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I have a degree in Theology and my interest in religion is enmeshed in my fiction.
I write books that can be described as religious thrillers, and yet I'm not a Christian, although I do describe myself as spiritual. In today's show, I interview Jeremy Bouma about the complexities of the Christian publishing market, and you'll learn a lot about the sub-niche as well as customer targeting and much more, even if you're not a Christian author.
In the introduction I mention my personal writing updates, as well as the Goodreads event on Nov 15th when you can join me and other authors for chat and giveaways, plus the Christmas mystery/thriller giveaway when you can win 12 print books (let us buy your Christmas presents for you!)
This podcast episode is sponsored by 99 Designs, where you can get all kinds of designs for your author business including book covers, merchandising, branding and business cards, illustrations and artwork and much more. You can get a Powerpack upgrade which gives your project more chance of getting noticed by going to: 99Designs.com/joanna
Jeremy Bouma is the author of non-fiction and fiction books, as well as an entrepreneur. Jeremy was previously an evangelical Christian pastor and writes for HarperCollins Christian Publishers, as well as dealing with the questions of faith in his books and on his blog. Today we're talking about aspects of the Christian publishing market.
You can watch the video here on YouTube, and listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher, or read the show notes below.
- Jeremy talks about his background in politics and religion, starting in Washington DC working with a Senator and then became a pastor for politicians. After a crisis of faith, Jeremy found himself getting deeper into his Christianity. He began blogging and did post-grad studies in Theology and then started writing books. His first being ‘The Unoffensive Gospel of Jesus.' He now does content marketing with Harper Collins Christian publishers.
- On how writing helps us work out what we believe. I work this out in my fiction, and Jeremy talks about how his non-fiction books have helped him. We discuss the academic side of writing vs the kind of thing that appeals to the wider public. It's important to consider who your audience is and how to connect with them.
The spectrum of the Christian publishing market.
- The Christian market is a $1.2 billion market, around 10% of the broader US publishing market. Christians buy more books and spend more money on books than the average reader. This explains why the big publishers have bought out many of the independent presses in this area.
- When we talk of the Christian market, it is usually catered towards the Evangelical side of things and they often purchase from Christian stores. Those type of bookstores may not purchase from indie authors, as they are not necessarily known entities whose work has been checked as doctrinally sound.
- The sub-genres reflect the mainstream e.g. Christian romance, Christian suspense, Christian sci-fi etc. We talk about Amish fiction, often a kind of historical romance. We talk about some more edgy genres as well. I mention Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series in particular, which has sold over 63 million books and is post-apocalyptic with a lot of violence and an edge of horror.
- Christian readers are generally more tolerant of violence than swearing or sex. We talk about Mormon fiction, and I mention Michael Wallace's The Righteous series.
- We talk about the wider global Christian market, and I talk about the Catholic markets of Spain, Brazil and the Latino, Spanish speaking market in the US which is more Catholic. We talk about the growth of Christianity in Africa, South America and Asia and how the change in demographics will impact publishing.
Is there a mainstream renaissance in biblical stories? (or big stories?)
- With Noah out earlier this year, and Exodus coming out before Christmas, we talk about a longing for ‘bigger' stories, and how Hollywood have also woken up to the hungry market for these types of films. We talk about the awesome stories that are in the Bible and how many of them are being adapted.
- I talk about the gap that my books fall through, as well as others – I write religious fiction, but not Christian fiction. Jeremy mentions the peer acceptance that is needed for books appealing to Christians, they need to be doctrinally sound to be acceptable in that market. Or, books can just be great stories that tangentially talk about religion or spirituality.
- If you are a Christian writing books for the Christian market, there is an entire eco-system of blogs and review sites etc.
Having an endorsement from a known Christian personality is important.
- It shortcuts the alignment with spiritual convictions. We talk about the changing nature of self-publishing within the evangelical market.
- We discuss branding around yourself when you're encouraged not to make it about yourself as a Christian. But a personality is important to build know, like and trust and Jeremy's discusses how he did this, and how uncomfortable it was at the beginning.
