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Monday, March 30, 2009

Christian Speculative Fiction panel -- Pt. 2

Speculative fiction titles, whether science fiction, fantasy, or horror, are wildly popular in the general market. The Christian market, however, is another story. Why is this? Do Christians not read spec-fic, or is Christian spec-fic inferior to its secular counterparts? In Part One of our series, Frank Creed, Jeff Gerke and Rebecca Miller, helped us work through the complexities and nuances of Christian Speculative Fiction. Part Two, here, continues that discussion.

In addition to our interview (and as a means of highlighting Christian Spec-fic), we will be giving away three free eBooks (downloadable PDF's) of the latest (and much-anticipated!) Coach's Midnight Diner to three lucky commenters. If you leave a comment and an appropriate means of contact (website, email, Blogger profile, etc.), you'll be entered into a drawing for a Diner eBook. Sounds like a deal to me!

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4.) There is much discussion about what distinguishes Christian Fiction from the general market. Is it recurrent "redemptive" themes, the absence of language, God / Christ figures? How explicitly “Christian” must a speculative work be if it is published by ECPA houses? What strictures must a Christian spec author recognize in aiming for the religious market?

JEFF: I think if you're aiming for traditional CBA houses with speculative fiction your Christian content had better be blatant and overt. You have to be more Christian than Christian, if you will, to overcome the obstacles I spoke of in the previous post.

When you come out to the Wild West that is indie publishing, the question becomes more pertinent and subjective. For Marcher Lord Press, I have to 1) know that the author is coming from the Christian worldview and 2) see that this book--or this series--is going to have a solid Christian foundation.

You can see that's pretty subjective. All I can say is that when I'm reading these manuscripts, I know when I see it and I know when it's lacking.

BECKY: My guess is, few of us aim for the religious market. Some do. I assume Sharon Hinck is, with her Sword of Lyric series. In my efforts to find a publisher with an ECPA house, I hoped that the religious market would be a starting point, but that my books would branch out from there.

Speculative fiction lends itself to doing so much more than other genre or literary fiction, in my view. Christian science fiction can explore the ethics and spiritual implications of future technology. Supernatural suspense can explore the interplay between the spiritual and the physical. Fantasy can explore the nature of God, of evil, of good, and man’s capacity to face adversity. So, no, I don’t think Christian fiction requires recurrent redemptive themes, though I don’t see that theme as tired or over done. Any theme can appear to be tired or over done if it is treated the same time after time.

As to how explicitly Christian a speculative work must be for ECPA houses, I think you need to ask someone published by an ECPA house. Or better, ask an editor in an ECPA house.

Language? I hate that question—unless you’re talking about the absence of lyrical language. (LOL) Here’s the thing. If someone is going to submit to a publisher with clear guidelines that say
No romance, that writer would be foolish to send in a manuscript with a love scene in the first chapter. Guidelines are guidelines. If a writer doesn’t like the guidelines, they send their work elsewhere. Publishers are free to set whatever guidelines they want, and writers are free to submit within those guidelines. If publishers’ guidelines prohibit the use of swear words or cussing, then a good writer can write around that using suggestion, or if all else fails, by telling.

I find it sad that we writers take up so much time grousing about whether we can or can’t use certain words when we talk very little about how we can more accurately, completely show who God is.

FRANK: There’s certain piousness, a sense of spiritual propriety and taste demanded by Christian readers—a line that cannot be crossed. Ted Dekker expressed this idea in his Where the Map Ends interview with Jeff: "Christian bookstores are sometimes afraid to give readers honest choices for fear of offending a few. A comic book of mine was recently pulled due to violent content. I showed a bad dude being clocked. He bled. I showed the blood."

Some Christians fear that big houses and corporations buying-out smaller Christian houses will result in a loss of proper Biblical theology in Christian fiction. Publishing companies are in business to make money, and free market profit motive will keep them honest. Anyone gaining a reputation for poor theology will be boycotted by organized religion and readers alike. This issue reminds me of a question reportedly put to Martin Luther by his Catholic priest:
what if there was a Bible in every home for everyone to interpret? Luther replied that we might have more Christians. Luther also said Sola Scriptura.

