What Makes a Christian Book “Christian”? (Part Three)

So, there I were, surrounded by publishing professionals, faced with the question of whether or not we liked–or respected–our end consumer: the reader.

Publishing folk are a freaky bunch. They love to think and debate and share ideas and dissect and explore. Get a whole room of editors going and nothing is sacred. At the same time, everything is. At their core, publishing professionals recognize–and love–the power of words. Spoken, written, sung from the rooftops–words contain the power to create and cultivate, encourage and empower…or decimate and destroy. These particular folks also love God and His Word. So their drive is work on books that impact lives rather than books that just entertain.

So, what did they say, these learned, insightful, imaginative folks? At first, nothing. They stopped–really stopped–to consider the answer to whether or not they like the reader. Publishing pros are great at pondering.

I am, of course, a publishing pro. Iโ€™m an editor and an agent. But I’m also a writer. And I’m an ENFP, which, according to the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator, means I’m basically a Golden Retriever. So no surprise I can’t ponder long. Or let others do so. My mind always bounces to the next thing to explore, and I find that’s often how you discover answers. So as they pondered I posed another question: “Who is your audience?”

Responses flew:

  • Predominately female
  • Age range: 34-80s
  • Over 40
  • Conservative Faith/Evangelical
  • Most likely Republican
  • Mother
  • Mostly stay at home
  • Some professional people
  • Men, but not a lot
  • Usually women bought for the male readers
  • Very few in 18-34 age range

From there the discussion morphed into how to reach our current audience better, as well as reaching those beyond:

  • the 18-34 demographic
  • those who aren’t overtly Christian but interested in spiritual issues
  • men
  • Post-moderns
  • …and on and on.

Again, ideas flew. From using technology better and more strategically (e.g., e-books, book readers, online downloads), to reconsidering format (imaginative use of packaging, layout, content), to allowing for open-ended books (e.g., story isn’t all wrapped up at the end, leave some questions unanswered). Ideas fairly sizzled through the room.

As I listened, I had–you guessed it–this incredible feeling of deja vu. I’d been in this very dialogue already that year. Twice, in fact. Once at a retreat attended by nearly 100 published authors. The second time at the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) conference. Editors, writers, even readers…we’re all struggling with the same issues.

Now, don’t hear me saying there isn’t a place for books that primarily encourage and entertain. Books that don’t ask hard questions, but give the reader a wonderful, wholesome story. I don’t think the majority of us want to eliminate those books. Not at all.

But in all these conversations I heard the same frustration of being held back, of not being able to write with authenticity. I’ll never agree that Christian fiction–or fiction written to glorify God–should contain graphic language, sexuality, or violence, but I understand the frustration. Writers, editors, and–from your responses–readers want fiction that digs deep, that challenges and pushes as well as comforts and encourages. All of us want to be iron sharpening iron.

So, you say, why don’t you all follow Nike’s admonition and JUST DO IT? What’s holding us back?

Before I answer, I’m curious what you think the answers are. What do YOU think holds publishers, editors, and writers back from writing the kinds of books they want to do? The kinds of books many of you have said you want?

Look forward to your insights!







55 Responses to What Makes a Christian Book “Christian”? (Part Three)

  1. Avatar
    Timothy Fish October 5, 2011 at 4:44 am #

    Speaking only for myself, I do write the kind of books I want to. Though I suppose I should qualify that by saying I try to write the books I want to. There is a lot of resistance between the brain and the fingers that seems to prevent me from accomplishing all I intend. One my favorite books that I have done is “For the Love of a Devil”, because it caused me to look at Hosea in a different way. I wish more men were like Hosea.

    “For the Love of a Devil” was easy because I could borrow from the story that God wrote, but one of the difficulties I have is that the problems I see that need to be addressed don’t always have a story that comes to mind and the stories that come to mind don’t always deal with problems that need to be addressed. While non-fiction is an option, people usually need the spoonful of sugar that fiction provides when dealing with the truly difficult problems.

    So, from my perspective, not writing the books I want to write is primarily because it is hard to do well.

  2. Avatar
    sheilaodomhollinghead October 5, 2011 at 5:32 am #

    Fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of not being talented enough to write the difficult book. It’s easier to write fluff than to dig deep and challenge our readers.

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    TC Avey October 5, 2011 at 5:34 am #

    Perhaps we fear blurring the lines of Christianity and the world even farther than they already are. We live in a world full of grays, when the Bible clearly says there is black and white, right and wrong.

    Maybe because we don’t want to confuse non-believers to the real issues/beliefs of Christianity.

