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Interview w/ Agent Rachelle Gardner on Spec-fic in the CBA

In her post Book Genres and Blog Stats, literary agent Rachelle Gardner summarized the findings from a recent poll of her blog readers. Surprisingly, the largest percentage of her readers were writing fantasy and sci-fi. Why is this surprising? For one, Rachelle represents neither of these genres. Secondly, the CBA (Christian Bookseller’s Association) publishes very few speculative fiction titles. The findings at Rachelle’s site led to an interesting conversation (see her comments thread), and possibly further proof of an industry that doesn’t know what to do with this genre. There’s much talk about Christian speculative fiction, the lack thereof, and the reason for this. Anyway, the conversation at Rachelle’s blog re-opened questions about this subject. Even though speculative fiction is NOT her specialty, Rachelle Gardner kindly agreed to answer several of my questions about spec-fic in the CBA.

* * *

Mike: Thanks for doing this interview, Rachelle! When some of my friends first learned that you were representing me, they were surprised. “I thought Rachelle didn’t do speculative fiction?” they said. According to your website guidelines, you represent “supernatural” but not “fantasy or sci-fi.” Can you be more specific, Rachelle? What kinds of “supernatural” or “speculative fiction” titles would you be willing to consider?

RACHELLE: Okay, here’s how it really works. I do not take fantasy or sci-fi unsolicited, but I do look at it—if it interests me—when it comes from a referral.  It’s very difficult to sell Christian fantasy or sci-fi and even supernatural, so I’m probably only going to have one or two clients writing in that genre. If I were to open my queries to the speculative genres, my total incoming submissions would probably double (at least). Yes, half the projects in my inbox would be speculative. I can’t be looking at hundreds of speculative manuscripts when I’m unlikely to sign more than one per year (if that). So I’m better off waiting for a personal referral.

As far as how I delineate the genres… and as you know, there can be overlap and blurry lines. In general, sci-fi is usually futuristic. Fantasy involves characters and worlds that do not exist. Supernatural is usually more realistic and involves people of this world being impacted by the unseen world of spirits, angels, demons, or ghosts. (Please don’t hold me to this—it’s an abbreviated definition.)

MIKE: So from your perspective, what’s the status of speculative fiction (I use the term broadly: urban fantasy, horror, supernatural, magic realism, etc.) specifically in the CBA? Are Christian publishers looking to expand spec titles, is interest waning or waxing, and what does the market for “Christian Spec” look like?

RACHELLE: Well first, as Wendy Lawton pointed out in her post “Publishing is a Fashion Industry,” things are always changing. But at the moment, my sense is that the prognosis for CBA speculative fiction isn’t improving. CBA publishers are seeing what flies off the shelves in big numbers, and it isn’t speculative fiction. We could have a long conversation about why this is; suffice to say it’s a complex interplay of factors.

The big CBA publishers each have their established author(s) in this genre, and none are very open to newer authors of spec fiction. Recently I asked fiction editors at all the major houses what they’re looking for, and none used words like fantasy, sci-fi or supernatural. The one big house that has traditionally done more spec than anyone, Charisma House (Strang/Realms), has stopped acquiring it until further notice.

MIKE: One of my most popular recent posts is entitled, “Why Supernatural Fiction is Under-represented in Christian Bookstores.” There’s many opinions about why this is. But how would you answer that question: Why is supernatural fiction under-represented in Christian bookstores?

RACHELLE: Mike, I would first ask you, “Under-represented according to whom? And who defines what under-represented even means? By what criteria?” The truth is, Christian bookstores (like any business) try to stock their shelves with what sells the best. So I imagine bookstore owners wouldn’t say supernatural fiction is under-represented—they’d say they stock some to have it available for  the few people that come looking for it, but if they stocked more it would sit on their shelves unsold, and eventually be returned. They’d be able to give you numbers to back it up. In other words, they try to match their stock to the demand of their customers.

It’s a bit of a vicious cycle. Readers of spec fiction are less likely to enter a Christian bookstore in the first place. So bookstores don’t stock it. But since bookstores don’t carry it, those readers are even less likely to shop at a Christian bookstore.

MIKE: But why are speculative titles — books, TV programs, films — so prolific in pop culture and so sparse in Christian houses? Every year, some of the best-selling books and films contain speculative themes, whether it’s time travel, space aliens, vampires, ghosts, wizards, or elves? Obviously, Christians are part of this consumer culture. So why don’t Christian publishers capitalize on this trend?

RACHELLE: For a long time, Christian fiction had a narrow definition and it was difficult to justify how a story involving fantasy, time travel, vampires or similar other-worldly elements could actually be “Christian.” Many publishers are still trying to figure it out. At the same time, most of the publishers have dipped their toe in the waters of spec fiction in some way, and haven’t been successful at it (whether due to marketing, or their lack of ability to find their audience, or the quality of the books… probably a combination). But when they take a risk and it doesn’t pay off, they usually pull back and focus once again on books that aren’t so risky. The questions about viability in the CBA world, combined with difficulty selling it, makes it unlikely that the situation in CBA is going to change.

MIKE: Well, what about the Harry Potter phenomenon? It would seem like a perfect opportunity for Christian publishers to capitalize and seek stories for 20- and 30- something adults that would match the epic scope of the Potter books they loved as teens. Perhaps YA could be ground zero for a new CBA Spec uprising, huh?

RACHELLE: It’s not as easy as it sounds. CBA publishers, throughout history, haven’t been strong in the YA market, and until the last decade, YA in general wasn’t nearly as big a deal as it is now. Once Harry Potter hit, all publishers were asking themselves if and how they should capitalize on this “new” market. But to break into a new market, they have to give the new genre or line of books enough time to hit critical mass. The general school of thought is that it takes 3-5 years for a YA author to hit that place where the books become self-perpetuating. Which, obviously, means a loss until that point.

