Is crossing over from CBA to the general market possible?

June 4, 2013 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Just back from a fabulous BEA convention, where the mood was upbeat, nobody was whining about the future of books, and everyone involved (authors, publishers, agents, sales people, marketing folks) seemed excited about the future of the industry. Loved being back in New York and seeing all the great titles coming out. I like to watch trends, and noticed several at the show (which I’ll talk more about in future posts), including the changes to faith-based publishing. So while I was at the show, someone sent this: “You seem to be one of the few literary agents who works in the general market (what a lot of people call the ABA) as well as working in the Christian market (the CBA). I’ve published two books in CBA, but think my next book fits more of a general market audience. My question: is ‘crossing over’ from CBA to ABA a reality?”

Okay, if you’re not terribly religious, stay with me for a minute…. I think this stuff is interesting to talk about. First, for those not in the know, CBA is the Christian Booksellers Association, and it’s the realm of all things faith-based in publishing. ABA is the American Booksellers Association, and it’s sometimes used (though less and less) as a descriptor for the general, non-religious world of publishing. Now, if you’ll indulge me, let me offer a theological reflection that speaks to this issue of CBA and ABA books: Christianity teaches that when you meet God, you are changed. (I don’t care if you believe that or not, just hear the argument.) A Christian would argue that everything about you is different, because you’ve been exposed to God. So, from a theologian’s perspective, a Christian probably won’t be completely understood by those who are not Christians. He or she is speaking a different language. And any cultural anthropologist till tell you that the longer you’re a Christian, the fewer non-Christian friends you have, and therefore the less you have in common. So you’ll have a tough time communicating with non-Christians in language they’ll understand.

Still with me? Okay (done with the theology lesson), from an agent’s perspective, many faith-based writers simply don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to writing for non-Christian readers. They aren’t part of the non-fatih world, they don’t hang out with non-Christian people, they don’t watch non-religious TV or listen to radio programming that’s antithetical to their beliefs. In essence, they CAN’T speak to that group, because they don’t know the language. Picture this for a minute — imagine a Moslem, who had been raised in an Islamic home, who lives his entire life surrounded with Islamic influences, suddenly announcing he wants to write a book that appeals to a Christian audience, since there seem to be so many Christians who need to hear the message of Islam. Or imagine a novelist who has never been a church-goer, who doesn’t know the first thing about organized religion, suddenly being asked to write a novel about the pastor of a small-town congregation. 

See the problem? It’s hard to cross cultural lines. I was in a meeting a few years ago with a well-known Christian personality who wanted to “write a book for the general market.” She was big news, so we were all excited… until we saw her idea. It was basically an outline drawn from the book of James, with verses to support every point. When I tried to explain to her why that book would NEVER be picked up by the general public, she didn’t understand me. “But it’s TRUTH,” she argued. “It’s GOD’S truth, and people will see that if they would pick it up and read it!” You see, she just didn’t grasp the fact that the majority of readers won’t listen to that argument (just as she wouldn’t listen if the moslem author wrote a book explaining why Mohammed was God’s prophet). The general book culture isn’t interested in books from a strict evangelical viewpoint. Other Christians are, but the general reading public are not. And that’s an issue I face regularly with faith-based authors. 

So no, for most religious writers, “crossing over” is a very, very difficult task. Sure, it happens occasionally. But rarely by design. Nobody really thought “Left Behind” or “The Purpose Driven Life” were going to sell millions of copies to non-religious readers. They did, but I know the publishers didn’t have any clue that was going to happen when they contracted those books. Maybe (if you’re a Christian) that’s the sovereignty of God at work. Maybe (if you’re not a Christian) that was end times lunacy and dumb luck. “90 Minutes in Heaven” has sold 4 million copies to people who are interested in the concept of an afterlife, but I happen to know the publisher was shocked at the public’s embracing of that book. “The Shack” has sold 6 million copies or so, to Christians as well as non-Christians who were interested in spiritual things. It happens occasionally. But, generally speaking, the Christian writers who are read by a non-religious audience [a list that would include CS Lewis, L'Engle, LaMott, O'Connor, Percy, Sayers, Tolkein, Wangerin, et al] are not writing “Christian” books. They’re simply writing great stories.

