Fantasy Friday – The State Of The Genre

Author friend Mike Duran recently interviewed his agent Rachelle Gardner, discussing, of all things, Christian speculative fiction. I say “of all things” because Rachelle chooses not to represent fantasy or science fiction, though she will occasionally take a talent (like Mike) who writes supernatural suspense.

The odd thing to me about the interview is the “gloom and doom” tone regarding the future of speculative fiction in the market known as “CBA.” The abbreviation stands for Christian Booksellers Association, and does indicate who the heavy-weights calling the shots were some ten years ago.

But a couple things changed. One was “Left Behind.” With the huge sales of those Jerry Jenkins/Tim LaHaye books, suddenly big box stores wanted a piece of the Christian-fiction pie. Now books by Christians with Christian themes were finding their way into Walmart, Borders, and Target. CBA members no longer had an exclusive say on what books would get in front of the public.

Another thing that made a huge difference was the Internet. Now Amazon joined the party, and readers could voice their opinion about books and their quality in open, public forums.

Along with these two events was a cultural shift. Call it the Harry Potter factor. I tend to think the receptive nature of our society to a series about wizards fits with postmodern thinking and the awareness of the supernatural. In other words, Harry Potter didn’t “cause” it, but it came along when our culture was ready (as did the Lord of the Rings movies).

As far as Christian fiction is concerned, there wasn’t much interest in the speculative genre. The Christy Awards committee couldn’t even settle on a name for their award category that would encompass “those books.” (They finally settled on “Visionary”).

Winner of the first of four Christy Awards Hancock garnered

Karen Hancock came out of the starting blocks in 2002 with her first title, Arena (Bethany House), a science fantasy. She followed that the next year with The Light of Eidon, the first in her strictly fantasy Guardian-King series.

Since then, a good number of authors writing Christian fantasy have come and gone. Some have switched publishers, some are publishing independently, and some are continuing to publish with traditional houses.

Here are the ones I know:

      With AMG/Living Ink
      Scott Appleton
      Wayne Thomas Batson
      D. Barkley Briggs
      Bryan Davis
      C. S. Lakin

      With Bethany
      Karen Hancock

      With Crossway
      Bryan Litfin

      With Multnomah Books
      Chuck Black

      With Strang
      Eric Reinhold

      With Thomas Nelson
      Wayne Thomas Batson and Christopher Hopper

      With Warner Press
      Christopher and Allan Miller

      With WaterBrook
      David Gregory
      Jeffrey Overstreet
      Donita K. Paul
      Andrew Peterson
      Jonathan Rogers

Mind you, these are just fantasy, not supernatural suspense or horror (such as Ted Dekker, Robert Liparulo, Tom Pawlik, or even John Olson, Eric Wilson, Mike Dellosso, or Mike Duran) though Gregory and Litfin might best be called dystopian fantasy.

What’s the point?

If “fantasy doesn’t sell” why are so many fantasy writers still getting contracts from traditional Christian publishing houses? Why has the number increased so sharply in less than ten years?

Granted, some books evidently had disappointing sales because there are authors who are no longer under contract. But I know authors writing women’s fiction who are in the same situation. Are we to conclude then that women’s fiction doesn’t sell in the “CBA market”?

As far as I can see, these are the facts:

1. Our culture is still fantasy hungry, though dystopian and urban are dominating rather than epic or medieval.

2. Mormon speculative fiction is doing especially well (see Orson Scott Card, Stephenie Meyers, Shannon Hale, et. al.)

3. Traditional Christian publishing houses continue to increase their number of fantasy authors.

From these facts, I conclude that there is no reason to believe Christian fantasy will not continue to grow. Sadly, Christian fantasy writers don’t have the support from our faith community like Mormons obviously do (for a variety of reasons). But that doesn’t mean there is NO support or that it isn’t growing.

Till now I haven’t even mentioned small presses like Marcher Lord Press or Splashdown Books that are focused exclusively on Christian speculative fiction.

Clearly there is a desire from readers for more than what the traditional houses are producing, but that doesn’t mean the traditional houses are not buying fantasy at all. They are. Cautiously, perhaps, especially in the wild, Wild West of publishing and the slowly recovering economy.

