Can Christian writers get traditionally published?

Recently a lot of writers in my circles have been evaluating their success (or lack thereof) with publishing. Becky Minor, of the Realm Makers Conference, articulated the question this way:


Many of us have the goal of writing stories with Godly underpinnings, even if the Christian values or themes are not overt. We’d love for our stories to reach beyond “preaching to the choir,” so to speak.

What I wonder is this: do such stories actually have a chance of being traditionally published? Or are they more likely to collect rejections for “lacking freshness” (because the story contains moral absolutes), committing cultural appropriation/exploitation (because an author opted to write outside of the typical American churchgoing experience), being misogynistic (a hierarchy of authority might be headed by male members of a society) , or land on the wrong side of any of a number of hot button thou-shalt-nots?

As you ruminate on the strictures of the both the CBA and the ABA worlds, what is really true about the publishing prospects of Judeo-Christian-leaning speculative fiction?


This launched a discussion with all kinds of opinions. One science fiction writer talked about being told that Anne McCaffery is no longer relevant to the genre:


I think they’re likely to collect rejections, and unfortunately it’s not a failing of quality stories or even a measure of what people will buy or read, but a failing of traditional publishing. They’re so committed to secular humanism and the politics that follow with it that there’s no room for heroes anymore. Their sensitivity readers will wash it all out.

The good news is they keep pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable and tolerable to them into a smaller and smaller box. Just last night I had the trad pub crowd on a fake news site railing on me while I was defending Anne McCaffrey, as they called her a “problematic writer”. No joke. There may not be a traditional publishing in 10 years time if they tell most of the reading population that they’re not wanted.

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Dragonriders of Pern, while it does have dragons, is actually science fiction

Another person remarked,


The general market is very open to all of the above as long as the story isn’t clearly “message driven” or “preachy”. It’s all about a good story. I just look at all the great LDS authors like Brandon Sanderson who have theology and/or moral underpinnings in their works. Readers in the general market love it. The authors don’t preach, but their worldview is infused in their stories.

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Cover art for The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

And then comes the mic drop.



I think too often these musings are just another layer of excuse. I’m certainly not saying that was Becky’s intent here, but it’s something I do see a lot, particularly in culturally/politically like-minded groups. “This story probably won’t sell because the market blah blah blah it’s out of my hands.” And note that the “other side” is wringing their hands over the identical issue. “I can’t sell my story about my black lesbian abortion doctor because it’s too marginal/controversial.” They have the same experiences of rejection which seem to support that view. Neither end of the bell curve can see the other, only the bump in the middle which appears to be the opposite end. We all think we’re being shut out, when in fact there’s an enormous bump in the middle.

But really, it’s very much in your hands. No, you don’t get to make the final buying decision, that’s all on the editor 🙂 but you are 100% responsible for the submission package you send. And most of the time, that’s about your story, not about you.

And in my observation, it’s not as limiting as described above. The limitations are OURS. If a writer can’t write the difference between a male authority character and misogyny, that’s the problem, rather than a cultural conspiracy. Likewise while there are a few cultural appropriation landmines to avoid, the majority of the market is pretty fair and accessible (I’m super-white, and my last traditional short story did not have a single white character and was set in a country I’ve never visited).

I think much of the time, this is the same emotional response I see in myself to the CBA. It’s not what I know and am comfortable with, so I think it’s constrictive, I find it unwelcoming, and I might call it names. 😉 If we look around this group and are very honest with ourselves, we’ll see we are predominantly white, predominantly Republican, predominantly homeschool, etc. But those tribes have NOTHING to do with Christianity, if we really think about it. To say “I can’t sell because I’m a Christian” is a false oversimplification at very best, while to say “I can’t sell my climate-change-is-a-global-conspiracy story to a hard science mag” may be a more accurate assessment.

We don’t have to “sneak” our worldview in. If it’s really our worldview, it’s already in, wholly permeating our story. But we have to keep in mind what our ultimate message is, too. Is our ultimate theme to convert people to a political view or a change in habits? (Hey, that’s a longstanding literary thing, go right ahead, just don’t pretend it’s your *faith* which is holding you back from publishing success.) Or is our ultimate theme a message of love and hope and spiritual redemption? Because that should carry through regardless of male or female characters, cultural setting, politics, etc.

