Chip MacGregor

August 6, 2015

What's happening with Christian non-fiction?


A couple of times over the past month, I’ve talked about Christian fiction and its future, since it’s clearly going through a tough time. I haven’t talked at all about Christian non-fiction, but I’ve had a number of questions come in on the topic over the past few weeks, so I thought I’d try to get to several of them…

People seem to talk about CBA and ECPA… can you explain what those organizations are?

CBA is the Christian Booksellers Association, and it’s an organization for anyone who creates and sells Christian products. The organization allows members who are store owners, publishers, jewelry-makers, fine art providers, greeting card companies, t-shirt purveyors, and the like (including the guys who create Pope-soap-on-a-Rope, John 3:16 Socks, Ash-From-Sodom-and-Gomorrah Necklaces, and every other sort of Jesus Junk). They put on a big annual sales convention each summer. ECPA is the Evangelical Christian Publishing Association, and it’s the non-profit trade association for Christian publishers. Although they often overlap (and people in the industry will frequently use the term “CBA” interchangeably with anything that relates to religious publishing), they are different organizations. ECPA is conservative, evangelical book publishers. CBA is for anyone selling religious stuff.


A few months ago you said there were “fewer” books in CBA coming from pastors. As a pastor who aspires to write, I was intrigued by this observation. How do you understand the fact that pastors seem to be making such a small impact on readers through the written word?

CBA used to be filled with books by pastors, who were seen as the spiritual celebrities in our culture. Think about it — pastors went on speaking tours, led conferences, hosted their own TV and radio shows, and they did a LOT of books. We still see plenty of books from pastors, though they tend to be restricted to pastors of mega-churches, but there are certainly far fewer than there used to be. In my view that’s partly because of the job of pastors (who have a flock of people to take care of, complete with the administrative headaches that come with the duties of a huge volunteer organization), and partly because the culture has shifted away from listening strictly to pastors as spiritual advisers. Instead, Christians tend to buy nonfiction books from counselors, doctors, conference speakers, celebrities, professors, and, sometimes, writers. (That’s not any sort of criticism, by the way. Just an observation that has grown out of three decades in this industry.)

Do you think Christian Manuscript Submissions is an effective way to get noticed by Christian publishers and agents? 

For those who don’t know, Christian Manuscript Submissions is an online service wherein an author pays $98 to submit an overview and sample chapters of his or her book. The electronic proposal goes into a database that can be searched by agents and publishers for six months. The site is owned and operated by ECPA, so one can argue that the Christian publishers themselves run it, and have a stake in keeping it working. I find it’s always hard to talk about CMS without making someone angry. The folks at CMS are very nice, and they basically create a good-looking slush pile of projects. They have had a handful of books land with legitimate publishers over the years — Cook, Bethany House, Moody, Harvest House (though the Harvest House book on their site was twelve years ago, and one of the books they have on their “testimonials” page is a book I actually represented and sold to Bethany House). They have an editing service as well, of which I’ve heard both good and not-so-good things, depending on the editor that was involved. So… is it an effective tool for authors? Maybe. On the one hand, it seems like it’s just another slush pile, and why would a busy agent or an editor facing a huge stack of proposals go to a pile of manuscripts that may or may not have been edited? (I don’t go there to review projects, for example.) On the other hand, if you’re a determined writer who is trying to get noticed and can afford the hundred bucks, why not take every shot you can? (I know a few editors who go to the site occasionally to see what’s there.) There are thousands of proposals up, and the numbers of books that have actually landed with a publisher are minuscule… but that’s similar to the odds of talking to a bunch of agents and finding representation. I want to be clear in saying I don’t think CMS a scam, and I think it may or may not offer an opportunity to writers. (And here I expect people to come on and tell me all about “why writers should simply self-publish and make a fortune, blah blah blah…,” so I’ll just insert the note that I also find THAT to be a good option, depending on the author and project.) By the way, CMS has a competitor, called The Writers Edge. I’ve never found the representatives there to be as well-spoken as those at CMS, nor do I think they have much in the way of success stories. Their page of successes has one book with Revell, another with Harvest House, and one with Moody, but they seem to have done a bunch of titles with one very small-time, less-than-stellar house. And, in the (admittedly limited) interactions I’ve had with them or been shown to me by authors, I’ve not found their editorial services to be terribly helpful. One man’s opinion.

What’s the market for bible studies?

Almost non-existent. A few houses like NavPress keep recycling their old, proven bible studies, so there isn’t a lot of new stuff being acquired, and readers often go online for content these days, so there is far less in print with legacy houses. While there are a handful of small presses that have generated new studies in recent years (AMG and Group come to mind), it’s not very lucrative, there are a ton of ministries and organizations giving things away for free online, and there’s a very small market for anything new.

What is the state of devotionals in today’s marketplace?

Regular readers of this blog can tell you that I’ve said repeatedly, “Publishing is tidal. The tide comes in; the tide goes out.” Devotionals (short, thoughtful pieces, usually with a bible verse or a prayer accompanying an insightful story of some kind) were a huge part of the market a few years ago. Tyndale was cranking out their “One Year Devotionals” at a steady pace, and I think every CBA publisher on the planet created a “40 Day” devotional after the success of The Purpose Driven Life. But publishing is tidal. The tide went out, stores found themselves with stacks of unsold devotionals, and suddenly nobody was looking to create new ones. For a while the CBA publishers were simply telling agents, “We’re not looking for any devotionals at the present time.” Now that’s started to turn a bit, and we’re seeing more new titles on store shelves. It’s not a “hot” part of the market at the moment, and it tends to be driven by celebrity authors, but there are a few new titles being added at most houses.

What would you say is the best Christian writing conference to attend?

If we were talking about fiction, I’d mention ACFW, which is one of the really good writing conferences in the country, but today’s topic is non-fiction, so… I like the Blue Ridge Christian Writer’s Conference best, I think — it has a great blend of topics and a strong faculty each year. There are bunch of others (in Oregon, Florida, Chicago, Colorado, Kentucky, Seattle, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Orange County, etc), and many of them offer something of value. The best way to judge them is to check the faculty, see if the lineup is good, then see if the conference offerings fit your interests. But there are also a number of really good one-day writing conferences around the country — maybe too many to mention, though two of my favorites are the San Diego Writers’ Guild and the Faith and Culture Conference. Both tend to be far better than most.

What would you say is the biggest trend in Christian non-fiction?

“Big” in terms of growing? It has to be memoir, which used to barely exist in CBA, and now has become one of the fastest-growing genres in all of publishing. Keep in mind that a memoir is not a biography (a linear retelling of someone’s life), nor is it a personal story (someone who has had something interesting happen to them), but instead a reminiscence on life — an exploration of the themes and lessons and interesting/heartbreaking/hilarious/moving stories that speak to the great questions of life. In Christian circles, we’re all used to seeing “testimonies” in church, so many people of faith have gotten confused and think that anyone with a fascinating story (“I once was lost — but now I’m found!”) can do a book. That’s just not true.

So you know, memoir exists in three basic categories: celebrity memoir (for movie stars, music talent, politicians, and those who can easily get major media attention), cultural memoir (stories tied to the big events that have impacted us all — 9/11, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, etc), and craft memoir (those stories that are told with great writing and explore the recurring themes and touchstone events that have shaped one’s life). Read that sentence again carefully… it means that if you’re not a celebrity, and you’re not a part of some significant cultural event, the only real chance you have of getting your memoir published is if you have great craft. Whether it’s funny, or sad, or insightful, or profoundly disturbing, your memoir requires great writing to see print. Something to keep in mind the next time you hear someone say, “You should do a book!”


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