Christian Fantasy: Thriving or Dying?

Christian Fantasy Writing

Among writers of Christian speculative fiction and members of the publishing industry, there are two distinct patterns of thought regarding the ultimate fate of Christian speculative fiction. On one end of the spectrum are those who feel it will never take off in any substantial way. In an interview with horror writer Mike Duran, agent Rachelle Gardner advances this view:

“For a long time, Christian fiction had a narrow definition and it was difficult to justify how a story involving fantasy, time travel, vampires or similar other-worldly elements could actually be ‘Christian.’ Many publishers are still trying to figure it out. At the same time, most of the publishers have dipped their toe in the waters of spec fiction in some way, and haven’t been successful at it (whether due to marketing, or their lack of ability to find their audience, or the quality of the books… probably a combination). But when they take a risk and it doesn’t pay off, they usually pull back and focus once again on books that aren’t so risky. The questions about viability in the CBA world, combined with difficulty selling it, makes it unlikely that the situation in CBA is going to change.”

On the other end are those who believe that, if given a chance, the market could do exceedingly well. Although speculative fiction only has a small representation in the Christian market, the numbers continue to grow each year. Fantasy writer Becky Miller offered an excellent account of growth in the genre and shared her perspective on the potential of this market here. In addition, on editor and agent panels, I’ve listened to other industry professionals state their beliefs that the genre could flourish–once the publishers connect with the target audience.

Yet when assessing the state of the genre, there’s another angle to consider–the overall picture of speculative fiction written by Christians and releasing from a variety of outlets, some outside the traditional box. In an interview with Nick Harrison, editor with Harvest House, Jeff Gerke, founder of Marcher Lord Press and long-time editor discusses the audience searching for this type of book:

“These people, this majority of Christians, are not being served by traditional Christian publishing. That’s the kind of situation that is not going to last. An artificial imbalance like that will be naturally self-correcting in time. That’s what we’re seeing now. After Marcher Lord Press rose up and showed people what a small, indie press dedicated to Christian speculative fiction could do, several other similar presses have sprung up to help meet the needs of that demographic. Similar presses are rising up to fill other niches, like Christian poetry, true crime, military/men’s, literary, and more. All the dispossessed authors and readers are beginning to walk around in the sunshine and find each other. And that’s only going to increase. It’s a great day to be a writer and reader of a kind of novel that has previously been squelched by the traditional Christian publishing paradigm.”

The successes he’s experienced so far, including a number of awards and positive reviews by publications like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal support his views.

In light of all this, I take a third perspective–that speculative fiction written by Christians is growing and will continue to expand both inside and outside the Christian market. I see this happening on a number of fronts:

  1. E-publishing. The shift in this market has both publishers and writers paying heed. Some writers (traditionally published and unpublished alike) choose to self-publish in e-book format, allowing them to connect directly with their target audience, while even the largest of publishers are also experimenting with the various options e-publishing allows. New imprints, like Tyndale’s Digital First initiative provide a traditional model of publishing that releases in e-book only format, allowing the publishers to release books with less upfront expense and risk. Writers of Christian speculative fiction that have had difficulty in the Christian market for the reasons Rachelle cited above, may find success through these venues.
  2. Small, independent publishers. Many of these newer traditional publishing houses, adept at finding and connecting with niche markets, put out quality work that garners awards and positive reviews from sources well accepted in the publishing industry at large (like Marcher Lord Press) and can provide strong support for the writer of Christian speculative fiction.
  3. CBA publishers. Certain Christian publishing houses like WaterBrook Press, AMG, and Zondervan seem to be having a level of success with Christian speculative fiction–at least they continue to acquire and release it, albeit in limited numbers, and can connect writers with broader distribution channels and more substantial backing.
  4. Mainstream publishers. A number of Christian writers of speculative fiction are making inroads in the mainstream market (RJ Anderson, ND Wilson, Merrie Defestano, and others). Yes, the general market has its own boundaries and limitations when it comes to the depiction of faith elements, but it understands speculative fiction well.

Each option has its benefits–and its limitations–but when you combine these four avenues, it is easy to see Christian speculative fiction growing and impacting the market in increasing measure. So is the genre thriving? Not to the fullest, but I believe it’s expanding and gaining traction, and there’s much hope for the future.

How do you view the state of the genre?

Comments

  • Mary
    June 3, 2011 - 11:46 am · Reply

    I tend to agree with you, Sarah. The Christian spec-fic market isn’t exactly blooming just now, but it is growing, and I’m too much of an optimist not to believe that it will begin to flower out beautifully if given the chance. Sure, Christian fantasy hasn’t exploded like other genres (such as Amish romance and prairie romance) but look at where it is now in relation to where it was ten–or even five–years ago. Ten years ago could you even find a new release title in the Christian fantasy genre? Yet today I could probably name twenty or more off the cuff.
    Not to mention, fantasy stories tend to be ‘broader’ in nature, having more of an epic scope, whereas prairie romance books, etc. tend to be smaller stories. Epics are harder and take longer to craft than other stories, meaning that there won’t be as many on the market (theoretically).
    I could go on and on–this is a relatively complicated issue–but that’s basically my viewpoint of it. Personally I think that fantasy and many other speculative genres will be staying in the Christian market for a long time to come!

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 3, 2011 - 7:23 pm · Reply

      Thanks for sharing, Mary! You’re exactly right about the growth in the last 5-10 years, and I take great encouragement from that. I’m not sure what it would take to cause explosive growth, but then I’m not sure anyone in the publishing industry understands the trends. Who could have predicted Amish stories would take off in such a massive way? What caused it? I’ve seen theories, but no one knows for sure. I would love to see Christian speculative fiction proliferate like that. 🙂

      But it isn’t a simple issue, that’s for sure. I know I only touched on a few of the elements related to the Christian speculative fiction market, and there’s much more that could be said. You have an interesting theory about epics, one that I think must have some reality based on personal experience alone.

