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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Does Christian Fiction Require a Warning Label? (Free Kindle Download Edition)

Is It Dishonest to Not Label "Christian Fiction"? That was the title of an article I recently posted at my personal website. It's a hot topic among Christian writers, which bore out in the comments on that post. In the article I reference three popular CBA novels, books that were well-reviewed in the Christian market, which were then offered as free Kindle downloads, only to get blasted by reviewers for being "mislabeled" and "deceptive." The sentiment was perfectly summed up by one angry reviewer who said:

If it’s Christian literature – JUST SAY SO!

Question: Do the reviewers have a point? Are we Christians trying to "trick" people into reading our stuff? And is this the real reason behind these negative reviews? Could there be, as some suggest, a built-in bias against Christian fiction that taints the review system? Or maybe we Christian authors are the ones getting unfair treatment, huh?

Whatever your answer, I happen to believe this controversy is a perfect window into the world the Christian fiction community has created. I mean, haven't we brought this on ourselves? Christian fiction was forged as an alternative to secular, general market fiction. We demand certain themes, certain messages, be evident in our stories. So is it a surprise that when our "message" is spotted, some people get pissed?

the same system that allows readers to indiscriminately hand out five-star reviews, allows readers to indiscriminately hand out one-star reviews. Thus, reviewers have a right to pan my book simply because it's Christian fiction. So what? Some reviewers will give my book five stars simply because it IS Christian fiction. I’ve been saying all along that we Christian writers get too cozy with the five-star reviews. We feel we're obligated to give them and, as a result, we feel we deserve to receive them. Is it any wonder we get our feelings hurt when someone rips our previously hailed five-star wonder? If we weren’t so beholden to five-star ratings, perhaps we wouldn’t be as dismayed by one-star beat-downs.

Seriously, I think we would do well to shut up and listen to our detractors, rather than huff our way back to the country club. Sure, there's blowhards and blockheads who have no agenda other than slamming anything religious. But not all our detractors are cretins. Take for instance this comment from a reader of the aforementioned post (you can read the entire comment HERE):

I think it’s wrong to mislabel or omit important information about ANY book, Christian or not. I’m a Christian, but sometimes I don’t WANT to read Christian fiction. (And, even within the genre, I don’t like books that make me feel preached to.) Just like any customer, I should be able to tell enough from a book’s description and category/genre that I know, before I buy, what I’m getting.

Fwiw- I have contacted Amazon numerous times, complaining about the way their search options and book descriptions fall short and make it difficult for the shopper to find what s/he is searching for–forcing us to wade through pages of listings and book descriptions–and still it isn’t clear. There should be a way to weed out what one doesn’t want from the search. The technology exists, they are simply not employing it.

I don’t think rating systems (like for movies) would work for books. They’re too varied. But listing things like: ‘This book contains foul language, violence and graphic sex’ or ‘This book contains scripture references, aspects/acts of personal faith and strong Christian themes.’ would cut way down on bad reviews from readers who feel deceived, or–at the very least–poorly informed.

I mean, can you really blame them? How would you feel if you thought you were buying a wholesome book and got a twisted tale of erotica? At the end of the day, its boils down to one, basic problem–the customer spending their hard-earned money and not getting what s/he thought s/he was getting.

Amazon does have avenues for challenging reviews, and I think readers should think twice about giving a 1-star when it’s Amazon they’re upset with and not the author. But why not avoid the bad reviews in the first place, by simply being honest about the book’s content upfront?
I appreciate the tone of this commenter. Not everyone who pans a free Kindle download does so simply because they are anti-Christian. Some do so on the grounds that they just don't like what Christian fiction has become.

On the other hand, does Christian fiction really require a warning label? If it does, then we better start labeling every piece of ideologically-driven fiction: feminist fiction, atheist fiction, humanist fiction, etc., etc. I mean, c'mon. A warning label? Nevertheless, I believe it would help if we Christian authors and readers drew a deep breath, took a step back, and asked if this vehemence against our stories isn't part of our own doing.

