Despite the recent closing of 170 Lifeway bookstores, Christian readers remain optimistic about the market. An article in Forbes magazine reflected this optimism stating,
Christian and faith-based books are a bright spot in the overall publishing industry.
The “bright spot,” according to the author, is that Christian buyers are loyal to the brand and could support independent booksellers of that genre. Another article in Publishers Weekly conveyed similar positivity, but from another angle. The headline read Indie Authors Find Firm Footing in the Christian Market.
Amid the shrinking Christian retail space of today… readers who shop online are more willing to try indie authors. This, coupled with the ease of publishing platforms such as CreateSpace and fewer openings on traditional publisher lists, has led to a growing number of Christian authors acting as their own publisher.
Indeed, independent publishing has played a significant role in bolstering or sustaining Christian fiction. Yet neither article seemed to connect the two.
One genre (or sub-genre) that has greatly benefited from the boon of indie publishing is Christian speculative fiction. Again, and rather glaringly, neither of the above-mentioned articles note the increase of Christian spec titles and how that growth has been fueled by indie publishing. Not only is this a significant oversight, it’s consistent with the historical unease between Christian fiction and the speculative genre.
For that, a bit of history…
My first-ever book contract was with Strang Communications back in 2011. It was a two-book deal for stand-alone novels in the speculative genre (both horror / thriller). At the time, Strang was the largest Charismatic publisher in North America. The bulk of their catalog was non-fiction titles. However, they had a line of fiction. Oddly enough, their fiction titles skewed between Prairie Romance and Amish fiction, and Speculative (mostly Horror / Thriller). Talk about strange bedfellows! Anyway, the name of this imprint was Realms.
The circuit I’d taken to get to Strang was quite wide. My then-agent had shopped my first title, The Resurrection, throughout the Christian publishing industry. While it garnered some interest, the story never found a home. With limited connections in the general market, my agent and I eventually agreed to part ways. It was a pretty low time in my career. Until I submitted to Strang, which accepted unagented manuscripts, and was offered a contract. (Such is the roller coaster of publishing.) Shortly thereafter, Strang changed its name to Charisma House. Their Realms imprint remains, still publishing the Amish, Prairie Romance novels. However, they’ve ceased publishing speculative novels and their Fiction line remains quite sparse.
There’s likely several things that contributed to my first novel’s rocky trek. Most obvious is that it may, admittedly, not have been good enough for a top tier publisher. However, other factors were in play. At the time, I was an unpublished, new author. Novelists without a sales record and existing readership are always a risk for a publisher. Another factor was that The Resurrection was an uneasy fit for the Christian market. Not only did the story contain a ghost (and ghosts are anathema in evangelical circles… unless they are demons), but it had some language and spiritual ambiguity. Finally, the genre of Speculative Fiction had a tenuous place in the Christian market. It just didn’t sell. At least, not in the way that it did in the general market.
So it was not uncommon, in those early days, for Christian spec fans to lament the lack of representation in the Christian market. This goes as far back as Dave Long’s faith *in* fiction blog (2004-2010), where aspiring, sometimes disgruntled (I use the term loosely) Christian authors, mulled the state of Christian Fiction. (Dave has since shut down that blog, deleted most older posts, and become a senior editor at Bethany House.) At that time, the FiF gang became a vibrant network of aspiring Christian authors, most unpublished, many of whom went on to various degrees of publishing success. At the time, Women’s Fiction, Historical Romance and Amish, dominated the shelves, as they do now, while Sci-Fi, Epic Fantasy, and Horror were mostly on the margins. The tide seemed to change a bit when Dave signed T.L Hines to a two-book contract with BH, both in the speculative genre. Hines’ Waking Lazarus (2006) became a big deal for the FiF crowd, especially those in the group pining for more speculative Christian fare. But the success was short-lived. Many unforeseen changes were afoot in the publishing industry, not the least of which was a looming recession.
I wrote often about the subject of Christian spec-fic in those days, mainly to ask how a genre that was so wildly popular in mainstream culture could be so under-represented in the Christian market. One such article, Why “Supernatural Fiction” is Under-Represented in Christian Bookstores, received enough traffic to be linked at the popular sci-fi website io9 in a post entitled, Christian Readers Demand More Science Fiction. Why Won’t Christian Publishers Listen? Yet the discussion was just getting started.
More and more Christian authors and readers began expressing concern for the under-representation of spec titles for Christian readers. While the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) gatekeepers assured readers that there was no market for spec titles in Christian circles, readers countered that there were few titles to actually choose from! Still, the rumblings continued.
The launch of Marcher Lord Press in 2008 was a significant milestone.
Founded by Jeff Gerke, MLP was a POD (Print-On-Demand) venue. POD technology was one of the developments that have since re-shaped the publishing world. Of note is that Gerke had spearheaded the Realms imprint at Strang. While MLP has since changed hands and been renamed (now Enclave Publishing), the publisher has retained the POD model and still promotes itself as the premier platform for “Christian Fantasy and Science Fiction.” (Edit: Since the writing of this article, I’ve been informed that Enclave issues print runs for new novels, and manages their back catalog with POD.) This is important in that the premier publisher of Christian speculative fiction is not a mainstream traditional publisher. While some CBA publishers retain slots for spec titles, those spaces are quite small in relation to their catalog. Enclave, on the other hand, publishes spec exclusively.
