Christian Fiction Is NOT a Victimless Crime

by Mike Duran · 144 comments

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.

Katherine Coble July 31, 2013 at 7:36 AM

Thoughts on the rest of the article in a bit. But I’d be really interested in seeing an article–maybe I should write it myself–on how the “bonnet fiction” is actually pretty close to racism. Or…not racism. Classism? Factionalism?

As a Mennonite I am increasingly aggravated by the way we are misportrayed as some quaint elves or fairies.

Jill July 31, 2013 at 8:49 AM

Way to burst my bubble, Katherine! I literally believed you were a quaint elf. Now I’m not sure if we can be friends. 😉

Erica July 31, 2013 at 9:09 AM

I personally enjoy Amish Fiction as a diversion from my other favorite genres, but I agree with you that Amish Fiction is portrayed in one light instead of multidimensional.

Hoomi September 7, 2013 at 10:55 PM

Releasing in less than a month, I believe, will be the new novel, “Amish Vampires in Space.” Get your sci-fi, your paranormal thriller, and your Amish fiction, all rolled into one!

Anyway, it’s very much a given that Christian writers that craft stories in something other than the Historical Romance genre face a daunting uphill battle to win any attention from Christian publishers. We don’t face a much better chance with secular publishers, since they view the “religious content” as something better suited to the Christian publishers.

Not to mention, how many Christian publishers have such strict content guidelines, that they would reject the Bible for “inappropriate content.”

NikeChillemi September 8, 2013 at 6:03 PM

Katherine, Jill, Erica,

Except for Nancy Mehl. She write wonderful, complex contemporary Mennonite murder mysteries.

Cherry Odelberg July 31, 2013 at 7:43 AM

“Give Dude a Stage!” stomp, stomp, stomp. Beat cane on floor. Well said.

Lynette Sowell July 31, 2013 at 7:46 AM

Good for him! I’m glad he’s going mainstream if indeed his writing is that good and his work deserves better notice than it’s received. We CBA authors often forget that it’s a wide, wide world of readers out there, and we forget how small the CBA world really is. i am making small nudges with my book away from that narrow corner that Katherine refers to. I’m waiting to see if CBA readers will think it’s too far away from what they’re used to, and if a wider audience will embrace the book. I too get tired of what feels like same-old, same-old.

I’ve found my author friend’s cookbook (carried by a CBA publisher) not in the cookbook section, but in the Christian book section — all because it’s from a Christian publishing house. A shame. I don’t think her recipes are “Christian.”

Sharon July 31, 2013 at 9:08 AM

How quickly they forget: http://www.amazon.com/Peace-Like-River-Leif-Enger/dp/0802139256

But, since then, we’re free to write with the “Christian word” filter set to OFF. And our self-publishing house switch set to ON. In these days of Amazon.com and e-book buying access, who needs a publisher? (And who knows which readers will stumble across it, there?)

Yay for God! He opened the “All Words for All People” market.

Erica July 31, 2013 at 9:13 AM

Lol at the “Christian recipes”. I didn’t think recipes could be Christian. Me personally, I enjoy writing supernatural fiction but I would like Christians and other nonreligious people to read them. I write stories with messages, therefore it could reach a broad audience.

Of course the matter of hope, redemption, and love is always good to include.

Heidi Glick July 31, 2013 at 7:50 AM

Uh oh. I write suspense and not bonnet fiction. 🙂

The main problem I face is trying to market via social media when the majority of the people that Christian books are marketed to (60% over age 45) seem to be less inclined to use social media. I’m trying to overcome this by offering readers an email newsletter via Yahoo.

Winter Peck July 31, 2013 at 7:55 AM

There are so many things I want to say, but I’ll keep it simple. Mark, welcome to the other side. I left the CBA because my police procedural/suspense/thriller/mystery/romance books didn’t fit the criteria. Got picked up by a publishing house quickly and 3 books later–working on 4th–here I am. And I’m not looking back.

Natisha Parsons October 14, 2015 at 12:44 AM

Who is publishing your work? Hard for an unknown name to get attention.

Heather Day Gilbert July 31, 2013 at 8:01 AM

*cheering quietly from the sidelines while book is out on submission*

Rick Barry July 31, 2013 at 8:28 AM

Can the tide of bonnet fiction continue forever? If someday the fans get tired of this genre (and the market seems saturated already), where will CBA publishers turn?

I dislike the cliche “vicious cycle,” but it seems that CBA houses don’t publish a number of genres because they can’t sell them well, and readers of those genres don’t go to CBA publishers for their books because they already know the CBA isn’t producing them. Male readers (including Christian ones) often bypass CBA catalogs and websites simply because they know from experience they won’t find stories geared for the male mind.

I don’t know where the answer lies, but I hope Christian fiction someday expands beyond its present boundaries.

Cindy McCord July 31, 2013 at 8:32 AM

I will admit to being over the age of 45 and a reader of Christian fiction. I don’t however read Amish, Historical, and Romance titles. My favorite to read is Christian Crime Fiction and I agree that it is hard to find. Would love to find some new authors to try. I would say that my favorite author is Steven James who does a great job of it with the Patrick Bowers series. I have read one of J. Mark Bertrand’s books, Back to Murder, but not any others in the series.

