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Should “Profit” Be the Bottom Line for Christian Publishers?

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?

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{ 45 comments… add one }
  • Kevin Lucia July 26, 2010, 1:18 PM

    “the specifics of the horror genre?”

    W00-boy. This is like defining “Christian Fiction”.

    So, let’s look at the broad applications. A “horror story” regales a tale that “horrifies”. That right there is very, very broad itself, because different things horrify different folks, and not only that – we’re horrified by different things at different points of our lives. As a kid and young writer, I’d “horror” meant all the tired tropes and surface elements: monsters, gore, slashers, demons, satanists….ect.

    I’m a dad now. A husband. A teacher. Imagine how those fears have seasoned and matured, gained depth and substance. I’m afraid of very, very different things now.

    Some folks are horrified emotionally. Others physically. Socially. Hey, religiously. And yes, adrenaline junkies who want that “safe, vicarious” rush from spooks and scares. And, to be honest, the slasher films of the 70’s and 80’s didn’t do horror fiction any favors, because it stereotyped and narrowed the public’s definition of the genre.

    BUT, horror can be very, very diversified:

    “quiet horror” – stories that rely on tension, suspense, stress, emotional connection with characters, real life fears and atmosphere to tell its tale.
    Supernatural horror can be this, Lovecraftian horror can also be this.

    “splatter punk” – this, unfortunately is what everyone thinks ALL horror is, a blood bath, violation of the body, physical torment. A lot of it’s still well written, and the good splatter punk tales still have strong characters. But let’s be honest, it’s called “splatter punk” for a reason.

    “monster horror” – good old fashioned vamps, zombies, mad scientist experiments, things from other dimensions, and these could slant either way, either told as “quiet horror” or as “splatter punk”.

    “supernatural horror” – ghosts, spirits, demons, angels, hauntings, possession, spiritual warfare – and same as above. Could be told quietly or “loudly” with blood and guts.

    “social horror” – harder to pin down, but stories that specifically tackle an agenda regarding current day social ills or controversies. Again – could be told either way.

    How does this look for me as a Christian writing it? I’d say no different than a Christian who wants to write action/adventure, science fiction, fantasy, or drama. Thanks to those slasher movies, I think Christians – like a lot of folks – incorrectly see all horror stories as having to be about mutilation and Satan worshiping.

    Sure, because lots of horror deals with supernatural elements, more Christians can get upset about it because they want to say: “Oh, there’s no such thing as good ghosts or ghosts and that’s sinful” yadda yadda. However, I’m sure the Christian wanting to write action/adventure faces the same questions about their body count. Ask Rob Liparulo.

    For me, it’s always the story and conflict first. Horror, to me: what am I afraid of? What are we as humanity afraid of? As Christians? As parents, spouses, children? Pastors? What do we fear? AND…to me, the value of horror is in the way we face those fears. How we react. Do we stand? Fall? Stumble at first, then join the fight? This says a lot about our character, how we face adversity, and our faith.

    Plus, horror – in my opinion – has the most entertaining landscape to take the classic battle of “good versus evil” and make it real and corporeal. It also depends on what type of writer a person is. I believe fiction works best in subtitles and thematic elements. Symbolism. Metaphor. Imagery. I have no desire to check the Bible to make sure there’s a verse to back up my plot – though I’m careful of what sensations I INSPIRE in my readers. Do I want to inspire fear, sadness, grief, anger, humor, dread, humor, hope and love? Absolutely. Do I want to inspire cruelty, sensuality, and hopelessness? Absolutely not.

    Something HAS changed in horror that affects all writers and speaks more of our age than the genre itself. I’ve read up on a lot classic horror novels in the last few years, because for a long time I was like a lot of people: horror for me meant, King, Koontz and Straub, that’s it. In a lot of the horror novels in the 70’s and 80’s, it was at least expected SOMEONE would survive, the monster would get beaten, and “good” would triumph. Like in “The Hero’s Journey”, the protagonist would experience their moment, and even though flawed – they would prevail against the darkness.

