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Category : Current Affairs
I’ve been getting all sorts of follow-up questions to my posts on CBA fiction…
In CBA, what genres do well in fiction and which ones do poorly? Is there a growing movement toward spec fiction and fantasy?
Romance continues to lead the way in CBA fiction, though we’ve seen a bit of a shift from historicals to contemporary stories. Romantic suspense also does well, followed by straight suspense novels. There’s a random sampling of other genres (some women’s fiction, some historical sagas, the occasional apocalyptic thriller), but we’ve seen very little in the way of speculative fiction, fantasy, new adult, YA, horror, or paranormal stories do well in CBA. I keep hearing there’s a growing market for those kinds of titles, and there may be… but to this point, it’s pretty much been limited to indie-published titles and some very small presses who consider it a huge success to move a thousand copies. You may think it makes sense for this to be a growth category, but it hasn’t proven to be true in CBA, at least not yet.
What was it that made the novel The Shack a runaway success after it had been rejected by traditional publishers?
I think The Shack told an intriguing story, had an interesting depiction of God that had some appeal (if you’re not aware, the role of God was pictured as an African-American woman, and the Holy Spirit was portrayed as a rather ethereal elderly Asian woman), and spoke to an audience of people who wanted to feel they were reading something deep about God. (They were not, by the way. The story has major problems, and the writing is weak.) The big picture of the novel is that the lead character had a bunch of crud in his past that needed to be brought out into the light and examined – which is certainly a good message. It was also controversial, which
Some news bits that relate to writers who do books in CBA…
First, Family Christian Stores may, in fact, survive… and thus surprise everyone in Christian publishing. As previously talked about here and here, FCS was in danger of shuttering its 266 stores due to declining revenues, a tough publishing market, changing tastes among people of faith… oh yeah, and an inability to actually run the whole operation as a profitable enterprise. They did $230-million in business last year, but the Richard Jackson-owned chain had wracked up $127-million in debt, owed publishers $14-million, had $20-million in consignment merchandise they hadn’t paid for, and were basically swimming in a sea of ill will. Two companies that specialize in killing businesses, Gordon Brothers and Hilco Merchant Services, were pushing to have the court declare FCS bankrupt, so they could sell the remaining stock for pennies on the dollar and close the stores. Instead, the judge had the company go through a sale, then nixed it when he found out the CEO of the company, Chuck Bengochea, was making secret late-night phone calls to Mr Jackson to apparently map out an insider strategy in violation of the law, then set up a NEW sale, and this time it’s got a buyer.
Second, the buyer of Family Christian Stores is none other than Mr Richard Jackson and his new company, FCS Acquisitions. Um… go ahead and read back over that if you need to. We’ll wait… Okay, you with me? Yes, Mr Jackson, who made a fortune in health care, and who purchased FCS and more or less ran it into the ground, then tried to form a new company to buy his old company but got slapped down by a judge for what was termed “reckless… insider” moves, has formed a NEW company, and that new company is buying the OLD company — and thus allowing it to get out of some
What with the struggles of Christian fiction over the past couple of years, one of the most frequent questions I’ve been getting has to do with the potential shift of writers from CBA to the general market — specifically, Can a CBA novelist move to a traditional publishing house in the general market?
My answer is quick: Potentially you can, but it’s very tough to do successfully.
I understand why inspirational authors want to explore this shift — CBA fiction is shrinking, there are fewer legacy publishing houses releasing fiction, and those that do focus on fiction have generally been trimming the number of titles they release. That’s particularly true with literary fiction, where there are just a handful of traditional CBA houses who do any literary titles at all. And while there are a number of new, smaller presses popping up with titles aimed at religious readers, few have shown staying power and nearly all of them are focused on category fiction (most often romances, though there are also some cozy mysteries, romantic suspense, and even some spec fiction titles available).
In addition, traditional CBA publishers have heavily relied on brick-and-mortar stores to move their books, and the disappearance of so many Christian bookstores has hit publishers extremely hard. The potential closing of Family Christian Stores, the largest chain of religious bookstores, has been a scary proposition for CBA publishers, as I’ve noted on this blog in the past. A recent study done on the buying habits of those who read Christian fiction demonstrated their reliance on finding titles in brick-and-mortar stores. So we have as many writers as ever, but trying to do books in a market with fewer publishers, who are doing fewer titles, available on fewer stores shelves. That’s the problem, in a nutshell.
The potential answer for many authors has been to try and take their stories to the broader general market… and it hasn’t
It’s always interesting when you create a blog post that blows up, since you never know how people are going to respond (or what sort of biases they’re going to bring to their reading of it). I found that out last week when my post on Christian fiction, in the words of two different publishers, “blew up the internet.” Seems I struck a nerve, and everybody wanted to talk about it… but a bunch of people got it wrong. So some notes on the debate:
I said that CBA fiction is facing hard times for authors. It is, no matter how much of a happy face anyone wants to paint on it. A bunch of houses have simply gotten out of fiction, several others have reduced the number of titles, and the slots available at traditional publishing houses for authors is considerably smaller than it was a few years ago. By my count, we’ve seen the number of slots for Christian fiction cut in half over the past six years. That’s troubling.
