Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

The Changing Face of Christian Fiction

By Val Comer
2005,
Val Comer


Christian fiction is an umbrella term for a wide variety of sub-genres that are sold through CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) bookstores as opposed to ABA (American Booksellers Association) bookstores.  As such, it isn't really a genre of its own, although it is often considered one.  There are specific things that CBA novels have in common that set them apart from books from secular houses, and these are basically no explicit sex, no swearing, and a Christian worldview of some sort, normally containing a strong evangelical message, according to a reader of Christian fiction (http://faithinfiction.blogspot.com/2005/04/will-there-always-be-us-and-them.html).  This seal of approval is more likely to assure readers that certain things won't happen in a given novel, rather than assure them that certain things will.  As a result there is a lot of overlap, where books are published by ABA houses that could also have been published by CBA presses and vice versa.  However, in both cases there are also many novels that fall outside the bounds of the other side.

A loyal readership abounds for novels that portray a more biblical lifestyle than that depicted in the majority of today's secular novels.  The demand is higher than ever, although not all areas of Christian fiction are experiencing equal growth.  Likely due to the somewhat recent release of the Lord of the Rings movies, fantasy is a growth area.  That doesn't mean it is in high demand, though.  It means that options in this area have gone from virtually zero to 'maybe-somewhat-kind of-possible.  On the flip side, inspirational romance is in very high demand, according to award winning novelist Brenda Coulter (http://brendacoulter.com/)  in a recent post on Romancing the Blog (http://www.romancingtheblog.com/blog/index.php?p=291). Publishers such as Harlequin's Steeple Hill (http://www.eharlequin.com/cms/learntowrite/ltwArticle.jhtml?pageID=030317wu02001) which straddle the market between CBA and ABA offer 'major league' advances and support for their authors.

This strong support is not a phenomenon of romance publishers.  CBA houses such as Bethany House (http://www.bethanyhouse.com/), Zondervan (http://www.zondervan.com/), Tyndale (http://www.tyndale.com/), and Harvest House (http://www.harvesthousepublishers.com/) also reputedly provide advances well within the bounds of traditional press payments.  A June 2005 article, unfortunately now off-line, from The Tennessean (http://www.tennessean.com/) discusses lucrative deals recently offered to several high profile CBA authors.  Multiple book deals with seven figures are not unheard of, and even more modestly acclaimed authors may find quite decent advances offered to them.

Christian fiction is relatively new as a marketing category.  In the 1960s and 70s, Christian fiction was hard to find, and often consisted mainly of slightly veiled sermonizing.  Doubtless it was during those years that the perception, ongoing today, of the inferior quality of Christian fiction was first established.  Janette Oke (http://www.janetteoke.com/) played a significant role in wedging open the door to Christian fiction in 1979 with Bethany's release of Love Comes Softly, a prairie romance.  An appetite was born, and has continued to grow, encouraging a variety of authors in various sub-genres to satisfy the demand.  According to Christian Broadcasting Network's Craig von Buseck (http://www.cbn.com/blogs/vonBuseck/050712.asp), the most recent offering to herald rocketing growth is the Left Behind series by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, which began being published in 1995.

The perceptions of poorer quality still dog CBA fiction, however.  There is now an uprising of sorts within the field to actively promote tighter writing, and with it, less stringent guidelines.  A new term to define the cutting edge of Christian fiction is post-modern, or emergent.  This writing leaves the safe middle of the road and explores more marginal areas.  Dave Long (http://faithinfiction.blogspot.com/), an acquisition editor for Bethany House, is actively seeking emergent fiction to publish (http://faithinfiction.blogspot.com/2005/04/books-themselves.html).  Emergent stories explore questions of faith without being required to dogmatically answer them.  Characters struggle with real life issues, and, as in real life, pat answers may come with holes in them.  Overly simplistic solutions can now be avoided in favor of reality.