One of the commenters to Mike Duran’s interview suggested we pray for the publishing professionals. What a great idea! If a genre like fantasy can tell powerful stories that can touch people’s lives and glorify God, why would He not be pleased to see more of those stories come to light?

If we can’t support speculative fiction with our dollars or with our word-of-mouth promotion, perhaps we can pray. That’s the best kind of support anyway.

13 Comments

  1. Becky, I wonder that we’ve reached a very important point in this conversation about the state of Christian spec-fic. On the one hand are those like yourself who see positive trends and say “there is no reason to believe Christian fantasy will not continue to grow.” Then there are those like me (and agents like Rachelle) who see “negative trends” and seriously doubt any immediate, significant growth in Christian Spec. So which is it? Or is it either?

    Perhaps this is a case of whether the glass is half full or half empty. We both have the same data (although, you may be overlooking some… but I’ll get to that). I’m just seeing it one way and you’re seeing it another. And as much as you might disagree with Rachelle’s spin, she’s probably far more in tune with industry conditions than both of us. Wouldn’t you agree? Believe me, her and I have had our share of hard discussions about this. But bottom line, I believe her when she says that the outlook doesn’t look good for Christian spec, at least, CBA-style. Besides, she has no reason to skew the data. After all, she wants to sell books too.

    By all accounts, Christian fiction continues to be one of the better selling sectors of the industry, even in a down economy. Yet despite your list of fantasy authors, speculative writers comprise a very, VERY small percentage of our industry. Because of this, Christian spec-lovers have been forced to travel other routes to sell their stuff (see: Marcher Lord Press, Splashdown Books, etc.). Does any other Christian genre have to do this? Or is this the “growth” you’re talking about? If so, it’s growth by attrition.

    Robin Parrish, once one of Bethany House’s premier sci-fi / spec authors recently announced that he would not be returning to BHP. In his comments, he wrote, “BHP is known primarily for historical romance, and in the current economy, the smart business move for them is to reign in the more experimental stuff and rely solely on what they know will sell.” Eric Wilson, another player in the CBA Christian spec genre, is is no longer with Thomas Nelson and has moved outside the CBA. Ted Dekker, THE biggest name in Christian spec has officially crossed over into the general market. And I’m not sure if you caught this in Rachelle’s interview, but she said, “The one big house that has traditionally done more spec than anyone, Charisma House (Strang/Realms), has stopped acquiring it until further notice.” This was sad news for, as you know, I am signed with Charisma House.

    I am not out to paint a gloom and doom scenario. That doesn’t benefit me. I am a card-carrying member of the CBA Spec genre. I am just trying to call it as I see it. If I (and Rachelle) are guilty of a “glass is half empty” outlook, I’d suggest you’re just the opposite. However, I think we would both agree: The glass is nowhere near full.

    Fun conversation, Becky. Have a great weekend!

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  2. Mike, I don’t think I’m the one not taking in all the facts.

    How can anyone read the list in this post and come away believing Strang is the one big house doing speculative fiction?

    And I’ll repeat what I said in the post — because some authors are no longer under contract is not evidence that the genre doesn’t sell. Otherwise you’d have to believe that women’s fiction doesn’t sell because of the handful of writers I know who are no longer under contract.

    How can fantasy, just fantasy, go from one author in 2002 to sixteen (currently putting out books) in less than ten years and that doesn’t look like progress?

    Yes, we are still under represented. That’s my point. Rachelle’s own blog post implied that no, we aren’t. There just really aren’t that many speculative readers which is why there aren’t bigger sales numbers.

    And what’s especially interesting to me is that other industry professionals clearly disagree with this assessment.

    AMG, for example, has signed three new authors in the last year. And yes, it’s the same tough economy for them. Instead of standing pat with their primarily non-fiction focus, they are branching out, and choosing to do so exclusively in speculative fiction.