    Or maybe it is because we don’t want to get our hands dirty and take a chance at getting real. For the most part, humans don’t like change, so maybe it is as simple as that…we fear change even while there is a market for it.

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    Pegg Thomas October 5, 2011 at 5:43 am #

    The old adage, “Be careful what you wish for, you might get it”, comes to mind. If the CBA morphs into a quasi-ABA with more sex, violence and course language… how many who are chomping at the bit to get there now would truly be happy with the results? Methinks the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

    These issues can be dealt with without dragging the gutter. Barbour puts out quite a few books that deal with hard-hitting issues without lowering the bar. I’ve read stories that deal with rape, murder, abuse, etc., and not had to have every detail trotted out for display. I hate when authors insult my intelligence by assuming I need those grisly details. I don’t. Give me the idea, paint the scene, and let me figure it out. Give me a little credit for gray matter upstairs (aside from that on the outside of my head).

    I have also read where authors and publishers disparage their readers. Really? What about “The customer is always right?” Let’s think about this. Do we best serve our customers by forcing them to buy what we want to produce, or by producing what they want to consume? *scratches head here* That seems like a no-brainer to me. If you want to write the more graphic stuff the ABA a perfectly viable option. And that audience is more likely to be looking for that type of graphic writing. So go where the audience is! There is nothing wrong with that. It makes so much more sense than feeling the need to “educate” the CBA audience to accept what you want to produce.

    • Avatar
      Robin Patchen October 5, 2011 at 6:39 am #

      Does it have to be graphic to be real? Like Pegg said, there are books in the CBA marketplace that deal with serious issues without being too graphic, and I think that’s what Christian readers want.

      What holds publishers back? Seems simple to me: fear of offending their current readers. In order to reach the 18-34 audience, a publisher might have to risk offending their older or more conservative readers. But as an avid reader, I didn’t like much of the Christian fiction of a decade ago because I couldn’t identify with the characters. They seemed like cardboard cutouts of perfect Christians. I wanted to read about people more like me–people who had been redeemed and lived to tell about it. The good news: it seems the tide is turning, houses are more willing to publish more realistic fiction, and our readership is growing.

  5. Avatar
    Timothy Fish October 5, 2011 at 6:36 am #

    Why is it that when a topic like this comes up people assume that it has something to do with more sex and violence in Christian fiction? Is that what people want to write about? I know I don’t. I’ve had characters in some of my books that were involved in that sort of thing, but I’ve included only as much as the story required. There are plenty of ways to let the reader know what the character is like behind closed doors without taking the reader into the room. In many ways, it makes the story more interesting because the reader has a sense of discovery when he figures it out.

    If there is a topic that I would like to write about that might be frowned upon with the CBA it is that Christians are getting away from the truth and they need to correct their ways. Many socalled Christian writers wouldn’t recognize the truth if you took a big Bible and smacked them in the face with it. So many people are want to see God as a God of love, but they don’t want to see him as a God who also punishes sin.

  6. Avatar
    Peter DeHaan October 5, 2011 at 6:41 am #

    For most readers of “Christian books,” I feel there is a double standard. They would never buy or read a book that contains the same type of content found throughout the Old Testament. The gritty, violent, sexual, and even depraved content in the Bible makes me, at times, uncomfortable, yet it does have a godly purpose and can point us to God. Can’t “Christian” literature do the same? Or does it need to be first sanitized before it can be consumed?

    • Avatar
      Timothy Fish October 5, 2011 at 7:37 am #

      I’m not so sure the double standard goes in quite the way you think. For the most part, the Bible tells what happened without giving a blow by blow account. For example, it tells about a man cutting up a woman into twelve pieces and sending her to the twelve tribes, but it doesn’t go into detail about what knife he used, what it smelled like, or what the blood felt like as he made the cuts. It tells about a dagger being stuck in a man’s gut and the fat closing up around it, but it doesn’t tell what it felt like or looked like. Christian fiction has long gone to that level of detail. F. H. Arnold’s classic “Not My Will” told the story of a woman who was far from the ideal Christian, but it didn’t have to be graphic about it. But so many people have a blood lust to show things that it is sufficient to tell only.

