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Finding Good Books

Should we be content to let traditional publishers narrow their offerings while we scramble on our own to find the books we like—books we hope are out there but can’t know for sure if we’ll find?
| Feb 23, 2015 | 22 comments |

cover_lightofeidonQuestion: would you rather read a book by an unknown author slotted in your favorite genre (in my case, epic fantasy) or a book outside your genre written by an author whose work you enjoy? I’m tempted to run a poll to find out, but I think I already know.

I suspect the author you know and whose work you enjoy trumps the genre you love written by an unknown. For one thing, most of us are not tied to one genre. If we are readers, we may have a favorite and even some I-could-care-less categories, but we aren’t reading exclusively in a single genre.

When I was young, for example, I had some favorite authors. Perhaps the first was Carolyn Keene who turned out to be a pen name for the group of authors hired to write the Nancy Drew mysteries. Later I found Walter Farley who wrote The Black Stallion. I read all the books my library had of his, including ones that we not about the Black. Next was Louisa May Alcott of Little Women fame. I discovered that I actually liked some of her lesser known works more than the most famous offering.

These don’t prove the point, however, because each of these author stayed within their genre, as most do. But I can think of a handful who ventured away from their first success, and which I for one followed.

Karen Hancock is the first in this group. I read her debut novel Arena which is a sort of science fantasy/allegory, but I became a fan when I read The Light of Eidon, first in her Guardian-King tetralogy. Four books later, Karen shifted gears and wrote Enclave, a contemporary science-supernatural stand alone. I dutifully followed and have every intention of reading her next book when it releases.

I’ve done the same with Jill Williamson. She first published By Darkness Hid, a 600-page installment of her epic fantasy Blood of Kings trilogy. While the ink was still drying on the final book, she published New Recruit, first in her contemporary, with a dash of supernatural, young adult series aimed primarily at tweener boys. Next cane Replication, a soft science fiction young adult stand-alone. Next came her dystopian young adult Safe Lands trilogy. She’s planning a spring release of the next Mission League book and has a new fantasy in the works with Bethany house. And the newest? She and her son wrote a children’s chapter book called RoboTales, and if all goes well with their Kickstarter campaign, the book will be out later this year.

Then there’s Stephen Lawhead who has written epic fantasy, alternate myth, historical, science fantasy, and probably others I don’t know about. Chances are, with Stephen Lawhead’s name on the book, it’s guaranteed good sales no matter what the genre.

So here’s the question: given the tight hold established authors have on their readership, how do new authors, especially self-published authors, find their audience? Who will take a chance on a new author when they could spend a few extra dollars for a book by one of their favorites—an author they have enjoyed in the past and who they trust to deliver the kind of story they love?

Are new authors doomed?

I can think of a group of authors who released their debut novels with much hope, only to complete their contracts with established publishing houses and not receive a new offer. They haven’t found their readership within the length of that contract, and the publishing house isn’t giving them more time.

How about those who started as self-published authors? Has their fortune proved more successful? I think not. I don’t have any numbers to back this up, but I know what self-pubbed authors have said about their efforts to market and promote their books. It’s hard work, first of all. But it also seems to yield few dividends. Sales numbers remain small.

Of course a small number of authors have broken out from the pack and give writers everywhere the hope that their book will be the next phenomenal success to be discovered. But discovery seems to be more a result of time than it does instant success. Unfortunately few publishers in the present writing climate seem willing to give authors the time to build a solid following.

Spec Faith LibraryIs there anything readers can do? How can we support small press authors or self-published authors when we don’t know if what they write is to our liking? Should we try? Or should we be content to let traditional publishers narrow their offerings while we scramble on our own to find the books we like—books we hope are out there but can’t know for sure if we’ll find?

I have hoped that Spec Faith would be part of the solution. We’re in a position to let authors and friends submit their books to our library where readers can find them. We also are in a position to let readers shout loudly about the books they like by writing reviews.

The problem is, only a few authors/friends submit their books and even fewer write reviews. Is anyone using the Spec Faith Library as a resource to make reading decisions? Is this tool viable or should those of us at Spec Faith spend our time elsewhere?

And if creating a listing of books and reviews to go with them is not something that helps readers find good books, what is? What can we do that will connect readers and books?