Heather Day Gilbert July 31, 2013 at 8:56 AM

Cindy–I’d highly recommend Sibella Giorello books. Very well-written and gripping plotlines. Love the MC, Raleigh Harmon.

Cindy McCord July 31, 2013 at 11:20 AM

Thanks Heather! I have placed all of her Raleigh Harmon series in our church library. So far I have read the first one so have a ways to go on it but I did like her writing.

Bina July 31, 2013 at 5:28 PM

Was gonna say the same thing…love Sibella’s books!

Carrie Padgett July 31, 2013 at 10:18 PM

Earlene Fowler is an ABA author but her mystery novels are “clean,” and very good. A bit cozy, if that works for you. Earlene and her characters are believers.

Charlotte Strauwald July 30, 2014 at 8:19 PM

Hi Folks, I am one of those Christian Crime Fiction writers, and I just finished my novel, SUFFER THE CHILDREN, ELEANOR’S STORY. It is about the hunt for the leader of a child sex slave ring. The heroine was a hit in her role as a secondary character in my novel REGIONS BEYOND (this is not Crime Fiction) which was published by PublishAmerica (yes, I know) in 2008. My reader’s asked me to write Eleanor’s story, so this is it. I volunteer in my church library, and our Christian Crime Fiction does pretty well; Dee Henderson’s work is very popular, and there are a couple of fairly new titles, The Sacred Cipher and its sequel, that are seeing a lot of action. I think this new genre is catching on.

Nicole July 31, 2013 at 8:47 AM

Amen and Bravo! J. Mark Bertrand is one of the finest crime writers in contemporary fiction. Period. No qualifiers such as “Christian fiction” for this man. He’s an absolutely accomplished author. Having read a lot of thrillers, mysteries, suspense, etc., in the CBA publishing realm and some outside of it, Mark is sterling. And it’s just flat incredible that Christian publishers haven’t snapped him up and given him an unending contract for whatever he chooses to write – he’s that good.

The amazing part of this ridiculous situation is that his stories are pure crime fiction with Christianity making small but solid interruptions into the tales. They’re “clean” as far as not containing superfluous smut. They’re just perfect for what they are. Granted, Bethany House (Bonnet Books, Inc.) might not have had success with these three novels, but, you’re right, Mike, it’s because they don’t have a clue how to market anything besides their sweet little romances and Amish ad nauseum selections.

This is just another example of truly terrific authors being laid waste because they don’t cater to the over-sated demographic. It’s shameful really. You can’t find better quality in any fiction.

Nancy Kimball July 31, 2013 at 6:37 PM

Nicole,
I have to agree with you. When I came across this great book, Blood and Bone, in NetGalley I was SHOCKED to see it was a Bethany House title. I read it and it was great (think National Treasure/Indiana Jones meets The Robe) and I was a little furious to find out at the end it was not the first of the series. Again that I’d NEVER heard of until coming across it on NetGalley. As an aspiring author who is as well connected as I am on social media with like minded individuals, it was disappointing to have “stumbled upon” such a great book by accident.

Heidi Glick July 31, 2013 at 8:51 AM

If you like to read Christian suspense, thrillers, etc., or learn more about authors that write these genres, I feature them on a blog that I coauthor.

http://www.sleuthsandsuspects.blogspot.com/

Susanne Lakin July 31, 2013 at 12:50 PM

I’d love to be featured on your blog. My crime novel, A Thin Film of Lies, is very real and intense, but features a female Christian homicide detective who lets God lead her. But it’s got some grit.

Heidi Glick July 31, 2013 at 1:07 PM

Susanne,

I messaged you on Facebook and send you a proposed blog date. If that doesn’t work, just let me know.

Heidi

John Robinson July 31, 2013 at 1:25 PM

Heidi, I just wanted to say I really love your blog. Keep up the GREAT work you and Jeff do!

Heidi Glick July 31, 2013 at 4:34 PM

Thanks, John. I thought of you after reading this article and remember you speaking about writing Joe Box for men to have something to read (Although, let’s face it, women like Joe Box, too!) and all you went through to try and get the series published.

And I want to clarify. I don’t hate bonnet fiction. I’m just not into it. Probably because I grew up in Lancaster County, PA, and I’m not fascinated by Amish. That said, my blog has featured an Amish writer who writes Amish mysteries because some readers like that. I’m just not one of those people.

I think a lot of Christian men I know don’t read Christian books because they don’t think that there are any written to them. I don’t think that’s true, but I think they aren’t aware of what is out there. I hope to change that by blogging! 🙂

Tracy Lesch July 31, 2013 at 3:00 PM

Hi Heidi. I’d love a chance to be featured on your blog as well. I have an epic fantasy that was a finalist in the 2012 Global eBook Awards, and excerpts from its humble beginnings won me Writer of the Year at the 2006 Florida Christian Writer’s Conference. And yes, when I showed it to various editors, they looked at me like I had three heads. Guess there weren’t enough Amish knights in it… Also, here’s a short rant: the folks with the “accepted” genres and books constantly SPAM on FB, on multiple book pages, EVERY DAY. Has anyone else encountered this?

