Is Writing in the General Market LESS of a Ministry Than Writing for Christians?

by Mike Duran · 52 comments

Richard Kadrey and Merrie Destefano

Earlier this week I had a great conversation with my agent. Part of that conversation involved changing markets. My first two full-length novels were contracted by a Christian publisher and marketed as Religious Fiction. I’m thankful to Charisma House for my “big break.” This has been a great ride. However, it’s time to move on.

But moving on is bittersweet.

I suppose some will find that hard to believe. After all the criticism and hard questions I level at Christian readers and the Christian fiction industry, you’d think I’d be happy to go. I know some Christian writers and readers will wish me an enthusiastic bon voyage! Which seems to be the general response of Christian fiction enthusiasts when their genre is criticized:

“If you don’t like what Christian fiction is, shut up and go somewhere else.”

Nevertheless, the decision to aim Reagan Moon & The Ghost Box at the general market has been difficult. For a couple of reasons. First, I write from a Christian worldview. No. This doesn’t mean my stories are sermons. It means that biblical themes — Good and Evil, God and Satan, the Natural and the Supernatural, Faith and Unbelief, Salvation and Damnation, the Divine and the Hellish — are intermingled in most of what I write. Second, I LOVE the Christian writing community. There are so many great writers plying their craft in the Christian fiction market.

So why have I decided to move my stories to the general market? A couple of reasons.

I’m tired of being under a theological microscope. If you want to know what I personally believe about the Atonement, Original Sin, or eschatological timelines, ask me. Heck, if you read this blog long enough, you’ll find out all kinds of dirty details about my quirks and beliefs. But if you’re approaching my stories as a doctrinal template for angelology, demonology, soteriology, or pneumatology, you’ll probably be disappointed.

The Language Police can bite me. My characters, like the real world I inhabit, sometimes use expletives. Frankly, being able to let them speak naturally (as I was able to do in The Ghost Box) was quite liberating. I don’t need to drop F-bombs to feel like a true writer. But hand-wringing over an occasional “dammit” or a “what the hell” is legalism. Sorry. I’ve had it.

A more level playing field. Sadly, unless you’re writing Women’s Fiction, Historical Romance, Amish, or Prairie Romance, you’re fighting an uphill marketing battle in the CBA. And if, like me, you like Urban Fantasy? You’re flat outta luck.

I want to minister to more people. This is what I’d like to talk about for a few minutes.

That may sound odd, this idea of moving to the general market to minister MORE, not LESS. I mean, if going to the general market means talking less openly about the Gospel — which is surely what’s required for a Christian to write mainstream fiction, right? — then how is it that there’s MORE ministry opportunity? How can you minister MORE if you can’t even openly reference the Gospel in your stories?

This is an important question and one, I think, which has significantly shaped the Christian fiction industry. It points to both our

  • faulty notions about what “ministry” is, and
  • the institutional calcification and cultural isolation that pervades the religious fiction market.

What does it mean to be “called to the ministry”? Most American Christians simply answer that in terms of a.) Pastoral work, and/or b.) Explicitly religious service. Which leaves the average layman out of luck. Pastors and missionaries are ministers. Custodians and CPAs, not so much. Which is why  it’s not uncommon for Christian writers to view their profession as a “ministry.” They write “to glorify God” and “edify the saints.” They eschew the “Secular” for the “Holy.”

However, that makes Christian writers in the general market more like custodians and CPAs than ministers and missionaries. They’ve abandoned the Holy for the Secular.

But is a Christian writing in the general market any less a “minister” than one who’s preaching to the choir?

When I left the ministry after eleven years, I returned to the construction field. Working in a “secular” field probably did more for my faith than all my years in the ministry. We ministers can live in a bubble. When you’re constantly surrounded by Christians, it’s easy to lose sight of the real world. Well, I had. Working around guys who were godless, antagonistic, and wholly wayward, was a blessing. A challenge.

My outlook on “ministry” completely changed.

This is the same outlook I’m applying to writing.

Christian writers I know who have opted for the ABA do not do so because they hate Christian fiction or are tired of being a witness. In fact, their outlook on “ministry” is typically broadened. They see themselves as “called” to a new harvest field. Sure, this “ministry” might not require divine pyrotechnics and altar calls. But they’re still working for God, even if their stories contain language and inarticulate theology.

