Some Christian authors desire to one day write books for general market publishers rather than for those who focus only on Christian-themed books.
The thought, which is well-intentioned, is publishers focusing on the broader market will reach unbelieving readers, piquing their interest in spiritual things, leading to further investigation and so on. But the strategy is flawed.
Publishers don’t have audiences. Books and authors do.
But don’t large general market publishers sell books in places Christian publishers don’t?
What channels of sales does a general market publisher have that a major Christian publisher doesn’t?
There are none.
In fact, Christian publishers have more channels of distribution than general market publishers. Christian publishers sell their books to all the primary distribution points of general market publishers, but also add Christian bookstores, Christian-focused online channels and also ministries and other faith-specific sellers.
Therefore, the opinion that general market publishers get books into places Christian publishers cannot is simply not the case.
In fact, the majority of sales of Christian books are from Christian publishers associated with four major general market publishers, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette.
Maybe the “crossover” book was a good approach in a less media-saturated culture of the 1950’s and 60’s or when Christian publishers had little distribution beyond Christian bookstores, but it is not a valid strategy for the 21st Century.
It is simply unnecessary.
Publishers don’t have audiences. Books and authors do.
Now, let’s shift from sales to the actual book content.
Why are books different than every other form of witness?
Churches grow when they are strong on the issue of Jesus, the Gospel and the Bible. Evangelists are successful when they are clear and on-point. Christians in leadership who desire to witness for Christ leave no doubt where they stand.
Of the books published in the last 30 years, those having reached the most number of unbelieving people with a Christian message have been strong and direct.
General market publishers are not interested in “Christian-lite” books, but rather, steer a wide course avoiding the issue of Jesus, the Gospel and the Bible.
When attempting to pitch a book that isn’t blatantly Christian, I’ve received nice notes from editors declining because it is a little too “spiritual” for their taste, but if I had something from a “new atheism” perspective, they would be interested.
With very few exceptions, unless the author is a major celebrity or public figure, the dividing line between content from the focused Christian publishing world and the broader general market is wide, separated by a deep canyon.
To illustrate this “grand canyon” between the Christian and broader markets, let’s look at a major source of publishing information used by publishing professionals (Publishers Marketplace). In 2015, here is a sampling of the religion/spirituality titles sold to general trade “secular” publishers.
NOTE: In researching the following list, all the books with Christian-based content were sold to Protestant or Catholic publishers or imprints. I didn’t leave out any titles simply to make a point.
- “A practical, life-changing guide presenting the emerging science of spirituality and how it can help readers live more fulfilling lives.”
- A biography of the yogi who launched modern yoga.
- Buddhist wisdom and guidance concerning romance, friendship and family from the Shambala Buddhist tradition.
- A book in which the author digs into poetry, philosophy, science, and art to bring fresh answers to old and new questions about awe, transcendence and how to build rich, thoughtful lives.
- A book teaching readers how to connect with their departed loved ones, providing inspiration and comfort to the bereaved, and “how to develop their own spiritual gifts and use them as a potential receptor of spiritual messages.”
- The spiritual lessons of dogs and their many manifestations in ancient and contemporary Buddhism. How dogs have “informed, challenged and even created the practice” of Buddhism. Written by top Buddhist teachers and luminaries.
- A Chakra coloring book.
- A handbook written by a university professor on the possibility that “stoicism” (ancient Greek lifestyle) may be “our best path forward for cultivating our character and living the good life.”
- A leading Buddhist teacher showing how the mind works, showing a three-step method to dealing with your emotions.
- A book intended to bring miracles and “mindfulness” into business.
- A definitive, practical and contemporary guide teaching how to use “energy healing” concepts.
- A “travel guide” to the afterlife.
- A study of which parts of the Bible are accurate and which are not, according to “mainstream scholarly opinion.”
- Being in touch with spiritual “assists” and how to be in touch with those voices looking out for our best interests.
