Speculative Marketing: Re-imagining Reality
Don’t worry. I’m not trying to go all Matrix on you, and I’m certainly not pitching a new spec fiction concept. I’m just trying to understand why I behave the way I do – and why groups behave the way they do.
Sometimes when I’m writing or speaking to a predominantly Christian crowd (like right now for example), I find myself self-editing. Questions keep popping into my head:
• What would they think of me if they knew I thought thus ‘n’ such?
• Am I allowed to say thus ‘n’ such?
• If I admitted thus ‘n’ such, how would it impact my book sales?
In my experience the more judgmental the crowd and the more power it has to impact my life, the harder it is for me to see the world objectively. The more time I spend surrounded by the same crowd, the more my reality tends to get skewed.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In many ways it’s a good thing. It may be a useful survival instinct (actually the word ‘adaptation’ came to my mind, but of course my survival instinct kicked in immediately and edited it out). In general we tend to adapt to our peer group by avoiding behavior that causes us pain. It’s only natural – er … you know what I mean.
But what if the crowd is wrong?
If everybody in the crowd self-edits to be accepted by the rest of the crowd, then the views of the crowd will tend to drift away from reality. Why? Because the censure of the crowd has more immediate impact than straying from reality. The longer the crowd stays together and the more it isolates itself from the rest of society, the further it will drift. Which suggests that crowds are often wrong – especially in areas where they’re defensive.
The more judgmental the crowd, the faster it will drift away from reality, because the consequences of disagreeing will be more severe. On the other hand, the more loving and accepting the crowd, the less it’s likely to drift. Love and truth, it seems, go hand in hand.
So what does this have to do with Christian speculative fiction?
Probably nothing at all. I’ve been drifting away from reality for a long time. But I can’t help thinking it should impact our writing. Here are a few conclusions I’ve come to over the last several months:
1. We need to start writing speculative fiction that’s actually speculative. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of editing myself. I don’t care whether my books get published or not, but if my work isn’t centered on cold hard truth, if it isn’t questioning the status quo and ripping down every artifice of my heart, then I’m doing more harm than good. If the Emperor is naked, I need to call him naked to his face. If I don’t do it, then I’m only contributing to the delusion.
2. We need to stop worrying what people think. Readers, publishers, book store owners … The more we care what they think, the less we’ll be able to tell the truth. If we want to be effective writers, we can’t afford to give “the crowd” power over us. If we give it too much power, we’ll lose more than our ability to tell the truth. We’ll lose our ability to see the truth.
3. We need to re-imagine the Christian speculative fiction market. I’ve seen the emperor, and his tighty-whities are wearing thin. We have to admit to ourselves that we’re not a part of the “Christian market.” Traditional marketing methods aren’t going to work for us, because we’re anything but traditional. We’re not normal, and we don’t like reading about normal. So why should we expect normal marketing methods to work for us?
Allow me to speculate on the germ of an idea … What if we were to create a completely new market that does publishing in a totally different way? Marcher Lord Press is a good start, but what if we also worked together to create a giant online organization to build our market and promote the fiction we love? We could create our own retail outlets, automated marketing centers, crowd-sourced ratings systems and author co-ops. And the internet lets us automate almost all of it. This may sound like science fiction, but it’s not. Randy [Ingermanson] and I have the technology. I’ve been working on it for years. But I’m not a blogger or a community builder or loop reader. I like building technology, and I like reading good speculative fiction, but we need a lot more than that. We need a good leader and some administrators and bloggers and team builders and organizers and lots and lots of writers.
Anybody out there interested? How about a show of hands? It’s just a matter of organizing and working together to create a new world. And isn’t that what we’re supposed to be all about?
– – – – –
John Olson is author or co-author of a number of novels, including the award winning science fiction Oxygen. He also is a popular writers’ conference speaker, specializing in teaching the elements of speculative fiction.
I hope this works, but the problem, as you say, is that you are going to come up hard against those who feel, for the highest of reasons, that they should police the thoughts and words of others because they are so sure they know what God wants.
