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Who’s Responsible to Change the Christian Fiction Market: Publisher or Reader?

Yesterday I was interviewed by a reporter from Christian Today, a UK based online magazine, for a feature on Christian fiction. He asked a lot of great questions, one of which was Who is Responsible to Change the Christian Fiction Market: Publisher or Reader?

Of course, this question assumes that the Christian market needs changed. All the industry news I read seems to suggest that Christian fiction has remained quite viable, even during the recent economic downturn. So why should we be discussing “change” at all?

It all comes down to what you expect Christian fiction to be.

  • If you are happy that 80% of Christian fiction is aimed at female readership, then nothing needs to change.
  • If you are happy with the glut of Amish fiction on the bookshelves, then nothing needs to change.
  • If you are happy with the sparseness of other genres in the Christian market — like sci-fi, speculative, crime, epic fantasy, etc. — then nothing needs to change.
  • If you are happy with only G-rated fare, then nothing needs to change.
  • If you are happy with message-driven fiction and/or fiction that contains overt references to Scripture and spirituality, then nothing needs to change.

I’ve been vocal about my concerns about all these things. Which led the reporter to ask me that ever-sticky question: Who’s responsible? Is the market this way because of Christian publishers? Or are Christian publishers just providing what the market demands? If there’s going to be change, on who’s end must it start?

This is a fairly common question for those of us in writing / reading circles, a question that usually has little concrete resolution and leaves everyone frustrated. However, I wanted to share my opinion because I think it’s  a little less typical.

Who’s responsible to change the Christian market: Publisher or Reader? Neither.

I believe we put too much emphasis upon publishers to change the market. They exist to make money and the easiest way to do that is to capitalize on what their audience wants. Should Christian publishers aspire to a higher standard than other publishers? I think so. I mean selling cheap, greasy burgers because there’s an audience can make you money. But there’s other ethical issues in the mix, like whether or not we’re happy contributing to American obesity. Point is, if science fiction doesn’t sell well in the Christian fiction market, why should publishers invest in it? If there isn’t an obvious ethical imperative to do so, why should they?

Trends start at the grassroots level, not the publishing level. Sure, trends can be fueled by publishers, in the same way that the craving for cheap, greasy burgers can be fueled by establishing an empire of cheap, greasy burger stands. But that burger mogul is simply building off your appetite. The Christian fiction market proves there is an appetite for what’s being served. Does this make publishers complicit? In part. However, until the “Christian appetite” for what the Christian publishers are serving changes, until a trend starts at the grassroots level, we shouldn’t expect publishers to respond.

Appetites are complicated things. They are shaped by internal dynamics  (genetics, values, personal preferences, tastes, etc.) and external dynamics (advertising, culture, economics, social circles, etc.). So in this sense, when we’re talking about changing consumer appetites, we’re talking about complex, multidimensional issues. This is not something a new ad campaign or a new line of veggie burger can transform overnight.

Which brings me to my response to the aforementioned question: Who’s responsible to change the Christian fiction market? Answer: the Church and the family. The Christian market is reflective of more basic social units: the home and the church. Much like American politics. If the government is reflective of voters’ preferences, we can’t really blame government for all our political problems. We should blame ourselves. Likewise, Christian publishers, like politicians, are just giving us what we want (insert pun).

The Christian market is simply reflective of a more narrow, ultra-conservative, artistically shallow, highly feminized, ethnically closed, societally cloistered, puritanical reader.

Now before you start sending me hate mail, this doesn’t mean that every Christian reader is stupid, stiff, and dumb. Nor does it mean that there aren’t any good writers writing Christian fiction. (In fact, this was one of the stereotypes I addressed in my interview.) It simply means that the Christian market is reflective of a culture that wants G-rated, somewhat predictable, less literary, message-driven fiction that contains overt references to Scripture and spirituality.

This culture has come about because of two things: the church and the home.

Not publishers.

To bottom line it: Until we — in our homes and churches — begin to teach our kids and congregants to be more discerning, to appreciate art on a broader level, to interact with rather than retreat from culture, to not perpetuate the sacred / secular divide, to not settle for kitsch and mediocrity, to write more, bigger, better stories, not those just aimed at a certain demographic, to eschew Christianeze, and to pander less to our own insulated culture in favor of the broader marketplace, we shouldn’t expect any real change in the Christian market.

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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Jay DiNitto December 18, 2013, 8:24 AM

    Any business (unless they are subsidized) is at the mercy of market forces, so publishers follow the whim of reader demand or the publishers perish.

