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Monday, July 19, 2004

Interview with People in the Publishing World

Links
Bright, Brave New Wave of Christian Authors
Interview with Ted Dekker
WestBow Press-New things
Trilogy: The Lord of the Rings
Book: Matrix Reloaded

I had the honor of interviewing approximately eight people in the world of publishing. While not including all of their material I am including part of those interviews. I think the responses are intriguing and hope you enjoy it.

Allen Arnold is the Senior and VP and Publisher for West Bow Books, a division of the Thomas Nelson Book Group.

Janet Kobobel Grant is a Literary Agent author of Discerning Literature and with Books and Such Literary Agency.

Mike Furches: Can you explain what you think it means to write from a "Christian World View" as opposed to writing Christian material?

Janet Kobobel: When a novel is written from a Christian worldview as opposed to creating "Christian material," I believe one of the key differences will be how agenda-driven the manuscript will be. Every author writes from his or her worldview, and that naturally becomes incorporated in the plot and the characters. The questions an author might have about how to live out one's faith could well turn up in the mouths' of the characters. Or an exploration of how a faith-based life would be lived out in a stressful situation could form a portion of a plotline.

But Christian material will tend to push an agenda--abortion is bad and has negative consequences; marriage is to be for a lifetime and divorce is bad; premarital sex will result in a broken relationship. The "bans" on what can be said in Christian material often lead to forced conclusions and black-and-white depictions of life. That doesn't mean abortion, divorce, or premarital sex are good, but it does mean the novel is written to shore up a belief system rather than to explore what it means to live as godly a life as possible in a world that doesn't offer many easy answers. Many Christian readers want that "shoring up" in the novels they read and aren't comfortable with books that expose them to what they consider worldly ways of thinking. And writing for that audience isn't a bad thing; it's just alot harder to write a good novel.

And not only Christians struggle with these issues. The DaVinci Code is an agenda-driven novel in which Dan Brown shows he knows how to spin a tantalizing tale, but his characters spend a fair share of the book "evangelizing" the reader to a certain belief system. And what could have been a great yarn often devolves into a sermon.

Mike Furches: How much do publishers take into consideration the possibility of adapting an authors work into a movie when reviewing a book for consideration?

Janet Kobobel: Since I generally ask that dramatic rights be reserved for the author when I negotiate contracts with publishers, I often have the chance to ask this very question. I've found that most publishers have no intention of exploiting these rights unless the book goes on to become a major best-seller. Generally those who work in a publishing house's rights department are too busy making sure Grisham's next novel is placed with a studio to pay attention to a lesser-known author. In the Christian market, few publishers have the staff or the know-how to exploit these rights. All of which means, when a publisher decides to produce a book, the comment, "Gee this would make a great movie," is not likely to be made.

Mike Furches: What has been the primary market for Christian Fiction in the past?

Allen Arnold: Christian Fiction, by it's very nature, primarily has preached to the choir. It evangelizes evangelicals with little attempt to speak to the world at large. It's been comfort food for the saved that follows a fairly predictable model - but is something that is rarely culturally relevant. I think we had a much better model in years and centuries past where Christians wrote great fiction without it being subcategorized as "Christian Fiction". It was in the main fiction section of stores and was judged alongside every other novel based on the quality of the story.

Mike Furches: In your opinion, what are some of the reasons Christian Fiction hasn't been readily accepted by non Christians?

Allen Arnold: For starters, why would a non-Christian read a genre of fiction that's labeled "Christian Fiction" and primarily available only in Christian bookstores? Would Christians read Atheistic Fiction or Agnostic Fiction if they were labeled that and in Agnostic Bookstores? True fiction lovers are first and foremost looking for a great story - not a label or religious designation. Beyond that, the writing in most Christian Fiction is often not up to par with the quality of most general market fiction. Much of it is agenda-driven with one-dimensional characters and a lesson to teach the reader. That's why WestBow Press doesn't seek to follow the Christian Fiction model - instead we tell great stories from a Christian worldview. More than semantics, that's a very different model. We don't follow the man-made rules of Christian Fiction but rather find great writers who are Christian - and then free them up to tell whatever story God lays on their heart. Some stories will sell more in CBA. Other will sell more in the general market. And you know what? That's ok - God can work through both stories to show His glory and to reach each set of readers. Let's not put God in a box or try to restrict his use of story.

