Chip MacGregor

July 27, 2015

What's working in CBA fiction these days?


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 garnered it some attention. The book did well, sold copies, and took off via word of mouth among spiritual seekers. Then FaithWords at Hachette bought it, pumped a bunch of marketing money into it, and the book blew the roof off. I think they sold more than six million copies. Many people used it to suggest we’d arrived in a new place with Christian fiction. My thought? Mencken was right. Don’t get me wrong — I appreciate a surprise hit. But I read the book and thought it was really weak. There were many other, better books that could have been used as examples of the good stuff being produced by writers of faith. CBA fiction has hit a place where there are some wonderful writers, telling excellent, thought-provoking stories. But this was an example where great art can be a much tougher sell than bad art masquerading as something deep. It was the painting equivalent was Thomas Kinkade, who somehow convinced much of America that his nostalgic paintings of cottages were great art. They weren’t bad, by any means – I owned one, and I liked it. But they were safe and easy and romanticized pieces of fluff that made you think of an idealized American pastoral scene, not really great, thoughtful pieces of art that spoke to your soul about anything. Again, I’m not complaining, only explaining that “deep” doesn’t always sell. I mean, who sells more records — the London Philharmonic or Miley Cyrus?

What do you think made the curious little book The Prayer of Jabez so successful a few years ago?

That’s easy: It was a very short book (so it would be easy to read), that was inexpensive (so it would be easy to buy), and it claimed to offer magic words that would give the reader the power to force God to do something (so it had a broad appeal). I know the book well. The author, Bruce Wilkinson, was a friend of mine who I’d worked with on some writing projects. The editor, Dave Kopp, was an acquaintance who has continued working in the industry (he is an excellent editor and is now running the Convergent line for Random House). I don’t think either of them intended the book to be viewed as a “Magic Potion to Make God Do Your Bidding.” Yet the simple promise of the book made it take off unexpectedly, and it generated a pile of money. But again, this happens occasionally in publishing, and you can’t always figure out why one book did great and another book did not. I think anyone who picks up a copy of Henry Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus will find a life-changing manuscript, but most have never heard of it. On the other hand, we’ve all seen books like Your Best Life Now or Going Rogue do well and wonder, “Am I missing something?”

Would love to know books you think are overlooked masterpieces, OR books that made it big and you thought were somewhat less-than-stellar… 

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  • I think the deeper stuff doesn’t always sell immediately
    because many readers are looking for things that will take them away from the “deeper” issues they face on a daily basis. One of the things that surprised me years ago was when I asked a great Christian friend to recommend a movie. He was the type of person who put a lot of thought into EVERYTHING he did and said. He counseled people who were struggling with some serious issues as a profession, and he was very effective. What was his favorite movie? Dumb and Dumber, only to be eclipsed later by Dumb and Dumberer. Really! When he took on a second job, this very brilliant man became a dish-washer at a fancy restaurant. When I asked him why he didn’t teach or something, he said he didn’t want to have an extra job that made him think more.

    My reading has changed over the years depending on what is
    going on in my life. While in college, I wanted thought-provoking. As a
    beginning counselor, I wanted fun and silly (got plenty of dark and serious on
    the job with teens in a drug-infested neighborhood). As the mother of toddlers,
    I needed something with bigger words than Seuss could muster.

    Sometimes we are looking for escape or hope. There’s nothing
    wrong with that, but a mix is always good. To me, the best stories are ones
    that have a little bit of everything: Moments of depth, dealing with relevant issues, sprinkled with hope and an occasional belly laugh or two!

  • T. G. Cooper says:

    If spec and fantasy writers in the CBA market want to break through, they need to follow your advice from a previous post and adapt themselves to a secular market. ‘The Shack’ was popular because of the emotional appeal and controversy, not it’s literary quality.

    As far as overlooked masterpieces, I’m at a bit of a loss. It’s been a while since I’ve read a truly compelling spec or fantasy novel from the CBA market.

  • I love some of the older stuff, like Susan Howatch’s Church of England series (I notice that was mentioned in the comments on a previous post), and even older, like St. Francis de Sales – you’d never know his work was hundreds of years old, his words on prayer and devotion are so relevant . . . and newer, like Dallas Willard’s stuff (amazing), Fr. Reardon on the Psalms – oh, and then Christian fantasy like Lars Walker’s Viking series (published by Baen, believe it or not). All those folks helped make up the landmarks of my Christian thinking, and I think all of them could be profitably read more widely.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Appreciate the suggestions, Jessica. And yes, I’ve become a huge fan of Susan Howatch’s work. Not safe for your typical CBA reader, but wonderful stories for thoughtful people of faith.

    • Yes, they’re incredibly rich! I have the feeling I’m probably more conservative than she is, but that won’t stop me from reading such excellent, thoughtful (and thought-provoking) stories.

  • Robin Pizzo says:

    I know I keep making this statement in my comments about your blog but I absolutely love your honesty and the clarity you bring to every topic you post. I could offer just tons and tons of book titles that causes the thought “Say What!! This is a best seller??? with a roll of the eyes added twice. But when you write for children and teens the phenomenon that causes art to become popular or great is not that difficult to understand.

    I am curious about what you thought of Same Kind of Different and Mitch Albom’s regurgitated formula books that people seem to love? (Sorry if you’re a Mitch Albom fan:0

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I loved “Same Kind of Different as Me,” and worked with Lee Hough at the time he was representing it. It’s a great story, and Lee passed away last year and isn’t here to tell it. He got in the idea, loved it, and needed a writer. I suggested Lynn Vincent, a freelance writer out in San Diego I liked and respected, and Lynn took the whole story and made it sing. But Lee couldn’t sell it. It was this small story of a guy with no platform, talking about racial reconciliation, and nobody saw the value in it. Lee tried with every publishing house, and kept working on it, talking with people, and getting rejected. Finally, after two years of trying, he got Thomas Nelson to take a flyer on it (and it was a modest deal). The result? A million copies sold, a couple years on the bestseller lists, some spin-off books, and a movie deal. All done because Lee Hough saw the potential in a great book idea.

    • Robin Pizzo says:

      I loved the book also and what a great journey it took to hit the market. Very inspirational and encouraging for those on the path to publishing. Hey no thoughts on Mitch Albom?

  • Carolyn Perpetua Astfalk says:

    Just have to say I enjoy reading your responses. It’s refreshing to read something so straightforward and devoid of pussy-footing, for lack of a better word.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    I love everything I’ve read by Ravi Zacharias. Jesus Among Other Gods was an amazing book, as was The Grand Weaver. Another one that really shifted my thinking was The Road to Reality by K.P. Yohannan. Were those overlooked? I don’t know. They certainly weren’t featured on end caps at my local Christian bookstore.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think all of us can point to books like that, Robin. Appreciate the references.

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