Chip MacGregor

July 20, 2015

Can CBA novelists move to the general market?


What with the struggles of Christian fiction over the past couple of years, one of the most frequent questions I’ve been getting has to do with the potential shift of writers from CBA to the general market — specifically, Can a CBA novelist move to a traditional publishing house in the general market?

My answer is quick: Potentially you can, but it’s very tough to do successfully. 

I understand why inspirational authors want to explore this shift — CBA fiction is pen and inkshrinking, there are fewer legacy publishing houses releasing fiction, and those that do focus on fiction have generally been trimming the number of titles they release. That’s particularly true with literary fiction, where there are just a handful of traditional CBA houses who do any literary titles at all. And while there are a number of new, smaller presses popping up with titles aimed at religious readers, few have shown staying power and nearly all of them are focused on category fiction (most often romances, though there are also some cozy mysteries, romantic suspense, and even some spec fiction titles available).

In addition, traditional CBA publishers have heavily relied on brick-and-mortar stores to move their books, and the disappearance of so many Christian bookstores has hit publishers extremely hard. The potential closing of Family Christian Stores, the largest chain of religious bookstores, has been a scary proposition for CBA publishers, as I’ve noted on this blog in the past. A recent study done on the buying habits of those who read Christian fiction demonstrated their reliance on finding titles in brick-and-mortar stores. So we have as many writers as ever, but trying to do books in a market with fewer publishers, who are doing fewer titles, available on fewer stores shelves. That’s the problem, in a nutshell.

The potential answer for many authors has been to try and take their stories to the broader general market… and it hasn’t been working. Why? First, understand that much of CBA fiction is dominated by the conservative evangelical brand of Christianity, and the general market isn’t interested in those types of stories. It’s not that they are closed to faith, but people who aren’t part of that culture can’t be expected to embrace it. A writer who grows up in the evangelical culture, who is surrounded by the American evangelical milieux, often isn’t going to know how to speak to a broader audience. (Again, I happily represent a bunch of Christian authors, so I’m not criticizing — only trying to explain the issue.)

We can argue over this point, and I expect a bunch of CBA writers to tell me that, no, they know how to interact with the culture, etc. I’m sorry, but I’ve been working with both religious and non-religious texts for years now, and in my experience, most novelists in CBA struggle mightily to write to a broader audience. They don’t know how to stop using religious language. Their examples are often Bible-based. The situations they describe are frequently the things talked about in church. They over-worry about sex and strong language. Again, I’m not slamming these folks; I’m explaining that many writers in that situation will logically struggle when trying to reach a non-churched audience.

Second, CBA authors struggle reaching out to a general market audience because there really is no “crossover” market. Listen, I represent both Christian and general-market fiction, and I’m regularly pitched book ideas by writers who want to appeal to both markets. That almost never works — the books end up being too Jesus-y for the general readers, and too worldly for the Christian readers. What’s intended as a blending of the two cultures ends up in no-man’s-land. They appeal to neither side, and nobody buys the book. (And yes, it’s true that on rare occasions a book like The Shack will find an audience in both markets… but it’s the exception that proves the rule. Books like that are so rare that, when one pops up, it’s news.)

Third, writers of Christian fiction, particularly Christian literary fiction, tend to write small, quiet stories. That makes sense, when you think about it — the notion of faith is a personal thing, and a story about it is often one about thoughts, motivations, and internal decisions. I would argue the bulk of literary novels in CBA have been rather quiet stories about people who face some life event and make an internal decision. They are often small stories, and largely thoughtful. And that’s a problem in the general market, where they are usually looking for big, noisy, banging-around-in-the-mess stories. (Yeah, I’m generalizing. There are examples of big CBA literary stories, and examples of quiet general market stories. But overall, this has been a problem for authors trying to move from CBA to a broader audience.)

Fourth, I believe there is a significant difference between CBA and the general market in terms of the purpose and the perspective of fiction. To many Christian novelists, the purpose of art is largely theological (i.e., it should evangelize, it should glorify God, it should illuminate Scripture, etc), and their perspective is therefore to write books that demonstrate that truth. To many writing non-religious novels, the purpose of art is varied — to entertain, to reflect, to challenge, to reveal, to make a statement. I think it’s fair to say many artists would say art has no purpose; it just exists. And their perspective is that art is a means of expressing ourselves, even if that expression is unkind or unfair or unholy. That’s a far cry from the CBA purpose and perspective. So someone who is outside of the American evangelical camp tends to look at CBA fiction and think, “Why are you spending so much time on God-talk?” or “Why are you trying to proselytize me?” The two groups are speaking different languages, and going after different goals. There are certainly some similarities, of course — in both technique (characters we like, a strong story arc, etc) and in tropes (good vs evil, redemption, etc). But there are fundamental differences, and it’s why most CBA novelists won’t make it in the general market.