- Jeremy talks about his coming of age novel, From There and Back Again which will be out early 2015. You can preorder the book and I'll be interviewing Jeremy about the novel on my JFPenn.com fiction site 🙂 We also talk about resonance in titling books and how strong words can evoke themes in people's minds.
You can find Jeremy and his books at JeremyBouma.com and also on Twitter @bouma
Transcription of the interview with Jeremy Bouma
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com. And today, I'm here with Jeremy Bouma. Welcome, Jeremy.
Jeremy: Hey, Joanna. Thanks a ton for having me on. I really appreciate it.
Joanna: No worries. So just a little introduction. Jeremy is the author of non-fiction and fiction books, as well as an entrepreneur. He was previously an evangelical Christian pastor and writes for HarperCollins Christian Publishers, as well as dealing with aspects of faith in his books and on his blog. And today, we're talking about aspects of the Christian publishing market, which I have a lot of questions about. And Jeremy and I have known each other online for, goodness, I would say, for a couple of years now, don't you think?
Jeremy: Yeah, I think it's been, like, two years, for sure.
Joanna: Yeah, like two years. And also, you've read some of my fiction, haven't you?
Jeremy: I've read all of your fiction. So I'm a major fan boy over here. If you start to see me sweating or stuttering, it's because I'm swooning. That's why.
Joanna: That's so sweet. But, why, and I guess for anyone who's wondering, I mean, I'm not a Christian. You are a Christian. Today, we're talking about the Christian market. And I'm very respectful, as you know, of matters of faith. And I have a degree in theology and so do you. So I feel like we share a lot in common even though we have one quite big thing not in common.
Joanna: We still think a lot. Let's just start by, you know, after all, we both have degrees in theology. Your career took a very different turn to mine.
So tell us about you and your background in your faith and in writing.
Jeremy: Yeah, sure. So my background is basically in politics and religion. So you can imagine I'm not all that popular at parties because I have nothing else to talk about. The two things you're never supposed to talk about, right? So yeah, post-college, graduated with a degree in political science, fled my hometown to Washington D.C., and found a job working for a United States senator for about a year. It was during that gig, which was pretty exciting… And like a lot of Christians who up and move to big centers of cultural power, I was heading out to make my mark and to sort of win Capitol Hill for Jesus, right?
And I didn't so much do that on the inside, but ended up finding myself into a ministry called the Center for Christian Statesmanship, in which we're kind of pastors to politicians. So I met with members of Congress for prayer, delivered bibles to new ones, but mostly met with their staff for prayer, spiritual encouragement, bible study, spiritual mentoring. Kind of came alongside them in their journey, both spiritually and in their life.
And yeah, pretty amazing experience and opportunity. And it was in the context of that, in the midst of that, in the ministry experience, that I began to have sort of a crisis of faith for myself. You know, having grown up in the Christian bubble of West Michigan… Grand Rapids is like the promised land of this hub of Christianity, given the colleges and publishers, and the amount of churches we have. So between that and going to a Christian college, I did not know how to handle the contents and environment of the city, with the myriad of competing world views and perspectives.
And then, in the minister context, my friends were asking me questions about faith, life, and everything in between that I really didn't have answers for, that my faith hadn't prepared me for. And so I began asking those questions myself about, what does it mean to even be a Christian? What is the Gospel, the story of Christ? How does that fit with these other faiths around the world?
Yeah, that was 2004, 2005. And found that writing really helped me work through those questions. And so like a lot of people a decade ago, launched my own little plot in the digital landscape, NovusLumen.net was my blog site where I began working through those questions, answering those questions for me as well as my friends and other people. I became pretty heavily involved with an online evangelical and kind of progressive evangelical blog scene and began sort of working through this crisis through writing and blogging.