John, my problem is this: though I write fantasy and love fantasy, I have never identified exclusively with weird. When you said, “Traditional marketing methods aren’t going to work for us, because we’re anything but traditional. We’re not normal, and we don’t like reading about normal,” my first thought was, But I do read normal from time to time, and like it very much. In fact, a recent discussion here at Spec Faith revealed that a good many of those visiting this blog and commenting also do not look at themselves as in some exclusive niche.
I have lots of other thoughts about your article (love that you gave us lots to chew on), but I’ll just mention one more thing right now: isn’t the idea you’re advocating actually nothing more than creating another self-editing crowd — this one with along the lines of genre instead of theology? I’m wondering if that’s an improvement.
It’s odd because I’ve been coming at the idea of Christian speculative fiction as something we want to win fans to — the people who loved Avatar and Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. In other words, people who wouldn’t necessarily identify themselves as niche speculative fiction fans. They just love good stories, and the magical ones are right there with the ones that are without speculative elements.
Why, I wonder, can’t we win some of those fans over to Christian speculative fiction? That’s the question I think needs answering.
Glad to have you back, John! (By the way, Randy Ingermanson‘s column was published here last Friday and the discussion about the Oxygen series, Mars, space exploration and some barely related tangent about origins worldviews is still going.)
As I’m agreeing with Becky, I wonder if this based mostly on who’s articulated a concept in the way I best hear it. Maybe it’s the same idea, different words or angles?
I, too, don’t see myself as primarily weird, precisely because of the old Truth that I think the best visionary stories and creative works represent, though in new ways. Rather than trying to escape reality, I hope (and hope this comes across in more of what I’m doing!) that I’m pointing toward a transcendent reality that is already here — God’s glory and magnificence and love, and the Gospel of salvation from sin, and pending redemption of not just souls but all of creation — and which is ahead, that is, the physical and fantastic forecast world of the New Heavens and New Earth.
Maybe that’s what you meant, though, when you said weird; it just came off, even to this spec-fic reader/writer, as meaning the wrong kind of escapism. But it’s likely you already know Tolkien’s quote, which is embedded in my mind: that the best stories are not an escape from reality, but to reality, more like a prisoner escaping to freedom.
I’ll repeat what I believe is a truth that I hope to hone and present better in the future: that if readers don’t enjoy these kinds of stories, they would best be trained directly in nonfiction ways, and indirectly by showing them the great stories, about why they ought to love these stories. We can say this new story shows old truths and awesomeness, but what if these Christian readers really only want to read about little, truly-escapist fictions about Forlorn Amish Angst?
Perhaps one might say: Forget them and move on to those who will listen. And maybe that would be their calling. However, I’m not quite willing to abandon the “traditional” folks. But it’ll take more than publishing more visionary books to get to them. It will take a ground-up remodeling of their theology: It’s not about you, it’s all about the most perfect and sovereign loving God, and sin doesn’t come from Things like stories about uncomfortable or unfamiliar topics, but from your own heart (Mark 7).
This was how it worked for me, anyway. One of the Patron Saints of Christian Visionary Fiction, C.S. Lewis of course, helped me out of it. Then along came two blokes with a fantastic two-book series about travel to Mars, willing to work “within the system,” who helped me gain a foothold into imagination and more-public endorsement of my sureness that space travel would be an awesome way to glorify God even in a fallen world. After that came even greater mental “remodeling”: I got into nonfiction about God’s glory (Piper’s Desiring God) and the New Earth (Alcorn’s Heaven). Both of these convinced me that my default man-centered, simplistic theology was in error, and have gradually seeped into how I view fiction, entertainment and other things — even how Christians may better combat real legalism.
However, I certainly don’t suggest that we need avoid seeking networking and new books until all this harder work is done. But all this must at least be simultaneous, eh wot? And done in love of course, not to be weird for its own sake (which appeals to me sometimes!), but to point to God, and His redemption of His people and creation itself.
First, I totally know what you mean about self-editing. For years I hid some of who I was because I was a pastor’s wife and a “pastor’s wife” doesn’t write that kind of stuff, or a “pastor’s wife” doesn’t play games, or read star wars, or watch super hero movies. And if the crowd ever found out her husband did the same stuff- yikes!