    However, we’re living in a post-modern (or post-post modern) age. The hero has gone away. Good and evil has become subjective. In many cases, horror fleshes itself out like “Hostel” and “Saw” – there are no good guys, everyone is doomed to die or be mutilated. It used to be classic literature of all kinds: the protagonist strives to succeed, and if the ending isn’t happy, at least there’s resolution. I’ve noticed a lot of “horror movies” that got panned by the critics, so I never went and saw them in the theater, then rented and loved them. Why’d they get dumped on? I believe because they delivered catharsis and resolution like a story should. So, the challenges facing a Christian writing horror are the same for ANYONE wanting to tell a moral tale today. That’s why Dean Koontz has fallen out of favor with the “horror genre” he started out in (mmm…given his fans I don’t he cares) because he steadfastly refuses to give into this post-modern, no-hero outlook and writes about fiction plays out the classic development of the hero. His “Odd Thomas” series is brilliant, in my opinion, as are his “Christopher Snow” books.

    Okay. I haven’t even look at the rest of your question. Let me post this….

  • Kevin Lucia July 26, 2010, 1:33 PM

    “I was able to see loads of application/symbolism for life in “The Terror.” Is this how Horror can work as a “builder” (for again, lack of a better term), for readers?”

    Yes. As far as I’m concerned, that type of horror – or any fiction, for that matter – is the best kind that attracts the most readers. That is the kind I enjoy reading (regarding Simmons, “Summer of Night” and “A Winter Haunting” are masterful) and the kind I strive to write, that “quiet” horror. I’ve just discovered T. M. Wright and love him, and as far as a moral hero, Repairman Jack rocks, too.

    • Jeff Pauls July 26, 2010, 1:58 PM

      It is as I hoped and wanted it to be. This kind of delving into the psyche/soul– who we are, why we are, what we are, these being subject to change (leading to failure, redemption, and learning and many recombinations and additions thereof.)– are the kind of contemplations that lead us to knowing God, much like the author of Ecclesiastes I might add.

      If only more would dare to contemplate or or would know that they even need to.

      Thanks, Kevin, for the excellent instruction.


  • Kat Heckenbach July 26, 2010, 1:55 PM

    Kevin, great list and descriptions of the various sub-genres.

    Jeff, you said: *(by that I mean a Christian who writes Horror, not a person who writes Horror for Christians)

    To be honest, a lot of horror writers are Christians, they just aren’t writing for the Christian market. When I first started writing horror, I kinda thought, “Oh, my, am I going to have to keep my faith a secret? Will I be considered an outcast?” I didn’t consider myself a horror fan at the time–but it was because I’d (as Kevin pointed out) had my definition of horror narrowed to include very little more than splatterpunk. Or, Stephen King movies–which actually turned me off from his writing before I even gave it a chance.

    I started writing fantasy, but my stories tended to turn dark. I picked up an anthology of Stephen King short stories to see if what I was writing qualified as horror, and was amazed to discover three things:

    1–Yes, it did.
    2–I loved King’s writing.
    3–His stuff was bursting with Christian themes.

    I’ve actually found that my horror is taken more seriously by the secular market than my fantasy, even though my fantasy is generally is light and clean but not “Christian,” while most of my horror has underlying Christian themes. I think horror fans like good old-fashioned writing, too, while other spec-fic markets, the secular markets anyway, just want “something that’s not been done before” regardless of how well it’s handled.

    And, to kind of go back to the different types of horror, I prefer mine to be more psychological–mind games kind of stuff. This might fit into “quiet horror.” (?)

    I agree with Kevin, the slasher movie craze has degraded the genre. Happy little blood baths have taken the place of real tension, and I almost think the people watching that stuff are rooting for the killer–whereas in the other types of horror the good guy winning is what makes all the fear worthwhile.

    Oh, and Jeff–have you found the Lost Genre Guild? If not, it’d be a good place to get into more discussion about this topic. http://blog.lostgenreguild.com/p/lost-genre-guild-membership-information.html

    • Jeff Pauls July 26, 2010, 2:03 PM

      Thanks Kat, I’m afraid I was in the category that thought splatterpunk = all horror. Thrilled to find that it doesn’t.

      I’ll be sure to check out the Lost Genre Guild.

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