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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Observations . . .

by Nicole Petrino-Salter

Fantasy doesn't sell in the CBA.

Male protagonists aren't popular in the CBA.

Long novels aren't desirable for the CBA.

The best stories/writing get published in the CBA.

Yes, I sometimes pick on the CBA publishers because, if we're honest, each one of the above statements has been trumpeted by professionals in the CBA publishing industry. And each one of these statements has been disproven at one time or another. Not without cost to some of us.

The truth lies somewhere in the distance where reality has determined that some of the CBA houses had no idea how to market certain novels nor did some of them have the desire to try with fantasy. The common CBA demographic of women in a specific age grouping proved to be vocal protestors of anything they thought inappropriate or undesirable or just plain annoyed them. For this particular group, there was no read and let read. No, sir. Christian fiction had better stay within a mold that adhered to their theology and therefore their strict parameters for suitable material for their delicate eyes. And male protagonists often interfered with their requirements for enjoying anything romantic (go figure) while males in women's fiction were considered trespassing in their worlds. Who cared what men thought about anything?

Long novels proved a little more expensive to produce so only well-known bestselling authors were given the luxury of having their long novels published.

The final statement to that short list doesn't even merit an explanation. It's simply not true. Anyone who's read extensively in the CBA can testify to its unreliability. And it's probably the single most polarizing reason for the boom in indie publishing. Good writers producing good stories are, were, and have been overlooked for so long, something had to be done. So independent, entrepreneurial spirited authors took to the tasks of publishing their own books. Ooh-rah! And bestselling authors decided to join them after discovering they could make more money doing so.

Just a few observations from the outside looking in . . .

Nicole Petrino-Salter writes love stories with a passion. You can find her here most days.


  1. The CBA is definitely struggling. I want the publishers in the CBA to survive, because I love the vision, the desire to tell stories that glorify God and point people to Him. And I agree with everything you said. The key isn't to pander to the tiny audience that the CBA has already attracted. The key is to draw new readers in. Seems there are too many rules and limitations, which might appeal to the existing audience, but which turn off others. I confess I haven't prayed enough for the the CBA. Since I have no other solution to offer, I commit to begin praying regularly. Meanwhile, I'm publishing indie and looking to the general market for my next contract.

  2. Well said, Robin. Prayer is the only alternative and an excellent choice. May the Lord provide you with His abundance in all of your endeavors done for Him.

  3. Hi Nicole. You raise some excellent questions. I know it can be puzzling and frustrating being on "the outside looking in." I thought I might add some insights from being a Publisher of one of the largest Christian Fiction divisions for ten years (I left that role three years ago to join a ministry). During my time at Thomas Nelson we published about 50 new novels a year across all genres. We had numerous novels with male protagonists as well as some speculative, sci-fi / fantasy, general market fiction, and short story anthologies. In other words, we sought out a robust list that spanned all genres. We marketed the books as much as possible based on the projected sales for each book.
    At the end of the day, the market - meaning the readers - chose what succeeded by voting on those books with their dollars. Part of a publisher's charge is to invest in the books and authors that readers want (even if they don't know that yet because it is a new voice). That isn't "pandering" or being caught up in "rules and regulations" but simply letting the market decide and then investing in those categories. At the same time, we took many risks and saw success with some of those writers. With others, not so much.
    This may be surprising, but the primary goal of most for-profit (and that' a good thing) publishing houses isn't to "draw new readers in" or create new readers. Yes - we want to make sure the target audience for a book knows this book is available. But trying to convince uninvested readers to read or putting large hopes on a book based on an audience of new readers is costly and risky. We would take that risk on several books a year - but we certainly couldn't build a program based on that model. Most of those times, we ended up with a really great book that did not sell well. That isn't a slam on the author or the publisher - there simply were not enough interested readers who invested in the book to make it work.
    The primary goal is to publish the best books we can find for readers who are excited about those books and can offer more than enough return on the investment to cover advances, marketing budgets, staff expenses, building overhead and also make up for the books that never earn out their advances (which is 75% or more of all books).
    I write this out of a spirit of sharing what it is like on that side of the desk - as a Publisher charged with successfully running a publishing division that would cease to exist if it didn't sell enough books to keep the lights on and the staff paid and the books printed. Just as there are lazy writers, there are lazy publishers. And I don't say any of this to justify lazy publishing. But most publishers I know are there because they love writers, great books, and reaching others with stories from a Christian worldview. I know it is hard to understand the challenges a publisher faces for those who have never been a publisher (just as it is for those who have never been an author to understand the world of authors). I hope in some small way, this helps.
    - Allen Arnold

  4. Good observations, Nicole.

    Another I'd like to add is the dwindling of male authors in the CBA. Yes, there are still several, but too many fabulous authors seem to have given up: Athol Dickson, J. Mark Bertrand, and Tim Downs (to name a few). I understand the market forces at play, but that doesn't mean I'm not disappointed. For this--as you and Robin said--I'm grateful that so many authors are going indie. A reader might have to wade through a lot of books to find quality, but at least there's a broader choice than what CBA Publishers can offer.