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    Emily Rachelle October 5, 2011 at 7:25 am #

    I don’t really know what holds these authors back… I just know Melody Carlson has definitely figured out how to challenge and ask the hard questions without crossing the line. Her teen books are the best Christian fiction I’ve read (well, they’re tied with Robin Jones Gunn’s series)

  8. Avatar
    Lindsay Harrel October 5, 2011 at 7:46 am #

    Great question, Karen. Personally, I think authors aren’t quite sure of where the line is at. How much do you reveal before it’s “too much”? I’m writing a book right now that discusses some difficult subjects, and I’ve wondered that myself. For instance, if I’m writing a party scene, how do I get beyond the cliche descriptions of everyone staggering, lamps being knocked over, and music blaring? Do I talk about the couples fondling each other? If so, how much description do I use? My purpose would not be to cause any readers to stumble–it would rather be to show the depravity that can take place when drugs and alcohol are involved–but if I’m not careful, it might. How do I avoid that? How do I know what one reader’s stumbling block is, when another’s might be different? To me, these are the difficult questions.

    I read a lot of CBA novels, so I’ve seen some authors toe the line without going over–but I appreciated their honesty. It can be done, and done well. The question is, how?

    • Avatar
      Timothy Fish October 5, 2011 at 9:36 am #

      Most people have watched enough television that you could put “[Party Scene Goes Here]” in your manuscript and everyone would have a clear understanding of what was going on. But if you want to deal with the moral depravity of the situation, that is a different issue. You could describe party scenes until you’re blue in the face and many people won’t see it as a bad thing. I think it is interesting that when Solomon wrote about the ills of alcohol, he didn’t talk about the parties where it is served but he essentially talked about the morning after. I heard a man telling about having a picture of himself with just his legs lying outside of a bathroom and his face over the toilet, but he doesn’t remember anything about how it came to be. That says far more than a party scene ever could. The same could be said of a woman waking up in a strange bed with her underwear around her ankles. Or a man could wake up in his car and see a tree branch sticking through the windshield. While it isn’t the kind of thing I enjoy, people who go to those parties think they enjoy them. Us describing their fun and calling it moral depravity won’t go very far, but if we can show them the link between their fun and death then we might be able to persuade a few to leave that stuff alone.

      • Avatar
        Lindsay Harrel October 5, 2011 at 9:47 am #

        Timothy, I definitely agree that it’s important to show the aftereffects of certain actions, though I’m not completely convinced that you shouldn’t also describe parts of the action itself. But that’s where the whole discussion comes in, isn’t it? How much do you show and what’s the purpose behind it? I think that we really can’t make a blanket statement about what you should do in every case (not that that’s necessarily what you’re saying). We’ve got to have a step-by-step, situation-by-situation attitude, I suppose.

        Thanks for your insight!

  9. Avatar
    gina welborn October 5, 2011 at 7:59 am #

    KAREN SAID: What do YOU think holds publishers, editors, and writers back from writing the kinds of books they want to do? The kinds of books many of you have said you want?

    (1) Money. They’re in business to make it so if they don’t sell books that the readers will actually buy AND not send back because “this book offended ______,” then how can they stay in business?

    (2) Low sales on those books either they wanted to do or books readers said they wanted. If BigName author can’t sell beyond first printing of her book about Amish colonizing Pluto (Tamela, I’ll buy that one!), then why do we think NoName author can sell his/hers? (Okay, I stepped on my own toes there.)

    Although . . .

    (3) I also do think CBA publishers are publishing those often harder-to-sell books of their heart and those books readers (supposedly) say they want. At ACFW conference, Allen Arnold of TN shared how they publish “workhorse” books so they can reach their profit margin goal so that they don’t have to rely on more controversial or more demographic-targeted or “nightstand” books to make money on.

    Which leads me to say that “edgy” or “authentic” fiction is being published. More each year. My theory (and I’m using my ownself as a base case study) is that a lot of people who are complaining loudest about CBA publishers not publishing books that readers really want are the very same authors who are irritated that no large CBA publisher wants to buy their manuscript(s). So at some point we (and I include myself in this) have to ask ourselves, “Is it our story, our craft, our attitude, *or* the market that’s really the problem here?”

    • Avatar
      Timothy Fish October 5, 2011 at 8:55 am #


      I think your “theory” is a pretty safe bet. The authors who like what the publishers are putting out are likely to try to write similar stories. Those who don’t like what they’re putting out are going to write something different, but the publishers aren’t interested, so they aren’t going to sell what they write.

  10. Avatar
    Janet Ann Collins October 5, 2011 at 9:03 am #

    I agree that fear is the primary problem, but not only fear about changing content. We have changes coming in the industry because of things like e-books and Amazon deals, people having economic problems so they can’t afford to buy books, bookstores closing, companies merging and going bankrupt, advertising methods that no longer work, and lots of other changes in our culture and the world. Publishers want to be safe, but there’s no way they can guarantee that they will be. I think it would be wise if they switched to POD to eliminate the need for storage space and paying taxes on inventory, and cut down the huge advances for best-selling authors. Then they could afford to take some risks. There’s nothing in the Bible that says Christians should play it safe.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube October 5, 2011 at 9:22 am #

      Janet’s POD idea would be fine if the economics made more sense. Right now a 240 page book printed in a longer press run costs around $1.20 per book. That same book printed as a POD can cost as much as $6.00 per book. Eliminating warehousing etc is a nice idea, but cannot work in a volume based business model.