In the last five to eight years, publishers frankly haven’t been in a position to take 3 to 5 years of loss in the hopes that a YA author will break out. The ones that have jumped into the market have done so hoping the timeline would be shorter, and when it wasn’t, finances dictated they had to bail.

On top of that is the challenge of figuring out who to market YA books to. The reader is often different from the buyer (readers are kids, buyers are parents/grandparents). How do you market to both? You can’t really compare CBA young adult fiction to Harry Potter, which was published by Scholastic—a company that has decades of expertise and an insane reach into the lives of  kids, teachers, and parents.

* * *

Interesting stuff, Rachelle! Plenty to think about. Thanks so much for taking the time to visit with us. Any thoughts from you spec-fic readers and writers out there?

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{ 70 comments… add one }
  • Kat Heckenbach April 28, 2011, 6:33 AM

    I have thought about this a lot lately, after reading Rachelle’s post the other day, and a couple of posts you have put up, Mike. I honestly think there are a ton of fantasy/sci-fi *readers* who are Christian. But the reason fantasy/sci-fi doesn’t sell well in the Christian market is that readers of those genres tend to not like overtness. There are probably gobs of allegorical books sitting on the shelves of the spec-fic sections of secular bookstores. The Harry Potter series–since you brought those books up–is full of Christian symbolism and allegory.

    I know I personally would rather read a book that focused the story with the Christian elements subtle, or even purely symbolic. But when you bury the Christianity in a novel, the CBA doesn’t want it. I was told by an agent at a conference that my book wouldn’t fly in the CBA because it wasn’t overt, because to qualify as a “Christian” book it had to show the MC growing in her Christian faith. Well, my book is all symbolic, and I don’t mention Christianity, much less that of the MC, outright.

    And honestly, as spec-fic writers we may be narrowing our audience by labeling our books as “Christian”–IF the Christian elements are purely symbolic–because generally only Christians will read Christian books, but both Christians and non-Christians read secular, especially in the spec-fic genres.

    • Mike Duran April 28, 2011, 7:22 AM

      Kat, I really agree with this. “…the reason fantasy / sci-fi doesn’t sell well in the Christian market is that readers of those genres tend to not like overtness.” I know this is one reason I wrestle with the genre.

      • Kat Heckenbach April 28, 2011, 7:52 AM

        Thanks, Mike. Not sure why it took so long for me to quantify this in my head, but it finally hit me the other day. The discrepancy between the stats was really bugging me. I was thinking about how many Christians I know who love fantasy, and it just doesn’t jibe with the “fact” that fantasy doesn’t sell in the CBA. Then it dawned on me–maybe Christians aren’t “forced” into the secular section due to lack of Christian spec-fic, but rather are there by choice. Many complain that it is lack of “good” Christian spec-fic writing, but I think that boils down to spec-fic readers and writers considering anything overt as “bad writing.”

        • Rachelle April 28, 2011, 12:38 PM

          Kat, I think you make a great point. In many cases (Mike’s books excluded!), spec fiction that is overtly Christian enough for a CBA house would be rejected by the typical spec-fiction reader. Perhaps by trying to fit spec-fiction into CBA, we’re trying to force a square peg into a round hole? I agree that there are subtle and more nuanced “Christian” messages woven throughout many books in the general market.

          • Kat Heckenbach April 28, 2011, 12:47 PM

            Thanks, Rachelle. I agree–square peg, round hole. To me it makes more sense to just drill a different hole someplace else. I think there is room for Christian spec-fic…in its own niche.

        • Kevin Lucia April 29, 2011, 5:52 AM

          Then it dawned on me–maybe Christians aren’t “forced” into the secular section due to lack of Christian spec-fic, but rather are there by choice.

          Really, for what little it matters, that’s always been the bottom line for me. I read my Bible every day – and I’d like to think I do introspectively, really trying to live it. I attend Church on Sunday, am concerned with my children’s spiritual development and for my wife and I’s spiritual relationship, did the “three days a week” thing my whole childhood, attended Bible College and study theology and Christian Counseling, have solid Christian friends and family. I try to read a few nonfiction, Christian devotional titles a year.

          But when I read a novel – a work of fiction – I actually DON’T want to read something “Christian”. At all. Selfish, maybe. But I simply can’t do it. Only occasionally, and very few authors, Mike of which is one (again, not that my pickiness really means anything).

          • Kat Heckenbach April 29, 2011, 6:21 AM

            Kevin, just to explain–I think it took a while to sink in for me that we’re avoiding Christian fiction by choice because the idea of “Christian” fiction is quite new to me. I started writing about three and a half years ago, and a few months in is when I discovered Christian fiction existed. Seriously, I had no idea that it existed before that. Narnia, sure, but that’s symbolic/allegoric. Outside of that, I thought the Christian books stores ONLY had Bibles and nonfiction–I’d been in them so rarely, and never even bothered with the Christian section of Barnes and Noble.

            Once I started writing, I discovered there were others out there who really put their faith into their writing. But I thought it was like me–more subtle. Since then I’ve seen this battle for “better” Christian fiction, and it gave me the impression that Christians want Christian fiction of a certain type but it simply hadn’t existed before.

            Recently, though, I’m seeing why it hasn’t existed. In some ways, I wonder if it’s even meant to.

