Developing a Taste for Meat

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“Christians are actually, to me, anyway, as a Jew, much more interesting in America. And weirdly, much more misunderstood. Evangelical Christians are the most incompetently portrayed group in America, in TV, in fiction, in the news. When Christians say that the media gets them wrong, Christians are absolutely right. Christian life in this country is really horribly documented, and way more interesting than is done. Generally, in the media, very religious Christians are portrayed as hardheaded doctrinaire knuckleheads. But in fact, from my experience, the most religious Christians I know tend to be incredibly thoughtful, complicated, generous to a fault, very principled and not knuckleheads. Actually, they’re sort of weirdly the opposite of the stereotype, and that includes people from the hardcore fundamentalist faiths.”
Ira Glass (Thanks to Mollie at Get Religion)

By way of counterpoint, according to Barna’s survey data, there are precious few of these “most religious Christians” in America. I don’t think I’m one of them. And there’s little chance of surviving as a Christian writer, publisher, or acquisitions editor catering only to this small group. And yet, there’s little chance of preserving your moral standards if you’re catering to the majority of Christian book-buyers in America. Doing so will almost certainly require compromise. For example:

1.    As Barna points out, most American Christians are hypocrites. We want to follow Jesus, but we’d rather watch other people doing it.
2.    We’re shallow. “Just give me Jesus” isn’t a simple slogan, it’s a cop out. Deep theology and paradoxical spiritual truths are too hard. Keep it simple and make us feel better.
3.    We’re dualistic. We want to live simply, but be complicated. We want to get uncluttered, but we can’t accept the limitation of giving up stuff.
4.    We’re blind. Of course, we can’t really admit any of this because were too smart for that. But by closing our eyes to avoid the uncomfortable realities, we face consequences.

We know a large portion of our audience buys books to feel better about all this, for the psychological freedoms they offer. Lucrative Christian books (indeed, entire publishing programs) are built on these 4 little navel-gazing secrets, using them to apply band-aids: a little encouragement, a little spiritual salve, an easy out. They help us feel for a while that all is within our reach if we buy an inspirational book.

But as publishing professionals, do we have to accept this catering to the masses? Can we resist this? Must we give people easy outs? I don’t mean we give up easy reads, but can we sneak in some real meat with the stuff? Maybe we can trick them into developing a taste for meat by making it cheaper, faster, fresher, newer, easier, and making them laugh and cry at how good this “fast food” tastes.

I guess I have to believe this IS possible, that the first all-important step is looking at how you yourself have compromised, realize you’ve been had, and decide to stop furthering the enemy’s aims. Then, praise God for his grace and repent on your knees. If you’ve been in 1, 2, 3, or 4, you don’t have to stay there. And if you’re just starting out, commit to the higher purpose of Christian “inspirational” books and band with others to fight for balance with God-honoring messages that reach our respective corners of the market.

And together, maybe we will manage to keep Ira’s good impression.

If this is you, then it’s time to get it going.

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28 thoughts on “Developing a Taste for Meat”

  1. Who breaks this cycle — the author, the publisher or the reader? It’s like the unending Anna Nicole saga: Somebody’s watching it and somebody’s dishing it up. But who’s to blame? Until the public loses its “taste” for fast food, the producers need not switch to meat and veggies. Unless. of course, the producers are, themselves, carnivores. Thanks, Mick!

  2. Mike, I hear what you’re saying but I say there IS an audience out there. I stopped buying, reading, or being interested in Christian fiction although it was essentially what I wanted to write. Until sometime in the summer of 2005 I had NO clue what was being published fiction wise in the CBA. None. Because I couldn’t stand it. There are others like me. They aren’t buying because it hasn’t been there. And there are others who are buying what’s there but if presented another option would go with the other option.
    The generation behind me as a Gen X’er type (and many w/in my generation) are not the types to tolerate their parent’s Christianity. These are the young(er. I’m still young. I think. Okay, sort of young.) people that hate the rules, the man made ones, but love Him radically. Not a single cousin of mine buys or reads Christian fiction. Why? Because based on their worldview and how they live out their lives it sucks. Period. If I could find a novel that my tattoo covered cousin would read and not die laughing at, I’d be so happy I’d dance a jig. Oh yeah and they are God followers. They just don’t like the whole “Christian” thing that they’ve seen modeled by the generations before. Because they know it’s crap. They also don’t like Christian music. Although I will say that at least the music scene is making the effort. No offense to Amy but Christian music has come a long way since Unguarded. Christian fiction has a long way to go.
    My theory (take it for what its worth) is that the book buyers who buy the stuff I won’t, will dry up and those who are coming on their heels aren’t interested. It’s like that whole giving up your baby girls as a Chinese parent thing. China now has a serious problem on their hands. Not enough women. Men without mates. Well, duh. So now after all these years they’ve clamped down on foreign adoptions. Singles can’t adopt. If you’re overweight or older you can’t adopt. Yada, yada, yada. Eventually the CBA will write itself out of a market. And since we’re out here now and eventually the us’ will overtake the thems, why not just publish more meat now? Or we shall find ourselves in the China predicament – mass amounts of books with no one to pick them up.
    I think it might be a good idea if someone stepped out and tried it. Call me crazy.

