f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Bridging the Gap—Solution One: Ministry and Money

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, April 05, 2004

Bridging the Gap—Solution One: Ministry and Money

Over the next days, we’ll look at various ways of trying to make the CBA marketplace more open to books that may push the envelope in terms of content. These ideas are not meant to be “solutions” so much as possible courses of action. We can debate the relative merits or problems with each. Some may in fact be contradictory, but I think we should try to explore as many options as we have open to us.

Also, I don’t expect all of us to each choose the same path of engagement. I hope our discussions can be honest, candid, and frank, but always respectful.

Idea #1
As a business, we run remarkably jargon-free. Sure we sometimes “dialogue” and “think outside-the-box,” but we’re a group of mostly down-to-earth people who aren’t caught up in the newest buzzwords nor are we obsessed with trends.

There is one term bouncing around here lately, though, that seems to have some buzz to it: gatekeeper. We’ve become very concerned in our publishing decisions about gatekeepers. We make them, in fact, sound much like the mythical Sphinx or Python’s Bridgekeeper who will kill us unless we solve a little riddle or answer questions about the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. Our goal is always to get our books past the gatekeeper.

In this discussion, it’ll be these mysterious “gatekeepers” with whom we’re most concerned. We can’t focus on the LOL’s (little old ladies) because frankly, we have no direct way to reach them with our message and little chance of changing their minds. The retailer has always acted as an intermediary between publisher and customer and thus it will be in this case as well. Except rather than product going from publisher to customer, we’re attempting to sell an idea. If we can convince the retailer then they will be able to approach the customer.

I think there’s two ways—ignoring any rigmarole about the value of art—that this argument may be made. First we can appeal to retailers sense of mission and second we can appeal to their wallet.

The great majority of Christian retailers feel their business is also a ministry. I think we need to begin gathering hard facts about the very limited demographics actually being reached by most CBA stores and put them in front of retailers. Stronger, edgier fiction doesn’t mean more non-Christians will come into their store, but Christians who might otherwise not shop there may begin seeking the books out. This is a new customer whose walk with God is altered/challenged by a work they sold in their store. That’s ministry in action.

It’s also commerce in action. New customers assumably mean new dollars. The rub is whether selling these books threatens old business and current customers. I think Christian music underwent this skirmish about a decade ago. As the “alternative” music scene grew bands playing lots of different kinds of music began appearing in Christian stores. There was a backlash against such music, but in the end the concerns disappeared. The packaging differentiated between mainstream Christian music and the varied alternatives. Listening booths allowed customers to sample the music before buying it. People typically didn’t go home with something they would hate.

Why is there such resistance to the same thing happening in books? First, nobody is convinced that an actual market exists for these books. Where a market came out of the woodwork to listen to alternative music, no such definable force has emerged for edgier fiction. Young people, it is assumed, don’t read.

Publishers meanwhile are doing themselves no favors in their marketing and promotion and packaging efforts. Books continue to look the same even when their stories might be geared to a completely separate audience. The CBA readership is so well-defined that it’s always terrifying to throw something out there that specifically aims away from our core audience.

Will these factors change? Packaging is already changing. Will a definable market emerge to which we can unveil challenging titles? This is a harder question. We’re out here certainly, but we’re scattered about and our numbers are murky to say the least. Still there’s hope. Always hope.