            I haven’t read Mike’s book, although I really want to (impatiently waiting for it to be available on Nook), and I know there ARE some good spec-fic books out there with Christian themes–I’ve found several that I like. However, I don’t seem to be liking the same ones the “masses” like. That’s telling me that some of the spec-fic out there that is being accepted by the general Christian population isn’t the kind of thing a hard-core spec-fic lover likes. Forgive the analogy, but it’s sort of like the people who fell in love with Twilight now trying to claim that they’re vampire book lovers. No, Twilight is a romance with some paranormal elements, and that’s a whole different ball game. I think a lot of “Christian” spec-fic is really mainstream Christian writing set in a different world.

  • Carradee April 28, 2011, 6:35 AM

    I still remember the day I discovered my favorite Christian sf author, Kathy Tyers. I was in one of those discount Christian bookstores, and I spotted the cover of Bethany House’s version of Firebird (the first book, not the omnibus). My thoughts: “…That looks like sf. What’s it doing in a Christian bookstore?”

    Bought it, read it, loved it, bought the rest, bought copies of what out-of-print books I could directly from the author—I have them signed—bought the original versions and the revised ones of every non-Star Wars book Kathy Tyers has. I’m now eyeing up the annotated omnibus and deciding if I want it in print or e-book form.

    I still don’t expect to find speculative fiction when I walk into a Christian bookstore. If I find it, I’m inclined to buy it, but I’ve outside of Kathy Tyers, I’ve always been disappointed. I can think of one other author who was okay, but even that had certain pseudoscience implications that made me wince.

    But then, I think I do have a bit more science education than your average writer. That probably influences how I evaluate my sf.

    • Carradee April 28, 2011, 6:39 AM

      Oh, and to be fair: I haven’t read all that much Christian sf, because I’ve been burned enough by Christian fiction to be leery of it in general. I’m sure other fantastic Christian sf authors exist. I just haven’t found them yet.

      I really need to read Mike Duran’s book. From this blog, I suspect I’d enjoy him.

    • Rebecca LuElla Miller April 29, 2011, 5:44 PM

      Caradee, you might be interested — Kathy Tyers is the guest blogger at Spec Faith today. Also, Austin Boyd wrote a good science fiction trilogy — with overt Christianity because one of the astronauts on the manned Mars spacecraft was a Christian. Sad story why it didn’t get noticed much. But I believe he’s under contract with a different publisher now, so you might watch for him.

      Becky

  • Jay April 28, 2011, 6:59 AM

    I mentioned this to you before, Mike, but this whole gradation between “reading ages” severely bugs me. I’m not experienced enough with the publishing industry to accept it yet.

    • Katherine Coble April 28, 2011, 8:30 AM

      What I’ve found about the concept of “reading ages” is that is generally a false-construct which is misapplied by marketers.

      The only place that I’ve seen “reading ages” actually serve a function beyond that of dividing up store shelving is in the developmental categories, where parents sometimes ease their children into reading.

      As a person who read her first “chapter book” at four and at forty reads anything from children’s books to academic texts depending on her mood, I think the age thing is really moot once “chapter books” are introduced.

      Funnily, the push to focus on YA came about largely due to the success of Harry Potter. While the first two titles in that series are suited to YA, the subsequent books are not. Rowling is earnest in writing them to Harry’s point of view, changing that pov subtly as he ages one year from book to book. The latter three books deal with such traditionally adult themes as death, romantic love vs. committed love, alienation, racism, politics, classism, drug addiction, etc.

      In other words, everyone wants to mimic the success of YA books…that are not actually YA books.

      • Rachel April 28, 2011, 8:42 AM

        Technically this isn’t true. YA is a very broad term for a many-aged category (generally it’s applied to the teen market within writer circles). The first HP books were considered what’s called, middle grade (10-13), and as Harry grew his target audience changed (of course, the genius was his audience was growing up along with him). But all the HP books are still with in the larger YA market.

        Reading ages is just a guide. I appreciate it as a writer of YA, though. It’s important to be able to communicate who your target audience is within the market.

        • Katherine Coble April 28, 2011, 8:56 AM

          Fair point. I admit that my Potter expertise is as in the realm of adult literary analysis so I tend to separate the latter books out in my papers on the topic. But I can see how from a marketing perspective you’re right on target.

    • Rachelle April 28, 2011, 12:44 PM

      The concept of “reading ages” is all about marketing and figuring out who to target the book towards. You can’t put a book out there without a target audience, i.e. “This book is for everybody.” Maybe you’ve noticed that even the Bible is not marketed that way — we have dozens of translations available, and within those, many more “angles” such as men’s Bibles, teen girl Bibles, etc. A book needs a target audience in order for any kind of successful marketing and sales campaign to take place.

      While many popular books are read across numerous age ranges, most are marketed towards a specific age range; but nobody is under the delusion that “only” people of that age group will read that book. In fact, we always hope it will cross over into other demographics.

      • Rebecca LuElla Miller April 29, 2011, 5:48 PM

        Interesting that WaterBrook has labeled Donita Paul’s fantasies fore all ages. When I first started seeing them shelved in both YA and adult sections, I thought it wouldn’t work. Apparently I was wrong.

        Becky

  • Bryan Thomas Schmidt April 28, 2011, 7:15 AM

    I think Kat’s onto something because I buy very few CBA books because of the overtness and often silly way things get oversimplified. Characters become cardboard perfect Christians without real sin or real problems and that’s just not the world I live in and definitely not a world I want to escape to. Along the same lines, I stopped trying to get a CBA agent or sell books to CBA market because my books don’t meet that standard. I want realistic bad and good guys with imperfections and foibles, sin, etc. And I don’t need each book to show perfect Christians or that Christianity is the best way or that conversion is the answer to all problems. I prefer more complicated stories. I do think there are a lot of Christian spec fic fans out there and I do think the CBA reaches a built in audience of believers. I want to reach out beyond that because I believe my stories, while often having Christian characters at their center, are more universal. Still, I find the CBA’s attitude frustrating and limiting, yet I also am aware who their core readers are and they are not mine.

