Friday, May 19, 2006

What the Fans Want, Part 2

Thanks to everyone for your kind comments on yesterday’s post! I’ve been a member of these two groups I mentioned for a little over three years now—Christian Fandom and ChristSF—and have seen quite the gulf between longtime fans of the genre, and those whom CBA is actually reaching. On the ACFW forum, we’ve speculated that CBA isn’t really trying to target SF/F fans, but CBA readers who aren’t familiar with the genre and are leery of all the questionable elements—actually, it’s probably more accurate to say that they’re hoping to attract readers from both sides—but it seems that the old adage of “you can’t please everyone” is proving itself true here, and the attempt to do so can be … disastrous.

While we’re at it, let’s revisit the “first wave” of Christian SF/F. Back then, I was trying to get my own first novel published—yes, I’ve been working on the story and series THAT long—and so paid attention not only because I was interested in the competition, but I was delighted to find “clean” speculative fiction. Like others, I found some of it less than wonderfully written, but sometimes it was easier to read the less-than-great stuff than wade through the New-Age and pagan undercurrents of Terry Brooks, or the heavyhanded secular humanism and feminism of Anne McCaffery and Marion Zimmer Bradley … not to mention the fact that most secular SF/F is littered with less-than-wholesome sexual content and language.

My two favorites back then were Stephen Lawhead—and I still think fondly of Dream Thief, although I think he really didn’t hit his stride as a writer till sometime between the Pendragon Cycle and The Song of Albion—and Robin Hardy, author of The Chataine’s Guardian and its two sequels. True, that one suffered from most of the problems first novels do—the writing was awkward in places, the story was rushed, and the whole thing seemed more than just a little cheesy. BUT—I loved the story, and Robin’s writing improved very nicely over the course of the trilogy. Honestly, I don’t remember much about any others published during this time (not counting Peretti, which I consider more supernatural thriller than SF/F) … except for Bill Hand’s The OnePrince, a title published by Thomas Nelson. That one was obviously the first of at least a duology, if not a trilogy, and was my first experience with starting a series that the publisher dropped because of (I assume) low sales.

Which brings me to the big, nasty “M” word. MARKETING.

The “buzz” is lately that despite the success of the recent Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Narnia films and books, even in Christian circles, sales of Christian SF/F is dismal enough that … Realms, the new spec fiction imprint by Strang, will likely not be releasing a second round … WestBow may not be continuing Kathryn Mackel’s Birthrighter series past the second book (and if you haven’t checked out the first, Outriders, you should. Kathy has a marvelous style and amazing concept, even if it does fly in the face of accepted fundamentalist eschatology … but hey, this IS speculative fiction after all!) … and apparently Tyndale’s areUthirsty imprint isn’t continuing Chris Walley’s Lamb Among the Stars series, either.

None of these books—at least not the ones I’ve read—were shabbily written. The Realms titles all “earned out,” which means they sold enough to cover the authors’ advances. My husband and oldest son both greatly enjoyed the Walley books—no small feat, since much CBA fiction in general seems to be angled more at female readers. So what’s the problem?

Let’s go back to that gulf I mentioned—the longtime fan, and CBA offerings of SF/F. The single most overwhelming reason that the fans aren’t reading the books is … THEY DON’T KNOW ABOUT THEM. One person stated that basically, if a friend recommends the book, he’ll read it; in fact, he relies almost solely on word-of-mouth for what he chooses to read.

Brandilyn Collins recently discussed numbers and marketing in her Forensics and Faith blog (see the link on my sidebar, and scroll down) … and guess what the single most effective marketing media is these days? You got it—the Internet. (Booksignings are NOT it—they may be fun, but even the illustrious Jerry Jenkins bombs at those—I know this, because he told us at a conference I attended.) Marketers have long realized that word of mouth is far more effective than any other sort of advertising, and the Internet becomes the perfect medium for that, at this time.

Thus, back to sites like Tim’s Focus on Christian Fantasy. And Christian Fandom’s longer-running review pages, which we plan to highlight during another tour. (And yes, Elliot, I meant that I’d love to have you contribute that review to their site! Email me--the link is in my blog profile.) The power of word of mouth is partly why, despite my disdain for being mainstream and conformist, I’ve gotten on the blog tour bandwagon. I decided that if I believe in the genre, then I better be prepared to back my words with walk.

But I believe the success or failure of Christian SF/F is about so much more than mere numbers and sales. It’s a unique vehicle for conveying truth, and as such, our enemy is going to resist it with all his might ... and our best weapon, I think, is prayer.

And there are still issues to resolve. One—many believers remain suspicious of fantasy and SF—just as many Christians believe the only “godly” music is hymns and/or certain classical pieces. (Oooh, that gives me the idea for another blog!) But, some people will never change their minds on that. Two—the overall quality of CBA-released SF/F, which has been on the way up for a while now (thank you, Kathy Tyers!), but there are still, shall we say, glaring examples of “good story, not-so-good writing”? This is where online review sites can help, but then there’s the snaggy problem of being perfectly honest about the less-than-wonderful books. I’m thinking of one in particular that I’m reluctant to review, simply because I’ve met the author in person and don’t want to hurt her feelings, although I found her work disappointing on many levels. But—I’m a very picky reader. (Interesting comment, Karen, about SF/F readers in general! Demanding is a pretty accurate assessment. Picky might be even better. ;-) )

Which leads to three—tastes vary widely. More on that later.

(I think I’m having way too much fun with this!)

4 comments:

  1. Good post!
    Some puzzle pieces are falling into place for me. I'm starting to understand this market and its history a bit more. I'm sorry to hear that the sf/fantasy market is suffering.

    I've been reading The Dream Thief and really struggling with it. I'm really tempted to just quit, even though I'm halfway through.

    Did you know that Marion Zimmer Bradley gave up on neo-paganism and went back to church? I talked a little bit about it here: http://clawoftheconciliator.blogspot.com/2006/04/science-fiction-fantasy-and-faith.html

    One of those unexpected changes of heart, like Anne Rice or, to a lesser extent, Anthony Flew.

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  2. I would NOT be happy to see Kathryn Mackel's series cancelled. I can hardly stand seeing this genre struggle for its next breath when many folks (who MIGHT be interested) don't even know it exists. Guess that's the purpose of this type of blog tour, eh? :P

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  3. Shannon, awesome post as alwyas. I totally agree with you that the readers "don't know about it." We all know that as fans of the genre, we have to go and seek it out in any CBA stores. I will say, though, that marketing for Karen Hancock's books was the exception. At least in teh stores I've visited, her books were many and prominent on the end aisles (whatever they call those).

    Bethany is a great publisher for that genre, of course, I'm not sure if that's still the case since losing their SFF loving editor. LOL

    Blessings
    Beth.
    www.elizabethgoddard.com

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  4. Great comment, Shannon. You have said many wise things here.

    And yes, there is a time to do the bandwagon thing to support The Cause. So glad you're involved with the tour.

    Becky

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