An Open Letter to CSFF Writer Dan Edelen

First, you can still leave a comment to yesterday’s Open Letter. As important as it is for us to do things like write publishing houses and tell our friends about the CSFF books we like, it is more important that we let our requests be made known to our good and wise and all-powerful Father. Not everyone will feel comfortable announcing that they are so praying, and that’s fine too. I know other people are praying who have not left comments. I find encouragement, however, in knowing that other believers are united with me, praying for the same cause, but that’s me.

Today’s post is actually a response to a comment, but not one left here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. Instead it is one Dan Edelen, DLE, left at Speculative Faith after my interview with Harvest House Senior Editor Nick Harrison.

I wanted to address a number of the issues Dan raised, but decided this venue was better than two days after the fact tucking it at the end of a string of comments where no one might read it. With that said, below is my response.
– – –
Dan, I have some disagreement with the views you expressed in your comment at Spec Faith.

For starters, I hardly see a call for readers to spread the word about CSFF books as “evidence” that Christians are not buying speculative fiction. As I read Tina’s post at the CSFF web site, it spurred me to think about my own responsibility in supporting top quality authors.

Your points in answer to “What then to make of the issue?”—I take “the issue” to mean, Christians are not buying speculative fiction—apply to a misperception.

Fact: all four of the Realms (Strang’s CSFF imprint started by Jeff Gerke and left in limbo since he moved on) CSFF novels “earned out,” meaning that they made their publisher money, even though three of the four were first-time novelists.

Fact: at least 3 current CSFF series are performing in the 10,001-50,000 or the 50,001-100,000 Amazon rankings over the lifetime of the books as recorded by TitleZ. Their interpretation of these figures for the first category is “A successful book by most industry standards” and for the second “Not bad.”

My contention is that readers buy good CSFF books when they know about them.

Your comments about marketing dollars points out a reality about the publishing industry, not something exclusive to Christian fiction and certainly not exclusive to CSFF, namely that the books by name authors—the ones sure to make dollars for the publisher—are the books that receive the most marketing support.

The public WILL buy Ted Dekker books, for example, so all the publisher has to do is put the word out that Ted Dekker has a new book releasing on such-and-such a date. The dollars spent that way are guaranteed a return.

However, dollars spent letting the public know that Joe Ivenever Heardofyoubefore has a new release, may be good money after bad. In other words, it’s a risk. That’s the economic reality.

Authors, believing in their writing, in the power of their story, want publishers to take that risk. But publishers have seen too many books not do well and want to minimize the financial loss so they have money to invest in the next author. Who can blame them?

When starting a new venture, it’s wise to start with a good product and better to have a good product that lots of people want. Publishers need to be convinced that lots of people really do want CSFF. Sales of current titles will do that.

Harvest House, I’m guessing, would have been much more reluctant to pick up its first fantasy title if no other books in the genre were successful.

Addressing another of your points, Dan, the idea that Christians reading secular SFF must do so because they want graphic sex and violence is harsh at best. I’ve heard from a number of adults who say they read YA fantasy for the very reason that a) there is no Christian fantasy and b) the YA stories don’t have the extremes of the objectionable material.

Saying that readers are tired of all the “spiritualizing and allegorical nonsense” in CSFF makes me wonder what CBA books you’ve read. Not to mention that allegory is far from nonsense when done in a fresh way. It’s why John Bunyun’s Pilgrim’s Progress is a classic. I’m honestly not sure what you mean by “spiritualizing” because we live in a spiritual world, as well as a physical one. To your thinking, is drawing attention to that fact somehow undesirable?

Dan, you also said, “But with the rise of all these Christian imprints within secular publishing houses, even the slightest hint of Christianity in a novel gets it shunted from the secular imprint to the Christian one.” Can you give us examples of this happening? I’m aware of several books in other genres, such as Peace Like a River and Gilead, with considerably more than a hint of Christianity which were not shunted to a Christian imprint or shelved in the religious section of bookstores.

If you want to write stories FOR Christians, the CBA is certainly the best. If you want to write a story with a Christian theme that Christians can pass on to their non-Christian friends, I think CBA is the best as well. In my thinking this is the only way to achieve a true “crossover.” But if you want to write a story exclusively for non-Christians, then an ABA house is the best. This, in my opinion, will not cross over, however, because it may never catch the attention of Christians. Not unless you market to Christians.

