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Can Someone Give Me a Straight Answer About Christian Speculative Fiction?!

Apparently not.

On the one hand are the agents and editors who flatly say that Speculative Fiction DOES NOT SELL in the CBA. It’s an experiment that is over, they opine. The demand just isn’t there. Blah. Blah. Blah.

And then this from Allen Arnold,  Senior Vice-President and Fiction Publisher at Thomas Nelson. In a recent blog post entitled Supernatural Fiction — The Next Big Wave? Arnold writes:

…let’s focus on a type of novel that I believe is gaining heat – and will only gain more in the coming years. Supernatural Fiction.

True – this may not be an “official” genre but I believe it’s an apt descriptor for many future best-selling novels. In recent Focus Groups and in-depth research, we continue to hear buzz about this desire from the most passionate Christian Fiction fans. In fact, there’s currently more buzz than best-sellers in this area…but not for long!

…Thomas Nelson Fiction is drawn to these stories. We don’t want to ride this wave or trend. As one of the world’s largest publishing houses, we aim to fuel this coming wave. (emphasis mine)

This is encouraging… I think.

My apologies to Mr. Arnold, but Supernatural Fiction has been hot for a long time, not just among Christian writers and readers, but in pop culture at large. Every year, stories with supernatural elements — be it ghosts, angels, time travel, vampires, alternate history, or wizardry — are at the top of the box office and best-seller lists. Paranormal Romance, Post-apocalyptic, Magic Realism, and Urban Fantasy are some of the hottest genres in fiction. (Just peruse Goodreads Reader’s Choice Awards for 2011.) And of the Top 50 Highest Grossing Films of 2011 (as compiled by Box Office Mojo), easily 1/3 of them contain supernatural and speculative elements.

I know, I’m mingling genres a little bit. But the point is: Christian publishers have always seemed to be either (1) Down on the real popularity of Supernatural Fiction among its audience, or (2) Way behind the trend.

Which is why I’m confused about TN’s new-found excitement.

There’s a reason why Marcher Lord Press has taken off, even landing some Christy awards and nominations. Sites like Speculative Faith and groups like the Lost Genre Guild, have become watering holes for thirsty spec-loving believers. Small presses like AMG and Splashdown Books have sought to fill the void. Ezines like Residential Aliens, RayGun Revival, Mindflights, and Fear and Trembling, have all been birthed with one eye to those faith-filled spec-lovers.

So, yeah, I’m encouraged by Allen Arnold’s assessment and Thomas Nelson’s desire to “fuel this coming wave” of Supernatural Fiction. But the fact is, there’s been a lot of us out here waiting for the big dogs to see this for a long time.

Which leads me to ask, Can someone give me a straight answer? Is Supernatural Fiction marketable to Christians and the CBA or not?

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{ 29 comments… add one }
  • Carradee January 12, 2012, 7:48 AM

    Considering the answer to that question differs greatly depending on who your readership is, I expect a straight answer is impossible. Note that I said “readership is“, not “who you want your readership to be” or “what readership you’re trying to attract.”

    I still remember discovering on accident that Christian speculative fiction even existed. I was shocked. And pleased. But shocked. Because with the circle of who I knew, speculative fiction was generally looked down upon, so I was being discouraged from reading it altogether (either because it was spec fic or because it was secular).

  • Kat Heckenbach January 12, 2012, 7:55 AM

    My question is: Can “speculative” and “supernatural” be used interchangeably as you have here? My understanding is that “supernatural” fiction is that which is along the line of Frank Peretti’s writing. Angels and demons, in present time (not time travel or future setting), no “magic” or whatnot. If they are considered separate entities, that would explain why one is “acceptable” but the other not.

    Regardless, though–you have made excellent points for both! Jill Williamson won a Christy for her *fantasy* novel. And you can walk into major bookstores and find books by Bryan Davis, Wayne Thomas Batson, C.S. Lakin, Donita K. Paul. Granted, the trend seems to lean toward YA, but hello, those kids grow up! And they don’t suddenly change from loving Elves and swords to bonnets and buggies because they reach legal voting age :P.

    And indie presses have popped up left and right trying to fill the gap left by the big guys. I sometimes wonder…maybe it’s not that the big guys think spec-fic doesn’t have a market, but rather that the big guys are so unfamiliar with that market they are leaving it for the smaller presses–who do know the market–to reach those readers. I believe Jeff Gerke has said essentially that same thing before–that we can’t expect spec-fic to come out of the presses who have been catering to a certain demographic for so long, that presses like MLP, Splashdown, etc, are needed for that because the Christian mainstream presses simply don’t know how to *do* spec-fic.