      However, many backlist (older) titles are being shifted to POD when their initial print run is depleted. This does keep books in the supply chain but not in high volume.

      Janet’s idea is a good one, but only if the economics of printing were different.

    • Avatar
      Timothy Fish October 5, 2011 at 10:02 am #


      I suppose that depends on what you define as “playing it safe.” It seems to me that the Bible has a great deal to say about playing it safe. One of the important doctrines of the Bible is that obediance to God results in safety.

  11. Avatar
    Janet Ann Collins October 5, 2011 at 9:38 am #

    Obviously you know much more about it than I do.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube October 5, 2011 at 9:44 am #

      I wasn’t trying to show off. Merely being a teacher. The idea is a great one. But it has not been implemented by publishers for the reason I indicated.

      I remember when I was an editor for Bethany House making a presentation to management about Print-on-Demand as a rising and viable technology…in June 2000. We talked all morning about it. And the conclusion was that the technology was fledgling, the issue of returns was problematic, and the cost per book was too high. (Back then the per book cost was even higher.)

      The point being made here is that publishers are exploring every single idea and option available to them in this fast-changing industry. Some are on the bleeding edge of technology and some are on the trailing edge. (If you lead you bleed. If you follow you wallow.)

      • Avatar
        Lindsay Harrel October 5, 2011 at 9:50 am #

        Steve, are a lot of publishers finding success with publishing their books for Kindle and similar devices? Have they seen much profitability from that type of sale, or are most people still more interested in printed copies?

        I’ve known several people who are into buying books for their Kindle, though I still prefer to curl up with a printed copy, instead of curling up with a Kindle. ๐Ÿ˜› So I was just curious!

  12. Avatar
    Steve Laube October 5, 2011 at 9:56 am #


    That is a great question to be fully answered on another dedicated blog post!

    The answer is that the ebook side of things are growing. For some publishers it is as much as 20% of all unit sales. For most it is still less than 5% (trust me, I see the royalty statements!).

    One publisher recently exclaimed that they were selling six ebooks for every paper copy. I was impressed until I investigated. Their paperback books sell for $16.00. Their ebooks are selling for $3.99. So of course they are selling at a rate of 6 to 1.

    The short answer is that the numbers are in flux and the shift is inexorably happening. But you won’t see paper-based books go away in the next five years as some have predicted.

    • Avatar
      Lindsay Harrel October 5, 2011 at 10:02 am #


      Thanks for your quick reply! I can definitely see the benefit of e-books in that people can buy more books for cheaper. However, I can see the dilemma on the publisher’s side–it’s probably quite difficult to find readers in the first place, so to offer them a cheaper option means those who might have bought the paper copy might instead buy the e-book copy…and then the publisher still needs to find more loyal customers in order to make as much money as they would have with paper copies alone! Then on the flip side, people might be more willing to try out a new author if the book only costs them $3.99. I look forward to more discussion on this in your future post!

      • Avatar
        Timothy Fish October 5, 2011 at 10:11 am #

        Given that I’ve paid more than $25 for an e-book, I think publishers are underpricing some of their books.

      • Avatar
        Mary Young October 7, 2011 at 8:23 am #

        But then you also have folks like me. I eschew the library (sorry, I just love the word “eschew”) because I have to remember to bring the books back or pay fines. So I buy the books I want to read. I’ll buy an e-book first due to budget, but if I really like it, I want a print copy.

        Also, my kindle lets me adjust the font size to suit my aging eyes…print copies don’t give me that flexibility.

    • Avatar
      Timothy Fish October 5, 2011 at 10:08 am #

      That explains a lot. I’ve been looking at some of the numbers some people have been giving for e-books and wondered why my paper books are selling so much better. The numbers you gave here are much more in line with what I’ve been seeing.

  13. Avatar
    Janet Ann Collins October 5, 2011 at 10:13 am #

    Steve, my point, like yours, was that publishers need to try new things.
    Timothy, I understand what you mean, but in the early church admitting you were a Christian might get you fed to the lions. Risk taking is essential to get the message to people. Our society has changed so much in the last 50 years that old methods don’t work. Should Christian publishers just preach to the choir and keep the customers they have, or stick their necks out to reach others and risk going broke? That’s really Steve’s question.