Brenda Anderson July 31, 2013 at 9:01 AM

Where does the blame fall for this *crime*? The publisher for narrowing their scope to bonnet & historical romance? The 45+ (of which I’m part) who ignore quality writers such as Bertrand (Loved his Roland March books! Comparable to Connelly’s Harry Bosch) and Athol Dickson? And, unless the author is Karen Kingsbury, contemporary women’s fiction doesn’t sell well either.

I want to support Christian Fiction. I write CF; my friends write CF. Yet, when I leave my local Christian bookseller, due to the lack of choice I’m usually leaving without making a purchase.

I wonder what will happen to CF when bonnet & historicals go out of style.

Sharon July 31, 2013 at 9:09 AM

How quickly they forget: http://www.amazon.com/Peace-Like-River-Leif-Enger/dp/0802139256

But, since then, we’re free to write with the “Christian word” filter set to OFF. And our self-publishing house switch set to ON. In these days of Amazon.com and e-book buying access, who needs a publisher? (And who knows which readers will stumble across it, there?)

Yay for God! He opened the “All Words for All People” market.

Ramona July 31, 2013 at 9:41 AM

Word! There was a time when the flier from CBD or the local Christian bookstore had the latest Frank Peretti novel on the cover, along with a variety of other titles and the latest CD’s…. Now, I just chunk them without opening. Bleah! They’re marginalizing themselves, imo.

Teddi Deppner July 31, 2013 at 10:52 AM

Hmmm…. I guess it depends on what you’re looking to happen here, folks.

I was pretty much on board with all the comments and the thrust of the article, and then I had a sudden mental shift.

Why do we assume that Christian publishers should publish every genre under the sun?

Why not let them do what they do best? Everywhere I turn, I hear that the new publishing trends indicate we should “find our niche” and stay focused on it.

The CBA has found its niche. And as long as the readers in that niche exist, perhaps the CBA should keep up the good work, cranking out what their group enjoys writing and reading.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of Christians (and Jews and Muslims and Mormons and nice, moral people) would would prefer “clean” fiction written from a basically moral worldview. In MANY genres.

I don’t know that we need the CBA to do anything differently. Maybe we just need to see them differently. Instead of seeing them as the place for Christians to publish their work, see them as the place for certain overtly Christian genres to be published. If you don’t write those genres, go where your genre is being published.

Meanwhile, as a reader (for myself and on behalf of my children), I’d keenly appreciate some sort of rating system for books like we have for movies. Something that categorizes and labels things according to the content so I can narrow my list while looking for something that matches my conscience and preferences.

I’m not looking for (or writing) Christian content so much as excellent (entertaining, enriching) content that doesn’t actively undermine my convictions.

rachel July 31, 2013 at 11:15 AM

i really appreciated your comment, Teddi!

Heidi Glick July 31, 2013 at 12:20 PM

As for a rating system for Christian fiction, try http://www.fictionfinder.com

I think you may be required to create a login, but it’s a a free service.

On there, authors can rate their books according to categories like violence, language, etc. Not all the books have ratings, but some do.

You can also search for Christian books by keyword and/or genre.

As for a site where you can view ratings for secular books, try http://www.commonsensemedia.org/

D.M. Dutcher July 31, 2013 at 2:25 PM

But what isn’t published is so huge it runs the risk of setting perceptions about Christians that are wrong. It’s not like “well, we don’t publish avant-garde stuff, but we have a healthy mix of fiction from all genres.” They ignore genders and one could argue an entire gender.

D.M. Dutcher July 31, 2013 at 2:27 PM

first gender should read “genre.”

Carrie Padgett July 31, 2013 at 10:15 PM

You make some good points, Teddi. Christian publishers are in *business* and we do well to remember that. They’re going to publish what makes money.

J. S. Bailey July 31, 2013 at 11:12 AM

Hmm. I write what might be considered Christian speculative fiction. If anyone figures out a decent way to market that genre to the masses, be sure to let me know! 😀

Jon Mast July 31, 2013 at 11:53 AM

I don’t know their numbers, but Marcher Lord Press seems to get at least some press and their books are fantastic. http://www.marcherlordpress.com — they focus on Christian Speculative fiction.

J. S. Bailey July 31, 2013 at 7:34 PM

I’ve actually considered submitting my future work to them. I haven’t read any of their novels yet but I’ve heard great things!

Rebeca Seitz July 31, 2013 at 12:14 PM

As someone who served as the first dedicated fiction publicist at Thomas Nelson years ago and who has worked with CBA and ABA storytellers ever since, THANK YOU for this article. For all you Christian writers creating product that belongs in the mainstream (e.g. not Amish or historical fiction), I would love to invite you to the sandbox we created over at Spirit of Naples (SON). It was created specifically for you, the Christian creator of mainstream stories in film/TV/book form. At our conference this October, we have SHARK TANK, where writers can pitch their products live, in front of the conference audience, to a very accomplished panel of sharks (Penguin, Sony, etc.). I do apologize for the shameless plug, but I’m working hard to let folks know that there IS a group of us trying to do something about this – and we’d love to keep the crowd growing! We’re at http://spiritofnaples.com.

