An Open Letter to Christian Fantasy Readers

Two years ago I walked into my local Family Christian Store looking for a copy of Karen Hancock‘s Light of Eidon as a gift for a friend. When I didn’t find it, I asked the clerk why they didn’t shelve the books of a three-time Christy award-winning author. She registered shock. “Oh, I didn’t know!” I ordered the book and since then have had no trouble locating Hancock’s books at that store.

The point is simple: people don’t buy good Christian fantasy because they don’t know about the books or where they can buy them—not because of an aversion to the genre or because of poor writing.

In a discussion in the ACFW forums Stuart Stockton informed us of a web site, TitleZ that keeps track of Amazon sales rankings over long stretches of time and claims to reflect how a book is selling industry-wide. If this is true, the sales for some of the best Christian fantasies are not good. And yet, when comparing them to some of the “bright lights” of Christian fiction, the sales don’t seem to be all that far apart. Of course, if this were translated into dollars and cents, I might view it differently.

Still, not that much seems to separate the better fantasies from some of the better other-genre books (with Ted Dekker being an anomaly 😉 ). Why is this?

Have the fantasies not found readers? That’s not true, because there are a couple series doing quite well—better than some of the other-genre books that have received a significant marketing push from their publishers.

Are the readers who find the good fantasies hoarding them—not telling their friends or buying the books for their relatives, because they feel like they belong to a secret club and want to keep it that way? Possibly.

Or do the readers take the books for granted, assuming that if they found them, others will too in good time? Hmmm. This might be true.

Still, I am befuddled. Some beautifully-packaged books are selling well and some beautifully-packaged books have disappointing sales, at least judging by TitleZ’s claim that these Amazon figures reflect sales at large.

Can we who love SFF make a difference? I have to believe so. Blogging, in my view, is the written form of word-of-mouth, so our views ought to start people looking at the books we believe in.

But this past week heard another fact—a recent survey revealed that only 18% of readers visit a publisher’s web site while 23% visit an author’s site. That makes me realize, blogging alone is not enough, especially by unpublished writers like me (23% of 0 being what it is! 😉 )

What am I driving at? We readers/fans/writers of Christian science fiction or fantasy need to do more to spread the word about our genre. Here are some ideas:

  • buy at least one CSFF book for a Christmas present
  • ask at least one local bookstore to stock books by a CSFF author you see missing from their shelves
  • write a publisher of one of your favorite CSFF books and thank them for giving you the kind of book you love and ask them for more
  • write a list of your favorite books and authors and give that to a local library asking them to add those to their buying list
  • mention said list in your Christmas letter
  • too late for the Christmas letter? send another one in January all about fantasy and why you love it and what authors you would recommend
  • send same information to your e-mail contacts
  • post a list of favorite authors on your blog
  • invite friends, family, church acquaintances, school contacts, business collegues, neighbors to read your blog, especially during CSFF blog tours
  • not participating in the tour? Sign up at CSFF Blog Tour
  • I’m sure there are other things we can do if we brainstorm a bit. Of course, not everyone is able to do all of these, but if you managed only three, starting with the first one on the list, that can begin a wave that will grow geometrically. One doubled becomes two. Two doubled becomes four. Four doubled becomes eight. How many steps to a million? Not as many as you might think, but it will NEVER happen if one doesn’t first double and become two.

    The bottom line for me, however, is not simply sales. Rather, it is this: our culture loves story and right now is drinking in fantasy. Fantasy, a genre built on the struggle of good versus evil, can and should reflect God and His work in the world. What a great opportunity to be Paul on Mars Hill saying, I notice you’re worshipping an unknown god. Let me tell you a fantasy that will show you who He is. Might not Christian fantasy be the new evangelistic crusade?

    I know I’ve triggered a few knee-jerk reactions with that last line (stories should NOT preach), and I don’t want to digress into a discussion of well-crafted theme versus preaching. No matter what you believe about that issue, I think we can agree that Christians should glorify God. It’s why we are. So a Christian who writes science fiction or fantasy should glorify God. In turn, do not those of us who read these writers want to point others to this work in order that God’s glory can be spread farther, wider?

    Marketing shouldn’t be about garnering fame or dollars but about giving others the chance to see God through the writing we love. We can play a small part in this process—one becoming two.

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    Published in: on December 18, 2006 at 6:00 am  Comments (16)  

    16 Comments

    1. I am a professional librarian (public libraries-for more years than I like to think about!), a reader of science fiction/fantasy for even longer, and a reader of Christian fiction. I know that it’s possible for libraries to help out in getting the word (pun intended) to readers. Many libraries are doing a lot to get people to know about various parts of their collections. There are even computer programs we can utilize to do this. My library system subscribes to a service that provides some preselected lists and allows local development of others. Here is an example of what can be done: http://www.browardlibrary.org/web/bookletters/christian.htm We’re trying to do our part! Also in planning for the monthly Bookletters, I go through reviews, etc. and recommend Christian fiction titles to our Fiction Acquisitions librarian.

