Abandoning Granny: thoughts from the Christian Writers Guild conference

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I should preface this bit of silliness by saying that I’m making unfair, sweeping generalizations about all of Christian book publishing here, both fiction and non-fiction. It is not only de rigueur to lament the state of the book business when among professionals, it is simply an editor’s biological, involuntary response to all the business and bustle of attending conferences. So please refrain from hijacking my sarcasm here for any other purpose than food for thought.

Talking with editors last Friday morning at the Christian Writer’s Guild conference, we discussed many things from what makes a quality submission to the need for more community among our cohorts. Toward the end of our conversation, we returned to our usual topic, that of the disconcerting dearth and low sales figures of literary fiction. I forget who said it first, but the suggestion was aired that part of the difficulty lies in the need to “abandon grannie.” There’s a nicer, more sensitive way to say that, but the concept has publishers, editors, and writers throughout the industry banging their heads on walls: how do we get the “down line” of sales reps, bookstores, and book-buyers to take a chance on “meatier” fiction? (It’s customary to stick to general terms for the particular type of book, since it’s intended to stand in for a collection of other adjectives: “edgy,” “lyrical,” “prosaic,” and “challenging” among them.) Demographic research shows that it’s largely older women buying Christian books, and indeed, all books, as someone pointed out the other day (Mark Bertrand, provide your link). So we speculated on methods (starting a campaign, subversive advertising, poisoned tea) for getting past these cute, matronly gatekeepers who are inadvertantly barracading the bookstores from all but the safe, the clean, and the innocuous.

One of the fun things about going to Christian writers conferences is all the sweet older women I get to meet (Adam, I hear you chuckling. But I’m serious). Most of the people reading this right now are older women–or at least on their way. I’ve told people before that I tend to err on the side of the feminine sensibility when it comes to art and literature, and I happen to appreciate the refinement and social talents this segment of CBA provides. But often their grasp on the real world and the issues of the day can be shockingly rigid and biased. And if we’ve got an industry that’s catering to this kind of crotchety conservatism, I’d say we’ve got our primary suspect for who is severely limiting the type of books I’m able to create, pursue, and purchase as a writer, acquisitions editor, and Christian reader who longs for “bite.”

Now during this conversation, I suggested to our intimate group that one thing we need to do is challenge the conventional wisdom of giving the grannies what they want. Sales reps and bookstore owners like to tell us what book-buyers want, and publishers are want to ignore their advice. One reason is that many publishers seem to prefer the tack of the two-bit gambler: looking at what’s worked before and simply doing that again and again. Sales figures show that if one book did well, another like it will too. This does little to improve the market, but it ensures publishers can pay the rent.

The other reason to ignore conventional advice is the unspoken belief among book marketers that buyers will flock to whatever you tell them to, namely, the three Ps: big personalities, big print runs, big publicity. Though no one will say you can “create” a bestseller, the “52 kagillion copies sold” stickers on the cover of Da Vinci Code should indicate something. People follow the leaders. Let’s see: there are also the methods of mentioning sex in the title, getting an endorsement from the pope, and promising less time in purgatory if you buy in bulk. There are certain assurances in this inexact formula of bestseller creation that publishers ignore at their own peril, and simply falling into old assumptions about challenging fiction being a bad gamble is the definition of “questionable.”

But, before I get everybody upset with me, I should remind everyone that I don’t know the first thing about what editing, acquiring, and producing fiction is all about. I’m a nonfiction editor and largely a service to the larger ministry I work for. This is a truly puny platform to be spouting such bombastic opinions from. I do hope to learn from these stalwart, graceful beauties who aren’t swayed by flashy promises and convincing arguments, how to stick by my guns in pushing for strong standards and greater variety on the fiction shelves. And I hope they’ll forgive me for treading the thin line of lampooning their influence here, not only because I know I’ll need them if I want to get anywhere with this, but mainly because I’m still learning what this call on my life looks like.

Ultimately, I don’t know if we need to metaphorically “abandon granny” in order to find the new audiences out there. My hope is that in the midst of this change, they won’t feel abandoned, but encouraged to follow their curiosity and jump from their big pool into new puddles to see what interesting fun they might have to offer.

I mean, wouldn’t you want to go jump in that puddle if you saw your granny enjoying it so much?

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6 thoughts on “Abandoning Granny: thoughts from the Christian Writers Guild conference”

  1. Do we really have to abandon Granny? Maybe if we spike her Metamucil with a little pinot grigio, bit by bit she’ll develop a taste for more sophisticated fare. Ease her into a new groove by mixing it up on the CBA shelves. Before you know it she’ll be ordering straight off the wine list.
    Keep chatting up the editor crowd, Mick. And keep listening to your wife. I knew you were a smart man.

  2. Jeanne: Or she’ll have a reaction between the wine and dozens of pills she takes to stay alive and die. Then we won’t have to worry about her tastes.
    I like how you think, kid!
    (Disclaimer — I AM KIDDING.)

  3. Actually, Jeanne, Grannie can be transformed without any alcoholic beverages whatsoever. All you have to do is send her to a large Christian writers’ conference with her cherished proposal in hand. Then you let her talk to a couple of editors and throw in a few agents for good measure, all whom tell her that her novel will never fly because it’s “controversial.” Since Grannie knows the book is as pure as driven snow, but broke *one* CBA rule she didn’t even know existed, do ya think she’s ticked? Oh, yeah! And transformed too, with no wine involved.
    I do, though, love a good pinot grigo.
    And thank you, Mick, for the compliment. I agree that it would be a good thing if the range of books offered within the CBA were broadened. Then all the grannies would be able to find something they liked. ;-)

  4. I’m an unabashed and unapologetic grammie and I need to let you know that there are MANY of us who are interested in more REAL Christian books. Don’t forget, kids, that we WERE the breakout generation and we still are, even in our orthopedic shoes and bifocals.
    I’m 64 years old and I use oxygen and a walker, but my most recent kicks come from Don Miller. He was recommended to me by my my eldest daughter, who is mid-forties. I don’t think you can pigeonhole post-modern thought or assign it to any particular age group.
    There will always be reactionaries, but trying to push ALL grannies into that one mold really doesn’t work any more now than it did a hundred years ago.
    Give us something we can really get our teeth into and we will gobble it up. Believe me! Even if fully half us us prefer the mindless pap and platitudes (which I doubt), there is still the other half. And don’t forget that one day you will be in our age group. Do you plan to change your thoughts because you have aged or will you be the same person, the same seeker, in an older container?
    I, for one, am thrilled to pieces to see “religion” finally getting real.

  5. Bravo, Karen! Thanks for taking the time to respond. I am so pleased to be finding more and more of your age group who aren’t willing to accept the status quo, and I can’t help but feel we all have a lot to learn from you, since as you say, you were the first.
    My own grandmothers are fairly unconventional too, so they don’t fit the “prude” category either. And I should be more careful with that category, since it does contain some people of my generation and even younger. And they’re even worse, not having the excuse of life experience yet.
    The grannies I’m talking about are outside your circle, the ones who probably whisper about you and your friends, shocked that you’d read that liberal backslider, and horrified that you don’t equate true Christianity with playing the role of fitting in. My point here is simply that we could do with a little less encouragement of their kind on the shelves.
    But thank you, and keep reading! I crave your help in honing these reactionary sentitments into real, useful ideas.

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