Mike is a monthly contributor to Novel Journey. He is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of WordServe Literary. Mike's debut novel, "The Resurrection," is in stores now and his novella, "Winterland," is available in e-book formats. You can visit his website at


  1. Why is evidence of a Christian message enough to drive people to angry rants? Sometimes it's simply because Jesus--even "done well"--is an offense to them.

    I think today's Christian fiction is diverse. You can find some stories with barely a mention of God and a light thread of faith to stories that challenge your faith--in a thoroughly entertaining way. I'd hate to see every author water down the faith elements of their books to sell more of them or please the ranters . . . Just saying . . .

  2. I guess I look at this like when I accidentally pick up a New Age book. Hate that, it waters down the message of Christ so much He's invisible. It doesn't take long to understand what it is and turns my stomach. I think Amazon would be wise to keep the genres you would find in a bookstore. If I go to Barnes & Noble, I know what book I'm looking for and I find it.

    However, when someone accepts a free book offer- they have no excuse to attack an author or Amazon. It's FREE, use DELETE and move on! Sounds like the little kid that never learned to say thank you at Christmas.

    I also don't recommend sneaking a religious book into someone's hands, it can definitely lead to foul language. No one likes to be deceived even for an awesome cause.

  3. Perhaps I'm too dense to understand what this controversy is all about, but it seems to me that some people just like to complain and/or take out their inner frustrations on who or whatever happens by.

    If we're writing what the Lord leads us to write, and labeling/marketing it honestly -- and if we're not seeking His direction on these things, why aren't we? -- then we shouldn't worry what a handful of disgruntled Amazon customers might think. Let's just be faithful to our Lord in all things; He's the one we should be pleasing, after all.

  4. @Karen -- The argument that because the book is free reviewers shouldn't complain, is a bit shaky. Sure, they can just delete it. But what if they spend time reading the book -- time that could go to other things -– and then feel duped by the novel's content? Unless we want to say that reviewers who download free books are not allowed to post a review, we must concede their opinions, as biased or unfair as they might be. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Thanks Mike, I follow you. It is what it is and by getting angry about it ourselves isn't changing anything. They do have the right to review.

    I forget not everyone had Grammie send presents for Christmas. She actually sent me a polyester cowgirl outfit one year... Dad was very clear on how I was to respond.

    You are right we do want honest reviews in our work. It takes some steel underwear but reviews usually have an ounce of truth. We definitely don't want to be the "polyester" author everyone tries to avoid. And I am annoyed by the electronic age where I open my e-mail box to receive 20 ads on my "Personal" computer. We might be experiencing some electronic rage as well.

  6. *blinks* When I first saw that title in my google reader, I thought Novel Journey must be doing a response post. Hello.

    Interesting point: I'd dish a book that I thought would be something, from the cover, synopsis, reviews, whatever, that didn't turn out to my expectations. Of course, I would have to not-like what it turned out to be. I recently read The Scorpio Races. From the synopsis and the way the tenses worked I thought much more of the book would be the actual races, and much less pre-racing. It turned out differently than I expected, but I happened to still love it. Some reviewers, I noticed, were like me expecting more action but upset that they didn't get it.

    I can argue that the events in The Scorpio Races still made an excellent book, and you can argue secular audiences shouldn't be so put off by a simple worldview being expressed, and they can argue we shouldn't be so prudish about sex in fiction, but it all comes back to expectations. Expectations are created, however, and must be carefully created, or the marketing will appeal to at least a few people in the wrong audience.

    No one buys a book expecting it to be bad. In a way, a book getting bad review for being poorly written is being dished in the same way: it failed expectations.

  7. I wondered why my ears were burning this morning. I read your post on your website and think you did a wonderful job with it. After my initial battering of harsh anti-Christian reviews attached to the free download, Amazon made Crossing Oceans their deal of the day and offered the book at 1.99, and more of those type of reviews followed. I think of it this way, I'm crossing over outside of normal Christian fiction readers, which is what most of us want. Anytime we do, we're stepping on the enemies toes and we can expect this sort of thing.