    • Avatar
      gina welborn October 5, 2011 at 11:32 am #

      Does there have to be an either/or? Should there? Why can’t publishers “preach to the choir and keep the customers they have” AND “stick their necks out to reach others”? When I look at the CBA fiction published in the last two years by large and small CBA presses, it looks to me that the industry *is* doing both.

      Steve said something at conference that resonated with me. “Writing to the market means writing for what it wants in January not September.” Somehow Tosca Lee figured out how to do that with her chosen genre. Now I must ask myself “how do I do that with mine?”

      • Avatar
        Lindsay Harrel October 5, 2011 at 11:35 am #

        Gina, since I wasn’t at the conference, could you (or Steve) explain what this means in context? Does it simply mean we should always be looking ahead, examining trends, etc.? Or is there more to it?

  14. Avatar
    gina welborn October 5, 2011 at 11:17 am #

    During the ACFW awards gala, the lone guy at our table (what a brave soul!) shared how his first suspense was recently release in e-format only by a large CBA publisher. If his sales hit a certain number, then the publisher would print paper copies. Umm, I think he said three other books were published this way to. I never thought to ask him if there was anything his book that made it a book the publisher liked enough to invest $ in editing and marketing yet not enough $ to printing it. Pretty fascinating opportunity he and those three other authors have.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube October 5, 2011 at 11:22 am #

      Tyndale is running this experiment and we are all watching very carefully. One of our agency’s clients is a part of this program too.

      As I said, publishers are looking at all sorts of angles and opportunities. It like those first days in chemistry class when you don’t know which two things will mix properly and it is all very cool. Until you put potassium in water…and the ensuing explosion gets the teacher’s attention.


      • Avatar
        gina welborn October 5, 2011 at 11:35 am #

        Steve, you lost me at “chemistry.” zzzzzzzz ๐Ÿ˜‰

  15. Avatar
    Lindsay Harrel October 5, 2011 at 11:34 am #

    Wow! There is so much I have yet to learn about the publishing industry.

    Karen mentioned in her post that publishers are trying to figure out how to best reach the 18-34 crowd. As I fall into that group, I’d be interested to hear what some publishers are trying. Maybe this could be a future blog post topic? ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Avatar
      TC Avey October 5, 2011 at 12:19 pm #

      I would like to hear more about that as well.

  16. Avatar
    Janet Ann Collins October 5, 2011 at 11:55 am #

    I also want to make it clear that I’m not especially talking about using sex and violence when I say taking risks. There are lots of topics like both sides of controversial political views that aren’t often covered in Christian books.

  17. Avatar
    Karen Ball October 5, 2011 at 12:13 pm #

    Wonderful discussion. As someone whose backlist has recent been sent to POD purgatory, I can tell you it’s not a great deal for the author. How many folks are going to buy a book that now costs almost twice what it did when it was new? Which means the modest royalties I was seeing on that backlist are nonexistent. And publishers are less inclined than ever to restore rights to an author, even if the POD book only sells 10 or so a year–if that. Yes, the ebook route is a better deal, but as Steve said, that’s not anywhere near what the sales are on regular trade books. So one of the factors that used to set the CBA apart from ABA–longtime sales of books thanks to backlist–is being eliminated. It’s frustrating, to say the least. Most authors I know would far rather get their rights back and be able to explore new outlets for the books they love. But with the profit margin growing ever smaller, publishers are doing everything they can to recoup what they’ve put out on the books they’ve published. So it’s a hard situation for all involved.

    Which is why it’s so important to have an agent to deal with all these issues! I thank God for my beloved agent every day: dear ol’ Steve Laube!


    • Avatar
      TC Avey October 5, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

      I agree this has been a wonderful discussion. so much I have to learn! I’m so thankful for blogs like this to help educate me. I pray I find a wonderful agent to help me navigate through all of this!

  18. Avatar
    Glenda Fowlow October 5, 2011 at 12:27 pm #

    I think money is a considerable reason the edgy writing hasn’t taken off. The publishing houses need to make a profit in order to continue dispersing the written word and it’s a huge risk for them.

    But I also think our own lack of authenticity is a barrier. Many Christians (and I include myself) live our lives based on other people’s expectations without really thinking through difficult issues and we whitewash the temptations we do have. Our relationship with God and others is so shallow we miss our call to honesty and humility. Life is messy and we need to live out our theology in the middle of the mess.

    I pray the publishers will listen to God’s direction for them and the writers will have the faith to write what needs to be said in this modern world where everything has changed yet it’s still the same. And blessings on those who follow God’s promptings inspite of challenges!

