Where Did All the Christian Readers Go?
Let me preface this post by making it clear that I’m a Christian author who writes Christian thrillers and suspense novels. (By Christian, I don’t mean Catholic but evangelical, in the sense that I believe the Bible and embrace God’s message of salvation by grace alone embodied in the sacrificial life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Characters in my novel frequently talk about God, pray, and wrestle with their faith in a faithless world.) I make no apology about this. When I write a story about hopefully realistic characters dealing with real-life issues, I find it impossible to do so without my faith entering the picture. Therefore, my stories are predictable in the sense that an inspirational or biblical theme becomes obvious in the story, whether it’s dealing with bitterness or simply learning to trust God more in the hard, sticky aspects of life.
So imagine my surprise when not one but two industry professionals recently told me to consider writing secular fiction for future projects. No, it’s not because faith issues aren’t important and shouldn’t be discussed whether in our conversations or in the books we read. It’s because these books no longer sell. The unspoken message was clear: Write secular fiction and sell more books.
Now stop a minute and think about this conclusion. A Christian author should no longer write Christian fiction because Christian readers are no longer buying it.
After picking my jaw up off the floor, I couldn’t help but wonder two things. First, is this claim really true? Christian fiction doesn’t sell? Second, if so, where did all the Christian readers go?
I grew up in a home where Christian books were a natural part of life. My mother read lots of Christian fiction, so I suppose my first exposure to it came through her. Books by Gilbert Morris, Janette Oke, Jerry B. Jenkins, Bode and Brock Thoene, and Frank Peretti filled our shelves. And when I read these novels, a clear Bible theme was omnipresent somehow in the story. There was no hiding it. No apology for it. No watering down important truths.
Fast-forward to today and this alarming proposal. First, is this really true? Are Christian readers no longer buying Christian fiction?
Not that long ago, the Left Behind series sent ripples across the nation and the Christian publishing world. It sold millions of copies, and even secular readers were grabbing them up while perhaps tolerating the Christian content. Some people even reported making spiritual conversions because they had read these books. In the first book in the series, Buck Williams unashamedly bows his head and accepts Jesus Christ as his Savior. It’s right there, as blatant Christian content as you’ll ever see, and yet still readers bought these books.
When I cited this example, an industry professional retorted, “But that was like fifteen years ago. The publishing world has changed since then. Nobody writes or buys books like those anymore.”
Huh? So in fifteen years, everyone who bought the Left Behind series suddenly up and croaked? And all the authors who wrote Christian fiction with a message met a similar demise? Excuse my hyperbole, but I couldn’t help it.
Look at current evidence. I recently read The Auschwitz Escape by Joel Rosenberg. While the Christian message may not have been as blatant as some Christian fiction I have read, there was a definite Christian message. My wife read Damascus Countdown by Joel: also Christian content. I also read The Bones Will Speak (and enjoyed it) by Carrie Stuart Parks. Yep, there’s a clear Christian worldview, and characters pray; and yes, Carrie is selling books. Guess how many people buy Joel’s clean novels? I don’t have exact numbers in front of me, but my understanding is that he sells a boatload of books. You don’t get on the New York Times best-seller’s list without selling a few books, and yet his books contain an overtly Christian message (which encourages me to do the same). How can it be if Christian fiction no longer sells?
Perhaps Christian publishing has gone through some trials in recent years and has not experienced the profits it once did. But weren’t we recently coming out of a recession? Wasn’t pretty much every retailer feeling the squeeze, not just Christian ones? Could the economic reality of recent times be the cause? Maybe Christian readers felt the squeeze, too, and simply economized, bought fewer books, and instead borrowed them from friends or the local library. That reason seems more plausible to me, not that Christian readers have died, vanished, or no longer buy Christian fiction. Perhaps sales have been down in recent years, but is that reason enough to abandon the genre?
There’s another possibility. Could readers’ tastes have changed so drastically in fifteen years, when the Left Behind series was such a hit? Could that account for lower sales? If so, what does that tell us about the church in recent days?
Now it’s your turn. What do you think about the claim that Christian fiction no longer sells? What do you think about a Christian author writing secular fiction?