    Then there is Christy Award winning author Jill Williamson’s comment in her recent interview at Spec Faith:

    I don’t know if I can say it! I think ZonderKidz is, from what I know about them. They bought my next book, and I know they’re excited about young-adult — not just speculative, but about the future of young-adult in the Christian market. I think that they’re excited about making that a little bigger and publishing some more books than they normally might have done in the past. And they’re open to paranormal and steampunk and dystopian and weird genres that most Christian publishers haven’t really done yet. They’re open to doing that in an edgier kind of way. They’re looking to do what the general market’s doing.

    And honestly, Mike? These conversations are not fun for me. I think they are hurtful. When an industry professional, or several, repeat the glass-half-empty theory when it’s clear it’s only an opinion, it becomes self-fulfilling. People say, “I knew it!” Christian speculative is all junk or doesn’t sell or has no future or is drying up or, or, or.

    The truth is, all publishing is heading into the unknown. Only God can see that any of our works get into the hands of readers, whether that’s through traditional publishing or through some of the new avenues. I don’t see how doom and gloom reports help anything. I just don’t.

    Becky

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  3. Perhaps the question is not whether or not the market is healthy, but what can be done to make it better?

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  4. love your blog have a friend who is a christian writer will tell him to check it out

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  5. Thanks, Tom. You’re especially kind, considering my little rant in response to Mike.

    I know I’ve addressed writer issues this week, but I do hope readers and not just writers feel welcome at A Christian Worldview of Fiction.

    Becky

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  6. Andy, I think you’ve made a great point. When something isn’t as it should be, I tend to think we should do something, not simply wring our hands.

    I probably should have made the idea of prayer a more central part of the post. Maybe I need to write a separate article to emphasis this. In the book of James, we read, “You don’t have because you don’t ask.”

    The next sentence then addresses asking with wrong motives, but I’ve been convicted recently that I need to ask God for things I believe align with Scripture. God-glorifying fiction, stories that shine the light of Christ or stimulate believers to love and good works or any number of other Scriptural admonitions, should be well read, shouldn’t they? I think it’s a good thing to ask God that the stories that do what we Christians are supposed to do will sell well.

    I’m opening myself up for criticism here because stories, of course, are art, not messages. 🙄 I’ve had that discussion before, but that’s OK.

    Good fiction says something. Great fiction says something important.

    I don’t apologize for believing that Christians should write great fiction because we have the most important things to say.

    I also don’t apologize for believing that fantasy with its good versus evil motif can say many important things in a most natural way, without the truth coming across as contrived or added on or author-driven.

    OK, coming down from the soapbox. Sorry for getting carried away (again). 🙄

    Becky

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  7. Good post. We’re going have to think up a nickname for you–a superhero nickname.

    I don’t want to hear a spin one way or the other. You remind me of a very funny talk Arthur Levine gave at SCBWI LA a couple of years ago. Using Chicken Little, he made the point that, no, the sky wasn’t falling on the picture book market. Picture books would continue to be made. Then he told about how the markets were constantly changing. Sometimes a genre would be up and sometimes down. But he was always looking for good book, regardless of what was selling. He told about the time he was in an elevator with a novel under his arm and a gal he worked with asked him what it was. He told her it was a middle grade fantasy from the UK and he was going to acquire North American rights. She laughed and told him middle grade fantasy wasn’t selling.

    The book was, of course, Harry Potter.

    I can see why Rachelle is saying what she’s saying but I think writers should remember that there’s always room for a great book, regardless of genre.

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  8. Becky, WE AGREE! Christian speculative fiction is under-represented in the market. I want to see MORE Christian spec-fic. We are on the same team here, Becky!

    However, I don’t happen to think these conversations are “hurtful.” Hurtful to whom? The CBA? Well, apparently the CBA is surviving just fine without us (while also under-representing spec fic!). Hurtful to Christian spec readers? Well, if there’s that many of us, a.) we will eventually find fare that we want, and/or b.) create novels to our liking, and c.) spawn outlets for those novels. These conversations may reinforce the bias or misconception of some industry insiders. So what? If it’s that big of a demographic, as we both suggest, we will make our voice heard.

