Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A Market for Science Fiction/Fantasy

Recently a discussion about the future of science fiction and fantasy in the Christian market ran on an author loop. Jim Denney responded with this thoughtful opinion. It's posted here with his permission. Jim is the author of Answers to Satisfy the Soul and the four-book Timebenders series (beginning with Battle Before Time, Tommy Nelson 2002).
I think there conceivably could be a market for Fantasy & Science-Fiction (F&SF) in the CBA if publishers would make a massive marketing effort, including major marketing efforts into the secular F&SF marketplace. But it would be a horrendously chancy and expensive enterprise so, from the publishers' perspective, why take the risk?

Some authors, like Ted Dekker, Donita Paul, Kathryn Mackel, and Karen Hancock, have carved out niches for fantasy in the CBA (though the "fantasy" label is generally eschewed). But for the most part, the CBA is not a welcoming environment for F&SF—and for several nearly insurmountable reasons:

1. SF timelines don't seem to jibe with evangelical eschatology.

True science fiction transcends and shatters stereotypes. It is wide-open and unbounded. SF readily comes into conflict with many people's notions about Scripture, especially eschatology. If you believe (as most evangelicals do) that the Lord's return is imminent (within a decade or so), then stories about events in, say, the 26th Century wouldn't seem to "line up with Scripture."

For me, such objections are baseless. A good story is a good story, regardless of whether it fits some notion of "biblical correctness." Besides, I see no biblical reason to believe that the Second Coming couldn't commence right now—or 20,000 years from now.

2. SF fans aren't looking for SF in Christian bookstores.

A CBA editor has said, "Many of us love to read SciFi, and would love to be publishing it. But guess what happened when we did? Nobody bought it."

SF readers already know where to find good SF, and they don't go shopping for it at the Berean Bookstore. Even if the CBA started publishing quality F&SF, it would take a major marketing effort to get the word out to F&SF readers that they can find quality F&SF at Christian bookstores.

3. "Hard SF" (technological, scientific SF as distinguished from fantasy) is a highly specialized genre requiring highly specialized editors and writers.

Science fiction is fiction about science. It is fiction in which the story would fall apart if you removed the scientific element. It would be a disaster to try to write or edit SF if you don't have the background for it. If an SF story is not scientifically literate and plausible, SF readers will spot the flaws from a thousand light-years away.

4. Too many Christians are hostile to science.

Many Christians see science—especially the fields of biology and cosmology—as the enemy of faith. SF that is truly speculative and imaginative (that is, free to speculate on the full range of scientific possibility) would be rejected by many Christians as being "biblically incorrect." That's tragic, but it's a fact.

5. The CBA editorial bias against F&SF as "unsalable" is too firmly entrenched.

Ted Dekker’s experience [of selling his Black, White, and Red trilogy] shows that F&SF will sell in the CBA—but not as F&SF. A book must transcend the F&SF label in order to have a chance with both CBA editors and readers. Editors rejected Ted early on because they were convinced that "fantasy doesn't sell in the CBA." Fantasy can only be sold to CBA editors and readers if it is positioned not as fantasy, but as a "thriller" or, better yet, as "spiritual warfare" fiction.

So what do you do if you want to write SF? Three choices, as I see it.

1. You can write F&SF without labeling it or positioning it as such. As I noted above, you have to have another dimension of your novel, such as "spiritual warfare," which overshadows the "fantasy" dimension. As Ted Dekker has said—and proven—fantasy can sell, fantasy can rock, but if you lead with the "fantasy" label, you're leading with your chin.

It's interesting to note that Wikipedia's entry on Ted Dekker doesn't label him as a fantasy writer. Instead, it says, "Though classified as 'Christian Fiction,' Dekker's work often crosses genres," and it lists his genres as "Christian Fiction, Fantasy, Thriller, Horror, Psychological Thriller, Suspense, Mystery, Magical Realism." Ted succeeds in the CBA not because he writes fantasy but because he writes Ted Dekker fiction, which is its own niche.

2. You can publish with Jeff Gerke's Marcher Lord Press. If you want the freedom to write the kind of Christian F&SF that the CBA won't touch because "F&SF doesn't sell in the CBA" and which the secular market won't touch because it's "too religious," then Jeff has come up with a good middle ground.
Marcher Lord doesn't pay advances, but it also does not charge "vanity press" fees, and as an editor, Jeff will be discriminating. So Marcher Lord is a POD press without the vanity—an innovative concept.

3. You can break into the secular SF marketplace. For example, [CBA author] Ed Willett has published two hard SF novels, Lost in Translation and Marseguro, with secular SF publisher DAW Books; a third is on the way (Terra Insegura).