  19. Avatar
    gina welborn October 5, 2011 at 1:01 pm #

    Lindsey, if I told you what Steve’s comment meant to me, then you’d figure out what new story ideas I have. ๐Ÿ™‚ Obviously then I’d have to shoot you.

    But I will say I don’t think it’s examining trends. It’s setting a trend OR OR OR being that tipping point book. For example, my mentor and a Laube client, Laurie Alice Eakes just released her first CBA Regency romance–A Necessary Deception. Since she sold the series, numerous CBA publishers have sought out inspirational regencies to add to their list.

    But Laurie’s book isn’t the first CBA regency.

    Linore Rose Burkard and Julie Klassen are just two CBA authors with numerous England-set regencies. After conference I got to thinking about the number of editors asking for and authors pitching regencies.

    And I haven’t figured this out yet, but were Julie’s books the tipping point or did she merely begin the tip and Laurie’s A Necessary Deception finally pushed the market into wanting regencies? I don’t know. I’m merely studying and watching.

    Another example is Melanie Dickerson’s YA medieval romance with Zondervan, and I heard from numerous people at conference that the YA editor was wanting more books like Melanie’s. So is Melanie’s book the tipping point for YA medieval romance, or only the beginning?

    One more example. The CBA market had several historical romance authors who wrote comedic elements. But then Mary Connealy came along. I’m not sure which book of hers was the tipping point, but look now at the rapid increase of historic rom-coms.

    I don’t think any of those authors intended to be trend tippers. But they are. And they did it by writing what they loved, writing well, and writing not so close to the edge that they put off more readers than they drew.

    And that’s my non-scientific and non-Sunday School (not to mention utterly simplistic) answer to what I took from Steve’s comment at conference. He’s the expert. I only read a book that had nothing at all to do with writing fiction.

  20. Avatar
    Eileen Astels October 5, 2011 at 2:22 pm #

    First, let me just say that I do see changes in newly published Christian fiction. Many are pushing the bar up and being real in their story telling. Patti Lacy’s stories come to mind.

    But for publishers that hold tight to towing the line I think it’s fear that keeps them from branching out. Fear that if they give an inch writers will take a mile.

    Sorry for all the cliche’s, got a cat begging for attention on my chest so I can’t think creatively at the moment.

  21. Avatar
    Michelle Sutton October 5, 2011 at 2:50 pm #


    This has been fun to discuss. My answer is… because it’s risky since the majority of Christian readers are fairly conservative. I’ve heard a lot of stories regarding people complaining about dumb stuff that offended them, like a character being divorced. But that’s reality for a lot of people. So for me, the answer is to write for the smaller presses. While I may not get rich due to limits regarding the smaller presses ability to advertise and get books placed in bookstores, etc…well, at least I can write from my heart. There is a niche market for people who enjoy fiction with difficult and realistic themes. I do have my limits, too. I won’t put the Lord’s name in vain or drop the f-bomb, or include graphic sex or anything like that in my books. But I do go deeper than I would be able to go with a larger publishing house. That’s my decision, at least until the larger houses are willing to take bigger risks on fiction -fiction that gets really honest about life’s struggles. Until then, well, I’m pretty much staying with the small presses. To me it’s about a ministry and not about entertaining people, though I hope my stories entertain them, too. So far the stories I write seem to be reaching the people who need to hear them. That’s more gratifying for me than a large advance. However, that’s not what a business like publishing probably wants to hear. But at least I don’t feel like I have to sell out to include what the many limitations are in my writing, and I can write from my heart.

    • Avatar
      Deborah H. Bateman October 5, 2011 at 6:18 pm #

      I write Bible Studies. In fact I am publishing my first E-Book called The Book of Ruth-A Story of Love and Redemption. I enjoy studying and writing about the Bible. One thing I find challenging sometimes, especially when going through a book of the Bible is you come upon subjects you might not otherwise tackle. I try to approach them in a way that engages my reader and try to use language that will not offend anyone, however I am not sure that is always the case. Sometimes the scripture gets down to business on certain items. I am a new writer, but I am loving it. I would like to figure out a way to engage more people, especially the younger generation.

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      Timothy Fish October 7, 2011 at 3:39 am #

      I have written books with characters who are divorced. In “And Thy House” the main character was divorced and it was very much his fault. Even so, there are cases where I would prefer that authors didn’t touch the subject. A divorced couple is never completely separated, so when an author decides to make a character divorced, but doesn’t treat the topic of divorce, it comes across as unrealistic. Divorce permeates a person’s life. When a book is trying to encourage spiritual growth in another area of life, divorce clouds the theme because divorce tends to overpower all of the other problems a character has.

