The Impact of Small Presses on Christian Speculative Fiction

In the span of a few short years, small traditional publishers have begun to make an increasing impact in the arena of Christian speculative fiction. For years, the larger houses left a conspicuous gap in this area, and Marcher Lord Press was the first to take a leap into the void in 2008, with a focus on becoming the “premier publisher of Christian speculative fiction.” In the years since, a number of others have followed, blazing new trails in this genre. And their influence is becoming apparent.

The Carol Awards, announced at the ACFW conference this weekend, underscored this growing impact as König’s Fire from Marcher Lord Press took first place, the second year in a row that an Marcher Lord Press novel has walked off with the award. Similarly, in the Christy Awards, To Darkness Fled and By Darkness Hid from Marcher Lord Press took the award in 2011 and 2010 respectively.

Of note, a number of titles released from Marcher Lord Press, Splashdown Books, and others have also won awards outside Christian spheres, proving their works appeal to a larger audience.

But awards only tell part of the story. It’s noteworthy to me that a number of multi-published authors now publish with small, independent presses. For example, Monster in the Hollows, which I highlighted during last week’s blog tour, released from Rabbit Room Press (the first two titles came from WaterBrook Press, the Christian imprint of Random House). In addition, Marcher Lord Press now publishes author Kathy Tyers, who formerly wrote for Bantam Spectra, Del Ray, and Bethany House. Such stories aren’t uncommon.

In addition, some debut authors are also turning down opportunities with larger, more established houses to work with the independent houses that have vision for and focus on Christian speculative fiction. As Jeff Gerke states, “There is wisdom in mastering and conquering a niche. Focus and exclusivity bring clarity and excellence, as any Olympic athlete or concert musician will tell you.”

I’m thankful that publishing houses like Marcher Lord Press, Splashdown Books, and others that are working to meet the need for Christian speculative fiction. In a short time, their efforts have increased in excellence and impact, and their focus seems to be paying off with success–with readers and writers.

What do you think? Are small presses part of the solution for the lack of quality Christian speculative? Will their success ultimately open more doors for the genre, or does it only serve to solidify the view that Christian speculative fiction is a niche market that can’t expand?

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15 Responses to The Impact of Small Presses on Christian Speculative Fiction

  1. I think the small presses that are doing a great job and winning awards are going to have a positive impact. But sales are what matter. If big publishers see small publishers making money off these books, they’re sure to jump into the game.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      I think larger publishers have already begun scouting out the talent in small houses for authors with strong sales. I know Jill Williamson (whose first published books came from Marcher Lord Press) recently got a contract with Zondervan, which is one of the well-established Christian publishers. So my sense is similar to yours–those doing it well will end up bringing about changes in the industry as a whole.

  2. I am good with the _idea_ of small presses; I just don’t like most of what I’ve seen for results. Small presses can be less picky about what they take for manuscripts, and edit less. (My favorite spec books are all major publishers’) The quality of their printed books can be less too since they can’t afford the high quality materials avilable in a larger print run. However, the eBook prices aren’t bad typically…

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jenni! I’ve certainly encountered bad books from small presses (as well as large houses), but in my experience some small presses are able to put out quality books on par with any other publishing house.

      Monster in the Hollows provides an interesting case study for a small press versus major publisher scenario, since the first two books came out from WaterBrook and the third from Rabbit Room. Because I’m interested in such things, I examined the books and found no perceivable difference in quality between the the first two and the third. The cover design, the page quality, and interior design were all equivalent, as was the quality of the editing and writing. So for me at least, it demonstrated that size of a publishing house matters less than commitment to excellence.

      Many of the editors the big houses use are actually the same as the ones the small presses use. For example, Jeff Gerke editor/publisher at Marcher Lord Press, not only worked as an editor for many of the larger publishing houses in the past but he also still freelances for them, so many of their books go through his hands to this day.

      Same with cover or interior designers. The changes in the industry are allowing publishers large and small to access the same resources. Not all small presses use the resources available, and some of them don’t appear to have a commitment to excellence, but in general, I think that the small publishers doing a poor job won’t be around in five years, while those striving for excellence will continue to grow and make a bigger impact.

      All that said, I’m not working with any sort of publisher yet, so I don’t have a horse in this race–I just want readers of Christian speculative fiction to be aware of all the options out there. And I’d hate to see anyone miss out on some of the gems coming from smaller houses because of bad prior experiences. My general policy for purchasing books (regardless of the publisher) is to read a sample of the first few pages. Usually that’s enough to give me an idea of the quality of writing/editing and whether or not I’ll want to continue reading the book.

      Okay, that was almost another blog post. 🙂 I truly appreciate you sharing your perspective, and I hope you don’t mind me sharing some additional thoughts.