Nobody thought the Harry Potter books were going to have such a wide appeal to adults, or that a YA novel like “The Hunger Games” would break out to such an extent. But that’s the beauty of publishing. You write your best book, aim it at your audience, and sometimes you get surprised. In my view you don’t really design a book to sell to both the religion and the non-religious market. 

Posted in CBA, Current Affairs, Trends

  • Raquel Byrnes

    Just write great stories and see what happens. I like that. :)

  • Richard Mabry

    Chip, Perhaps when you speak of non-Christians not understanding novels by Christians, you may be thinking of those books that are overt in their Christianity, rather than those that are subtle in the Christian worldview they espouse. But, putting aside the argument that non-Christians won’t understand a book written by a Christian, if the questioner has had two books published in the CBA market, there’s a little thing called “audience” or “following.” If he/she tries to cross over, there’ll be a whole new set of endeavors to build a platform with a different audience. And that’s not something easily done.
    On the other hand, I do know of fairly well-known authors who have had books published in the general market, then moved to the Christian market full-time (and good for them, by the way) where they were successful.
    I agree with your conclusion. We just differ a bit on some of the details. Thanks for sharing.

    • chipmacgregor

      It’s hard to say if an audience will follow a writer, Richard. There’s almost zero following from fiction to nonfiction, for example. Is there from CBA to ABA? Not much. Maybe some. But again, knowing your audience and writing to it is probably the best thing a writer can do.

  • Winter Peck

    Might I add, I’m one of those authors who crossed over from CBA into general market. Thanks to Amanda. But I was never an overly Christian writer, so the switch was easy. In fact, I wasn’t overly Christian enough for the CBA, which is why my books–2 now published on the general market side–have done better than they might have in the CBA. But you’re right, Chip, this isn’t a side a Christian who can’t talk the talk or walk the walk should go to.

    • chipmacgregor

      Thanks, Winter. And congrats on your success. Amanda is amazing, isn’t she?

      • Winter Peck

        She’s the best. And you’re to thank!

  • Dana Mentink

    Interesting!

    • chipmacgregor

      Thanks, Dana.

  • Rachel Leigh Smith

    I find your point about Christians being insulated in Christian culture to be very timely. It really resonated with me. I’m not insulated in Christian culture by any means. Don’t listen to Christian radio, don’t watch “Christian” movies, not even reading Christian fiction at the moment.

    I tried to make a go in the CBA and got nowhere. I was too different, too raw, too controversial. Their loss. I switched to general market last spring and things are looking good.

    • chipmacgregor

      And that’s why you belong in the general market, Rachel. In my view, that’s just a natural progression for a writer to realize who she needs to write for.

  • John Robinson

    Very salient points, Chip. I totally agree.

  • http://www.tinabustamante.com/ Tina Bustamante

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this post. I liked it and am troubled by how easy it is for us Christians to hang out with each other, read each other’s books, watch our movies, and talk our talk … I’m not sure that was the original point of becoming a people of God … I will say that the more fiction I read of a variety of writers, I’m more convinced than ever that respect is at the heart of good fiction – in all genres. If you don’t respect the people you’re writing to, then you have no business writing to them. And along with that we must respect their stories, their pain, their hopes, their hurts. This matters. A great deal, I think. Thanks for the post, Chip. As always, thought provoking.

    • Laura K. Cowan

      It’s so nice to hear someone else thinking about this in terms of respect, Tina. That’s EXACTLY it, in my opinion. For me, this extends to respecting their experiences and worldview, which means entering into their vocabulary about the world and not imposing my own definitions of things onto them. Oh, I could talk forever on this topic, but I’ll stop now. :)

      • http://www.tinabustamante.com/ Tina Bustamante

        I could talk forever on this topic too! We should talk about it sometime together!

