Periodic Fantasy Rant

Yep, those of you who know what I’m going to say probably don’t need to keep reading. It’s not like it’s a new position. I’m taking the time because it seems editors aren’t changing their tune.

In a recent blog post at Charis Connection, this question was posed to the contributing authors/editors:

s there a genre not yet in vogue that you would like to see developed?

One answer struck my fantasy nerve, so tender as is:

I would love to see fantasy and science fiction more fully explored and embraced by the Christian market. But aside from a few exceptions, which I’m watching with great excitement and interest, the Christian readers haven’t been responsive to recent attempts in these two genres. Unfortunately, until the readers demonstrate that there really is a market out there–translation: BUY the books that are released in this genre–publishers, the one I work for included, aren’t overly interested in these genres. Sad, but true. Karen Ball

Where do I start?

First, I’d love to have a dollar, just a dollar, for every comment or email I’ve received that is some variation to, I had no idea there even was such a thing as Christian fantasy. My point is, how can readers buy what they do not know exists?

Sometimes it feels like unpublished writers and readers are more invested in trying to get more fantasy sold than the publishers are. I’m not saying that’s fact, just that’s how it feels at times. Publishers support the blog tour, for example. Without their work to get books into our hands, we would not have a blog tour, I don’t think.

But where are the visionary thinkers, the people working to utilize the changing technology to help authors sell books?

In a couple months the CSFF Blog Tour will feature Robin Parrish, author of Fearless and Relentless, and I think he has some surprises to unveil in connection to promoting his work.

The fact is, when a publisher put some money into a series—such as Thomas Nelson did for Wayne Thomas Batson‘s Door Within trilogy—sales soared.

Which brings me to my next gripe. Yep, it’s a gripe. After all this is a rant! 😦

How many of these “few exceptions” do there have to be before the genre is recognized? Karen Hancock’s Amazon sales for Return of the Guardian-King compare favorably, for example, with Lori Wick’s White Chocolate Moments, Brandilyn Collins’s Coral Moon, Robin Lee Hatcher’s Sweet Dreams Crossing, Angela Hunt’s Uncharted, and undoubtedly a host of others. By the way, these books have one thing in common—they are recent releases, when interest is probably at its highest.

On Amazon, Batson’s first book is outselling Katherine Paterson’s (author of Bridge to Terebithia) newest release and compares favorably with Orson Scott Card’s latest. In fact, in the teen fantasy section, Batson’s The Final Storm is ranked #52 in best-sellers, ahead of books by Philip Pullman, Eoin Colfer (Artemis Fowl), and, yes, J. K. Rowling.

But are only Hancock and Batson selling well? What about Donita Paul, Bryan Davis, R. K. Mortenson? According to the PW article, Paul’s DragonKeeper Chronicles have sold over 150,000 books. Davis’s books are frequently on the CBA best-seller lists, and if my memory is correct, Mortenson’s first book was a CBA #1 seller in youth books.

The point is, when readers discover Christian fantasy, they DO buy the books. The task is to let readers know about them. This will not happen as long as editors take this tepid, wait-and-see attitude.

I’ll tell you which publisher is doing the impressive thing right now—Thomas Nelson. Not only did they do a wonderful job with the Door Within books, they are re-releasing Kathryn Mackel’s science fantasy. Hopefully that will lead to publication of the third book in what was intended to be a trilogy. Thomas Nelson’s name also came up over and over as we complied the list of books nominated for the new *** Award we want to give as a supplement to the missing Christy Visionary.

Why editors do not see the cultural trends and want to run ahead and provide excellent Christian literature is a mystery to me. Sales, they say. So, if we readers buy and buy and buy, then the publishers will have no place to go but in search for more authors to satisfy the growing desire for quality Christian fantasy.