Which brings me to the header photo for this post.

I’m not sure where this photo was taken. San Diego ComiCon, I think. I always get a chuckle out of this picture. Merrie Destefano is a member of my writers’ group. She is seated next to Richard Kadrey. They were part of a panel together. But from what I know of both of them, they are two very different people.

Merrie is a Christian. In fact, her first novel, Afterlife, has some powerful faith elements. Merrie started with a respected Christian agent who shopped her story around the CBA. For various reasons, not the least of which being that Sci-fi and Urban Fantasy doesn’t sell well in the Christian market, Merrie opted for the general market.

Which landed her next to Richard Kadrey.

richard_kadreyI don’t know Mr. Kadrey nearly as well as I do Merrie. I’ve never personally met him. However, I’ve read a couple of his novels and follow his social network feeds. He seems a lot like the construction crew I still work with: Vulgar, irreverent, and fairly profane. And did I mention that in the last book of his Sandman Slim series, Lucifer kicks God out of heaven?

What better place for a nice Christian girl to be.

Too bad there aren’t more Christians in places like that.

I don’t know if Merrie referenced her faith on that panel. Perhaps she considered asking Mr. Kadrey if he really believes in a God or a devil. Or if the devil could really kick God out of heaven. I don’t know. What I DO know about Merrie is that she’s not shy about her faith. She didn’t choose to write in the general market because she was tired of letting her light shine and needed a break.

In fact, choosing the general market has expanded, not shrunk, her “ministry” opportunities. In a way, it takes more guts and talent and faith for a Christian to write in the general market than the Christian market.

For one thing, there’s no Richard Kadreys in the CBA.

In the CBA, we’re vetted. In the CBA, you don’t need to worry too much about running into an astrologer, an open lesbian, an atheist, or someone who writes erotica. There’s not nearly the types of diversity in the Christian market as the general market.

Which is one reason, I think, that Christian writers get nervous about moving to the general market.

God forbid they have to sit on a panel next to a lesbian atheist who practices astrology and reads erotica.

But since when was “ministry” supposed to be safe?

John Robinson January 31, 2013 at 11:24 AM



A thousand times this.

Mike, bro, you and I are in precisely the same place. For each bullet point you enumerated above, that’s exactly why I’m leaving the CBA.

I gave it a dozen years of my life, four pretty well-reviewed novels, and one whale of a lot of effort, but at the end of it all I finally realized they had no use for me.

So it looks like we’re both stepping out of the boat together; may the sea remain firm.

Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) January 31, 2013 at 11:30 AM

Exactly how I felt as I attended the University of Washington and attended science fiction cons.

Merrie Destefano January 31, 2013 at 11:42 AM

This is an interesting post, Mike! Richard and I were at a book signing in San Diego. We also happen to be published by the same imprint (HarperVoyager). He’s extremely talented and I was honored to be invited to sign with him.

Like you, it was a tough decision for me to change markets. I had a wonderful CBA agent, a man I admire very much, but the more we shopped my book—AFTERLIFE—the more it seemed that it wasn’t right for CBA. Even though several CBA editors loved the book, they were never able to get it through their pub board. It took me a long time to realize that I don’t write the happy, light books CBA readers tend to prefer. I write the story of my life—much, much darkness before I finally came into the light.

Switching markets hasn’t made me an instant bestseller, however. I’ve had to struggle to sell my books, like most other authors. But I have met some amazing people along the way—people who have become best friends and admired colleagues, like Richard is—that I never would have met if I had stayed in CBA. I worked in ministry twice, once at Focus on the Family and once at The Word For Today. I must confess the rewards there are more obvious, there’s a lot of support, and a lot more clarity of purpose. I struggle frequently when beginning a new book, wondering if it will be edifying or if my content is too strong. I worry that I could become a person just writing fun, scary stories, instead of books that will give people hope. I worry that my craft isn’t what it should be.

I have a wonderful agent now and I’m excited about the opportunities around the corner. For me, the decision to switch markets was hard, but I’m very glad I did. I’ve discovered that readers and co-workers don’t judge me based on my faith—they’re much more accepting than I ever would have expected. They care more about the quality of my work.

