Does Writing Christian Speculative Fiction Doom an Author to Small Sales?

Christian Fantasy Writing

Recently, Becky Minor over at Call Of the Creator explored the viability of fantasy in the Christian market, and I’ve been considering her comments over the last few weeks. In so doing, I found they sparked some thoughts of my own that I’d like to discuss here.

She addressed two issues in the same post–small press sales and fantasy in the CBA market–both valuable to consider, but not necessarily tied to each other.

In the beginning, she suggested that most Christian fantasy novels will sell only several hundred copies. Yet this was based primarily on experiences with small press publishing. So I thought I’d do a little exploration of small press publishing in the general market. The several articles I found that included sales figures all indicated the same thing–in general, a small press book will sell an average of a few hundred copies in the first year.

Regarding general market fantasy in particular, the SFWA says that small presses will have small sales, sometimes staying below 100 per book. Based on these figures, it appears to me that Christian fantasy from small presses does as well (sometimes better) than general market fantasy from small presses.

By the way, none of this is a statement against small presses–I think they have much in their favor. But the potential downside is a smaller reach that can lead to fewer sales. From my perspective, given the disparity of sales between large publishers and small presses, it doesn’t work to connect fewer sales of Christian fantasy from small presses to the overall state of the genre.

So moving beyond the issue of small press publishing, what do the sales of Christian fantasy look like? I don’t have hard figures. Becky pointed out the exceptions that evidently sell quite well (Dekker appearing on multiple bestseller lists, for example).

But based on my understanding of the sales figures publishers expect before renewing a contract, my guess is that many Christian fantasy books do have sales figures in the thousands, not the hundreds–as a number of fantasy writers continue to publish books through larger CBA publishers.

Of course, I could be wrong, since I don’t have access to sales data, and I’d be interested to hear what any “insiders” have to say on this point.

Becky concluded:

So it seems to me we as authors have to decide–do we stay within the confines of CBA? If we do, then we can’t complain about small sales reach. If we want to go to ABA, are we ready to stand our ground on the message of our work? The road to selling a Christian manuscript would be harder. But if you manage it, your reach would become exponential.

I’m not certain that the sales reach of a book will become exponentially greater just by selling in the general market. It still depends on the size and influence of the publisher, just as in the Christian market. There’s more interest in fantasy in the general market, but that doesn’t automatically equate to larger sales for any particular book.

Having said all that, I do think there’s great value in both avenues of publishing. Benefits of moving to the general market might include the greater number of fantasy publishing slots, the ability to reach a different audience, the desire to include “edgier” content, and so forth. However, I think if a writer heads to the general market simply for higher sales he/she may  be disappointed.

In the end, I agree with Becky’s suggestion that we must objectively evaluate the Christian and the general markets when it comes to writing speculative fiction. Each has limitations and benefits, and every writer must decide which path to pursue (though some do both successfully).

Becky presented a final question: “So what do you think–is Christian Speculative fiction a market that will ever really boom?”

I believe that Christian fantasy will grow through a variety of means (which includes branching out into the general market), as I’ve discussed almost a year ago.

What do you see when you look to the future of the genre? I’d love to hear some discussion on these topics.

Image credit: Michael W. May

Comments

  • Jeff Chapman
    May 4, 2012 - 11:57 pm · Reply

    I haven’t tried to sell a novel yet but I have been successful selling short stories to Christian and secular markets. I think readers are looking for well-crafted stories and solid writing that isn’t preachy, at least that’s what I hope they’re looking for. Hopefully that’s what agents and editors are looking for, too. I think fantasy writers have an advantage over realistic fiction writers in that we can use the structure of a created world as well as our characters to convey meaning. Also, the line between good and evil can be as stark as we want it to be. Fantasy readers, both Christian and secular, are used to stories that can be allegorized. So, I’m hopeful.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      May 10, 2012 - 2:49 pm · Reply

      Well articulated, Jeff! Some things don’t change regardless of genre. There should always be a strong, well-told story that doesn’t read like a sermon in disguise. And I think you hit on a key point that fantasy writers can have an advantage because exploring the supernatural and spiritual comes naturally in fantasy. Regardless of the author’s worldview, there’s almost always a strong spiritual element.

      I’m glad that others share my hopes about the genre. 🙂

  • Mary Ruth Pursselley
    May 5, 2012 - 10:36 am · Reply

    I also read Becky’s article when it came out and have thought about it a lot since then.
    My thing is: I didn’t become a Christian speculative writer to make my fortune… or even a living, necessarily. If I’m one day able to live solely off the income of my writing, great. But that isn’t my priority. My priority is telling an exciting, enjoyable story that not only takes the reader on a great adventure, but also turns their attention to a gracious, forgiving, holy, and all-powerful God. In a way, my stories are acts of worship, and my prayer is that they will move my readers to worship as well.
    A story like that, one that is as overtly Christian as mine is, would be an impossible sell to a secular publisher, but I’m fine with that. In the Christian market, most of the up-and-coming speculative titles are being published by smaller presses, true. But I’m fine with that too. I think a lot of people lose sight of the ‘start small’ concept when it comes to publishing and feel like their debut novel has to be a smash hit. If God wants my novel to be a smash hit, it will be, period, no matter how small a publishing house I may start off with. If He doesn’t want it to be a hit, no publishing giant or marketing campaign is going to be able to make it one.
    So I think this topic all boils down to what your core goals as a writer are. Are you in this to become a success, a hit, a best seller? That could be a great goal if, for instance, your story presents the gospel and you’re trying to reach as many unbelievers as possible with it.
    Are you in this just to tell a great story about the wonderful God we serve… a story that unbelievers might not be able to appreciate as much? That’s a great goal too, and it’s important to know which publishing path leads you most directly to whichever goal you choose. The right choice for one writer won’t necessarily be the right choice for another writer.
    Those are my thoughts, anyway. I hope they make sense. 🙂