The existence of emergent fiction does not mean that the traditional standards for CBA publishing are being set aside, and not every publisher is willing to take a chance on manuscripts that skirt the margins. CBA will still only publish novels presenting a basic Christian worldview, and that is as it should be, but they are now becoming more willing to portray the real life struggles of people everywhere. 

Although the problem of poor quality is fading rapidly into memory, it still keeps many -- perhaps the majority -- of Christians from shopping in their local CBA bookstores.  Avid readers with developed tastes have learned to shop in secular bookshops for a wider variety of novels.  Many have not bothered to go back to the CBA stores to see if anything has changed in the past ten or twenty years.

To be honest, many a CBA store would not display the change, as not all Christian readers embrace emergent fiction.  The CBA retail stores are the front line, the gatekeepers for the industry.  If readers are aghast at what they have found typeset into a novel that they believed to be 'safe,' they may rail upon their booksellers, ask for refunds, or refuse to support a bookstore anymore.  The ones who read and love traditional Christian literature want stories that any member of their household can pick up and read, and that will offend none of them.  In this way, a small but vocal minority of readers controls the industry.  One example is denomination of the characters.  Publishers such as Steeple Hill request that the church denomination be generic rather than specific, so that no reader will feel left out.  This again leaves a middle-of-the-road vanilla flavor rather than anything with spice.  Therefore, unless you live in a progressive area, your local Christian bookstore is unlikely to reveal a true cross-section of what is available today.  For the full picture you will need to research individual houses for their lists of recent releases, although the Dancing Word website (http://www.dancingword.net/christianfiction/) contains a fair bit of cross-house information.

If you have written a novel that may fit within the guidelines of either association, how do you know which publishing houses to target first?  There are pros and cons both ways.

Being published by a standard ABA house will get your story into more bookstores and in front of more potential readers than a CBA house.  Even if your story contains strong representations of faith, it will not be pushed into the religious aisle of chain bookstores.

Randy Ingermanson (http://www.rsingermanson.com/), creator of the Snowflake plotting method (http://www.rsingermanson.com/html/the_snowflake.html), gives two reasons CBA publishing is preferable: 

1) ABA publishers often print far more copies than they will actually sell, so there are large numbers of returns, which eats into the profit margin on the book.  And royalties aren't paid on returned books.  CBA publishers don't do that.  They tend to print what they think will sell, and then go back to press if they need more copies.  So returns tend to be a much smaller fraction of the total.

2) CBA novels are usually issued in trade paperback, generating a lot more income to the author per book than a printing in mass market paperback would.  ABA novels are often mass market, and they may sell far more copies than CBA novels and yet produce less income.

He also points out that CBA pays royalties on the wholesale price of the book, whereas ABA pays royalties on the retail price.  So CBA publishers might pay "17% of wholesale" while ABA might pay "8% of retail."  In the end, it works out to about the same.

Even the largest CBA houses treat their new authors like family, according to T. L. Hines (http://www.tlhines.com/blog/000197.php), who recently signed a two-book deal with Bethany.  Many Christian writers value the camaraderie found in CBA conferences and workshops.  Because there are fewer Christian writers and they share foundational beliefs, strong bonds can be rapidly formed.  American Christian Fiction Writers (http://www.americanchristianfictionwriters.com/) is an organization that helps to develop this sort of relationship between writers, published or not.

I believe that it would be quite difficult to write for this market unless you live within it and are familiar with its particularities.  The style may be impossible for a non-Christian to emulate.  But should you want to?  For that matter, should even Christian writers desire to be published within the CBA fold?  Not everyone thinks so.

In the end it is the choice of each writer as to where they will submit a novel that may fit into various publishing houses' lists.  Some novels will limit themselves by content, but if your story seems like it may fit in either direction, consider the benefits of offering it to CBA houses as well.  You might be very glad you did.

Works cited:

Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke, Bethany, ISBN: 0871233428

Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Tyndale, ISBN: 0613138252