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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R. J. Anderson
Member

It would help if the Library search weren’t quite so capricious. I have great difficulty finding the entries for any of my own books, for instance, because the Library search engine either searches the entire site for blog articles and comments but fails to return results from the actual Library, or it returns empty results for my author name, even when I choose the latter from the drop-down list. Even when I type in the specific titles, it never seems to return the same results twice! So sadly, I’ve given up on trying to use it.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Which is why a vastly improved appearance and search for the Library are in the works. 🙂

Michelle R. Wood
Member

Good to hear: I also have found the Library frustrating to use. It’s easier to keep clicking through pages then to actually search! A suggestion: make each entry smaller (esp. the cover img) so more can fit per page; the giant size right now takes up most of the screen.

Bethany A. Jennings
Member

I have to admit that I’ve never used the library.  The absolute most helpful thing Spec Faith does (in regards to finding new reads) is the Fiction Fridays feature – I have heard of new books through it, and been interested in reading more!  It’s a very helpful feature.  🙂  Also helpful are the occasional book reviews.  More of those would be welcome.  The key here is that they come through my blog feed like all other posts…I don’t have to go out of my way to find them and browse for them.  I really never go *looking* for new books to read.  I read things I hear about by word of mouth, and I usually have a to-be-read list a mile long.

Maybe some Spec Faith contributors could post occasional (monthly?) list posts about what’s “new in Christian speculative fiction,” taking submissions for those posts rather than for the library?

Kat
Guest
Kat

I’ve used the library here a time or two, because I’m not overly familiar with Christian fantasy authors or books. Mostly I go by recommendation lists generated by Amazon or Goodreads, and purchase the book if it looks good and has decent reviews.

Monthly list posts would be pretty awesome.

J. S. Bailey
Guest

I’m independently published, and I have sloooooowly been building an audience via networking and social media. It just takes time–success can’t happen overnight.

Leanna
Guest
Leanna

I read through books quickly so I’m always looking for a new recommendation. But the SpecFaith Library reviews have generally been overly positive in my estimation. I download the sample or impulsively purchase the book from Amazon and, unfortunately, find it to be a mediocre read. That might just be my taste not meshing well with the reviewers but it does keep me from really using SpecFaith as a resource.

I would like to contribute reviews myself but haven’t made a habit of writing any yet (let alone writing within the strict SpecFaith guidelines)

Lisa
Guest

I have to agree with Leanna. I struggle with the whole “review” concept when it comes to Christian fiction. The whole “gush-gush” thing gets a bit old. Are people afraid to say what they think in fear of offending the author? As Christians we are supposed to lift up and encourage, so does leaving an honest review about the flaws you see in the book a good thing or bad? Do we have to consistently and eternally overlook bad, bad writing because the book is “Christian”? Or, conversely, do we have to expect everything in the book to be squeaky-clean and “acceptable” (whatever that means) because the author is Christian? For all these reasons I find that, for one, I take reviews written by Christians about Christian fiction with a HUGE grain of salt (so much so that they really don’t influence me that much) and secondly, I hesitate to try to write one myself. As for the library, I haven’t used it much, to be honest. I like the concept, but the aforementioned problem I have with reviews gets in the way, I suppose.

 

Kessie Carroll
Member

The Library used to let you search by keyword (like “dragons), and I used to browse those to see what was new. But that’s been gone for a long time.

I second Bethany on the spotlight articles. I also enjoy it when authors come in to talk about stuff and pimp their books.

I enjoy taking chances on new authors. Usually I read book samples, and if I like that, I read the book. I’ve found lots of new authors that way.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Yes, that option broke some time ago.

Unfortunately when one’s entire site is volunteer-based — including the add-on options that occasionally stop working when WordPress makes a change and freelancing developers do not follow along — that can happen.

Fortunately that option, and much other awesomeness, is coming back …

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I’ve used the library and done reviews on books there. I’ve bought a couple from seeing them there: The Amazing Adventures of Toby the Trilby was one of them. Usually to find new books though I go to amazon, and go to kindle store-religion and spirituality-Christianity-christian books & bibles-christian fiction-fantasy or futuristic. Sort by publication date, and I’m good. You wade through a lot of chaff that way, though.

I think rather than the library, the problem is more what the site wants to be. Currently, it seems to be centered around theologically justifying that it’s okay to like speculative fiction as a Christian. Not so much about the books themselves. The library is about the books, but seems to be secondary to that mission.

 

Kat Vinson
Member

“Currently, it seems to be centered around theologically justifying that it’s okay to like speculative fiction as a Christian.” 