    • chipmacgregor

      Since you and I have talked this over, Tina, I know we tend to agree on this topic. “Respect” is the key to being heard.

      • http://www.tinabustamante.com/ Tina Bustamante

        Yes … respect is a bigger deal than we think. And … might I add, that even if we’re Christians, this doesn’t mean we have all the answers. We don’t. And I’d do well to remember that as I write my stories. In fiction, it’s not about the answers. It’s about crafting a story that shows the nuances and all the layers of life … In fiction it’s about the questions.

        • Chila

          excellent thread.

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  • Ron Estrada

    I’ve never thought of that way, Chip. I surrendered to Christ late in life, at 30. In the 16 years since, I know that I’m totally detached from the world. I sit in my office cubical and listen the conversations going on around me and I absolutely cannot relate. They truly are speaking a language foreign to me. Like many Christian writers, my hope is to reach the lost with my writing. Perhaps that’s not realistic. Perhaps my (our) purpose is more along the lines of encouraging our brothers and sisters. By the way, I began my first novel before my conversion. After that night at a Promise Keepers rally where I prayed for salvation in the Silver Dome end zone (the Lions weren’t using it anyway), I re-wrote the entire thing. My world-view had so completely changed in that instant that I couldn’t try to publish what I had written while in a secular mindset.

    • chipmacgregor

      And you know, that’s fine, Ron. You have to write the stories you’re given, and there’s nothing wrong with writing Christian novels for Christians. Nothing at all. This isn’t an argument about “this genre is good and this other is bad.” Write the stories you’ve been given… even if they’re about the sucky Lions, who have never won a Super Bowl while the Green Bay Packers have won four. (Just sayin’.)

  • J.A. Marx

    Hmm. I really appreciate your blogs and how you just call things as they are. Thanks Chip.

    • chipmacgregor

      You’re welcome, J.A.

  • julie zine coleman

    It’s true that its tough to predict a crossover success. My book, Unexpected Love: God’s Heart Revealed through Jesus’ Conversations with Women, released recently by Thomas Nelson, is an in-depth Bible study on the nine encounters between Jesus and women in the gospels. To my publisher’s (and my) surprise, Sam’s Club and Barnes and Noble both ordered thousands of books to be featured in their stores! I have no idea why they decided to pick it up– except that the topic is one the general public might be interested in. I did try very hard to exclude any “religious words” or anything someone not seeped in the Christian culture would not understand. I also had a Catholic friend proof-read it to be sure it would not offend our non-Protestant brothers and sisters. But in the end, it was the title that sold it to secular markets– since I’m pretty sure the buyers did not read before ordering– since the book had not yet been released.

    Go figure. I can only attribute it to God and His plan to get His message out into the public. I’m humbled to be a part of that.

    • chipmacgregor

      Huh. What a great story, Julie. And congrats to you on your success!

  • Laura Droege

    This is a timely post for me. I’m plodding my way through my second novel, wondering how best to frame certain spiritual elements for a non-religious market, if I need to tone down my agnostic, confused, sex-trafficking survivor heroine’s wonderings about God (and sex and men), and that sort of thing. I don’t read CBA fiction, so I don’t know if my novel strays too far in that direction. I’ll just do my best to stay in Flannery O’Connor territory, write the highest quality book I can, and see how it goes.

    • chipmacgregor

      Yeah — let your personality and unique voice come through. Who you are is reflected in your writing, Laura. That’s a good thing. Flannery O’Connor (a favorite writer of mine) was great at allowing her fine voice to shine through.

  • cynthiahickey

    Timely post, as always. The few “non-Christian” books I’ve put on ebook aren’t doing too bad, but I did do them under a different name. Funny thing is…my beliefs still show up, even outside my “Christian” books. Is writing fun?

    • chipmacgregor

      Of course they do, since they reflect who you are, Cindy. That’s what I’d expect. And that’s fine. Just so long as you understand your readership.