And here we are, back at marketing.

So what’s a writer to do, you ask? Pray first. Ask God what He wants you to do with your writing. Ask Him to open doors for CSFF in both the ABA and CBA. Ask Him to show you what your part should be in the process of opening those doors.

Many times when I’ve asked God to provide this or that, He’s given me the nudge to be the instrument to accomplish the thing I’ve asked of Him. It’s the principle demonstrated in Luke 9: 2, 3—”Pray for workers because the harvest is plentiful,” then “Go, I send you out.”

I’m praying and I’m going, because that’s what I believe God has me doing. The more, the merrier, I say, in my best, cliched way. 😉

9 Comments

  1. Amen, and Amen.

    For years, I’ve been writing fantasy and science fiction with a decidedly Christian slant, and it’s always encouraging to find readers and writers of the same.

    I believe that high quality material will attract readers of all stripes, and that–while understanding we writers must pay attention to such things as marketing and other business aspects of the publishing world–our foremost duty is to tell a good story, tell it well, and not compromise our faith for the sake of making a sale.

    There are some Christian books in every genre that tend to be preachy or sentimental about our faith, but I’ve not found that to be the case in fantasy or science fiction so much as in, say, romance, historical, or mainstream fiction. But I could be mistaken.

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  2. Rebecca,

    Thank you for taking the time to reply to my comment over at Speculative Faith.

    A few comments in reply:

    ***Evidence Christians aren’t buying CSFF–
    I originally commented on Nelson’s decision to not complete Kathryn Mackel’s Outrider Trilogy. That’s bad news on two fronts. Mackel’s a respected spec fic author, and Nelson’s marketing machine didn’t make a difference in her sales.

    We have to conclude that
    1. The trilogy didn’t meet reader standards
    2. Nelson’s marketing of the books failed
    3. The audience simply isn’t there.

    All three of those are troubling for CSFF authors.

    We also have Karen Hancock saying that her Christy-Award-winning Guardian King series has suffered disappointing sales.

    You mentioned Realms, but my understanding from Dave Long’s Faith*In*Fiction blog is that Realms changed approaches and is abandoning science fiction and fantasy in favor of spiritual warfare novels. They would not have done so if they were rolling in CSFF dough.

    I attended the 2005 AFCW conference in Nashville. When a panel of top editors from a dozen Christian imprints were asked what genres they were NOT buying, the response came back, “None. We’re buying everything…well, except for science fiction and fantasy.” And all the editors nodded. As a spec fic author, I can tell you my heart seized in my chest on hearing that.

    As to the “three successful titles” you mentioned, I have to ask, “Out of how many current total offerings? And by which authors?” If those three books are House, Showdown, and Monster, I’m not certain if progress is being made.

    ***Getting the word out–
    Nelson’s announcement that they will be scaling back promotion money for their B-list authors should give us all pause. Let’s be honest here: most CSFF authors outside Peretti and Dekker are B-list or even C. That one of the major houses doesn’t expect a rate of return on anything outside their A-list is a scary prospect for new authors. And let’s face it, that’s pretty much anyone trying to write CSFF since few publishers have any CSFF authors already in their stables.

    Publishers scaling back promo funds is a growing problem everywhere, especially for B-listers. I know a Christian author whose five titles have sold close to a quarter million books, and his last publisher gave him almost no promo support for his most recent book. That book did poorly as a result. He ended up hiring an independent promotional company to do his promotions, further eating into his profit margin.

    So yes, people need to hear about what’s out there. But the response from publishers to B-listers seems to be “We’re going to be giving you even less support.” While that seems counterintuitive, it’s de rigueur. Considering the churn rate on shelf space, a new title gets about three months or less to perform, so even word of mouth isn’t helping.

    It’s a tough world for a B-lister or upcoming author, much worse than it used to be. And for a genre like spec fic, it’s even more difficult since publishers are already down on it.

    You say that publishers don’t want to spend good money on titles that don’t sell. No doubt. But WHY don’t they sell? Whose fault is it? The authors? The market? The editor? The publisher? If CSFF is going to sell, then someone has to answer that question. I just don’t see anyone doing so.