  5. Allen, I know and appreciate your previous success and profession at Thomas Nelson and your expertise in publishing. You are qualified to address my "observations", but . . . you knew there'd be one, didn't you? First of all, I'm no longer puzzled or frustrated by the professional explanations to these observations. It didn't take me long to learn the publishing mantra which you just reinforced - and that's not a slam because it's based on the perspective you had as a publisher. And I'm 100% for profit, business, and however an individual or company chooses to run their businesses.

    Here are the weaknesses I've "observed" in your argument. First of all, you chose to publish what you perceived your readers wanted. If your readers included the general demographic used by most CBA houses, you published most of your fiction for them. Your risks entailed "reaching out" to a larger audience via different genres and authors. When those risks failed to generate a following, you returned to the tried and true genres and authors. Point being: you'd already lost prospective readers who were no longer willing to try your "risks" because they'd concluded you weren't really going to do "risks". (And please don't think I'm advocating unseemly literature here, but "real" fiction - as in Christian fiction - isn't all about the typical CBA fare.) Please note Robin's comment above: "The key is to draw new readers in. Seems there are too many rules and limitations, which might appeal to the existing audience, but which turn off others."

    I will give you that Thomas Nelson was considerably braver than most CBA houses. It seems to me, however, that the general CBA demographic still rules. And loudly.

  6. Bren, as always, excellent points. Those stellar authors you mention are most certainly missed.

  7. I will say that Thomas Nelson has, in recent years, done the best job of publishing books that cover a wide spectrum. I'm one of those readers who craves Christian fiction that deals with reality, with what's really going on in our culture. (Which is why I write what I do.) In 2013, two of my three favorites in this vein were TN books.

    But maybe four or five years ago, a Christian publisher put out a survey and invited readers to give them feedback on what they were looking for. I remember well that the question about setting--where do you prefer to see stories set--was severely limited in scope. I can't remember all the options, but I believe some were small town, rural America, things along those lines. There was no option for a large city setting (where much of America lives)and not even an option to choose other. You either had to pick an option you didn't want at all or not take the survey. It was so frustrating; this meant that question at least could have been skewed because there wasn't a real choice. It also said a lot about where CBA fiction wasn't paying attention, and as a reader at that time, it was frustrating and made me feel like that publisher--and CBA in general?--wasn't going to put out books I preferred.

    Does anyone else remember that survey? Or the publisher who put it out? I know several of us writers who long for big-city settings and reality-driven fiction have talked about it.

  8. Allen, I completely understand what you said about a publisher publishing books that already have an audience. But do you think it's a possibility that over time this will limit many Christian publishers' audiences more and more?

    I've been a CBA reader since the eighties when I was in junior high. I've been passionate about CBA fiction. But in all that time, the vast, vast, vast majority of Christian readers I knew refused to read Christian fiction because it wasn't real or relatable. I do think that changed a lot in the late nineties and in the previous decade, but it really feels to me--as a reader and as a writer who's pitched at conferences--that we're almost going backwards in that regard now. That all that is wanted is safe, sweet romances or Amish books with characters who aren't completely real. Janet Grant has posted a handful of blogs on her agency's website, challenging publishers to take risk. So I know that to some extent I'm not alone in thinking this.

  9. Sally, you know you're not alone, and that's the point. However, as you cited, the reality of real life outside the safe places in much of current Christian fiction doesn't exist from the traditional CBA houses.

    An interesting factor, Tree of Life bookstores is going out of business because of the owner's serious health problems. Blow-out sales going on with all of their merchandise. The bookshelves are emptying out in our local outlet as the store heads to a July 3rd closing date. The majority of novels left on the shelves? Amish stories. Can we say overkill for that trend?

    I too am a devoted Christian fiction reader and writer, but in the last few years I've been way more selective in my choices because I haven't seen the desired portrayals and imagination applied to real-life stories. Just oh so much more of the same old, same old - and with that there is no stylistic daring or compelling voices. That's not to say those authors who write wonderful material aren't doing it - they're just harder to find from the typical CBA publishing houses.

  10. I left two comments for Allen Arnold, and the second one has disappeared.

  11. To continue, Allen: I'll try again here.

    I have been told by professionals in the publishing industry (senior editors, publishers) that most authors don't earn back their advances to the tune of 60% and that the big selling authors carry the rest. Now that figure, give or take even a 20% margin for error plus or minus, tells me that perhaps the publisher didn't make the best decisions in publishing those particular novels or they failed to create a fertile environment for those authors to sell their books. So the publishing perspective of what sells can be questionable if the percentage is near that figure.

    Speaking from a pure business standpoint, why indeed was the practice of refunding/returning books that didn't sell in a timely manner allowed to take place? General retailers know they're responsible for buying and selling and if they buy a product that doesn't sell, they either blow it out or keep reducing the cost until they can get rid of it. Why it's different in publishing makes no sense.