And honestly, that was exactly what I was hoping for all along—that my work would be good enough that people would want to read it.

Mike Duran January 31, 2013 at 12:54 PM

Thanks for commenting, Merrie. I should have been clearer how much I like Richard Kadrey’s novels. Definitely dark and foul and cheeky and over-the-top and… hey, maybe that’s why I like them! Anyway, I was thinking of you when I wrote this and your photo seemed like the perfect capture. Interesting that you feel “readers and co-workers don’t judge [you] based on [your] faith—they’re much more accepting than [you] ever would have expected. ” Funny how often the general market is portrayed as antagonistic to Christians. I’m starting to wonder if that’s a caricature we use to fortify our own bubble.

Fred Warren January 31, 2013 at 11:44 AM

Well said, Mike. Go get ’em.

Jonnia Smith January 31, 2013 at 11:46 AM


Katherine Coble January 31, 2013 at 11:49 AM

I am glad to read this. Not because I no longer want you contaminating the pure waters of CBA-oriented fiction or whatever. I just think you’ll be happier with this ministry field. I think this is the field of ministry you’ve yearned for all along and are justifiably disappointed that your original genre just doesn’t (and probably never will) go there.

PS>I am forever the language police. It’s not “less” , it’s “fewer”. Whew. Now I feel better.

Lyn Perry February 3, 2013 at 3:21 PM

Is Writing in the General Market FEWER of a Ministry Than Writing for Christians?

Mark Hancock January 31, 2013 at 11:50 AM

Dude. Nailed it. Thank you.

Jason Joyner January 31, 2013 at 11:54 AM

Wow. There’s a lot to chew on in this post.

First of all – good for you in pursuing The Ghost Box in the best market for it. I can’t see it flying in the CBA, and why waste time trying to force it. Not everything is for the CBA, and not every Christian author should write there. Certainly the prohibitions on certain subjects/language can be frustrating to someone who doesn’t happily tow the line, but the book needs to be where it should be.

I never use secular vs. Christian fiction because I don’t believe in that artificial divide. I’ll say “mainstream” instead. (Kinda funny to me that urban fantasy can be mainstream over a Christian contemporary romance, but c’est la vie).

How awesome for Merrie to be in that situation. She rocks and I’m sure she is a shining light in the urban fantasy crowd she runs in because it is who she is – not just what she says or writes. All is God’s domain, and we should be able to go where we need to as God directs to be Kingdom people in all we do.

I hope the Christian writing community can continue to stand behind you even if you’re shopping this particular book somewhere else. If Jesus could eat with prostitutes and Paul could preach as easily on Mars Hill with the philosophers as he could in a church, we should support our brothers and sisters and cheer them on wherever they go.

I think this is cool. And I’ll continue to have your back in friendship and prayer.

Merrie Destefano January 31, 2013 at 12:17 PM

Awww. You’re so sweet, Jason! Thank you for the kind words. =)

Mike Duran January 31, 2013 at 1:23 PM

Jason, I’m not going anywhere. As long as my first two novels stay in print (and I have no idea how that works, when printing officially stops, when rights revert back to me, etc.), I’ll still have novels aimed at the Christian market. And, frankly, I still write faith-themed stuff. The Ghost Box has lots of faith elements. Not to mention, the majority of my platform extends into the CBA, so I’d be foolish to completely cut all ties. I guess I’ll just have to see how it goes. Anyway, thanks for the encouragement!

Jason Joyner February 4, 2013 at 4:29 PM

Oh, I knew that. I think you should be able to bop back and forth as you come up with new projects – if one is more suited for CBA vs ABA. I get sensitive about Christians who say, “So and so is going secular, so they’re in danger of becoming worldly, blahblahblah.” There’s a CCM artist who is making a push to mainstream radio and suddenly people are questioning her clothes, her choices, etc. Your audience probably won’t do that, but I posted just in case.

So we’ll see you on the other side 😉

Cherry Odelberg January 31, 2013 at 12:03 PM

Ministry means ministering to others – serving, encouraging, binding up wounds – emotional, mental, physical or spiritual. Often in a wholly Christian organization such as CBA, Ministry is interpreted to mean expositing or upholding doctrine. I think you are headed in the right direction.

