Chip MacGregor

October 5, 2015

If I'm a CBA novelist, can I cross over to the general market?


Recently I’ve had several people send me a version of this question: “You seem to be one of the few literary agents who works in the general market (what a lot of people call the ABA) as well as working in the Christian market (the CBA). I’ve published two books in CBA, but think my next book fits more of a general market audience. My question: is ‘crossing over’ from CBA to ABA a reality?”

Okay, I’ve answered this question a couple times, so even if you’re not terribly religious, stay with me for a minute…. I think this stuff is interesting to talk about. First, for those not in the know, I represent books in both the CBA and the general market. There aren’t many agents who do that, so I’m very much in the minority. Second, in case you don’t know, CBA is the Christian Booksellers Association, and it’s the realm of all things faith-based in publishing. ABA is the American Booksellers Association, and it’s sometimes used (though less and less) as a descriptor for the general, non-religious world of publishing. Third, if you’ll indulge me, let me offer a theological reflection that speaks to this issue of CBA and ABA books: Christianity teaches that when you meet God, you are changed. (I don’t care if you believe that or not, just hear the argument.) A Christian would argue that everything about you is different, because you’ve been exposed to God. So, from a theologian’s perspective, a Christian probably won’t be completely understood by those who are not Christians. He or she is speaking a different language. And any cultural anthropologist till tell you that the longer you’re a Christian, the fewer non-Christian friends you have, and therefore the less you have in common. So you’ll have a tough time communicating with non-Christians in language they’ll understand.

Still with me? Okay (done with the theology lesson), from an agent’s perspective, many faith-based writers simply don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to writing for non-Christian readers. They aren’t part of the non-fatih world, they don’t spend a lot of time hanging out with non-Christian people, they don’t watch non-religious TV or listen to radio programming that’s antithetical to their beliefs. In essence, they CAN’T speak to that group, because they don’t know the language. Picture this for a minute — imagine a Moslem, who had been raised in an Islamic home, who lives his entire life surrounded with Islamic influences, suddenly announcing he wants to write a book that appeals to a Christian audience, since there seem to be so many Christians who need to hear the message of Islam. Or imagine a novelist who has never been a church-goer, who doesn’t know the first thing about organized religion, suddenly being asked to write a novel about the pastor of a small-town congregation.

See the problem? It’s hard to cross cultural lines. I was in a meeting a few years ago with a well-known Christian personality who wanted to “write a book for the general market.” She was big news, so we were all excited… until we saw her idea. It was basically an outline drawn from the book of James, with verses to support every point. When I tried to explain to her why that book would NEVER be picked up by the general public, she didn’t understand me. “But it’s TRUTH,” she argued. “It’s GOD’S truth, and people will see that if they would pick it up and read it!” You see, she just didn’t grasp the fact that the majority of readers won’t listen to that argument (just as she wouldn’t listen if a moslem author wrote a book explaining why Mohammed was God’s prophet). The general book culture isn’t interested in books from a strict evangelical viewpoint. Other Christians may be, but the general reading public is not. And that’s an issue I face regularly with faith-based authors.

So no, for most religious writers, “crossing over” is a very, very difficult task. Sure, it happens occasionally, but it’s rare. Nobody really thought Left Behind or The Purpose Driven Life were going to sell millions of copies to non-religious readers. Those books did, but I know the publishers didn’t have any clue that was going to happen when they first contracted those books. Maybe (if you’re a Christian) that’s the sovereignty of God at work. Maybe (if you’re not a Christian) that was end times lunacy and dumb luck. 90 Minutes in Heaven has sold millions of copies to people who are interested in the concept of an afterlife, but I happen to know the publisher was shocked at the public’s embracing of that book. The Shack has sold 6 million copies or so, to Christians as well as non-Christians who were interested in spiritual things. So it happens occasionally. And sometimes a very good writer (a Sue Monk Kidd or a Susan Meissner) will write a book that moves them out of the CBA market and into a broader readership. But, generally speaking, the Christian writers who are read by a non-religious audience [a list that would include CS Lewis, L’Engle, LaMott, O’Connor, Percy, Sayers, Tolkein, Wangerin, et al] are not writing “Christian” books. They’re simply writing great stories.