Kathleen L. Maher September 7, 2013 at 10:11 PM

Rebeca, I just signed up for the newsletter for SON. Thank you for doing what you are doing.

Susanne Lakin July 31, 2013 at 12:29 PM

Yes, I tried to sell my edgy very Christian crime novel, A Thin Film of Lies, to CBA. Even with having been published by Zondervan and written thirteen novels, my agent couldn’t get one publisher to read a chapter. I went on to self-publish it and enjoy great reviews. I pretty much have given up trying to write anything for CBA because the scope is too narrow and restrictive. The point being, too, that CBA books are written for Christians, and I write to reach the lost primarily, by trying to subtly bring in issues of faith. So, along with many former CBA authors, I’m now writing for the general market, and I’m thrilled.

Kathleen Y'Barbo-Turner July 31, 2013 at 12:32 PM

Interesting that historical would be included in this discussion. Historical romance, yes, okay. But historical suspense? Or, for that matter, any other type of historical? Not seeing it.

Kathleen L. Maher September 7, 2013 at 10:22 PM

yes, well said Kathleen. Plain old historical without romance is a difficult sell, and forget it if your romance has the wrong aged hero and heroine or emphasizes the hero more than the heroine, or if you have a great New Adult idea that happens to be historical . . . basically, it has to fit a very tight parameter. *sigh*

janet July 31, 2013 at 12:37 PM

My husband sent me a link to this post, knowing both my bibliophile and mystery/thriller tendencies and my dislike of most “Christian” fiction. The latter seems to me to be almost all romance of a particular sameness and although there might be some good stories there, I don’t ever look at them. I got Bertrand’s three books from the library today and they’ll be part of my traveling vacation library. Loved the post and the resulting conversation and have subscribed, so I look forward to more of the same.

Cheers,

janet

Heidi Glick July 31, 2013 at 12:48 PM

Up until a few years ago, I was only aware of a handful of Christian authors (Kingsbury, Peretti, Jenkins). I began blogging, and I found there are many good Christian fiction writers who I did not know about. I think the problem is that like, Betrand, these other authors, are not as well known.

By blogging, I hope to call attention to such writers, because I feel bad that so many readers are missing out on some good books!

Up until a few years ago, I wouldn’t even dare read a Christian fiction novel written by a woman because I thought it would be some flowery romance. And then I found authors like Ronie Kendig and Jordyn Redwood, etc., and now, I read Christian fiction written by females.

Susanne Lakin July 31, 2013 at 1:14 PM

Heidi, maybe give your blog info here for others to check out.

Heidi Glick July 31, 2013 at 1:24 PM

Thanks.

http://www.sleuthsandsuspects.blogspot.com/ is the blog.

Connect with me on Facebook or email me at glick(dot)heidi(at)gmail(dot)com if you are interested in an interview, book review, or book giveaway.

Nick Harrison July 31, 2013 at 12:48 PM

Hi all. I want to weigh in on this topic too. Please know that publishers DO try and publish creative out-of-the-box fiction, but what are we to do when the market we reach doesn’t respond? How are we to blame for that? Regarding crime fiction, I acquired and edited Brandt Dodson’s excellent Colton Parker, PI series (book one was “Original Sin”). Brandt is a great writer in this genre. We did at least SIX books with him and yet we didn’t find the readers of that genre. We tried four EXCELLENT speculative fiction books by George Bryan Polivka (start with “The Legend of the Firefish”) and although Bryan is one of the top three authors I’ve had the privilege to edit, his books also did not find an audience in our market. I, along with other CBA editors, rack my brains trying to figure out how to get our market to respond to these and other genres that are popular in the general trade market. If anyone has any theories on how to do it better, I’m all ears! What we’ve found is that Christians who like genre fiction don’t even think of looking for books from Christian publishers. Add to that the fact that large chain stores will shelve our fiction ONLY in the religious fiction category, no matter the genre. I would LOVE to see some authors like Mark Bertrand break though in our market. But to be honest, something will have to happen FIRST to the readership of fiction by Christian authors before publishers can expand in that area. One final story: I acquired and edited a very talented writer that writes what might be close to “literary fiction.” We pubished NINE books trying to find her market. NINE! She has since moved to another CBA publisher for a few more books and has still had limited success–though marvelous reviews. Now, praise God, she has a contract with Penguin. I hope she finds a broader readership there. I do wish folks would stop blaming publishers for the reading tastes of the Christian book-buying public.

Heidi Glick July 31, 2013 at 12:59 PM

Thank you for commenting. I appreciate hearing your side as well. As a 30-something, I will say that I don’t buy books at Christian book stores. I buy books on Amazon, almost exclusively. I write Christian fiction and read Christian fiction, but up until a few years ago, I didn’t read as much Christian fiction because I was only aware of a handful of writers. I think social media is where it’s at for the younger generation and for those who will be interested in other genres. Where are these readers lurking–on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs. I don’t think you can market crime the same way as you do bonnet fiction because you have two different sets of readers. I write suspense, and I’m working on a crime novel. Where do I lurk–on crime forums (for help from law enforcement), on Facebook (in suspense groups and writers and book club groups), Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads, blogs, etc. When I worked as a technical editor, I was taught to conduct usability studies with a minimum of five participants. I’d suggest reaching out to readers of other genres to find out more about how to market to them.