Carla Laureano January 31, 2013 at 12:11 PM

This is one of those frustrating topics for me. Do I agree with you? Absolutely. Do I agree with the other guys, too? Yeah, I do. It seems like we like to get into these little contests over who is more spiritual because of the market for which they write. (I’m not addressing that directly to you.) People like to get into name calling and say that quality is lacking in the CBA and any real writer will write for mainstream. On the other side, how dare you use the h-e-double-hockey-sticks word in something meant to illuminate Christ in the general market? Both sides are wrong.

A pastor preaching to a confirmed Christian congregation is not considered to be “taking the safe road” because he is not called to overseas missionary work. The missionary is not considered to be less spiritual because he’s down in the trenches ministering to people who have never seen the love of God firsthand. God has called them each to a specific job according to their talents.

As writers, we should be likewise willing to go where God takes us. I’m in that weird borderland of “not Christian enough for the conservative CBA publishers” and “not edgy enough for the mainstream ones.” My agent markets my work to both sides of the fence. The mainstream publishers didn’t get me on the last go-round. Hence my series landed in the CBA. I see that as God’s hand directing my work to where it will minister to the most people. I’m good with that. And if I’m given the opportunity to publish on the other side of the fence, I’ll be good with that too.

Blessings on your new path, Mike, and kudos for being open to where the Lord takes you. As storytellers we have the privilege and responsibility to show the light of God through our work, regardless of where that light may fall.

Jill January 31, 2013 at 12:20 PM

My thoughts on the CBA have been all over the board from disgust to “let them have their market the way they want it, and I’ll do my own thing” and back to disgust. I’m really disgusted right now by a work of fiction that I’m currently reading. I know the author is a better writer than this because I’ve read some of her raw, unpublished work. The self-congratulatory idiocy of the CBA has finally nixed my neutral acceptance of it. The CBA aims for mediocrity and then demands 5 or 4 star reviews for work that should merit 3 stars in any other marketplace. I have enjoyed your books, and I’ve enjoyed the works of Christian indie presses. But I doubt I will read anything else put out by the CBA unless it’s nonfiction. Life is too short.

Congratulations on entering the mainstream market. I wish you all the best. As far as the whole language, writing-what-is-real arguments, my give-a-f*ck is broken. Write well, and write with integrity, and you will succeed (at least as an artist, if not monetarily, though I hope you prosper, too).

Katherine Coble January 31, 2013 at 8:06 PM

Since yours is broken you won’t give a f— when I steal the phrase “my give a f–k is broken.”

Presumably. 😉

Jill February 1, 2013 at 10:20 AM

Steal away. I’m pretty sure I stole it.

Kat Heckenbach January 31, 2013 at 12:27 PM

At the last Necronomicon I attended–a secular sci-fi/fantasy/horror/gaming con in St. Pete, FL–the first book I sold was the only one I had marked as containing “Christian content.” Several of the other authors have books they call “inspirational.” And a book I bought from one of the other authors there was steeped in religious themes.

I’ve said over and over–the Christian market is made up of books by and for a particular demographic. I don’t think they want their borders moved. I am lucky to be with a press that isn’t “CBA” and so I’ve not had the restrictions put on my writing that the CBA has. But that press is still fairly well established in the Christian bubble, so I’m hoping to (and trying to) break out of that bubble with some of my marketing and with my short stories and future novels.

I don’t consider myself someone looking to “minister” but I do hope I’m being a light just by being open about my faith even if my writing is most often under the radar when it comes to faith themes.

Iola January 31, 2013 at 1:00 PM

You’re a Christian. There is no way you could write anything that isn’t from a Christian world view. What matters is that you write, and people read it. If it’s in the secular market, that gives more people a chance to read it, so that should be a good thing.

But, yes, writing for the general market can be seen as a lesser ministry, just the same as working with children is seen as less important than preaching in adult church. Of course, that’s not how God sees it, but let’s not complicate things.

Heather Day Gilbert January 31, 2013 at 2:02 PM

Nodding my head several times as I read. Yes, I’m “officially” shooting for CBA. But it’s a tight box, and I’ve beta read some real gems that haven’t been picked up for niggling reasons (marketing being a HUGE one). Yes, the CBA has every right to be picky about what they’ll shell out the money to market (tried and true sellers, from years back). But it’s sad that the CBA readership is almost completely ignored in this process. They are begging for things like paranormal or other time periods/locales and genres without that “romance” header. They don’t want sermons in every book on how to get saved–they’re generally ALREADY saved.