    And finally, this: "I know it is hard to understand the challenges a publisher faces for those who have never been a publisher (just as it is for those who have never been an author to understand the world of authors)." comes off as condescending, no offense. Many of us who post here have been around the block a few times and our observations are not without merit. This sentence implies we don't "understand" the pressures and objectives of being a publisher. What we do "understand" is that much of CBA publishing is old, tried and true, appealing to a specific demographic which is loud and proud . . . and many times judgmental.

    What does it say for the CBA when many of its professionals at conferences are discussing the general market novels they've just read and raving about them?

    CBA has the right to market how they want, to whom they want, and to be satisfied with their chosen demographic. But, wow, are they missing out on some fabulous writers and wonderful fiction - especially when some of their more highly prized novelists go indie.

  12. Good post, Nicole. It is a tricky thing because there IS a pre-existing, older Christian fiction audience that is very vocal about things they want. And yet what about this generation of Christian readers, or the next? I know many who, as Sally said, don't even read Christian fiction because it's not relatable or doesn't explore topics/settings they're interested in. There are few risks taken and those that are taken don't always pan out for the publishers.

    This is where indies are stepping in and filling the gaps, writing to a Christian audience that is hungry for more. They take all the risks of marketing on themselves and it either plays out well or not, but in the end, they don't have to wait ten years to match the mainstream trends.

  13. Well said, Heather. You've done it well as has Sally. And I'm an "older Christian fiction audience" who writes what I can't find in some of the CBA fiction and staunchly defends those who've chosen to go indie or pay for custom publishing. It's certainly not about lowering any standards - it's actually about expanding, amplifying, and creating new realistic standards based on the relationship the author must maintain with Jesus.

  14. Hi Sally and Nicole -

    What a great conversation. I saw where you both left some additional thoughts for me, so wanted to respond to them.

    My heart is for the writers and for the industry. Nicole - you made the point you were writing from the outside looking in and - as someone who lived many years on the inside - I wanted to offer some hard-earned observations to try and explain why things were done. I've never been an author - so while I've worked with hundreds of them, I don't fully know their world. Few have been publishers so I offered from that perspective from a heart that cares about writers and the industry.

    Regarding the industry percentages, the story they tell (for all publishing) is that no one - not the publisher, editor, agent or author themselves - know which titles are going to work. It's art rather than science. All parties go in believing in their work and their acquisitions. No one wins when the books don't work out. So there's humility mixed with expectation for all involved.

    Regarding the practice of booksellers returning books, that industry policy was instigated long before I joined the publishing world. I agree with you - it's not a policy that ever made sense to me.

    Finally, I agree with both your comments and concerns about the shrinking of the industry. And, as Nicole said, many of the offerings are "old, tired, and true". I'm only speaking from my experience, but while at Thomas Nelson we sought to take risks every day, every month, every year. We published books in all genres of Christian Fiction. We often moved away from the huge advances of bestselling authors, choosing instead to invest in fresh voices we were excited to launch. We signed multi-book contracts for new authors in less than hot genres. We published books for the general market from Christians (as opposed to Christian Fiction). Some of the books worked, others never gained traction. But we never stopped seeking those voices out. We never gave up on fresh ideas or approaches.

    Yet at the end of the day, it isn't just publishers or writers who determine what books work and which authors succeed. It is the readers. Publishers can only offer books but they can't make readers buy books or create new readers. They aren't responsible for shrinking the industry. Most publishers - just like most authors - are doing the best job they can to grow our industry. But readers get the final vote and over the years have had and continue to have a wide range of choices in what is offered. The shrinking of the industry is a complex issue that we all need to solve together.

    My heart goes out to writers. It's not an easy calling. I believe they should write the stories God gives them regardless of what publishers are embracing at the moment. And I'm thankful for voices like yours. That's really all I can say on this so I'll end here - but did want to offer a response to your questions. Thanks!

  15. Allen, I love your response. This one is meaningful, and I appreciate it. And, as Sally and I noted, Thomas Nelson seemed braver than most of the CBA houses at the time.

    I also agree with readers dictating the direction of publishing. The only tiny objection I see in this is when a certain demographic is catered to in most cases, those who took chances with a willingness to expand their readership lost out on future readers because they'd already abandoned ship due to the consistent disappointments of most of the offered fare. I think the popularity of certain fiction led to the over-saturation of the market trends (i.e. Amish fiction), keeping even more readers away from CBA bookstores and turning to online purchasing and selections. JMO.

    My heart goes out to the mid-list and solid authors who write beautifully and find themselves abandoned by their publishers after many years of creative partnerships. Indie publishing is filling a huge need, and although it's booming at present, the work involved might send some back to the hunt for a publisher or at least a good small press to lighten the load of preparing books to sell.

    Thank you, Allen, for being so amicable and willing to discuss my criticisms. And thank you to each one who took the time to comment with your thoughtful opinions.


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