Heather Day Gilbert July 31, 2013 at 1:01 PM

Nick, I am thrilled to hear there are acq. editors thinking like this out there. One brilliant development I’ve noticed is Cook’s direct-to-epub format…then they do hard copies if it sells well, I believe. This seems a great way to take a “chance” on debut authors and out-of-the-box genres without investing huge amounts in it. I think the best we can all do is to give props to great writers like the ones you mentioned you have taken on in the past. I’ve found some true gems in the CBA, and I make sure I give lots of props in social media forums & w/reader friends to said authors.

Sharon July 31, 2013 at 3:07 PM

Agreed, Heather. Is there even a “risk” to a Christian e-book?

Last year, the Minnesota Christian Writers Guild http://mnchristianwriters.org/ toured Bethany Press http://www.bethanypress.com/ , whose president is admittedly nervous about all the paper he has stacked to the ceiling. They print nearly every hard copy book issued by every Christian book publisher in the USA, but doubts he will ever use the paper. “Christians are the number one buyers of e-version books,” he stated. He’s the one “at risk,” if you ask me.

Rather than fight the times (which are a changin’) and in keeping with the Great Commission, they rolled out a tool giving Christians in remote mission fields access to books they could not import (without going to jail). For $10k, they are downloaded electronically, and printed to hard copy, only if need be. http://www.publish4all.com/ No stockpiles laying around!

Rebeca Seitz July 31, 2013 at 1:12 PM

As painful as it was to come to the realization, Nick, I think the answer is: let it go. Booksellers just aren’t going to shelves CBA fiction anywhere but the Christian section. Someone else has said this as well here: CBA knows what it can sell. Amish. Historical romance. This is frustrating because new Christians who venture into the Christian fiction ghetto at their local ABA bookstore are going to think they’ve just signed up to follow a God who requires them to be entertained by nothing in the present or future. But so long as CBA publishers need to make money (a principal that is NOT evil!), it is what it is.
The market that purchases the other genres knows to look elsewhere because it always has. Christians have been publishing in the mainstream in adult, YA, and children’s for the history of publishing and they continue to do so (Koontz, Grisham, King – Christians. Writers of Beauty and the Beast, Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan – Christians). Segregating ourselves and our stories is an idea that has revealed its own flaws. It shines a harsh light on the wisdom of the directive to be IN the world, while mastering the art of not letting our identity be based in it.
We know the phrase well, “Go where the desired audience is already”…and that’s not the shadowy corner in the back of the store where the shelves are covered in buggies and bonnets. (Unless the audience the Lord has called you to minister to with story is the audience that LIKES buggies and bonnets. Then you better get yourself there!)
I greatly applaud CBA publishers for trying…just as I now think the best thing that can be done for novelists – for readers – is to get stories written by Christians onto bookshelves beside their non-Christian counterparts.

Rebecca LuElla Miller July 31, 2013 at 6:21 PM

I’m having a little bit of a disconnect here. So we’re saying Ted Dekker doesn’t sell well?

Becky

J.L. Lyon July 31, 2013 at 7:20 PM

I was wondering that too, Becky. There are definitely outliers in this equation, and it would be interesting if we could know why certain speculative/crime fiction authors have been successful in the CBA and others haven’t. So far in this thread I’ve seen fingers pointed at bookstores, publishers, and readers…but what about the authors themselves? Doesn’t some of the burden of responsibility for connecting to readers fall on them?

I look at Ted Dekker and I see that he has built himself into a brand, not just with great books but with great marketing. He engaged actively with his fans back in those early days (and still does, to an extent) and built a solid following (“Dekkies,” I think they call themselves). There is something to be said for that. The author’s work doesn’t end at the contract, and most can’t depend on a single awesome book to skyrocket them to success. It takes time and effort, nose to the ground, to build your name into a brand. I’m sure he didn’t do all of it alone, but in the end no publisher or agent owns the Dekker brand. He does.

Not to knock Bertrand, but I was just curious what his site looked like so I Googled him. Aside from a post today about the Weekly Standard review, the last post was in February. The one before that was in September 2012. Also, low social engagement on those blogs. While “fiction writers should blog to build a platform and get published” has been debunked, the basic fact remains that continued online exposure requires fresh content that is of value to users. Perhaps Bertrand used to blog but no longer feels he needs to. That’s fine as well, but then why does his site still prominently feature his blog (which is largely outdated)? Why aren’t his books, and his identity as a novelist, front and center? See Ted Dekker’s site, by contrast.

Admittedly, his publisher and agent should be advising him on this, but again they don’t own the Bertrand brand. He does.

Rebecca LuElla Miller August 1, 2013 at 10:49 AM

J. L. I’m glad someone else is thinking along these lines. I think the issue is too complex to throw a blanket statement at Christian readers like, They only buy romance or historical. That theory does not explain the anomalies like Ted Dekker or even Jerry Jenkins.

From my perspective as a fantasy writer who has worked to alert readers to the existence of a growing number of quality authors and books, I remain unconvinced that Christians don’t want other genres. Rather, readers remain uninformed.

