have seen the world of Christian fiction change over the forty-one
years I’ve been involved in CBA publishing. The copyright date on my
first novel, Fear Haunts the Summer, is 1970, and
the date on my latest, Shadows on the Sand, is
2011. (You understand, of course, that I was a mere child when that
first book was published.) To put it succinctly, Christian fiction has
gone from being the poor misfit to being Prom Queen.
I still remember my surprise
when in the early ’80s I went to a regional CBA show and saw the
Bethany House best-seller list hanging above their booth: #1 Janette
Oke; #3 Bodie Thoene. Novels as a CBA publisher’s best sellers? Unheard
of! But very exciting! And today almost commonplace.
Complex Plots and
My first book had a simple plot, just right for me as a new writer and
for the industry that published little adult fiction. Among the biggest
industry changes over the years has been the development of not only
complex plots but also the freedom to tackle any topic, no matter how
controversial. What began with prairie romances and historicals has
moved on to the increasingly sophisticated handling of all subjects and
the publishing of all genres, and even small houses like Marcher Lord
Press specializing in one genre.
As recently as 2001, Spring
Rain had to have a publisher’s note in the beginning of the
book because a major story line dealt with AIDS and a gay brother.
Today such a protection is not necessary. Any topic is acceptable as
long as it’s wrapped in a story that keeps readers turning pages and
all thoughts on the subject come from the characters and not the
When I wrote Fear Haunts the Summer, I sent the
first three chapters to Moody Press. Some nice lady there asked to see
the rest of the book. As I finished each chapter, I sent it to her. She
kept them all until I reached the end. By some miracle they offered me
a contract, probably as they laughed at my naiveté over their coffee at
the pub board meeting. Today such amateurism could doom a writer.
To submit in the old days, all
you needed was an SASE. You mailed your proposal with your SASE to any
Christian publisher and waited six months or more to get a response.
You couldn’t submit a given manuscript to more than one publisher at a
time, a very aggravating policy.
Today we submit according to the
rules and only through accepted channels, now narrower and more
prescribed than ever. How-to books, the Internet, and writers’
conferences teach the proper patterns, and if he does his homework,
even a beginner can look like the seasoned pro. Because the competition
for publication has become so keen, presenting oneself well has become
almost as important as writing skill.
In the 1950’s the Green Lake Christian Writers Conference and the St
Davids Christian Writers’ Conference began, originally sponsored by the
American Baptist Convention, and both continue to this day, though with
a much broader base.
Faulty directions almost kept me
from attending my first St. Davids CWC. I’ve thought often of how
different my life would have
been if I hadn’t persisted until I located the meeting area. I can
trace a web of contacts and opportunities that stem from that first
conference, doors that wouldn’t have opened if I hadn’t gone.
Today high-powered conferences
like ACFW, Mount Hermon, and Blue Ridge offer fiction mentoring,
tutorial opportunities, and occasions for learning the craft. That
all-important networking is more than enough reason to attend.
Conferences and workshops abound for every calendar and every
The opportunities to learn the
craft in your own home are basically limitless through the number of
how-to books and Web courses.
Agents and Writer Reps
In the early days of my career, the Christian publishing industry was
very wary of agents. The idea seemed to be that agents would break
everyone’s bank. Writers were in good hands with the publishers calling
all the shots. Everyone, no matter which side of the desk they sat on,
was everyone else’s friend.
reality the publishers were protecting themselves. I say this not as
criticism but as fact. They were, after all, in business as well as in
ministry and needed to protect their bottom line.
As the industry grew more
sophisticated, so did contracts. In this increasingly complex business
world, we writers who hunkered down in our offices writing needed
knowledgeable and honest representatives to stand for us.
began hearing of CBA novelists
having agents in the late 1980s. Over the ensuing twenty-some years,
agents have proliferated so that there are seventy-nine agencies, many
with multiple agents, listed in the 2011 Christian Writers’
Writers’ agents are our
guardians and representatives. Few of us know the business and
Christian publishing worlds well enough to navigate the tricky waters.
Few of us have the courage or the knowledge to challenge a contract. A
trustworthy agent gives us not only credibility with publishers but
also the freedom to be the writers we got onto this business to be.
Few changes have been more obvious than what is expected of an author
as a self-promoter. Gone are the days when a CBA publisher produced a
novel, sent it to bookstores, and everyone sat back to see what
“You must have a platform,” we
are told. For a fiction writer, platform is a particularly tricky
thing. We don’t write topics. We write stories, and each story is
So we must develop a brand, a
pattern of storytelling that marks us so our readers can buy our titles
with confidence. To further this brand, we must Facebook, twitter,
blog, guest on other’s blogs, find endorsers, arrange our own PR
opportunities, and the list goes on.
Our publishers’ marketers and PR
people still do their best, but authors are expected to be active
participants in this process, something that grates on many novelists
who are by nature introverts.
While today’s Christian publishing world is very different from forty
years ago, for the novelist it’s exciting! Sure, it’s still hard to get
a royalty house to publish us. Sure, sales figures—or the lack
thereof—are the bane of our existence. Sure, there’s pressure to
produce quickly enough to keep the public’s awareness of our names.
But they like us―really like us.
We’ve proven that there is a hungry market for Christian fiction of all
kinds—gentle and edgy, action and interior, contemporary, historical
and futuristic. With talented new writers emerging all the time and
established writers continuing to prove their worth, these are heady
days for Christian fiction.
And of course there’s
e-publishing and the freedom to release work outside the traditional
pattern, a new world whose promise and pitfalls are only now being
explored. What will some young writer beginning today say about this
phenomenon forty years hence?
I think the best may be yet to
come for Christian novelists. I see a future where we who love the Lord
offer hope to a world often filled with despair and pain. We will
continue to tell our stories in which we model the life-changing grace
of God and show the consequences of good choices and bad. We are a
conduit that turns hearts to God and the salvation found in Christ.
Does it get any better?