I’ve been knocking at the CBA’s doors for five years now. If this next book (my third) doesn’t get picked up for “unpopular genre” or “wrong time period,” I’m probably going to venture out somehow. But, like Merrie did, I have a CBA agent who GETS what I write and edits better than anyone I’ve ever met. I’m not ready to go with an ABA agent who doesn’t get my worldview. Still…I hear ya and I’m glad you’re doing what works for your writing, Mike.

Meredith Resce January 31, 2013 at 11:40 PM

Already saved! Good call!

John Robinson January 31, 2013 at 3:09 PM

Thankfully, Heather, there are a few CBA agents (like mine) who also have solid general market chops. But they’re rare.

Joel Q January 31, 2013 at 4:13 PM

Take us with you.

R. L. Copple January 31, 2013 at 6:19 PM

Reminded me when I felt “called,” it wasn’t specifically to write Christian themed books, but to be a Christian influence in the science fiction/fantasy markets. I felt God wanted that world view out there alongside the more secular as a witness of its own sort. A lot of it may be mostly plowing rather than seed planting, but God can use it all. Someone has to plow the ground.

I’m a good ways from having much effect in that way, but a guy has to start somewhere.

All that to say, from my perspective, you’re on the right path for you. May God use your offering to accomplish His purposes.

Guy Stewart January 31, 2013 at 8:39 PM

This is where I started readng and posting on this blog a while ago and now we’re on the same side. What a fascinating journey! Welcome to the world of the majority of people on Earth — the world of outsiders of Christianity.

BTW — were you at the SCBWI panel I sat on when you wrote this memory?

“God forbid they have to sit on a panel next to a lesbian atheist who practices astrology and reads erotica.”

Meredith Resce January 31, 2013 at 11:38 PM

Thank goodness! I was beginning to think all American Christian writers wrote prairie romance, or Amish romance, and were scared to death of examining the real world (I’m Australian by the way). So totally agree with your notion of ministering to where the ministry is needed, rather than preaching to the choir. Good call!

Nola February 6, 2013 at 12:20 AM

Absolutely agree Meredith. I appreciate that the Prairie/Amish books really bless a lot of people. But there are so many stories out there to be told and I’ve yet to meet a Prairie or Amish woman in Australia. More diversity please 🙂

D.M. Dutcher February 1, 2013 at 12:31 AM

Good luck on it Mike. I think you’ll only have more freedom and more success from doing so. You have to obey the calling you are given.

John K. Patterson February 1, 2013 at 2:27 AM

I know exactly what you mean, Mike. Never did feel like my epic fantasy was something that fell under the Christian publishing domain, so I’ve always had secular houses in mind for bringing it to the world. My first short story was published in a Christian SF/F magazine, but that’s just because they were the ones holding the writing contest. I’d rather have people from all walks of life read and hopefully enjoy the book than fret over whether I followed enough of the CBA’s rules. There’s a place for their kinds of literature, but I’m not someone who belongs in that world. Like you said, we have a faulty idea of ministry.

This reminds me of a lecture I saw Chuck Missler give some years back at a Bible conference. “How many of you are in the full time ministry?” (A few people raise their hands) “Oh, come on. All right, let’s try again. How many of you are saved by the blood of Jesus Christ?” (Almost everyone raises their hand) “Okay, so how many of you are in the full time ministry whether you recognize it or not?”

That really stuck with me, and reminded me that going into ministry shouldn’t be restricted to missionary work, seminary school, or becoming a pastor or worship leader. Christians are called to all non-sinful spheres of life, and we should be allowed to serve God to the fullest in whichever one of those realms we happen to find ourselves.