TL;DR: Don’t confuse politics and faith, don’t assume a lack of sales is relevant to faith, consider Occam’s Razor when guessing at cause of rejection (if 95% of secular stories are rejected, yours might be just rejected too rather than the rejection being a specific anti-Christian response).

(Note: somebody is probably going to read this and interpret that I’m recommending a personal sellout to get sales. That’s absolutely not my point at all. That is in fact the opposite of my point.)


After that, the discussion was pretty much over. I thought it was fascinating–the idea that maybe the problem isn’t publishing. Maybe the problem is us.

It made me really evaluate my own writing. I have a faith-based element in the Malevolent books, and their sales are mediocre. It could also be that the YA paranormal romance genre is a hard sell right now. My cozy dragon mystery, which has no religion at all, but lots of nice people being nice to each other, is selling really well. That “permeating worldview” seems to speak more powerfully than writing a sermon.

(All quotes have had the names removed to protect identities. If you would like your message here removed, drop me a line.)

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Three years of publishing mistakes

My second-youngest turned three last month. I published my first book while I was in labor with her. It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long!

That first book (YA contemporary fantasy) now has three more books in its series. I’ve also written three clean werewolf romance novellas, some short stories, and the first book of a YA paranormal romance. I’ve made a ton of mistakes and learned even more. Here’s some of it:

Spacetime mistakes:

Lousy description: Nobody will read your book if you can’t describe what it’s about. Or if you can’t point out other books or movies similar to yours. I’ve made this mistake multiple times. Fortunately, Amazon made things easier by sticking it in Chosen One Multiversal Adventure.

Muddy genre: The Spacetime books could be urban fantasy–if I had any idea what urban fantasy WAS when I started writing them. I hit a few genre tropes in a scattershot way and pulled in way too many other elements. Alien robots? Werewolves? Ghostly energy beings? Alchemy? Fast cars? Time and space magic? Yeah, the elements are there–I just couldn’t seem to pull it off.

Regency Shifters Romance mistakes:

Genre mistakes: Same deal with the clean werewolf romance. Notice the “clean” part? Yeah, nobody wants that in this genre. They also don’t want historical, and these books are slow. Like, Jane Eyre with werewolves. They’re also too short–fifty to sixty pages each. I love them all, but nobody else does. Ah well, live and learn!

Malevolent mistakes

I started to make progress with Malevolent, the YA paranormal romance. I wanted a creature that had the characteristics of a vampire but wasn’t a vampire. So Mal is a lich who manipulates the energy of life and death itself.

Botched release date: This book was intended to be a trilogy that released over the course of a year. The book hit its intended market and sold pretty well. The trouble was, I had a baby right in the middle. So books 2 and 3 were written–I just couldn’t touch them for most of the following year.

Now both books are revised and awaiting editing. They’re set to launch in spring of 2017. And oh man, are they GOOD. I hope they’re a fresh addition to a vampire-saturated genre.

Malevolent is available on Nook, Kobo and iBooks for the first time! It’s like a new release, and I’m super excited. The cover even got some new bells and whistles–see?

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I intended to publish three books this year, but only managed two–Outfoxing the Wolf and Magic Weaver. Malcontent never quite made it, although it’s going through edits right now. It was close! I currently have three finished books waiting for edits: Malcontent and Malicious (books 2 and 3), and a cozy mystery about dragons and ice cream tentatively called Takes the Drake. Coming to a bookstore near you in 2017!

So that’s been my publishing journey. I’ve worked with lots of fantastic editors, artists, and wordsmiths. It’s been such an honor to rub shoulders with people I respect to the point of reverence: Chris Fox and Rachel Aaron and Elizabeth Spann Craig and Joanna Penn. None of them know I exist, but they’ve taught me so much.

Can we serve God with our stories if nobody reads them?

I’m in a group of serious indie authors who are all writing, going through the mill of editing and publishing. All of us are debating how, exactly, one gets sales.

One of my friends said this on Facebook:

“The notion that we in the arts have often reduced Christianity to a brand is really on my mind. May I be primarily concerned with making art I believe God would like, and the human audience can come as it may.”

