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Christian Fiction Is NOT a Victimless Crime

Nick Harrison, Senior Editor at Harvest House Publishers, recently made mention on his Facebook page about a study which revealed that “60% of Christian fiction readers are over 45.” That the Christian fiction industry bertrand-2markets to an older demographic of readers is not news. Neither is the fact that the majority of that group, or the Christian market in general, is comprised of white females. Hence the proliferation of Amish, Historical, and Romance titles.

What we often miss is the readers, writers, and genres that get overlooked because of this demographic tilt.

Case in point: Earlier this week The Weekly Standard ran a piece entitled Divine Deduction, subtitled “Christian crime fiction comes of age.” Did you know there was such a thing as “Christian crime fiction”? Let me rephrase that: Did you know there was a Christian writer out there putting out some fantastic crime fiction?

Apparently, a lot of other readers didn’t either.

Jon Breen of The Weekly Standard describes J. Mark Bertrand as “a major crime-fiction talent,” admitting that he’s “one of the best police procedural writers I’ve come upon in years.” Breen proceeds to describe Bertrand’s three-book crime series (beginning with Back on Murder), published by Bethany House, in rather glowing terms:

The police procedure has a feel of authenticity, with extensive detail of weaponry and forensics, and the course of the investigation bears some of the messiness of real life. The narrative energy is relentless. The visual, cinematic style sticks to a single first-person viewpoint, a unity some contemporary thriller writers violate to their detriment. Present-tense narrative annoys some readers (including this one at times), but its sense of urgency and immediacy is effective in the [Roland] March novels.

There’s just one problem…

Bertrand is a major crime-fiction talent—one of the best police procedural writers I’ve come upon in years—but he has not reached nearly the wide audience he deserves for a simple reason: His novels come from a religious publisher. (bold mine)

One would think a religious publisher, just like any publisher, should be about cashing in on their clients’ talents. I mean, why hire Eddie Van Halen to stuff envelopes for your mail order company?

Give dude a stage.

So how does being a religious publisher (in this case Bethany House) limit the reach of an author’s audience? Well, it doesn’t… unless you write sci-fi, epic fantasy, ethnic fiction, espionage, horror, literary, or crime fiction.

Because Women’s / Historical fiction is the wheelhouse of the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association), publishing houses are now designed to crank out this product. A new title rolls in and the marketing department just rearranges all the typical pieces: bonnet, covered wagon, parasol, petticoat, doe-eyed lass. Check, check, check! It’s a quick cut-and-paste affair. The economy has forced Christian publishers into “safe mode.” Maybe they’ve always been in “safe mode.” So when a horror, crime, fantasy, literary, or sci-novel rolls in, it’s the equivalent of adding a fifth wheel to an assembly line of carriages.

In other words, Bertrand’s problem is not that he’s “a major crime-fiction talent,” but that “religious publishers” don’t know how in the hell to market “a major crime-fiction talent”!

Even sadder is that some Christian authors and readers simply shrug and mumble something like, “Well, that’s just the way it is. If you don’t like it, go elsewhere.”

Apparently, that’s just what Mr. Bertrand is doing.

J. Mark Bertrand deserves a wider readership than a religious publisher affords. Many writers are able to carry readers along by employing nice phrases and descriptive passages, bits of humor, character involvement, and curiosity about how it will all turn out. But few have Bertrand’s relentless narrative power. His website states he will write more March cases if he can find a new publisher, suggesting the three-book original contract was a commercial (surely not spiritual) failure for Bethany House. Perhaps the ideal new publisher would be a major mainstream house, one that won’t ask Bertrand to compromise his beliefs but can get behind this extraordinary writer and gain him the wide audience he deserves. (bold mine)

“J. Mark Bertrand deserves a wider readership than a religious publisher affords,” someone who “can get behind this extraordinary writer and gain him the wide audience he deserves.” So if you’re a Christian writer who writes really good stuff, that’s NOT clean Romance or Historical fiction, and you want a “wide audience,” look elsewhere.

I don’t want to portray Mr. Bertrand as a victim in this drama. No doubt, he’ll land on his feet elsewhere. The real victim in this tale of intrigue is not J. Mark Bertrand.

It’s the industry that forces him to look elsewhere.

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{ 144 comments… add one }
  • Sharon James August 10, 2013, 1:35 AM

    Thank you, Mike, and everyone who left comments. It took me hours to read them all, but I finally did it. Meanwhile, my family watched “The Empire Strikes Back” then went to bed. I’m happy to say I actually feel encouraged after reading so many different perspectives.

    I am thankful writers have gobs of choices for publication nowadays. If you are a Christian and God has called you to write, then write your heart out. Who cares about the odds of “success”? That’s not why we’re still on this earth! What if God is going to reach one person through your book, and you see her in heaven? What if no one else ever reads you? Did you succeed at your mission? You will rejoice that you reached one person. An eternal soul is worth it. “[My word] will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:11

    I am not ashamed of the gospel. It’s all over my blog. But I have yet to write much fiction that appears “Christian.” Why is that? I’m not sure. Maybe the faith will come out somehow in the stories. Maybe I need to explore some more. Write deeper. But it has to be authentic. Has to tell the truth. (Thanks to the person above who linked to Leif Enger’s “Peace Like a River.” A bestseller in the ABA and amazingly authentic and spiritual. Best book I’ve read in a long time. Thanks also to the agent who recommended it on her blog a few years ago, which is how I found out about it.)

    Writing is play. Thank God! Some servants He has called to the mission field and right now they are putting ointment and bandages on burnt children in Moldova, or building clean water facilities in Sierra Leone. Our babysitter goes to Haiti or China every chance she gets. I sure hope she writes, because I want to find out more about her experiences across the world and with the suffering church. Folks, there is so much more out there.

    I wish everyone would write. If you are reading this, wanting to write, wondering if you have permission to pursue this dream–this God-given dream–then I tell you: Go for it. God will get the story into the hands of readers.

    It is God’s show!

  • Steven Hutson September 8, 2013, 6:25 AM

    I wrote about this very subject in my blog recently: http://steve-soapbox.blogspot.com/2013/06/is-christian-publishing-forgetting.html

  • Cathy Richmond September 8, 2013, 1:01 PM

    Let’s at least give Bethany a gold star for effort.

    We need to get the word out: today’s Christian fiction is not your grandma’s Christian fiction. I wish ACFW would partner with publishers in this direction. Instead publishers are closing down fiction lines and letting good writers go.

  • Don Mulcare October 17, 2013, 10:56 AM

    How different are the demographics for Christian vs. Secular authors and readers? Each group writes for an aging and literate population. The young adult and juvenile market represent the harvest of the future, as well as the present. If “Christian” writing intends to reflect spiritual values, perhaps Christian writers preach to the choir when they address the middle age and older audience. Much of the excellent YA and Juvenile literature as in “summer reading selections” preach values, but they are secular values. Christians who wish to project faith, hope and charity into the next generation might consider retooling their writing skills toward the younger end of the demographic scale.

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