The Case of the Missing Fandom

I read a thought-provoking post the other day on author D.M. Dutcher’s blog about some bothersome problems with Christian speculative fiction, including one that was new to me, and I thought it was worth talking about in more space than I could courteously use up in his comment box.

D.M. observes that Christian speculative fiction lacks a fan infrastructure of the sort you see with secular spec-fic: news sites, periodicals, conventions, and havens for fun activities like filking and cosplay. Now, I’ve read grumbles on Christian writing forums about the bumpkin-ish Christian fiction readership and their failure to “get” spec-fic, but this is the first time I’ve seen anyone note the lack of a supportive structure that invariably surrounds a strong fan base.

This is discouraging for both writers and readers, especially people like D.M. who enjoy the fan culture and understand the synergy it brings to both writing and marketing. Supply isn’t a problem—there are plenty of writers and more books being published in the Christian speculative genre than ever before. It’s possible to argue that Christian spec-fic suffers from a lack of visibility in the general market, but given the easy access to searchable catalogs on retailers’ websites and reviews on Amazon.com, Goodreads, etc, it’s harder to make the case that people don’t know about it or can’t find it.

Here are some reasons I think Christian spec-fic hasn’t yet spawned a robust fandom:

We lack stories that inspire fandoms. Are there Christian spec-fic stories with the potential to catch fire and create a large, vocal fan community? Sure. The problem is, they aren’t doing it, and I’ve not yet come across a convincing explanation of why one book or movie goes viral while another doesn’t. Everybody wishes they could bottle the Harry Potter, or Star Trek, or Doctor Who magic, but nobody’s done it yet with any consistency. I think there are some qualities these stories share that make them more likely to inspire strong fan community and loyalty, but that’s another post for another day.

Fandoms arise spontaneously. Attempts to create buzz, prime the pump, or otherwise create a fandom via brute force tend to fail in dismal fashion. Teenage girls didn’t swoon over the Beatles because some Madison Avenue advertising firm told them to. Likewise, the Harry Potter phenomenon wasn’t preceded by a customer awareness campaign, focus groups, or cross-media product placement. Star Trek and Doctor Who fandom initially emerged from the grassroots in opposition to the popular culture and conventional wisdom. By and large, you just can’t make these things happen.

D.M. would say, I think, that we’d have more fans if we’d do a better job of rolling out the welcome mat for them, and there’s some truth to that, but I argue that a fandom creates its own infrastructure, not the other way around.

The Christian spec-fic community is dominated by content creators who constitute their own fandom. D.M. says the lack of fans is a fundamental problem—we have a glut of writers and critics, but are starved for the unique perspective and energy that a strong fan community without a writers’ agenda brings to the table. I agree. The people reading Christian spec-fic are commonly the ones writing Christian spec-fic, and I include myself in this group. Many are part of one or more secular fandoms, and much of what we write, if we pause a moment between books to think about it, is fan fiction with a Christian spin, whether the topic is dragons, or spaceships, or zombies, or angels.

Furthermore, we read and review each others’ stories in a recursive loop. This is sort of like being your own grandpa. It’s the kind of fandom that keeps your community small and insular. It tends to reach inward rather than outward. There are comforts and advantages in this arrangement, but growth isn’t one of them.

Next time, I’ll take a look at some fan-friendly universes and try to figure out what makes them tick. I may not get back to this for a while—I don’t want to get mired in a series of posts devoted to analysis of ground that’s already been thoroughly plowed.

In short, I think they share a synergy and interactivity between literature and cinema (sometimes the books come first, sometimes not), expansive universes with plenty of room for fans to indulge their own creativity filling in gaps from the original material or simply playing around, and iconic characters that fans can admire and care about.

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10 thoughts on “The Case of the Missing Fandom

  1. I, personally, see it more as a “case of the scattered fandom.” I think Christians who love spec-fic never think to look for “Christian spec fic” except for the people who do end up writing it–and we discover it only because we’re writing what we think doesn’t exist yet. (That’s kinda how I was when I started writing just six short years ago.)

    There are potential fans out there, but they’re not looking on Amazon and such specifically for it, so they’re not finding it. Instead, they’re hanging out at the secular spec-fic hangouts.

    I do agree very much with the spontaneity thing. We can’t force it. What we need are some awesome books with great worlds for readers to fall in love with. I know of some with the potential for that, but they’re not well-known, and that is the fault of the marketers in getting readers aware that the books exist. Anyway, the key with this is that there has to BE story, not just a Sunday school lesson dressed up with elf ears and swords.

    Good post with some challenging thoughts! 🙂

    1. I think word-of-mouth is more powerful than any amount of conventional marketing, and where we’ve seen a story take off like a rocket, the marketers have grabbed onto the coattails of the the grassroots movement rather than vice-versa.

      “Scattered fandom” is a good description. Lyn Perry noted in the comments on D.M.’s post that it takes fans to make a fandom, and there simply aren’t that many for what we’re writing at this point in time.

      The trick, as you say, is to create awesome books with great worlds—stories that readers fall in love with, and _then go tell their friends_. You’re right, the story has to come first. Unfortunately, we seem to have great difficulty disentangling the idea of “a good story” from “a good sermon” or “a good Sunday school lesson,” or even, “a nice book full of nice people who are nice.” We waste a lot of time and effort trying to please people devoted to those last three perspectives.