Then I was reading an interview with Mark Coker, of Smashwords, and he said this:

Dynamics of the Power Curve – In publishing, a few books sell well and most sell poorly. The distribution of these sales is typically referred to as a Power Curve. In the 2014 survey, we took a closer look at the sales distribution curve, shared numbers behind different rankings, and explored how authors can use the power curve to inform their decisions. The nature of curve underscores the importance of the rest of our 2014 Smashwords Survey findings.

The survey details things like price points and book length (people want their fiction about the same price as a loaf of bread, and they want it long–300 pages or more–and they want it in a series).

Which got me thinking. How can we serve God with our writing if nobody reads it? Sure, we can write whatever we want and languish in obscurity–or we can study the market and climb that Power Curve, get our books out there, and possibly get a few people thinking.

(I’m not personally writing Christian fiction, but I’m all for countering the negative messages out there with positive ones–and good writing!)

One thing I think we writers get hung up on is the book we’re writing now. We forget that in the years ahead, we will write lots of different books. Did you know that George R. R. Martin started writing Game of Thrones in the 1970s? It took 40 years for it to take off. This is a really, really long game.

I think we can totally serve God by writing the very best book we can. And then writing another one. And another one. But they have to be books that people want to read, otherwise, what’s the use of bothering with publication?

Edit: My friend clarified her point:

To be clear, this statement doesn’t mean to me that I don’t care whether I have a human audience–I certainly write to be read. However, what I will not do is write in a formula that is prescribed by the Christian Publishing Industry so that my books can wear the Christian Sticker on their covers. I believe that if we write things that are beautiful and honest, and can’t help to point to God’s nature because of he way he indwells us, that there will be readers. Both inside the church ranks and outside.

In the end, I want my stories to be both powerful on a gut level and entertain. And when I stand before the throne, I want to be able to lay them at God’s feet and say, “I made these the best I could because I believe any shred of talent I have is from you.”

In the meantime, may the life people discover of the author behind those books be the tool of witness.

Which I heartily agree with. It’s no fun writing under the umbrella of the Christian publishers–the list of things you can’t do is miles long (one publisher memorably banned the use of “For Pete’s sake”, for Pete’s sake).

Godzilla-zon vs Hachette-turtle

The war between Amazon and Hachette is escalating. I’m sure by this time next year, nobody will remember this, so summary for posterity:

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Amazon wants Hachette (a big publishing company) to sell ebooks at 9.99 or lower. Hachette wants to sell at 14.99, or thereabouts. They’ve been deadlocked for months.

It’s like watching Godzilla-Amazon fighting a giant turtle.

Godzilla-zon: Flaming fireball of REMOVE BUY BUTTON FROM YOUR BOOKS!

Hachette-turtle: (closes shell tighter)

Godzilla-zon: Claw swipe of EXTREMELY SLOW SHIPPING!

Hachette-turtle: (snaps at opponent’s ankle) C’mon, just give us what we want.

Godzilla-zon: (roars to onlookers) THEY ONLY PAY THEIR AUTHORS FIFTEEN PERCENT ROYALTY!

Onlookers: Ooo, ahhh.

Hachette-turtle: (bites Godzilla-Zion’s leg) IF HE WINS, GODZILLA-ZON WILL EAT YOUR ROYALTIES AND YOUR CHILDREN!

Godzilla-zon: LIES! (Drops a huge pile of Kindle Unlimited on top of lesser monster Scribd)

Onlookers: Apple-bot and Google-beast, save us!

Godzilla-zon: ONLOOKERS, FIRE UPON HACHETTE WITH WEAPONS OF PUBLIC DISGRACE! I CAN’T OPEN THE SHELL ALONE!

(Onlookers do lesser battle among themselves)

How will it end? Who will triumph? FIND OUT SOON!

How to screen small presses

As I’ve been learning about publishing, marketing and all that jazz, I’ve been developing a method of screening small presses.

First and foremost, check their guidelines. Do they publish the stuff you write? If yes, great! If no, find another press and start over.

Next, check out their stable of books. Good cover art? If the cover art is bad, RED FLAG! Run away!