Published in: on May 25, 2007 at 1:03 pm  Comments (18)  

18 Comments

  1. I’m gonna be totally tactless here and say that Karen Ball is not SF friendly. Over the years, the snippets of conference feedback I’ve gotten pretty much says it all. Not to mention tapes I’ve heard. The tone, the answers. Even if her house were to acquire–cause interest perked up–I doubt she could edit SF properly. If you hate a genre or just don’t get a genre, you can’t really know what’s fresh and non-cliched and suitable for the audience. Well, unless you have the luck to find a Sharon Hinck who can add the marketable element of strong Women’s Fiction co-plot and feel to a fantasy.

    This is not a rag on Karen. She’s a very good editor. But the vibe I’ve gotten is that SF doesn’t do it for her, so I doubt she’d be able to handle real CSF with the right touch. Sorry. We need editors who are SF savvy and who would recognize the sort of works that will draw those who stay away from CBA cause they find the fiction there not their cup of tea. Like me–and others who have no choice but to support secular SF and the ABA–if really good CSF was available, the Christians who long for spiritual themes from Christian perspectives in an innovative and non-allegorical work of science fiction, but mainly fantasy, will come. We are not alone. SF has a huge section in the bookstores, and a percentage of those readers have faith. If the works are top quality and the marketing is savvy and the editing makes the work more attractive to SF readers, I believe they will buy it from amazon or B&N or wherever.

    But as long as the mantra is: Doesn’t sell. Then no one will make a push for it, do it right, and bring in the audience.

    Or maybe I’m deluded. 🙂

    But imagine if the romantic suspense novels were edited/acquired by people who didn’t go gaga over RS? Would they know what that audience cued into, considered old hat, wanted to see more of? It’s readers of a genre who best know the genre. I am not at all surprised that a terrific read like THE RESTORER was acquired by an editor that GETS fantasy. The fantasy part is not cheesy. (And I am not gonna name names, but CBA fantasy has had its share of crappy writing and cheesy plots.) And the women’s fiction part rings true. This is a great blending of genres.

    If the promo people are smart enough to tap into the Women’s Fiction market (not just throwing around soccer mome, but really saying, “How can we get a taste of this novel out there to women who read Kingsbury and Rivers and Henderson and etc.”, whether it’s excerpts in the back of WF novels or whatever it is they do (I’m not PR person, clearly), that book will “take.” I really believe it would take. As someone who spent years reading hundreds and hundreds of romance/WF novels, I have a sense of what WF feels like. And as someone reading SF since her teens, I have an ear for what good SF is. This book has both. But if they don’t handle it right, it could sink. And if it sinks, what will they say. “Oh, see, no one reads fantasy.”

    I’d say, “No, you people didn’t handle a good, broader audience Christian fantasy, right, and you betrayed both audience and author. And genre.”

    Okay, I’m cranky and bloated today. I should shaddup before I set something on fire.

    Mir

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  2. Maybe we should start wearing T-Shirts to church that say, “Yes, there really is such as thing as Christian Fantasy fiction. Ask me about it.”

    Mir

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  3. I agree that Thomas Nelson is doing some very creative things. The books they choose to buy, the way they market those books. I still think we are going to see some more changes within a year or two with other houses. But Thomas Nelson is leading the pack and they are taking risks with speculative fiction, which to me says that in time the other houses will probably do the same.

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  4. Marketing is a strange thing. It requires next to no knowledge of it to “market” Karen Kingsbury or Francine Rivers or Ted Dekker, for examples. I mean, how easy is it to keep a good thing goin’?

    Like you, Becky, I wish I had a dollar for everyone who’s said they didn’t know Christian fiction had novels men would like. ??? Good grief, why is that? Some of the best and most prominent novels are written by men with male protagonists, plenty of action, “manly” subject matter and expressions. Geez.

    It’s mind boggling that with all the work you CSFF fans and writers have done to promote this genre that it is still even an issue with publishers. But then, if they can’t promote actual men writing actual men’s fiction, what does that tell ya?

    The simplest of techniques can result in more diversified readers. A flier placed in a bag with ANY purchase at a Christain bookstore giving first chapters or brief synopses or backcover copy of new releases in any genre will be read by those consumers who regularly buy books. Produced and shipped in bulk with regular book shipments–it’s got to be the easiest and cheapest way to promote new authors, new genres, old subjects in new ways–anything.

