Recently I’ve had several people send me a version of this question: “You seem to be one of the few literary agents who works in the general market (what a lot of people call the ABA) as well as working in the Christian market (the CBA). I’ve published two books in CBA, but think my next book fits more of a general market audience. My question: is ‘crossing over’ from CBA to ABA a reality?”
Okay, I’ve answered this question a couple times, so even if you’re not terribly religious, stay with me for a minute…. I think this stuff is interesting to talk about. First, for those not in the know, I represent books in both the CBA and the general market. There aren’t many agents who do that, so I’m very much in the minority. Second, in case you don’t know, CBA is the Christian Booksellers Association, and it’s the realm of all things faith-based in publishing. ABA is the American Booksellers Association, and it’s sometimes used (though less and less) as a descriptor for the general, non-religious world of publishing. Third, if you’ll indulge me, let me offer a theological reflection that speaks to this issue of CBA and ABA books: Christianity teaches that when you meet God, you are changed. (I don’t care if you believe that or not, just hear the argument.) A Christian would argue that everything about you is different, because you’ve been exposed to God. So, from a theologian’s perspective, a Christian probably won’t be completely understood by those who are not Christians. He or she is speaking a different language. And any cultural anthropologist till tell you that the longer you’re a Christian, the fewer non-Christian friends you have, and therefore the less you have in common. So you’ll have a tough time communicating with non-Christians in language they’ll understand.
Still with me? Okay (done with the theology lesson), from an agent’s perspective, many faith-based writers simply don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to writing for non-Christian readers. They aren’t part of the non-fatih world, they don’t spend a lot of time hanging out with non-Christian people, they don’t watch non-religious TV or listen to radio programming that’s antithetical to their beliefs. In essence, they CAN’T speak to that group, because they don’t know the language. Picture this for a minute — imagine a Moslem, who had been raised in an Islamic home, who lives his entire life surrounded with Islamic influences, suddenly announcing he wants to write a book that appeals to a Christian audience, since there seem to be so many Christians who need to hear the message of Islam. Or imagine a novelist who has never been a church-goer, who doesn’t know the first thing about organized religion, suddenly being asked to write a novel about the pastor of a small-town congregation.
See the problem? It’s hard to cross cultural lines. I was in a meeting a few years ago with a well-known Christian personality who wanted to “write a book for the general market.” She was big news, so we were all excited… until we saw her idea. It was basically an outline drawn from the book of James, with verses to support every point. When I tried to explain to her why that book would NEVER be picked up by the general public, she didn’t understand me. “But it’s TRUTH,” she argued. “It’s GOD’S truth, and people will see that if they would pick it up and read it!” You see, she just didn’t grasp the fact that the majority of readers won’t listen to that argument (just as she wouldn’t listen if a moslem author wrote a book explaining why Mohammed was God’s prophet). The general book culture isn’t interested in books from a strict evangelical viewpoint. Other Christians may be, but the general reading public is not. And that’s an issue I face regularly with faith-based authors.
So no, for most religious writers, “crossing over” is a very, very difficult task. Sure, it happens occasionally, but it’s rare. Nobody really thought Left Behind or The Purpose Driven Life were going to sell millions of copies to non-religious readers. Those books did, but I know the publishers didn’t have any clue that was going to happen when they first contracted those books. Maybe (if you’re a Christian) that’s the sovereignty of God at work. Maybe (if you’re not a Christian) that was end times lunacy and dumb luck. 90 Minutes in Heaven has sold millions of copies to people who are interested in the concept of an afterlife, but I happen to know the publisher was shocked at the public’s embracing of that book. The Shack has sold 6 million copies or so, to Christians as well as non-Christians who were interested in spiritual things. So it happens occasionally. And sometimes a very good writer (a Sue Monk Kidd or a Susan Meissner) will write a book that moves them out of the CBA market and into a broader readership. But, generally speaking, the Christian writers who are read by a non-religious audience [a list that would include CS Lewis, L’Engle, LaMott, O’Connor, Percy, Sayers, Tolkein, Wangerin, et al] are not writing “Christian” books. They’re simply writing great stories.
Nobody thought the Harry Potter books were going to have such a wide appeal to adults, or that a YA novel like The Hunger Games would break out to such an extent. But that’s the beauty of publishing — you write your best book, aim it at your audience, and sometimes you get surprised. In my view you don’t normally design a book to sell to both the religious and the non-religious market. Why? Because, most of the time, it just won’t work.
Happy to respond to questions or read your comments on the topic…