    Whatever the case is, there are those of us that simply *know* Christian spec-fic is a legitimate genre because we read it and write it and are surrounded by others who do the same! 😀

    • Mike Duran January 12, 2012, 9:23 AM

      Kat, while I agree with your distinction between Supernatural and Speculative genres (Arnold clearly denotes the “angels v. demons”type in his post), Speculative is often used as an umbrella term for the weird, other-worldly or fantatical. That’s how I, perhaps wrongly, use the term. But even if Supernatural and Speculative ARE distinctly different genres, there seems tons of room for overlap. Not to mention, the Bible contains just as many Speculative themes (a creation event, the origin of time, multiple dimensions, apocalyptic imagery, miracle / magical events, etc.) as it does Supernatural themes. So, to me, the distinction seems forced.

      • Kat Heckenbach January 12, 2012, 10:03 AM

        Yes, Mike, I do understand that Speculative is more of an umbrella term, and Supernatural is included under that umbrella. I think oftentimes, though, in Christian fiction it gets separated from under that umbrella because Christian publishers want it to be based biblical parameters. Angels must fit the biblical definition of angels, and demons of demons, etc. In secular fiction you have more leeway and can interpret those entities and the supernatural realm any way you see fit. That makes secular supernatural more “speculative” whereas “Christian” supernatural tends to be more, for lack of a better word, realistic. Does that make sense?

        • C.L. Dyck January 12, 2012, 12:23 PM

          “Angels must fit the biblical definition of angels, and demons of demons, etc.”

          Well…angels must fit *someone’s* definition of biblical angels. I strongly dislike CBA angels-and-demons/”spiritual warfare” fiction because it usually annoys me with its woodenness or offends me with its digressions into North American evangelical superstiti–uh, stereotypes of its subject matter.

          “In secular fiction you have more leeway and can interpret those entities and the supernatural realm any way you see fit.”

          Yep. And for some reason, they come out more realistic that way, even if the storyline doesn’t inspire one to deeper or more careful assessment of good and evil. Irony.

          If it adds any to the discussion, here’s what an agent on a Q&A panel at ACFW 2010 said when asked about the “rise of Christian speculative fiction.” She told the audience point-blank, “A lot of people are doing speculative fiction. Not a lot are doing it well.”

          I don’t know what “well” means. It could mean religious sensibilities, but just as likely, untutored writing, because we’re only just getting a strong support community for Christian SF writers underway over the last several years.

          I think it was 2006 when Frank Creed gave me a big internet Hey Howdy and told me to get mineself into the Lost Genre Guild. We’re in a very different place than groups that have been around since the Golden Age of spec in the 1940’s-50’s.

          Over the last 9 years of learning to write well, I’ve been through the cognitive dissonance of trying to benefit from romance writers’ advice. They’re totally different genres, and romance has its own quirky little conventions that don’t fit any other genre.

          Mr. Allen’s “supernatural” definitely doesn’t include all the other cool stuff that really does have a kiss-of-death label on it. Like sci-fi. I recall Randy Ingermanson once referred to that genre as “the poison one in the CBA” in explaining why Oxygen (Mars mission = sci-fi!) was billed as near-future thriller or whatever it was originally called.

        • Mike Duran January 12, 2012, 12:27 PM

          I have suspected that it is a rather rigid doctrinal grid that keeps our fiction from being more speculative, which is what ultimately turns hardcore spec readers off to our stuff.

          • Rachel January 13, 2012, 10:03 AM

            I agree with that statement 100%, Mike. The inability to stop asking the question: how much can I actually “speculate”? stifles our art to the point where it becomes, like someone above said, “wooden” and hollow.

            And why are certain Christians afraid of a story asking questions or an author taking something from an angle not considered in western pews? God certainly isn’t. I think He likes us being able to play in His grand mystery.

        • DD January 14, 2012, 8:08 AM

          Then again, being that it is fiction — and we are adding the term “speculative” on top of that — why can’t authors let their imagination run? Where are the limits and have we made them artifically restrictive? Surely C.S. Lewis didn’t believe in talking animals. In other words I expect fiction to have obviously fictional elements. This also goes back to the discussion on whether or not “Christian fiction” has to be blatently biblical, i.e. people in churches, bible verses, biblical characters. It can include those things, so long as it doesn’t feel contrived.