It’s one thing to enforce Biblical theology. Extra-Biblical censorship that interferes with the rules of good literature is another. Every publisher has its own submission guidelines, and standards. Mandating a certain number of saved characters, or telling rather than showing in cases of intimacy and action, or outlawing characters from cigarettes or alcohol use means the real sinful world in which we live cannot be reflected in Christian literature.

Again the free-market rides to the rescue. This line of propriety is tested and pushed by the Indies, and shifts toward realism in bigger houses. In recent years I’ve been continually surprised by controversial content that’s been allowed. Barbour Books allowed my favorite living Christian novelist, M.L. Tyndall, to show dueling pirates run-through opponents with cutlasses in her
Legacy of the King’s Pirates trilogy. A decade ago that would never have happened.

Gratuitous sex and violence will never be desired by many readers, let alone Christian readers. I don’t want my own children reading certain things. For Christian spec-fic artists, the market has never been brighter for either publication or realism. A sense of propriety demanded by our audience is simply part of the challenge to us Christians who find ourselves driven to write novels.

I wrote Flashpoint for an audience who’d been raised
churched. Readers say my gang-leader and government agent protagonists are realistic, yet they don’t curse. My weapons are non-lethal, and the sexy anchorwoman who sells lies to the public is clothed—all this in a gritty 2036 setting. Again, believers don’t want to read that stuff, so it’s up to authors to make such things believable and entertaining.

5.) What effect do alternative publishing ventures -- specifically, small independent presses and royalty POD publishers -- have on the genre? Do they increase interest and build readership, or undermine its potential expansion in the mainstream market?

BECKY: I’ve pretty much changed my mind about POD publishers. When Jeff first unveiled his ideas for Marcher Lord Press, I was disappointed it would be POD. But with the changes publishing is experiencing, I think MLP might be on the cutting edge. The question will be, Can writers make enough money via this format to keep writing? If POD can develop an in-store presence, as I think Thomas Nelson is aiming for, I think there’s a big future there.

I think all the different enterprises help the genre. There are far more writers than there are open slots in traditional publishing houses, even if they published nothing but speculative fiction. From what I see online, more and more young people are lining up with fantasies they want to publish too. I think we mostly write what we want to read, so this many speculative writers can only help bring more attention to the genre.

Of course, if my theory is accurate, it also means we aren’t finding enough books on the shelves to read, which is why we’re writing so much!

FRANK: The current state of business is what it is, for all of literature’s genres. Major houses sign new authors infrequently—they sign proven established names. It’s simply more profitable, working smarter rather than harder, to use small Indie presses and royalty POD publishers as the minor leagues. Slush piles are a thing of the past for the big boys. Once the smaller companies have risked establishing new successful authors, along comes the MegaCorp with the standard rich-and-famous contract, to steal that author away. The Shack is a case study. William P. Young submitted his manuscript to large houses and was rejected for the same reasons spec-fic authors hear—too Christian for mainstream and too controversial for ECPA. Young and a couple of friends established Windblown Media, their own publishing company, and ordered 10 000 copies printed.

The Shack exploded, publishers, including houses that had rejected him, began calling. Young’s Windblown Media signed a distribution and marketing contract with Hatchette Book Group (once Time-Warner Books); there are now 6 million+ copies in print and it still holds #1 on the NY Times Best Sellers list. The more one knows about business and marketing, the greater one’s odds of publication.

If there are dollars to be made, big companies board meetings result in phone-calls to the William P. Youngs of the world. Christian artists may have literary fiction-ministry visions, but in the end, it’s about the mOnEy. Sad, but at least our art form thrives. Those poor Christian sculptors!

JEFF: What effect do alternative publishing ventures have on the genre? Very little. Oh, the major houses say they're watching Marcher Lord Press and pulling for me, but until one of these ventures takes off like crazy I think it will just validate the hesitations these traditional houses already have.

I've actually given up trying to change the industry. After working within it for 12 years and meeting with mostly frustration, I've decided to just go off and try to build something new out in some pioneer state.

Indie houses like
MLP are trying to reach people the traditional CBA houses have already written off, after all. And they're trying to succeed with books that traditional CBA houses know won't fly with their core market.

The reason I did
MLP is not to do anything to the publishing industry, but to get these incredible writers hooked up with these amazing fans of Christian speculative fiction. Let the big cruise ship that is CBA publishing steam along on its way. We're going to do something fun all on our own.