As the years have went by, I have begun to embrace who I am (in all my weirdness). Apart from my sin, I am who God made me. And God made me someone who loves to think and imagine beyond the borders of this world. I love to wonder “what if?”
By embracing who I am, God has allowed me to reach people that many of those I attend church with would not reach. Or even be able to reach, because I live in their world/culture and many in our churches do not.
Secondly, I love your idea of networking. In some ways, that is what I do. I use my blog and facebook to educate Christians about the speculative genre. That its okay for a Christian to imagine.
I agree with you, I do not think the traditional Christian books and marketing works for us who write in this genre. Why? Our readers do not go into a Christian bookstore. And my generation and younger are becoming more and more techie. Most of them are our readers (or at least, they are my readers). They want websites, ebooks, blogs, forums. They twitter and text and live in virtual worlds. This is how they connect, and we can connect with them.
Well, sometimes self-editing isn’t a bad thing. 😉 More seriously, yes, I know what you mean. But I was in denial for years about what genre I wrote, so that’s been a lot of it. Plus, I don’t write for kids. I really don’t. And I barely know what Dungeons & Dragons is. (As I display both biases at once….)
Yeah…I’ve found it’s easier to simply be choosy about who I discuss the book world with. And how much time I spend with…some.
Embrace the insanity, eh?
Million dollar question: How?
Per some of the other comments: I think it depends on how we’re using ‘weird.’ I like a good mystery, suspense, or action/adventure story just as well, but I have to be in the right mood to read anything that isn’t going to creep me out at some point. On the flipside of that, I have trouble with stories that bludgeon me with scare attempts (usually lame horror movies) or just leave me in the throes of misery by the end.
And I think I”m a bit tired right now.
“…what if we also worked together to create a giant online organization to build our market and promote the fiction we love? We could create our own retail outlets, automated marketing centers, crowd-sourced ratings systems and author co-ops. And the internet lets us automate almost all of it.”
Maybe this is overthinking it a bit. The idea of a supportive, interactive community is terrific, but I think we’re backing up too far. Let’s use what we have–Facebook, Twitter, Kindle, etc.–to build momentum. By pulling out, framing up (or perhaps boxing in) our sphere of influence, aren’t we simply repeating the negative aspects of the kind of mindset you mentioned here:
“In my experience the more judgmental the crowd and the more power it has to impact my life, the harder it is for me to see the world objectively. The more time I spend surrounded by the same crowd, the more my reality tends to get skewed.”
The trick, I believe, isn’t to concentrate ourselves into a tighter, more manageable system. While that may allow us to whether a cultural storm, it also reduces our ability to adapt to holes and niches that need filling. I have always felt like the periods in which (in hindsight) I had the worst taste in music or literature came at the end of a long “Christian-only” reading and listening habit. Instead, we need to dominate the culture with the best writing possible, in order to create new culture that embraces wholesomeness and virtue.
Speculative fiction with a compelling story of Christian faith, such as Enger’s “Peace Like a River,” or speculative fiction that recreates the Christian ideal with other names, such as the work that I’ve encountered through this site and other places, makes the LaHaye machine look as coniferous as an aluminum Christmas tree. As long as what is written is truth, it will endure, even if the New York Times doesn’t register it.
One of my heroes is Andrew Peterson. He is predominantly known as a songwriter. Years ago, he and a group of his friends became very disenchanted with the contemporary Christian music scene. Guess what? They were having to censor their own works to please record labels that only wanted songs that would play well on Christian radio. So, Andrew pulled together his friends and they formed the Square Peg Alliance as a way to foster and support those independent Christian musicians who were writing and singing “weird” music. Now, most of these artists are mainstream and they have built up an incredible and growing audience over the last ten years. How did they do it? Maybe this is a good place to start, to ask them how they did it.
Now, Andrew is the author of three fantasy spec fiction books, the Wingfeather saga. And, last August, his writing website, http://www.rabbitroom.com, formed its own press and held its first annual story conference, Hutchmoot 2010. Only one hundred people were allowed to come and I was privileged to be there and hear such “weird” authors as Jonathan Rogers (Charlatan’s Boy) and our keynote speaker was Walter Wangerin, Jr. author of one of the “weirdest” Christian novels ever, “The Book of the Dun Cow”. Maybe we could contact Pete Peterson (author of “The Fiddler’s Gun” and “The Fiddler’s Green), Andrew’s brother for advice on just how to begin this process you mention. Their second Hutchmoot 2011 is in September and it sold out on its 100 positions in less than an hour after being announced!