Most of my efforts have put me in touch with other speculative writers, but slowly we’re finding readers, too. One of my happiest recent connections is a librarian who loves Christian speculative stories and who writes reviews.

The thing is, like everything else in the book business, waking up readers to a wider array of books is a slow process. I get frustrated when I hear four books being cited as an example of trying to expand readership. That’s like an author sending out four queries and deciding there’s no hope for his manuscript.

As I see it, publishers might not meet their expectations in the short term, but the investment to bring in the younger readers or those with broader interests is worth it.

Oddly enough, while there’s so much emphasis put on romance and historicals by some publishers, AMG almost exclusively publishes YA fantasy in their fiction line. Another anomaly?

Becky

D.M. Dutcher July 31, 2013 at 9:24 PM

Stephen King effect? People who aren’t crazy about horror as a genre read him? I always though Dekker seemed to fill A King/Koontz role in Christian fiction, and for some odd reason that weird supernatural/sf/fantasy hybrid doesn’t offend believers when a straight genre novel does.

Heidi Glick August 1, 2013 at 3:20 AM

I know for at least his book, Adam, Dekker released two versions: a Christian retail version and then a more secular version. (Thomas Nelson published the book.)

This article explains the strategy Dekker’s publisher uses for crossing over between audiences: http://reviews.libraryjournal.com/2012/02/collection-development/genre-spotlight-christian-fiction-a-born-again-genre/

Teddi Deppner July 31, 2013 at 1:22 PM

Great hearing the publisher’s side of this story, Nick.

Jacob August 1, 2013 at 6:02 AM

As a reader of all sorts of fiction, let me give you a glimpse at why I will probably never buy another book from a Christian publisher. (And these are all broad assumptions; I’d never want to presume an individual’s authorial intent. And I know there are books which aren’t like the following issues–I’m deliberately painting with a broad stroke.)

1. As a reader, I hate agenda.
A lot of Christian fiction feels like thinly-veiled advertisements for Evangelical Christianity. Or, at least, serving as an “example” of how following a specific Christian lifestyle formula would bring about a happy result.

I’m not thinking of a specific book here, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this has been done:
Protagonist was promiscuous as a non-Christian. Finds God, vows to wait for man God provides. Struggles. Struggles. God brings The One into life. Suffers some temptation–maybe gives in (but just a little bit!), feels “appropriately” guilty. Gets married, lives happily ever after, all because Protagonist followed God’s path.

2. Theology
There are many different branches of Biblical interpretation and analysis. I’ve got my own beliefs, and I’m comfortable with the fact that other people have different beliefs. But that doesn’t mean that I can read a Christian novel and forget that the theological perspective being extolled runs contrary to my own.

Yet if I read a book from a non-Christian which presents Christians with a different theological angle, I don’t care. Why? Because in a weird way, a Christian product represents Christianity, whereas a regular book is just a story with characters. (Which, incidentally, doesn’t excuse non-Christian books from the Agenda point; if I feel like the author is writing to prove a point rather than share a story, I’m tuning out–regardless of the agenda.)

3. Sanitization
Maybe things have changed in the ten-odd years since I’ve really paid any attention to the CBA-market, but considering Christian fiction is even more Amish/romance/historical skewed than it was back then, I kind of doubt it.

I forget if I was watching a Christian movie or reading a Christian book, but there was a scene with an antagonist that was played totally seriously. They were trying to portray this guy as A Big Bad. Yet, this supposed Big Bad guy didn’t DO anything–maybe some violence, that seems to be pretty well accepted in certain CBA circles–but he was talking, and talking, and NOT swearing (but using awkward little substitutes that no actual Big Bad would ever consider saying).

The only thing that separated him from the “good guys” was some sort of “I hate church!” sort of spiel. (Hopefully more subtle than my brief pseudo-quote made it seem.) It’s not like I think authors should be trying to fit in as much “bad” things as possible, but the sanitization of language, sex, drug culture, etc from the story means that the characters are sanitized from these elements as well. And sanitized characters won’t ring true with me as a reader.

4. A lack of respect for the Christian book readership.
There was a point, even when I was drifting away from Christian industry fiction that I’d express some of these reasons I wasn’t interested in reading Christian fiction. So the person would stare at me with some sense of shock, gather themselves, and then exclaim, “Well, have you read Frank Peretti? I think you’d like him.”

Yes, I have read Frank Peretti.

Or the time I told a co-worker that I didn’t believe the theology presented in the Left Behind books was accurate and he legitimately called me a heathen.

Just so many examples of me presenting issues to the readership and them suggesting an author that absolutely embodied everything I can’t stand. So at this point the only thing that would get me to read a Christian book would be the recommendation from someone whose literary tastes I already highly respect. And even then there is so much Faulkner, Bradbury, and John Green to read.

Susanne Lakin August 1, 2013 at 6:38 AM

Well said, Jacob.

Rebecca LuElla Miller August 1, 2013 at 11:09 AM

Jacob, with all due respect, if you haven’t read a book that falls in the Christian fiction purview within the last ten years, I think your ideas are outmoded. Read Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard, then comment. Or try A Cast of Stones by Patrick Carr.