Now, having said that, I continue to believe in inspirational fiction, and to hold out hope for a more varied publishing landscape for Christian writers. I’ve helped some authors move successfully from CBA to the general market, but they’ve had to change how they view their work. There is a movement among many Christian novelists to make fiction more realistic and less theological, though they struggle with finding traditional publishers and sales venues. There are also discussions at some CBA houses to create new fiction lines that won’t be limited by the old strictures of Christian fiction (“no sex,” “no language,” “no bleak views of the world”), but that still offer stories of hope and faith and a moral compass. And I know there is a movement afoot to try and get those titles mixed in with other literature at stores, and not stuck in the Christian fiction ghetto of Barnes & Noble. So I continue to believe in the value of Christian fiction, but I also believe we’re beginning to see a much broader world of literature, some of it still Christian, but outside the historical boundaries of CBA fiction.

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  • Rachel Leigh Smith says:

    I’m at RWA and plan to come back later to read all of the comments here. I have to say too, it’s so refreshing and wonderful to see a thousand writers my own age and a little older. Instead of hundreds of writers 50 and over like at Christian conferences.

    I have to say, though, it bothers me a great deal to see NO ONE in positions of influence within CBA acknowledging the fact that the CBA core readership is starting to die, and that the next generation of core readership is no longer interested in what CBA has to offer.

    As a young Christian woman who’s survived hell, CBA fiction does not reflect my reality. It doesn’t give me hope, it doesn’t address my needs, it doesn’t point me to God, and it doesn’t draw me in. We live in a messy, screwed up world full of hurting people who are sick to death of theological platitudes and “oh just pray about it and everything will be okay.”

    No. Everything is not okay. I’m a 30-something, and the church lost the bulk of my generation 15 years ago. The ones who do come back want nothing to do with Christian culture. I want nothing to do with Christian culture because I find it shallow, boring, and insulting to my intelligence.

    Until these issues are acknowledged, CBA fiction is in serious, devastating, trouble that will lead to its demise sooner rather than later. I’d love to be wrong, but unless there’s a drastic change in how CBA writers and publishers approach the art of fiction, I’ll be very sad the day I’m proven right.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for commenting, Rachel. Just so you know, some of us have indeed talked about the graying CBA readership (and I’ve had conversations with CBA publishers about that very topic). I tend to agree with you — we’ve lost a generation of readers because the books just didn’t fit the culture. I think the indie publishing movement is one response to that problem.

    • Rachel Leigh Smith says:

      That’s good to hear.

  • Steven Hutson says:

    I think a lot of Christian writers falsely believe they’re “supposed to” write Christian content, when their talents could well be applied to the larger market.

    About three years ago, I met an author at a Christian writers’ conference who had a wonderful romance series. Because it wasn’t religious, we pitched it far and wide. Both Christian and secular publishers asked to read it, and we thought we might get an offer from Berkley. Eventually signed with a Christian publisher. When the book was released, I took it into my local BN store to ask, if they had this book in stock, where would they shelve it, in the Christian or Romance section? They couldn’t give me a straight answer. But it occurred to me, I wish I had tried harder with Berkley, because in the general romance section it would get a lot more attention.

  • Mary DeMuth says:

    My latest is being shopped exclusively in NYC. It’s definitely general market. So I say it’s possible to “jump,” but you need to have a great grasp on great general market fiction, and really ought to have read a lot of it over the years.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for saying something, Mary. And yes — a solid grasp of general market fiction, knowing who you want to write to, what story you want to tell, what fits, what you’re comfortable saying. Appreciate this. (Mary DeMuth is one of my favorite writers and a longtime friend, by the way. Have a look at her work sometime — you’ll appreciate her voice and abilities.)

  • Great post Chip. I wouldn’t expect anything less! As for some thoughts… I saw that Jaime had mentioned “Storm Siren” which also came to mind when I think of “crossover” (if there is such a thing). As a reader, I have always loved Christian Fiction, but through the years I started to crave stories that were more…real? That dealt with bigger issues. I didn’t want to jump full force into something that was excessively dark either (oh so picky!). I jumped on board the YA train and was extremely happy. I love the social issues discussed, the twinge of romance, and the action (though some of the excessive emotion/teen angst I could do without). I came to see YA was no longer just for young teens interested in reading.