  • Robin Patchen

    I would love to write for the general market, to be able to influence a non-Christian audience, but the stories I’m given (and they do feel “given,” since I usually have no idea where they come from) wouldn’t fly in the general market. Lots of great Christian writers write for the ABA. Charles Martin comes to mind. (I just finished his newest release yesterday.) And my friend Normandie Fischer, who has two books coming out this summer. These stories are infused with hope and truth, but there’s nothing overtly Christian about them. Like the parables of Jesus, their messages are subtle, but God can use them to draw people to Himself if He chooses to. But you’re right. Writing for a culture you’re not a part of adds an extra layer of difficulty.

    • chipmacgregor

      And that’s actually fine, Robin. Knowing yourself and your stories is key. I’m not saying writing for the general market is better — I’m just saying most Christian novelists who try to do so fail, and often can’t see why they fail.

    • Normandie Fischer

      Robin, that’s it, isn’t it? We’re called to write the stories that are in us. I’m thrilled at the early response of the non-Christians who have read Becalmed. Now we’ll see what a larger audience has to say.

      I agree with you, Chip, when you say that those who don’t live among the unbelieving culture can rarely write stories that speak to the world at large, mostly because we in the church have our own language. We know it. We speak it to one another, but if we use those words beyond our particular world, we appear to speak a foreign language. As you say, we need to know our audience, whichever one it is.

  • http://www.dennisbrooke.com/ Dennis Brooke

    I think the key point of this post is not whether or not you can crossover from CBA to ABA–but the fact that too many Christians abandon the lost sheep and focus on preaching to the choir. We should be engaging with the culture through our lives, actions, and words and not retreating into our comfortable Christian enclaves.

    • chipmacgregor

      Thanks, Dennis. My point was just to answer the question, and explain that most CBA writers really can’t write to a general market audience. They try, but fail.

  • Susan Meissner

    I got my start in the CBA and am grateful for it, but I am making the move to the ABA (a move brokered by fab agent, Chip MacGregor) because I believe that with my subtle approach to faith within my books, that’s probably where I best fit. Consider that when Christian fiction became a genre unto itself (and I am happy that it did), there ceased to be a noticeable Christian voice in the general fiction section of the bookstore. We all start writing for our niche CBA market and only our niche market. Fifty years ago Christian novelists wrote for the ABA. They left their mark on the ABA shelves in the language of that market but with their integrity intact. I believe it can still be done that way. I am counting on it. I believe Christian artists, whether they sing or write or paint, can and should be in both markets. Some of us will be subtle in our approach (like the Book of Esther is subtle). My first book with Penguin releases in February.

    • Cherry Odelberg

      Congrats on your upcoming release, Susan. Blaze the trail. Blaze the trail.

    • chipmacgregor

      Excellent points, Sooz. I believe in fiction that is faith-infused, since I’m a person of faith. And I believe in allowing the market to have a variety of fiction genres — including distinctly Christian novels. But I’ve never seen it as an either/or type of thing.

  • Laura K. Cowan

    This is a great analysis, thanks. My first novel The Little Seer (a spiritual warfare coming of age story somewhat similar to Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness) could have been CBA, but I knew I would be the opposite of so many CBA authors after this book–actually NOT able to reach CBA readers in general because I fit more with the postmodern emergence Christianity literary/subtle folks–so I chose to self-publish the first book and focus the majority of my career on the general fiction market. I agree with Susan M. below. My books have a subtle approach to faith, and really aim to be art written from a perspective of faith, not propaganda or didactic/evangelistic push for said faith, so I’m afraid I would get shoehorned into a bad fit in CBA with the way things work, even though I’m disappointed at this because there are so many great people in CBA. But that’s probably the way it is meant to be. The people I grew up with who were so sure of their faith only sat around telling each other about it, and that’s not the space I’m called to.

    • chipmacgregor

      Yeah, I’ve seen that happen a lot, Laura. And what happens is usually a book that’s too Christian for the general market, but too earthy/edgy for the Christian market. So it dies.