And the issue of “theology” is a little strange. I assume you’re fine with reading about false worldviews which litter the landscape of general market fiction. Are you saying we Christians should stuff our differences and write some kind of whitewashed fiction that represents nothing but the bare bones of our faith? Actually, I think that’s what the fiction some ten years ago did. And that’s the very attitude which I believe brings Christian fiction down–if it isn’t what I believe, then it’s no good. Why do we treat Christian fiction differently from general market fiction?

I don’t recognize most of the strictures many people ascribe to Christian fiction. Just this week I had someone say (yet again) that CBA books don’t allow drinking. I had to laugh because the book I was reading has the town drunk for the protagonist (A Cast of Stones).

My advice to those complaining–start reading some contemporary Christian fiction.

Becky

Rachel Smith August 1, 2013 at 3:08 PM

Well said, Jacob! I heartily agree. As a 30-something who’s devoured mountains of Christian fiction in the last 10 years, I’ve totally stopped reading it in the last six months. There for awhile things were trying to change, but then it all went back to the way it used to be. I have zero interest in picking one up, and I love historical romance.

I’m happily discovering and devouring general market authors, and I’ve found out I adore paranormal romance. Talk about something that’s taboo in the CBA!

Anne Rogers August 5, 2013 at 2:11 AM

“I do wish folks would stop blaming publishers for the reading tastes of the Christian book-buying public.”

YES! I completely agree. I am astonished to read so many people saying there are only flowery romances published in Christian fiction. The comment/s made that Bethany is publishing merely bonnet fiction is also quite frankly ludicrous. Looking at the recent releases from Bethany House & sister imprint Revell I see historical fiction (set in Regency England and all sorts of time periods in the USA), fantasy (from more than one author!), Amish (yes, and yes, ‘bonnet fiction’ keeps on selling….), mystery, suspense, and yes of course – romance. To say publishing houses are not concentrating on multiple genres is simply not the case.

Lion Hudson (Oxford, England) represents the Baker Publishing Group in the UK, where there is considerable resistance to ANY religious element in a novel in the ABA (general) sector, and where it is a challenge in the CBA sector to encourage Christian readers to try reading Christian fiction of any genre! I admit that I was one of those people who, despite having a faith, avoided Christian fiction for years until discovering that actually there is some fantastic Christian fiction being published.

It is a huge challenge trying to get many excellent authors’ books read. (From either US OR UK authors/publishers – including ourselves on our Lion Fiction imprint.) Sadly, people have long memories, and Christian fiction has had a reputation for being weak and poorly written, with awkward and clumsy ‘God spots’. One of our major tasks has been to convince readers that this is not the case any more and that Christian fiction has evolved. Over here we have fewer bloggers with large followings, and fewer outlets through which to talk about great new books. Social media is helpful in this, but has its limitations. It is a fact of life also, that we have tight budgets, and running big campaigns is extremely expensive. So we are always looking for every good opportunity. This includes aiming towards niche areas such as fantasy readers. I never thought I would say that I would be a champion of Christian fiction, but I am. I read a lot of it now, and have found some good new authors as a result. As Nick Harrison says, if anyone has any ideas on helping Christian readers to engage with Christian fiction (in the UK in my case!), then I am also ‘all ears’!

R.J. Anderson August 5, 2013 at 7:49 AM

in the UK, where there is considerable resistance to ANY religious element in a novel in the ABA (general) sector

And yet I got clean away with it in REBEL (Orchard Books / Hachette UK, 2010). Maybe fantasy, especially children’s fantasy, slides under the radar there?

Anne Rogers August 5, 2013 at 8:14 AM

I think you’re right, R J Anderson, in that fantasy often does ‘get away with it’. Books also work when the Christian element is entirely appropriate to the era in which the book is set, though this can still be scuppered by too much Christian langauge and phrasing – ie specific details of prayers people are praying. In general, we find that people do not like buying a novel, and then finding out that it has ‘an agenda’, so if a book is being positioned as Christian fiction for a general market then it really MUST be that. As has been well pointed out by the article we’re all commenting on, there are a number of books by Christian authors which are absolutely fine for even the most religion resistant reader. In those cases, sometimes, we then get into trouble from our Christian customers for not having ENOUGH religious content! 😉

All that said though, all those of us who ARE making a real attempt to publish good, strong, Christian fiction for a broadly Christian readership would benefit hugely if a) Christians who enjoy reading fiction would take a chance on a couple of titles and find out for themselves how Christian fiction has changed, b) encourage others to do the same and c) talk about it or, tweet, blog, review on line, comment to the shop from which they bought it, to the publisher or in fact anywhere other fiction readers might see and take notice!

Simon Morden October 17, 2013 at 9:02 AM

Hello. Sorry to be so late to the party. You said “in the UK, where there is considerable resistance to ANY religious element in a novel in the ABA (general) sector”.