    • Kat Heckenbach April 28, 2011, 7:54 AM

      That last statement hits home with me, Bryan. “I find the CBA’s attitude frustrating and limiting, yet I also am aware who their core readers are and they are not mine.” So true. I think too many spec-fic writers complain about the lack of spec-fic in the Christian market while forgetting who the demographic is–mostly people who don’t read spec-fic, whether it’s Christian or not. Why fight to be in a club where no one shares your interests?

    • Rachelle April 28, 2011, 12:50 PM

      That’s an important insight, Bryan. If a certain audience probably isn’t going to be the best audience for YOUR book, then there’s no reason to try and fight to get your book in front of that audience.

      There’s a tension, however, because many writers walk the line between wanting to be “real” (in a way that you perceive most CBA books are not) yet you also want to be able to write freely about your faith. Unfortunately, you might not be able to have it both ways. While the CBA sometimes wants to soften portrayals of realistic sin and humanness, the ABA usually wants to squelch overt expressions of Christian faith. Take your pick.

      • Jessica Thomas April 28, 2011, 6:17 PM

        “Unfortunately, you might not be able to have it both ways. While the CBA sometimes wants to soften portrayals of realistic sin and humanness, the ABA usually wants to squelch overt expressions of Christian faith. Take your pick.”

        I’ve been trying, but unfortunately I don’t think I can pick. The Christian theme/Christian message is a part of who I am. On the other hand, I’m also a realist, with a B.S. in English who is a bit of a literary snob.

        When I write, all of the above tends to come out. It’s no fun trying to pretend any different. If I have to scrub my work of all things Christian or all things literary (or weird, or scifi), I’d rather not write. I may as well keep my day job and talk to computers all day because I’d enjoy it more.

        So, who knows. Perhaps I’m destined to remain stuck in this void, and if/when I do publish, to see only small or modest sales. *sigh* BUT. I just KNOW there are other people out there like me, who sadly spend probably three quarters or more of their waking hours sitting in front of a computer screen. They’re also Christian goofballs, who appreciate good literature with a surreal twist. Those are the people I need to find. (And since we’re loners, who prefer to live vicariously through our computers, normal marketing rules may not apply.)

  • Rachel April 28, 2011, 7:50 AM

    Great interview, Mike! This is always one of those subjects that gets out the anti-acids. I try to remember that I write what I love because it’s the only thing that’s true to my heart. And first and foremost I’m an artist. I’m listening to that still small voice and being faithful to the gifts I was given. In the end stats are just numbers. They don’t decide the fate of our work. We should take what we create and make it the most lovely thing we can and then let God do the rest. It’ll find the people it’s supposed to. In the end, it’ll be what it was meant to be.

    Man, I’m feeling existential. LOL…

  • Jill April 28, 2011, 8:02 AM

    I’ve said this repeatedly, and I’ll continue to say it. Whenever I go to B&N (which is a big trip to the big city for me), I can’t find the spec fic books I’ve read about online and would like to purchase. Occasionally, I can find them for my Nook (I’ve bought e-versions of Jeffrey Overstreet’s and Mike Dellosso’s books). Rachelle calls it a vicious cycle–and I say it’s a chicken and egg argument. Which came first–the lack of readers in this genre, or the lack of stock in the bookstores? And then readers like me, who will read anything, really skew things. I may have intended to purchase spec fic, but I’ll inevitably find something else to buy. So it would seem the CBA is LEADING me to read what they want me to read, rather than what I initially set out to purchase.

    • Mike Duran April 28, 2011, 8:31 AM

      “…the CBA is leading me to read what they want me to read.” This sounds conspiratorial, Jill. I like it! The question I have: If the CBA is out to make money, like any good steward would, why would they “condition” readers to read certain fare when another genre offers so much potential?

      • Katherine Coble April 28, 2011, 8:54 AM

        Because in the three focus groups I monitored at Top Secret CBA Press, the customers were overwhelmingly from one specific age group, racial group, economic group and gender. The few men who sat on our focus groups admitted that their wives did the CBA shopping.

        Time and again we submitted cover mockups, story synopses, store layout suggestions (“would you be more or less likely to buy this book if it were in the front of the store by the register?” “More or less likely to buy if it were in a display by the coffee shop?”) and every time a Spec Fic title or Historical Non-romance or biography was proposed it got abysmal grades. Even the “On a scale of 1-5, with 1 being not at all likely and 5 being highly likely, please rate how likely you would be to purchase this title as a gift” and the follow-up questions about “a gift for whom”, the spec fic titles tanked. Horribly.

        The lessons we took away from those focus groups were that financially comfortable white women between 31 and 70 were the most likely shoppers in a CBA store and their most likely self-purchases were Bonnet-and-Bodice fiction while their most likely gift purchases were pop-culture devotional books (The Bible according to Opie, Fly Fishing For Jesus, The Prayer of Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life) and boxed series. (Little House, Brock & Bodie Thoene)

        The publishers do honestly try from time to time to insert spec fic, but it just isn’t flying.

        Now, if they start losing shelf space to Marcher Lord and anyone else who is willing to try, then they’ll re-evaluate it. But that’s a long way off. As it stands now, CBA publishers are losing vast amounts of retail space to Gift Retail items so they have to go with as sure a thing as possible in the book category.

        • Jill April 28, 2011, 9:51 AM

          I don’t know, Mike. Why does anybody want to control media? Why would anybody want to do that? Are fashions dictated by fashionistas, or by buyers? When I go to the dept store to buy clothes, I buy the best of the options available and not what I truly want to wear. But I have to buy something because I need a dress for a wedding or a skirt for a job interview. The same goes for books. I don’t need books in the same way as clothing, obviously, but I buy what is available rather than what I truly want.