Timothy Fish said...

As Jim stated, “a good story is a good story.” Unfortunately, much of the Christian science fiction that I have seen fails to be a good story. Jim is incorrect when he says that science fiction is “fiction in which the story would fall apart if you removed the scientific element.” A good story, transcends the framework in which it is placed. The story of Dune, for example, could have been told in a medieval setting or even a contemporary setting. It is only the setting that would fall apart if we removed the scientific element in Dune. In some of the Christian speculative fiction I have seen, the story does fall apart if the science or fantasy element is removed. When this happens, it is an indication that there wasn’t much of a story in the first place.

Jefferson Scott said...

Thanks to Brandilyn for running this blog entry and to Jim for making such cogent arguments--and for plugging my publishing company, Marcher Lord Press.

I'd like to make a clarification, though. Marcher Lord Press is more than "POD without the vanity," though in a certain sense that's true. MLP is a regular publishing company in terms of acquisitions, the editorial process, the cover design process, the finished book, and the cost to the author--which is none.

The difference is that I'm eliminating the roadblock to the success of Christian speculative fiction, which I see as the Christian publishing and bookselling industry. My model bypasses that obstacle and gets these incredible science fiction and fantasy (and other wonderfully weird) novels directly to the readers who crave them.

Instead of printing thousands of copies, shipping and warehousing them, employing a sales staff to sell to the bookstore chains, working with massive distribution and returns, I sell directly to the consumer via the Internet.

There is no middleman. There is only Marcher Lord Press novels and the people who want them. The Internet, an online shopping cart, and a print technology that lets me produce exactly as many copies of the book as are ordered allows this system to work.

Jim's right that I pay my authors no advance, but I also pay my authors 50% of profits after I recoup my expenses. A traditional CBA publisher will pay only ~18%. My authors are, believe me, not unhappy with this arrangement.

And because my expenses are so low, I have to sell many fewer copies before breaking even. A traditional CBA publisher has to sell at least 8,000 units to be in the black (and often more like 12,000-25,000), whereas I have to sell 250. That's right: 250. And then I'm sharing profits with my authors.

I appreciate what Jim said about me being discriminating in the books I'll publish. He's right. Some people think I will publish whatever they send me. Untrue. As I said before, MLP is the same as a traditional publishing company when it comes to acquisitions.

I will hand-select 3 books for each of my two seasons per year. That's 3 out of the many, many I'm sent. If you're interested in possibly writing for MLP, go to www.MarcherLordPress.com and click on the "Write For Us" link.

The premier lineup of Marcher Lord Press novels will officially release on October 1 of this year. On Launch Day I'm having a massive prize drawing.

I've got dozens of prizes already, including autographed sets of Christian speculative fiction series, signed and limited edition professional space artwork, a leather-bound 50th Anniversary edition of The Lord of the Rings, and more. But the main attraction is the grand prize, which is a trip you'll have to visit www.marcherlordpress.com to learn about.

So come on over and register to win. And tell everyone you know, because for every person who signs up and names you as referrer, your name goes into the prize pool another time.

Thanks again, Brandilyn and Jim!

Jeff Gerke
Publisher, Marcher Lord Press
Founder, www.WhereTheMapEnds.com

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Jim's comments are the kind that drive me to distraction. For some unknown reason, people inside the CBA arm of the publishing business turn a blind eye to the growing successes. Five years ago, there was Karen Hancock writing fantasy, and no one else. Today there is Bryan Davis, doing YA fantasy for Zondervan and under contract for an adult series.

Wayne Thomas Batson with Thomas Nelson is highly successful and has been on the CBA best-selling list with his YA The Door Within series.

Jim mentioned Donita Paul (WaterBrook), pure fantasy, marketed as fantasy, highly successful as fantasy. And now WaterBrook has added Jeffrey Overstreet (adult/YA fantasy series, Auralia's Thread) and Andrew Peterson (middle grade fantasy, The Wingfeather Saga). And what about Sharon Hinck's Restorer series (Second book, Restorer's Son is the ACFW book club feature this month). Strang has a new author just coming out—I just saw the first chapter posted by one of The First Chapter blogging group. Those are the ones off the top of my head.

But every time this "fantasy doesn't sell" mantra gets passed on by someone in the business, this creates the kind of reverse buzz that can smother the growth.

Sorry for taking up space here, Brandilyn. I think I really need to go over and comment on Jim's site.


Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Well, now I realize he didn't say these comments on a blog where I could post a response.