    I honestly think it’s a lapse in marketing, not consumer disinterest.

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  5. Okay, folks. First, if you don’t know something for a fact, best not to assert it. Second, if you have something to say to me or about me, be courteous enough to say it to my face.

    Just to set the record straight: I love fantasy and SciFi. Have read them since I was a kid. Still read them. Watch the SciFi channel regularly (so long as it’s SciFi and fantasy, not horror), have even been to a few Star Trek conventions. I’m sorry if what I said on Charis stung, but trust me on this, I’ve done everything I can from my end of the desk to promote SciFi to readers and the acquisitions decision makers. As for not being able to edit it, I can’t even begin to tell you how off the mark that comment is. I’d love to edit a strong fantasy or sci-fi novel. And I guarantee you the job would be done well because (1) I’ve been doing this editing gig for over 26 years and (2) I LOVE the genre.

    So please, give me a break here. Editors aren’t the only ones not changing their tunes. Readers and those longing to write in these categories are always quick to say it’s the publishers’ fault, that we aren’t marketing or supporting the books. All I can say to that is you don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t mean that in a mean-spirited way, just stating fact. Unless you’ve been there, on the front lines, pushing these books and promoting and championing them from inception, you haven’t got a clue what’s really going on. Editors aren’t changing their tunes because readers aren’t buying. As for readers not knowing it’s there, publishing houses can only do so much. And they have done it. Put marketing and promotion money behind these books. Bethany did it with Kathy Tyers books. Strang did it with their Realms line. And readers didn’t respond! Everyone in publishing knows the best marketing for any book is word of mouth. If authors and genre fans aren’t talking something up, as well as putting their money where their mouth is, a genre isn’t going to make it.

    As for Amazon sales, those are NOT indicative of true sales. You can’t rely on Amazon positioning to tell you if a book is a best-seller.

    And it actually takes a great deal of knowledge to market a Karen Kingsbury, et al. Because they started out in the same place that all other books start: at ground zero. It was concerted efforts on the part of the publisher AND the author (Karen is an excellent self-marketer, which had a great deal to do with her success). If I sound testy, it’s because I am. I understand your struggles and frustrations. Shoot, I share them. But please, don’t take potshots at the people trying to make this thing work. You only demoralize those who are trying to champion books we hope you will love.

    Karen Ball

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  6. Karen,

    Let me be the first to “eat crow”. I know not what it’s like to even be considered for publishing.

    I agree word of mouth is the best and most effective.

    I also think it is much “easier” to be critical of the whole process of publishing than it is to be helpful–especially from the outside looking in part of the business.

    And, initially, to make KK into a bestseller, I’m sure it took an impressive effort, but I will say that she brought an extensive resume, a platform, to the mix which seems to assist the confidence level of prospective publishers (and with good reason). And, yes, she extends herself to her reading public in a big way.

    I know that efforts are being made to support a house’s published books for everyone’s good and benefit. I’ve talked with Christian bookstore managers about marketing and worked in a couple of Christian bookstores. The statistics of sales aren’t giving the publishers all the facts about the reasons behind the purchases, and I think it would be an asset to publishers to try and get some “up close and personal” responses from the fiction consumers themselves if possible to amplify the marketing response. I also think they need to work with those managers to feature certain genres on end caps once in awhile, i.e. men’s fiction or CSFF.

    (Not a CSFF fan myself, but I write looonnnngggg novels [sagas, actually], so my work isn’t “in demand” at all.)

    Karen, you have the best reputation in the industry. If I’ve insulted or offended you or anyone else here on Becky’s blog, please forgive me.

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  7. Hey, Let me be the second to eat crow, since Nicole got here first. And to apologize profusely. I based what I said on hearsay, granted, stuff I heard from folks who went to conferences and editor panels and said that to me, “Karen is not SF friendly.”

