When Michael Morris began writing a novel four years ago, about a woman's triumph over domestic abuse in a small Alabama town, he was aware of the faith element in the story, though he says he did not intend to write Christian fiction. But the resulting trade paperback original novel, A Place Called Wiregrass, was published in early April by RiverOak Publishing, a year-old division of Eagle Communications International in Tulsa, Okla., that publishes books for evangelical Christian readers. In fact, the novel is one of five RiverOak selected to launch its fiction list this spring. "We're looking for well-plotted fiction with strong Christian characters," said editorial director Jeff Dunn, "irrespective of genre."
RiverOak's strategy, in tandem with marketing director Debbie Justus's focus on mainstream bookstores and media, has been validated by Wiregrass's success. The first printing of 17,500 copies—which included 5,000 copies earmarked for Barnes & Noble's fiction section—was quickly followed with a second of 10,000, said Dunn. Cover blurbs came from such well-known writers as Anne Rivers Siddons, who said, "It is hard to believe A Place Called Wiregrass is a first novel," and Lee Smith, who called it "a real page turner."
Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, N.C., credits a recent turnout of 91 people to hear Morris to Mary Miller, the Raleigh News & Observer's "Writing Home" columnist, who spotlighted the book on April 14. Northern Florida papers covered a signing soon afterward that raised $1,400 for a new domestic abuse shelter in Morris's hometown, Perry, Fla., and reviews in other southern newspapers have been trickling in. Though Morris's tour is hitting 35 cities, from Washington, D.C., to Baton Rouge, La., not a single CBA store event is scheduled.
Dunn attributes the novel's fast take-off to "its appealing cover, Michael's promotional energy and word-of-mouth enthusiasm." Independent booksellers who met the author at SEBA's trade show last fall have made his novel a handselling favorite in the region. A marketing graduate of Auburn University in Alabama, Morris attended the show at the suggestion of SEBA executive Wanda Jewell, whom he met during a business trip for his former employer, the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. "The opportunity to meet so many booksellers whose customers would like my book was too good to pass up, so I convinced RiverOak to take a booth and make up a three-chapter excerpt to hand out," he said.
Morris knows how to get the most out of a meeting. Just as his encounter with Marsha Marks (101 Amazing Things about God) at the 1999 Maui Writers Conference in Hawaii led him to her agent (California's Yates and Yates) and publisher, numerous booksellers he met at SEBA are now hosting him on his tour. One of them, Sonny Brewer of Over the Transom in Fairhope, Ala., will become his local bookseller when Morris and his wife relocate to that picturesque Mobile Bay town after his tour ends in June. With a debut success to his credit and a second novel nearing completion for RiverOak, Michael Morris has decided to become a full-time writer.