    There is some wiggle room here I think because Christian publishers can be seen as charity cases–people (church congregations, really) would support them…but even then, that’s still demand. It’s just not demand for a better literary product necessarily; it’s a demand that something “Christian” to stay in business.

  • Nissa Annakindt December 18, 2013, 9:30 AM

    I like the fact that women readers are important to the Christian fiction world. It means I don’t have to read the Christianized equivalent of a Rambo movie and pretend I like it, because there is nothing else available.

    And as for G-rated— if I wanted to read stuff that was full of sex and swearing, I’d read only secular fiction. Charles Dickens and Jane Austin got by without anyone using the F-word, why can’t modern authors do the same?

    The power to change Christian fiction— or secular fiction for that matter— lies in the hands of the consumer. If Christian fiction readers, upon finding a first-rate Christian novel that is just their style, would go out and buy 3-5 extra copies and give the spares to friends, churches and libraries, they could help Christian fiction change in the direction they desire.

    (That’s why if I had more money, I’d be buying the best Amish fiction novels to give away to folks. Because as a rural gal I can identify with the Amish world better than that of New York City.)

    • Thea van Diepen December 18, 2013, 8:06 PM

      G-ratedness can have to do with sex, violence, and swearing, but it can also have to do with themes and issues, as well as the way they’re dealt with. It’s entirely possible to write a book without any sex, violence, or swearing and still have that book not fall under the G category. Bridge to Terebithia, for example, would rate at more of a PG level simply due the subject matter that it deals with.

      Now, since I don’t read a whole ton of Christian fiction, I don’t know if it’s only G-rated in the sense of swearing, sex, etc or if it’s also due to themes. I hope it’s only because of the former, because I think that the latter is important for Christians to be willing to address in ways that honour God.

  • Heather Day Gilbert December 18, 2013, 9:40 AM

    I just wrote a long reply and deleted it. I have the tendency to sound like some kind of rogue anarchist when it comes to the Christian publishing industry. Bottom line: publishers still decide what gets through the doors, and they are (now, more than ever!) restricting it to the familiar–what’s worked in the past. I don’t quite agree that grassroots needs to start in families–most of the readers I know are ALREADY hungry for something more and have just turned to the ABA to fill their reading needs. I think the grassroots effort has to start with the Christian AUTHORS. We have to put in the time and massive effort to produce a superior product–I’m talking about self-publishing. And then we have to make every effort to get that product to the readers who are hungry for it. Have an unusual genre? Tap into forums where people are reading it and get it out there. Have a mixed-race couple? Advertise it as such. The desire for different is THERE.

    All the breakthrough books were different at the time, from wizards to vampires to dystopian (and sadly that is all YA…where are the adult breakthrough books in this day/age?). Or even Peretti, back in the day…or The Shack, as far as CBA circles.

    I feel there is a better solution…don’t lament traditional publishing if you don’t write the familiar CBA stuff (and let’s be honest–almost every CBA book has romance or a romance thread. If you don’t write romance, you know you’re not a shoo-in). Write what you love and then produce a superior book and get it directly to those readers.

    Will the Christian publishers sit up and take notice of self-publishers’ successes? I doubt it. But I also think we have to look toward the future and not the past. The most visionary authors do that. And I think the future for out-of-the box Christian writing is self-publishing–making SURE we put a competitive, outstanding product out there (I know you already do that, Mike).

    Whether or not the books ever get noticed by the industry is not important–they’re probably not going to be eligible for Christian awards due to one caveat or another. What’s important is if the books get noticed by the readers. And the READERS are ready for different.

    • Kat Heckenbach December 18, 2013, 9:40 PM

      Well said, Heather! I would like to add that your reference to “self-publishing” ought to include small presses as well. Anything outside the CBA box, really.

      It’s not the big publishers who need to change–they’re doing what they do best. And the readers can only voice their opinion by their buying choice, which can only include what is available. So yes, we need to make more choices available.

      But I do see what Mike is saying. It’s encouraging people to see that they DO have a choice. That it’s more than just providing for the readers who ARE out there that want different–and yes, you are right, Heather, they (we) are there! But when the message is being passed on within families and within churches that reading outside that CBA box makes you less of a Christian…well.

  • John Robinson December 18, 2013, 1:13 PM

    And then you have male Christian writers who, like me, have basically said “piss on it,” and pulled the ejection seat handle on the ol’ CBA airplane.

