Sunday, March 24, 2013

Does the Christian Fiction Industry Know How to Market to Men?

According to the Spring 2012 ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) Journal, only 13% of its members are men. (You can find a PDF of that edition HERE.) I tweeted that stat a while back and Richard Mabry, then ACFW Vice President replied, “ACFW male membership has climbed each year I’ve been involved.” Frankly, I’m not sure if I should be excited by that or not. If 13% is a positive sign, I’m afraid to know our dismal representation before that. Or at what rate it’s climbing.

I followed up that question with one more to the point of this post and my ongoing concerns about our industry: “Is there an attempt to grow that number? If not, why not? If so, how?” That’s kind of where our exchange stalled. ACFW membership is simply reflective of the demographic tilt in the Christian fiction industry. As a result, there is no plan to grow male membership. That didn’t keep E. Stephen Burnett from offering a creative solution to ACFW’s Man Problem:

I’m fully aware that raising these questions is interpreted by some as a “wanton demonization of the majority demographic.” It’s not. But as one of that small minority of men, it doesn’t feel like the Christian publishing industry

  1. Sees any problem with an overwhelmingly female readership, and
  2. Is making any effort to reach / represent men.
Clearly, the problem is not at the ACFW level, but at the industry.
I’ve talked to lot of male Christian authors, many already published in the CBA, about this. Our impressions are remarkably the same. For instance, I recently spoke to a multi-published male Christian author who, like many of us, is looking to move out of the CBA. Why? Christian publishers don’t know how to market to men. This author described how difficult it was to get the marketing department to understand and “hit” his target market. Publishers are so geared to the ACFW 87%ers, that everything else must, of necessity, take a back seat. 

Because Women’s / Historical fiction is the wheelhouse of the CBA, publishing houses are now designed to crank out this product. A new title rolls in and the marketing department just rearranges all the typical pieces: bonnet, covered wagon, parasol, petticoat, doe-eyed lass. Check, check, check! It’s a quick cut-and-paste affair. The economy has forced Christian publishers into “safe mode.” So when a horror, crime, fantasy, literary, or sci-fi novel rolls in, it’s the equivalent of adding a muffler to an assembly line of carriages.

ACFW is no doubt reflective of the industry. Men would likely feel more comfortable about joining the ACFW if their demographic and genre interests were represented more in the industry in general. But would a more intentional, more effective, marketing strategy to men change anything? Until we see it, it’s hard to say. 

I will continue to keep an eye on the Christian fiction industry. I will continue to read some of its books. But as a male Speculative Fiction writer, remaining in an industry that struggles to represent my genre and my demographic seems like a losing proposition. Am I wrong?

* * *

Mike Duran is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, and is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike's novels include The TellingThe Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, and his newly released short story anthology Subterranea  You can visit his website at


Gina Holmes said...

Ted Dekker, Frank Peretti and Stephen James do quite well. I think for all of us Christian fiction authors we're up against the problem that we're shoved back in a dark corner in the big retail stores, if they carry us at all. I think it's tough for all of us.

Edie Melson said...

Mike, I have to agree with you. My husband, who reads almost exclusively Christian fiction and non-fiction, won't enter a Christian bookstore. He says they're built for women. They smell funny and are filled with knick-knacks. There are some great exceptions of men who've found a niche and I applaud them. But in general, I think men have been ignored left out of the marketing plans.

Rick Barry said...

Mike, I'm a fellow member of the 13% male ACFW population. Part of the issue is the public perception (Christian public perception, mind you) of CBA literature. When the topic came up, a non-writer friend of mine rolled his eyes and said, "Pffft!" (or a similar derogatory sound). Because he finds so little Christian fiction geared for a male brain, he turns to secular fiction instead. Multiply his reaction by unknown thousands of Christian men, and you end up with male readers who would love to support CBA titles--but find relatively few they enjoy as men.

So here's the Catch-22: Seeing the overwhelming predominance of female readers buying CBA books, CBA editors prefer female protagonists in stories geared for female minds. To them, it seems like a logical investment of time & capital. However, that strategy perpetuates the notion that CBA offers little for guys. I dislike the "vicious circle" cliché, but there you have it.

I'm not convinced the primary problem is a lack of male Christian authors. Rather, a large portion of the industry seems to adapt an old margarine commercial: "Everything's better with a blue bonnet on it." Christian male readers go elsewhere, while CBA perpetuates the status quo.

Doubtless, the marketing shortcoming comes into play (flip through any CBD catalog for evidence!), but marketing is not the sole dilemma.

Thanks for an interesting and thought-worthy post!

Mark Carver said...