Nobody thought the Harry Potter books were going to have such a wide appeal to adults, or that a YA novel like The Hunger Games would break out to such an extent. But that’s the beauty of publishing — you write your best book, aim it at your audience, and sometimes you get surprised. In my view you don’t normally design a book to sell to both the religious and the non-religious market. Why? Because, most of the time, it just won’t work.

Happy to respond to questions or read your comments on the topic…

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  • Laura Droege says:

    The topic of Christians trying to write for a general audience interests me. I volunteer as a fiction reader for a Christian literary journal. But we’re not exclusively interested in Christian fiction (or poetry, artwork, and creative non-fiction); we’re interested in work that explores beauty and life and, yes, faith, but not in a pound-you-over-the-head, evangelistic way. That’s clear from what is published in the journal.

    But too many fiction writers submit stories that are retellings of Bible stories or overly obvious in their agenda; most of them aren’t well-written, either. They don’t appeal to me, a Christian, and definitely won’t appeal to our target audience, who are a mix of church and unchurched people in the art world. These Christian writers are undoubtedly sincere in their faith and desire to write fiction. But they don’t understand that the key to sharing one’s faith through fiction isn’t being as pushy as a door-to-door salesperson. It’s more effective to be subtle, like a neighborly chat on the back porch over coffee or sweet tea or beer.

  • Majorbloodnok says:

    “BOOM! You lookin’ for this?” I think you nailed it in the not-quite-penultimate paragraph: They’re simply writing great stories. I wrote several stories/books that started with a message and the message I kept getting back was, “No sale.” As Christians we are often pretty narrow creatively. I remember being kinda ticked off in 1983(ish) when Terry Taylor of the band Daniel Amos said in Campus Life magazine that his first responsibility was to “write a good song.” Not save people’s souls (as if he could) or preach the Gospel. Write a good song.

    I pitched to a wise man (maybe a wise-guy) a couple weeks back and he wisely told me to not consider the CBA- something I desperately needed to hear, even if I didn’t realize it. It actually lifted a weight off my shoulders and I feel like I heard God say, “Okay, now you’re ready… to do some rewriting.” Now I’m thinking: it’s the story, stupid.

    The CBA seems so arbitrary sometimes anyway…

    Darby Kern

  • AimeeLS says:

    Thoughts on the potential to go in the other direction? From ABA to CBA crossover?

    • Jennifer Lamont Leo says:

      Francine Rivers comes to mind as a successful ABA-CBA crossover. There must be others–would love to hear of more recent examples.

  • Cameron Bane says:

    A few years ago I had a three-book suspense/thriller series out with a mid-sized CBA house. There came a point where I needed to write stories with more scope, and the Christian market no longer fit. Realizing I would be starting from scratch, I came up with a pen name, and the first of my new series was commercially published this past August (see the avatar). So yeah, it can be done.

    ETA, full disclosure, Chip’s my agent, and he’s fully on board with the change..

  • EJ Brock says:

    I am an Indie Author of Edgy Christian fiction. None of the Christian powers to be would accept my books, either. I am a true believer that no one is a saint, and characters should be depicted as such. Thank God, I found a market for my imagination and my books do exceptionally well.

  • Fabulous article and great points thanks Chip.

    I feel like I should be saying “Hello my name is Nicki. I’m a Christian and I write general market romance, please don’t stone me.”

    I have received some flack from Christian readers and Christian authors who tell me I shouldn’t be able to separate my faith from what I write. They can’t understand how I call myself a Christian and write about non-Christian themes for general market. I guess I see things differently than them. After ten years as a pastor, I left the ministry to pursue a career in nursing as I realized, among many things, that I was living in a pentecostal Christian church bubble. I’d lost the ability to communicate with non-Christians because my language was entirely made up of Christianese.

