What a great pleasure it is for me to welcome Steve Mitchell to my blog today. He’s a visionary, mentor, and encourager, and has probably the strongest and deepest understanding of the UK Christian retail market out there. I owe him a deep debt, for without him, my book would never have been published.
So you have a couple decades of experience with retail, and specially Christian bookshops. How did you get into bookselling? What do you love about the business?
I have always loved books. I grew up as one of those kids who used to read under the covers with a torch – books were always going to be an important part of my life. I fell into retailing as a career, and following a conversation about life with a friend of the family whilst on holiday, we ended up opening a Christian bookshop in Kingston-upon-Thames. I spent 15 years in retail and was inextricably drawn into publishing a few years ago.
My passion in life is to help people go deeper. I love it when we learn new things about God, life and ourselves and become better for it, and books are an amazing tool for deep change. Whether it’s teaching, or an amazing novel that pulls you into another world, a turn of phrase that you can’t let go, a piece of poetry that expresses a feeling that we can’t put words to, all of these are found in text. I love the tactile pleasure of the container of all these words…“a book”. Yep, I’m self-confessed book geek.
How does your history and experience inform your publishing?
Having spent so many hours behind the counter in a bookshop, my approach to publishing starts with thinking, “What should I recommend to my next customer? What is her outlook on life, her mind-set, hopes and dreams? What is the story she is telling herself about her life, and what can I offer her in a book that resonates enough with her to lead her to change that mind-set and her life?” So for me it starts with the reader but ends with the writer. Understanding the interplay between the two creates the dynamic of a deeply engaging book. I hope that my publishing is shaped by the knowledge, intuition, stories and lives of the writer and the hopes, dreams and needs of the readers.
When I came to you as a potential author, you could tell that I was muddled in what project I should pursue (having been turned down through my agent by 15 publishers). Tell us about our meeting in Birmingham and how you approached advising me on what would be the best first book for me to write. What sorts of things sparked your thinking and ideas?
Ok, are you prepared to be brave Amy? This is your blog! My initial response to your first autobiographical proposal was that it was interesting but wasn’t going to give readers enough value to stick with it all the way through. I could see immediately that you wrote beautifully, you had some amazing stories, some engaging and original ideas, but also that there wasn’t a strong enough hook. I also warmed to the way that you were very open to input, used your own editorial experience to be objective but held your author passion closely. So that gave me plenty of depth to work with.
I can’t put my finger on exactly what prompted the ideas, but have learnt over time to fall back on my character type which is introverted intuition, in Myers-Briggs typology, INTJ. This means if I give myself enough time and space to reflect on the questions in your writing, I can connect up enough parts to make a better whole.
As you had lots of great chapters, the challenge was to find a structure for the book that was fun and engaging. That creativity continued through each edit, even towards the end when you suggested adding the recipes, which was a fantastic addition for the reader. [Amy adds – actually, that was a recommendation of Michele Guinness.]
So for you, I never had the question of whether or not you could write a book, but finding the book that reflected what God had uniquely shaped you to write. Finding Myself in Britain was that book.
I’m not sure that I did, it may well have been you! The dialogue between an author and publisher should be open, honest and creative, so in our conversations I can’t remember who articulated what but I know it was the creativity of the process that drew out the best we both could offer. The hook of MG meets BB was a line that we could offer to booksellers to help them share the style, genre and heart of the book.
I believe all authors should drill down the concept of their books into a memorable phrase that is sticky and shareable. It also means that as the author writes and re-writes, that they keep the main thrust of the book front of mind. Too many books try to do too much and the connection with the reader is lost.
My advice to writers is to write for a person that you know, and that you think needs to hear what you have to say or will enjoy the subject that you are writing on. If you try to please everyone then you’ll fail and disappoint most readers.
So in the editing process as we talked about your life, stories and your hopes for how you wanted your readers lives to be impacted, it seemed to me that your journey from your beloved homeland into a strange different world offered unique insights into life faith and culture. If we could capture those insights in an interesting and inspiring framework which guided the reader to greater confidence in God rather than where they live and their home culture, then we would have a book that was unique, fun to read, and yet get gave the reader some meaning and value to their life.
As I laid down my first draft, I sent you chapters to read and give feedback on. What surprised you by this process?
I think it was how much of me that I had to put into the process. I had to walk the journey with you, feel what you were feeling, connect with the why as well of the what of the stories.
Then later on, after I’d written my manuscript several times, we had a discussion about spelling and punctuation that resulted me in floods of tears. Did you ever think someone would take these matters so deeply to heart?
I knew you would be passionate about the words, a pain about grammar and language, stubborn about certain sections … yes I’m talking about the chapter on plumbing here. And oh yes … the discussion about spelling and punctuation, which was of course, not about spelling and punctuation at all. You had been so vulnerable about relocating from the US to the UK, and in that moment popped up the thought, “Hey what if this move is permanent? So how do I hang onto part of my old life … I know, words. Right, Mr Publisher, I want American spellings!”
At that point in the writing you allowed yourself to think and react to the deepest of questions. The spellings were just the outward reflection of this. This was you going first on the journey that you were taking your readers through. To your great credit, you allowed yourself as an author and person to take the harder route.
You’re brilliant at advising and envisioning authors/content creators. In closing, what advice do you have for them in an age where discoverability is such a challenge?
Well, thank you. With all my Britishness it doesn’t feel like that. I’m just muddling through.
For our writer friends, the world of writing is more open, exciting, scary and challenging than ever before. It is so easy to put your writing out into the world, but so difficult for those words to be found or to stand out. Writers, I believe, need to think first about their readers, and to consider the impact that they want their words to have. Then they need to structure their writing and profile to their audience. Ask yourself, what value will my book add to my reader? Why should they choose to invest their time in my words?
Be clear about the response you want from your book. Think deeply about your ideas and concept – make them as original and unique as you can. Improve your skill and craft as a writer, read lots of good literature, take your time to write the best that you can.
Get objective outside help: Send your writing to ten friends, and if they then pass it on to ten of their friends then you know that you’ve got something. If they don’t, then go back and work harder at it.
Be realistic about your reach. If you want your writing to go further than friends and family, then you need to build a platform for you and your message. If you want to be a voice of influence then you have to show up thoughtfully, respectfully, engagingly and, I strongly believe, consistently in their lives. Only then will you be given the permission by readers to allow your words into their life.
Above all, keep writing. The world will be a better place with great books and there is no reason why that can’t be your writing. Keep writing, growing personally and developing your craft – and even if it doesn’t result a large number of readers, you’ll still have added value to the world and helped some people.
Steve Mitchell is a lover of books and music, preferably served with great coffee. He is on a mission to help people live a deep and fulfilled life. To that end, he publishes books for IVP and loves coaching and mentoring. To relax he’ll pick up his beloved bass and jam along to some blues. He’s a Londoner living in Cumbria with no plans to return. The older he gets the more he enjoys learning, and having completed a Master’s degree, he is now working on persuading his family to let him to a PhD.
To read other posts in the Behind the Publishing Scenes series, click here.
To buy the fruit of our labo(u)rs, Finding Myself in Britain, you can find it at Christian bookshops, from me, or online at Eden or Amazon. If you’ve read it, please I beg you, write a review online. Word of mouth matters. Thank you!
What strikes you about the vision process in producing a book?