Mike Furches: Who are some Christians that have taken their works and been readily accepted by non Christians?

Allen Arnold: John Grisham, Jan Karon, Bret Lott, and Leif Enger - to name just a few. They aren't writing Christian Fiction but writing great fiction from their own worldview, which is Christian. Their novels are not preachy, but real. You can see their worldview shine through in how they deal with evil, sin, truth, love and other universal themes.

Mike Furches: Why do you think those authors have been accepted?

Allen Arnold: These authors have been accepted because they are great storytellers - and that's the number one criteria for a fiction writer. Not to preach. Not to force a message. But to tell a great story. If you want to preach, try non-fiction.

Mike Furches: Has there been a stigma among non-Christian publishing houses towards the publication or acceptance of Christian authors?

Allen Arnold: Just as Christian publishing houses often try to artificially wedge in more Christian content (or delete more real-world content) from their novels, many general market publishing houses try to delete or soften explicit Christian content (praying, etc.). WestBow Press offers a unique and very attractive alternative. We only work with great storytellers who write from a Christian worldview - but from there we let the story be the story. We don't try to retro-fit more Christian content in nor do we try to soften it. The whole story can take place in a church or the whole story can take place in a baseball field. God is present in both settings. But we don't need to spoon-feed doctrine to readers in the guise of fiction.

Mike Furches: Have those tendencies changed? If so why do you think that is?

Allen Arnold: I think that these tendencies only change when you find publishers, editors, and authors who start out to write great fiction rather than trying to follow the "Christian Fiction" model. Keep in mind that "Christian Fiction" basically is a genre that started about thirty years ago around the time of Janette Oakes first bestseller. There was no "Christian Fiction" in colonial times or even one a hundred years ago. In prior days, Christians simply told great stories from their worldview - but the novels weren't labeled Christian Fiction. At WestBow, we're out to reclaim that ground.

With the best of motives, an industry evolved called Christian Fiction that established its own rules for content and character development. Much of it took on a "precious moments" worldview that wasn't comfortable with the mystery of God or with many other things. Simply read a few Bible stories and you know God is much more honest in his stories and in showing people with warts and all. His stories aren't safe or predictable or sanitized. Neither were Jesus' Parables. In fact, Christ was never content to play it safe. He didn't live in a glass bubble. He dove into the real world with gusto and hung out with sinners and was quite revolutionary. Christian Fiction has lost that edge. It's become a genre with a long list of things that each story should include and a longer list of what each story cannot include. It's often comfort food for the saved. It's billed as safe (as if "safe" is a Christian virtue). But it's rarely culturally relevant or well-written. It's kind of like medicine - it's hard to take but good for you. There's got to be a better model - and there is. It's called writing great fiction from a Christian worldview.

Mike Furches: Can you explain what you think it means to write from a "Christian World View" as opposed to writing Christian material?

Allen Arnold: I love this question because it's at the heart of WestBow's publishing vision. Writing from a Christian worldview means that as a Christian you have been transformed. And guess what? So have your stories. Everything you write - whether you're describing a sunset or a baseball game or a wedding or a murder - is seen from a new perspective. Themes of grace, sacrifice and love have greater depth. And evil is tangible and real...but always weaker and less powerful than ultimate good. God is quite comfortable allowing us to live with much mystery. Yet too many Christian Fiction novels try to put God in a box of pat answers and -worse - somehow manage to make the Creator or all seem boring. Reducing stories to simple "precious moments" lessons and safe, predictable stories isn't the direction we need to go. It's not the direction God chooses. God's universe embraces mystery and danger and adventure and is filled with the unexpected. Why write from a Christian worldview? C.S. Lewis said it best: "We must attack the enemy's line of communication. What we need is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects - with their Christianity latent." Regarding fiction, he'd say we need more great fiction written from a Christian worldview - not more safe Christian Fiction.

Mike Furches: In the early days of Christian music many of the musicians that "crossed-over" were criticized by the "Christian" community. Do you expect that this will happen with Christian authors who are doing the same thing?

Allen Arnold: I think there will always be those who want Christians to only write for Christians and to only sell their novels at Christian bookstores - some for personal business reasons and some for more altruistic reasons. I think that's misguided. The whole world needs to hear about God's love. While non-Christians won't typically reach for a theological tome or a Christian living book or even necessarily shop in a Christian bookstore - they will read great fiction. If we tell them stories that are filtered through a Christian worldview, perhaps they'll start to see God, their neighbors, and themselves differently. God works through stories.