    Clearly, the reports were not accurate. And I apologize, but hey, when more than one person says it, I guess I followed the whole “two witnesses” thing.

    I’m sorry. I mispoke. And I’m glad you love the genre. I hope one day the CBA audience responds to it, too.

    Mir

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  8. Karen, so glad you gave us a broader perspective. Even as an author, I’m left wondering half the time what’s going on. lol Just curious though…when you said, “Editors aren’t changing their tunes because readers aren’t buying. As for readers not knowing it’s there, publishing houses can only do so much. And they have done it. Put marketing and promotion money behind these books. Bethany did it with Kathy Tyers books. Strang did it with their Realms line. And readers didn’t respond!” Did you mean CBA, Christian Bookstore buyers didn’t respond?

    I ask because I don’t think the argument holds true outside of CBA stores. The demand for Fantasy (and to a lesser extent SciFi) is HUGE in the secular markets.

    If you meant CBA readers didn’t respond, I’d have to say that’s probably right, but that leads to a Chicken and the egg sort of thing. Did CBA readers not respond because the typical fantasy demographic doesn’t shop at CBA stores for Fantasy titles? And did this come about because for the longest time CBA stores did not sell anything remotely interesting to fantasy readers?

    I see two very big needs if CBA fantasy/scifi will continue to grow:

    1. CBA Publishers need to push for their titles to get better placement in ABA stores. That’s where most fantasy readers shop.

    2. CBA retailers need to find a way to repackage their stores so that they will be seen by the broader public as BOOKSTORES that sell a variety of books and not just the latest concordance and greetings cards.

    As always…just my .02

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  9. Everyone, thanks for your comments. To a certain extent, I regretted posting because I didn’t want anyone to think I was offended for myself. That’s not it at all. I’m just weary–as are most editors I know–of getting sniped at when we’re out there working our behinds off to make fiction work. In many ways, it’s bearing fruit. Inspirational fiction is one of the two fastest growing segments in publishing, Christian or secular. (The other, interestingly enough, is erotica.) But it’s still a battle, both within the publishing houses, for a multitude of reasons, and then with retailers (our first consumer) and then with readers. It’s a tough path that takes a lot of energy and determination. Of course we welcome construction brainstorming and even constructive criticism, but the key is “constructive.”

    Mir, I can understand why some people at conferences might think I’m not Fantasy/SciFi friendly. I don’t tend to sugarcoat the realities when people ask about this genre. But for anyone to assume what I think or feel about a genre without asking is not just wrong, it’s arrogant. Folks need to realize any editor’s responses don’t necessarily stem out of personal preference. Remember, the comment I made on Charis that sparked this little interaction was that I’d like to see those genres explored more! I want to see it happen. But I know the realities. I’ve brought books in these genres to committee, only to have sales and marketing point out the lack of sales or dismal consumer response (CBA and ABA, because the books are in both distribution outlets). An editor’s passion can only carry a project so far. Which doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying. It just means we’re not taking on these kinds of projects unless they’re outstanding.

    Wayne, your points are solid, but here’s the deal. Christian publishers HAVE broad placement in the ABA stores–as much as ABA stores will allow. All the publishers I’ve worked for have sales teams specifically for the ABA market. Most, if not all, of the major CBA publisher are currently doing as much as half of their business through ABA outlets. So we’re there. The issue isn’t publishers pushing harding. They’re pushing, believe me. But ABA retailers operate on a “territory” mindset. So when we go to B&N, the religion buyer has his territory, and the fiction buyer has his. And seldom, if ever, the twain shall meet. The fiction buyer won’t give up his real estate for a “religion” title, not even fiction. Hence the reality that Christian fiction is found in the religion section, not the fiction section. This is something else we’re working hard to change. In fact, I head to New York 5/31 to participate in the ABA’s first ever panel on Inspirational fiction. And one of the issues we’ll be addressing is where to place Christian fiction. So you can be praying for you. As for CBA retailers, you’re right. Fortunately, sone of them realize this and are taking steps to do exactly what you’re saying. Others…well, they’re in trouble. Which is another reason publishers are making sure they’re well established in the general market.