  3. Thanks for the mention, Sarah! One of the most surprising things about my journey is when authors seek me out and actually WANT to get on board here instead of with a bigger publisher. It’s happened a few times now, and I like to think that it’s because we are a family – work gets shared around, there is plenty of support, and we do a lot of our projects together.
    I may be a small press, but I’m VERY picky about what I take, and I edit to the marrow, as many an author can tell you. The buck stops with me and I take that very seriously. Of course it’s not just me doing the editing – I just come last to make sure I’m completely happy with the final product. There is also no physical difference between our books and any major publisher. I know my fellow small publishers at MLP, Port Yonder Press, and Written World Communications also have the highest of standards.
    Anyway, what a great time to be an author! Everything’s opening up like never before 🙂

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      You’re welcome, Grace! I’m glad you chimed in to give the publisher/editor perspective on the situation. I can understand the appeal of closer publishing bonds and the family mindset. It’s a strength the larger publishers don’t offer, at least not to the same degree. That’s why I think writers need to consider the pros and cons of different avenues of publishing…and it is exciting we live in a time where there are more options than ever in the past.

      I also appreciate how committed you and many of the other small publishers are to seeking quality in your books and pushing writers to be the very best they can!

  4. I happen to be one of the writers that chose a small press over a larger one. Splashdown Books to be precise. I purchased most of their books before I submitted there and found the quality of the writing to be superb. Being that these small presses specialize in speculative fiction, I believe it actually gives them an edge over major publishers. Plus they print on demand and there is very little overhead. In this tough economy, this is a big bonus and is what has allowed Jeff Gerke, Grace Bridges, Chila Woychik and Kristine Pratt to charge forward beyond convention.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Diane! It adds a lot to the discussion. There’s certainly something to be said for focus in terms of leading to excellence.

      It’s interesting to me that many of the major publishers are beginning to use the same print on demand technologies and other ideas that the smaller presses have implemented. Times are changing, and everyone has to adapt to fit a new era. It’s an interesting time to be a writer, that’s for sure. 🙂

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  6. J.L. Mbewe says:

    Hi! I have to agree with Sally, Diane and Grace. Small presses like those mentioned have done an excellent job and, I believe, they have caught the eye of the large, conglomerate presses as I have seen an increase in Christian speculative fiction put out by them, but it takes time and who knows what the future holds for the industry with their current business methods and changes in technology. In the present day, what do writer’s who publish with the larger presses gain verses small presses? Especially, debut author…perhaps a recognizable, trusted label, but do readers really take notice of that? I suppose going to the books store and being able to browse and find the book, but more and more people are getting their books online. Either way, it is a business and it comes down to a really good story and word of mouth. As a reader, I scour Amazon, Goodreads, etc for the next good book to read and I think, done right, small presses can bring a welcomed fresh wave of new books to readers starved for a bit of the fantastic in good, wholesome fiction. As an author, I personally would like to go with a small press like MLP for the reasons Grace mentioned and the fact that speculative fiction is a niche market.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Good points, JL. I’ve also observed the slow increase in Christian speculative fiction by larger houses, and in many cases (like the Jill Williamson example I mentioned above), small presses seem to have been the catalyst. Right now, they seem to be doing significantly more to reach out to the readers desiring Christian speculative fiction than the larger houses.

      The major shift to online shopping and e-books does slightly diminish the distribution advantage that larger publishers have. It hasn’t eliminated it yet, but things are certainly changing. Because of that it’s vital for every writer to educate themselves on the options available and to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. Both avenues have strengths and weaknesses, and you have to determine which you feel most comfortable pursuing.

  7. Working with a small press has been a great joy. I know that “logic” says the next step in turning this writing thing into a full-time career might be to transition to a large publisher. But honestly, I’d hate to give up the family atmosphere. Besides, before Grace took a chance on Winter, no publisher or agent would even read it. And if it weren’t for this whole stupid stigma around small publishers, we’d probably have no problem getting a large enough reader base to make a career.

    I can also testify that Splashdown’s standards are extremely high when it comes to the writing. Grace also allows the authors to develop their own vision for how the book will reach the world. The buck may stop with Grace…but she works hard to make sure the author approves of everything…from cover, to layout, to release date. I doubt you’d get the same kind of privileges with a larger publisher.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Thanks for adding your thoughts, Kevin! It’s been valuable to hear from several small press authors in this discussion. I think you and Diane have given a good perspective on some of the strengths that a small press has to offer–a tight-knit, family environment, greater capacity for the author to shape the end product, and the passion and vision for a specific genre (in this case speculative fiction). These elements are part of what helps small presses make an big impact, I think. 🙂

  8. Great insight and article Sarah. Yeah, I think the small presses are bringing a spotlight to CSF and the larger presses are starting to take notice. MLP certainly proved that there was a market for this niche genre and Waterbrook, Splashdown and even Odyssey Illustrated Press have been successful at finding this author. Matthew Krengel used OIP as a stepping stone to get his work noticed and he has recently signed on to have a novel released through a mainstream publisher. Sometimes the little guys are the ones who can get talented authors noticed by the large presses. You are 100% correct that the small presses are having a noticeable impact in Christian Speculative Fiction; and the more that join this growing movement the better off this genre will be in my opinion.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Thanks, Jonathan! It’s great to hear from your perspective from the publisher side…and to hear success stories. 🙂

      It seems like smaller presses are more willing to take a risk, and with risks often come great rewards. It must be very satisfying to see your authors succeed!

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