I agree and I get tired of it. But I’m not much for debating certain things anymore. I’ve made my peace with liking specfic and I know my boundaries for where I’m comfortable. As for Fiction Friday, it took me a while to figure out those posts because there’s no little intro at the top, “every friday we like to feature a new specfic…” or a question on the bottom, “have you read this? tell us what you think!” – I scrolled down looking for a review or anything else and then realized it was just an excerpt.

As for the library, I only recently discovered it and hit the snags with the search engine. So I ended up scrolling through the list page by page instead.  The covers could probably be a little smaller but I enjoy seeing them in vivid detail. But it’d be nice to see a little more summary – maybe the length of the cover.

I found the reviews to be sparse but I love the “search amazon” link so I can go straight there to buy or read the reviews there. I never even thought about sharing my reviews here. I’ll try to remember to do that, so maybe some reminders now and then would be helpful.

Julie D
Guest
Julie D

Well, I was looking back at a January post about Christian movies, and that’s something we need to think about. Do we want more Christian fiction, or do we want to think Christianly about secular fiction? Because if I were given two novels wrapped in brown paper bags, and told only that one was Christian fantasy and one was secular fantasy, I’d go with the secular one 9/10.

Tim Frankovich
Guest
Tim Frankovich

Huh. I’m the exact opposite. I’d go with the Christian one 10/10 times. I might end up disappointed, but that’s where I would always start. I’m always looking for another good Christian fantasy, especially if it’s epic.

However, if you handed me two similarly-wrapped movies and told me one was a Christian movie and the other wasn’t… I’d go with the secular probably 8/10 times.  I don’t think the quality level for movies is anywhere near that of books.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I read a fair amount of secular stuff, but after awhile you get tired of never seeing God in it unless you put Him in there. And while I’m not one to overly worry about the content of books affecting me, there is a point where the atheism or other belief systems start to make secular books hard to read. You can’t really split Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams from their atheism, nor Neil Gaiman or Charles DeLint from their paganism. Or Heinlein from his sexual kinks.

There’s only so much baptizing and analogies you can have before you have to be honest and realize secular stuff is secular and rarely even bothers with stuff from a Christian view.

Sarah Parks
Member

I’ve been trying to write reviews, but it’s difficult to organize my thoughts enough that i understand what i’m trying to say, let alone someone else.

The most recent Christian speculative fiction i’ve read i found here (Playing Saint and The Ghost Box; finished the first, still working on the second), and so far the reviews on amazon and goodreads are far more positive than i am inclined to give. Personally, i just assume it means other people have very different tastes. That means, unfortunately, that reviews in general are not always a reliable guide for me as far as whether i’ll like a book or not.

I’d love to comment on this site more in general, but i have trouble finding words in more areas than just writing reviews.

Martin LaBar
Member

I have used the library a few times, and have found authors and books that I have appreciated. Thanks for it.

mArion
Guest

Becky,

As you know I’ve been a book review blogger for awhile now.  I’ve reviewed 60 books and getting ready to post my 61st review this week for Recovery Man by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

I have reviewed everything from John Updike to Stephen King and that includes Christian Speculative Fiction from folks like John Otte, Jill Williamson, Morgan Busse, George Bryan Polivka.  As a matter of fact, my last posted review was The Place of Voices by Lauren Lynch (that I found out about on this site).

I still believe in the power of Word of Mouth for reviews and genuine honest enthusiasm about a book that will at least make people notice.  And will encourage them to take the leap and try it.  However, I believe your taste in books has to be aligned with that person as well.

For example, I have been endorsing The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber since I’ve read it last month.  It’s one of the best novels I’ve read about faith and marriage woven into a science fiction setting even though it’s marketed as a secular literary novel.  It’s the story about an evangelical pastor who gets picked by a NASA-like organization to minister an alien race on a space colony.  However, the novel is really about how a marriage and their faith is tested under those conditions.  Here’s my review for those who are interested:

http://marion-hill.com/book-review-59-the-book-of-strange-new-things-by-michel-faber/

I heard about this novel through word of mouth and told I should read it.   I’m grateful for that recommendation and it reinforces my belief (also as a former bookseller) that word of mouth still works.  Usually if a enough people are spreading the word of the same book, then momentum grows for it and it can take off from there.

I hope this site continues to keep promoting Christian Speculative fiction and shout from our keyboards about a novel thats really good and it will find an audience.  My .03 cents….

 

Marion