    ***Readers prefer sex and violence–
    Yes, I fully admit that’s a snarky comment. It wasn’t so much intended to be the real reason behind a lack of CSFF sales as it was to ask what the problem might be.

    A friend told me the other day of a guy he knows from Scotland who came over to visit the US. They went to grab a beer and the Scotsman ordered Guinness. After a few sips, the guy wondered what was wrong with his Guinness. Puzzled, since the beer itself was still made in Ireland, he realized the reason it tasted so flat was that all beer imported into the US must be pasteurized to meet FDA standards. But Guinness sold in the UK isn’t heat treated. To the Scotsman, something had been lost because of that treatment.

    If Christians who have access to CSFF prefer to read secular spec fic over Christian (and my own surveys on this show they do), we have to ask why. A reason MUST exist. The plotlines are better. The writing more crisp. The cover art more eyecatching. More men read spec fic, but the Christian book market is primarily geared toward women readers. Or maybe what we Christian authors do to “pasteurize” our writing causes the final product to be flat. There’s got to be a reason.

    Maybe we should start asking Christians who read secular spec fic why they prefer it over Christian. IF the lack of pasteurization is a key component in that decision, don’t count on getting an honest answer, though. Remember, more men buy spec fic–and male readers can be a little touchy on why they prefer some offerings over others.

    ***Spiritualizing and Allegorical nonsense–
    When I asked one of the editors at ACFW (if I remember correctly, Chip MacGregor, when he was still with Warner Faith) why editors shied away from spec fic, he told me in no uncertain terms that much of what they were reading was allegorical in nature. He went on to say that allegories are a notoriously hard sell to readers.

    So I’m not just making this up. The fact that major editors are bugged by this has poisoned the well to some extent. Those of us NOT writing allegories have to work all that much harder to get our signal past all the background noise.

    Beyond the issue of too many allegories, the stuff I read both in published and unpublished CSFF, in many cases, reads like fan fic. That does none of us any good. Spec fic (and romance, too) attracts more than its fair share of wannabes who don’t write well, but who love the genre or a particular SFF series. I heard some pitches at ACFW from folks trying to sell spec fic and I heard stuff like “Well, it’s a Christian Xena” or “a Christian Star Trek.” If I were an editor, I’d be looking for the nearest exit. How many Middle Earth clones can one genre support?

    ***Shunting to Christian imprints–
    There’s an extremely simple answer to why Peace Like a River and Gilead didn’t get shunted to a Christian imprint: the publisher tried to pitch them as literature. That extra literary cachet translates into sales. If those two books had found their way to Christian imprints, there’d be no way the Powers That Be in the secular book world would have taken them seriously as literature. On a secular imprint, they stood some chance of getting recognized as literary work. To the publisher, that might mean a chance to take that win and translate it into the rest of their Christian imprints.

    Since Powers That Be don’t consider spec fic “literature,” if I get shopped to Simon & Schuster, my CSFF novel’s not going to wind up on Baen, but Howard (or any fiction sub-imprints Howard has).

    Thanks for giving me the space to respond. I hope this further enhances the discussion.

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  3. This is all very interesting. I get real confused by all the ‘market stuff.’ Though I realize I have to pay attention to it. I really think marketing has to play a huge part in it.But another issue is perception of the Christian book buying public. I can also tell you that I go to church (major denomination) with Christians who would never read Bryan Davis or Donita Paul just because they have dragons as characters. I have had Christians tell me I need to repent because I read Stephen King. When Rowling’s Harry Potter books hit it so big our pastor preached an entire sermon on how those stories would corrupt an entire generation of kids. How do you fight that?

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  4. Interesting posts, all of you. I just want to add a note about marketing … and I’m majorly sticking my neck out here … but my opinion is that the “disappointing sales” of the titles Dan mentioned is largely due to lack of publicity on the publisher’s part. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that they tend to hamstring themselves on this–“this title is SF/F, so it won’t sell; therefore we won’t spend as much money pushing it”–and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    This is partly why Becky and I and others have such a passion for pushing these blog tours, and talking up the few Christian SF/F titles that are out there … research shows that the most effective marketing now occurs through the internet, and we beliee that we CAN make a difference.