    Personally, as I consider my future writing career, I fuss over the types of details you discuss here because I hate being confined. I want to include my faith, but I don’t want it to blind the reader or turn someone away who could “just” enjoy a good story. I think of C.S. Lewis and his approach through allegory (granted, that’s C.S. Lewis…). I understand there is no middle ground, but I feel like I’m the type of stubborn person who would look for it, haha. At the end of the day though, I think about what my purpose for writing is. As with my photography business, it’s not a Christian business, it’s a business and I’m a Christian. Though that doesn’t mean I’d throw my morals to the wind in my writing, I like the idea of stepping into the general market to broaden my audience for the sake of personal connection. Not sure if this is possible, but it’s something I consider. I wonder though, after years spent building a “Christian audience”, if that would be unwise. Gaining traction in today’s social media saturated world is definitely a consideration. Ah..all the questions.

    Thanks for making me think 😉

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Lots of good questions, Emilie. I appreciate you coming on to the blog to ask them. I think your struggle is one many have faced, as they’ve changed their reading habits. It’s why I don’t think there is “one answer” to this issue. (And for those who don’t know, Emilie shows up at writer conferences and takes photos of you… but she’s always trying to put bunny ears on people. It’s annoying.)

    • Ha. Wow…so that’s how it’s going to be, huh? You’re spreading nasty rumors about me Chip….

  • Great post, Chip. I agree with you that crossovers don’t happen very often. It might work better to decide if you’re CBA or general market, but don’t get in a rush. My advice to other authors would be that if you aren’t sure if your stories are general market material, then they aren’t. Don’t change yourself just because you think the grass is greener on the other side. It’s not, so wait it out. The whole publishing world is in transition. If you don’t hear God calling you to the general market, I’d stay put. My personal experience with a small general market press has been good. I have better digital sales and readers who seem to better accept my stories as Women’s Fiction without the debate of is it Christian enough, too Christian, etc., but I’m new again and I still have to work hard to find the women’s fiction audience. It’s something I’m willing to do because I want to find my readers and I know my books have never been considered straight CBA. That makes me a good candidate. I’m not here to cram my fiction into a market that it doesn’t fit into. That said, I’m a Christian. I’m not cancelling my ACFW membership or exiling my Christian readers. No way. It’s a matter of the market, not my personal faith.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I really appreciate you coming on to say this, Tina. For those who don’t know, Tina did a couple wonderful literary novels with Waterbrook, and has continued doing some publishing with a very small house. She’s an excellent writer who can easily fall into the “too Christian for the general market, not safe enough for CBA” category. But those who read her that way miss out on a wonderful storyteller. Check out “Waking Up Joy,” which is a great read she did last year.

  • Tracy Krauss says:

    This is such a relevant post. It’s been my struggle off & on for ten years and I think you have exposed the pitfalls of trying to ‘be all things to all people’ very well. I would suggest that the Christian ‘landscape’ has changed in the last 10 to 15 years as well, though, and perhaps there IS a market – albeit small – for fiction that is both ‘gritty’ and has a strong theological message. The thing that authors need to realize is that it is still a separate market – largely online – and they can’t have it both ways. I guess at some point writers have to choose whom they are writing for.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I agree – in my view, there’s an audience for nearly every title these days, Tracy. The issue may be more, “is it a large enough audience to make a publisher any money, or is it so small the author’s only realistic option is to self-pub?” But again, that’s always changing because publishing is a tidal, shifting business. (And by the way, love your comment that at some point writers have to choose their audience — agree completely with that notion.)

  • Ian says:

    Chip, excellent summary of an issue that is often debated. I often use the expression that we believers need to hear the gospel everyday just as much as non-believers and hence, CBA fiction helps us in that regard.

    It’ll be interesting to see how the various Award programs treat the “more varied publishing landscape within CBA” in particular, those excellent stories that don’t really have much of a spiritual message will be treated alongside those with stronger messages. It’ will be an interesting philosophical debate for each of the programs.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s a good question to discuss, Ian. Part of the bigger issue (and one I need to cover on this blog sometime) is how bookstores might begin to work with smaller and indie presses. Appreciate you raising the question.

  • Leah C. Morgan says:

    This discussion brings Jan Karon to mind, and I marvel again at her brilliant, continuing success. Her general market works, that eventually crossed over onto the Christian bookstore shelves, are full of scripture references contemplated by the main character, an Anglican priest, who appears at the conclusion of nearly every title leading someone in the sinner’s prayer. She’s a shining (and rare) example of overtly religious novels crashing the general market with brilliance, excellence, and good taste. I’d wish for a multitude of Jan Karon’s.