    Nicole, about Karen Kingsbury. She actually didn’t have much of a resume when she first came into the CBA. Yes, she’d had a crime novel made into a movie of the week, but quite honestly, that didn’t mean much. It had been too long ago to translate into potential sales. Besides which, I think she wrote that book under a different name. I know all this because I’m the one who acquired Karen for the CBA. And what had me on the phone, calling Karen, frantic to find out if the book was still available (it had been in the “slush” pile for a year…) was her writing. No kidding. Thirty pages into the proposal and I was dialing Karen’s number. Amazing as it may seem, she’d determined to wait on God, so we had a contract to her as fast as I could get it out. Not because of her resume or platform (which she didn’t have at that point) or anything other than the writing. It was that gripping. That first novel, Where Yesterday Lives, released in ’98. And yet, for all that it was great writing, Karen’s sales didn’t really take off until around 2003, a few books into her series with Gary Smalley and with the release of One Tuesday Morning. All of which is to say that old adage about “overnight successes” taking years is true. Not because Karen isn’t a good writer, but because that’s just the nature of the publishing beast. Of course, there are anomalies, for which we’re all grateful, but usually becoming a bestseller takes a lot of time and determination.

    Anyway, sorry to just barge into your blog and spout off. I hope this has been somewhat helpful for you guys. And please, when you have questions for me or other editors, just email us. We’ll reply. (My email is karen.ball@bhpublishinggroup.com). And we’ll tell it straight. And if you have thoughts or ideas about how we can do things better, let us know that as well. Sure, your ideas may not work. But hey, you could also have the brainstorm that’s going to turn publishing on its ear. Just do it with grace and kindness–and the surety that we’re in this together.

    Thanks, all.

    Karen

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  10. Testing…I just wrote a long response to everyone’s comments, and it seems to have vanished into cyberspace when I clicked on “Submit Comment.” So I’m trying again…

    Karen B.

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  11. Okaaaaay….so my brilliance has fallen victim to cyber gremlins. Which, I suppose, is appropriate on a blog about fantasy and scifi.

    So, here goes again.

    Thanks, everyone, for your responses. Really, no need to eat crow or pigeon or any other assorted fowl. Just remember we’re in this thing together, and we all need mercy and kindness. And to make sure we’re checking facts, not making assumptions.

    Mir, I’m guessing those who told you I wasn’t SciFi/Fantasy friendly assumed that because I wasn’t encouraging about these genres while on a panel or teaching a workshop. The mistake they made was assuming that response was based on my personal likes or dislikes. Not the case at all. It’s based on my knowledge of the publishers and the results to attempts in these categories over the last few years. And on my experiences when bringing these kinds of titles to committee for publication. So I’d encourage you or anyone else to realize that not sugarcoating the realities in publishing doesn’t necessarily equate to personal likes or dislikes. And hey! I realized as I was thinking about this last night that I have edited SciFi. I edited Fifth Man, written by Randy Ingermanson and John Olson, two of my favorite people and authors. And since it was nominated for a Christy Award, I must have done okay.

    Nicole, I acquired Karen Kingsbury’s first novel for the CBA, Where Yesterday Lives. And she did bring an impressive resume to the table, but not the one you think. She didn’t have a platform, and though a crime novel of hers had been made into a Movie of the Week, it had been too long ago to translate into sales potential. What got me on the phone within thirty pages of her manuscript was the writing. There was such power and potential, I knew this was a woman we needed to sign. Which we did, and that novel released in ’98. But Karen’s sales didn’t take off until around ’03, with the release of One Tuesday Morning and a few books into her series with Gary Smalley. Which just goes to show that it usually takes a lot of time and determination to hit best-seller status. Sure, there are anomalies, but most of the best-selling authors out there didn’t make it to that level out the gate.

