Small Press Reality

Earlier this week, my comrade in arms Diane Graham posted on her blog about her sales numbers on her inaugural novel, I Am Ocilla. Diane has challenged herself to sell a minimum of eight hundred copies before December, in an effort to justify the cost for her publisher to enter her book into the Christy Awards for 2013. When Diane had first embarked upon this challenge, she spoke of how the average Christian Speculative Fiction book sells about three hundred copies in a year.

Three hundred copies.

I remember watching movie not that long ago--the disaster movie 2012. It wasn't very good, but we had gotten it from Netflix and wouldn't have anything else until we returned it, so I figured we might as well see it through and get our money's worth. Anyway, one of the characters in the story is a writer--a guy who poured himself into his book, and apparently wrote a pretty good book--that only ended up selling about four hundred copies. He basically lost his wife over his rabid commitment to the book, and it kept coming back to those four hundred copies. The movie clearly depicted the creators' opinion on the author's return for his effort--that it was all investment with no return.

So, traditional publishing, at least according to Hollywood, calls four hundred sales a waste of time. Christian publishing in speculative fiction calls three hundred average. And I continually ask myself, why he disparity?

The secular world does not have a monopoly on talent. However, the proportion of Christian artists to non Christians is obviously a wide ratio. I venture that perhaps we hamstring ourselves by isolating our small population. We create Christian publishing houses and make Christian movies and write Christian Speculative Fiction. Clearly that limits our resources and our audience. Instead of finding a way to insist our viewpoint is represented in the general marketplace, we instead create a fractionally proportionate segment of the arts community where we can be comfortable, understood...and undersold.

And what's worse in my mind--we become an anomaly to the secular world.

I bought one of Donita K Paul's books for my son in the local Books A Million not very long ago, and the clerk gave me a laugh with what he said. He looked at the book with a raised eyebrow, and said "Christian fantasy? So what, are the dragons Christians?" With our isolation, we create a genre that makes no sense to anyone other than the people involved closely with it, which is a relatively small number of church-going readers. I would love to know what percentage of overall revenue generated by the publishing industry is from Christian publishing--but I have a feeling I know the gist. If the size of Christian book publishing is anything like the annual revenue of Christian music publishing, we really can't hope to sell many books. The "by ourselves--for ourselves" model dooms us to always treating our writing as a ministry and a pastime, not a livelihood.

I know, I know there are people who have contracts with large publishing houses who are doing well. But again, it's a matter of percentages. For the every Ted Dekker there are probably hundreds of people like me who scrape for every sale that isn't to a family member or a friend. When you write fantasy, there are only so many slots in Christian publishing, and most of them are occupied.

So it seems to me we as authors have to decide--do we stay within the confines of CBA? If we do, then we can't complain about small sales reach. If we want to go to ABA, are we ready to stand our ground on the message of our work? The road to selling a Christian manuscript would be harder. But if you manage it, your reach would become exponential.

Sometimes I think that selling fantasy within CBA is like running a lemonade stand on a rainy corner in Maine in March. You might get some sales from die-hard lemonade enthusiasts and sympathetic passersby, but doesn't it make more sense to set up at the beach in July?

So what do you think--is Christian Speculative fiction a market that will ever really boom?  


  1. You pegged a growing concern I'm having, watching people small-press their Christian spec fic.

    There's also so much argument about making our books "non-preachy" and making the Gospel less blatant, that a lot of books have reached the point where there's no reason why they shouldn't have gone CBA instead. I've read lots of CBA books that had Christian themes and elements. It didn't seem to bother anybody. I mean, heck, the Dresden books have all kinds of Christian-worldview philosophy in them. Aside from reviews from people who hate it, on the whole, the books have sold a bajillion copies.

    So... I don't know. I'm pondering this very hard.

  2. The clerk from Books A Million had a point, I think. Only people can be Christians, not books. We can't decide what "Christian fiction" means. Does it mean that Christianity is the main element in the story? Does it mean that the writers deliberately used Christian themes in a positive way? Mostly, I think it just means the book is being marketed to Christians, whether or not the book is part of the CBA or published by an indie publisher or self-published. That's not enough of a criteria to have a separate genre.

    Christianity is not a genre. I don't think Christianity is a separate culture either. It's more of a calling, a vision, and a way of life. Our ideas have shaken the world and inspired many of the prevalent themes in the arts. We shouldn't be hiding in a corner with our own fantasies. Our fantasies are for the whole world, because our vision is the highest and most universally relevant that has ever been revealed to mankind.

    I'm glad Christian fiction did not exist when Tolkien and Lewis were writing! I wonder what they would have thought of Christian fiction being a separate genre.

    1. Exactly! 'In the world but not of it' is one of the most misrepresented scriptures ever... especially if you star combining it with 'if thine eye offends thee'. God wants hearts, minds, souls and spirits to light the world on fire. Not cloister clubs.

  3. Yeah, I'm pretty much in the ABA camp on this one. To be honest I'd rather be panned by a lost individual critical of my faith than a fellow Christians who demands I keep at least three feet of clearance between myself and the bumpers on the go-kart track.

    And there are lots of great people and publishers out there who don't mind the bumpers so much, which is great, but the problem is the folks in the Christian community don't read spec-fi because it just isn't their cup of tea (for a variety of reasons) and the ones who DO read it are reading ABA. SO why not work with the ABA? We're all reading it, right?

    I think people need to get over the self imposed ritual of watering-down real life and, by proxy, the gospel. Just write a great story full of characters whose struggles are deep enough and dark enough to resonate with the reader (because we can all play nicy-nice about our sins but you and I know how grisly they really are/were and the reader won't be fooled by surface strife) and it will fly in the ABA faith or no... in my opinion. You know. Me. The person with only about 10k words worth of publishing wisdom

  4. That's a thought-provoking question, Becky…and one that prompted me to write a post of my own. I considered leaving a comment here, but it grew far too long. :)


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