  8. Personally, when I'm on looking through the freebies, I've gotten to the point where I LOOK for the one-star reviews. They have so much smut on the freebies, that's about the only way I know for a fact I'm not getting porno! :)

    Seriously, I would agree that Amazon needs to do a better job of identifying books in given genres and such. There's been numerous times I've looked at books thinking they're a mystery or something, only to figure out as I read reviews that it's a romance or worse. (Not that I don't like a good romance, but when you want a good whodunit, nothing else will do!)

    And, truth be told, I've started looking at the publisher before I'll get a book there. I've gotten to know who the Christian publishers are, and which labels are Harlequin-esque. When all else fails, look at the publisher.

  9. This is an interesting debate. I think there are two sides from my first glance. The misleading of marketing but also the idea that Christ Himself warned us of. They will hate you because they first hated me.
    This reminds me of a media debate that took place only weeks ago in the music industry when a Christian Musician tried out for a contest to find the next "Freddie Mercury" His audition almost went viral until someone posted he was a Christian and then all 'you know what' broke lose.
    People are always going to resent the gospel - no matter what form it comes in. With that being said I am not condoning misrepresentation by marketing. Call it what it is. God's uses all forms to save people - even in spite of our misguided attempts to make it more palatable for the masses.
    Just a thought.

  10. @Gina -- I think the "crossing over" argument only goes so far. If readers feel like we're trying to get a message under the radar, they have a right to criticize us when they "get it." Sure, that might be unfair. But I'd be cautious about putting all bad reviews under the "stepping on the enemies toes" category. Like the comment I quoted in this post, some reviewers may have a legitimate gripe. So I think we must give ourselves pause before pooh-poohing all one-star reviews as being "of the devil." Thanks for commenting!

  11. I'm certainly not putting all bad reviews in that category. I hope I didn't imply that. Yuck. In fact my most unflattering review came from a fellow CBA novelist. As a Bible believing Christian, yes, I have an agenda in all that I do, and that includes my writing. I don't apologize for that, nor do I attack those who are attacking my faith within reviews. What you will notice however is that within most (not all) of the very harsh reviews, there is a mention of religion.

  12. @Gina -- Absolutely. Call it conspiratorial, but there is a rabid anti-Christian bias abroad. I mean, why don't folks get as upset w/ other religious, philosophical, or political POV's in novels? My point here is to encourage a degree of emotional detachment and objectivity. Let's not be too quick to blame all one-star reviews on an anti-christian head-set.

  13. I thought of something else. I wasn't raised in the Church. So if you had handed me a book with Christian symbols and language before I was ready, I never would've understood it. I kind of think we need to either write for an audience that won't understand the heights of Christianity (simple like the Narnia Chronicles), or specifically target strong Christians (like Voices of the Faithful by Beth Moore). Although Chronicles of Narnia is based on Christianity, C.S. Lewis isn't obvious about it- it can cross genres. For my inspirational blog I try and write for someone who isn't a believer, just in case- and what I'm hearing is the old Christians are blessed too. It's the old choose your audience rule. That could have an impact on how the books are received and reviewed.

  14. Mike, As you know, I chimed in on this previously on your original post.
    Call me naive, but it never occurred to me that the publisher (they're the ones that do this--not the author) makes these books available as a free download in order to insinuate Christian truths into the minds of unsuspecting readers. No, it's marketing, pure and simple. Throw the book out there enough and hope that a number of people discover a new author whose work they like.
    As for labeling Christian fiction, I don't want to get into that. Read the blurb, do as Amazon allows and "look inside." Then download or don't download, the same way you'd buy a book in the store--but this one's free. I've downloaded some books that were strictly R-rated, and I deleted them, but I didn't start a petition to label books as containing excessive profanity and gratuitous sex.
    Enough ranting. Thanks for the post.

  15. @Richard -- I agree that Christian publishers probably offer free ebooks for the same reason ANY publisher does: To eventually sell more books. However, we would be remiss in not admitting that getting our books into the hands of non-believers IS a desire of many a Christian fiction writer. Thanks for commenting!