    Wayne, you make good points, but here’s the deal: we’re in ABA stores. Big time. Most of the major CBA publishers are doing 50% or more of their business through ABA channels/stores. The issue isn’t publishers pushing, but ABA retailers giving our books real estate. Placement isn’t something that happens because a book is good. Publishers pay for it. Those books on the front tables at B&N or Borders? Put there because publishers paid a pretty penny to get them there. And, generally speaking, each section of the ABA stores has a buyer who is concerned with one thing: expanding his territory. So the fiction buyer isn’t inclined to put Christian fiction in his area because it’s considered “religion.” CBA publishers are working hard to change that, so we’d appreciate your prayers. One bit of good news: the ABA trade show is coming up next week, and they’re having the first ever panel on Inspirational/Christian fiction. I’ll be on that panel, and one of the issues we’ll be addressing is where to put Christian fiction in ABA stores.

    As for what CBA retailers need to do, some of them are making the very changes you suggest. Others, well…change doesn’t come easy. Will those that don’t change survive? Maybe not. Which is another reason CBA publishers are making sure they have a presence in the general market stores. Don’t misunderstand me, CBA stores are still our bread and butter, and we support them wholeheartedly. But we’re also called to stewardship, and that means we explore every avenue possible for getting our books into readers’ hands.

    Okay, I’ve taken up enough space on your blog. Hope this has been helpful. Feel free to contact me (karen.ball@bhpublishinggroup.com) with any questions or ideas you have about this whole world of Christian novels. I don’t know it all, but I’m happy to share what I do know. And to hear your ideas. Sure, they may not work. But who knows? You could have the very idea that’s going to turn CBA publishing on its ear!

    Thanks.
    Karen B.

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  12. One more thing…Wayne, the lack of response was across the board. CBA and ABA sales weren’t what publishers anticipated or needed.

    Karen B.

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  13. Well, I rescued Karen’s brilliance out of the spam file (so her second comment is the original of the two that have similar content). That it landed in spam purgatory has nothing to do with the content, BTW. I’ve had several of my own comments end up there in the last week or so. Some kind of hyperactive change to the program, I guess.
    Becky

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  14. Very insightful conversation going on here. I’m coming to it late, but it all just makes me wonder what can we do to make this work? Obviously produce good stories with good writing. I spent at least $500 on fiction last year with the great majority of that on CSFF. I’ll just keep praying.

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  15. The fiction buyer won’t give up his real estate for a “religion” title, not even fiction. Hence the reality that Christian fiction is found in the religion section, not the fiction section. This is something else we’re working hard to change.

    I’m late again, as usual. But ah well. Just came from B&N myself, and that’s actually my biggest beef with them. All that to say: Sooner “Christian fiction” makes its way back to the regular fiction section, the better. Heck I don’t even like going over there. But that’s another rant.

    Anyway…retreating back to my dark corner now… 0=)

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  16. I don’t have anything more to add to this conversation other than to point out that to the question “Is there a genre not yet in vogue that you would like to see developed?” the only genre to get multiple responses (two), was sci fi/fantasy. Karen spoke support but lamented lack of support so far. Then there was this other quote:

    “I’d like sci fi to move up the ladder. Unfortunately, the genre is little understood, even in the secular market. Science fiction has the ability to touch on social topics in a unique and unforgettable way. The genre has been around for nearly 150 years. It deserves a little respect. –Alton Gansky”

    In summary, I think the Charis Connection authors/editors showed support for this area – it just isn’t a quick fix unfortunately.

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  17. Oh, gee, just what you want, a double dose of my posts. Sorry for the duplication, folks.

    Karen

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  18. […] Consequently, when friend and soon-to-be published author, Mike Duran, broached the subject on his blog, (“Why ‘Supernatural Fiction’ is Under-Represented in Christian Bookstores”) I didn’t jump into the discussion with both feet, (OK, I made one tiny little comment. You didn’t think I’d remain completely silent on the subject, did you? ) After all, I’ve said my piece, over and over and over. […]

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