If their book covers look decent, time to check marketing. Go to Amazon and type in the publisher’s name. Amazon will spew forth the publisher’s actual track record in the form of prices and reviews.

If this is a decent publisher, they’ll have a decent amount of books to scroll through. Are there both paperbacks and ebooks? How are the prices?

If the ebook prices are 5 bucks or higher, RED FLAG! Current convention says 2.99 and 3.99 are the sweet spot for sales right now. The publisher is either desperate to recoup costs, or out if touch with market trends.

How about reviews? You’re looking for ten to fifty reviews, or an average higher than five. Also watch stars. Most books will have four or five stars, but obvious stinkers will have less. If 3 star books are the trend, RED FLAG! If most books have 5 or less reviews, RED FLAG! Marketing and/or a good product don’t matter to these people.

Final litmus test–read a bunch of sample previews. Are the books well edited? Do the stories start without a cliche?

(Common cliche openings: waking from a dream or sleep, a description of the weather, a character thinking, an epic battle scene, a character complaining about being bored).

If you spot plot holes, typos, misspellings, or for heaven’s sake, writing on par with any random word-vomit on Wattpad, RED FLAG! This press’s editors either don’t know a thing or they sign any author who waves a query at them.

The final test is to follow them on Facebook for a while. If you come to hate their very existence, RED FLAG! These will be your co-workers and business partners. Make sure you can stand them.

This is my personal screening test for small presses. I’ve chewed through lots of presses and I have a list of potentials who I’d like to submit books to.

Did I miss anything? Are there any other critical steps to weeding through small and medium sized presses?

Jonathan Coulton: Indie success story

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Jonathan Coulton is a nerd singer/songwriter, best known for his work on Still Alive for the Valve game Portal. In the geek/gamer community, his music has achieved cult status with hits like Code Monkey (about a sad programmer), The Future Soon (about a kid dreaming of the future where he can engineer away all his problems) and Re: Your Brains (a letter from one employee to another after the first guy has been turned into a zombie.)

But Coulton achieved internet stardom without ever publishing under a record label. He quit work, and spent a year writing and recording one song every week in a tiny bedroom in his apartment. He called it Thing a Week.

From an Interview on AboutCreativity:

In the course of the year you spent working on Thing a Week, did you develop any techniques that seemed to help you tap your creative side?

I wish I could say that I developed a sure-fire strategy for writing a song. That’s one of the things I was hoping would come out of Thing a Week — that I could somehow discover a process that worked every time. But it was always different.

I spent a lot of time walking and riding my bike, mumbling under my breath, making up lines about things I saw or thought of. Ideally, one of those lines would be interesting enough to stick with me and grow into something. Sometimes I would get inspired early in the week and the song would sort of write itself. Other times I would think and think all week, and Friday would find me with no good ideas.

The one thing I did learn was that even the good songs have a point when they feel awful — for me there’s always this deep valley of self-doubt when it seems like I should stop writing and abandon the idea. But sometimes even the songs that started with bad ideas would have a very strong finish, and I would find that I’d pulled something really great out of nowhere. Not always — there were certainly some songs that never really got good. And I think that’s an important part of the process too — you’re going to write some clunkers for sure, but you’ll never really know unless you write them. Starting a song is easy; finishing it is a lot harder.

How did you stay focused and productive, particularly on those days when you were feeling a little less inspired?

JC: Solitude and boredom. If I ever found myself stuck, that was usually a good time to take a long walk or a bike ride. There was something about separating myself from all the instruments and gear in the studio that made things move forward — I think it’s easy to get bogged down in a particular detail when what you really need to do is brush lightly over the surface of the whole thing. And I have so many patterns that I rely on when I’m actually playing the guitar that it can sometimes be a hindrance to write with it in my hands — my brain makes different choices when it’s by itself.

From an interview on Joystiq:

Which one of those songs surprised you the most? That went on to be a hit?

I would say the longest distance from how much I thought it sucked to how much people actually liked them, is the song “Mr. Fancy Pants.” [download link] — which is really about a minute and fifteen seconds long; which is evidence of how little regard I had for it while I was writing it. It’s kind of a silly, nonsense song with a tune that gets into your head and creates lesions in your brain. And I was writing it I was thinking this is completely dumb and it doesn’t make any sense. It’s kind of catchy but what’s the point? And the form of it was weird and so it ended up just being this really small, fluffy thing.