    I appreciate your writing too, Chip. Thanks for keeping us current.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Leah. I’ve long been a big fan of Jan Karon, so I appreciate you bringing up her name.

    • Leah C. Morgan says:

      Glad to learn you’re a fan. I’ll have to share a great story about her with you some day.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Would love that. We met once, and started to talk about both being Anglicans, got interrupted, and I never talked with her again.

  • Lisa says:

    Really interesting discussion. I am struggling with this as I look for an agent for my novel. I totally agree that the majority of CBA books are written by and to a evangelical Christian audience….or, should I say, an American evangelical Christian audience. I make that distinction because, as a Canadian evangelical, I see a lot of differences. I have written the book I feel passionate about, but my problem is the more I look around the more I realize there is likely no one who will take a chance on it. As you say, Chip, it’s likely too preachy for the ABA and too “outside the box” for the CBA. It’s a speculative fiction – historical fantasy, with time travel, and the Fey, set in Dark Ages Britain. The main character is a Christian, but most of the action takes place in a time before the Reformation, so I’m pretty sure the CBA market will see it as too “Catholic” for them. Sigh. I think self-publishing is probably my only option. I’m glad that is available to me, at any rate.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Let’s see… Catholic. Spec fiction. Canadian. Time travel. You hit the jackpot, Lisa! We’re pretty sure you don’t actually qualify as a Christian. :o)

  • Patrick Craig says:

    Chip, can you give some examples of CBA writers that have made the crossover? Not just a fluke like the shack which retains all it’s religious language, but writers that present moral dilemmas in non-“preachy” language. I think it can be done.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think it can be done as well, Patrick. Have a look just above — I listed some folks. Would love to hear who others would recommend as well.

    • Patrick Craig says:

      Would Francine Rivers qualify, or is she strictly Christian. Some of her books have some pretty explicit sex scenes. I’m self-publishing my next book in August after three books at Harvest House. It’s a book that looks like Amish fiction but is way beyond that genre with violence, crooks, strong language and implied sexuality. I guess the new word for Christin fiction that sells is “edgy.”

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’ll admit I’ve only read a couple Francine Rivers novels, and she was very CBA-friendly — but hers is a name others use when talking about this issue, Patrick. My guess is her various works would need to be judged individually, and I’m not the best judge. (But her agent is a friend, and if Danielle comes on to argue, I’ll love it.)

  • Tammy L Gray says:

    Thank you, Chip, for this blog. Very insightful. I have recently struggled with the same thing. I’ve written several self-published Christian books that have done really well, but they are definitely modern and “edgier” (although I find that word ridiculous in our current romance culture. After they hit some Amazon Christian bestsellers lists, of course the critics came in. Especially from Christian readers. The book was too sensual, I didn’t show the Gospel enough, and many more. For a stretch of time, I let it get to me and thought I should maybe move to ABA since I didn’t seem to fit the mold of CBA. Then several readers and friends made me realize that writing something different in CBA is a niche and a positive one. Sure, my traditional publishing options may be limited, but with indie being such a viable option, it seems silly not write what I’m passionate about. So, I guess I want to encourage those out there who are struggling. If you want to write a Christian book, write it, and stop worrying about the rules. You may be surprised how many readers want what you’re writing.

  • Chip, I appreciate how you infuse these posts with hope for the CBA fiction market. It seems to me that we’re experiencing some growing pains. As a CBA author, I’m not ready to give up on the inspirational market. I’m hearing more and more from my readers that they desire something new from Christian fiction. They’re looking for more literary work. There’s a market for it. We just have to do our best to get those books into the right hands.

    Also, I laughed a little when I read “Christian fiction ghetto of Barnes & Noble”. That is how it feels.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    As always, great thoughts on this subject, Chip. A couple of my favorite authors are Christians writing for the general market, some of whom have crossed over from the CBA. Charles Martin comes to mind. I’d love to read more books by authors who’ve successfully crossed over. Any suggestions?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Chalres Martin is a good one. Of course lots of folks like John Grisham, Sue Monk Kidd, Davis Bunn, Sue Meissner, Philip Gulley, Marilynne Robinson, Susan Howatch, and old-timers like Graham Greene, Evenlyn Waugh, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor… Who else do people recommend?

    • Robin Patchen says:

      You’ve got a few of my favorite authors on that list, Chip, and some new ones to check out. Thanks!

    • Carolyn Perpetua Astfalk says:

      I’d say Dean Koontz should be on the list. Lots of religious themes but would never fit a “Christian” publishing model.

    • Robin Patchen says:

      Good point. He’s a really good writer.