    In my books, (medical dramas set in rural Australian locations) my non Christian characters drink alcohol, have sex and swear – because that’s what many non-Christians do!!! (As do many ‘Christians’ I might add). However, I don’t describe the sex scenes, I don’t use swear words and I don’t labour the fact my characters drink. My books are “clean” or “sweet” and I don’t believe God has a problem with that.

    I believe a Christian can quite easily write for general market as long as they don’t think the point of writing General market is about pushing the message of Christ. General market readers are savvy and don’t want to be bible bashed. If Christians think they can ‘hide’ the gospel message in their general market books, I think they’re kidding themselves.

    I look forward to following this conversation.

    • Rachel Leigh Smith says:

      My characters also drink, swear, and have sex. I found crossing over to be very freeing. I could finally be myself and write novels the way they unfold in my head instead of having to rework to make them fit a particular box.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You are clearly not Christian enough for this blog, Rachel. We’re considering banning you… :o)

    • Rachel Leigh Smith says:

      Honestly? It wouldn’t surprise me (if, indeed, you’re serious). Not sure what that says about the state of Christian writing circles, but it’s not anything good…

      I know there are other Christian writers out there like me who struggle with the decisions I’ve already made. Making the decision wasn’t easy, but once I did and the judgment started, it was easy to leave it all behind.

      Every Christian artist must find their calling, and follow it wherever God leads. No matter what form it takes. Art doesn’t need the Christian label on it to be redemptive and beautiful. Far too often, Christian labelled art is anything but beautiful. I find that very sad.

      Christian writing circles shouldn’t be places where writers like me are preached at for being sinners because we’re not writing CBA acceptable fiction. And yes, that’s happened to me. I’ve been told to my face I’m going to hell for the decisions I’ve made about my career. It’s why I’ve left all of these circles, and stopped reading all of those blogs except this one. I enjoy the discussions here, whether I participate or not. People aren’t afraid to be honest and truly wrestle with questions like this. There needs to be more of it in Christian writing circles.

      My task is to follow where God leads me and tell the stories he’s given me. If something I’ve said in discussions on these questions helps another writer make this difficult decision, all the better.

    • Rachel, I’m pretty sure Chip was joking!
      I probably won’t read your books because paranormal is not my thing, but I’ll cheer you on for following where God has led you.

    • Patricia Zell says:

      Just a word of encouragement about the people who are telling you that you’re going to hell … The Bible in Revelation 20 actually says that death and hell give up their victims and are thrown into the lake of fire (which has to do with the baptism of fire and with God being a consuming fire). There is no such “place” as eternal hell–there are not two parallel universes (heaven and hell). In fact, Paul states that after all is said and done, God will be all-in-all: no endless evil, hate, darkness, or death. Because of the power of what Christ accomplished on the cross, God will redeem everyone, consume the kingdom of evil, and thoroughly clean up His Creation. We will all be set free from deception, loss, death, and destruction. That my friend is the good news (really, really wonderful news).

    • chipmacgregor says:

      No, I’m not serious, Rachel. Take a deep breath and recognize when someone is being funny with you.

    • Rachel Leigh Smith says:

      I really didn’t think you were, and laughed when I first saw the comment. Then saw an opportunity to comment on something I find disturbing in the Christian world.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Really appreciate your thoughtful note, Nicki. And I think you hit the nail on the head in saying, “…as long as they don’t think the point of writing general market is about pushing the message of Christ.” It’s about writing great stories; creating great art. Thanks very much.

    • No worries Chip. It was a good conversation to have.