  3. One thing I know for sure is the average Jane and John attending local worship don’t even have a clue the CBA exists.
    A little grassroots marketing might be something to look at. That’s when we’ll start to see changes, when the CBA makes an effort to reach the people out there.

  4. I think you’re right on target, Mick, when you suggest we “trick” people into developing a taste for meat. I know that sounds subversive (hey, that only makes it sexier), but it’s also the most reasonable approach. If the book buyer isn’t asking for anything different, the publisher isn’t quick to offer anything different. Meanwhile the writers languish under the heavy burden of wanting to write meaty stuff while knowing if it’s called “meat,” it might as well be stamped with “Mad Cow Disease” on every page.
    That puts the burden on you (and other savvy editors) who can, thorugh smarts and manipuation and coercion, slide meatier works into publisher’s lineups in place of the four-step fare. It’s not an easy assignment, but I think it’s doable. It begins by presenting the pub board with a marketing-friendly genre spin for an otherwise meaty, literary work. I don’t mean you should “lie.” I mean you should dig to find an angle that DOES sell and hype that to get the book out to the public.
    I mentioned this once before, but isn’t it possible to publish meaty romance novels without having to give them a new genre title? Why not mysteries? Suspense? Historical fiction? Speculative fiction?
    It could take a while, but imagine in a few years how different the landscape could be.
    I think this approach is sort of like what my mother did to get my siblings and me to eat vegetables back when we were younguns (a looong time ago). She tried all the usual tricks (hiding them in casseroles was her signature move), but we always found a way to avoid them, crying out for french fries instead (“Potatoes are a vegetable, right, Mom?”).
    [I know I’m mixing metaphors – “meat” and “vegetables” – but since this is a real-life childhood story I figured you’d all let it slide just this once.]
    So one day, she started serving us french fries instead of vegetables. They were good, if slightly different than the usual fries we clamored for. But we still ate them. They were so much better than green beans.
    Eventually she revealed what we were really eating: vegetables disguised as french fries. (I can’t recall the actual brand name, but it was a bit of marketing genius, if you ask me.) Why didn’t she tell us about this earlier?
    “You didn’t ask.”
    I’m reading lots of meaty, great writing these days. (You must all read Black Swan Green by David Mitchell – I’m only halfway through but it’s a masterful coming of age story featuring a 13-yaer-old protagonist and some of the richest langauge and imagery I’ve ever enountered on the page.) And I don’t think I can go back to less meaty fare. Doesn’t mean I won’t pick up the occasional french fry…but my palate has changed.
    By the way, I love vegetables now. Thanks, Mom.

  5. Obviously you need a little self-help. Let me give you 7 (cuz that’s the biblical number) ways to move past the trite:
    1. Say C.S. Lewis 3 times fast in one sentence. (It doesn’t matter whether or not you have read said author.)
    2. Work into conversation how you helped serve breakfast at a homeless shelter (don’t mention that it was a junior high youth function and you haven’t been back since then).
    3. Highlight and underline random portions of your bible.
    4. Repeat step 1.
    5. Buy the latest book on Christianity, preferably Eugene Peterson or Donald Miller, and keep it on your headboard or bed table. Make sure to keep your bedroom clean enough to include it on house tours when you have guests.
    6. Talk about Flannery O’Conner a lot and her ability to weave in Christianity to the everyday. Again, it doesn’t matter if you’ve read her or not.
    7. Diatribe anything that sells well and claim to be unappreciated in your own time.
    Hope this helps, Mick. Good luck in your endeavors.