          Are these middle-class white women dictating the market, or are they being led by it? Marketers are savvy. They tell us we want things all the time, and they press our little trigger points, appealing to the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life. Marketers of any sort are in a powerful position to mold our thinking. They wouldn’t be good marketers if they didn’t understand how to play off our weaknesses. The ideal of romantic love has been foisted on women for so long that it’s no wonder women gravitate toward it.

          • Katherine Coble April 28, 2011, 10:12 AM

            …and i submit there is a reason for why i left marketing.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy April 29, 2011, 7:31 AM

          The lessons we took away from those focus groups were that financially comfortable white women between 31 and 70 were the most likely shoppers in a CBA store and their most likely self-purchases were Bonnet-and-Bodice fiction while their most likely gift purchases were pop-culture devotional books (The Bible according to Opie, Fly Fishing For Jesus, The Prayer of Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life) and boxed series.

          i.e. “Born Again Bored Housewives”.

          “Just like Harlequin’s target demographic, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”

          “Financially comfortable” and want to stay comfortable. (My writing partner — a burned-out preacher — has actually been told to his face “We don’t want to learn anything — you’re here just to Keep Us Comfortable!”) And Safe for the Whole Family, with everything carefully Bowdlerized and Sanitized so as not to possibly offend Kathy the Christian Soccer Mom or The Church Ladies.

          There are only two kinds of “Spec-fic” in the CBA:
          1) Left Behind and its knockoffs.
          2) Near-Future Persecution Dystopias (preferably with a tie-in hinting at The Coming Antichrist — see (1) above).

          Christians (TM) have No Future — they’ve signed it over to The Antichrist and Tribulation destruction.

          • Mike Duran April 29, 2011, 8:03 AM

            Dude, chill out. Please.

            • Katherine Coble April 29, 2011, 9:38 AM

              His name doesn’t hint at a sort of madness or anything, does it? :-p

  • Katherine Coble April 28, 2011, 8:42 AM

    What all these conversations here in the comments that I’ve been reading for weeks seem to miss (and that Ms. Gardner is trying to address head-on, bless her) is that folks just don’t want to admit what the “B” stands for.

    It’s the Christian BookSELLERS’ Association.

    Not the Book Buyers’. Not the Book Writers’. Not the Book Idealists’.

    I keep saying it over and over, from the perspective of one who has worked in the marketing department of a very large, very well-known Christian publishing house.

    The CBA is like McDonalds. They make the food that sells. It may not be the best food in the world. It may not be particularly nourishing and true chefs don’t necessarily take pride in being able to whip up a six-pack of McNuggets. But lots of people will buy it, and come back and buy it the next day. Granted as foodies we all know that filet grilled medium-rare and topped with boursin cheese is much better. But it costs more to make and sells fewer units. So unless you are interested in running a small restaurant that serves a few good meals (Marcher Lord Press + Amazon) you’re better off opening a McDonalds.

    Heck, the CBA stores even sell their books on the Happy Meal model. I can’t remember the last time I went into a Family Christian or Parable store and saw books in the front. I usually have to wade past Thomas Kinkaide flotsam, I <3 Jesus pencils and CDs for the latest multi-thousand dollar VBS extravaganza before I get to any sort of printed reading material.

    Spec fic tends to be for serious readers, and even looking for mainstream spec fic in mainstream bookstores is often a losing proposition. Retailers can't afford to stock SKUs that don't move. There just is no way, with their current economic model, that CBA stores can afford to stock any spec fic titles and still stay open. They seem to have a hard enough time avoiding Chapter 11 as it is.

    • Jill April 28, 2011, 9:14 AM

      Last I heard, buyers and sellers have a symbiotic relationship.

      • Katherine Coble April 28, 2011, 10:08 AM

        Theoretically,yes. And in an absolute Free Market, absolutely.

        But the brick and mortar book retail business is governed by too many constraints for the end consumer to have leverage. And the system of a middle layer of book distributers and retail store buyers further erodes that natural symbiotic bond.

        I would assert that is exactly why the more free market nature of internet book retail is in ascendance, with brick and mortar on the decline.

        • Jill April 28, 2011, 2:55 PM

          We’re definitely on the same page. I didn’t realize how snarkey my comment sounded until I looked again. Not intended. Sorry about that.

          • Katherine Coble April 28, 2011, 3:20 PM

            Didnt sound snarky to me at all. I thought i knew where you were going. 😉

            Apology accepted anyway, i suppose.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy April 29, 2011, 7:53 AM

      Spec fic tends to be for serious readers, and even looking for mainstream spec fic in mainstream bookstores is often a losing proposition.

      I started out in SF litfandom. “Serious readers” is an understatement.

      And Christian(TM) Without the Modifiers (and its Jesus Junk) says the opposite of “serious religion”. My church might have tales of flying houses and crying Mary statues, but at its heart it says “serious religion.”

      • Katherine Coble April 29, 2011, 9:44 AM

        Aha. I understand. So you’ve not only got a bone to pick with the CBA for targeting a specific demographic you’ve got more than a little bit of antipathy for the blandness of Protestantism and the sternness of Anabaptism.

        I feel your pain, I truly do. But I’ve no wish to fight an old fight about ways to worship and I’m betting others don’t either.

        If it helps any, the characters in the first part of my book are Roman Catholic. And it’s a secular book. So once it’s finished I’ll send a copy to you. Should it be in braille or have you worked out a way to read print material? Then again I’m not sure if you are a headless unicorn, a guy without a head who collects unicorns or a fully headed guy who collects decapitated unicorns. The ambiguity is stressful.

