Steve Laube, a veteran literary agent in the Christian publishing world, has helped hundreds of authors bring their work to life over the course of his 40-year career.
It was a late Thursday evening. Several Azusa Pacific students, faculty members and employees gathered in an assembly of rectangular boxes on Zoom to listen to Steve Laube, a veteran literary agent in the Christian publishing world, reveal the secret of what makes a good book proposal.
But Laube offered no answer.
Instead, he told his Zoom audience all the things they shouldn’t do if they are ever brave enough to submit their own book proposal. The response to this was disheartening at best, as was the news that the odds of a book proposal getting accepted are less than half of one percent. “That’s right, 99.5% of what I see gets rejected,” Laube said.
The Zoom room was silent.
Nonetheless, writers continue to send the Laube’s of this world their proposals at alarming rates. Laube himself said he receives anywhere between 30-50 unsolicited book proposals a week. He has developed a screening system with his assistant, who leaves notes on manuscripts that she can tell will spark his interest in order to speed up the process. But this does not make the process itself any easier.
“When you are saying ‘no thanks’ to an average of 10 well-meaning people every day of the week, it can make you numb to it,” Laube said. “It is a necessity of the business of course, but it isn’t fun. My wife knows when I come home if I’ve spent most of the day doing rejection letters. She says I look drawn. And I suppose I am.”
Laube chuckled during the Zoom meeting as he confessed that he is known in the publishing industry as the “dream crusher.” But as hard as it can be from time to time to be the bearer of bad news, Laube takes extreme pride in the books that he has helped hundreds of authors bring to life over the course of his 40-year career.
“I do keep records, and the books our agency has represented have sold over 30 million copies over the years. Imagine that … If only 10% of that number changed a life, that is over three million people who are living a deeper life in Christ because of the work we have done. That is humbling,” Laube said.
Since he was a child, Laube has been a voracious reader. In junior high, he had a required reading class where each student had to read ten books during the quarter. He read over 100. But as a kid, he never thought of publishing as a profession. Instead, he dreamt of becoming an archaeologist or an NBA player.
That all changed for Laube when he decided to take a year off college between his sophomore and junior year as part of a touring singing group. While in Fresno, Calif., he and his friends stopped at a Christian bookstore where Laube stumbled up a copy of Knowing God by J. I. Packer.
“The book put my world right side up,” Laube said. “I began devouring books on the Christian life to the point that half of my travel bags were books.”
This prompted him to switch to a Bible major once he returned to college at Grand Canyon University. Then, in the last semester of his senior year, Laube was offered a part-time shelf dusting job at a Christian bookstore located right off campus. He claims that the bookselling bug bit him right there and then, which jump-started his meandering journey to become an editor and then a literary agent.
Since 1998, Laube has worked in many areas of the publishing industry: from shelf duster to store manager to becoming an editorial director of adult nonfiction for Bethany House, a division of one of the industry’s largest independent Christian book publishers. The transition from being a bookstore manager to an editor was stark, Laube recalled in the Zoom meeting. But what made him the right man for the job was the intimate way in which he learned about books and how to sell them in that bookstore he first started working in. The funny part is that technically, he never applied or pursued a single job that he has had.
“The bookstore job happened when the cashier asked me if I was looking for a part-time job. Bethany House reached out to me asking if I’d be interested in being an editor,” Laube recalls.
Later on, the agenting business would prove to be another turning point in his career that he never anticipated.
Joseph Bentz, a professor of American literature and writing in APU’s department of English, first met Laube in 1995 at a writing conference. At the time, Bentz was a freshly minted book author who had just published his first novel, Song of Fire.
“He had read my novel and said he liked it,” Bentz said. “Since then, we stayed connected.”
At the time, Laube was in his third year at Bethany House, working on expanding the network of connections that would eventually enable him to branch out and form his own literary agency in 2004. It was around that time that Laube signed Bentz as a client. “He has been my agent ever since,” Bentz said.
Since then, Laube has helped the author and professor publish numerous creative works by handling contract negotiations and taking care of the less romantic aspects of the publishing process for him.
“He’s good at that part of the business,” Bentz admits. “He’s also very honest. If he doesn’t like something, he doesn’t try to tiptoe around it.”
Laube has shot down several of Bentz’ book ideas over the years. However, it is Laube’s ability to say “no” and his profound knowledge of what “sells” in the industry that have earned him his good reputation. “He’s known as having complete integrity and people trust him,” Bentz said.
In an industry that relies on personal networking and communication, those qualities are key.
“You have no idea how many virus-related book proposals I have received in the last eight months,” Laube told his audience of aspiring writers over Zoom. The problem with trends, however, is that “they come and go like rain in the desert. When it is here it is heavy and cannot be ignored. But soon it passes,” Laube said.
Take Twilight, for example. Stephanie Meyer’s best-selling novel opened the floodgates for vampires and the supernatural to enter the young adult scene in 2005. But the trend died down shortly after. In 2020, numerous books on racial injustice appeared on the bestseller list shortly after the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum. Prior to that, Laube said those books “had languished in the dusty sections of stores for years.”
For publishers, the difficulty lies in predicting the trends that will dictate the industry in the near foreseeable future. In some ways it is a guessing game, as the books that publishers are acquiring today will not appear on the market at least until 2023. Since demand on COVID-19 related books will subside post factum, very few of those proposals will eventually see the light of day.
Thus, a lot of it comes down to going with your gut, which was what Laube did when he decided to buy Marcher Lord Press in 2014 and rebrand it to Enclave Publishing. Since then, he has been able to establish it as a premier publishing house of Christian speculative fiction in the industry.
Chloe Kasper, a graduate English student at APU, found Laube’s warnings of how competitive the publishing industry is to be helpful. As a young writer that is set on publishing her own poetry anthology one day, she said his words made her feel more equipped for the rejection and failure that any writer is bound to encounter at some point in their career.
This is why, Bentz said, he invited Laube as a guest speaker to the university in the first place. Not to discourage his very own students or to crush their dreams, but on the contrary—to show them how heavily invested people like Laube are in the success of the authors they represent.
“The opportunity for an author to have the words they’ve been called to write to go into the world and touch a reader’s soul,” Laube said, “is a victory for the Kingdom.”
To Laube, that’s what matters.