  6. Simple observations . . .
    There is a glut of books (fiction and non-fiction) from CBA which proclaim or reveal, without intending to, the editors’, authors’, and book producers’ denominations and spiritual belief systems.
    You want “deep”? Get beyond the parameters of the stitlted doctrines of some of these denominations which have put God and people in boxes, have created shallow stereotypes with an “inherited” faith instead of an active one, and have caused a restless pursuance of worldly values because people are left unfulfilled, unconvicted, and/or unchallenged by what “church” has to offer. Read the Word. It’s all there, and it isn’t boring, dry, or hypocritical. It’s real, right, holy, just, and full of love, repentance, and forgiveness. Jesus gives Life. All the phony substitutes and man-made “traditions” which only offer religion instead of a devoted relationship produce rebellion. The rebellion in and of itself isn’t admirable either because the hardening of a heart causes a person to miss or diss the message even when it’s presented in a meaningful and powerful way and can eventually lead to spiritual death.
    (That little girl is unbelievably cute. Raise her up with a passionate faith . . . )

  7. I agree with Elaina. I have family like her tattoo covered cousin. Growing up in a N.Y. Italian family, my Christianity differed greatly from those I later met in college. I was a born-again, Bible reading believer, yet I felt like a heathen among the Bible belt Christians.
    I think the CBA is missing out on this huge market. I want to write for those atypical believers (though I know there are more out there than CBA is willing to admit.) The rough around the edges crowd who may spout off a couple or expletives one minute and Praise the Lord the next. Those kind of Christians are my family and friends, and I know they’re not touching CBA novels.
    So my question is, if we write these novels will CBA buy them?

  8. Gina, if you are asking “will CBA publish them,” the answer comes down to this: If they believe they can sell them.
    Most CBA publishers are savvy enough to know that while existing markets tend to play by (somewhat) predictable rules, new or burgeoning markets offer both intriguing potential and significant risk.
    When a publisher decides the potential outweighs the risk, they toss money toward that market. The greatest challenge to CBA publishers regarding the audience you and Elaina are referring to is that these folks typically won’t step foot into a Christian bookstore, so all sales would have to come through general market stores.
    Since the bottom line for most CBA publishers comes from sales to the CBA stores, publishing specifically for the Christian who shops only at B&N and Borders is a greater risk. Whereas CBA stores buy many titles from CBA publishers (sometimes trusting the reputation of the publisher as much as the individual books), buyers for ABA stores are much more selective (for many reasons, past experience with poor CBA title sales among them) and therefore the chances of your novel or non-fiction title getting into the store at all are smaller.
    When Jabez and Left Behind and Purpose-Driven Life sold so well through ABA stores, those bookbuyers took notice of CBA publishers. But after that initial enthusiasm and the ripples of excitement that opened the doors to more shelf space for CBA books, it seems bookbuyers have relaxed into more of a traditional “wait and see” approach. If the books sell, they’ll order more.
    So…hopefully, some of those books you want to write (and all your tattooed cousins want to read) will be green-lighted (green-lit?) by CBA publishers willing to risk having the ABA as their primary sales channel…and they’ll fly off the shelves, thus convincing the CBA publishers to publish even more of these sorts of books. I have a feeling it will take more than a single bestseller of this ilk to change the tide significantly, however.
    Of course, this is a rather simplistic explanation of a much more complex problem. And I may be missing some salient points.
    After all, what do I know? I work out of a coffee shop these days.

  9. What do I know about any of this? I mean, really. I’m not in the biz so really, what do I know? Nothing. Except I’m a consumer. And I write what I’m compelled to write.
    Steve, I don’t step foot in Christian bookstores either (and I have no tattoos). Of course, Eastern Carolina doesn’t have shiny, happy ones with coffeehouses like at home, but I probably still wouldn’t go in one. But I would if I had reason to. So would others.
    Do they have a reason to go right now? Not so much. Maybe more so than five years ago. But until there’s a reason to, they won’t go. Besides B&N usually has better chairs. And Walter the Farting Dog books.
    Okay, I’m going to go back to lurking now. I’ve said far more than should be allowed.

  10. I would only add that if we know CBA is likely to have trouble selling a particular title, it isn’t necessarily true that all sales will have to come through general market stores.
    As well as chains and independents, there are churches, libraries, online retailers, book clubs (like Books-a-Million and QPB), grocery stores, big-box retailers (like Target), “specialty” organizations, parachurch / ministry outlets, and more. This is a lot of other options beyond CBA brick-and-mortar stores, but even taken together, sales through these alternative channels aren’t likely to account for enough to offset CBA, even for books squarely positioned between the markets (just what constitutes such a book is an issue of wide debate with each house having differing success on any given title. Many factors come into play such as the sales force’s relationships with buyers and publisher discounts to such outlets).
    And so here we are at the problem. Bestsellers that will open up doors in ABA must be written with an eye toward the 4 things above.