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    Wade Webster October 5, 2011 at 8:47 pm #

    At the recent North Texas Christian Writer’s Conference I got to know Gail Gaymer Martin a bit. She’s tired of writing for the traditional Christian fiction romance market. In the closing question and answer session she admitted that she may be ending her career by going into writing what’s on her heart. She sees the need to have characters that are divorced, etc., because that’s the real world that poeople live in. I felt her heart cry is in reaching the lost.
    Since I’m new to writing I don’t have a clear picture of what’s ‘in the box’ for Christian writers. As I was talking to Gail I could see that my adult fiction is in the same tone as she is talking about moving into. My main character starts out as an unbeliever. How do you show that without making somebody a bit uncomfortable? Seekers will relate far easier to somebody on their level. The changes in the man’s life should be appealing enough that they will want the same answers the he found. At least that’s what makes sense to me.
    If that means I’ll be stuck with small publishers then so be it. This is the story God has given me to write.

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      Lindsay Harrel October 5, 2011 at 9:20 pm #


      I’ll be attending the American Christian Writer’s conference in Phoenix later this month, and Gail is a speaker (as is Steve!); I look forward to hearing what they both have to say.

      As far as having characters that are unbelievers or going through difficult situations, I have read plenty books in the Christian market with both of these. Francine Rivers’ “Redeeming Love” is about a prostitute who was abused as a child; it’s definitely some heavy stuff, but she writes it in such a way that God is still glorified without all the gory details. Rivers gives just enough detail to let us know what’s going on without being overly explicit for no good reason. And that’s just one example.

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        Steve Laube October 5, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

        I will not be at that conference in Phoenix. Instead I will be teaching at the C.S. Lewis Foundation writers workshop near Houston. There was some confusion in the original scheduling over a year ago.

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    Steve Laube October 5, 2011 at 9:08 pm #

    Since I know Gail, and just spoke to her ten days ago, I’d say that “tired of writing for the traditional Christian fiction romance market” may be a bit of a mischaracterization or at least a simplification of what is something more complex. She may want to chime to set the record straight in if she gets a chance.

    There are a LOT of novels in the Christian market that have characters in difficult situations or are broken in some way. I’m not sure why the market continues to say that Christian fiction doesn’t deal with the real world. It is simply not universally true.

    Read Ginny Yttrup’s WORDS and tell me that her novel dealing with child sexual abuse is “fluffy” or “simplistic.” Or take a look at DEMON: A MEMOIR by Tosca Lee. Or any novel by Lisa Samson. I could go on with dozens of examples of amazing writers dealing with tough and gritty subjects, from a Christian worldview.

    It is simply being unaware of the extraordinary talent that is out there.

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      Timothy Fish October 6, 2011 at 5:39 am #

      My take on it is that many of the people who think Christian fiction doesn’t represent the real world are Christians who don’t really understand the real world themselves. Several years ago, a lot of us (myself included) latched onto the idea that churches needed to modernize their music or they wouldn’t reach young people. But I remember listening to one pastor at that time talking about the young people in his church discovering the “Heavenly Highway Hymns” and they were learning those songs. Appearantly, someone forgot to tell that group of young people that they weren’t supposed to like those songs. I’m all for churches modernizing their music, if that’s what works for them, but I think some churches did that and all they accomplished was that they alienated their own people. The real world in their community was very different from the real world as they imagined it. The same is true for Christian fiction. The real world that many people are carrying in their heads doesn’t look much like the people around them. Instead, it looks more like the world on television where there is an adulterer in every bedroom and ever office is filled with former lovers. If Christian fiction focused on those topics as much as television, it wouldn’t look like the real world at all.

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      Michelle Sutton October 7, 2011 at 6:20 am #

      Those are great examples and I have read all of them as well as at least a hundred other brave stories told. It helps to be a reviewer because you see what is actually being published. Most people don’t realize this because many don’t read CF in the first place or read very little CF. I love the genre and I love anything written by Lisa Samson. She’s the bravest author in the CF market next to Francine Rivers. Where’d she go? I haven’t seen a novel by her since The Passion of Mary Margaret…

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        Michelle Sutton October 7, 2011 at 6:21 am #

        This was replying to Steve. Not sure why it got posted under Timothy. Sorry about that.

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    Lindsay Harrel October 5, 2011 at 10:00 pm #

    Steve, I’m sorry to hear you won’t be at the conference. I was looking forward to meeting you and hearing you speak. Perhaps some other time!

    PS- The C.S. Lewis Foundation workshop sounds like fun. Have a good time!