    • NLB Horton, author says:

      Thanks for this blog post, which addresses exactly what my literary agent and I are addressing right now.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You’re welcome, NLB. Nice of you to comment.

  • Dorothy Love says:

    Another great post, Chip. I’m currently finishing my seventh novel for Thomas Nelson and I’d have to agree that the crossover market is not there. Another problem with trying to “cross over” is store placement ( the “ghetto” you mentioned). As more of the square footage in brick and mortar stores is given over to gift items, stationery, chocolate, bookmarks, tote bags and the like there are fewer shelves for books and the managers of the various departments fiercely guard their territory. It doesn’t matter how a book is BISACd; if it comes from a Christian house it is going in Christian fiction where most general market readers fear to tread.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks very much, Dorothy. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. And I totally agree with your note on BISAC codes — doesn’t make a bit of a difference if the store sees you’ve done Christian fiction in the past, or they see you’re from a traditionally Christian house, they’ll stick it where they want to stick it.

  • Laura Droege says:

    Chip, what would be your advice to unpublished Christian writers who wish to write in the general market? I don’t have the baggage associated with trying to crossover from CBA to the general market. But I do have the baggage of growing up in the ultra-conservative Deep South part of the Bible Belt, where everyone tends to be “churchy” (though not Christian). How can I make certain that I know how to speak to a general market audience, as opposed to a CBA audience?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Write the best book you can. Get some editorial help from an established freelance editor to help you shape and polish your book. Know what your story is and who you want to write it to. Have the courage of your convictions to get it right.

    • Laura Droege says:

      Thank you, Chip.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Well… that was off the cuff, Laura. And a bunch of agents no doubt read my response and rolled their eyes.

    • Laura Droege says:

      Nothing wrong with off the cuff, Chip! You give good advice.

    • Rachel Leigh Smith says:

      That’s what I did, Laura. Another thing you can do is make an effort to get out of the Christian bubble. It’s there, even here in the Deep South. Once you get out of the bubble, you can see what the rest of the world is like, listen to how they talk, and adapt it to your voice.

      I write general market romance that’s very sensual, but I tend to take a closed door approach to sex. I don’t use a lot of language, but I’m not opposed to using it when it’s the right word. And yes, I have dropped the F-bomb in my next release because it was the right word to show the character’s state of mind.

      What I’m doing is working. I’m connecting with readers and starting to build my super fans. I picked up a reviewer who prefers almost erotic-level sex, but she adores my stuff and gave my spring release 5 stars.

      Dig deep into your characters and emotions, avoid Christian buzzwords, and you can pull it off and make a successful go at ABA genres. I’m having the time of my life.

    • Laura Droege says:

      Thanks for the advice, Rachel Leigh. I’m doing my best to dig deep into my characters and avoid church lingo. (Some of the Christian buzzwords freak me out. I can only imagine how they sound to unchurched people.) It sounds like you’re doing well with your romance novels; I hope all continues to go well for you!

  • Susan B says:

    Chip, I appreciate your straightforward article. I think it is very difficult for a CBA author to be successful in ABA, particularly in the genre categories. They will always have to sacrifice message for plot and characterizations. Most of the “crossover” books (Leif Engle’s Peace Like a River comes to mind) were never written with a CBA audience market in mind. The author wrote a really great book from the heart. There are a few genre categories that make for easy transition for CBA authors…Amish (it sells anywhere), cozy mysteries, straight suspense (NOT romantic suspense), women’s upmarket fiction to name a few. We’ve got to keep this conversation going and I appreciate your no nonsense approach.

  • C. Kevin Thompson says:

    A pastor recently discussed this topic in a different arena. He said we (Christians) have done ourselves and God a disservice by doing things like creating a Christian softball league/team instead of being salt and light in the league already established all because we don’t want to hear someone drop the F-bomb. Yet, we’ll think nothing of taking that lucrative job with (you fill in the blank here) and listen to that kind of language, watch people lie, cheat, and virtually steal their way up the corporate ladder. So, with that said, I truly applaud the idea of creating separate publishing presses or imprints designed to target the non-CBA market. CBA is great for non-fiction, Christian living, theological treatise kind of work because that’s where it should be. Fiction has a place here, too, but as you said, it’s stillbpreachin’ to the choir. I often think of Jesus, who when He was with his disciples, spoke about theological and spiritual matters. But when Jesus was “out about” dealing with the masses, he spoke in parables. There’s a pattern here we should be following.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’ve always found it interesting that people of faith were willing to watch movie and TV that the culture enjoys, but then act suddenly righteous and holy when a novel comes out they may not like.