  11. As far as getting CBA stores to carry a wider variety, that’s a tough one. Change is slow. But new independents open all the time because of this very problem, despite the perception (and hard data) that “Mom&Pop’s” are dying.
    Maybe one answer is more stores counteracting the idea of Christian bookstores as gatekeepers offering a “safe” shopping experience…
    Of course, no one but Satan wants heresy on the shelves. And complaining customers can be really meddlesome. I wouldn’t want the job.

  12. Ok, listen. You people must really quit talking about the tattooed cousin.
    I think in Dallas, I’ll have to let Mickey out a bit more.
    Oh the horror of a Christian writer having a tattoo. Can you imagine?! And she has toe rings and drinks boxed Delicious Red every Tuesday and Friday night. Did she tell you she’s getting inked again?! Trash that one is, I tell ya.

  13. Thanks, Mick for adding those insider insights. I hadn’t forgotten those channels, but they are indeed small, sometimes expensive to mine, and oftentimes hard to reach (except in unique cases where niche market and niche book are a perfect match – Thomas Nelson found a market for a book I’d written as a works-for-hire project, Checklist for Life, in Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club and sold more than 150,000 of those puppies, primarily through that one channel, I believe. Oh to have been paid a traditional royalty…).
    I guess this all points back to the need for writers and editors to be innovatively subversive with meaty books.
    Here’s a tough question: Can we write meaty books that appeal just enough to one or more of the “four things above” so that they inspire marketing and sales to give their thumbs-up in pub board meetings?
    Is this a matter of compromise…or creativity?

  14. Trash A SCREENED PHLEGM RILLS? Never! Besides I like gals with moxie, who drink Delicious Red out of a box and have tats. And by the way, just on Tuesday/Friday nights? What (or who) drives you to drink on Tuesday/Friday nights?? By the way, you should see Tim’s (cousin) tats. Pretty awesome.
    So Mick, I’m confused. Not an unusual thing these days. So ABA, not CBA? I had an author tell me recently that I needed to get good enough for the ABA and that she knows I can. Didn’t know how to take that. Still don’t. I’ve been trying to figure that out for awhile.
    So is that what you’re saying?

  15. What I’m saying is you have to be 1) right with God, and 2) smart. If you’re called to write for ABA, do it for God. If you’re called to push CBA toward deeper waters, do that. But don’t let a lack of courage or commitment stand in your way.
    And if God’s calling you to something else, something in between, you’re going to have to be about as sharp as they come.,..

  16. It would be terribly cool if we each could find the expression and day-to-day reality of Jesus that suits our personalities and “generation” and cultures without picking on those who are different or came before. Somehow, those older folks with older traditions managed to found many crucial organizations, evangelize cultures all over the globe, and raise lots of very bright citizens of the here and now. I’m not about to spit on those who came behind or from the Bible belt. I may differ with them on artistic expressions and I may want to worship with different music and attitudes, but the kingdom is big enough for all of us who love Him and are saved by Him.
    And I sure hope that we aren’t all expected to have tattoos. I find most of them hideous, some of them gorgeous, and want none of them on my skin, thanks.
    I’m guessing plenty of tattoo-bearers ARE reading CBA books. I suspect tattoos are so common now, even stay at home moms reading LaHaye and Rivers and Billerbeck may have a few.
    Mir

  17. True to form, I’ll be cynical and opinionated.
    Let’s talk reality here. What percentage of people who claim Christianity are truly followers of Christ? IMO, it’s a lot less than we assume.
    As long as shallow, cultural Christianity rules, and as long as half-truths and bad theology is preached to tickle the ears of the church membership, what is written and what is read in CBA will not change.
    If or when people who claim to be Christians grow truly serious about God, and truly serious about following Christ (and all that implies,) then the books will change, because the hearts of the readers and the writers will have been changed.
    Until then, we’re stuck with hypocritical, shallow, dualistic, and blind, and all our rants and comments won’t make a whit of difference.
    I know that sounds very negative and cynical, but I’ve seen it firsthand in my own life and in the lives of others close to me. People who call themselves believers really need to stop playing at church and playing at faith, and get serious.