- A major book on how the Evangelical Christian church has “traumatized young women” with abstinence-before-marriage programs.
- A guide to exercising the body, mind and soul in order to achieve greater “self-knowledge and spiritual wisdom.”
- A seven-step process to developing your intuition and to “harness the power of this inner voice to navigate life more skillfully.”
- A book about the healing power of sex, love and faith, urging Christians to rethink their sexual lives, even if it conflicts with “traditional church teachings.”
- An illustrated guide to the Tarot and the creative life.
- An accessible guide to the “koan practice of Zen Buddhism.”
- A USA travel guide for all places of “spirits, spells and sacred sites.”
- A memoir about the author’s near-death experience, how he came to know that God knows him, that “faith is unnecessary” and how he regrets deciding to come back to life.
You want your writing to reach a wide audience with a Christian message? Write boldly. Writers of the Bible weren’t particularly concerned with critics. Neither should you.
Besides, writing not to offend is hardly a good strategy.
I know that a comparison between films and books isn’t entirely reliable, but recent years have seen an upsurge in mainstream movies with significant Christian content, from “Godzilla” to “Fury”.
The latter is significant in that it is a Brad Pitt vehicle, and was written to incorporate a strong Christian theme (“Here am I – send me”) in a realistic WW2 framework.
It’s not a film for the faint of heart, but there is absolutely no way to see it without absorbing the message – you can’t skip over it, as it’s the heart of the film (and Scripture IS directly quoted).
One might use the presence of Brad Pitt as an analogue to “authors sell books”, but I personally did not see the film to see the star; I saw the trailer, and thought it would be interesting.
I had no idea that it would be a Christian film, and it literally saved my faith in helping me to understand that however bad things get, it’s we who are beholden to hold up the light of God’s presence in the world, and not He who is constrained to give us our heart’s desires, or even survival.
I agree with the core of your post. I would, however, like to know your thoughts about another reason why some Christian writers wish to be published by non-Christian publishers. There is no question that the Christian publishing industry, in both publishing and retail distribution, is dominated by an evangelical ethos. If your writing reflects a moderate or progressive perspective, you have little chance of being published by most of the Christian publishers your agency is connected with. And if it did get picked up by a CBA publisher, most Christian bookstores would not carry it. Sadly, the stores that did pick it up would probably not sell it. Try going to a Lifeway brick and mortar and asking for the latest title by Barbara Brown Taylor or any other such writer. These books sell very well, often hitting bestseller lists. They are written by Christians, for Christians, and about the Christian faith, yet they are not published by CBA publishers and are not being bought in Christian bookstores. This is not anyone’s fault, it’s just the way the industry evolved when the market came of age years ago. Although the lines are more blurred now than in the past as to what constitutes a Christian publisher vs. a general market publisher, there is still, I believe, a reason why some Christian writers would want to be picked up by Harper Collins instead of Thomas Nelson, even though they are both within the HCCP umbrella.
I think your note goes to the heart of my point.
From an agent perspective (who wants to sell proposals), there is an extremely limited market for the theological moderate or progressive author. I’d rather agent an author who might draw interest from twenty publishers rather than one or two.
Agents, probably more than most live in a world of reality, not one we wish it would be.
When an agent pitches a proposal, we don’t pitch a company, we pitch an editor or acquisitions person who has an opinion. I suppose it could be said that their opinion is the company opinion, but still we pitch a person. They have theological views.
If I see a proposal from a prospective author, I try to think of editors who might like it. If I can’t think of more than one or two, I don’t work with that author.
But all this said, my original point stands. With a few exceptions from among the thousands of examples, there is an extremely limited commercial market for moderate Christian theology.
For an agent, publisher or retailer, it doesn’t make sense to spend much time, money or space on something that has little or no payoff.
And yes, this is a business.