      So there are many routes to getting the word out! Keep up the good work. Kathy Eavenson

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    2. Speaking of libraries…what better location for our CSFF blog tour books when the tour is over than in our church or public libraries? This will grant them the most possible (local) exposure which may well lead to more books being purchased. I’ve donated nearly all of my books once *my circle* has read them. I have a few regrets of not being able to look at them and read them whenever I want, but the libraries do offer visiting rights!

      My 13 year old neighbor (just diagnosed with rhuematoid arthritis) is devouring The Door Within trilogy this week. I haven’t even had a chance to read them myself yet! Won’t have time till after Christmas, but I’m so glad Marshall is enjoying them now. Hoping to get a review from him.

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    3. This was a wonderful post Becky! I want to do my part, so for one I’ll link to this post today. I don’t know if secular writers have such supporters in their fans as us Christian pre-pubbed writers trying to support those who have crossed over. Keep up the great work – you are such a cheerleader. More importantly, a visionary and motivator.

      Blessings,
      Jason

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    4. Becky,

      Incredibly insightful post. Seriously. As a writer of Christian Fantasy, I wonder the same thing all the time. I have people come up to me and say, “Mannn, this is better that–fill in the blank with bestselling secular title.” Others have said, “If you could just get more marketing…”

      So what is the issue? Word of mouth is huge, of course. Author self promotion is huge. Online presence is huge. But there’s another facet to the bigger puzzle that might be worth considering.

      At CBA (now called ICRS, International Christian Retailer Show) in Denver this past summer, I did a meet and greet with distributors and sales people for TN, my publisher. This woman was a dynamo–really high energy–and she was mad as a hatter about the state of Christian Fiction. Her biggest complaint is about BOOKSTORES not being bookstores.

      She said, walk into a local Christian bookstore. Look at the percentage of the store devoted to books versue crosses, paintings, CDs, greetings cards, etc. It’s less than half the store space in most cases.

      Uh, oh. She went on. Then, look at how Christian Fiction is displayed. Most of the time, it’s all lumped together. You can find Busby and Hermie on the same shelf as Peretti.

      So what you get is this vicious cycle of people not going to the Christian stores to buy books, then less retail space devoted to books, so fewer people see them, then…

      Extrapolate this to fantasy she said which is marketed primarily to tweens, she said, and the tweens don’t even know there ARE quality fiction titles for them. They think, “Oh, MOM that’s the store for Veggie Tales, not cool fiction.”

      This woman was a rep for a major Christian distributor, and she said the biggest obstacle facing Christian Fiction is that Christian bookstores aren’t catering to readers like they should.

      So that’s one issue. What do we do about it? Visit our local stores and say, “I wish you had more of this genre?” or “I wish you had a bigger section for?” I’m not sure. Any thoughts?

      A 2nd issue, and my particular pet peeve, is when Christian Fantasy, due to its publisher gets pidgeon holed into a tiny corner section in secular bookstores. I’m not sure what to do about this one. If a publisher wants books to be crossover–read in and out of the Christian realm–then, the publisher should try to find a way to get dual-categorization.

      Oddly enough, my Door Within books are selling well(well but not great) in Barnes and Nobles stores (where they are usually placed in “Religious Fiction.” In contrast my books are flying off the shelves in Borders, where they are categorized as Youth Fiction. I’ve had people tell me they are seeing my books Face Out in Borders stores in Sacremento, Detroit, Dallas, etc.

      So, what do we do about that? Make a pact to march into secular bookstores, find Christian Fantasy titles and put them face-out in other sections? Uh, I don’t think that would be looked upon to well. 😉 Not to mention the whole integrity thing. But I think, if authors, publishers, and readers are serious about impacting culture through fiction, we’ve got to get the books into the culture where they can see it. Just some food for thought.

      Never alone!

      -wayne thomas batson

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    5. Bravo! This is a very well said post. I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve sent Thomas Nelson an email urging them to print Kathryn Mackel’s last book in her Birthright Series and told them how much I appreciate them publishing SF/F in the first place. I also started a special blog on my love for SF/F called Sci-Fi / Journalist you can visit it at http://scifijournalist.blogspot.com.

      I’m an aspiring SF writer with my target audience for teens to twenty-somethings. I was a multi-marketing intern at Radio Disney and I love their creative approach on how to reach ‘tweens and teens. I have some AMAZING ideas on how Christian SF writers could go about getting their books out to a secular audience. I’m starting up my own promotions business and I’m looking for a couple authors to launch this NEW multi-marketing approach with. If anyone is interested in teaming up with me please email solshine7@hotmail.com or leave me a note on my blog.