And from there, I began to sort of sense a greater calling, if you will, to kind of a broader pastoral ministry. So I went back home, spent five years getting a Master of Divinity as well as a postgraduate Master of Theology and Historical Theology, and helped pastor a church for a bit, pastored another church a bit, and in the midst, published my first book. It was actually six years ago, 2008, Reformation Day, October 31st. I felt that this was of like my own mini-version of Martin Luther nailing up his 95 theses with my book, “The (Un)offensive Gospel of Jesus,” and released that out there through P.O.B., Lightning Source, and then later as a Kindle book.
I caught the bug for publishing and writing in sort of a broader, vocational sense. And so since then, I've published nine other books. And I have, hopefully, three fiction books coming out next year. And then now, have transitioned into full-time writing, with an author-entrepreneurial career, thanks to you, Joanna Penn. Thank you for that. We're now, yeah, I write and do content marketing for HarperCollins Christian Publishers, as well as help a small publisher launch a new translation of the Bible. That's been kind of my journey, a kind of circuitous route to this space I'm in now of trying to just bring life change and touch our world through the vehicle of writing and publishing.
Joanna: You know, it's really fascinating because you talk there about, you know, your writing has helped you work through what you think, and that's how I feel about my fiction. Like I feel like I write about supernatural things because these questions of stuff that goes beyond what you can physically see, however, whatever you want to call that, whatever people feel is spiritual, or supernatural or whatever, that is difficult.
And so by writing, whether it's through a blog about religion and theology, or about writing fiction, it's kind of the same thing. Like it’s you're working out what you believe, don't you?
Jeremy: Oh, for sure.
Joanna: So do you find…? I mean, I noticed and I've said to you before, you're a very smart man with a lot of degrees. Do you find…? And I've said to you before, I think the language that you use can be very, what's the word? Academic, I guess.
Jeremy: Sure. Sure.
Joanna: Have you found that your writing has changed from when you first kind of did the academic side of theology, to the kind of reaching readers side?
Jeremy: Yes, absolutely. And I think that shifted when I became a pastor. Because people who are mechanics, or bakers, or house moms, they don't connect with the upper academic language and discourse. And so yeah, I think, like any writer, you evolve your craft as much as you evolve it for the audience in which you're writing for. And so as I've stepped into the stories of people who lost their husbands to cancer at 34, and came alongside people who are struggling in their marriages or whatever, I began to just, I think, connect at a deeper level in a way that people can kind of understand in a language sense. And that's my heart for writing anyway. It's not the academy. I mean, I had thought of going on to get a PhD. But really, my heart is writing for the church, and especially this kind of “average Christians,” rather than the scholar or the pastor.
Joanna: Right. So I wanted to kind of move into… And I've mentioned this to you before, I feel like I write religious thrillers. You know, thrillers that are based around religion. And I want to write something around, like a Hindu thriller, which will be clearly religious, but not Christian, and I don't feel I can put my books in Christian fiction because they're not kind of edifying of Jesus. And so this is something I struggle with all the time.
So I wonder if you could explain the spectrum of what you see in the Christian publishing industry? What are the different sub-genres that are out there right now within the Christian publishing realm?
Jeremy: Yeah. Let me sort of talk about the broader sort of Christian publishing market, because I think that will to give context a bit more. Because the first thing is I feel as though that the Christian publishing world is sort of the sleeping giant that most people really don't understand or consider. What's interesting is that the Christian market is a $1.2 billion market. Almost like, I think it's 10% or so of the broader, sort of consumer publishing market. In America at least, I think it's 73% or so identifying as Christians buy more books than the average person, as well as spend more money on books than the average person.
So lots of money, revenue to be had within the market, which makes sense why the big New York houses have all sort of bought up and purchased the previously independent publishing imprints and companies. The largest one of course is HarperCollins, which bought up Zondervan in the 90s, as well as Thomas Nelson a few years ago. Those are the top two, and that consolidated to, I think, 50% of so of the Christian publishing market. And then Simon & Schuster has Howard Books, Hachette, Faith Works, Center Street, Jericho Books, Random House, Waterbrook Press, and Elmer.