6.) What advice would you give to Christian authors who write Speculative Fiction? Continue aiming mainstream CBA / ECPA and hope for change? Forego the big houses and go the independent, small press route? Or forget straightforward religious themes altogether and write to the general market?

JEFF: Well, you have to write the books of your heart. If you can do that and go for (secular) houses, try it. But don't think that things are easier in the ABA. It's much more difficult to get noticed there, much less published. Much more competition.

I think writers of Christian speculative fiction ought to try to get their books published through the traditional CBA houses. If they get in, they're almost guaranteed to sell more copies of the book than most indie presses can move. And that's a good thing for the writer. There's always the chance that the book will go big.

At Marcher Lord Press I tend to attract two kinds of authors: 1) frustrated first-time authors who see a possible outlet for their writing and 2) seasoned, multi-published authors who are tired of playing the CBA game and just want to write the book of their hearts--which happens to be speculative. Both groups love speculative and are frustrated to discover that no one else wants their off-the-map stories.

So give the big CBA houses a try if you'd like, but don't buy the new yacht yet on hopes of landing a big advance. If that route doesn't work out, consider the advantages of going with a small house that loves what you write and knows how to get it to the people who can appreciate it

BECKY: My advice is to write the story God puts on your heart and mind, then trust Him to show you where to go. ECPA needs good books. The general market needs good books. For some writers with good networking, they can get their books out without the backing of a larger publishing house. The independent publishers provide that avenue, but they also need good books. Nothing hurts the reputation of Christian speculative fiction, no matter who the publisher, more than a poorly written book.

So my second piece of advice is for all of us to be perpetual students of fiction.

As to forgetting “straightforward religious themes” I would say, why would you do that? Of course, God hasn’t called everyone to write “straightforward religious themes,” but if He has, then it would be a huge mistake to forgo those.

If by “straightforward religious themes” you mean didactic themes, however, then I say, there’s no place for those in any book for any publisher in any market. That’s not good fiction.

FRANK: Writing, like any art, is a journey. I’ll never stop wondering how there can be so few musical notes and so many songs. So few colors and so many paintings. Literary artists have distinct styles, voices, purposes, preferences, and forms. Every writer’s sojourn is as different as their approach to the craft.

Authors have a first piece. Mastering the craft may be a personal waypoint on one’s trek, but one never stops learning. Similarly, the day comes when a writer researches beyond craft. One may encounter business success for their art, and is then able to spend more hours of fiction word-count. In business just like in craft, there are only individual journeys—too many different paths from point
A to point B for anyone to say this is how you find success. Individual victories are measured in too many different ways. I will say one must bring the Boss one’s best effort. All one can do is spiritwalk the Parable of the Talents. Show up every day in faith, and let His will be done.

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Thanks once again to Frank, Becky, and Jeff, for their participation and terrific insights. We're blessed by you guys and appreciate your hard work! And don't forget to leave a comment if you'd liked to be entered into our
Midnight Diner eBook giveaway... or if you just want to add to the discussion.


  1. Thank you all for your insights in these two parts.

    One thought occurred to me as I read today's discussion. There's a bit of a parallel between small independent publishers like Jeff and independent music. A lot of great musicians -- both new and established -- are finding new ways to get their work out to their fans. comes to mind (Derek Webb and friends' independent music web site.) And there are more of these kind of things all the time. But it didn't happen overnight.

    A lot of people, myself included, enjoy finding new artists, though, and are not real happy with what top40 radio promotes. So noisetrade and emusic are great places to start.

    Looking at the music model, and the increasing respect (and attention) independent music has these days, gives me a lot of hope for independent publishers like Jeff. :)

  2. I LOVED this discussion. Thank you, panelists, for your time and input.

  3. This was a great interview and full of information for all of us that love this genre.
    Count me in on the contest!

    Paueltte Harris

  4. Hi Linda! I think the music / publishing parallels are interesting. A while back, in a post entitled Why Do Indie Authors Get Little Respect?, I pondered why independent authors do not, seemingly, get the same respect as other indie artists (namely musicians and filmmakers). Some of the biggest names in the music/film business started with no-name artists, working on a shoestring budget. Culling quality artists from the indie ranks has become a big part of the mainstream industry's star search. However, unlike film and music, indie authors seem to get little respect. Does the literary world only bestow acceptance on those who are published through the traditional avenues? And why is it that independent filmmakers and musicians apparently receive far more interest in their respective industries than do authors?