      I’m about to the point where I want to say, “just shut up and write,” (not to you, to the community in general 🙂 ) as it’s the only thing that will make a difference. We’re worried about everything _but_ writing.

    2. You are absolutely right on word of mouth. Here’s the thing, though–the more mouths, the more places the word of mouth starts, the farther and more quickly it spreads.

      That is where the marketing comes in. It sets out sparks. Lots of them if there is a big budget. If the book is good (and yeah, that definition is cagey) then word of mouth starts spreading hard and fast. If the marketing budget is low, then there are fewer initial sparks, which means those sparks don’t have as much power.

      Yes, there are times when the word of mouth precedes that big marketing push, like with Hugh Howey, but those times seem to be few and far between, which is why they end up newsworthy.

      And yes, you are so right about wasting time trying to “please.” Hunker down and right good stories first and foremost :).

    3. Oh, marketing certainly has value, but I keep wondering where the money is doing *productive* work in the specific case of book marketing. I’ve read comments from publishing house reps that indicate a million-dollar budget is chump change. Internet ads reach millions of prospective readers, but they’re lost in an ocean of noise. I can’t think of one that’s stuck in my mind other than a website for a specific book or series, and for that, you have to be aware of the book in the first place. Where’s the egg that hatched the chicken? Reviews–same problem.

      How often do we see an ad for a book on television? I can’t remember seeing one since L. Ron Hubbard was pushing his Battlefield Earth series. There are author interviews on TV talk shows, but they’re usually books by celebrity authors.

      I find most of my “new” books on news sites like Tor.com (which covers interesting stuff across the F&SF genre in all media, and not only Tor’s products), awards lists, recommendations from friends, and in bookstore racks (which everybody pooh-poohs because, technology, but I think there’s still plenty of power in a hard copy sitting on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, or wherever).

    4. The big-money budgets go to sending out gobs of review copies (and I mean gobs) to people and organizations of influence. To get into catalogs for libraries, both public and school. To get reviewed in major magazines. To pay for the author to tour and promote. The money also goes to paying for that prime space on bookstore shelves–those endcaps and face-front placements. In many ways, it’s not as much reaching readers as it is reaching the people who reach readers. It’s starting those sparks I spoke of. (I know this from reading the backs of the ARCs I get through Amazon vine. Some of them list the budget dollar amounts and the marketing plans.)

      I’m not saying that those things guarantee success, and I do think that many things are more genre-specific (like YA books do better when book-review bloggers and school librarians are targeted, and that’s not necessarily true for adult spec-fic), but a lot of times we don’t see the direct places that money goes, we just see the end result of “man, I keep hearing about that book…..”

  2. This kind of thinking is silly, imo. DM may not be saying this exactly, but it comes across as: we need less writers and more readers/fans. The Guardian has a dumb article on that:
    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/16/writers-year-off-publishing

    There are 7 billion people on the planet! There is no lack of market. There are no lack of fans. I know I’m cliche here, but Field of Dreams, somebody! Write it – and if it’s good – they will come. End of story. Write the next one.

  3. [DM may not be saying this exactly, but it comes across as: we need less writers and more readers/fans.]

    Maybe. I read it more as the *ratio* of writers to fans is dysfunctional. Not so much that we have too many writers, but that we don’t have enough fans–and that writers can’t properly fill the fan role themselves.

    [There are 7 billion people on the planet! There is no lack of market. There are no lack of fans.]

    But it’s *untapped* market and *potential* fans. We’re still waiting for that Field of Dreams moment (I think you’re right about that, and we need many of them).

    Also, a large fraction of that 7 billion don’t read English, and I’ve not yet seen anybody seriously discussing translation of anything in this genre into other languages. Of course, that requires expertise, time, and money that we’re lacking in large part because of failure to sell. It’s a Catch 22…we can’t sell because what we need to do in order to sell requires sales.

    1. I think it will take a few dedicated players to pave the way, and to them go the spoils. Tosca Lee, Ted Dekker, et al could parlay their clout and go total indie and negotiate translation rights, audio sales, etc. It would open doors for the rest of us (at least those willing to do the work). But it would also mean that we’ll all be rallying around a few “heroes” (outliers who become super famous and super rich) and thus we’ll set up our own Christian demigods. Just so we can be like the secular hordes. Seems there’s some kinda biblical principle against that sort of thing, but I can’t put my finger on it.

  4. [But it would also mean that we’ll all be rallying around a few “heroes” (outliers who become super famous and super rich) and thus we’ll set up our own Christian demigods. Just so we can be like the secular hordes.]

    ???

    I think expanding our marketing reach beyond English readers helps everybody, and it doesn’t matter *who* breaks through the current status quo. There are problems of cost and risk (some stories may not translate well or resonate with other cultures), but it seems like something that at least ought be be part of our vision. In the meantime, we need to keep striving to raise the overall quality level of what we’re writing now. We’ll remain a ghetto so long as great stories in our genre are outliers.

    It works the other way, too. How many great stories from international authors are we missing for lack of an English translation? Maybe that Field of Dreams has already been built overseas.

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