What's fascinating about the Christian market, though, is that the big five don't dominate outside of HarperCollins Christian, the marketplace as independent publishing units do. So next to Zondervan and Thomas Nelson, you have Broadman and Holman, which is part of the Southern Baptist Convention. You have Tyndale, Crossway, InterVarsity Press, David C. Cook, so a number of smaller independent presses, which kind of make up the rest of the independent market, excuse me, the Christian market.
And what’s interesting is you have to kind of realize, and we'll get to your question about how do you market for, how do you approach the Christian market, specifically within the broader religious, is realizing that when we're talking about the Christian market, we're usually and mostly talking about the evangelical market. Not all Christians who buy books are evangelicals, but the majority of the Christian market is catered toward evangelicals, given that they have the publishing houses, the retail outlets like Family Christian Stores, Mardel, Lifeway, as well as the big sort of evangelical personalities that are putting out the books and standing behind the books.
So I like to call it the evangelical industrial complex as sort what… Because it's this massive unit that is within the publishing realm, and it's kind of a tough market to crack, because evangelicals typically purchase from the evangelical specialty stores, Family Christian, Lifeway, and those stores are not generally going to include a book by an independent author or an independent press if they don't know that they meet sort of the spiritual criteria, and are doctrinally sound, doctrinally correct, which is why they typically go back to these known entities.
And mostly U.S., even abroad into the U.K. and Canadian, English Christian market, and then within them, we have the genres, which of course, are sort of Christianized versions of the major genres. You have Christian romance, Christian sci-fi, Christian suspense and thriller, Christian detective and thriller. And the dominant genres within the Christian market are Amish books, the bonnet books, as a friend of mine likes to say. Think “50 Shades of Grey” for ladies, sweet ladies in the church, is what Amish fiction is. My mom loves Amish fiction, which are typically like historical romance, as how we would categorize those. And yeah, so that's kind of how that works. Christianized versions of the big genres that you would think of.
Joanna: Yeah. And so you mentioned the Amish thing, which I've heard about as well. But there's also Amish erotica. I mean, what are your opinions on the more extreme version? See, we've got Amish erotica and then you've got things like Ted Dekker, who is a Christian, right, and writes in the Christian market. He writes horror. I mean, one could argue that it's horror. So you've got some extremes at the end of, I mean… I don't know whether LaHaye and “The Left Behind” series, you know.
Jeremy: Jenkins, yeah.
Joanna: Yeah, Jenkins, “The Left Behind Series.” I mean, that's post-apocalyptic. I mean, it's based on the rapture.
Joanna: Which, however you argue it, hasn't happened yet, if you believe it's going to happen.
Joanna: So it could be post-apocalyptic fantasy. So what do think of these, kind of the more of the edgy things? Where does that sit on the spectrum?
Jeremy: It is a bit fascinating to see how some of these sort of compare with the sort of mainstream titles. I hadn't heard of the Amish erotica yet. That's an interesting one for me. But even if you take something like Tim LaHaye's “Left Behind,” it's like horror-light. I mean, people are dying, people are blowing up, I guess. But compared to some of the other, you know, Stephen King, for instance, the Christian version of it is going to accommodate an evangelical market. And you're not going to have an evangelical publisher who's going to publish things that aren't palatable to the evangelical market. And what's fascinating though is that evangelicals, and Christians more broadly, but especially evangelicals, are more tolerant of violence than they are of…
Jeremy: …of swearing or sex. An interesting story, there was a Christian writer, Rachel Held Evans, who didn't do a fiction book. She published a non-fiction book with Thomas Nelson, “The Year of Living…”
Joanna: “The Year of Living Biblically.”
Jeremy: Yeah. “The Year of Living Biblically” or “Biblical Womanhood” or something like that. I don't know if you heard, but there was a big sort of hubbub around her desired use of using the word “vagina” in her book. In a way, that was totally appropriate and not weird. Nut the publisher didn't allow her to use that word in her book because they knew that one of the major Christian outlets would refuse to stock her book because of using that word, which is sort of like, really? I mean, come on. This is not like Amish erotica here. This is talking about Biblical principles of womanhood. And she was using that word in a way that was contextual and appropriate to the book.
