I’ve been getting all sorts of follow-up questions to my posts on CBA fiction…
In CBA, what genres do well in fiction and which ones do poorly? Is there a growing movement toward spec fiction and fantasy?
Romance continues to lead the way in CBA fiction, though we’ve seen a bit of a shift from historicals to contemporary stories. Romantic suspense also does well, followed by straight suspense novels. There’s a random sampling of other genres (some women’s fiction, some historical sagas, the occasional apocalyptic thriller), but we’ve seen very little in the way of speculative fiction, fantasy, new adult, YA, horror, or paranormal stories do well in CBA. I keep hearing there’s a growing market for those kinds of titles, and there may be… but to this point, it’s pretty much been limited to indie-published titles and some very small presses who consider it a huge success to move a thousand copies. You may think it makes sense for this to be a growth category, but it hasn’t proven to be true in CBA, at least not yet.
What was it that made the novel The Shack a runaway success after it had been rejected by traditional publishers?
I think The Shack told an intriguing story, had an interesting depiction of God that had some appeal (if you’re not aware, the role of God was pictured as an African-American woman, and the Holy Spirit was portrayed as a rather ethereal elderly Asian woman), and spoke to an audience of people who wanted to feel they were reading something deep about God. (They were not, by the way. The story has major problems, and the writing is weak.) The big picture of the novel is that the lead character had a bunch of crud in his past that needed to be brought out into the light and examined – which is certainly a good message. It was also controversial, which garnered it some attention. The book did well, sold copies, and took off via word of mouth among spiritual seekers. Then FaithWords at Hachette bought it, pumped a bunch of marketing money into it, and the book blew the roof off. I think they sold more than six million copies. Many people used it to suggest we’d arrived in a new place with Christian fiction. My thought? Mencken was right. Don’t get me wrong — I appreciate a surprise hit. But I read the book and thought it was really weak. There were many other, better books that could have been used as examples of the good stuff being produced by writers of faith. CBA fiction has hit a place where there are some wonderful writers, telling excellent, thought-provoking stories. But this was an example where great art can be a much tougher sell than bad art masquerading as something deep. It was the painting equivalent was Thomas Kinkade, who somehow convinced much of America that his nostalgic paintings of cottages were great art. They weren’t bad, by any means – I owned one, and I liked it. But they were safe and easy and romanticized pieces of fluff that made you think of an idealized American pastoral scene, not really great, thoughtful pieces of art that spoke to your soul about anything. Again, I’m not complaining, only explaining that “deep” doesn’t always sell. I mean, who sells more records — the London Philharmonic or Miley Cyrus?
What do you think made the curious little book The Prayer of Jabez so successful a few years ago?
That’s easy: It was a very short book (so it would be easy to read), that was inexpensive (so it would be easy to buy), and it claimed to offer magic words that would give the reader the power to force God to do something (so it had a broad appeal). I know the book well. The author, Bruce Wilkinson, was a friend of mine who I’d worked with on some writing projects. The editor, Dave Kopp, was an acquaintance who has continued working in the industry (he is an excellent editor and is now running the Convergent line for Random House). I don’t think either of them intended the book to be viewed as a “Magic Potion to Make God Do Your Bidding.” Yet the simple promise of the book made it take off unexpectedly, and it generated a pile of money. But again, this happens occasionally in publishing, and you can’t always figure out why one book did great and another book did not. I think anyone who picks up a copy of Henry Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus will find a life-changing manuscript, but most have never heard of it. On the other hand, we’ve all seen books like Your Best Life Now or Going Rogue do well and wonder, “Am I missing something?”
Would love to know books you think are overlooked masterpieces, OR books that made it big and you thought were somewhat less-than-stellar…