    From what I've seen of Jeff's Marcher Lord Press releases, these books look fantastic. High-quality. Professionally edited. Great artwork. I can only hope that larger religious publishers have the same eye on indie authors as the music / film industry seem to. Animosity between these two camps doesn't serve anyone. Thanks for the comments, Linda!

  5. Informative and encouraging words...what a great interview! Just makes me want to read more Christian Spec-Fic than I already do! God bless you all for spreading the word!

    -Tony Lavoie

  6. Many thanks for all your insights. I loved reading this interview.

  7. Just makes me want to read more Christian Spec-Fic than I already do!

    Tony, that's sweet music to this wanna-be novelist! Seriously, I continue to believe that quality speculative fiction written from a Christian worldview has the potential to sell to Christians and non-Christians alike.

    It's a theory, though, based on the popularity of fantasy and the fantastical. Sure, there are works that appeal to a smaller niche of readers, but something in Harry Potter and Narnia and Lord of the Rings and Star Wars appealed to lots and lots of readers, including those who don't consider themselves fans of speculative literature.

    Anyway, whenever I hear others excited about reading in the genre, it gets me enthused all over again.

    And Linda, I think your comparison to what's happening in music is accurate. Because "downloading" books is a relatively new thing, and possibly because the publishing industry seems to work at a slower pace, I think it's just catching on.

    Financial successes of self-published works that were eventually picked up by a name publisher--like Christopher Paolini's first book, The Shack, and G. P. Taylor's first work--may indicate the attitude toward independent publishers and self-published works is shifting.


  8. Christian rock music went through its own period of ROCK MUSIC IS OF THE DEVIL. Christian sci-fi, fantasy, and horror artists face the same skepticism from those who fear our art.

    Another vehicle of fiction, the role-playing game, is fighting the same battle.


    Frank the official site of Flashpoint: Book One of the UNDERGROUND

    The Polishing Manuscripts until they Shine

  9. Thanks to all of you for a very informative interview.

  10. Fantastic topic. Thanks for the interview!

  11. What a wonderful and encouraging interview! Thank you all for your comments. It is so necessary. As someone who grew up with science fiction and fantasy, I always loved the genre, but later I got so dissatisfied with the secular humanist mindset of most of it. God bless your efforts. You're the pioneers, and we hope to follow in your path.

  12. The Shack was never picked up by a big name publisher. It has always been self-publishd. Mr. Young is working with Hatchette books distribution. He is and has always been self-published by his own publishing company Windblown Media.

    Using Hatchette books for distribution ensures that his work will be in Ingram/Spring Arbor distribution, the main distributor for Christian Bookstores.

    The wonderful thing about this is before 1997, when Ingram and Spring Arbor combined, no author writing for the broader general market of Christians could get into a Christian bookstore. Thus all fiction/fantasy (no horror of course)was very targeted to core market readers.

    When the two joined forces, Ingram did not adhere to the guidelines and restrictions CBA and ECPA required of their authors. Ingram began to let books in based on content instead of affiliation.


    Finally work for the broader Christian market is getting into Christian bookstores. :)

    My non-affiliated Christian horror novel is now available for distribution through Ingram/Spring Arbor as well. How cool is that!

  13. I can't wait for Marcher Lord's new releases. And it's just spectacular that one of MLP's new releases received high praise in the Library Journal!

  14. Thanks for all the comments! The winners of our eBook drawing are Sheila Deeth, Tony Lavoie, and Lindaruth. Congrats, you guys. Expect an email this week and enjoy your copy of The Diner!

  15. The Shack was never picked up by a big name publisher. It has always been self-publishd. Mr. Young is working with Hatchette books distribution. He is and has always been self-published by his own publishing company Windblown Media.

    Isn't this what I said?

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  17. Thanks all for this interview! I'm a big fan of MLP and am thrilled that Jeff's stepped out in faith to try this new venture. With persistance and faith, I believe we can all overcome the resistance (or just lack of knowledge about) to Christian spec-fic. We need to combat the abundance of vampire, demon-hunter humanist books that're sweeping through our YA market. To me, this is a real writing and ministry field. JMHO! :)

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  20. Coming in late to read this (better late than never). Interesting conversations and points. Gives this spec-fic writer hope. :D

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