MLP’s model and vision would become one of the first big developments in the intersection of Christian publishing, the speculative genres, and indie publishing.
Another important development in the growth of Christian and faith-themed speculative content was the launch of Realm Makers.
The RM About page summarizes nicely:
Realm Makers began in 2012, when founder Becky Minor’s vision of creating a faith-friendly event where writers could celebrate all things science fiction and fantasy kicked into motion. Online discussions made it clear that Christian writers of speculative fiction didn’t have a place or event where they could really feel at home. Everyone agreed…the “spec fic” crowd was a couple shades too weird for the established Christian writers conferences, and the comic con scene wasn’t really the right fit for most either.
And hence, Realm Makers was born.
These “online discussions” were an extension of an ongoing, rather passionate discussion among Christian writers and readers of speculative titles. Much of that discussion occurred in response to CBA catalogs and the ACFW conference.
ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) is the largest organization of Christian fiction writers. ACFW advertises itself as “The Voice of Christian Fiction” and, indeed, its yearly conference never fails to attract some of the biggest name agents, editors, and publishing houses in the industry. However, after attending two ACFW conferences in my early career, it was clear that fans of spec-fic were in the minority. Typically very few editors and agents repped spec, and few (if any!) workshops were dedicated to fans and writers of the genre. ACFW was/is undoubtedly representative of the contemporary Christian fiction market. Which is why spec-fic fans have always had an uneasy alliance with it. How could ACFW claim to be THE voice of Christian fiction while giving such little voice to Christian fans of speculative lit?
While it’s unfair to suggest that the RM conference was entirely a reaction to the ACFW’s/CBA’s under-representation of speculative fiction, that under-representation indeed played a part. Realm Makers was specifically birthed in response to the lack of speculative fiction in mainstream Christian publishing.
As someone once said, “Life always finds a way.” Spec-fic fans, like any other genre fans, inevitably found a way to cluster. ComicCon, DragonCon, Anime Expo, and the numerous sub-groups spawned therein are evidence of the healthy evolution of geekdom. In the simplest sense, RM was the natural migration of a niche culture of readers and writers into a more organic fold.
But while RM provided the platform, indie publishing fueled the growth, giving authors not only the means to get their Christian spec stories into print, but attracting a potential fan base.
Now in its 7th year, RM has grown from 60 attendees to well over 300 annually. Not only do they host a traveling bookstore but their consortium boasts over 1600 members. Without a doubt, indie technology has played a part in the group’s success. When you consider that Enclave remains an independent outlet as well as the number of titles represented in the RM bookstore that are published independently and/or by small presses (by my estimates a good half), it is easy to surmise how integral the technology is to the Christian author/market.
But the increase of Christian spec titles is not limited to RM. Across the board, independent are impacting the shape of Christian fiction.
For example, of the current top 20 Amazon Best Sellers in Christian Science Fiction 11 titles are self or indie published (in fact, 4 of the trad published titles are part of the Left Behind series, a Tyndale publication). A similar pattern in Amazon Best Sellers in Christian Fantasy as 14 of the titles are independently published.
What’s interesting about this is that mainstream CBA publishers have done little to alter their approach to the spec titles. For instance, Christian Book Expo’s top 25 Christian Fiction Bestsellers for April 2019 lists 0 speculative novels (the closest titles are the prophecy-themed mysteries by Rosenberg and Cahn). The PW article notes as much, citing Sarah Bolme, director of the Christian Indie Publishing Association (CIPA), formerly the Christian Small Publishers Association,
‘The Christian market didn’t [initially] embrace indies like the general market did,’ Bolme told PW. ‘Stores knew that books from certain publishers were theologically sound, but retailers weren’t sure about indie books.’
Christian publishers’ lag in adopting new technologies (and genres!) is quite telling. In fact, it is this very resistance to change which has motivated many authors to publish independently. Heather Day Gilbert is a good example.
As mentioned in the PW article, Heather first went the indie route in 2013. Her most recent novel, Guilt by Association, was shortlisted for a Christy Award in 2018. Perhaps even more interesting is what motivated Heather to pursue independent publishing in the first place. It started with God’s Daughter, a Viking-themed story which adhered to CBA guidelines and spring-boarded off the then-trending popularity of Vikings. But after pitching the story to numerous CBA publishers, Heather opted to publish independently. Nine-plus books, and a Christy nom later, her career is going strong. While Heather’s Viking stories were not exactly speculative, her career arc is a good example of a dynamic that is buoying the Christian publishing industry.
Another evidence of the growth of Christian spec-fic are magazine’s like Lorehaven. Founder E. Stephen Burnett’s vision is illustrative of the breadth of the genre. Not only does the mag feature new speculative fare (many of which are indie published), but a broad range of articles which address subjects ranging from theology, to pop culture, to story craft. Not only is Lorehaven published independently, it captures the vision that entrepreneurial, determined writers and readers of faith-themed fiction have been casting for over a decade.
Faith-themed fiction titles are multiplying. And indie publishing has fueled that multiplication. The ability to now publish content that the mainstream CBA market won’t — whether it’s stories about vampires, vikings, space aliens, dragons, fairies, or ghosts — is playing a part in giving once-unnoticed stories/authors a platform and making Christian publishing “a bright spot” in the industry.