For years the question has lingered: what’s happening with the publishing market? In a world so consumed with the latest technological trends (so many of which seem to center on forms of more digital entertainment), books have always lingered as the unanswered question. Is the publishing market dying? Is it just changing? Do people still buy books?
In the world of Christian fiction, the question is no less concerning than in the general market. Much has been made of the concern over whether or not Christian fiction, itself, is dying. Sources cite falling sales numbers, closing fiction divisions of Christian publishing houses, and changes in how easily one can shop for Christian fiction titles.
Stirring the Pot
I’ve appreciated Christian fiction for a long time. When I was younger, I had favorite publishers. Westbow was my favorite (it’s now changed to offer Christian fiction self-publishing, so the offerings are not as they once were). Thomas Nelson remains a fairly consistent favorite. Bethany House and Tyndale offer pretty solid offerings. Harvest House a little less so, but still has the occasional winner. (These opinions, of course, are based entirely on my own book preferences).
After some of these publishers began changing (or closing), though, I made a new discovery through reading the acknowledgments written by some of my favorite authors: many were (or had at one time been) represented by literary agent Chip MacGregor. This led to my discovery of a few more authors I enjoyed. What it also led to was the discovery of his website and blog, which leads me back to the point of this post.
In 2015, Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary posted a blog that stirred the pot a little in Christian fiction. This blog, among other things, took issue with the way that LifeWay Stores select their Christian fiction offerings. In a favorite quote of mine from the blog, MacGregor writes:
…the fiction decisions at Lifeway have been a huge disappointment to many of us in the industry (meaning the company only wants VERY safe Christian romances where nothing truly bad happens, sex doesn’t exist, everyone talks like they’re living in Andy Griffith Land, and in the end the characters will fall to their knees and accept Christ so that All Life Problems Will Be Resolved)
THIS is a consistent problem in Christian fiction: works that trivialize life. A genre that must tie everything in a perfectly neat bow, not just once, but with every written work. Novels that, along the path toward a redemptive ending, make the struggles seem lame, temporary, or without real substance. Ones that treat light sin as depravity and ignore truly depraved acts and situations because they fear audiences are too sensitive to understand the difference between light and darkness.
Anyway, I digress.
MacGregor brought this up and it resulted in a large number of responding comments. So many that in a follow-up blog, he wrote that he had reached out to the LifeWay Stores fiction purchaser to clarify his stance. This resulted in a post written by the purchaser herself.
It’s an interesting discussion and if you have time I recommend you checking the whole thing out.
The most interesting line in MacGregor’s discussion is one I believe to hold the key to the current publishing dilemma:
…the talent and readership are there, but so far it’s proven to be a very tough task trying to link them.
He claims that books are still being purchased. He also claims, with the credibility of being a literary agent, that there are authors out there producing good work. (As I’ve read many, I second this). But he summarizes the big problem as being how to best connect authors with their readers (both existing and potential readers).
Late last year (2016), Julia M. Reffner wrote an article for Library Journal that highlighted some of the more positive news in Christian fiction. It discussed some new publishers, as well as some new trends in the market. In essence, it discussed changes in the publishing market that are showing positive signs (or at least positive potential) in their outreach to readers.
That’s all well and good but what I want to draw our attention to in all of this is the role a reader has in this uncertain publishing world.
Our Job as Readers
15-20 years ago when I wanted a book I’d head to my local Christian bookstore and browse the shelves. I’d pour over the summaries on the back covers of new titles, I’d hem and haw over the best way to spend my money. I’d do my best to decide if I should be deterred by an unattractive cover, or cheesy title. In one extreme case (I was SO hesitant to try my first “chick lit” book) I eventually opened to the last line (not the last paragraph…just the last line) to see if it was written well. That line sold me and I discovered a delightfully hysterical author who writes hyperbolic stories that still manage to get to the heart of real struggle (Kristin Billerbeck, by the way).
But that was a long time ago. The days of shopping at a Christian bookstore are over. Family Christian Stores has closed many branches and those that do exist have a small fiction section that offers few “new” authors or titles. My favorite Christian bookstore (Johns Christian Store of Carol Stream, Illinois) closed a long time ago. I still feel the twinge when I remember what it felt like to dive into their MANY aisles of books…it was an amazing place.
Today, I research books online. I read e-books to save space, then buy the hard copy if I REALLY love a book. I shop at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. Sometimes Google Books or Christian Book Distributors. And when I live by a good library, I try to discover new authors there (because I really don’t want to spend $15 on something I hate).
But is this all I can do? Or are there more ways I can contribute to this genre that I believe in and REALLY don’t want to see die off?
While I’m not a social-media oriented person, I’m understanding that industry changes are making the social connection of author to reader and essential concern. And in the past couple of years I’ve realized it’s not only the author’s job to somehow get my attention.
It’s my job to find books I like and then help get the word out about these books. And even more than that, it’s important for me to pour into authors in any way I can. Encouraging them to create worthwhile books can keep them going.
So I leave you with this – a few ways that we, as readers, can help encourage authors and get the word out about good books.
- First and foremost: buy books. Even if you borrow a book at first, make sure you buy it if you like it. That author deserves to be paid. And don’t worry about buying a paperback, hardcover, e-book, or audiobook. Just make sure you buy something.
- Interact with authors. When you reach out through email, Twitter, or Facebook, it means the world to an author. Followings are important in today’s world. Help grow the followings of your favorite authors.
- Recommend!! If you like something, tell people! Anyone in your social circles that reads would be DELIGHTED to hear about a book you enjoyed. It’s always up to them if they read it or not, but do everyone a favor by sharing your opinion. It may prompt others to support an author you particularly love. And the more support they get, the more they can write.
- Lately I’ve been noticing more and more authors contributing to things like Fiction Scavenger Hunts (online) or Book Sweepstakes. These can be useful tools for discovering new authors or getting more information on those you’ve heard of but don’t know as well. (A scavenger hunt was how I discovered Sibella Giorello and I’m so thankful for that!)
All in all, do something. Anything. It may seem like very little to you, but the more we can help connect to good authors, the more of a following they can gain. And if they gain a following…
We get more good books.
And I’m all for that.