Let me just voice my opinion on one more point. This selling fantasy by calling it something else is flawed. Ted Dekker's early books, the ones that built his reputation, were not fantasy. Truly, if an author makes a name, faithful readers will probably buy pretty much whatever he writes, so I understand why Dekker fantasy doesn't count as proof that fantasy sells. But when Bethany tried to do the same thing with Robin Parrish's superhero series, the only way some fantasy lovers discovered the books was because the CSFF tour featured the second in the series. Calling them "thrillers" meant the target audience passed them by.

Dekker's later success with fantasy, however, should indicate that there isn't the kind of resistance to the genre that Jim listed and others claim. Maybe once. Perhaps in small doses even yet, but those are people who haven't read the likes of George Bryan Polivka's The Trophy Chase Trilogy—a fantasy caught between being marketed as fantasy and as a pirate's tale. As one blog tour reviewer said, it is the most Christian Christian book she had read.

I'll also say, with fantasy as big as it is in the general market, I'm not sure why Jim thinks the push in the CBA would be all that risky. Especially on the heels of the next Narnia movie. (And the five that will follow, if Prince Caspian is as successful as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.)

Well, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it. ;-)


Timothy Fish said...

In his defense, Jim appears to be talking about Science Fiction more than Fantasy. Some of the things he mentions do not apply to Fantasy. Fantasy can take place in a different Universe, as is the case with Narnia, but Science Fiction must be believable. There has been a lot of successful Christian Fantasy lately. What we haven’t seen is successful Christian Science Fiction. What I don’t know is whether that is because it doesn’t have an audience or because the people trying to write can’t write it very well. I suspect the latter.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Jeff, thanks for stopping by and your clarification. Becky, Timothy--I welcome the comments. Although I don't write in either of these genres, I support them and want to see them successful in CBA. The discussions help keep the genre before the public, whether we agree on all the finer points or not.

Grady Houger said...

Seems to me we are just seeing the start of Christian F&SF. Individual works are out there, but it will be long hard building of market share until we can say Christian F&SF is alive and well.

Consumers are horribly cruel. As a wannabe writer I'm all for efforts like Marcher Lord Press, but as a consumer, I don't want to buy from a site that looks homemade. It's not pro-slick enough, and not weird enough a site design to be appealing. Which says nothing about the narrative quality of books MLP will publish; consumers buy because of looks, and talk and frequent reminders to buy.

As far as Science Fiction goes, it seems to be fading as a straight up genre, innovative thematic workings are getting used up so lots of the new stuff blurs into other genres to stay unique. Of course straight fantasy is even more worn out, but culturally its still popular.

Writing truly unique and groundbreaking books is nearly impossible, and can be hard to relate to. Most of the fiction market volume is interesting adaptation of generic convention. Once there's enough known Christian styled texts to work from (and concurrently readers to consume the results) Christian F&SF can be its own self sustaining market segment.

Pam Halter said...

I write fantasy for middle grade readers and I just got an opportunity to send a proposal to a big CBA publisher because they're looking to expand. It seems to me that CBA publishing may finally be catching up. I hope so!

Another fav Christian fantasy writer is Bryan Davis, who made #1 last year on the Christian Best Seller List. He writes for teens and his writing brings fantasy up to a new level. He's really good.

I just finished reading The Fifth Man by Randy Ingermanson and John Olson. Totally Sci-fi and totally Christian. Not only was it a great story and brillantly written, it dared to suggest there might be life on Mars, even if it's a simple bacteria. If you like SF, get Oxygen (the first book) and The Fifth Man. It will be worth your time.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Brandilyn, you are supportive of the genre, as I can attest to personally. I appreciate the opportunity to draw attention to the "progress" some houses are making in producing fantasy.

What I am continuously surprised at are broad, negative statements that don't account for the most recent trends.

I do agree with Grady that SF and fantasy are in different places, but they are, in the general market, as well. The two have reversed places. After Star Wars, fantasy faded and Space Opera jumped forward, then more and more hard SF.

Now fantasy, feeding off Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and now Narnia, has supplanted SF, for the most part.

SF writers do have the option of inserting science into their thrillers. And movies continue to come out in the genre, so it's not dead, for sure.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is still strong in the general market and becoming stronger in CBA. Just last summer Wayne Thomas Batson was featured on the front page of the Washington Post regarding his "answer to Harry Potter" and later was interviewed by Reuters.

Soon after, Publishers Weekly had an article about the growth of the genre.

These are the kinds of things I hope more writers will talk about.


Sue Dent said...

A CBA editor has said, "Many of us love to read SciFi, and would love to be publishing it. But guess what happened when we did? Nobody bought it."

That's probably because CBA and ECPA serve a niche market and their books are primarily the only books you find in Christian Bookstores. So many that non-affiliated publishers can't compete. Shelve after shelve after shelve of CBA and ECPA published books is just too intimidating.

