On the Inside, Looking Out

Publisher’s Weekly posted an interesting article last week about the state of the Christian Fiction industry. Here are some excerpts (emphasis mine), interspersed with a few of my own thoughts:

Christian fiction as a genre tends to be risk averse; there are not a lot of edgy books out there,” says Richards (Abingdon Fiction). “We’re bringing in a number of authors who already have a fanbase, such as Deb Rainey, and growing our new authors. I’m looking at every aspect of Christian fiction and seeing where we might make a breakthrough, yet trying to focus on the things that have worked for us.”

Risk-aversion characterizes the publishing industry, and it defines the Christian publishing industry. It has a formula that works, a “cash cow” that generates a reliable return on investment. They hope for a breakthrough, but aren’t troubled if one doesn’t happen, nor do they feel the need to stimulate one via innovation.

“Yo, buddy, damsel in distress over here!”

“Our biggest challenge is that we’re contracted way out into the future with established authors, so we don’t have room for more historical novels,” says Leep (Revell). “Our new model going forward is one-third historical fiction, one-third suspense or romantic suspense, and one-third contemporary romance/women’s fiction.”

Here we see another practical limitation on a big Christian publisher’s ability to innovate. They’re committed to more-of-the-same for years into the future. Don’t expect big changes or experimentation from a traditional publishing house. Again, the priority order is to first milk the cash cow, then cultivate new talent, if resources permit—and the new talent will look much like the old talent.

“There is a very wide scope of what Christian fiction can look like,” says Watson (Tyndale House). “The challenge is knowing reader expectations. People who write for the Christian industry have chosen a bigger challenge to write authentically and to winsomely wrestle with hard issues.”

Sustaining the cash cow requires a commitment to meeting reader expectations, and Christian fiction readers expect books to conform to an unwritten protocol of propriety. Violating the protocol violates the readers’ trust in the publisher, which is a huge issue for these insiders, as you’ll see if you read the whole article. Yes, that is challenging, and it’s a burden that writers in the secular markets don’t bear. I interpret “authentically” as meaning, in practice, authentically Christian—doctrinally correct as defined by the publishing house and its target audience. Likewise, “winsomely wrestling with hard issues” involves sanitizing messy situations to a level the audience will accept. Those two criteria play a substantial role in defining the genre, for better or worse.

For Julie Gwinn, acquisitions editor for B&H Fiction, one of their biggest initiatives is the Bloomfield series, written by nine different authors and published in both e-book and print formats. The series will center on the small town of Bloomfield and its inhabitants. The authors write about different townspeople and plot lines, communicating with one another on backstory and details.

“Fans of one author will read the series, then meet other authors who are also writing for the series,” says Gwinn. “We get more for our marketing dollars because we have that many more authors talking about that many more books.

A spark of innovation here, but it’s primarily employed for marketing synergy rather than creative synergy. Still, it’s encouraging to see new lemonade made from old lemons. I’m wondering if the publisher would have attempted this if it offered no economy of marketing dollars.

Word of mouth is still the best way to spread news about a book, but for Christina Boys, senior editor for FaithWords and Center Street of the Hachette Book Group, the question is how to generate that word-of-mouth activity. “It’s really a mixed bag. Social media is a good way to find books, especially if you have similar reading tastes as your friends,” she says. “But for a book to really break out, it has to reach to that outer circle of people who read only a few books a year.

This makes sense. For a book to skyrocket, it has to literally break out of a social fishbowl composed of a limited number of people with idiosyncratic likes and dislikes. But look at what follows in the next breath:

Boys’s goal for FaithWords is to continue to reach into the CBA market with 10–12 books a year in genres such as romance, romantic suspense, small-town tales, Amish, contemporary, and biblical.

This is more cash cow than breakout. What outer circle is FaithWords trying to reach here?

The foundation for all publishers is quality. “We’re seeing better writers who are doing quality fiction that is faith infused, rather than faith driven. There’s an element of faith there, but no proselytizing,” says Pape (David C. Cook Publishing). “We have to find the very best storytellers out there because at the end of the day, the story has to hold up.”

This comment indicates that books focused on trumpeting an agenda of faith, rather than telling an engaging story that blossoms from faith, don’t sell. David C. Cook publishes a variety of material, including Sunday School curricula. They’re not averse to preaching the Gospel, but I think they’re very concerned with ensuring the best fit between media and message.

“Being found is still the biggest challenge,” says Marchese of WaterBrook Multnomah. “If you gave me a million dollars to market a book, it’s still a huge problem.”

Ms. Marchese provides some useful scale to the marketing problem. Information Age writers often brush this off. If I can reach around the world with a single keystroke, why should it be a problem for people to find my work? Because unlimited reach comes tethered to unlimited background noise. Everybody can reach around the world with a single keystroke, and they do. Standing out in an ocean of similar competitors is, to put it mildly, difficult.

The challenges authors face in this modern world of Christian fiction are myriad. The biggest, according to ACFW Professional Relations Liaison Cynthia Ruchti, is keeping up with trends and opportunities.

“Authors are pedaling as fast and as hard as they can to keep up with what’s happening in Christian publishing. We have to work on social marketing, but also have time to create great stories,” says Ruchti, whose novel When the Morning Glory Blooms, releases in April with Abingdon Fiction. “How do we partner with publishers to do marketing, but not cheat our time to write?”

I found the first part of this comment a bit ironic, coming as it does from a representative of one of the largest professional associations of Christian writers. Judging from what the industry representatives in this article are saying, what’s happening in Christian publishing are mostly the same things that have been happening since its inception. The target audience is the same, and the content pushed to that audience remains essentially the same. The authors’ names might change, cover art will vary, historical settings may pass in and out of fashion, but there’s precious little innovation, evolution, or horizon-widening. Do what has always worked, sustain the cash cow, and keep your eyes open should a break-out opportunity come your way.

It’s hard to criticize their approach, though. It works, and publishing is a business. You stay in business by doing what works.

If anything, the information revolution has shifted much of the marketing burden onto the author’s shoulders. That last sentence from Ms. Ruchti is more poignant when you consider that only a quarter of the ACFW’s membership of 2,600 are published authors. About 2,000 are still on the outside looking in, endlessly shopping manuscripts and churning their social media networks to little effect, wondering when they’ll be able to steal a few moments to write.

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2 thoughts on “On the Inside, Looking Out

    1. It is, particularly as it’s the only Christian fiction many people will ever be aware of.

      Speculative writers in particular spend a lot of time griping and whining about how the big publishers and booksellers in the CBA world don’t understand them and won’t buy their stories, but those publishers are being absolutely rational with regard to the business model that has served them well over the years. They won’t change until and unless it makes financial sense for them to do so. Expecting them to reverse course on the merits of our leading-edge cultural engagement and deathless prose is absolutely *irrational.* As the article indicates, these publishers routinely turn away good talent that’s working solidly *within* their marketing sweet-spot.

      I think there are lots of encouraging things happening in the world of small independents, and even in self-publishing, and the fringes are usually where real innovation happens anyhow. When you’ve got little or nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking risks, you take them big-time. I think there’s more opportunity for a breakout story to emerge there, if the community can overcome its tendency to follow whatever was hot one or two years ago in the secular market. Whether it can generate enough market buzz to be noticed, survive, and prosper is whole other question.

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