But yeah, there's this interesting tolerance when it comes to different themes. Violence is okay, whether it's in this post-apocalyptic kind of setting, whether Tim LaHaye’s, some of the crime novels. But when it comes to sex, or swearing, or even like drug and alcohol use… Actually my fiction book, I have quite a lot of, quite a lot of the spiritual conversations happen at the pub.
Joanna: Yeah. They do. You know, Jesus turned water into wine, right? I mean, when Jesus turned a vat of water into wine, he clearly approves of some drinking.
Jeremy: Absolutely. That's pretty deep.
Joanna: That’s clearly biblical.
Jeremy: It's funny. Because I mean, that gets to understanding the evangelical market when you want to understand the Christian market, and some of those tolerances, and some of those idiosyncratic and peculiarities of the culture, as much as some of the theology that you're writing for, for sure.
Joanna: And the Mormons. Do they have a separate publishing area, I guess?
Jeremy: Yeah. I believe that the L.D.S. sort of like headquarters in Utah has their own sort of like denominational imprint that publishes curriculum books, their own, I guess, second testament of Joseph Smith. Separate then, yeah. I mean, you know, the major Christian publishers wouldn't touch those titles for sure.
Joanna: Do you know Michael Wallace and his series, which is a kind of Mormon thriller?
Jeremy: I don't think so.
Joanna: Yeah, really interesting.
Jeremy: I don’t know about that.
Joanna: Yeah, Michael Wallace. It's brilliant. I love it. Again, to me, religious fiction, based around a religion, you know, a breakaway kind of polygamist group, and really fascinating. And it has sort of turned post-apocalyptic, but very much reminds me of these type of books, and I love the series. But definitely, ex-Mormon and writes fiction in that.
Jeremy: Ah, sure.
Joanna: So it's not, again, not in that market, but outside that market, kind of looking in. But in just talking about the wider market. So for example, I have a Spanish version of “Pentecost,” which is out now, and I've got a Portuguese one coming out in Brazil bought by a publisher who wants to appeal to a Christian Catholic market because, you know, “Pentecost” has a lot of the Christian stuff, and it fits with the Catholic market. So what do you see, I mean, obviously there’s the Philippines, which is very Christian, religious country.
What do you see in kind of global appeal and the global market for these types of books?
Jeremy: Yeah, you know, I would say that the global Christian market isn't as developed as the U.S. one, perhaps with the exception of South America or Latin American countries, given how, to your story, how closely the Catholic faith defines their culture. So you have plenty more imprints and companies set up to cater to those Spanish-speaking markets, and I would imagine within like Africa or Asia. Harvard College Christian has their own imprint catering towards them called Vita, for instance. But I actually think that the future of Christian publishing globally is bright considering how the church is growing, mostly in the global south, in Africa and Asia, and in South America.
I think within 10 to 20 years, 1 in 5 Christians are going to be non-Hispanic whites, as the sort of picture that paints a typical Christian, it'll be a woman in a village in Nigeria or Brazil. I mean, that's going to be the Christian market, broadly, dominantly speaking. And so I think you see some of that reflected in Latin American countries, especially Brazil, as that market economically and technologically has sort of ballooned. You also have the evangelical population ballooning alongside them. I think it's within the last 10 years, they have doubled to around 55 million or so. So that's like a quarter of the evangelical population within the U.S. And so, yeah, I think it's bright. I think it’s a bright future.
And I mean you're leading the charge with translating all those books, and giving us inspiration for how I think that should look as Christians or religious people, to think about these markets that are emerging. And as the church begins to grow mostly in non-English speaking countries in the global south, I think that presents opportunities for us to grow alongside them as authors, for sure.