Paula February 1, 2013 at 6:10 AM

Impressive comments about Christian publishing! But I’d like to ask any or all of you, what do Christian readers like to read? Do Christian readers really throw a book down because it has the f-word or evil power in the story? Must every story be sanitized to appeal to Christian readers? I’m the odd one commenting here and different from most you. I don’t have a publisher or an agent or a ministry, and I’m not “called.” Mike, you are so lucky that you have support and direction and success. I’m a struggling self-published author without anyone to help and I’m fumbling around wondering if my book is right for Christian readers or not. I keep hearing that Christian readers only want safe family stories and are too fearful and repressed to read about evil or aggression. Is this true? My book does have the occasional f-word and evil has powers, but redemption follows. I’m wondering if my book is all wrong to pitch/promote to Christian readers. My book is a supernatural tale, Night Sea Journey, and deals with a priest and angels/demons/dreams/love/redemption. Any advice about Christian readers would be greatly appreciated.

Paula Cappa

Mike Duran February 1, 2013 at 7:11 AM

Paula, you’re asking two different questions: 1.) What kind of stories do Christians want and 2.) What kind of audience does the Christian fiction industry aim for. Those are really two different audiences. Some Christians have no problem with R-rated material, provided it’s not gratuitous and ponders redemptive themes. However, the mainstream Christian fiction industry is not aimed at that audience.

You said, “My book does have the occasional f-word… but redemption follows.” It doesn’t matter how much redemption follows. If your book has ANY f-words, it will not be published in the Christian fiction market. Please understand, this does not mean NO Christians will read or enjoy your story. It just means that you’ll have to navigate which market you want the story in, and how willing you are to scrub the language or retain it.

My first novel, The Resurrection, had some mild language which I felt was totally appropriate. Things like “hell,” “damn,” “ass,” etc. I was asked to remove all of them. It didn’t hurt the book. But if I did it again, I’d try to keep some of it in. In the end, it’s simply a matter of recognizing what the market wants. So if I write for the Christian fiction market, I know going in that I can’t use certain words. All that to say, you probably want to decide whether you are aiming for the traditional Christian market or not. Once you narrow down that focus, then you can begin to get an idea of what tweaks you may have to make to your manuscript. Hope that helps!

Jessica Thomas February 1, 2013 at 7:13 AM

I don’t want to leave the CBA (not that I’ve ever officially been a part of it), because despite the creative constraints, it has other things going for it, like, being a great support system. Being a breath of fresh air, a glass of cold water to come home to. Even if I don’t quite *get* the vibe of the books the CBA sells, I feel like the writers and agents involved in it minister to me and give me encouragement along my writing journey.

In this day where authors can both traditionally publish and self publish, I don’t see why a Christian writer can’t write some novels under the CBA umbrella, and others under the secular umbrella. It comes down to the story itself…where does it fit? One of my current WIPs won’t fit in the CBA. It’s science fiction with salty language. My other WIP might. It’s women’s fiction set in small-town Indiana. The main character goes to church, helps in the nursery, wants to be a good Christian although her faults sometimes get in the way.

In other words, I’m hoping a bridge exists between the two markets somewhere, and assuming there is, I don’t want to burn it.

Mike Duran February 1, 2013 at 7:46 AM

That’s a great point, Jessica. I don’t want to burn bridges either. In fact, I can see myself writing more in the CBA. Right now, however, I have stories that just won’t fit and trying to make them fit, or wait for the CBA to change in order to accommodate them, is futility. So, yeah, I don’t think this needs to be an either / or. Maybe, having access to BOTH markets is actually the smart thing to do.

Paula February 1, 2013 at 9:00 AM

Thanks, Mike, for your comments. Very helpful about the differences of the industry and the readers. So, as a self-published author with a book published on Amazon KDP that might appeal to Christian readers, I’m aiming (not at the traditional Christian fiction publishing industry) but at the Christian readership in general. I guess what I’m really asking is how/where would I promote my novel to attract these readers? Any suggestions? Thanks so much!


Nikole Hahn February 1, 2013 at 9:18 AM

If “The Telling” weren’t published in the Christian market, part of my review of it would have never been put in the review. I would have reviewed it with a secular mindset. But when someone publishes something in the Christian field, one looks at the Christian aspect when reviewing. Needless to say, I am still a fan and will continue to look for your novels in the secular market. I am working on a crossover christian which is targeted more to the secular market. One of my friends was rejected in the secular market because her Christian worldview was in there even if the theology, preaching, etc weren’t in it. It was very frustrating for her.

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