  • Teddi Deppner says:

    Great points, Chip. Crossing over implies (as I understand it) using your same author name and writing something for a different market than you have in the past. It sounds like the challenges include:

    1) learning to write for a different audience

    2) getting published in the new market (you might need a new agent, you have a different set of publishers to impress, etc)

    3) building a brand new readership in a new genre/market

    4) not alienating your existing readership (if you intend to keep them)

    5) not alienating your new readership (because of your previous religious-themed books)

    Seems like #4 and #5 could be avoided by using a different author name.

    I’m fascinated, though, by the implication of your post: It sounds like, in your experience, Christian authors have lost touch with the general market and don’t know how to write for it. Is that because they don’t read it?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I get asked the question on a regular basis by writers, Teddi, and I just wanted to speak to it. In my view, Christian novelists frequently miss them mark when trying to write for a general audience because they aren’t PART of that audience. They don’t speak the language, they don’t understand the nuance between what will and what won’t work, and perhaps (as you note) many often haven’t read what is working in the genre. Frankly, I think many writers who are people of faith want to write an agenda — and agenda fiction is often a very tough sell.

  • Leah C. Morgan says:

    This discussion was presented to me recently in another way. Regional stories, colored by culture and setting, may include a Christian expression yet sell to audiences on both sides of the religious spectrum. When a region, such as Appalachia, is known for certain behavior, even be it righteous fervor, the story begs its inclusion. It ceases to be authentic without it.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Excellent point, Leah. There’s a lot of gospel influence in Southern literature, just as there often is in African-American literature. Appreciate the point you make.

    • Jeanelle says:

      I agree. As a reader who is of a multi-racial background, including African, it would be abnormal and contrived to not include our faith in a story. Our faith, even in those who don’t give any outward evidence in their daily choices, is interwoven in our culture, much like Judaism would be for those of Israeli descent.

  • T. G. Cooper says:

    Chip, I think you made your argument persuasively. I once heard that the keys to appealing writing are: know your audience and know yourself. It’s very difficult to do both things while crossing cultural contexts.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks very much, T.G. And yes — anyone writing a book or making a speech or preparing a commercial has to think first of the audience for that message. Crossing a cultural divide makes it tough.

  • Rachel Leigh Smith says:

    Speaking the language of your market is absolutely key! If you can’t speak the language of the general market, you have no business writing for it.

    I started out writing Christian fiction, and I’ve since left it completely behind and now write general market romance.

    As a Christian, I despise the bulk of general Christian culture. It’s shallow and meaningless. It offers nothing to a hurting world, because Western Christian culture isn’t built on the Gospel. Platitudes and quoting Scripture don’t win people to Christ. LOVING them wins them to Christ.

    As a Christian, I’m in a unique position to write about a type of love the secular world can’t fathom. And as a Christian who refuses to be part of Christian culture, I can tell my stories in a language a hurting world can understand. I’m doing it in the second most widely read sub-genre of romance too, paranormal.

    • Teddi Deppner says:

      This sounds great, Rachel. I just looked you up on Amazon; interested to see your stories.

    • Rachel Leigh Smith says:

      Thank you.

    • I totally agree Rachel.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for coming on to say something, Rachel. So we’re clear, I think there are a lot of markets that interest readers — including one for Christian fiction. It’s not an either/or argument, in my view. But I don’t think most people of faith can write effectively for those who don’t share their faith. (And I think the sales reports bear that out.)

  • Robin Patchen says:

    I loved Tony Collins’s take on this at ACFW. His argument (and I’m sure this is a poor summation) was that CBA authors tend to speak to Christians or people right on the cusp of believing in Christ. Unfortunately, so many people are not only not on the cusp of faith but are downright antagonistic to God. So instead of trying to encourage people to make a decision for Christ, more of us ought to focus on, as Tony put it, softening rocky soil. That’s something we ought to be able to do in the ABA–if we can speak the language. But I agree with you. People who are antagonist to God and Christians aren’t going to be swayed by reading a bunch of Scriptures they don’t believe.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Robin. I think Tony (the longtime publisher at Monarch Books in the UK) has a valid argument to make. I appreciate you bringing it up.

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