Such a great post. I have been wrestling with this question for my fiction. I am writing a novel based off of scripture, Gen. 50:20, but it is the theme and not the plot. While working through this novel, I wrote a flash fiction on forgiveness, titled, “The Man With A Millstone Around His Neck” – clearly, scripture and from the Bible. It landed in the finals for the Gover Prize and was published in Best New Writing – clearly a secular anthology. I was encouraged and delighted that my flash fiction with clear content and title of scripture would land in an, all but prestigious, secular publishing company.
But I wondered about my novel and what would be the best route when finished and ready for the proposal stage. (Also, the flash fiction was a contest, and a different process.)
Now I know the best route to go for the novel! Thank you so much.
Dan, this post gives me much to think about. It’s easy to think that not being bold in our words regarding Christianity is the best way to gain readers, and the attention of publishers. What I hear you saying is that, if we are bold, or clear, in sharing what we believe, we’ll have a greater impact. As you mentioned, it makes sense. Jesus and His disciples were not shy or hesitant about what their beliefs were. Neither should we be.
Thanks for the exhortation.
Jacqueline Gillam Fairchild
Dear Dan: Thank you for a fabulous post. You are right. The Christian market is everywhere. And a greater influence than most people realize. Distribution has no limits. Nor do the readers. I will share your thoughts with my writing group and agent. Thank you again.
Jacqueline Gillam Fairchild
Her Majesty’s English Tea Room
Author: Estate of Mind
Awesome. Just loved this. I hope some small publishers are listening too!
Linda Riggs Mayfield
Dan, You stated, “In fact, the majority of sales of Christian books are from Christian publishers associated with four major general market publishers, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette.” I love it when you give homework assignments. 🙂 Before my next conference, I’ll be finding out what Christian publishers are associated with the Big Four, and targeting their reps for pitches. Oh– but do they attend conferences, or only work with agents? Or is figuring that out also part of the homework assignment? ;-D
Waterbrook (Penguin Random House)
Thomas Nelson & Zondervan (HarperChristian/HarperCollins)
Howard (Simon & Schuster)
I believe all require agents to contact them, but of course, I would say that…..
Dan, interesting thoughts. And I agree with your reasoning, but there are a lot of Christian authors having success in the ABA market by writing Christian-themed books without any overt Christian message. (Charles Martin and Susan Meissner come to mind.) No, their books don’t have bold come-to-Jesus messages, but those two authors–and many more–have gained an audience among Christians and non-Christians alike. They then get to meet fans and interact with them in person and online. They get to have an impact on people with whom they immediately have favor, because the fans like their work.
The question isn’t, should Christians write for the general market. If a Christian wants to write for the ABA, then he can do that. He just needs to understand that he can’t do it and keep the Christian content in the book.
Most CBA publishers aren’t interested a book without an overt Christian message, and even if they were, if that kind of a book were published by, for instance, Zondervan, the bookstores would stick it in the tiny Christian fiction section with the rest of Zondervan’s fiction, not in the general market section. Then many of the Christians who read it would be disappointed (where was the Christian content? I can see the reviews now.) And the non-Christians would never discover it.
We would never suggest that car repairmen only repair the cars of Christians, nor that salesmen only sell to Christians. I think it makes sense that some of us (myself included) are being called to the ABA, where we can interact with the world, not just each other.
Thanks for your thoughtful post.
I completely agree with you Robin and I don’t think what I said it a crossover book never happens, but with hundreds of thousands of books published every year, in order to call something other than exception to the situation would take dozen of examples to make it a viable strategy. There are about 7500 Christian books published every year.
Like using CS Lewis as an example of a certain type of powerful writing accepted across Christian/secular lines. When authors, agents and publishers look at growing careers and businesses, focusing on the exception is not wise. You focus on the bell-part of the curve rather than the edges.
Not a science though.
Dan, brilliant! Your honest insight (and subsequent unveiling) into the “real world” of traditional publishing is quite admirable.
