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Are publishers actually killing Christian books?


OK, I'll say up front that I’m not sure about this one, but it’s an idea I want to explore. In June’s Christian Marketplace there was an article from Steve Laube called “Why is it so hard to get published?” Well, of course, Wide Margin is all about changing all that, but he said one thing that made me sad.

He quoted an email from a friend of his, which said:

An author’s recent sales history looms larger than ever before when we are considering a new project... In 2010 it seems we no longer trust the old methods of reading the market, trying to get ahead of the curve on reader tastes and needs, and so forth. Now we have to prove a book’s success in advance, on paper, using mathematics.

In other words, (a) only authors who already sell well can sell well, and (b) Christian publishers are more interested in pushing out material that they can convince themselves will sell based on past experience rather than innovating and leading the market. In other other words, play safe: what they want most of all is more of the same content from more of the same key authors, because they know that will sell. The dream of the big publishers is to fill Christian bookshops with slight variations on books from Max Lucado and Joyce Meyer, and a quick sweep through any Christian bookshop (if you can find one) will tell you that they're doing pretty well at achieving that dream.

The problem is that playing safe like this isn’t actually safe, for two reasons. First, it insulates you from what the market actually wants. I keep going back to The Shack, because it's an excellent case in point; every single one of those commissioning editors who turned it down because it wasn’t nice safe Christian fiction demonstrated quite clearly that they no longer understood the market at all - and these are the people who decide what we read. Doesn't sound good, does it?

Second, it homogenizes the market, and people don’t like blandness, they like choice. Destroy the choice and you destroy the market; it is as simple as that, because frankly, there's only so many copies of “Fearless” that people will buy.

So my feeling, booksellers, and it is only a feeling, is that these people are not actually on your side. Retreating to safety may sound like a sensible strategy in a difficult business environment, but surely this is precisely the time to try something new and different.

I think you may be right. Too

I think you may be right. Too many Christian publishers are chasing the same mythical middle ground of the 'Christian Living' middle market. This was fine when a publisher could sell 20K units of the new Adrian Plass/Jeff Lucas/Max Lucado/John Ortberg etc through the local Christian bookshop - and that would subsidise the publishing of lesser titles with an advance that could provide some income. As this middle market has shrunk through the closure of many Christian bookshops and the decline of the typical customer for this product (how many under-40's go into a bookshop these days?) the publisher is clinging on to this model and is frozen in a state of fear waiting for the next big-seller before taking any other risks.

The other problem is one of over-publishing. There are just too many Christian books published in the UK (estimates vary between 500 - 1000 A MONTH). The average Christian bookshop will order about 25 new titles a month and the rest get lost. Without a good platform (church leader, conference speaker, prominent blogger etc) the rest just won't get sold anyway. The old model gave publishers the chance to take some risks on what might be successful. With that gone I think authors are better going their own way through ebooks, POD etc. They won't make much more money on a paltry advance and sales of a few hundred a year anyway.