And then … a few weeks later, I still sort of had that song in my head. I’m actually kind of proud of that song! It’s weird but it’s one of those songs that you’re like, “Wow! How did anyone ever write this?” And it feels that way to me the more distance I get from it. How did I possibly … it doesn’t seem possible. And of course, now when I do that song live, I don’t do it with a guitar. I do it with a Zendrum, which has a midi controller that lets me play the drums and trigger samples and all this stuff. I sort of do this live remix of the song to distract people from the fact that it’s short and nonsensical. And in that sense, that’s always a big hit at shows. And it’s a good example of something that, as I’m writing it, I never would have imagined what it was going to become.

From AboutCreativity:

Was there anything that you learned about the craft of songwriting that really stands out, in terms of what makes for a good song?

The best ones were always the ones that sounded a little bit crazy in my head — there’s a safe way to write a song, and there’s a way that’s more risky. The risky approach almost always ends up producing something that rings true in a way the safe approach never does.

I knew I had hit the spot when the character I was writing started saying really ridiculous things. It certainly makes things more interesting when you go off in a strange direction and have to find your way back, but it’s also a kind of release. Sort of like I had to get my own ego out of the way and let the character say and think whatever they wanted, even if that made them sound like a jerk or a loser. And strangely, the characters who get that freedom tend to talk and think like me — go figure.

What’s the best advice that you’ve heard about the creative process?

I think Stephen King said some great things in On Writing — the main bit that I took away from that is the idea that you really have to sit down and do it. Treat it like work, spend a few hours TRYING to write every day. Sometimes it will be good and sometimes it will be bad, but there will be a lot of it. And really, it’s not the creating that’s the hard part, it’s the decision to sit down at your desk and start working.

And lastly, from an interview on Nukezilla:

Do you have any closing words of wisdom, any advise for anybody either about getting into the music industry or the music indepen…dence? I guess? Or otherwise?

JC: [Laughs] The only thing I will say is that, you know, people ask me all the time, ‘how did you do it and also how can I do that?’ and the answer is, ‘I don’t really know, and nobody does, and everybody is still figuring it out’. So, whatever the creative thing is that you do that you want to do professionally and for a wider audience, the best advise I can give you is [to] work very hard, make the best stuff you can make, and make a lot of it. And publish. Publish, publish, publish. That is the biggest thing that divides people that you have heard of and people that you have not heard of, is that the people you have heard of have all published, and usually they have published a lot before anything happens. You know, there’s no real secret other than doing the work and putting it out there.

Jonathan Coulton’s website, his music

Pitcharama – Pitch your mate contest

Rachel Meenan and I are entering the Pitcharama contest. The idea is that we each pitch each other’s stories on our blogs, and a bunch of publishers will come by and check us out. So here’s my pitch for her story! You can read her pitch for mine here.

Author name: Rachel Anne Blackmon

Title: The Stolen Defender

Audience age: 13-18

Genre: Young Adult Urban fantasy

Word count: 78,000

Brief novel description: In a modern fantasy universe where Faunos (anthropomorphic creatures) are synchronized with magical Gems, Matt and Izzy are Defenders–elite magical soldiers, trained to use their Gems to defend the greater good. Matt and Izzy are the Golden Guardians, and among the highest ranking Defenders available. So when an alien creature called Ouranos invades their planet of Zyearth, Matt and Izzy are called to respond.

But the life-long friends get more than they bargain for. Ouranos is a Weather-Wielder, a kind of magical user not seen on Zyearth for thousands of years. He’s damaging, fearless, calculating, and powerful.
And then, by some strange chance, Ouranos physically and magically fuses with Matt, a feat thought impossible. Together they are the creature Gaia- a creature the Defenders have no hope of fighting, let alone stopping.
Now Izzy must fight military politics, black, inky monsters and time itself to reclaim Matt from the darkness, before it’s too late.

Why bother with Christian publishers?

Over on Mike Duran’s blog, he asked, Do Christian publishers know how to market to men?