    As Heather says above, that market is NEVER going to be open to us; after sixty years, we should know this by now. The organization is fully aware of their demographic, they have that knowledge down to a science, and they’re making a very steady income delivering product to those readers.

    That leaves we outliers to either self-publish, and/or go secular. I’m doing both.

  • Heather Day Gilbert December 18, 2013, 4:22 PM

    *Methinks this post is suspiciously quiet on the comment front, Mike…*

  • Jessica Thomas December 19, 2013, 6:22 AM

    *sigh* I’m just not sure I care anymore. That’s a bit sad, probably. I’m just weary of corporations profiting from Christ’s name. Maybe it’s a phase.

  • LeAnne McKinley December 19, 2013, 6:48 AM

    Wow. I really like the way you put this, especially the last paragraph.

    American culture in general veers toward the easy, anti-intellectual, commercial side of things, and I think even authors in the secular market face some of the same challenges. How do you find success with a compelling literary work when everyone wants to read about teenage vampires or watch reality TV? It’s easy for authors to feel a little indignant, but sometimes that indignation masks our mediocrity. (Just speaking in general. Not at anyone’s particular books. I just know it’s something I see in writer attitudes elsewhere.) If readers don’t love our profound literary work, it may be our craft as well as our audience that needs examining.

    But I think it would be terrific to see Christians develop a reputation for thoughtful, intelligent discourse, for compelling books and art. It seems like a huge sweeping change from where things stand now, but not so far fetched in light of history.

    I agree that the ease of self-publishing opens up lots of opportunities for books that break the mold. I am self-publishing myself, although since I’m writing romance so far, I don’t know if I count as being radically different! But I’m trying to write from a thought-provoking perspective. Sometimes I wonder if readers will really follow me where I want to go. Just have to keep writing and see I guess. At least I have the opportunity to put my work out there.

  • D.M. Dutcher December 19, 2013, 7:27 AM

    Yeah, so we’re doomed then. I can’t see the mass audience for Christian fiction embracing these things at any real level. My hope was that publishers would try to grow the market by creating imprints and pushing works that would attract the secular-reading Christians.

  • Lyn Perry December 21, 2013, 4:48 AM

    Well, you know my response. There is no such thing as Christian publishing or Christian fiction or Christian anything. Christian is not an adjective. I’ll keep saying it every now and then, not that I’ll change anyone’s mind.

  • Jim Laney December 22, 2013, 9:03 PM

    I think blogs like this are part of the solution. When good books written by Christians, or for that matter books that have themes that are worthy, get the sort of word of mouth that can drive their sales then we will begin to see more such writers get their chance.

    So everyone needs to share this blog with others since Mike is fighting the good fight.

  • StacyA January 25, 2014, 1:34 PM

    So … if the people I’m writing about, my main characters, are overt Christians who talk about God overtly, may occasionally use a Scripture to encourage someone, try to work out the difficulties they’re going through in an overtly Christ-centered way, that’s a bad thing? I have a little trouble with you saying that overt Christianity and spirituality is somehow wrong — especially since we’re talking about “Christian” fiction.

    Why is is somehow bad to write a novel about Christians who live their faith through stressful situations? “REAL” characters who struggle with questions of God’s love, of why He allows bad things, etc. Gritty characters who are still Christian and who talk openly about their faith … ? I’m not sure I understand how this is some sort of evil in Christian publishing.

    I DO agree that Christian novels need to be more “real” — real people sometimes swear. Real people suffer difficult things like sexual abuse, fall into drug use, etc. Real Christian people have to learn how to reconcile their faith with the hardships they go through, and sometimes they don’t do so well. Sometimes Real Christians fall. Heck, most of the time we fall. So depicting these stories in real, non-sanitized ways is important. I think the Christian publishing industry often — but not always — fails here. If you’ve ever read Mary DeMuth’s stories you’ll see a shining example of how “not very pretty” life circumstances can be handled in Christian fiction without prettifying them.

    My struggle with Christian fiction is more that it’s often badly written. People crank out several novels a year and it shows that they didn’t spend just a whole lot of time crafting them. Plots are cliched and predictable, as you said. That definitely needs to change. There does need to be more “Christian” speculative and sci-fi type stuff. And more male-oriented stuff. And, holy crap, YES we need to limit the amount of Amish fiction allowed in the world. (Okay, occasionally I admit I dip in and read some, but now only the ones that have non-traditional plots.)

    There is room for so much more diversity in the “Christian fiction” world, for sure. But please remember that not everyone who wants clean, Christ-centered fiction is brainless and a right-wing nutcase.

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