  16. Oh, that's a great benefit, no question. I was thinking of the reviewers who believe (and have said) giving away Christian fiction without some kind of warning is part of a plot to insinuate the material into their homes and minds.
    One more comment, if I may. From personal experience, before I became a Christian I was terribly uncomfortable around overt Christian things--conversations, programs, books. Apparently I wasn't alone in this feeling, and it persists among some non-Christians today.

  17. The "Look Inside" feature of Amazon allows more browsing than normally goes on when one is actually shopping in a local bookstore. Not many people will read an entire (or even several) chapters of a book before they decide if they will, or won't purchase. For the most part, books can't "withhold their true flavors" after that much scrutiny. But the truth, we're talking about here, is...

    Everybody has an agenda.

    Horror books aim to scare the daylights out of you. Women's fiction aims to get your emotions worked up. Humor aims to make you laugh out loud, and fantasy (this one is really dangerous) actually aims to entice you into to a world that isn't even real. Storytelling is the best magic show there is.

    And just like a carnival, people who buy a ticket and then complain it wasn't worth it, forget whose choice it was to try it out in the first place. Personally, I think having a warning like:" CAUTION: there is a twist at the end of this mystery that could prove upsetting to people with heart problems," would be one of the best publicity campaigns around.

    So, maybe warning people really would be a good thing,

  18. Great post. And how I would love to see the warning labels, especially when purchasing books for children.

    But it is interesting that I've seen so many hostile reviews from atheists/non-Christians directed at Christian works while when I've happened upon a book written from an atheist's/non-Christian's standpoint (and it's equally preachy, which I didn't know beforehand), I don't become offended. It actually reaffirms my faith. And I don't feel the need to flame the author or post a one-star review, unless it is to criticize the merits of the book on a story level.

    All great things to take into consideration when approaching the marketing phase, however. Thanks for the thoughts!

  19. Never sweat a review. And always remember that a review isn't about the writer's intention -- it's about the reader's experience. And if someone has a whacky reading, well, it's still their reading, and others can see that.

    All the same... I am one who is not interested in reading books with much Christian 'sensibility.' I'm also not interested books with too much of a chick lit sensibility either. Or with the modern thriller sensibility.

    It doesn't matter whether books are in a particular genre or not. I want to know about the flavor more than the category.

    There are firmly Christian books which interest me -- but they are generally the ones written as if for an audience which is not Christian. Those have a different flavor or sensibility. And there are books which are definitely NOT Christian books in terms of subject, but which don't interest me because the flavor feels very much like they are written for certain kinds of Christians.

    The only thing I can think of off hand to explain the difference would be to compare it to books about gay people. There are books written for the mainstream audience which are about gay characters (with or without a political message -- but in which the gay-ness of the character is important to the story) and books which are written FOR the gay community, with no interest in appealing to those outside it.

    In both cases it's good for the audience to know what they're getting. This is true for people who love the subject matter as much as for those who avoid it. It doesn't have to be a label, it can just be how the book is described, or something about the cover.

    And if such information wasn't in the blurb or cover or label, I would appreciate it being mentioned in thoughtful reviews.

    But I don't pay attention to obnoxious reviewers with an axe to grind. Their opinions say more about them than about whatever they're reviewing.

  20. No, I've never been in favor of labeling it. I often write strongly from my own Buddhist philosophy, but no one has ever suggested that I label my stories as such. While I'm not usually a fan of "Christian" fiction (in quotes here because I don't like the label), I don't object to it.

    I agree with The Daring Novelist that reviews speak more of the reader than the writer. There's no predicting what any given reader will like.

  21. My book, "As if They Always Knew," received a 1 star review once from someone because they said they should have been warned about the religious content of the book. The front cover says (very plainly too) "A Christian Biker Love Story."
    The reviewer tore into my book. I had never received that kind of review before and it was disturbing. But as some others have pointed out and as someone once quoted to me, "We need not be surprised when the world acts like the world."
    If anyone reading this would like to get a free Christian novel by email to download onto your ereader, I would be glad to send one of my novels to you if you in turn would promise to leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads. I don't ask for a good review, just an honest one. Here's my addy if you'd like to do this for me. Thanks!


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