I am all for some kind of concerted effort. I have labored away for 12 years and finally gotten my book “The 13th Demon: Altar of the Spiral Eye” to be published by Realms. The roadblocks and shocked expressions and statements like “no one in the CBA will publish this” did not deter me. I pressed on because I knew my story was part of the Story that God is unfolding around us. And, the Story can be told in many, many ways. Some of them being “weird”!
I realize that I’m about to make a statement that might result in vilification, but in the spirit of taking a stand against self-editing (because I’ve self-edited all my life as well in order to be “acceptable”), I’m going to say it anyway.
Traditional Christian publishing and traditional Christian readers will never embrace speculative fiction the way speculative fiction writers want them to. Publishers won’t expand their lines because they aren’t seeing the sales numbers to justify it. We won’t get the space we want in traditional bookstores because a large percentage of Christians still view fantasy and science fiction as anti-Christian.
And they will be vocal about it. They equate any magic with witchcraft, the occult, and devil worship. Aliens and other supernatural beings are contrary to the Bible. And other worlds, well, they just don’t see the point when life and faith are lived in this world.
A few months ago, I wrote a magazine article presenting both sides of the “should Christians read Harry Potter” debate, and my editor received letters explaining in detail why and how I’d lost the ability to distinguish between right and wrong.
I don’t realistically see this bias against speculative fiction changing any time soon.
So I think we have to ask, why are we fighting so hard to break into a system that doesn’t want us, doesn’t want to change, and sees no reason to change? What is the point of “Christian” speculative fiction?
If we believe that there’s a bigger audience for Christian speculative fiction than the traditional system realizes, and that we’d be meeting a demand, why isn’t that manifesting itself in the sales numbers for the Christian speculative fiction that’s out there now? How will working within the current system change anything?
Are we using our writing to point people to the truth and to God? If so, we might be better to fight for a place for clean fiction in the ABA, rather fighting for a bigger place in the CBA. Or to embrace John’s idea of an entirely new way of marketing and reaching readers.
Why are we writing? Who are we trying to help?
If this is about readers, then we need to go to where the readers are rather than trying to drag them to where we want to be.
I, for one, would love to hear more about John’s new way. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Kristen Lamb recently wrote a post about marketing called T.E.A.M. – together everyone achieves more. It’s long past time that we started to work together to promote each other and support each other in practical ways. It’s long past time exceptional speculative fiction stopped getting rejected simply based on its genre.
First of all–ebooks. That’s a separate issue, and one I haven’t found the time or, more importantly, money to explore the advantages and disadvantages of that.
As for re-inventing the fantasy model…I’ll reply to that after a full night’s sleep.
“What if the world we call reality is all a big lie? What if we see the world, not as it really is, but the way we think it should be?…The more time I spend surrounded by the same crowd, the more my reality tends to get skewed…We have to admit to ourselves that we’re not a part of the “Christian market.” …We’re not normal, and we don’t like reading about normal…”
What if it’s not speculative writers who happen to be Christian who are skewed, but the “Christian market”? The more time we spend surrounded by the same crowd…
Just thought I’d throw that out there and cause some mayhem.
It could be that Christian speculative writers are more normal than otherwise, depending on how one defines that. 😉 There’s a line of thinking which says we must self-edit for each other’s moralistic sensibilities within our spiritual community, and then go out into the world and self-edit for the sensibilities of those who are “other.”
I pretty much know nothing. I know only one practical thing. The most effective marketing (only effective marketing) I’ve ever done is to stand in one place and give the unedited version.
I can’t know for sure, but I think that if you built it on a measuring line of honesty, they would come.
Props to E Stephen B for the use of “eh, wot?”