- My Love-Hate Relationship with When Calls the Heart
- Clean Fiction Guarantee
Like you, I believe that Christian fiction does sell even now. I know many people whose primary reading material is Christian fiction. I would figure that Christian fiction as a whole would sell less than secular just because there are fewer Christians than non-Christians in the world, but there still is a market for Christian fiction. I would think that was true even in Left Behind days. I’ve wondered about crossovers like Left Behind and Jan Karon’s Mitford books. LB may have had a built-in market because people have been interested in end-time prophecies for ages. Karon’s books are not even marketed as Christian fiction: I first discovered her writing in a secular magazine. But she’s had very clear salvation decisions and Christian principles throughout her books. Maybe it’s accepted because her main character is a minister.
I’d be curious to know if Christian fiction sells less than it used to and why. Perhaps in our more postmodern times, people who used to overlook Christian content are less tolerant of it. But I just came from a Christian writer’s conference last month where Christian writers, editors, and publishers were all enthusiastically talking about the Christian market. So I know it’s nowhere near dead.
I usually only read Christian fiction and non-fiction. I enjoy classic books, but as a budding writer who wants to learn the current style, I try to read good, Christian writers. Some I really enjoy are Dan Walsh, T. Davis Bunn, and Robert Whitlow. They don’t write preachy, but part of the beauty of their books is that they are clean and well-written. I have found quite a few female writers, as well. I appreciate when I can pick up a book and know the content will discuss difficult issues and situations, but it will have clean language, good moral tone, and lack sordid scenes. I am an avid reader of Christian fiction and don’t touch secular fiction at all.
While I’m not a NYT best selling author, I write Christian fiction and am selling more books than ever before. The books selling best—books with strong Christian themes, such as stories about prodigals coming home, finding foregiveness for those burdened by guilt, God-and-country heroes and heroines.
Here’s my guess about what’s happening. If you talk to industry professionals who are trying to sell the most books to a broad market, likely through traditional publishers, that’s the answer you’re going to get. But of course all the Christian readers haven’t disappeared. Some indie authors are turning to niche markets and doing pretty well. For example, one author specifically writes for the Christian market with characters who like organic, all-natural, farm products and those sorts of readers have found her. Another was turned down by every trad publisher for writing romances with cross-cultural relationship, so she went indie and has also found her own audience. I believe there’s a real market for books that appeal to conservative Christian readers because everyone thinks that’s too narrow an audience. But actually many conservative Christians would love to find books with some more meat to them. Of course, finding that audience so they know who you are is a challenge, but it must be a huge audience. Authors often rush to write whatever’s selling, but then the competition for romantic suspense is huge. Surely many Christian readers don’t want more watered down Christianity, but more mature Christianity, which is really hard to find. I think we have to be true to who we are and what we feel God wants us to write, and then look for the audience that wants that. All those Christian readers from the past haven’t mysteriously died or quit reading. I don’t really know numbers about younger readers, but I know many younger Christians are avid readers.
Hi, Barbara. Thanks for your thoughts here. We share many similar views. I think the main push is to sell more books. If secular fiction sells more (and money is your driving motive), then it makes sense to write secular fiction. I’m not personally sure whether I even could cross over, so to speak. There are too many biblical themes I’d like to explore. And money is not my primary drive anyhow.
About the Mitford books, I remember when those first came out. I believe they originally came from a Christian publisher, but when secular readers were buying them, they showed cross-over appeal. I believe I’ve read up to Out to Canaan, but then I had more suspenseful things to read. I enjoyed them but personally prefer a stronger plot hook with some suspense mixed in. Some of her books are too slow moving for me, but that’s just a matter of taste. Thanks for expressing your thoughts.
I do wonder about where the church is going these days. There seems to be more tolerance of things that wouldn’t have been tolerated not that long ago. This could be reflected in the books people choose to read.
Thank you, Lou Ann, for your thoughts. I don’t actually read much Christian fiction, to be honest, beyond a few suspense authors I watch and emulate. I read pretty widely in a number of different areas, including biography, history, and science fiction. I do enjoy reaching for a few Christian authors (Terri Blackstock, Brandilyn Collins, Frank Peretti) because I know I’ll find something thought provoking but not have to wade through any garbage along the way. We are of the same mind. My concern, though, is that many Christian authors are becoming more secular in tone and very minimal on biblical truth because they want to sell more books. I personally think we have a responsibility to say important things and that this priority should be more important than book sales. So when I hear an editor tell me to write secular books, I have a hard time swallowing it.