Joanna: I agree. And I'm particularly fascinated, because a lot of the… So my sister-in-law is Nigerian, and we had a half-Catholic wedding with Nigerians singing and they brought a lot… It was a classic case, in a cathedral, a Catholic cathedral in Edinburgh. Half the church was Nigerian. And my sister-in-law said, “We're going to have a Nigerian section.” So it was just so funny in this very uptight, white, middle-class Catholic church. We had a load of Nigerians singing what they sing in their church in Lagos. And it was a very different vibe and the kind that the priest didn't quite know what to do with it, I think. But what I find interesting about that is that I think maybe the type of books that appeal to Christians in other countries will have a different flavor because often they…
Jeremy: Oh I hope so. Sure.
Joanna: …they've incorporated a lot of local traditions into their faith. And you know, South American Christian Catholicism is quite different to the type we practice in England, for example.
Jeremy: Absolutely. I would hope that, frankly, I would hope that some of us, sort of speaking as a Christian to my Christian brethren and sister-en, would actually help raise up authors within those countries natively, to write for their context, rather than sort of importing our own Americanized stories. Not that that's a bad thing necessarily. To provide, whether it's non-fiction sort of Christian living books, books on church growth or whatever.
Joanna: Yeah, I have got a book coming next year, which going to be based in India and have a Hindu kind of religious aspect with Shiva and Nataraja, which again is religious fiction. It’s not Christian fiction. It's clearly Hindu. And when I was in India, I found the kind of Dan Brown equivalent. An Indian author who's the Dan Brown equivalent, writing these religious, action-adventure thrillers. No one would have heard of him here because we don't have an Indian writer who does that kind of thing. We have Americans.
But what's happened now, of course, is Amazon K.D.P. has opened up to Indian authors so we should start seeing an influx of other nationalities. What's sad is that I've had several e-mails from Indian authors saying, should I use a Westernized name to publish under? And also from Portugal, from Brazil same thing, should I Westernize my name because the main market is American, and they won't buy a book from someone with a different name. What do you reckon there? That's a tough one.
Jeremy: Man, that's fascinating. It’s sad. You know, it shows how ethnocentric we are as Westerners, as Americans.
Joanna: But it’s probably true. Isn’t it?
Jeremy: Whether inside or outside the church, I'm sure, I mean, I would imagine the same would hold true, unfortunately, for my people, you know, Christians in America.
Joanna: Oh yeah. I'm not talking about Christians here.
Jeremy: No, no. Sure. Yeah, right. But it's exciting thought that there are these models set up, whether is Kobo or Kindle reaching out into these emerging markets that will empower people in their own countries to write for their own countries. And that's, I guess, my hope for the global south, or anywhere outside of the Western nations, when it comes to Christians, especially writing for their own people, is to be able to leverage these technologies to serve their countries, their communities in a way that makes sense to them, rather than simply importing our junk and our strategies.
Joanna: No, I agree. Okay. So coming back to the religious stuff. So this year, I've been excited about “Noah,” the film “Noah,” and “Exodus,” coming next month, and Tim LaHaye’s, as we mentioned, “Left Behind” movie coming out next year. Isn't Nicholas Cage in that? It's like a big, I think, it's going to be a big movie. Anyway, my point is, is there a mainstream renaissance interest in these biblical stories? Because I mean, “The Da Vinci Code,” which wasn't Christian, right, but it was about the church… It was pretty much 10 years ago.
Do you think we're coming into a phase where people are more interested in religion?
Jeremy: You know, I think there's a couple of things there. I would say there's a renaissance, as you put it, renaissance, maybe not necessarily biblical stories, but big stories. Which I would say it began, perhaps, with Tolkien's “Lord of the Rings” being resurrected and put on the big screen. Because here's this guy, I mean it wasn't an obviously Christian or religious movie, but he was a Christian who wrote out his Christian convictions, talking about the big stuff of life, the big questions.
I think the same thing, perhaps, would hold true with “Lost.” My wife and I just watched through the six seasons again and I was just fascinated to see how much they deal with the big existential, metaphysical questions of life, nature of good and evil, faith versus free will, nature of the afterlife. And I think that people are hungry for that kind of engagement. When the big stories, and of course bible stories kind of fit into that because they do connect to that bigger story that I think all of us are trying to connect to ourselves with our own life.