      Great post Rebecca. Viva la revolution!!!

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    6. Our mission is more informative than educational. Genre readers don’t seek spec-fic in Christian bookstores. Who hunts endangered species? As readers discover our lost genre, Biblical sci-fi and fantasy will snowball downhill.

      Faith,
      Frank Creed

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    7. Wow, Kathy, what a great page. (This explains why my site has received hits from the Broward County Library! 😉 )

      Any suggestions how we can go about getting a similar page in other libraries? (I’m showing my ignorance about how libraries work).

      Becky

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    8. Valerie, a great idea to give tour books to libraries. I firmly believe the more people realize CSFF exists, the more they will want. I’m in agreement with Frank about the CSFF snowball.

      Jason, including links is a huge help. Readers can’t help with marketing if they don’t know there’s a need or that there are some pretty simple things they can do.

      Becky

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    9. Karen, the link to your blog in the body of your comment has an error—the period at the end, I think—but the link with your name works.

      I love what you’re doing, especially the emphasis on targeting younger adult readers. (Of course I would—that’s the audience my writing targets. 😉 ) Your search for new writers for your fledgling promotion work is just the kind of thing our CSFF newsletter will help with. Coming soon!

      Thanks for being a part of this effort to move CSFF to the forefront. Great that you wrote Thomas Nelson.

      Becky

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    10. Wayne, a great comment—I was tempted to copy it today and make you “guest blogger.” 😉 Instead, I’ll encourage readers to take a look at what you said.

      I come back to the impact that we can have. Book distributers, like acquisitions editors, will not be moved to change what they’re doing unless the public demonstrates they want a change. This comes from buyers saying, I’m looking for such-and-such a book and can’t find it in your store. Or, Why aren’t these SFF books with other SFF books?

      If readers don’t realize they have a say in this process, then of course, they will not step up and make a difference. So those of us who know some things that can be helpful need to get the word out to those who aren’t hanging around writer blogs or web sites.

      Of course, published writers have a larger audience, so I’m pleased you’re aware of thise issues, Wayne. Thanks for your input.

      Becky

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    11. […] OK, before I delve into it, I suggest you read Wayne Thomas Batson’s comment to yesterday’s post. Wayne is the author of the highly successful Door Within Trilogy, the subject of January’s CSFF Blog Tour. Because these comments are extensive, I’ll aim to keep my post relatively short. […]

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    12. TWO ANSWERS TO POSTS ABOVE:
      WAYNE – concerning the number of non-book items in bookstores, libraries have a similar experience. My branch library gets approximately 60% of its monthly circulation total from AV items (DVDs, CDs, audiobooks). This is another indication of why the bookstores have so many non-book items; they display more of what is most likely to sell.

      My local Borders has a much bigger and better-displayed Christian fiction section than the Barnes & Noble. But the Christian fiction is still over in its little ‘ghetto’ and not with the rest of the fiction. My local Family Christian store keeps up quite well with fiction; I have a good time talking new titles with one of their staff in particular.

      BECKY – not sure how you can encourage your local library (system) to have a program like Bookletters. It is a subscription-based service, links to our online catalog, etc. and it’s possible that many libraries could not afford it. **But** if they had a vocal population of readers, they might be motivated to develop something like online lists similar to those paper reading recommendations they’ve been doing forever. And most libraries welcome volunteers. Maybe (any of) you with computer skills or skilled family members might volunteer to help?? (That’s in your copious spare time when you’re not writing! LOL)

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    13. FWIW, I found Donita Paul’s new book in the SFF section at Barnes & Noble face out. I was shocked (and pleasantly surprised).

      Do brick and morter bookstores really sell the most books? For me personally, I buy almost everything I read (I’d say 95%) online. Maybe it’s my season in life, but I don’t have time to get to a bookstore often. In fact, I haven’t been to a Christian bookstore in years. There are not many close by and too expensive for my budget.

      I do most of my shopping at Amazon, Buy.com, and occassionally CBD.

      Dawn K.

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    14. Kathy, thanks for getting back to me. I would like to see us utilize libraries as much as possible. I’m wondering now if there isn’t something some of the writer’s organizations should explore. I’ll have to do some checking on this.

      Dawn, that is so great that you found Donita’s book out of its usual niche. Of all CSFF, hers seems to turn up in the most varied places.

      I understand using Amazon when you don’t have a good Christian bookstore close. I have one just a few blocks away and think it is a small way I can contribute to authors for me to shop there. I liked it better, though, when it was Christian Discount Bookstore, before it was sold to a chain. 😉

      Becky

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    15. […] the bottom line I keep coming back to, no matter how I look at this topic (see An Open Letter to Fantasy Readers) is that readers should own a part of the promotion for authors they believe […]

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