  18. I had a long, thoughful screed I was going to write here, but then deleted it. What’s the point? I’m fifty-five years old; I don’t have time for the CBA to grow a pair. I have three novels out I was sure Christian men were going to gobble up. Everything looked like a go. The house was solid, the covers good, the reviews extraordinary.
    But they didn’t sell. And I didn’t know why.
    It wasn’t until the final one–like the first two–had sunk without a ripple (causing my publisher to dump me), that I reaized my mistake: I was writing for an audience that simply doesn’t exist. Now I’m going ABA with my new series. It’s not something I wanted to do; but as someone wiser than me said, “it is what it is.” And at the end of the day, I guess that’s enough.
    Maybe I’ll be back in the CBA fold someday. Till then, ya’ll play nice. *G*

  19. I do my share of complaining (after all, it is my spiritual gift), but it does seem to me that there is more Christian writing that is good than I thought and more being published than I thought. Of course, that’s coming from someone who didn’t believe in buying CBA fiction until I actually went to a conference. Most of my friends say, “Oh, Christian fiction. I don’t buy it.” Buy it? They don’t even look at it?
    And when I buy it or read it, it’s still not through the Christian bookstores, as is noted above by others.
    So I fall into the question that is asked by Steve and Elaina: how do you not only stretch the fiction itself but let those know who would be interested that it is being stretched?
    Here’s my other personal struggle: Christians have a tendency to take what is of the world and make our own little shiny ghettos with the same items, only baptized, of course. I want CBA not just to be a baptized ABA, but, in being commissioned by the Church, to interact in the world, as Bach and Dante did in his commissionings. How do we do that?

  20. Heather, when Bach and Dante were doing their thing, the culture was pro-Christian. We’re post-Christian, even to some extent, hostile to CHristianity. It’s a different ocean we’re sailing to Bach’s and Dante’s.
    Now, as to that “take what is of the world and baptize it and put it in a ghetto” comment. ISn’t that sort of what the apostles and Christ did? And the FAther with Israel? Take what the world has, baptize it, give it a purpose, and make it into a body and a family.
    :)
    Some members of the family minister widely on broad seas. Some locally. Some in very small ponds. But when we get together, we do family stuff,sing family songs, and talk family talk. I guess I see the CBA as “family” stuff, and “out there” as missions.
    Mir

  21. A friend of mine told me about how a friend of his attended a christian writers conference and accidentally attended the non-fiction group. They told you all you needed was to come up with a problem and 5 steps to solving it.
    Questions:
    1) Considering the glut of Christian books out there what should we as readers and writers look for in a good Christian book?
    2) are there any examples of Good Christian writers and who do you think they are?

  22. Mir – I see your point. I think I misrepresented what I meant. I absolutely agree that we are always interacting with culture (after all, that’s what theology is). What I meant was the way we take things and hide them in our Christian bubble, making an alternate reality for ourselves. (Hey, I just reminded myself of that song – hide it under a bushel, no! Of course, if I was even more spiritual, it would first remind me of the verse.) So what I’m saying is that my choice to pursue CBA isn’t because I want to walk only with Christians but because as a Christian, I want to walk in the world representing Christ. Am I making sense?

  23. I just got back from Mount Hermon and got to see Mick in his native habitat (!)
    I would like to say this: there are Christian writers out there who are deeply concerned about their relationships with Jesus. I had the privilege of teaching a track at MH about the spiritual life of the writer. In the last class, I got the sense that I was speaking to a group of folks who could turn the world upside down with their words.
    Then I read a post over at Brandilyn’s blog where she kindly shared some sales stats from 2006. (It’s VERY hard to find these numbers, so I’m so thankful she posted them.)
    Every one who sold a bajillion copies was a household name, someone with a huge platform.
    I admit, it disheartened me.
    But then I thought again about the group of writers I taught and realized that God’s economy is different. I think we’ll be surprised when we place our toes on heaven’s soil. Those words written in obscurity, the words we never thought important or the world deemed worthy, will have eternal impact far exceeding our expectations.
    I guess it’s about learning contentment. Am I content with where God has me in my writing career? Am I content to let Him use my words in whatever way He pleases? Do I love my reader enough to grapple deeply with Jesus and His radical claims, or do I spit out leftover revelation from celebrities?
    So there may not be a market for my words. I may offend. Or call folks to a depth that scares them. So what. So what. So what.
    I am called to write those words as obedience to the One who is the Word of all words.

  24. As I sit here in front of my computer, I can almost hear the rumblings of a jazz band in the background, can almost smell wafting fragments of second-hand smoke that dims the already subdued lighting. Mick, you may be the only Christian beatnik I know – and I mean that in all respect. Does anyone else picture these discussions taking place at a local bar? With tattooed waitresses, no less? (sorry, had to jump on that bandwagon)
    I just returned from Mount Hermon as well and had the pleasure of seeing both Mick as well as Mary DeMuth (waving at Mary).
    Thanks for keeping me thinkin’, Mick. My worldview needs a little stretching now and then. Come visit me sometime on my blog!
    Jenn Doucette
    http://www.jenndoucette.blog-city.com

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