          In some ways “speculative” is a bit redundant of “fiction.” Do we need another term to describe fantasy, sci-fi or supernatural? I think it’s unecessary But in the Christian fiction world if we really must create another label, a good example of what I would define speculative fiction as would be the recent book Noah Primeval. It fills in the gaps — speculates — on what the Noah account doesn’t tell us. Obviously fictional, but rooted in biblical truths.

  • Josh Lyon January 12, 2012, 8:28 AM

    Not sure I can give you a straight answer since I’m not a professional on the subject, but as a Christian Spec-Fic author who has struggled often with this issue, here is my two cents. The market is there, primed and ready for a decent spark to burst the whole thing into flame. Everyone I talk to and everything I read on blogs, etc. tell me that there are tons of people who would jump on the chance to read a well crafted work of Christian speculative fiction. The problem seems to be that the majority of those people don’t go looking for their good reads in CBA bookstores. This is a failing both on the part of the bookstores and the publishers who stock them, because they have underestimated the value of this genre near the point of no return. I do believe a publisher could reverse this trend, however, by taking a risk to seriously back the title. Of course a book isn’t going to sell very well if there are only two copies spine-out wedged between an Amish Romance and a Historical Romance. It’s all about the Visual Merchandising. The first publisher to find a great title and throw down the gauntlet will corner this market. Brand it, pull out the stops for a decent cover, and cough up the dough to put it where customers will see it in the store. That’s when the content will matter, when readers love the book enough to tell their friends about it. But it will require more than a half-hearted effort on the part of a publisher to make this happen, and I very much doubt it will come from an established author in the industry. If you don’t read Ted Dekker by now, chances are you probably won’t. But Dekker and others have kicked in the doors. Now it’s time to knock down the walls.

  • Caprice Hokstad January 12, 2012, 9:53 AM

    I don’t think we need a straight answer, because, like you said, we’ve heard “promising” words before. Even if you got a straight answer, it’s not worth anything until they put their money where their mouths are. I don’t care what the “big dogs” blather in their prepared speeches when the cameras are on. Nor do I care what they write on their highly-followed blogs.

    ACTIONS speak louder than words. If Thomas Nelson wants to fuel the wave, awesome. Let’s see the BOOKS. If they don’t have the BOOKS, then it’s all just hot air. What I’d really like to know is WHY pay lip service at all if you’re not going to DO anything differently?

  • Jessica Thomas January 12, 2012, 10:18 AM

    Thomas Nelson gave us Yoga for Christians so they certainly can’t argue that they won’t do “weird” or “theologically fuzzy” or how about downright occultic. I guess, what it comes down to is money. Perhaps Marcher Lord Press has shown them there is money to be had. I hope he means what he says and can stay focused enough to see it through. I will read with discernment.

  • Katherine Coble January 12, 2012, 10:50 AM

    Thomas Nelson has flirted with Spec Fic a lot in recent years, but it always comes down to the same thing. Money.

    Look at Eric Wilson. They embraced his Jerusalem Undead series just fine when they thought it would let TN ride the Twilight wave all the way to the bank. Then when it didn’t pan out just that way Wilson was looking for a new publisher.

    And now there’s a new wrinkle. Most of the big CBA houses (Thomas Nelson, Zondervan) have been acquired by Publishing Conglomerates. Those Conglomerates bought the religious publishers so they could fill open niches. Harper Collins doesn’t print Bibles, Thomas Nelson does. So now HarpCo has a Bible publisher under their wing–a Bible Publisher who owns the copyright on a popular translation (New King James).

    But HarpCo _has_ spec fic under its mega-umbrella already. In 2009 they created a Spec Fic imprint (Angry Robot) designed to go up against Tor (who is under the Megapublisher MacMillan) . In 2010 they jettisoned Angry Robot.

    YA Spec fic is a safer marketing bet right now so if TN puts any out at all, I’d bet that’s where they go.

    Frankly I’m like most of the Christians I know in that I get my Spec Fic needs met from non-Christian authors.

    1. I personally prefer relativist spec fic (see earlier discussion)
    2. I expect Christian Spec Fic to be doctrinally sound and it often isn’t.

    Is that a straight answer? Probably not. My mind is bouncing between subjects so I’m not nailing it down well.

    • Kevin Lucia January 12, 2012, 3:02 PM

      In 2010 they jettisoned Angry Robot.

      Has little to do with the subject, but Angry Robot lives on, fine and healthy, as an imprint of Random House now, I believe. A place I’d love to find a home.

