Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Little Spec-Fic Conference That Could

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.


ACFW's ongoing, tenuous relationship with spec readers goes way back. It has led to numerous discussions, complaints, and (mostly friendly) salvos. For example, back in 2010 I hosted a Christian Speculative Fiction panel asking, among other things, Why speculative fiction is so under-represented in the Christian market. This perceived under-representation often translated into a minimal spec presence at the annual ACFW conferences. Of the hundreds of attendees and large faculty, only a small portion was ever dedicated to speculative fiction. While it always came back to a "chicken and egg" argument -- "What comes first, more available product or more people buying existing product?" -- this under-representation always became a rather routine sore spot for many spec-fic readers and writers.

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.
The under-representation of speculative fiction in both the ACFW and the mainstream Christian market is leading to the much-needed democratization of an industry that has calcified. This isn’t to say that the Christian fiction industry is not providing good product to its fan base. This isn’t to say the Christian fiction industry can’t morph or diversify.
Rather, the indie revolution has caught up to it.
Keith Ogoreck, senior VP for marketing at Author Solutions, in his article The Democratization of Publishing writes,


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!)
Christian spec-fic authors and fans now have an unprecedented ability for “self-determination.”
Realm Makers is evidence of this.
With only three conferences under its belt, RM has a long way to go. Indeed, other indie presses and spec authors have been stretching their entrepreneurial legs for a while. But whatever you attribute the existence of these groups to, whether a rejection of aristocratic power-brokering or commercial pandering, pitting RM against ACFW (or the Christian fiction industry as a whole) is the wrong thing to do. It’s much healthier, and maybe even more realistic, to see the continued growth of a Christian spec-fic fan base as a necessary step in the genre’s evolution.


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 TellingThe 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.

8 comments:

Kat Heckenbach said...

I agree completely--and have been saying for years--that ACFW is what it is, and that they are only going to focus on the most popular genres. Not just ACFW, but the CBA at large. As Amanda Luedeke said, it's business. There's nothing wrong with that. It can often feel unfair to those of us writing in a genre unpopular among the CBA, but when we open our eyes and see how most Christian readers don't limit themselves to CBA books, we don't have to get discouraged.

And I think there was a mass eye-opening around 2006 or so. I've talked to SO many authors who consider themselves Christian spec-fic authors and started writing around the same time, or at least taking it really seriously and trying to get published around that time. We also seemed to start finding each other shortly after. I don't think that's coincidence. Attribute it to the internet, or social media if you must, but God can use ANYTHING -- even Facebook or blogging -- to bring His people together.

I have felt for a while that there is some reason, many reasons really, why my writing was kind of "held back" from popularity. I think one of those reasons is that it has allowed me to be a part of Realm Makers. No, I'm not one of the key players, like our mastermind Becky Minor, her faithful and hardworking husband Scott, or Ben Wolf our amazing marketer/networker, and the other diligent helpers like Ruth Smith Mills and Ralene Burke and Avily Jerome and whoever else I'm missing at the moment. But I did get to watch this go from an idea to reality, being a cheerleader for Becky and telling her she HAD to do this, and participating from the first conference.

Do I think this is the tip of the iceberg? YES. For quite a few reasons. One, gatherings like this generally do represent only a fraction of who is really out there. Two, so many people I know *wanted* to be at RM but couldn't. Three, after RM, we got into an online discussion about how there is a large homeschool community among RM attendees, and homeschoolers have a high number of writers, and most of the teens I know in my homeschool circles who write...write spec-fic. Most teens read spec-fic. Just go to the teen section of Barnes and Noble and see for yourself--it's a huge proportion. And someday, those teens are going to be readers spending their money on adult fiction, and they're going to want spec-fic. And spec-fic will be there because the teen writers today will be the published writers of tomorrow. And the agents and editors of tomorrow.

I, for one, am super-excited about the future of Christian spec-fic. And so, so proud of Becky for listening to the Call to lead this venture. And it doesn't have to be an either-or thing. ACFW can continue on its own path, and RM on its path, and we can co-exist. (I just really wish ACFW would get rid of their tagline about being THE voice of Christian fiction, because they are obviously being proven wrong on that point.)

Mike Duran said...

Kat, I totally agree about ACFW and RM coexisting and definitely don't want to interject animosity between the two. One area I'd give an edge to RM, however, is the embrace of indie and self-publishing to grow their base. ACFW seems pretty slow to do this, relying instead upon CBA-approved legacy publishers.

Kat Heckenbach said...

ACFW is technically open to indie now...but the minimum requirement for sales is out of reach for most indies, esp. Christian spec-fic indies at the moment. Not trying to show animosity there, either, but when that announcement came through, I was like, well, that's completely unhelpful :P.

Carrie Lynn Lewis said...

Mike,

An interesting post. I've been hearing a lot of positive news about Realm Makers and an intrigued.

I'm a horse person. I have been since I was old enough to recognize the difference between a horse and a cow (nothing against cows; I like them, too).

The world of horses is like the world of publishing in this regard.

If you want to see Quarter Horses, you usually have to go to the show (or track) where they are. Same for Arabians, Thoroughbreds, polo ponies, whatever.

If you want to see Clydesdales and you go to a race track, you're probably going to be disappointed unless the race track uses Clydesdales to move the starting gate (most of them don't).

On the other hand, go to a draft horse show and you're bound to see Clydesdales.

The ACFW is the AQHA (American Quarter Horse Association). Both are huge organizations because of the number of people who write and read those genres(ACFW) and the number of people who own Quarter Horses (AQHA).

They're not wrong.

They're focused on their specialties. That's good business and that's catering to their target audience.

Realm Makers (and any other genre that's outside this group) are like the horse people who own and love Appaloosas, miniature horses, or some other less popular breed. It's in their best interests to form their own organizations, promote their own members, and have their own shows rather than attempt to get the AQHA to have classes for their breeds.

It is better to do what Becky Minor did and bring together people of similar interests to have their own organization, own conferences, and own workshops rather try to twist ACFW's arm for representation.

I applaud those who have gone out and lit a candle for their less popular "breeds" rather than be satisfied cursing the darkness, as it were.

Katie Morford said...

Excellent post!

Kristen Stieffel said...

Realm Makers fills two gaps, really.

When a Christian writer goes to an SF con, and people find out you're a believer, they look at you funny. Like, "why would anyone believe that?"

And when an SF writer goes to a Christian writers conference, and people find out you're an SF writer, they look at you funny. Like, "why would anyone write that?"

I manage to get along OK at both secular conferences and Christian conferences, but Realm Makers is the only conference I've ever attended where I totally fit in and nobody looked at me funny. My Realm Makers tribe gets me. My faith, my fandoms, my whole messy package.

Jason said...

Kristen, I love your comment. It probably sums everything up.

Phyllis Wheeler said...

I think the biggest challenge we Christian spec fic writers face is letting the Christian spec fic readers know we're out there. Those readers have been wandering the aisles in Barnes and Noble for ages feeling frustrated. I know because I was one of them. That's a word-of-mouth issue. We all need to be talking about these cool books to our spec-fic-reading friends who are believers.