special report at: http://www.askbobbly.com I sell a number of Ebooks online. In particular, your readers may be interested in my Writing for the Christian Market Ebook: http://www.writingchristianmarket.com. These tools are here to stay and I would encourage your readers to ease into this market and be an active part of it.