At this point I think Marcy Kennedy said in a much better way what I was trying to say above, and gives me a great jumping-off point for some further comments:
The most effective “coalition” would be one that includes both of these sides. Different motives, different reasons. Some just want to write weird, wild stories that include God and are fun to read. I do, too, but at this point I find my overarching goal is to point toward the true Gospel in new, attractive ways, and the eternal destiny of all God’s people in a real but fantasy/sci-fi world: the New Earth. I’m convinced we can meet at the touchpoint common to both — amazing stories.
I’d suggest we find firm ground for this in Scripture. I don’t like it, though, especially because I want to fight for My Rights and for all them legalists to put up or shut up! (And they are out there, and they are annoying, and even worse, they are un-Biblical.)
Then I run into this from the Apostle Paul, which warrants a paraphrase here. Actually, it’s short enough to paraphrase the whole thing, from 1 Corinthians 8.
Of course, this doesn’t count for those who claim the “weaker brother” card when all they really want to do is control others. (I tried to separate them from the genuine questioners in the Stuff my Christian fiction doesn’t say series, especially part 3.) But I do know those real weaker brothers are out there, totally lost when it comes to “magic” and weird stuff. I was one of them. And it took frontier-forging authors, such as, oh, John Olson and Randall Ingermanson, willing to put up with potential publishers’ shenanigans, to “get” to me in my then Safety-First Christian Reading Environment.
Come to think of it, isn’t that how Jesus got to every sinner He saved, not by hanging onto His heavenly glory all the time and staying in a “comfortable” environment, but by laying it aside for a while to carry out the Father’s plan and incarnate as one of us?
Jeremy McNabb wins eight Internets and the handsome set of luggage. If there is to be an Alliance, it can use what’s already underway and tie together two groups:
1) Those with giftings and goals of working Outside the System for Nontraditional Christian Readers, like Olson said. We can call this the Wild Speculative Group.
2) Those (like myself, perhaps) who like my Christian-speculative tales more real-world-based and think God wants us to “write incarnationally” and thereby tell and show Traditional Readers that this “wild” stuff is actually more realistic in the light of eternity than, say, all the Amish-oriented-only escapist nonsense that’s out there now. We might call these the Speculative Incarnational Insurrectionists.
I daresay the Wild Speculative Group would find more than a few friends in the Speculative Incarnational Insurrectionists. How come? Because the “sellouts” who either don’t mind “compromising” or naturally bend that way just might have a plan to drag newer readers, children of “traditional” types, over into the wilder stuff. 😀
*raising hand* Fellow weirdo. 🙂
Here’s what I’m beginning to think. If our writing is good enough, it will find a place. If not in CBA, then it will cross over. Period. Call me an idealist, but I’m holding on to my belief that people appreciate good fiction, whether there are Christian elements in it or not. So, we need to keep working hard, consistently seeking to improve our craft. God is much more powerful than any CBA “rule” or trend. And, the CBA is a profit focused organization. If it sells, they’ll climb on board.
One final point, my opinion of course, we are writing for the younger crowd. They may be tweens are teens right now, but they are the ones who will support Christian speculative fiction in the future. A more open minded bunch…
My two cents:
Form coalitions (say a dozen writers/illustrators) and write one amazing story together having equally amazing illustrations under one pen name. The coalitions combine their resources and platforms to market the novels (making it more appealing to traditional publishers too).
Here is something I wrote over at another blog, but think it should be said here. There is talk that if your speculative novel isn’t selling in CBA, then go over to ABA and reach the lost. The problem with that is people who say they are writing for the lost, but do they really know the lost? Or just going over to ABA because they couldn’t sell here.
What I’m saying is know your audience. Don’t just cross over because you could not sell in CBA. Who are you writing to? If you really want to write for the lost, then get to know some lost. It flabbergasted me (funny word) when my husband told me about people who wanted to church plant to reach the lost. But when asked if they actually knew any lost, they had to confess they did not.
Does your heart burn to reach your lost peers? Or lost readers? Or are you tired of rejection over here and just hope to publish over there. I have no problem with people who want to publish a story and so they go to the publishing group that will publish them. But if you are writing for the lost, then get to know the lost.
Same with the Christian crowd. Why are you writing for them? Do you know your readers? Who are they and why would they read your book? Is it your goal just to present clean fiction (btw, that’s not a bad thing) or more?
Just some food for thought…
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