  • xdpaul April 28, 2011, 9:00 AM

    Unexpectedly, a slow-closing door has been sealed shut. I’m so glad the two of you made it through the gate before it closed so that the Resurrection and Mike’s future books may hit the market.

    As for me, I’m very glad I no longer need to strategize my own fiction ambitions with the CBA in mind (non-fiction is obviously not the subject here). I sort of knew that already, as I’m in it fairly unabashedly for the money (what money there is: alas, my best, most satisfying talent is in such a poverty-scale skill as storytelling. If only my gifts lay in orthodontia – I’d be able to do two things that a tale-typist can rarely do: contribute to society _and_ make living!)

    Thanks both to Mike and Rachelle, whom I have followed closely for years. These questions and insights do not surprise me in any way, but somehow, in the telling, they finalize things for me. Much gratitude.

    Incidentally, I find it fascinating that a publishing industry that can’t justify 3 years of development on a line is struggling, while a video game market that is very nearly _predicated_ on 3-year development plans, has dwarfed all other entertainments by an order of magnitude. I’m not arguing cause here, just making an observation.

    The frenzied impatience of the CBA is not unique: the ABA has become just as conservative, at a time when taking risk is increasingly the best shot at winning bread (of course, it is also the best shot at getting soaked and going out of business sooner than the delayed inevitable might warrant if you drag heels and keep all bets “safe.”)

    • Rachelle April 28, 2011, 1:00 PM

      Xdpaul, interesting to compare publishers with the video game industry as regards the 3-year development. I’m no expert but I don’t know if the analogy can really teach us anything. Publishers already have insane costs of development. Each and every book goes through so much to get it from initial pitch to final published product. It has been said that there is no other industry that puts out anywhere near the number of “unique products” each year as the publishing industry. Each one of these unique products is a year or two in development, at least.

      All of this is taking place in the context of an extremely low margin industry. If publishing were more profitable and more predictable (as predictable as, say, the video gaming industry) then publishers could more readily afford 3 to 5 years of promoting an author in hopes that they’ll eventually become profitable. But the finances of publishing, as you know, are quite different than those of gaming or any other kind of business.

      In an earlier era (more than a decade ago) publishers were more willing and able to slowly build and author; and while this still happens in some cases, it’s less the norm.

      • xdpaul April 29, 2011, 10:54 AM

        No, you are absolutely correct on margins. A hit video game charges $40 and is in a million homes on release day. Of course, its production costs dwarf a book’s, so, businesswise, that would have to be accounted for.

        On the other hand, I guess my point is that the author himself must be committed to a 3-5 development process, regardless of what the whim of the publisher is. Whether an author is dropped or blacklisted (due to poor sales), an eventually successful one will keep cranking out the goods.

        An author must, in other words, “build himself.”

  • Caprice Hokstad April 28, 2011, 9:06 AM

    You know what, Mike? I’m beginning to just not care much about what the CBA thinks or does. At all. I agreed so much with your review of the Christian romance book (which was touted by so many as the cream of the crop) and while I see a little branching out by a few houses in “suspense”, I am just not impressed on the whole.

    I’m beyond the feeling of being snubbed and ignored and now I just feel indifferent. Let them have their precious, safe little bubble. The only thing I would like to see is the release of the monopoly they hold on the term “Christian”. There ARE Christian worldviews in fiction outside of the CBA, regardless of the perception they would like everyone to swallow.

    I don’t even bother shopping in “Christian stores” here anymore. They don’t call them Christian Bookstores. They admitted it was a pretense, a joke! They’re really nothing more than glorified Hallmarks. I have to wade through too many VeggieTales playsets and Jesus paperweights to even find the sparse section of fiction. I say let them (the CBA gurus) do whatever it is they think is working and if they die as a result, then GOOD RIDDANCE. I don’t need the CBA as a reader for sure. I shop for books on Amazon and B&N. And while there, I steer clear of the “Inspirational” section because it has consistently disappointed me.

    And as a writer, the CBA has only muddied the waters and caused headaches. No love lost here if they marginalize themselves into oblivion. Wake up and smell the e-ink on the electronic readers, people.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy April 29, 2011, 7:37 AM

      I’m beyond the feeling of being snubbed and ignored and now I just feel indifferent. Let them have their precious, safe little bubble.

      With Aslan declawed and castrated as their purring lapcat — at least until Tash kicks in the door.

      The only thing I would like to see is the release of the monopoly they hold on the term “Christian”. There ARE Christian worldviews in fiction outside of the CBA, regardless of the perception they would like everyone to swallow.

      Problem is, Caprice, “Christian (TM)” without any other qualifiers has been hijacked by the Fundagelicals to mean THEIR brand of Christianity and their brand alone.

      I don’t even bother shopping in “Christian stores” here anymore. They don’t call them Christian Bookstores.

      You know what they’re called in the trade? Behind their backs?
      “Jesus Junk Stores”.

      Oh, and the “Inspirational” section at Amazon and B&N was created as a place to route all the Jesus Junk books. So Christians(TM) can go straight to that section without risking contamination by the Heathen books outside.

  • Bruce Hennigan April 28, 2011, 11:41 AM

    I wonder if any publisher in the CBA would publish C. S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” or Perelandra Series today!

    • Rachelle April 28, 2011, 1:06 PM

      Interesting question, Bruce, and who knows the answer. But I have to say, I’ve been hearing versions of that same “wondering” constantly for years. Not just about CBA books, but all classic books. People bemoan the current sorry state of publishing and as proof, they ask, “Would Hemingway have been published today? Could Tolstoy get a book deal? Would any editors recognize the genius of Jane Austen?” But my feeling is that it’s largely irrelevant; the cultural zeitgeist changes over time and reflects current attitudes and social norms. If classics of the past wouldn’t be able to get published today, then by the same token, many great books of the last quarter-century could never have gotten published in earlier eras. Just my two cents!