    I think our problem lies — and where you and I disagree — in 1.) What Christian spec readers really want, and 2.) Whether or not the CBA in its current configuration can ever give us what we want.

    Peace, Becky. Peace…

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  9. Becky,

    I’m inclined to agree with your positive take on the CBA Spec-Fic outlook. I just got back from Mount Hermon a couple weeks ago and I noticed a marked difference in the way industry insiders responded to the Spec authors this year over last year.

    Last year, it seemed every aspiring Spec novelist was in attendance, perhaps because Jeff Gerke was teaching a morning track and we weirdos seem to have a magnetic draw to him. Anyway, it became the running joke of the conference that most of the other editors were there to acquire “anything except what Jeff takes.” It was funny for 10 seconds, then you felt the Spec authors in the room deflate a little more every time the joke was repeated. Bummer.

    This year, when asked what I write and responding with my standard “YA Fantasy,” there was a much more positive response. Not that any more editors were acquiring new Spec authors than last year (and there was no Zonderkidz rep this year – boo), but there was much more interest, as though many industry people are thinking of the Spec genres as what will be big in the near future – perhaps a few years out. There are some forward-thinking agents out there too, mine included, who seem to sense this upcoming shift and are cautiously acquiring some new Spec authors. Not to say that Rachelle isn’t forward-thinking. I think she’s smart to represent authors who write in genres she enjoys.

    If this shift does end up happening, who knows what that’ll even look like. Has there EVER been a time when Spec wasn’t the ugly stepchild of CBA? Is it sad that I’m willing to settle for tiny crumbs of respect from the big kids’ table? Maybe we’ll be the gray sheep instead of the black sheep soon! 😉

    I like your prayerful plan of action, too. I continue to try to support this subset of the CBA market by buying and reviewing books when the publishers you listed above put them out. I pray that the Spec authors who do have their feet in the door will continue to write well, promote well, glorify God in their work, and prove that there is a readership for these genres.

    Blessings,
    Lindsay

    P.S. Bryan Davis is also publishing some of his fantasy with Zondervan instead of AMG, so that’s another that could go up on your list.

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  10. What is hard to discern right now is whether all things non-romance are suffering because of the economy and the cyclical nature of publishing or something far more fundamental. Here are the possibilities as I see it within CBA fiction:

    1) Becky is right and there are more non-romance writers out there than seem apparent and some are gaining a fair following.

    2) Mike is right and the CBA houses just aren’t able to crack the nut when it comes to anything beside Buggies and Bonnets.

    3) You are both right. There are a number of good non-romance writers out there who have had modest success within the CBA. But, the operative word is modest.

    Ted Dekker is an anomaly. Even Steven James, whose Patrick Bowers series looks destined to at least have a pilot with CBS, does not consider his sales stellar. Beyond them, every one else (non-romance) is mostly mid-level or below in sales. Only Terri Blackstock has come close to Karen Kingsbury numbers and she hardly writes hard suspense much less spec-fic.

    The CBA houses carry mid-level romance and romantic suspense because they can piggy back on the success of the heavy hitters. That was happening with suspense to some extent five years ago with Dekker. Mid-level sales were acceptable for suspense and speculative but that is waning now.

    In the end sales are king. None of us wishes it were so but it is. Many of the science fiction giants carved out a niche for themselves in a time when Science Fiction was considered beneath the literary world. They did so through non-traditional modes like anthologies and monthlies. Perhaps more of us are going to have to take that long view in the future and blaze a different trail.

    I keep hoping the CBA figures out there is another market out there and how to reach it. Until then we all have to keep writing and as Becky points out – praying.

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  11. I would add Stephen Lawhead to Thomas Nelson. And his son, Ross Lawhead, has his first fantasy novel coming out with them in September.

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  12. Oh, Robert! How could I have left Stephen Lawhead off the list! Shame on me!

    Thanks for bringing his name to the forefront.

    Becky

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  13. Christian Fantasy: Thriving or Dying?…

    Among writers of Christian speculative fiction and members of the publishing industry, there are two distinct patterns of thought regarding the ultimate fate of Christian speculative fiction. On one end of the spectrum are those who feel it will never …

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