To quote: “In fact, the majority of sales of Christian books are from Christian publishers associated with four major general market publishers, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette.”
About a year ago this truth was gifted to me through prayer, contemplation and guided research seeking an answer as to what I should do with my recently completed novel. During this period, among other things, the corporate relationships were revealed to me. I could see the secular “gatekeepers” and I could see some of their prime motivators, the “bottom line” being profit, For the sake of civility and decorum I will simply say I was quite disappointed. I judge not.
My heart was not heavy for myself, I have survived far worse, but for the many honest, sincere “authors” out there working their hearts out with great dedication and a belief that their work would be judged on merit, not money. Even a belief that somehow Divine intervention may play a role in their offering. Particularly heartbreaking is to see them struggle with “platform” which has NOTHING to do with the merit of their content but is perceived to be a predictor of their profit. MOST will never by able to jump this arbitrary hoop, meanwhile their spreading of the “GOOD NEWS” has slowed to glacial speed or completely stopped. Many don’t self publish because of a fear that once self published they have reduced their chances with traditional publishers. The net result is that at this point they have effectively been silenced. The great deceiver dances while proclaiming “great, that’s less competition for our books”.
What many don’t realize is that a prayer seemingly “unanswered” through chronic publisher rejection notifications actually could be the very Divine intervention they prayed for. Your courageous post today could be the illumination needed to be able to “see” it.
What they don’t realize is that it may be far worse to get a traditional publishing deal where the profits of ones work end up supporting a secular publishing company promoting “fifty shades of blasphemy” or “the budding Satanist guide to the underworld”.
The thought that a handful of financially powerful companies (up until about 1995) could decide what would get published and what would languish for a reading public numbering in the hundreds of millions is chilling. Any agenda could be pushed and any agenda could be suppressed, thats POWER. If applied across all media that’s enough power to change a culture, its values and normalize the desecration of sacraments (marriage), murder (abortion) and many other things. TRUTH is under constant attack. “NEWS” becomes propaganda.
For me, the answer to the truth I sought was that I should let go of any desire of a “traditional” publishing deal and that it would be necessary to self publish OR search for/facilitate the creation of a truly independent Christian principled publishing endeavor. I have great hopes for independent companies like Enclave publishing who, because of the guy that owns it, to the best of my knowledge is publishing decent, non blasphemous entertainment and is not controlled by or answerable to the “Big Five”.
There are many fine dedicated people involved in “traditional” publishing and I in no way mean to disparage them. For me, I cannot look away while handing my work over to the right hand knowing what the left hand may be doing. I can only accept a publisher that welcomes my work based on merit with both arms open and no secular, progressive ANTI-CHRISTian “profit center sidelines”.
Change can be difficult, its hard for people to leave safe comfort zones and “get out there”. One must truly decide for themselves WHY they write and follow their TRUE inspiration whether it be fame, wealth or otherwise.
World English Bible Luke 9:23
He said to all, “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me
For now, I am denying myself any secular publishing involvement and have taken up my “cross”, a bright yellow wood pencil I found abandoned in the gutter, I named it David. We follow Our Father.
Dan – I may be wrong but it appears from your posts that you are gifted and really smart. Thanks for writing helpful information for those of us who have a little less on the ball – me.
Great post as usual. I wish you worked with fiction. JK – you are where you are supposed to be.
Thanks Beverly, but I can tell I have thoroughly fooled you!
You asked, “What channels of sales does a general market publisher have that a major Christian publisher doesn’t?
There are none.”
I can think of one exception–Amazon Publishing, a traditional publishing company with a number of imprints within Amazon at large. I have a book coming out with one of those imprints, Little A, which publishes literary f and n/f. Little A can easily and readily distribute books across the world, wherever Amazon has a presence. I would say this particular general market publisher does have sales channels a major Christian publisher doesn’t. That said, Amazon is unique in its global reach, and I think your point about Christian publishers having more sales channels is a good one.