The featured books to the left of this article are pretty much what you described to a "t" :-). We can't blame companies for following the easy money or readers for buying what they want to read. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it's a little harder to reconcile Christianity with genres with heavy male readership (fantasy, sci-fi, horror). It can and is being done, of course, but it's a lot easy to spin a tale of God's redeeming grace while Daisy Mae finds unexpected love in the wild frontier than it is to write a bloody epic fantasy that is also explicitly Christian enough to be released by a Christian publishing house.

Of course, the Christian spec fiction genre is growing day by day (you and I and countless others are part of the ranks) but the fact remains that the secular market has a whole buffet of literary food that guys like and it's hard to woo them to a world that's long been too warm and fuzzy. The flip side is watering down the Christian message so that a book is indistinguishable from its secular counterparts, and that's not cool too.

I guess the best hope for the future is for enough male readers to get tired of having too few options and for frustrated authors to reach out to them. I imagine that reader loyalty would be very strong in such cases. Every tree starts out as a seed.

J. S. Bailey said...

I don't think this is a strictly male/female issue. I am a woman, and I have little to no interest in romance or historical fiction (unless it's written by Tosca Lee.) ;) I write speculative fiction and love a good horror novel. I think the issue is not just how to market to men, but how to market to fans of these not-as-popular (in the Christian market) genres.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

There are other gaps in the Christian fiction industry, besides the male readership. My friends and I have noticed that there's a preponderance of pre-married romance novels, which seems a bit incongruous when the majority of readers are married women, dealing with married problems, not dating problems. It seems the CBA should be doing more to promote realistic love IN marriage, not the rush of feelings before marriage.

AND I think another big problem is that men don't see themselves presented realistically in many Christian novels. There's some invisible standard of perfection that many of these "heroes" manage to meet--and they don't look like any real dudes I know.

Then again, I like reading for realism (not GRIT, just realism). Many CBA readers read solely for escapism, which means they are re-living those dating-rush days and dreaming of heroes who make few, if any mistakes (a la Edward in Twilight). I can't fault them for it--I play video games to escape my life when things get too heavy!

I think giving up on the ACFW is not the answer. I think if the CBA won't publish these Sci-Fi, Spec. Fic or non-uber-hero books, self-pubbing might very well be the way to get those options into readers' hands. And if they sell well enough, the CBA might come around at some point and start pubbing more of it.

That said, I know if there were a Christian Louis L'Amour, my hubby would be reading him! Sometimes I think men write the most realistic books about men. I mean, hey--to some extent, you do have to write what you know.

Mike Duran said...

Rick, I personally believe Christian publishers have a moral obligation to be good stewards of their money. Which means making more of it. Profit is not evil, greed is. Obviously, marketing to women is smart business. However, it creates the "viscous cycle" we're in now, where male readers and authors migrate elsewhere. What I wonder is if there is another "moral obligation" we have, which is to make an effort to actively reach and include male readers. This is risky, no doubt. But without taking such risks, couldn't we be accused of being little different than any other industry?

Nicole said...

I agree, Mike, and with several others' comments here like this one: "Christian male readers go elsewhere, while CBA perpetuates the status quo." And I think the key here is the status quo works for the CBA due to a number of things that Mike pointed out in his post.

Fantasy and specfic, even sci-fi, are huge outside of CBA and many Christians write it. So saying it isn't read by Christians is ludicrous. Marketing applies somewhere.

I don't think male-geared fiction in CBA is marketed at all to appeal to men. I prefer male protagonists if they're real, and usually, most of the time, men can write real men. However, if they're trying to appeal to the CBA demographic, they probably modify those men - or so it seems.

Marketing to men and coveting their readership doesn't seem to have a high priority in CBA fiction. Status quo prevails.

John Robinson said...

Does the CBA know how to market to men? Short answer, no, and they don't intend to.

After a dozen years and four commercially published Christian novels, I've finally yanked the ejection seat handle and abandoned both the CBA and the ACFW.

The struggle there for male writers is mighty, and endless. God bless those men who stay to battle on, but for me--and absent a huge nudge from God--I'm raising the white flag, and heading over to the world.

C.L. Dyck said...

I second that. On the positive side, I think we're seeing gradual change due to online retailing and demographic shift.

I just don't think it's happening quickly enough for a lot of guys' careers to be both viable and satisfying in this market space right now.

Kerry Nietz said...

Heather, your post made me chuckle, because I've seen posts by female (published) authors who said that they write men as they wished they would be.

(The specific example was something along the lines of a male character that would never expect a woman to help with housework.)

One of my male author friends commented that if HE wrote women like he wished they would be, he'd get verbally abused. :)

Rosslyn Elliott said...

