Next month is the annual ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) Conference. Labelled "the Premier Christian Fiction Conference," ACFW has proven to represent the majority of the Christian fiction industry. What they haven't proven, however, is an ability to adequately rep a small (but growing) demographic of Christian writer and reader -- the speculative fiction fan.
So Becky Minor did something about it.
As a member of the Christian spec-fic writing community, Becky had followed many of the discussions and was well aware of the frustration of many Christian spec authors. Believing
there was enough people and enthusiasm to sustain an independent movement, Becky aimed to start a con which would represent this unique but vibrant community. Starting at the grassroots level, Becky's first step was to begin building Faith and Fantasy Alliance from which to pool resources from Christian creatives. But things quickly reached a head after the ACFW 2012 conference, heightening growing frustrations between spec fans and the conference organizers, and Becky, along with a team of enthusiasts and compatriots, immediately began brainstorming concrete plans for the first ever Realm Makers in 2013.
Several weeks ago I returned from Realm Makers 2015. I was a first time attendee as well as a faculty member. The conference had doubled in size from its previous year, now hosting 150 attendees. But the growth hasn't stopped there. RM has begun attracting some fairly significant names, like Dave Long, senior acquisitions editor at Bethany House (BH) and well-known screenwriter, novelist, and writing coach David Farland. BH's presence at the conference would seem to indicate that some of the CBA “gatekeepers” may be taking notice. Along with Steve Laube of Enclave publishing, Jeff Gerke, Amanda Luedeke, and other agents and indie presses, (not to mention a surprise visit from NY Times best-seller Tosca Lee) RM appears to be, in this its 3rd year, gaining significant momentum.
It’s probably unfair to suggest that the RM conference is entirely a reaction to the under-representation of speculative fiction at ACFW. Spec-fic fans, like any other genre fans, inevitably find ways to cluster. ComicCon, DragonCon, Anime Expo, and the numerous sub-groups spawned therein are evidence of the healthy evolution of geekdom. So in the simplest sense, RM is the natural migration of a niche culture of readers and writers into a more organic fold.
Nevertheless, as someone who’s been involved in both Christian publishing and Speculative fiction for a decade now, it’s easy to see groups like Realm Makers as a reaction to the lack of speculative fiction in mainstream Christian publishing. The disparity of spec-fic to Romance, Amish, Historical, and Women’s Lit in Christian publishing had been a topic of discussion for the longest.
Perhaps the real question, however, is not whether a passionate group of literary insurgents can sustain their own movement, but whether that group represents a larger yet-untapped demographic. Is RM the tip of a big iceberg or just a small parcel within the existing Christian publishing terrain?
After a lively discussion on Facebook comparing RM to ACFW, literary agent Amanda Luedke commented:
I wonder if a bigger problem here is that spec fiction authors are expecting ACFW to be something that it just isn’t. ACFW will always reflect the biggest trends in Christian fiction. If spec fiction becomes a trend, then ACFW will adapt. But until publishers publish more spec fiction and until more agents rep spec fiction, ACFW will not be wasting their time giving a chunk of their conference to spec authors. Because as you’ve pointed out, they’ll just lose those authors to RM or WorldCon or DragonCon, etc. And to be fair, spec fiction isn’t the only genre that faces this. Childrens books get almost zero stage time at ACFW. Military thrillers, legal thrillers (many times thrillers in general!), mysteries, literary fiction, african american romance…these are genres that you could argue are running into the same issues that the spec fiction genre runs into. So my point is that ACFW caters to what the industry is selling. That’s just smart business.
Interestingly enough, Amanda was one of several agents who attended this year's RM conference. As a spec fan and an industry insider, her take is valuable. “[S]pec fiction authors are expecting ACFW to be something that it just isn’t.” The under-representation of speculative fiction in both the ACFW and the mainstream Christian market is neither the result of a conspiracy or managerial incompetence — ACFW is simply catering to what the industry is selling.
Sure, we can rage against “the industry” all we want. We can dig our heels in and call for a place at the table. But despite the negatives, this reality has forced a creative, vocal community to evolve.
- It has forced Christian spec writers to “leave the nest.”
- It has forced Christian spec writers to stretch their entrepreneurial legs.
- It has forced Christian spec writers to seek out new opportunities, new models, and unreached audiences.
- It has forced Christian spec writers to put their money where their mouths are.
Since its inception the publishing industry has operated like an aristocracy. An elite few held the power to essentially determine if an author’s work would be allowed in the public square. It was publication without self-determination for authors. For no matter how passionate or motivated an author was about his or her work, the fate of the book rested entirely with a few publishing houses. Those days, however, are over. Everything has changed.
In one sense, the ACFW and the industry it represents acts like “an aristocracy,” determining what titles will “be allowed in the public square.” But thanks to the availability of new publishing technology and social media, authors have an ability to change the industry landscape. The same shift that has transformed other arts industries — like music, film, art, and publishing — is finally catching up with the Christian book industry. (Which seems fitting because Christians are always behind the trends!)
While Realm Makers is still in its infancy, everything appears upsides. What started as a gamble now seems a sure bet. Becky Minor and her team deserve huge props. No, they won't be "the premiere Christian Fiction conference" any time soon. But as far as blazing a new trail, the little spec-fic conference that could, has indeed proven, it can.
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 Ghost Box, a Publishers Weekly starred review item, The Telling, The Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, his short story anthology Subterranea, and the newly released Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre. You can visit his website atwww.mikeduran.com, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.