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    Gail Gaymer Martin October 6, 2011 at 8:09 am #

    I believe what I said was misunderstood so let me clarify. I do not want to forsake the genre that has given me a wonderful career. I will continue to weave romance into my novels and feel blessed that the Lord gave me 49 contracts with most of them being romances. What I was trying to say is that sometimes the Lord opens our hearts to other genre that are outside our comfort zone, and yet we do not listen because we are comfortable in the place we have been. Steeple Hill blessed me with three sales in women’s fiction which is outside the romance genre. Although romance played a part in each story, the novels focused on other issues important to the novel that were outside the romance genre. I have had many of these stories in my heart, and I realized that God has given me many hints that He wants me to take chances and step out beyond the straight romance genre. Having the opportunity to tell the stories that filled my head for many years would be a blessing, but I would never forsake the gift the Lord has given me in the romance market. My message to you was to listen to the Lord, follow His led and don’t be afraid to take chances and to step outside your comfort level. You never know what the Lord has in store for you.

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    Wade Webster October 6, 2011 at 8:40 pm #

    I deeply apologize, Gail, I didn’t mean to put words in your mouth. I simply misunderstood your total message.

    Back to the discussion, I’m sure there will always be scads of people who will only want to read sanitized fiction with happy endings. Just like most people’s comfort zone of seeing Jesus on the cross only shows a few drops of blood coming from the nails in His hands and feet.
    I guess we need to decide if we’re writing for saved people who are already going to Heaven; or, are we trying to reach lost souls for the Kingdom? We know there’s a market for the former, are we ready to take a risk on the latter?

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      Timothy Fish October 7, 2011 at 7:54 am #


      I agree that’s part of what we need to decide. For me, I think that is a fairly easy question to answer. I often find myself thinking like the writer of Hebrews when he wrote, “Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection.” Don’t get me wrong, I think telling people how to be saved is important and I put significant effort into that aspect of Christian service, but once people are saved there’s no point in repeating that message. I have such a burden to see Christian move forward. As Grady Higgs has said, so many have stopped at their burning bush. Salvation and baptism is just the beginning. There’s only so many ways you can tell people they’re going to hell, but there’s so much that needs to be said to help people move forward toward perfection. And the thing is, teaching Christians to move forward in their walk with the Lord doesn’t mean that we’re ignoring the need to show sinners their need for Jesus. As Christians learn more about Jesus Christ, they will become more active in sharing the gospel with the lost world.

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    Lanette Harris June 1, 2013 at 9:01 am #

    I’m over two years late to this discussion, so I don’t know if this’ll be read, but I’m still glad to have found this three blog series of what makes a Christian book. However, I don’t think I found the answers I was looking for. While I don’t want a formulaic answer, I’m still confused as to what constitutes a Christian novel. I have come across authors who have been told by agents who represent ABA novels that their books are too Christian while the agents who represent CBA novels that their books aren’t Christian enough.

    While I have sympathized with their frustrations, it has never been an issue for me, but I’m starting to realize that it may be in the near future. I’m a Christian, but the books I write aren’t. I write upmarket fiction, usually with a multicultural bent, and while I make sure I never glorify sin, I don’t write with the purpose of sharing Jesus or with overt redemptive themes. I just simply enjoy telling stories with realistic characters and am currently looking to break into the ABA market with my fourth completed novel. (It took me awhile to find my voice and hone the craft to the point I would want professionals to read my work.)

    All that being said, I have a WIP dealing with right to life issues. The MC is a Christian who came from a Hindu family, yet I did not have any intention of writing a Christian novel. The fact that she’s a Christian was to be nothing more than one facet of her identity. But the further I get into the novel, the more her faith comes through in her conversations. These aren’t forced “praise God” comments; rather she’s tackling issues like forgiveness and the burden of guilt from a Biblical perspective. (She also deals with cultural issues with her family, but I wouldn’t call it an Indian or a Hindu book.) At some point, I will have to show the reason why she rejected her culture for Christianity. However, none of that is the focus of the novel, and I don’t intend to put anything in there about the hope of redemption. The basic plot is a nurse kidnaps a baby in order to save the child’s life.

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      Cathy Hinkle June 5, 2017 at 6:11 am #

      Well. I’m four years late in responding to you, so I doubt I’ll hear anything at all. I understand what you mean. I’m working on a sci-fi, myself, set in an extremely and rigidly secular “universe” in which the MC has to come to grips with who she is. There are Christian elements, but as far as I can see, it isn’t Christian enough to qualify as such. I hope you found a good place for your book, though, Lanette.

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