I did not say that CBA fiction is dying. In fact, I believe just the opposite. This is the Golden Age of publishing — we’re selling more books than ever, we have more readers than ever, and we have more opportunities than ever. (And, since it’s conferences season, I should add that we have more great training and conference opportunities than ever.) The struggle is with connecting books to readers. In my view, that’s the biggest challenge we face.
I said that sales numbers for CBA fiction are down. They are — at least for traditional houses. Ask any CBA sales person. Numbers for fiction titles from traditional publishers may be stabilizing, but at a much smaller number than they were at a few years ago. One can argue that the numbers overall are still greater because of indie-published titles — and that might be true, but
I’ve been getting a lot of questions about CBA fiction lately… [And I updated this column recently.]
Is fiction aimed at the CBA market (that is, the “inspirational” market) growing or shrinking? Those of us who write for that market keep hearing different things and, frankly, I’m not sure who to believe.
CBA fiction is in a world of hurt. When I started my literary agency nine years ago, Christian fiction was the fastest-growing segment in all of publishing, and continued to be a growth category for a couple more years. But, as I’ve said so often, publishing is a “tidal” business — the tide comes in, the tide goes out. Seven, eight, nine years ago, it was in. Then the tide started to recede, and now it’s out. Way, way out.
Several CBA publishing houses that used to do fiction don’t do it any more. (Today, Abingdon announced they’re killing their fiction program, for example.) Several others have cut back their lists. There are fewer slots for authors, and shopping for inspirational fiction has become harder. Barnes & Noble sort of sticks all religious fiction off into one corner, so if you don’t walk in specifically hoping to find that section, you’re not going to stumble onto it. Books-a-Million does a better job, but they’re not a huge chain. The potential demise of Family Christian Stores is a looming disaster — it leaves Lifeway Stores as the biggest chain, and the fiction decisions at Lifeway have been a huge disappointment to many of us in the industry (meaning the company only wants VERY safe Christian romances where nothing truly bad happens, sex doesn’t exist, everyone talks like they’re living in Andy Griffith Land, and in the end the characters will fall to their knees and accept Christ so that All Life Problems Will Be Resolved). Sales numbers have fallen, so that the novelist who used to routinely sell 18,000
I’ve been getting all sorts of interesting (if sometimes random) questions from readers lately, and wanted to offer some notes on genres, writing style, and the contemporary publishing market. Here are some questions that came in recently:
What do you do when your story doesn’t fit into the box of any specified genre? For instance, if characters and/or objects in a story symbolize something deeper, but the story can also be taken as a literal story (e.g., The Le Petit Prince or Pilgrim’s Progress), is it going to be classified as inspirational, or drama, or children’s story? Is there some other genre out there that I’m missing?
If you have a story that uses characters or objects that symbolize something deeper, you’re probably writing an allegory. And right now there is very little market for allegory. A bit, perhaps, with “business fables” that teach organizational principles, or the occasional sci-fi novel, possibly with some children’s books. But for most part, allegories are one tough sell.
I am a freelance editor and writer, so editing is what (barely) pays the bills, but I have a couple of novel projects I feel need to come out of me. However, my writing style tends to reflect the style of books I love to read—the descriptive, long-sentence style of Dickens, for example. Dickens is one of the greats, but nowadays the passive construction has a bad rap and “show, don’t tell” seems to be the motto of the industry. My question is this: is there a market for descriptive writing anymore?
The truth? Not much of one. Maybe you could capture a new audience and re-start it, but no, the culture has moved on from that style. Remember, writing is art, and art needs its own new expressions in each generation. That’s why it’s hard to go back and read James Fenimore Cooper – his prose just doesn’t work in contemporary culture. (For that
An earthquake hit CBA this past week. You may not have noticed it, since the news was buried on the back pages, but if you’re an author who sells into the Christian market, it’s going to affect you — possibly in a huge way.
If you haven’t heard, Family Christian Stores (FCS), the largest Christian bookstore chain and easily the largest seller of religious books and merchandise, is in trouble and has filed for Chapter 11 to reorganize their debt. They have 266 stores, did $230-million in business last year, and are facing a real crisis. They are in debt $127-million, much of that in store leases and rents. They owe publishers about $14-million, nearly that much to card-and-gift vendors, and even more to consignment companies. So the owner, Richard Jackson and his team, made a bid to creditors to keep the company in business. (If you don’t know about any of this, you can read about it in an earlier blog post that I wrote here.)