  • T. G. Cooper says:

    Well, there you go. (Throwing up my hands.) Christian fiction is dead. You can say you still believe in it, Chip, but you’ve effectively argued otherwise. What remains is another question. Can something rise from the ashes and represent a Christian (and not necessarily Evangelical) worldview that people will want to read? Perhaps it’s worth noting that one response I’ve noticed among Christians is a overwhelming aversion to ebooks. It involves online purchasing, something that Christians I’ve encountered view as almost evil. That certainly hurts those who offer self-published novels through Kindle and Kobo.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      In my view Christian fiction is certainly alive, T.G. But yes, there is going to be a shift in buying and selling patterns.

  • Cameron Bane says:

    Chip’s my agent, and through his guidance I made the transition from CBA suspense thrillers (five novels published) to the general market. My first one in that genre will be out next week.

  • Lisa McKay says:

    Wow, this is the best and pithiest summary of this issue I’ve read. I think you nailed it, particularly in your look at the fundamental worldview differences that flavour people’s work. Thanks for this.

  • Here’s my solution: Allow certain CBA works to sit on the shelves with general fiction. Whether that be Amazon or at traditional brick and mortar stores. Books-a-Million (at least the one by me) places Tosca Lee’s latest in general fiction, Mary Weber’s Storm Siren series in YA, and Billy Coffey’s In the Heart of the Dark Wood in general fiction. (Okay, I may have moved that last one to general fiction myself,) but I think some CBA titles can be marketed to a broader audience without the authors having to change publishers. At least I sure hope that’s the case.

    • Books are shelf-placed (other than people randomly moving them) where their BISAC codes send them. That’s up to the publishers which codes they put on them for placement.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for the thoughts, Katdish (and the response, Bonnie). Books are generally placed by BISAC codes, but in some cases (such as individual stores or store managers), books can be moved from one section to another. I had one former CBA novelist who did a very general-market adult novel, only to have the BAM folks insist it had to be shelved with her previous titles — thus it went right back to the Christian fiction section.

    • Patricia Zell says:

      Perhaps a pen name?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Many authors have tried that very thing, Patricia. It creates both good and bad issues (a pen name is really hard to keep going in our culture).

    • julie carobini says:


    • chipmacgregor says:


    • My friends at my local BN store have said it’s not up to them where to shelve a book, therefore they shelved my more general market book on the general shelves and my CBA works in the Christian fiction section across the store in the self-help. They’ve found other ways around it, such as using end caps and local author tables, but their hands are tied, I think. It’s a BN corporate thing.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Okay… that’s different from my experience working with B&N over the years, Tina.

    • Plus, the CBA sales teams have relationships with specific bookstore buyers, and those buyers can be very territorial. Hence the difficulty of getting even books published by Blink (a GM imprint of Harper Collins Christian Publishing) shelved in general YA instead of in religious fiction. They’re not going to see their acquisitions get shelved in another buyer’s section.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yes — that’s a common problem, Carla. Nice to see you on the blog, by the way. Guess you got back from your tour of the UK…

  • Strum Pluckins says:

    Great article. I appreciate your insight. How are the YA and MG markets looking in the GM world? These typically don’t have much sex or swearing and I would think they would be a good focus for CBA authors looking to transition.

    • sally says:

      Umm . . . hope Chip doesn’t mind if I jump in here. If you think there is not much sex or swearing in the MG and YA general market books, you have not read many of those lately. Sex is still absent in MG books–the act of, not the mention of–but swearing is alive and well in MG and sex and swearing both are widely available in YA general market books, I think.

      And you can’t just transition to YA and MG because you want to write “clean” books. It doesn’t work that way. If you don’t love and read YA and MG books, you aren’t going to be able to write them well.

    • Ruth Douthitt says:

      Good point about YA. I tried years ago to write a Christian themed YA book but just couldn’t make the voice edgy enough to compete with John Green and others. I tried to read Paper Towns but, as a Christian, found it too edgy. Sigh. YA seems to be a tougher market for Christians. Or is it just me??

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Don’t mind you jumping in, Sally. I’ll second your words — there is significant language and sexuality in general market YA books. And “wanting to write clean mid-grade books” is probably the wrong motivation for making this shift, Strum.

  • Chip, I think you’ll get a lot of comments on this one, and probably some differing viewpoints.
    I can think of a couple of my colleagues who are trying to move from Christian fiction to publication in the general market, and I know of at least one who has gone (quite successfully) in the other direction.
    I’ll be anxious to see how this one goes. Thanks for getting the discussion started.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You bet, Richard. Happy to start the discussion. (And yes, I’ve already seen how one person has announced that my understanding of the word “theological” is incorrect, and I’ve failed to grasp the nuance of the genre, blah blah blah. As you can imagine, I’ll cry all night.)