Hi, Harry. Nice to hear from you. I’m glad to hear your sales are up; that’s super. Do you self-publish, or are you with a certain publisher? I’ve been doing traditional publishing, but lately, I’ve begun doing some self-publishing, mainly my first novel, Fatal Illusions. Your words are encouraging to me. I like to write suspense with obvious faith elements, and it is becoming harder to find a publisher who wants this content nowadays. We’ll see where God leads. Thanks.
Thanks, Deb, for your good thoughts here. I’m with you. Follow where God leads and try not to listen to the voices that would persuade us to do otherwise. It’s never been about making lots of money for me, and I have zero desire to write watered-down Christianity. I know there’s a market for these meaty Christian books (probably the same audience that likes War Room and Courageous), but it may not be a best-selling one.
I read a lot, and review a lot, and I’m a Christian — yet a lot of the time, Christian fiction leaves me cold. So much Amish, so much “light.” A lot of way-too-preachy. Maybe I’m just reading the wrong authors, but a lot of Christian fiction is just so predictable and boring to me. I did love Frank Peretti back in the day, that type of thing. I’m just not finding much of it these days. I will say that I appreciate any book that doesn’t have a bunch of profanity or sex scenes.
Thanks for your thoughts, Susan. Actually, I agree with you to some degree. I see a good bit of Christian suspense that looks like the same old. Nothing fresh, different, or out of the ordinary. Yes, Frank broke the mold, but he isn’t writing so much these days (I don’t know why). At least the Christian fiction I write and am aware of is free of profanity and sex. Hopefully, Christian fiction will stay that way.
Adam, I’ve self-published my last 8 books using Trinity Press International, a very small Christian publisher that has let me contract for any services I need from them, or do everything myself, and still retain all rights to my books. It has worked out well for me, and it seems that, most of the time, I have 2 or 3 books on Amazon’s best-seller lists under one of the Christian genres, usually Christian Mystery & Suspense.
Here is my food for thought: I almost gave up Christian fiction and didn’t read any for a long time. I didn’t read secular fiction for sure, but I just talk to nonfiction books. Why? Because everything was being labeled Christian fiction whether it was truly Christian or not.All that had to happen to get it labeled Christian fiction was that a character had to go to church once or pray a prayer. The rest of the book could’ve been very carnal and yet it was labeled Christian. I would start a book, and have to stop reading it because I didn’t want to put junk in my head. The difficulty is finding truly Christian fiction. The other difficulty is finding well written Christian fiction. I love Christian fiction that deals with the difficulties in life, but deals with those difficult Situations with a clear a biblical-based truth. Well written Christian fiction doesn’t have to be cheesy or even come across preachy, but it Hass to be based on biblical truth! Christ needs to be magnified and not sin! This is why you were one of my favorite authors. Your writing isn’t cheesy, it isn’t carnal, and it’s intriguing! I don’t believe Christian fiction isn’t selling. I believe there’s a shortage in good Christian fiction writing.
You really struggle with my southern accent, don’t you?
To everyone else,
Overlook the typos, please. Ugh!
Yes, Charity, this is sadly true. There are plenty of supposedly “Christian” novels I wouldn’t let even my own daughters read. In fact, one began a certain book (I won’t list it) and came to my wife and me, upset because of a reference to something we had no idea she would be exposed to. Yikes! Sorry, folks, but you can no longer trust the “Christian” label, so be sure to do your homework, read reviews, explore the author’s life and what reference point he or she is coming from. I’ve been invited to endorse books I’ve had to decline due to content; often this was due to vulgar language I won’t put in my books, and I fail to understand why a Christian author would include it. BUT there are good authors and books out there, but they are harder to find and often aren’t on the best-seller lists. Thank you for your kind words. This is a discouraging business at times, so thanks for the encouragement. I will endeavor to write clean books with clear biblical truth because I believe I’m called to do this.
Hi, Harry. That’s excellent to hear. I’d be interested in getting more info about the publisher you are working with. I’ll contact you. Thanks.
Great point. It is indeed disheartening to realize how secularized Christian readers have become. The reality is that the world has become so entrenched in Christianity that there’s no longer a taste for straight-out Christian fiction (at least not enough to make it marketable). We live in dark times indeed.
I think that Christian authors should make up their minds not to sell many copies unless you happen to find yourself among the “elites.” But, in the end, while we all would appreciate the money, we write to present a message–to many or to few.