I have followed with interest a series of cyber discussions about the Christian publishing industry that started yesterday. Spearheaded by novelist Eric Wilson in a post entitled Is It Time for Christian Fiction to Die?, the conversation is honest, provocative, informative, and quite civil.
One of the positive elements of the discourse is that it was initiated by a well-known, oft-published Christian author (Wilson is not a wannabe) and has been engaged by several “industry insiders.” In fact, I caught wind of the discussion through Debbie Marrie, acquisitions editor for Strang, on her Facebook page. The thread is up to 30 comments and includes several Sales staff at Strang.
Among the many topics broached by Eric (and there’s many good ones) is the role of Christian publishers and how much “profit” potentially weighs upon that role. In his initial post, he writes:
The late 1960s and early ’70s saw the rise of young Christian musicians who helped spearhead the Jesus Movement. As the number of listeners grew, a few entrepreneurial sorts saw an opportunity to spread the Word even further; yet with success came the need—initially uncorrupted—to keep “churning out the hits” to keep this baby rollin’. The moneychangers stepped in, the Spirit moved out, and for a long time Christian music became a cloistered, “safe” alternative instead of a vibrant, world-changing entity. I believe the same has happened in today’s Christian fiction.
And on Eric’s Facebook post (currently at 59 comments) he states:
It’s all about marketing and money. Some Christians don’t want to touch a book with the word “dang” in it, and some non-Christians don’t want to touch a book that mentions God in any personal way. Thus, the two are separated to please the market, sell books, and avoid confusion.
Before I proceed with my comments, let me make clear that Eric’s point (as I see it) is not to be accusatory or condemn the Christian publishing industry ad hoc. His main point is NOT whether “profit” should be the bottom-line for Christian publishers (that’s my question). Nor do I sense that Eric is bitter or down on Christians who write exclusively for other Christians.
That said, whenever this issue of the state of Christian publishing and the role of the Christian artist comes up, the issue of “profit-making” is not far behind. Have the “moneychangers” really stepped in? Is the bottom-line for Christian publishing really “all about marketing and money”?
That question is a lot harder to answer than you might think.
Before I signed my recent publishing contract, my agent negotiated with the publisher for the best possible deal. Was this wrong? Should I have simply accepted what the publisher offered? On top of this, my agent wants a cut. In fact, I hired her with the agreement that she could have a cut! So who’s the “money-grubber” in this scenario? The publisher, who thinks (hopes?) my books can sell? Me, for negotiating the best possible deal? Or my agent, for requiring a percentage of my profit?
Or maybe the “Christian” thing to do is to do it all for free.
When I was pastoring, I constantly had to face the “money issue”. The Church is called to share the Gospel and make disciples. Yet, like it or not, this cannot be done without money. Putting on quality programs, outreach events, and maintaining a reasonably nice facility takes money. Even Jesus had an entourage of individuals who supported Him, some financially. Still, whenever a minister or church addresses the “money issue,” they set themselves up for charges of greed, materialism, or empire-building. It’s really a no-win situation.
The same is true for Christian authors, agents, and publishers. We are in a business. However, our business is unique to all other businesses. Why? Because of that sticky adjective — “Christian”.
The moment a business proclaims itself as “Christian,” they, perhaps by inference, make the “bottom line” something other than “profit.” This isn’t to say Christian businesses should not make a profit. For just like a church, their “ministry” cannot continue without income. In fact, Christian businesses that DO NOT make money are probably not the best witness. Of course, not all Christian businesses will thrive. That’s a fact of life and business, and has nothing to do with one’s spirituality. However, if “getting the message” out is our bottom-line, then making a profit should not be the driving force behind our business.
But if we don’t make a profit, our business — which is to get our message out there — cannot survive.
Anyway, it’s an incredibly complex issue. Do the “moneychangers” really control the Christian publishing industry? Is the bottom-line for Christian publishing really “all about marketing and money”? But if we don’t make a profit, how can Christians ever hope to get their message out? And how can we make that profit without being market savvy?