  • My latest series with Revell, Stone Braide Chronicles has all general market BISAC codes and though new to that part of the market I believe I’m making some headway. The hardest part is with Christian readers reading things into the story…There are no angels, half angels, hybrid angels…or any other kind of angels in the book, or series. There are no spiritual or paranormal themes in the book…There is also nothing supernatural going on and no auras, channeling, or witchcraft either. And then I’ve typically I’ve had several large reviewing houses that think the same thing, I assume because the book comes from a Christian publisher. So yes, it is an uphill battle traversing the divide. But I’m up to the challenge.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Bonnie. You’re right — you are probably being judged by your previous titles. That’s a problem for any writer trying to shift genres. Appreciate you talking about how readers (and reviewers) can read into an author’s work, by the way. I think that’s exactly what happens to some successful authors. Appreciate you sharing your story.

  • julie carobini says:

    I’m currently reading a novel that’s self-pubbed (as far as I can tell) and categorized as women’s fiction, and I’m not aware of any particular tie to CBA. But … the heroine is a Christian, and her faith causes a tug of war over some of her issues. There’s also some profanity and sexual situations that would likely not work in the CBA. I agree with your points, Chip, especially when it comes to finding a publisher for a crossover novel, but I’m also wondering if self-pubbed books will ultimately blur the distinct line between evangelical Christian fiction and general market books. Any thoughts on that?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Without knowing anything about the book, I’ll take a stab and say it sounds like it was too edgy for CBA and too churchy for the general market, Julie. But yes, I think there’s a growing movement among writers (less so among publishers) to try and blur the lines. And, as I mentioned in the post, I think we’ll soon see some CBA publishers attempt to release books that are NOT safe CBA titles.

    • julie carobini says:

      Thanks, Chip. The fact that this particular book appears to be doing well tells me there is an audience somewhere. I picked it up because of the description and cover, but the faith issues in it were a nice surprise. As for CBA publishers releasing unsafe titles, we’ve seen that already–and the controversy that follows them. My guess is those books have a tougher time finding an audience than indie books from writers with no set precedent.

  • Ruth Douthitt says:

    This is a tough topic for me since I’m deliving into contemporary Christian fiction for the first time with my current WIP. I don’t like to read most CCF so I’m writing a Christian book I’d like to read: Not too much God talk and no proselytizing, just real people in real situations trying to get by. I’d love my book to crossover to general market. Am I hoping for too much? Probably. But I’m praying about it and asking God to help me write a story that truly connects with readers from all walks of life.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think there’s room for all types of writers, Ruth. Today’s post just happened to be on the question of those in CBA who want to move to the general market. That’s not my life work — it’s just today’s thinking, since I get to the question so frequently.

  • rachelhauck says:

    I think I’d rather see our books just put on the general fiction shelves and let them stand on their own… or not. I don’t think the book store has to be a filter.

    And, ALL literary fiction is soft! Ha! ( But I love literary fiction!)

    I guess the CBA author has to ask, “Why the general market?” Make sure they’re ready to make the leap. Chip’s right, you have to write a different kind of book with a different tone for the broader audience.

    Think of sitting around a table with your friends and imagine how varied the conversation and opinions can be if you hit on a hot or touchy subject. Even though you all believe the same spiritually, the gray areas can introduce all kinds of variables.

    I think the world is looking for hope, looking for purpose and a reason, and Christian authors can offer that because we know the One who is Hope.

    For me, I walk through the doors the Lord opens. Not that I don’t think, pray, plan, have ideas, but if He’s called me to this, He’ll make a way for my stories.

    The ABA can be tempting because the resources and audience seem to be wider with more money. But I have enough author friends in that market who are not fairing well at all. Who don’t have the resources and dollars given to their books.

    So don’t mistake the secular market as having more money to pay you. Not the case.

    Am I rambling? Just putting down thoughts. So Chip, with this post what is your top advice to Christian writers?

    • Ruth Douthitt says:

      Rachel, you ask a good question: why general market? For me, I lean on the Great Commission. We are to “go!” And sometimes that means leaving the comfort zone of writing for Christian friends. I’m writing for that woman out there who is hurting and maybe doubting, but she longs for truth and hope. Anyway, that’s how is answer your question!

    • rachelhauck says:

      “Go!” That’s exactly why I write novels with a Christian world view.

      i don’t think I’m writing in a comfort zone to Christian friends. My audience is readers. Tho yes, we have to watch certain word choices but I can get around those well enough. 🙂

      I have all kinds of readers – Jewish, non Christians, etc. But yea, I don’t get on the general fiction shelves which would be nice…

      Blessings on your work! I know it will have HOPE on the pages.