Christian's who want to read general Christian fiction/fantasy/anything have gotten burned by reading niche market books unintentionally or otherwise.

It will be quite a while, I suspect before CBA and ECPA re-evaulate their demographic so that their books appeal to a broader market.

The good news--now that Christian bookstores are learning that people actually want-- no demand--books by publishers they haven't been carrying, things are changing.

Finally, books that serve the general Christian market are appearing on shelves in Christian bookstores!

First you have to provide readers with what they want. CBA and ECPA have done a fine job of providing their readers with what they want. The issue is, that's all anyone can usually find in a Christian bookstore.

That's why they go to the bigger booksellers. :)

*waves at Jeff* You POD, you! LOLROFL Yes. MLP the great POD! Glad he did his research! ;)

Edward Willett said...

Thanks for the mention of Marseguro and Lost in Translation, but I've never actually been published in the CBA market, so I don't think I'm your best possible example there...

Merrie Destefano said...

I'm jumping in on this conversation a bit late. Sorry.

Here's my take on the whole Sci-Fi/Fantasy thing. These are my observations, based on my limited resources and opportunities to research the market.

Book publishing currently seems to be following trends established in the film industry. In the past several years we've seen the enormous success of movies like The Lord of the Rings and Narnia. These movies inspired us. All of us.

What happened? Many people now want to write fantasy. More people seem to be writing fantasy than sci-fi.

What am I basing this on? Well, for one thing, comments I've heard made by acquisitions editors at Tor. Paul Stevens at Tor said that they are more open to science fiction (a year or so ago) than fantasy, because he just wasn't getting as many submissions. It wasn't that he didn't want to publish science fiction. He just wasn't getting it. And he said that it was extremely tough for a new writer to break into fantasy. Why? Because most writers in that genre write a series of books. And once they complete a series, they have another one in mind. So if a major publisher is trying to decide between a series by Orson Scott Card or me, who do you think they will choose?

Then, a year later, I spoke with Susan Chang, the YA fiction acquisitions editor for Tor. She told me that she LOVES science fiction. She is eagerly looking for that science fiction equivalent to Harry Potter (so if you've got it, look her up.) She said that she wants to create the interest in a younger generation.

She also told me that classic sci-fi, space opera where the hero travels to another planet, is dead. Now, we can argue that point but I figure that since she works for Tor, a giant in the industry, maybe she has her fingers on the sales pulse. If she's not buying it, because it won't sell, then maybe that's not the genre to write.

I do see doors opening in CBA. I do see editors who like both genres, sci-fi and fantasy. I say don't lose heart, don't stop writing your passion. But do keep an eye on the market, as best as you can. And be ready to jump when you see an opening. Have the absolute best manuscript available ready when your door opens. Make it the best thing you have EVER written. Ever. You might even want to--hold on to your stomach, this is tough talk here--show your manuscript to a book doctor and work through any problems. Like I said, it needs to sparkle.

And marketing. We are going to need some dynamite marketing to get sci-fi off the ground. I think what Becky and Jeff are doing is FANTASTIC. We need more visionaries out there.

Keep looking for ways to network. To get the word out. About new books and authors. And I would recommend that we each become a bridge to ABA writers and readers. They need to hear about our stuff and we need to hear about their stuff.

Pray for each other. For your fellow writers and readers. Give each other a pat on the back once in awhile. Be supportive of editors who have taken a chance on some of this speculative stuff.

There are more books out there, standing in the wings, projects we don't even know about yet. And they will get published. I strongly believe it.

Please be supportive of them when they come out. Even if they aren't "exactly" what you like. CBA is too small a niche to support every nuance of the genres that we like. Fantasy and sci fi have so many subgenres. Don't turn up your nose at the space opera that gets published. Don't say bad things about the urban fantasy book that is on the shelves.

Instead, rejoice! A door is opening.

And we may get to read a story that we love.

Thanks, Brandilyn, for bringing up this subject. I greatly appreciate it and the support behind it.

Blessings on your writing, all of you!

SolShine7 said...

Check out www.SciFiChick.com

Angela is a Christian and sci-fi & fantasy reader and her site is becoming more and more popular. She's reviewed some of Sharon Hinck's books and I'd consider her a visionary in regards to marketing. I'd highly suggest some Christian sci-fi & fantasy authors to advertise on there. You could really get your book in front of some new sci-fi fans. Or perhaps submit your book and hope that she reviews it or offer a couple copies for her give-a-ways that get HUNDREDS of comments on people wanting to get their hands on free stuff.

Let's support a sister in the faith who is gaining some success in the blogosphere.