      Angry Robot

  • Tim George January 12, 2012, 10:57 AM

    Sorry to tell you, there is no straight answer out there because publishers are by and large reactive rather than active. Too often they are like the car industry became in Detroit; churning out tried and true while ignoring the inroads Japaneses automakers were making. Until it was almost too late.

    CBA publishers make a good show at promoting these genres but do very little to market them. One major CBA publishing exec emailed me for insight on the Marcher Lord Press’ model. Me! An unpublished nobody. Just illustrates how clueless publishers sometimes are about anything but the tried and true.

    • Mike Duran January 13, 2012, 10:31 AM

      Tim, the fact that THE biggest Christian publisher is just now realizing there may be a market for Supernatural Fiction could prove your point: These are not forward thinkers.

      • Tim George January 13, 2012, 11:12 AM

        Which is why I was shocked by the push Zondervan gave Cliff Graham for his series on the life of David, Lion of War. Not speculative but has an obvious male target audience. That in itself is something CBA publishers either don’t want to target or don’t know how.

        BTW: Graham does a superior job of depicting an angel in a very non-tradional way. The reader only sees this angel through eyes of a mercenary pagan warrior and is never told the being is an angel. We are left to “speculate” what the being is.

  • John Robinson January 12, 2012, 11:07 AM

    After trying for two years to get my SF work picked up by a CBA house, I gave up on trying to make it fit.

    I then reworked the MS, jettisoning all the in-your-face Christian elements and making it a bit more Koontz-like, and started sending it out to general market houses.

    There it sold in six months. It’ll be out this February as an e-book for the usual devices, and if sales warrant, offset print.

    I don’t know if this answered the question, though …

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller January 12, 2012, 11:13 AM

    I suspect they’ll put their marketing dollars where their mouth is, Mike. I think we only need to look as far as the changes in the industry — within Thomas Nelson itself, and in the industry at large with the advent of more indie houses and the ease and popularity of self-publishing/e-book publishing.

    Also encouraging to me is Zondervan’s publication of Replication the sci fi novel by Jill Williamson (author of those MLP Christy Award winners you mentioned). In other words, Thomas Nelson may want to fuel this effort, but they aren’t acting alone.

    Becky

  • Chris Well January 12, 2012, 11:51 AM

    To me, the dividing line comes in defining the “market.”

    Although many use the terms “Christian market” and “CBA market” interchangeably, the technical definition of “CBA market” refers to brick-and-mortar retailers that are card-carrying members of the Christian Booksellers Association. And in that particular channel, decades of ever-narrowing focus on a particular shopper means that all the foot traffic in those stores is for women of a particular age and demographic who are primarily interested in 1) Romances, 2) Historical romances, and/or 3) Amish romances.

    In that context, my guess for most titles would be that No, Christian Speculative Fiction will not sell in the CBA market. (Any more than an Amish romance would sell at Comic-Con.)

    On the other hand, if the question is whether there are readers out there desperate for speculative fiction written from a biblical worldview — the answer is a resounding yes! It’s just that so many of these readers either have no access to a CBA retailer — or have been trained by their local CBA retailer that the only titles one can find in their fiction section (if the store even has one) is, well, romances/historicals/Amish fiction.

    So any Christian publisher that wants to create content for this massively underserved audience also needs to recognize the need to find these readers through channels outside the normal “CBA” context. (Your example of Marcher Lord Press as a success story points to that — they took a different path to reach consumers, and it seems to be paying off.)

    From everything I’ve seen and heard, the readers are out there, cash in hand, begging for this stuff. The trick is for Christian houses to find them.

    • Mike Duran January 13, 2012, 10:40 AM

      Great comment, Chris. Along this line, If TN or any Christian publisher is seeking to reach the spec audience WITHOUT changing their traditional approach, they are doomed to failure. Which would in turn give the mistaken impression, once again, that Christian spec-fic doesn’t sell.

  • Erica January 12, 2012, 12:47 PM

    I would say supernatural fiction is becoming marketable because of course the non-christian books have a christian and non christian following to begin with. If you are someone who loves urban fiction naturally, you would want to purchase a good book in that same genre. If it happens to be written by a CF author and is to your liking then all the better.

    We may not see all the huge sales on spec/supernatural christian fiction yet but I’ll hold on to hope…

  • Gina Burgess January 12, 2012, 1:26 PM

    Ditto what Tim said.

    Since traditional publishers are wanting authors to do all the work (just like self-pub authors have to do), the marketing will weight the balance toward success if TN, Zondervan, Bethany House and others will spend the money to let Christians know there are some new kids on the street who can jolly well write good Christian spec fiction. If they don’t then it will be just like before: smoke up the chimney.