    • Ruth Douthitt says:

      Thank you!!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Just so we’re clear, I’m not saying we should do away with the Christian fiction section at B&N. But when someone like Lisa Samson or Sue Meissner or Elizabeth Musser writes a novel that isn’t clearly Christian, why should it be located in that section? Why not stick it in with general fiction? So I think Rachel is asking the right question — “why the general market?” And she’s sharing a realistic argument: “the money is NOT automatically better.” As usual, you’ve got good things to share with the readers, my friend. THANKS for coming on to ramble! :o)

    • Jodie Bailey says:

      Our library shelved Christian fiction in with general market, but they put a cross on the spine of the Christian novels. I always wondered how that affected the check out rate. Did people who were browsing pay attention to the cross? I’m split on the shelving in brick and mortar stores. As a reader, I like it. As an author, it would be interesting to see what happened if everything were mixed in together.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’ve never heard of that before, Jodie. Huh… maybe when the phone rings and you’re calling me, I should have a NASCAR flag show up on my iPhone?

    • Jodie Bailey says:

      Well, now I sound like a redneck. 😉

    • Our library is the same way Jodie. All fiction is shelved together. A cross for Christian fiction, and I’m pretty sure Sci-Fi/Fantasy has a symbol of Saturn or something. I like it because I’ve found interesting books that I wouldn’t normally had picked up had I just been browsing in one section or the other.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      And all Carla Laureano books have little Scottish maps on the spine?

    • Rachel Leigh Smith says:

      My library system does that with the cross on the spine too. Maybe it’s a Southern thing?

  • Jaime Wright says:

    I agree. I believe the markets are so totally different. Although, I have read a few novels published in the CBA market that seem to be “crossover” (but I have no proof of it). Mary Weber’s, STORM SIREN is the primary one that comes to mind, published by TN. But, there isn’t anything overtly “Christian” in the novel. Perhaps one could claim “allegory”, but that might be a stretch. My guess is, genres have a lot to do with what would work well in a general market if you are trying to leave your established CBA market. I can’t think of one historical romance novel I’ve read that would be even similar to any I’ve read in the general market. Murder mysteries, which I adore, rarely translate the same way from general market into the CBA because, sorry if I offend, CBA readers seem too squeamish. But, that is my impression, not based on anything but impression. So my ending thoughts? You’re absolutely right on all counts above. 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Ha! Jaime agrees with me, everyone. Okay — case closed.

      Okay — appreciate your comments, Jaime. You raise a good point: There are many category novels that (not just literary fiction) that simply don’t translate. Thanks.

    • Jaime Wright says:

      Glad to close the case for you. Anytime you need my expertise I’m here for ya 😉

    • Mary Weber says:

      Awww! I was just reading Chip’s post and thinking how well done it was – and then saw your mention of STORM SIREN. Thanks for the shoutout, Jaime. :0) I agree with you both that the markets are so totally different – and that certain genres/categories will work better than others – as will styles of voice. (Katherine Reay, Billy Coffey, and Julie Cantrell all come to mind.)

      In regards to Storm Siren, I think it was easier since I wasn’t “established as CBA” and trying to move over. From the start we purposely pubbed it in the ABA (and will continue to do so with my books) since (in my humble experience) it’s where the majority of teens read, whether Christian or not (plus it’s what I relate to most in my own reading as well as my day job).

      As a PK, I think Chip’s point is valid that “A writer who grows up in the evangelical culture, who is surrounded by the American evangelical milieux, often isn’t going to know how to speak to a broader audience.” I’m not saying they can’t, but it’s something my author friends and I have chatted about extensively – that the voice speaking to one market versus the other is very different and distinct, and not just in the writing but in the marketing as well. In the same way, if one is immersed more in one arena (ABA or CBA) for their own personal reading – that is going to heavily influence the way they write and market their stories. I’m actually teaching a YA pub class at ACFW this fall and that’s a lot of what we’ll be talking about.

      That said – I’m excited these conversations are happening because I believe it’s opening up creative doors for authors, publishers, and agents to explore new ways of doing things. Which means barriers being broken and voices being strengthened and more people being reached with words that, whether overtly spiritual or not, can speak to the soul with the heart of Jesus. <3

      Also – WHAT RACHEL HAUCK SAID. ;0)

    • Jaime Wright says:

      Love this, Mary!

    • Lisa McKay says:

      Yes. And now I’m going to go look up STORM SIREN 🙂

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