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 there isn’t adequate research on that, at least in CBA. And the problem I’m dealing with as an agent really isn’t “how many indie novels have released,” so much as “how much less money authors are making because of the changes in the industry.”
I did not say that indie publishing is bad. Anyone who has read the blog or heard me speak about this over the past eight years knows I am a huge supporter of authors having a career plan, and in today’s market that will probably include some aspect of self-publishing. I will note that I’m tired of authors-who-have-sold-two-hundred-total-books coming onto the blog and haranguing us with their “indie is the way to go speech.” Indie publishing has opened up all kinds of doors for authors. It has also dropped prices, reduced earnings, and made discoverability harder. We have to find ways of dealing with those challenges.
I said the demise of Family Christian Stores is a disaster for CBA novelists, and that relying on Lifeway Stores is a problem because many publishers don’t want to rely on Lifeway. This seems to be the thing that really set some people off… I actually had people write to me and tell me that I’m not really a Christian, or that I shouldn’t be selling CBA books. Good grief. Here’s news: Lifeway is a chain of stores that happens to be owned by the Southern Baptist Convention. That means they’re going to sell books that fit their theology. I’m actually fine with that. But when I was at Time-Warner, we had the biggest selling Christian book of the time: Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now. Lifeway wouldn’t carry it, since Joel is Pentecostal. We also had the best-selling author of that era, Joyce Meyer. Lifeway wouldn’t carry her, either. You think traditional CBA publishers, who are used to selling books through brick-and-mortar stores, aren’t worried about that sort of thing?
I did not say that Lifeway is bad company, or that I opposed them. My actual words were that they’ve been “a huge disappointment.” Which, in my view, is true. If they’re the biggest Christian chain, that’s a disappointment, because I’m not Baptist, or even a conservative evangelical (I’m an Anglican), so some of the books I represent will never see Lifeway store shelves. But many people took this as a slam at the Lifeway fiction buyer, Rachel McRae, which I did not intend. I reached out to Rachel, we had a nice discussion about our respective roles in the industry, and she’s created a blog post about all of this you can read here.
I said that Christian literary fiction is really struggling. Again, in today’s market, that’s just a fact. I’ve represented as much Christian literary fiction as any agent on the planet, and right now, if I get in a great new literary novel aimed at CBA, there are going to be fewer than ten houses to talk to — perhaps as few as five. That doesn’t mean genre fiction is bad, only that literary fiction is facing a tough time.
I did not say CBA fiction suffers from being unrealistic. This was one of the criticisms I got from several people who wrote me, and I kept wondering if they had bothered to read the blog post. There are PLENTY of great, realistic writers and stories in Christian fiction these days — writers who want to dig into the struggles we all face and the great questions of life. To me, that’s what good fiction does. But right now, category fiction (contemporary romance, historical romance, romantic suspense, etc) rules in CBA, and literary fiction is hard to find. Meanwhile in the general market, literary fiction is king. We certainly see some real-world experiences in CBA category fiction, though it tends to lean more toward the violent side, since we’re a violent culture. (That’s not a criticism, by the way — I sell a lot of suspense and thriller novels.) But sooner or later, I believe we’ll see a return to more thoughtful books being published and sold.
I am not a pessimist about Christian fiction — in fact, over the past several years, I believe I’ve sold more CBA novels than any other agent. (Look it up.) But we’re in the midst of a sea-change in Christian fiction. The way things used to be aren’t working any more. We’re training writers to create great books, so we’re going to have to create new and better ways of linking stories to readers. That means we’re going to see changes in the marketing and selling of CBA fiction. From an agent’s perspective, we also have to re-think how authors make money at this, and that’s what this blog is all about. (And there was a study commissioned about CBA fiction recently, to determine buying patterns. It was flawed, but interesting — I’m going to explore that study tomorrow.)
By the way, if you dig into the comments on that last blog, you’ll find a wonderfully thoughtful note from the owner of an independent Christian bookstore, and some GREAT thoughts from Daisy Hutton, the fiction publisher at Thomas Nelson and one of the true forward thinkers in the field. So jump in — I would love to hear how you see Christian fiction changing, and what you think the solutions are for moving forward.