      I’m glad there are others out there who take a positive view!

  • Evangeline Denmark
    June 3, 2011 - 2:55 pm · Reply

    I truly hope you are right, and I agree with Mary that the progress we’ve made in just ten years time shows definite growth in Christian fantasy. But that growth doesn’t extend to all areas of speculative fiction. It seems it’s fine to create your own world with fantastical creatures and supernatural occurrences, but Christians are still not able to accept fiction that brings those elements into the “real” world. Which is why I have switched my focus to ABA.
    I still would love to write a paranormal romance for the CBA, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. Still, I don’t see the reluctance of the traditional CBA publishers as a closed door. I see it as God opening other doors for me. Maybe a small press. Maybe an ABA publisher. I don’t know yet. I think it’s my job to keep writing what He’s laid on my heart and be willing to be flexible about where my efforts are appreciated.
    Thanks for this post, Sarah!

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 3, 2011 - 7:25 pm · Reply

      Evangeline, you bring up an excellent point. There’s so much variance under the speculative fiction umbrella, and certain genres haven’t gained any acceptance in the CBA. Paranormal romance is a good example, though I have seen a trickle of other “real-world” speculative, mostly in the horror genre. I haven’t really seen science fiction either (outside of the small presses).

      I understand why you would switch your focus to the mainstream market, given current conditions, though I hope someday to see all the sub-genres of speculative fiction make an appearance within the Christian market as well. It can be discouraging when the industry takes a long time to change, but I love your perspective on open doors and writing from the heart. You never know where you’ll end up finding the perfect fit, but God is so faithful to lead each step. May your contract come quickly! 🙂

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller
    June 3, 2011 - 7:33 pm · Reply

    Evangeline, I don’t want to discourage you from exploring publication in the ABA. We need Christians publishing for the general market. I just wanted to mention, however, that there are speculative stories published by Christian houses that are set in this world. Tom Pawlik, who won the Christy two years ago for Vanish is one example (I don’t remember the title of the second book. The third is due to release this summer). John Olson’s … what was it called … can’t remember, but it was his vampireless vampire story. 😉 And of course John Wilson’s The Jerusalem Undead series. Some of these didn’t do well, sales wise, I understand. Oh, I almost forgot. Robin Parrish’s books are all set in this world too. Undoubtedly there are others.

    Sarah, I agree that there are all kinds of avenues for Christian speculative writers to take. It’s nice to have some options that are looking more favorable.

    BTW, you may have heard of Veronica Roth — also a Christian spec writer who’s ABA published novel debuted at #6 on the New York Times best seller list. A friend read it and said it is definitely not Christian fiction, but it does examine morals and values. Very interesting concept, I guess.

    Oh, yes, also, thanks for the link. 😉

    Becky

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 13, 2011 - 8:14 pm · Reply

      Becky, I’m glad you took the time to highlight some of the books in the “real-world” speculative category. These would be a good starting point for anyone who enjoys this subgenere. For those interested, John Olson’s books are Shade and Powers, and I think they could best be described as suspense with speculative elements. Still, none of those would be classified as paranormal romance, at least in my understanding. It will be interesting if the Christian market ever branches out in that direction.

      It’s funny that you mentioned Veronica Roth. I actually just finished reading her book and found it intriguing. There were some elements I wasn’t overly fond of, but there was also much to enjoy and a thoughtful consideration of social patterns and the tendency of the human heart toward evil. I thought she left herself ample room to explore spiritual themes in the rest of the series, and I’m curious to see what direction she takes her books.

      I was glad to share a link–I thought you expressed your points quite well!

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller
    June 14, 2011 - 12:37 pm · Reply

    Thanks for adding John’s book titles. I just couldn’t think of them at the time.

    The review I read about Veronica Roth’s Divergent mentioned that it was quite violent. I read the opening couple pages and was intrigued.

    Becky

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 14, 2011 - 6:39 pm · Reply

      It was fairly violent–enough that I skimmed a few of the most intense sections. That said, the violence wasn’t gratuitous and didn’t leave me with a bad feeling. Everything that happened had significance to the characters, story, and storyworld–it was there for a reason. I don’t read tons of dystopian fiction, but the concept was intriguing, and the story definitely maintained my interest throughout.

  • Jonathan Myers
    January 5, 2012 - 11:16 am · Reply

    Sarah,
    I think the model established by MLP is helping CSF to continue to survive and bloom. Jeff really encouraged us with this approach. He wants to see more publishers take this indie approach and reach the audience that is screaming for this genre niche. Odyssey Illustrated Press has joined this movement and has had success thus far with our first novel releases. An Assumed Risk is a science/fantasy CSF novel and The Staff of Elements is a traditional fantasy CSF novel. Our releases this year will be The Last Daughter of Avalon, The Hound of Heaven, and additional series entries to the books listed above. I think if we can get a half dozen indie publisher’s on board it will significantly change the CSF landscape. I think its a matter of time. CCM went through a similar growth cycle in the music cycle. Now it has blossomed into a staple of the Christian mainstream. You’re site, as always, is a breath of fresh air by the way. Keep up the good fight.
    A Brother in Christ,
    Jonathan myers

  • Sarah Sawyer
    February 6, 2012 - 11:25 am · Reply

    Jonathan, thanks for taking the time to leave a thoughtful comment! I’m also glad that Jeff pioneered the way and that others are following a similar path, because there’s a need for more Christian speculative fiction that isn’t being fully met by the larger houses. It’s exciting to hear that your ventures at Odyssey Illustrated Press have proven successful so far, and I agree that there’s a bright outlook for the future of Christian speculative fiction. 🙂

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