Jackson is a difficult guy to root for among authors, since he and his partners own FCS, but they also loaned money to the company and have been trying to repurchase the company for a lower price, paying themselves back but cutting out many of the publishers and vendors who are owed huge sums. Another group submitted a higher bid, but that group, Gordon Brothers and Hilco Merchant Services, exist only to take over the locations, liquidate all the assets, and close up the stores. All the employees would lose their jobs, all the stores would eventually shutter, and, most significantly for authors, all the books would be sold without any money making its way back to authors. The books and other products would be considered surplus inventory to be sold as quickly as possible, with the money used to pay off the largest lenders (Credit Suisse holds $34-million of secured
I’ve had a number of people write to ask about the bankruptcy of Family Christian Stores, and specifically if it will affect writers who publish in CBA. A bit of background: FCS has 266 stores, did $230M in business last year, and were the largest purveyor of religious books, bibles, t-shirts, and inspirational ephemera in the country. They were originally part of Zondervan, but were bought out by Richard Jackson (remember that name — it will come up often) and his partners a few years ago. Jackson and his buddies said they were going to use the stores to sell products, make money, and use the profits to fund other ministries around the world. Certainly a noble idea. The only problem? They didn’t know what they were doing.
Sales dropped. Bookselling turned into a tough business. Profits were slim. So a few weeks ago, the chain filed for Chapter 11, a reorganization bankruptcy. They have huge debts — close to $127M. They owe $7M to HarperCollins alone, largely for bibles, which is an expensive (and lucrative) business. They owe another $2M to Tyndale, and a half million each to Baker, B&H, Harvest House, Crossway, Barbour, Presbyterian & Reformed, etc. Their debts to publishers total roughly $14M. They owe greeting card and gift companies about another $13M.
In the world of Wall Street finance, that may not look like much. (Borders had nearly a thousand stores, and owed publishers much more.) But in the world of Christian publishing, this is huge. Imagine you’re Harvest House — a very well run, medium-sized publishing house that is privately owned, and trying to compete with the Random Houses and Simon & Schusters of the world. If a giant corporation is suddenly told they won’t be paid a half million dollars, you can bet they won’t be happy, but they’ll weather the storm because they have the financial resources to get through the rough patches.
We’ve tried to tackle a bunch of questions quickly this month…
“I want to start a monthly fiction book club to bond members of my writing group. Do you have any suggestions? I thought about reading a book together, then critiquing it so members can learn how to write better. For example, how does a fiction writer work in a description of his characters, or how does the arc of the story change from beginning to end? Any suggestions?”
Yes. Give people plenty of time to read the book. Start with a book you know well and have studied, so that you can intelligently talk it through. Consider bringing in an outside editor or a high school or college writing teacher, who knows the book you’re talking about and uses it in his or her classroom. Choose novels that have clear strengths to them at the start, so that you don’t go too deep, too fast. If you’re reading a contemporary book, think about trying to bring the editor or even the author into your group via phone or Skype, to talk about the artistic choices they made. Let someone else lead the discussion sometime, since we all learn best when we have to teach the material.
“Do you know of any successful book clubs led by writers and what is the key to their clubs’ success?”
Sure – there are a lot of successful book clubs led by writers. I think some of the keys to success is to have a diverse group, rather than having it just be your close friends. Diversity will bring more life to the discussions. Figure out ahead of time what sort of group you want this to be. In other words, what is the atmosphere we want to have? Scholarly? Bonding? Social?
Pick a time and place, let the group select the books you’ll all be reading well in advance, and don’t
Some fascinating questions have come in recently…
“I know of several agents who edit or write on the side. Is there anything wrong with that?”
I’m on record as having said, “You’ll do best if you find a full-time agent.” But I also recognize the times are changing – now we’re seeing agents help authors self-publish, or help with marketing plans, or have some other part-time position, so I know our role has changed. An agent who also edits or writes on the side has become fairly common. My feeling is that those agents need to be careful not to mix the two – and I’ll use myself as an example. While I will always go through a proposal and make sure it’s strong, editing and tweaking as necessary, I don’t freelance edit. I tell authors that my company is not an editorial service, so if they need a full-blown developmental edit, they’re better off hiring a freelance editor. I generally will give authors three or four names of editors who I like and trust… but I always explain that I don’t care which editor the author approaches, and I’m always quick to say these people don’t work for me, and I don’t get a kickback for recommending any particular editor. So if an agent wants to do some freelance editing, I think they have to create a bright line about separating the two aspects of their business (I recently saw one agent tell authors, “I’ll represent this if you’ll hire me to edit it first”). They have to be very careful that they don’t try to sell their editorial services to clients, which will get them kicked out of the AAR. Similarly, I know of a few agents who also work as freelance writers. So long as they’re not selling their writing services to clients, and basically running two separate businesses, I think they can make that work. I