This is part of an ongoing debate that Christian speculative fiction writers have. They’re writing about space ships, aliens, fantasy worlds and magic. Whereas the Christian market is geared toward middle-aged women who are primarily interested in romance, particularly anything set in a Little House on the Prairie setting, or among the Amish.

Needless to say, aliens and epic fantasy don’t sell well to that particular demographic.

So Mike said,

Because Women’s / Historical fiction is the wheelhouse of the CBA, publishing houses are now designed to crank out this product. A new title rolls in and the marketing department just rearranges all the typical pieces: bonnet, covered wagon, parasol, petticoat, doe-eyed lass. Check, check, check! It’s a quick cut-and-paste affair. The economy has forced Christian publishers into “safe mode.” So when a horror, crime, fantasy, literary, or sci-novel rolls in, it’s the equivalent of adding a fifth wheel to an assembly line of carriages.

They don’t market to men hardly at all. They throw their male audience a few bones now and then with the likes of Ted Dekker and his copycats. But that’s about it. Cue lots and lots of hand-wringing among the Christian spec-fic writers, who can’t find a market for their books. There’s lots of strategy about how to break into the Christian market.

But I think the whole debate is mistargeted.

I’ve been researching audience and market and all that jazz for months and months now, trying to figure out where I’m going to slot my books in. The Christian market is for middle-aged women who like bonnets and buggies. And that’s fine, because that’s that particular niche. Why should we try to change that?

If we want a market for Christian-oriented spec fic, we’ll have to go out and create the market ourselves.

I’ve been following the wide, weird world of YA, and man, they MAKE this market. They buy and read gobs of YA, talk about them, give them away, write more, and buy/read it. It’s a circle, and like a giant Katamari book ball, it gets bigger the farther it rolls.

Christian spec fic is still in its infancy, and trying to shoehorn it into a market that doesn’t want it isn’t the way to go. I think we need to make our own market. Buy books. Read them, review them, give them away, and write more. Out in YAland, they do this in enormous quantities. There’s been small-scale attempts at this with blog hops and things.

But you know, when I first started looking for Christian spec fic, I couldn’t find a darn thing. So I just went to the library and yanked titles off the shelves. Guess what! Most of these C-spec-fic books don’t end up in the library because they’re through indie publishers. If you want ’em in there, you have to request the library buy them.

I’ve run across lots of Christian speculative fiction out there in secular book-land. The Guardians of Ga’Hoole, Harry Potter, and The Dragon’s Tooth come to mind. And I doubt anybody would even catch on that that’s what they are. Because the authors are very tasteful and don’t hold an altar call. They just tell a good story. That’s all Christian spec-fic is. Good stories with a Christian worldview.

And trying to mash those sorts of books into a market oriented toward middle-aged white evangelical women isn’t the way to go.

Pondering publishing

I’ve been bouncing back and forth for a while about how to publish Spacetime. Self-publish? Indie-publish? Traditional-publish?

I’m not helped out by articles that argue very persuasively for each side.

Like the Indie Author’s checklist, and its second part. Major success stories like this one.

Then you hear about the downside, like “There will be no more professional writers in the future“. And the downside of, well, actually reading a self-published book.

Then there’s articles like these, that talk about getting signed with a publisher, and how much work their editors made them do on a book they thought was okay. But you know what? Their book was readable afterward. Like, by human beings. Like, by human beings who would pay money to read it.

So as I bounce around, reading all of these conflicting elements, I’m beginning to distill a few things out of it all.

First: The people making money self-publishing are people who have been traditionally published, and are trained by their editors to self-edit. Most greenhorns just starting to write don’t have that kind of training.

Second: If your first book doesn’t get edited, it won’t make any money if you self-publish. Rejections are a sign that the book needs editing.

Third: I don’t want to be that shmuck who goes through an indie publisher who gives my book a once-over and declares it good, only to have nobody read it because, heavens, look at all those grammar errors on the first page!

Fourth: I need the training an editor can give me.

Fifth: But I have to finish the book first. It always comes back to that, doesn’t it?

So those are my thoughts, as I’ve been bouncing between the two camps. And it is a war between traditional publishers and self-publishers. But you know, even the guy who wrote Wool (that post-apoc book) didn’t publish his first draft, I guarantee it.