It's not just male writers who are going to the mainstream houses rather than the CBA. Mike, I think your observations are mostly accurate when it comes to publishers failing to seek out male readers, but the problem at this particular juncture of CBA history is much, much larger than that. As a recent issue of Christian Retailing shows, a number of CBA publishers now believe that debut authors simply can't make it. So, whether a new author is male or female, it doesn't really matter...the problem is universal across gender lines. The majority of publishers believe that new authors have essentially no shot at breaking out, and that belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Look at some catalogs by Christian booksellers, and check out the fiction section. There are only two or three pages featuring fiction out of the entire hundred page catalog. Or or two of those pages are completely devoted to Amish fiction. The other page contains books by the five biggest, longest-established names in the CBA fiction business. This striking paucity of new names simply wasn't the case three or four years saw lots of new authors in the catalogs, and more pages of fiction. But overall in 2012 and 2013, what I think we're seeing is a lot of publishers focusing only on their two or three biggest names, essentially putting all their eggs in one or two baskets. So it's not just the male writers who are going to seek out other options. There will be a lot more authors of both sexes who may realize that there is far less opportunity for new voices in the CBA. It's ironic, but I think authors actually have a better shot at breaking out in the much larger secular market, where publishers still believe new authors may break out. Most CBA publishers seem to be turning further and further inward, with one or two notable exceptions. It's not just about men and women. Thanks for your thoughts, Mike.

Fred Warren said...

This pretty much matches the picture painted by a recent article in Publishers Weekly: My comments here: .

Heather Day Gilbert said...

HA! Ain't that the truth!

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Rosslyn--very well-stated. Even mid-lister authors are struggling as the pubs promote tried-and-true successes, though I have heard that some pubs are still looking for new talent. When the pond starts getting so small everything seems inbred, it's definitely time to push the borders. Historically speaking, those who take the biggest chances reap the biggest rewards.

Richard Mabry said...

Mike, Since you quoted me here (and accurately, I'll add), let me add my thoughts. First of all, I'm no longer an officer of ACFW--matter of fact, the Executive Board has become the instrument of governance, so there are no longer any elected officials of that organization. So if you want to address their policy re acquiring male writers, you'll have to take that up with them.
I have no answer to the problem of men not reading Christian fiction. Maybe it's attention span, maybe it's lack of time, I don't know. All I know how to do is write books that should (emphasize "should"), I hope, appeal to both sexes, then try to find a way to get them published.
And, as has been pointed out, the CBA publishers have to make money or they're out of business. If 85% of the country liked wheat bread and 15% didn't, I wouldn't advise the bakeries to emphasize bread made from fava bean flour. It's a simple marketing axiom to follow the dollars.
Thanks for, as you often do, stirring the pot and making me think. Now I have a headache. : )

Anonymous said...

I definitely see what you are saying and have thought about that for years. Being female, I have not seen the problem first hand, but from a distance. What genres do you think would encourage men to find their reading materials in Christian Fiction? Most avid readers I know that are male are heavily into suspense and mystery. Would it help to simply cut down on the amount of romance found in many of the Christian Fiction Suspense books? I realize your post was directed more at the industry, but I would like to know your opinion on this as well. I would love to see a larger percentage of men actually reading Christian books. Most men I know read outside of CBA.

Nicole said...

Richard, just a thought. What if it was "perceived" that 85% of the country liked wheat bread when in fact there was maybe only 65% of the country that preferred it and the other 35% enjoyed all kinds of flour/bread. Wouldn't it benefit the breadmakers to not stop making the majority of wheat bread but to add in the other flavors to accommodate a potentially growing market? Rather than just ignore them or eliminate them from their consumer rosters? This isn't about not making money - it's about expanding the market to make it more profitable for many, not just an assumed majority.

Bill Giovannetti said...

Great post -- thought provoking.
Sometimes we blame the industry, sometimes we blame the market. In this case, I think it's both.
Does the ABA know how to market to men? Jack Reacher, Mitch Rapp -- these books do well. Where are their equivalents in the Christian market?
I completely agree with Edie Melson's comment above, about not wanting to enter Christian bookstores. Definitely frilly, smelly, knick-knacky, and girlie all the way.
Hopefully, the tide will turn, and publishers will being to tap into a vast untapped manly market.

Rick Barry said...

I'm loving all the input here. Mike, you've certainly poked a nerve!

Janice C Johnson said...

Thanks for writing about this. I'm a woman writing my first novel. My protagonist is a middle-aged married man, NOT perfect. Neither is his wife. It may not be marketable, but if not it will still serve as a valuable learning exercise.