Mike Furches: What does the future look like regarding the adaptation of Christian writer's works to the movie screen?

Allen Arnold: There is much progress being made in having adaptations of Christian writer's novels moving to the big screen. Tolkein, Frank Peretti, Ted Dekker, and John Grisham are just a few varied examples. In addition to Christian authors, there are many talented Hollywood directors, producers, and screenplay writers in Hollywood. I think God is very much at work in this area of the arts.

Mike Furches: As of recent there seems to be some difficulty in getting main stream movie companies to consider adapting Christian author's works into movies, are there efforts currently under way to change the perception of Hollywood in this area?

Allen Arnold: I propose that Hollywood doesn't shun Christian authors. They shun low-quality, one-dimensional stories. If you write a great story that sells well, Hollywood will take that story and make a great movie that will also sell well. But Hollywood - and most moviegoers - don't want a preachy, agenda-driven story. It all comes down to the power of story.

We need to spend less time trying to change Hollywood's perception and more time creating quality fiction. When we do, Hollywood is more than ready to make a movie from those kind of stories. Christian authors and publishers are not being boycotted by Hollywood. Let's be honest. Until now, there just haven't been many stories that warrant a $20 million dollar, big-screen investment.

Mike Furches: What type of balance regarding the style of writing (Strongly Evangelical, versus little mention of Christianity) do you look for in deciding what types of authors to publish?

Allen Arnold: At WestBow, we don't start with a grid of how much Christianity the story must have. We start with finding great Christian writers who have told a great story. You wouldn't tell a master painter, "I love your landscape, but it needs a church in the middle of the field to be a more Christian painting. Likewise, you don't tell a great Christian writer, I love your story but we'll only publish it you must add a church scene and not allow a character to have a beer." That makes no sense and isn't how Christ interacted with his followers. For WestBow, the scale is "Great Writing vs. Poor Writing" and the talent pool is comprised of Christian storytellers. At WestBow, we're searching for a small group of great writers who want to tell stories filled with salt and light to the world at large.

Mike Furches: Who is the audience that much of the new "Christian" fiction trying to reach?

Allen Arnold: The audience we want to reach at WestBow are all fiction readers who love a great story. When you think about it, a novel isn't "Christian" or not "Christian". A novel can't be saved. A novel won't go to heaven. But a novel can be written with a Christian worldview. That's our commitment. That all of our novels will present a great story and act as salt and light in a very dark world while being an engrossing page-turner.

Mike Furches: Why is the new material that we are seeing, (A Christian World View as opposed to evangelical) so important?

Allen Arnold: A great story with a Christian worldview reaches a wider, more mainstream audience than Christian Fiction, which is written primarily to evangelize evangelicals. There's certainly room and a place for both - but it's important to use the power of story to reach out and share God's love in a manner that doesn't use "christianese" language and inadvertently reduce the power and mystery of God to quick, pithy answers. God's stories in the Bible didn't always end with the heroes riding off into the sunset (look at Jonah grumbling under a fallen tree or what happened to Noah after the boat landed or Solomon even after he attained incredible wisdom or how the disciples lives ended). We need stories that deal with all aspects of life - humor, mystery, loss, redemption, and faith - in a fresh, relevant and real manner. The culture at large will read these stories - if they're told with honesty, humor, emotion and creativity.

Mike Furches: What are some marketing trends that we can see taking place to promote these types of works?

Allen Arnold: In the past, Hollywood has done a much better job at selling their stories through very emotive movie trailers and powerful celebrity interviews. They help us first fall in love with the story. They capture our heart or our curiosity and then we decide to see the movie. In publishing, so often the marketing team forgets this simple lesson. They try to sell a book instead of the story. Selling a widget never works. Don't hold up a book or have the focus of your ad campaign be a picture of a book. You're not selling a book. You're selling an epic story of love and adventure.

One of the most successful marketing strategies that WestBow been a leader in is creating "movie-like" trailers and interactive e-blasts for our novels. We film spots (30 seconds to three minutes in length) that - with professional Hollywood voice talent and visuals - reveals the essence and power of the story through film (check out teddekker.com and westbowpress.com for several examples). When consumers, media, and retailers see these spots, they are first sold on the story. Only after we sell them on the story do we discuss the format. The drama hooks them and then they find the novel.