    • Katherine Coble April 28, 2011, 2:20 PM

      The Chronicles of Narnia weren’t ORIGINALLY published by a CBA house…in the States anyway! 🙂

      The first Stateside house was, I believe, Harper Collins, followed by McMillian and Scholastic.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy April 29, 2011, 7:39 AM

      Narnia? Of course not. In the words of Dr Morden’s famous essay, “Smoking, drinking, hints of paganism, and a nasty outbreak of Universalism in the last book.”

  • Nathan Dempsey April 28, 2011, 4:11 PM

    I’ll be honest…everything I could have had to say has already been said here, probably multiple times. All of it points I fully agree with.

    But my question is this: we all agree that CF, no matter the genre, could be an amazing tool to encourage and challenge believers to press on toward maturity in Christ. What might happen if we were to pray for God to move in a powerful way even in the CF industry and in contemporary evangelical culture–give people a hunger for “better food”? It could happen, couldn’t it? Then we could craft fiction that both honestly depicts humanity and also allows our faith to shine. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

    Perhaps I’m being idealistic. Perhaps not. Who knows?

    • Nathan April 28, 2011, 5:40 PM

      On the other hand, after reading today’s interview with Rachelle, I pondered how Mike’s novel is the only CF title I have read and enjoyed since November 2009. Perhaps God chose that time to point me toward the mainstream market. Maybe it wasn’t an accident that, out of the blue, I remembered Paul telling the Jews that since they had rejected the Gospel, he was going to take it to the gentiles.

      Orson Scott Card once warned Mormons against trying to use fiction to evangelize people. If we show nonbelievers we can craft a compelling tale without any type of obvious “agenda,” maybe we can earn their respect?

    • Rebecca LuElla Miller April 29, 2011, 6:00 PM

      Nathan, if you haven’t read any Christian fiction since 2009, you’re missing out. I have a list of recommendations here that you might want to take a look at.

      Becky

  • Neil Larkins April 28, 2011, 4:27 PM

    Great interview, Mike, Rachelle. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to read it this morning. (Since my wife’s surgery I have less time for such things.)
    Something that I need an education on is genre and how to classify one’s work. As an example, I haven’t a clue as to what exactly spec-fic is. I know what the two words mean but don’t know quite how they fit together as a genre. Guess I haven’t been delving into all this enough. (Heaven knows I barely have time for my writing to have time for such research.) Any suggestions on where to find a quick tutelage on the subject?

  • Jenna St. Hilaire April 28, 2011, 4:43 PM

    Fascinating interview, Mike and Rachelle, and great comments too–I didn’t intend to spend so much time reading the internet this afternoon. 🙂

    SFF is a very distinctive taste, and I’d guess that most people who discover they prefer it never go back to the Christian bookstores. Once I fell in love with Harry Potter, certain friends started handing me Orson Scott Card and Star Wars novels, and then I found Shannon Hale–and now I couldn’t tell you the last time I knelt by a bookshelf in Family Christian Stores.

    Another reason SFF doesn’t sell in the CBA may simply be the suspicion of many Christians toward it. All of it, not just Harry Potter. I know people who won’t go much further than Lewis–even Tolkien is out of favor for having a wizard on the side of good.

    Of course, if the CBA audience looks with distrust on speculative fiction, the ABA audience–especially the YA-reading demographic–generally treats social conservatism (sometimes Christianity, too) as evil. At times I wish I loved historical romance just to be free from the constant sense of condemnation.

    It’s not an easy choice for some people, but what I write makes the decision for me. Fortunately, I’m enough of an optimist to believe that a decent, determined writer with good stories to tell and no agenda will be reasonably competitive in the fight for mainstream publication. Hey, the Mormons are succeeding… 🙂

    • Headless Unicorn Guy April 29, 2011, 7:47 AM

      I’ve always been very vocal about Going Mainstream. The audience is larger and the censorship is much less.

      My chosen genre is Golden Age-style SF, the type of stuff I used to read in back issues of Analog during the early Seventies. I want my stuff on the shelves beside Poul Anderson & Beam Piper, not Left Behind and its knockoffs.

  • JCKamp April 29, 2011, 9:41 AM

    Wow. Writers are whiny. Maybe its just Christian writers. Maybe its all artists really. But when you blame the publishers/agents/marketers/readers for why you are not published what you are saying is:

    I am going to start a business and I am:

    1) Not going to listen to industry insiders.
    2) Not going to follow industry standards.
    3) Not going to do any market research.
    4) Not going to shape my product to meet the market demand.
    4) Not even going to listen to the customers.

    But my business venture will be successful because I am full of the Holy Spirit.

    • Jill April 29, 2011, 10:52 AM

      Odd, I wonder how you got that from any of the comments here. From browsing them, it seems most of these people are coming at this argument from the perspective of disappointed readers, self-referential though that approach may be. Still, these people are disappointed customers, whose voices aren’t being heard (see your point 4).

    • Katherine Coble April 29, 2011, 10:58 AM

      In talking with one of my decidedly ex-Christian friends about writers in general we’ve come to the conclusion that all writers harbour a degree of superstition and/or magical thinking.

      It seems to manifest itself in different ways depending on genre. But I do honestly feel as a long-term Christian who writes that there is an oft-mistaken belief in overt Christian content being the Shibboleth that will get a book published.

      The internal logic with Christian writers often seems to be that “I’m writing the book God called me to write so it will get published.”

      But as a writer I can fully attest that the book God calls you to write may be for purposes other than your reflected glory. The act of writing may well be a devotional step, a step of self-discovery, a step of training for the next book to be written.