    • Sarah Sawyer
      May 10, 2012 - 2:54 pm · Reply

      Mary, I so appreciate your perspective. I love what you said here:

      My priority is telling an exciting, enjoyable story that not only takes the reader on a great adventure, but also turns their attention to a gracious, forgiving, holy, and all-powerful God. In a way, my stories are acts of worship, and my prayer is that they will move my readers to worship as well.

      I have a similar vision, and I try to make decisions accordingly. I want my writing to entertain and change people’s lives. The potential of moving hearts through story is a privilege and one we shouldn’t take lightly.

      Of course, I hope that when I find a publisher, my novels will do well–and I plan to do my part in marketing and making every effort to connect my books with the proper audience–but sales are not my purpose in writing. I want to tell the stories God has put within me and trust that He controls the ultimate outcome.

  • Jennifer Hallmark
    May 5, 2012 - 1:44 pm · Reply

    Hi,
    I think fantasy writing will always be around, even in Christian arenas, and like every other genre, will have its ups and downs. With me, it comes back to “why am I writing?” If money is a viable concern, then I might want to major in another genre, unless I have an outstanding idea and have a lot of “in the know” people agreeing that its a bestseller. Otherwise, you write and believe you’re making a difference whether sales or huge or not. Make sure you keep improving at the craft and other aspects of writing, however. 🙂

    • Sarah Sawyer
      May 10, 2012 - 2:55 pm · Reply

      Jennifer, great thoughts. I believe writing what God has put in your heart is important. Because of that, I don’t see myself moving away from fantasy–He’s given me a passion for the genre and my creativity flows strongest when applied in that direction.

      As you mentioned, it’s vital to keep improving in the writing craft. In the end, I think great storytelling will win out, regardless of the current popularity (or lack of popularity) in a given genre.

  • Scathe meic Beorh
    May 12, 2012 - 3:35 pm · Reply

    Maybe today? But I guess that depends upon the publisher? I look to the great Christian writers of Speculative Fiction and see great sales. C. S. Lewis. Tolkien. Stoker. Dickens. Hawthorne.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      May 18, 2012 - 12:05 pm · Reply

      I think it does depend in part on the ability of the publisher and the author to connect with the right audience. The great Christian fantasy writers do continue to make it to bestseller lists today…but then so do the other classic writers.

      I’d like to see some new Christian “greats” emerge with strong sales (reaching a wide audience), but even more than that, the ability to influence culture like Lewis, Tolkien, and Dickens.

  • Vicki V Lucas
    May 14, 2012 - 1:55 pm · Reply

    I honestly can’t believe that someone would say that someone would claim Christian Speculative Fiction is doomed to small sales. I write YA fantasy. I’m constantly amazed at the number of teens excited to find a new series and the number of parents who are excited to find a Christian fantasy book they can give to their teens to read. I think the key is marketing, not the genre. Fantasy is huge today. I believe that if a Christian Speculative Fiction book isn’t selling, it’s either poor writing or poor marketing. Having said that, I think there’s a huge need for authors of Christian Speculative Fiction to write characters who are real to today, are likeable to the readers, and have creative and new plots that don’t preach. A book like that, combined with marketing, will sell!

    • Sarah Sawyer
      May 18, 2012 - 12:22 pm · Reply

      One of the issues that may have hampered sales in the past is that until the last few years, not many Christian publishers released fantasy novels. As a result, many readers have looked to the general market for reading material.

      However, I believe that’s in the process of changing. This relates to what you said about the number of teens excited to find a new Christian fantasy series. The audience is there–it’s just a matter of connecting with them. From what I’ve seen in the last few years, I agree that the market will continue to expand. 🙂

      • Vicki V Lucas
        May 21, 2012 - 4:09 pm · Reply

        I think that is one of the reasons people believe that there is no market for Christian fantasy novels. The market has been scattered. There is no unity and little belief that Christian fantasy could be well-written. The need for authors to write top-quality fantasy Christian novels is huge right now. Saying that, I feel a huge pressure to make sure that my novels are the best I can make them!

  • Joel Bouriaque
    July 23, 2012 - 4:51 pm · Reply

    This is a great discussion. I personally think there are some great writers out there in the Christian Fantasy genre. Recently, I wrote a Christian fantasy novel. Instead of going the allegorical road, I went with a real Jesus, Bible, and lots of Scriptures. Mixing evangelical theology and fantasy is challenging. Within the next few months to a year, I will know if that is a formula the Christian book market embraces, or not!

    • Sarah Sawyer
      August 13, 2012 - 3:37 pm · Reply

      Joel, thanks for stopping by and sharing your approach to writing Christian fantasy. There are so many different ways of reflecting faith in our novels, from overt to very subtle.

      Have you ever read The Trophy Chase trilogy (by George Bryan Polivka)? He takes a similar approach, so you might be interested in checking it out. 🙂

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