  • Lyn Perry January 12, 2012, 3:21 PM

    Mike, Thanks for mentioning the burgeoning efforts of small presses, zines, and Christian spec sites in general. Although many of us (speaking personally at least) are under the radar in the CBA universe, we add different slants to a vital niche. Whereas MLP is explicitly Christian, I believe, RA is more broadly “spiritual” – however, I do want my zine to be a place where a Christian write doesn’t have to cloak their story like a crossover lovesong/Godsong on K-Love.

  • Bob Avey January 12, 2012, 5:26 PM

    I certainly hope that supernatural fiction is marketable to Christian audiences. That’s the direction I’m going with my new book.

  • Patrick Todoroff January 13, 2012, 6:13 AM

    From your examples alone it seems obvious to me Spec fiction, of which “supernatural thriller” is a sub-genre, is eminently marketable to a broad audience that includes Christians.

    Now whether or not the big Christian pub houses/agents are willing to to take the risk and put in the work to make spec fiction fruitful and profitable is another question entirely.

  • Jonathan Myers January 13, 2012, 7:11 AM

    Supernatural fiction can easily make a substantial portion of the CBA market if they really go for it, but I think that they only want to flirt with the genre and not approach it with the serious commitment that it requires. I’m glad Thomas Nelson wants to give it a shot, but I’m a little cynical about their overall level of commitment to the genre. I think you answered your question when you mentioned MLP and other internet publishers. I really feel that these publishing outlets are the future for Christian Speculative fiction and or ‘Supernatural Fiction’. So my straight out reply to your question Mike,

    The CBA is NOT committed to publishing Christian Speculative Fiction on any serious level. They will never embrace this genre, nor will they ever proceed beyond dabbling with it.

    Jeff Gerke worked in the industry and has explained this fact many times. MLP has succeeded in filling this void as have have other internet based publishers. I think it is time to embrace these niche publishers and accept that the CBA is an industry that caters to a very specific demographic. Christian Speculative Fiction is an extremely small genre niche within a broader publishing niche. The fans of this niche are very vocal. This is why is continues to survive- but for it to be accepted and grow the audience must realize who is TRULY listening to them.

    I know here at Odyssey Illustrated Press we grew tired of railing about how ‘publishers’ need to develop more Christian Speculative Fiction and so we decided to participate. We’re following the idea of being proactive and publishing Christian speculative Fiction rather than being a spectator waiting for someone else to fill the void. We have published two CSF novels thus far and- yes we are exploring Supernatural Fiction as well. We are trying to actively meet a demand, but those readers who want these kinds of books need to pick them up.
    If you don’t tell folks about Marcher Lord, Odyssey Illustrated Press, or other aspiring publishers of this genre how will it ever thrive. Here in lies the problem. These vocal readers of Christian Speculative Fiction need to spread the word and let folks know about CSF publishers and new authors. I’ve told at least a dozen CSF fans about your site and Winterland and The Telling. This is how we get folks on board with CSF.

    So again in answere to your article- CBA will not publish CSF on any serious level ever.

  • DD January 14, 2012, 7:35 AM

    Apparently Mr. Arnold hasn’t been in a Barnes & Noble in recent years. There’s entire sections devoted to “supernatural fiction.” This genre really had its jumpstart by Christian publishers many, many years ago in all of the “angels & demons” books. It quickly became saturated with too many similar books, not enough variety and too narrow of a vision of what these books could be about. So now Christian publishers are slowly rediscovering something they have experimented with for year? It seems like they have tried to define the market and not allowed the consumer to drive their products. Sure, there’s a market for historical romance, but if you happen to be a Christian who likes sci-fi or fantasy, guess what, you aren’t shopping in the Christian fiction section.

  • Kenneth Morvant March 2, 2013, 9:06 PM

    Speculative covers so many things. You are correct, supernatural is the hot thing. Really not my cup of tea, but it is what it is and the facts are the facts. Unless the main genre is romantic and some speculative element is the sub, then you have a shot at getting published. Straight action adventure that uses as its main vehicle, science fiction elements, techno-thrillers, and others do not meet with a great reception from agents and publishers. Mainly because they don’t see the demand for it, yet, Christians have flocked to movies such as Prometheus, Star Wars, Alien, Star Trek and others so there is an interest. We put up with the objectionable material to see the elements that interest us. I think there is a market for edgy Christian Speculative in that sphere if the action and story are there. As I once heard in a movie, “What I believe”

    Kenneth

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