    Even so … I felt that same dismay at the ACFW conference … in fact, I had to leave the editor/agent panel because it was just so *toxic* to my frame of mind. I’m not sure there’s any place in the CBA for my fantasy stories–maybe not for the historical I’m working on, either. If God pushes me over to the ABA, then I have to trust He has a reason for putting me there, and go with it. 🙂 It hurts–my dream has been to write SF/F for the CBA, where I can have characters who openly and unashamedly love God and want to serve Him–but I’m determined to go where He leads with no bitterness.

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  5. This is an interesting discussion. I might just add that, as I understand it, Bryan Davis’s books have done very well. That is surely in part because he is a very aggressive promoter of his books. He’s out there interacting with the public and spending a lot of his time doing what his publisher can’t do.

    I’m finding that true of fiction writers in almost every genre. Our author of contemporary women’s fiction, Roxanne Henke, lives in a very small town in North Dakots, but she is out and about promoting her novels as best she can. She speaks, she signs, and attends functions where her book will be sold. And that is making a difference in her sales.

    Face it, Christian fiction is very competitive now. We pass on many good manuscripts simply because we can’t publish them all. Some of the ones we pass on end up being published successfully elsewhere.

    One other thought: finding an editor who is passionate about your manuscript is so important. The authors I work with are not just authors who I’ve read their manuscripts and said, “yes, that will sell.” Instead, every one of them is an author that I’ve said, “WOW. I love this. We just HAVE to publish this!” That, of course, doesn’t always happen–as with most publishers, I have to pitch the projects I love to a committee. On that committee are people from the sales department and the marketing department. They are often able to see why a very good book simply won’t work for us. And so we must often say no to good books that aren’t right for us.

    So in the case of Bryan Polivka and the Trophy Chase trilogy, I have to honestly say that I didn’t respond to it as CSFF. I responded to it as something I really loved in a genre in which I don’t usually read. I’m hoping that in addition to those who love speculative fiction, the books will be enjoyed by a broader cross-section of readers too.

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  6. Fiction Writer, thanks for your comments. I agree that high quality material will attract readers of all stripes. I think that’s what Nick Harrison is saying in his comment. He didn’t pick up the fantasy HHP is releasing because it was fantasy but because it was great writing and he hopes other readers, not just fantasy lovers, will find it equally engaging.

    I also agree that SFF has a much better chance of avoiding some of the pitfalls other genres written by Christians seem prone to. But like you, my status as a fantasy writer might be coloring my opinion.

    Carol, I don’t know what to tell you. That some Christians still fear imaginative places and characters seems so foreign to me, I want to believe THEY are the fantasy. Unfortunately, as you point out, such is not the case.

    I think the best way to approach the subject is to advance critical thinking, using Scripture as the touchstone by which we measure all things. The aim, I believe, should be to cut down on the knee-jerk reactions and make people dig into the Word. For example, the New Testament records two “sorcerers” who claimed to be believers. Never mind for the moment that one apparently was disingenuous. The point I’m making is that those men could not have heard the gospel if the disciples had run the other way at the mention of sorcery.

    If believers approach God’s Word as a whole, not as producing sound-bites by which to live, it should have a powerful impact on us, in my opinion.

    Becky

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  7. Oh, and Nick, thanks for stopping by and lending your insights into the state of publishing. I do have to say, I hope at least one more of the manuscripts you passed on ends up being published successfully elsewhere. 😉

    Becky

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  8. All very interesting, and somewhat daunting. I believe Carol’s point about there still being a kind of scarlet letter branded on some Christian fantasy has merit. Some precious Christians still immediately equate fantasy with evil. I think there’s plenty of Scripture and commen sense to refute that view, but it is what it is. (btw, I’m not being sarcastic using the term “precious.”)

    Could that be the sole reason why publishing houses like the ones represented in the ACFW are NOT buying fantasy titles? Is it just that Christian readers aren’t buying fantasy b/c it’s evil, in their minds?

    I find that hard to believe, but if that’s not it, then I have to wonder. And I’m left at a loss.