Mike Furches: When looking at other artistic forms it seems as if music is the field that Christians have broken ground to be accepted in the non Christian market place. Examples of Christians here include, P.O.D., Amy Grant, U2, Sixpence Non The Richer, and numerous others over the years. What kinds of lessons can be learned regarding a publishing company assisting in the enabling of success for Christian writers?

Allen Arnold: The main lesson we should learn from the recent surge of quality in the Christian music world is this - it all comes down to a quality product. To achieve a hit song that takes the world by storm, you don't need less Christian content. You don't need more Christian content. You don't need to promote the song as "safe for the whole family" or dress the group a certain way. You simply need a GREAT SONG. In publishing it's the same thing. People don't say "I simply must read a new Christian Fiction" title. They say "I'm ready to read a great story. Any ideas?"
.
Mike Furches: Why is it important for Christians to support Christian material written with a Christian World View as opposed to strictly "religious" in nature material or evangelical material?

Allen Arnold: It's important for Christians to vote with their dollars for the type of stories they want more of. There's certainly an audience for both Christian Fiction and fiction from a Christian worldview. It's not an either / or choice but if you want more culturally relevant novels that glorify God while reaching the broader market - you need to seek those stories out and share them with friends. That's how those authors and publishers such as WestBow can continue telling more quality stories that reach the larger world with a Christian worldview in a fresh, relevant manner.

Links
Bright, Brave New Wave of Christian Authors
Interview with Ted Dekker
WestBow Press-New things
Trilogy: The Lord of the Rings
Book: Matrix Reloaded

5 Comments:

Anonymous said...

Mike,

I just read your article about Christian Fiction. I would have liked to read the other 6 people you interviewed. It looks like you included only those people that had your same view of Christian fiction. While Allen Arnold does make a good point I would like to add mine in as well. I would like to point out that if you look at the Christan Fiction titles and authors that are doing well in the general market you will find that the content in these books is overtly Christian and that's what the public wants. They are now buying their books at the Barnes and Noble and Borders of the world. These are church going people that don't know where their Christian Bookstore is, they are flocking to these stores to get good Christian Fiction titles. The best-selling Fiction series in America is a prime example "Left Behind". It has saved literally thousands of people and changed lives as well. Speaking of movies, several authors who have signed movie deals recently are Jeanette Oke, Francine Rivers, Bev Lewis and Karen Kingsbury - authors that don't water down their content by any means. A couple of Jeanette Oke movies are the highest rated movies of all time on the Hallmark Channel and have sold very well in DVD. People want good content, they don't want their message watered down. You can have a great story with Christian content - those two things can go hand in hand. I don't want your readers to think that Christian publishing houses are looking to water down their content to reach the masses. I believe you can reach a non-believer with Chrisitan content as easy and you can reach a believer. Look at the leading Christian Fiction publishers and you will find this to be true. You will also find that Westbow's ranking among Christian Fiction publishers is well below the leaders.

5:58 AM

 
Reviews by Mike Furches said...

You forget about the purpose of the article in making an assumption that I only promote my view of "Christian Fiction." I still largely contend that the majority of individuals who are buying the fiction you mention are Christians. Nothing wrong with that, but those buying even Left Behind are people who have a “religious” persuasion. These authors, and yes, Westbow in particular are finding new, and innovative ways to reach a different audience. I don't see so much as what is wrong with that as I see what is good with that. As to the interviews, you see what each person was willing to answer, in it's entirety, nothing left out nothing added except in the exception of one person, higher up in their position, not listed at their request, with one of the companies who is a traditionally a “strong publishing house.” Their comments were supportive of the Westbow approach and negative towards the focus on making money by many of the so-called popular "Christian Publishing Houses." After their very negative comments, they requested that I not publish the interview, much longer by the way than the responses that Mr. Arnold provided, so I honored their request. I still have the interview and may someday publish it if the individual with the company tells me that it is okay to do so.

Frankly, their criticism of the "business" end of things didn't surprise me due to my past involvement with "Christian Music." The masses are often fooled, while in reality the primary intent of the companies is not so much about winning souls, sharing the faith or growing Christians, as it is making money. I just happen to applaud any effort to reach new audiences and thus new souls. I will enjoy the debate if there is one. Regarding Westbow's rankings, in the venue of "fiction”; it is actually much higher than most "Christian" publishing houses as Ted Dekker is among the top selling writers period today.

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