      God isn’t a battering ram to knock down publishing house doors, a bully to see you get your own way.

      I’m very glad for the time I spent in and around Christian publishing because it knocked quite a few blinders off and has been very freeing. By not feeling like my faith ties me to one route I am able to explore a wider field of creativity and an expanded ministry.

      • Tim George April 29, 2011, 1:42 PM

        “God isn’t a battering ram to knock down publishing house doors, a bully to see you get your own way. ”

        You know Katherine, we may have butted heads a bit around here a few days back but I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been around artist types all my life and Christian writers don’t have sole rights to the attitude of which you speak. But, when we Christian adopt an “I wrote it therefore I have some manifest destiny to be heard” egocentric idea about our work, we drag God into the the ugly mix.

      • Rachel April 29, 2011, 2:54 PM

        I agree. I think it comes down to discipline and faith. You write what comes to you and then you try your best to get it out there. If no one buys it, well, then write another one. Being a writer isn’t about being published, it’s about creating something, being an artist that paints worlds with words.

        I guess, being a pencil artist helps me see past all the mess of red tape. Did you get the picture drawn? Is it creatively satisfying? Is it technically accurate? Well, then, success! So, no one buys it…well, you had fun, you learned, and you’ll just draw another one. 🙂

  • Nathan April 30, 2011, 2:33 PM

    Just out of curiosity…does anyone know much about the Christian short fiction market? I ask because one of Rachelle’s comments about the publishing houses being less willing to take on “unknowns” because of the potential for losing money. Her comment reminded me of what George R.R. Martin, Damon Knight, Orson Scott Card, and a few other big-name, mainstream fantasy authors have said: start with short stories to learn the craft and build a name/reputation for yourself among the magazines. Then, eventually, you’ll get to move on to novels and actually make some money with them. There’s a Swedish physicist who recently managed to sell his first book and the idea for a trilogy to a publishing house for $300,000; of course, he’d published numerous stories, so the house knew there was a market for him.

    Just wondering if such opportunities exist within the Christian “industry” ?

    • Kat Heckenbach April 30, 2011, 3:08 PM

      Nathan–glad you brought that up. I’ve found–rather oddly–that within the Christian market there are quite a few online spec-fic magazines and several spef-fic anthologies (Residential Aliens, Digital Dragon, Mindflights, Ray Gun Revival, The Midnight Diner–and that’s just off the top of my head), yet there is basically zero market for short mainstream Christian fiction. I think I’ve seen two or three anthologies that want mainstream stuff, and they aren’t monthly publications. I’ve yet to figure that discrepancy out….

      • Nathan April 30, 2011, 4:05 PM

        Sorry, Kat: my bottom post was meant to be my reply to your comment. Just wasn’t paying attention.

  • Nathan April 30, 2011, 3:32 PM

    I do find that a little surprising, about there actually being a market for short CF. As for the discrepancy you mentioned, I think it’s very similar to the problem you faced when you went to the CBA convention: an agent told you your book wouldn’t work because it wasn’t “overt” enough–the MC wasn’t obviously growing in her faith. There’s probably no market for it; it wouldn’t be overt enough for most CBA readers, and the others who would enjoy it would be afraid of the imprint on the spine. Heck, I typically feel that same fear myself whenever I pick up a CBA book these days. The reason Lewis and Tolkien did it so well, for the most part, is because they wove their faith in unconsciously, rather than consciously. At least, I suspect this is what Orson Scott Card would say if you asked him 🙂 I mean, Ted Dekker enjoys massive crossover success, from my understanding; but he achieved it ONLY after he admittedly wrote the type of novel the CBA wanted. The first novel he wrote became either “Black” or “Showdown” and was published ONLY after several other novels that gave the demographic what they wanted and earned him the sell numbers he needed to gain more freedom with the publishers.

  • Rachel April 30, 2011, 8:48 PM

    The short story market for Christian Spec-fic is pretty open and exciting right now. DEP had three mags for a while and now just have Mindflights, but it’s very good quality. And OSC’s IGMS is a great market for “clean” stories. He touts that his mag is clean enough for the whole family. Plus, it’s professional pay. Ralan is a great resource for markets of all sorts of short fiction. A must for selling your work.

    I think it’s important to remember that you need to focus on writing a good story, though–novel or otherwise. While writing short works is great way to practice, it does take time and selling them still takes energy and knowledge of the market. I worked for three years on just short stories, writing, work-shopping, and then shopping them out and it was a full-time job, just keeping up–you’re usually juggling three to four stories at a time on the sale end and then work-shopping one or two, as well as writing to build your available sales. It is an art all it’s own.

    While OCS says writing shorts is the way to learn (I had the privilege of attending his Boot Camp and it was a LOT of work, but short fiction is definitely the hard knocks of writing) he also says that it’s important to focus on one or the other when it comes to sales. Novels take a lot of energy and focus, so it’s important not to have your time divided. Not good to be stretched too thin. Just something to think about.

    • Rachel April 30, 2011, 8:52 PM

      LOL…sorry, in that last para I meant OSC (ie: Orson Scott Card).

  • Nikole Hahn May 3, 2011, 10:46 AM

    Wow…this is kind of discouraging for spec fiction writers. I love the genre and am in the middle of putting together a novel, but should I be worried? Should I switch genres? Should I leave the Christian market for this and go secular on my novel?

  • Nikole Hahn May 3, 2011, 10:48 AM

    But I’m still going to write it and see.

  • Frank Creed May 3, 2011, 4:22 PM

    Independant Biblical spec fic is taking advantage of technology (the Web and e-readers), to get to market around the CBA. The people who finally link readers to content in a major hub are going to make a mint.
    Nice interview, and thanks, Mike, for shining light on this topic!

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