So yeah, I think that's part of it. There is this deep longing for bigger stories. But I would also say that, let's be frank, the Christian market is sort of a cash cow at some level, and Hollywood woke up to that fact with, perhaps, “The Passion of the Christ,” woke up to this reality that there's this very hungry market for bible films. And especially with, again, the evangelical industrial complex, gets behind one of those films, it can go through the roof. So I think there's an aspect where Hollywood sees that there's a big market obviously in a viewing sense, but also in a financial sense.
I was reading some things about “Noah” before that came out that they hired some evangelical consultants to make sure that it would be, you know, theologically appropriate and approved by some of the gatekeepers and influencers within the evangelical community. And then they ended up editing it to take some things out, to massage, and to shift, to make it more palatable even though…
Joanna: It definitely wasn't.
Jeremy: …there were some leaders who kind of just went bonkers about it. I thought it was great actually. There were some things that I was like, okay.
Joanna: It wasn't biblical. There was a lot that wasn't biblical.
Jeremy: I was relying on Jewish Midrash and some other extra biblical things. But I mean, frankly, as evangelicals, we do that with the Noah story anyway. We like sanitize it and make it about like rainbows and bunnies, and you know, little doves floating around. And frankly I thought that, man, the best depiction was that movie about the kind of, not only destruction, but also the psychological internal tension that Noah would have felt, you know, hearing all these people dying, you know, children and bodies thumping against the ark. Yeah, I think he depicted in perfectly. And it's too bad that others didn't see it my way.
Joanna: You never please everyone, especially with religion or politics, as you said, as you would know.
Jeremy: Yeah, for sure.
Joanna: But you know, it's funny because with this book, “Gates of Hell,” I’ve ended up, and I don't even know why this has happened, but I've ended up looking for Sodom and Gomorrah. And reading those stories again, and you know, similar destruction, right? You know, people are really behaving badly, we’re just going to destroy everything now, you know. And even the poor wife turns around and gets turned into the pillar of salt, just because she looked behind her. These stories are kind of awesome. So I am writing about that area of Israel where Sodom and Gomorrah supposedly were. Really fascinating stuff. But anyway… We could talk about religious things forever.
Jeremy: Yeah. Next show.
Joanna: But you have mentioned… Yeah we should start like a theology podcast. We'd have a really small audience, but…
Jeremy: Hey, sign me up. I'm there. I'm there.
Joanna: That would be quite funny.
Jeremy: Collaborate on a podcast, collaborate on a fiction series. It'd be interesting.
Joanna: It would be cool.
Jeremy: The sky's the limit.
Joanna: It is. Well, let's talk about how the sky's the limit and the cash cow thing. Because clearly this is my struggle, right, and part of the reason we're talking about this, I know that. And my agent basically said, when I had a New York agent, and had pitched her “Pentecost, Prophecy, and Exodus.” Of course you know, you can't get much more Christian in my book titles. And she said, “These books are too Christian to be mainstream. But you're not a Christian so we can't sell them to the Christian market.”
So what's happened to me, and a number of other authors who I've talked with have is you kind of fall through a gap, where most of my audience are Christians, ranging from, I have a Greek Orthodox priest who's a reader, you're a reader. I have a lot of other Christians who read my books. And so my issue is I can't lie and say I'm a Christian, and therefore I can't be acceptable in one way.
But what do you think about books that deal with, you know, books like mine, of which there are quite a lot. What should one do with these books in approaching the Christian market?
Jeremy: Yeah, those are good questions. And I think that there's a couple of things that play into understanding the market in a theological sense and a cultural sense that both, I think, Christians as well as non-Christians writing for that, or have books that are religious like yours or spiritual that touch on the big questions and the big story. And the first one is theological adherence, it's recognizing that there are theological convictions that Christians care deeply about, especially evangelicals, who I would imagine have read a lot of your books. I think you even said you've gotten some e-mails from others who've said, “Hey, “Pentecost” is down this way. That's not in my Bible. What’s up with that?” Right?