A recent review of my (Philip K Dick award-winning) Equations of Life (Orbit, 2011) said this:

“Another aspect of this series which appealed to me was Morden’s unflinching inclusion of religious belief in the narrative. One of the central characters is Roman Catholic. The language of an emerging force in the first novel (and a recurring theme in the second and third) includes the term “Jihad” in a fairly accurate context. The “Reconstructionist” United States has a deep seated Christianity-based religious bias which is fundamentally undermined by compromises made at the highest levels and decisions to eliminate any potential threats. If that sounds familiar, it should. By including this aspect of real life, Morden adds further realistic depth to his tales.”

Books 2, 3, and 4 (currently writing book 5) carry on those themes. Christianity is portrayed as it’s practised. In book 3, one sub-plot involves the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. In my next (out in January), several of the lead characters are practising Jews.

Now, either my publisher is a rarity, or what you mean when you say “considerable resistance to ANY religious element” is not what it looks like. Certainly, there’d be considerable resistance to uncritically preaching Christianity within a novel, because that’s not writing a novel any more. But including religious elements or religious characters? I’ve been doing it for years.

Laura K. Cowan July 31, 2013 at 12:54 PM

This is exactly what has been happening with me. Thanks for this article. I write literary/horror/supernatural/mainstream/contemporaryfantasy with a Christian worldview, and I have always had a suspicion that what I really need is a mainstream/literary publisher that will let me write fiction with spiritual themes, not the other way around. In fact when I almost found a publisher for my first novel, the Christian publisher who almost took it ended up not taking it on because they didn’t know how to market it to their audience. I’m glad they didn’t rope me into a contract and let the book fail within the CBA machine, at least.

Rebeca Seitz July 31, 2013 at 12:58 PM

I’d also like to point out that we specialize in helping promote fiction writers at the for-profit I own, Glass Road Media & Management. Many authors we’ve helped launch are now best-sellers in both CBA and ABA. We focus on taking Christian novelists into the mainstream, securing media placement in mainstream outlets (USA Today, Today Show, NPR, CNN, Southern Living) as well as letting the CBA audience know of their existence.

If you’re a novelist who is a Christian whose work will be of interest to lovers of stories regardless of their faith background, we can usually help – and we LOVE doing so!

Susanne Lakin July 31, 2013 at 1:07 PM

Hi Rebecca, I can’t find any place on your publicity site or your personal blog with a contact button or contact info. Can you tell people how to get in touch with you about promotion, and can you do promotion solely for the general market? Thanks!
Susanne

Rebeca Seitz July 31, 2013 at 1:15 PM

Ack! I didn’t realize our “Get In Touch” link was down. Will fix that today. In the meantime, my email is rebeca@glassroadmm.com.
In answer to your question, yes, we tailor campaigns to the specific desires of the author and demands of the novel.

Rebeca Seitz July 31, 2013 at 1:26 PM

And the contact section is now fixed. Whew! 🙂

Rick Barry July 31, 2013 at 1:18 PM

On a totally different note, earlier this week some friends and I were discussing authors whose blogs offer thought-provoking content that repeatedly draws readers back. Mike, you are certainly accomplishing that!

C. J. Darlington July 31, 2013 at 1:24 PM

I haven’t read through all the comments here yet, but I really don’t think the issue is whether or not Bertrand is published with a Christian publisher or a secular publisher. There are SO MANY talented authors in the general market who also have slower sales due to the economy or discover-ability, or other factors.

Case in point: J.K. Rowling’s novel written under an unknown pseudonym had minimal sales, even though it was well-written and received glowing reviews. Was that her publisher’s fault? Not to cause a flame session, but I don’t think it’s fair to make blanket statements about Christian publishers like this.

Cathy West July 31, 2013 at 1:28 PM

While I agree with this article, I also backed up and read Nick’s comments a couple of times. As an author who tends to write with a mainstream slant, I’m not sure if I’ll land a contract with a major CBA publisher. My first two novels were published through a small press, and pretty well received, but I’ve gotten enough comments from well meaning Christians telling me that some of what I had to say or the way I said it, was not appreciated, that I’m questioning where I’m meant to be. If the majority of CBA readers are content to stay in the shallow, safe waters with the familiar shore a toe step away, what reason would a major CBA publisher have to take on projects that might not appeal to those readers? Until there are enough CBA readers asking them for something new, I don’t think things will change. Instead, those readers will look elsewhere, and find the fiction they’re looking for on the same shelves that house offerings like 50 Shades. Perhaps it is time for authors who write from a Christian worldview to shift toward trying to find a home in the mainstream, rather than banging our heads against the brick walls of CBA until we bleed or pass out. For me, there’s a big difference between writing to reach the lost (you hear this a lot in Christian publishing) and walking among them. I don’t have any answers for the publishing dilemma, but I’m seeking, trusting and waiting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts so honestly, Mike. I appreciate you. 🙂

Kathleen L. Maher September 8, 2013 at 9:35 AM

Cathy, I agree that edgier fiction of any genre will probably make a bigger splash in the general market. I want to make the shift toward trying to find a home in the mainstream market, now that this has become more clear to me. But in the meanwhile I have signed on with a CBA agent, one that doesn’t have a reputation for selling in the general market. So it seems I am at an impasse. Rather than waiting for my agent to make more inroads into those markets, I am seeing several Christian writer friends have great success finding their readers through indie. I believe those readers are out there, and many brave writers are proving it with great sales.

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