  • Cherry Odelberg

    Thanks for explaining it so well. It is not my aim to write for the Christian market; however, I do come from a Theistic worldview. Okay, probably even a Christian worldview. So do writers like Melody Beattie and Jan Karon. I so don’t want to write for CBA, but I do not see myself as C.S. Lewis or L’Engle.
    Do you see changes or flexibility in ABA publishing houses these days?

    • chipmacgregor

      I”ve always seen flexibility, Cherry. The fact is, people are spiritual (even if they deny it) and interested in the great mysteries (is there a God? why am I here? what’s the purpose of life? etc). Some Christian writers can speak to that in a way that doesn’t batter others with arguments; others cannot. Most cannot, in my experience.

      • Cherry Odelberg

        “The fact is, people are spiritual ….Some Christian writers can speak to that…”
        Up we go, on the 3 X 5 card. I. Want. To. Do. That.

  • JanalynVoigt

    It surprised me to discover most of the related sales on Amazon for my epic fantasy novel, DawnSinger, are secular ya fantasy novels. I wrote my novel for both a Christian and secular audience, but I thought it would appeal more to adults than young adults.

    Writing allegory in a genre that supports crossing over helps.

    • chipmacgregor

      Thanks, Janalyn. You’re right — there’s often strong spiritual threads in fantasy and allegory.

  • Helena Smrcek

    Hmmm, interesting. So, what if you are not soooo religious that you actually go see 18+ movies, are hooked on 24, your kids do have friends who are Muslim and Hindu, and the only female friend your daughter has, that is openly Christian, is super obnoxious, to the point that people think she is wired and so is her faith…the rest of my daughter’s friends are not interested in religion and will definitely not go to church with the above mentioned girl, which makes the entire thing a great topic for conversation while driving to a Comic-Con.

    I think your post is correct, given you are addressing the right wing of our faith family. I do agree with you on that point, but I disagree on the point of relevance. We need to meet ‘them’ where they are. I think we can talk to ‘them’ if we drop our lingo and tell a good story, even if it’s based on the book of James – but it must be done the right way.

    Our 17 year-old son (none of his school or football friends are Christians) just developed a sci-fi story – there is nothing religious about it – accept the story itself.

    I think there is a way to reach ‘them’ – but only if the author is willing to
    step outside the box, or church (not faith). We need to learn to speak ‘their’
    language, and become excellent at it and our craft. What else is the point of
    all this…the choir has been preached to already, besides it’s not ‘them’ and
    ‘us’, we are all His, some just don’t know it yet.

    • chipmacgregor

      I’m not really sure where we disagree here, Helena. I tend to reject the us/them mentality anyway. My point was that most Christian novelists who want to write for the general market can’t do it — they just don’t know how to.

    • Chila Woychik

      Helena, I do see where both you and Chip are coming from, and agree that the overly-churched (if I can call it that, for want of a better term to describe those who adore church but are afraid to get involved in the lives of real people, loving them as Jesus did, usually for fear of getting their hands dirty) will probably have a very difficult time ever penning anything that remotely passes in the mainstream market as “authentic.” But, like you, I agree that the evangelical community in America is sadly lacking in cultural awareness, and this is a huge fault of the evangelical world of this day and age in America. In other countries, they don’t have this problem – only here – or so my global friends tell me.

      And I love Chip’s most salient point in all the above: “But, generally speaking, the Christian writers who are read by a non-religious audience [a list that would include CS Lewis, L'Engle, LaMott, O'Connor, Percy, Sayers, Tolkein, Wangerin, et al] are not writing “Christian” books. They’re simply writing great stories.”

      This is the thing I do believe can and should be occurring at much greater frequency in America. I would LOVE to see this promoted and actively encouraged by groups such as the CBA, the ACFW, and others. To me, this is the Christian writer’s Great Commission: Go out, write for the larger audience, leave little glimpses of hope through fantastic stories, and when people come and ask you about yourself and your fantastic book (which took you years to learn how to write, while studying the craft, and yes, even the best /mainstream/ stories), you can say, “Hey, I’m not only a writer, but a follower of Christ.” I can’t think of a better witness.

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