A Growing Divide in the Christian Fiction Industry?

Several weeks ago, literary agent Chip MacGregor caused a bit of a stir in Christian fictionland by frankly commiserating the state of the industry. MacGregor wrote:

CBA-LogoMD“CBA [Christian Booksellers Association] fiction is in a world of hurt. When I started my literary agency nine years ago, Christian fiction was the fastest-growing segment in all of publishing, and continued to be a growth category for a couple more years. But, as I’ve said so often, publishing is a ‘tidal’ business — the tide comes in, the tide goes out. Seven, eight, nine years ago, it was in. Then the tide started to recede, and now it’s out. Way, way out. 

Several CBA publishing houses that used to do fiction don’t do it any more. (Today [July 8, 2015], Abingdon announced they’re killing their fiction program, for example.) Several others have cut back their lists. There are fewer slots for authors, and shopping for inspirational fiction has become harder. Barnes & Noble sort of sticks all religious fiction off into one corner, so if you don’t walk in specifically hoping to find that section, you’re not going to stumble onto it. Books-a-Million does a better job, but they’re not a huge chain. The potential demise of Family Christian Stores is a looming disaster — it leaves Lifeway Stores as the biggest chain, and the fiction decisions at Lifeway have been a huge disappointment to many of us in the industry (meaning the company only wants VERY safe Christian romances where nothing truly bad happens, sex doesn’t exist, everyone talks like they’re living in Andy Griffith Land, and in the end the characters will fall to their knees and accept Christ so that All Life Problems Will Be Resolved). Sales numbers have fallen, so that the novelist who used to routinely sell 18,000 copies is now selling 9000, or sometimes 4000. With that decline has come a drop in advance and royalties, so that far fewer CBA novelists are earning a living than just a few years ago.”

As an author, someone who has written for and has friends in the CBA, it is refreshing to hear industry insiders speak honestly about the state of business. Especially important, in my opinion, was MacGregor’s admission that with Lifeway remaining “the biggest chain” of brick and mortar distributors, and the store’s commitment to “VERY safe Christian romances,” CBA fiction is guaranteed to continue to struggle

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the post prompted a swift response from CBA defenders. In her post, What’s Really Going On With Christian Fiction: A Response to the Chatter, Lifeway book buyer Rachel McCrae doubles down on the “Lifeway brand.”

As the book buyer, I have the responsibility to make sure the titles we carry at LifeWay fit within our beliefs as Christians as well as within our company’s parameters of what we do and do not carry. LifeWay is owned by the Southern Baptist Convention and because of that, there will be times that we choose not to carry an author or a particular book. For instance, with nonfiction books, there are authors who have different theological views than we do at LifeWay so we choose not to carry their titles. If we decide to not stock a fiction title, it has historically been because of vulgar language, using the Lord’s name in vain, or explicit descriptions of sex, abuse, or violence. [emphasis mine]

So on one hand you have a literary agent lamenting the types of books that Christian booksellers sell (and even connecting the preponderance of such fiction as stunting long-term growth), while you have an influential bookseller defending their choices to carry such books. 

This, I believe, is evidence of a growing divide in the Christian fiction industry. 

It may also show where the power really lies. Most notably, see MacGregor’s update to his original post:

UPDATE: I’ve had several people take me to task for being hard on Lifeway. Just so I’m clear, my criticism is of the larger Lifeway chain and its decisions, not of one particular buyer. I’ve found the chain has been very reluctant to take in much realistic fiction — but several have told me it would be unfair to blame the buyer. I’m sorry if I hurt feelings.

Obviously, MacGregor’s in a tough spot, needing to both represent authors who need Lifeway, while representing authors who are, basically, hurt by Lifeway’s “[reluctance] to take in much realistic fiction.” But his concerns are valid — Does a commitment to “safe” fiction actually damage the brand long-term?

What’s at issue here is a specific view of “Christian art.” The — a belief that our “Christian” obligation is to create and support the proliferation of “safe,” sanitized fiction; stories that are free from “vulgar language, using the Lord’s name in vain, or explicit descriptions of sex, abuse, or violence,” as opposed to stories written by believers that are “realistic fiction.”

This is the dividing line between much of the CBA;s Old Guard and the New Guard. 

I attended a workshop at the 2012 Dallas ACFW [American Christian Fiction Writers] with Allen Arnold, former fiction acquisitions editor for Thomas Nelson. Really, it was just one long Q & A session, so the conversation went everywhere. I’d estimate maybe fifty-plus attendees. Being it was an open forum and Mr. Arnold has commented on this blog, I took the opportunity to ask about the ever thorny language guidelines and what I perceived as a need for more realism in Christian fiction. It led to a much longer discussion with other attendees chiming in, mostly in agreement. Until one gentleman, visibly shaken, made an impassioned plea that we should not be apologizing for clean, inspirational Christian fiction. We are writing some of the best books on the planet, he said, and we have the message the world needs to hear. It was a clear counter to the point I’d raised and, unlike my question, received a polite round of applause. The incident was a stark reminder of the very real polarization among Christians regarding what Christian fiction should be. 

Whether or not there is a genuine ideological divide in the industry, being honest about the state of the CBA is essential for its long-term growth and/or survival. Is the CBA really “in a world of hurt”? Is a commitment to “sanitized” fiction really limiting the scope of potential readership? Or should such values continue to be a distinguishing mark of our stories? Is the closing of Christian fiction lines simply a temporary glitch, or does it signal a sea-change in the rapidly changing world of publishing? How you answer these questions may determine what side of the “divide” you’re on.

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Mike Duran is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, and is represented by the rockin’ Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike’s novels include The Ghost Box, a Publishers Weekly starred review item, The TellingThe Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, his short story anthology Subterranea, and the newly released Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre. You can visit his website atwww.mikeduran.com, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.