    The reason I’m at a loss is that my experience with CBA publishing is yes, it’s a ministry, but business is business. CBA publishers are out to make money, to show a nice margin, to be in the black. If they can, then more opportunities to minister. Nothing wrong with that, so long as there is nothing ideologically before the mission of serving God.

    If the goal is to do all things as if working for Christ, and that means operating a profitable house, then I don’t understand two things:

    1. Why aren’t CBA publishers buying fantasy.

    You’re probably thinking, uh, Wayne, that’s what we’ve been talking about. Yes, but if money is there, publishers should follow. And by just about any measure, fantasy is still one of the hottest genres on the market. Now, I work in the YA segment, mind, so I can’t speak to the adult market. But in YA, look at the bestsellers, Fantasy everywhere. I work in a middle school, so I have bookfairs come through. More than half of their bestselling titles are fantasy. Eragon, the movie, is #2 at the box office. Prince Caspian due out next year. Talks still swirling about The Hobbit movie. The entertainment world in general is not tired of fantasy yet. So, if money is still there, then why not publish fantasy?

    Maybe Mr. Edelen is right. Maybe the stuff being written is too much cloning of what’s been done. Still, at least in the YA market, that’s not such a bad thing. Parents always go to bookstores, and the conversation goes something like, MOM: “I’m looking for a book for my 11yr old.” B&N Dude: “Oh, what does he/she like to read?” MOM: “Well, he just finished Eragon. Have you got anything like that?” Common elements are what make a story fit into a genre in the first place. Readers constantly go looking for “something like __________.”

    So, again, why not publish more fantasy since there are buyers out there? But that leads to my next question. Because maybe Christian Fantasy isn’t selling in Christian Bookstores due to the stigma, or some other variable. Then…

    2. Why aren’t CBA publishers getting more of their titles into the ABA marketplace, ie Crossover books??

    I must admit that this area is far beyond my knowledge. CBA publishers may not be much in control over whether their books get into Borders, Barnes&Noble, or BooksAMillion. Or perhaps when they do get into those “secular” stores, they might have little control over where these crossover books get placed. See my previous post about getting a book put in that little religious fiction corner.

    Still, all my experience shows that the fantasy genre for YA mainstream is still sizzling hot. So, if I’m a CBA publisher, why not buy some titles that can crossover? Thomas Nelson bought my title with exactly that in mind. And thankfully, my books are crossing over. I don’t really know if I’m considered C-list, B-list, A-list, or XYZ-list. 😉 I just know, I see the books in major stores all over. The market’s there still.

    SO, I’ve been rambling, but here’s my summation and admonition:

    If you are a writer of Christian Fantasy, do not give up. If you feel God has called you to write, do not give in to doubt. God has never been about doing things the easy way. When He wrote the story of salvation and set it in motion through history, our protagonist, Jesus, did not just breeze through the whole redemption thing. He paid in blood.

    So write your story. But write it well. Don’t be satisfied with your craft if it’s not really there. Sharpen your skills, and write.

    Mr. Edelen made one other point that hit home, the point about obvious allegory not selling. And for the ABA market, I think that’s true.

    As Christian writers, we need to make up our minds before we craft our tale. Do we: a) want a fantasy story that is somehow set in a world where God is revered openly, where scripture is spoken, and Jesus and the Bible are known specifically. If so, write it that way. Make it engaging, and try to sell it to the CBA market.

    Or b) do we want a story where we have an altogether different world, culture, history, etc. Where God (as we know Him) is not mentioned? This might be a huge epic adventure with all the best fantasy elements with your unique additions. But at the heart of it lies a Chritian backbone or Christian values. If this is what we intend, we should write that kind of tale and try to sell it to CBA as a crossover or go straight to ABA.

    I think the kind of story Mr. Edelen is talking about is the tale where a) and b) are merged, so you get a fantasy story that is double minded. A fantasy that dresses up like classic fantasy, but only pretends, and so, ends up giving the gospel as if it is not the gospel. Kind of a tongue in cheek, “Ha, sneaked the gospel in there on you, didn’t I?” I don’t think the “sheep in wolf’s clothing” method is as effective these days.

    Just my .02

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  9. […] Picking up where we left off yesterday, I suggest you read the comments to An Open Letter to CSFF Writer Dan Edelen first, then proceed here for my response to Dan’s thoughts. […]

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