And that comes back to the doctrine of Revelation. You know, this belief that God stepped into our world and communicated to us about Himself and us and our creation in this thing called the Bible, His book, using human authors, inspiring them with doctrinal inspiration in a way that communicated what he wanted to communicate without error. Again, inerrancy, another doctrine.
And so when you introduce these themes, these spiritual themes, or especially religion themes that kind of scrape the surface of Christian doctrine, or the Christian faith, or the Bible itself, you're going to get some push back because they grade against the theological sensibilities of the audience. Does that make sense?
Joanna: So there will be people listening who are Christians who are writing Christian books or books that will appeal to Christians. So how would you suggest they market Christian books specifically?
Is there an ecosystem of blogs, and book bloggers, and podcasts, and all of that?
Jeremy: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that's what's really important to keep in mind is, first of all, having an endorsement from a known Christian personality is pretty required because part of what the evangelical, gain, I'm going back to the evangelicalism because it dominates the Christian market, is sort of tribal in how we invite or un-invite those who are on the inside or outside. And we mark insiders versus outsiders based on the brands of known personalities. And so if you have a book that's endorsed by XYZ, then okay, I can trust that that is going to align with my theological and spiritual convictions. And so that would probably be marketing tip #1, is trying to connect with some of those known personalities and getting an endorsement.
And then forwarding them along to those influencers in the first place, the book bloggers, the Christian magazines, the Christian radio shows, the Christian T.V. shows. We have our own Christian subculture that loves to get Christian stuff. And so reaching those influencers will reach their readers and will influence them to hopefully, you know, buy your stuff, or purchase your books, or engage your content, and engage your book. Yeah, so those two things, I think are crucial for Christians, even non-Christians. Like for you to get an endorsement from an evangelical pastor or someone would be really helpful, I think, probably, for entering into that market, and building that coveted know, like, and trust. I mean, that's Marketing 101, right? And so to build that know, like, and trust, you need the endorsement, you need the influencers to get on board.
Joanna: And you did say earlier that…
Jeremy: I would add to that also. Oh, go ahead.
Joanna: No, I was just going to say the trust aspect, you’ve mentioned that self-publishers are not necessarily going to be so accepted. Do you see, because, they haven't been vetted in some way, is that changing?
Is self-publishing becoming more accepted?
Jeremy: Yeah, good question. You know, I think that the evangelical market and a lot of ways the Christian market has usually been behind the times, three to five years, you know. And I find that now there is this growing acceptance. I mean, there has been in print, WestBow, which is part of Thomas Nelson, which is an author solution outfit.
Joanna: We wouldn't necessarily go there.
Jeremy: They wouldn't necessarily advocate and offer author solution, stuff. But yeah, so there is sort of that route to gain that imprint and that know, like, and trust. For my own story, I was able to connect with a pretty prominent evangelical, Scott McKnight. He's a New Testament scholar who has written a number of things. He wrote the foreword to my first book, “The (Un)offensive Gospel of Jesus”. So that was super-duper helpful in building the know, like, and trust with people. I also got some endorsements from a seminary professor, another pastor, and another Christian author. So yeah, I did that. I just sort of done that from the beginning. And I would certainly encourage Christians to do that.
But I do sense that there is this growing interest in receiving and trusting independent voices outside sort of the mainstream. But it's going to take time. And it's a tough nut to crack. And I think that potential authors and interested writers should just try to be patient and do the work that they need to get those endorsements and to influence those influencers.
And I think the author's issue of branding is super important for Christians to wrestle with.
It's one of the things that I wrestled with. I remember when I was in your little course on turning ideas into cash, you think, critiqued my former website, NovusLumen.net. And you were like, you need to scrap that and go with your own personal name. You need to brand your ideas. Brand your stuff on yourself. And as a Christian, that was super uncomfortable because we're sort of bred to make it not about us. It's not about us and our story. It's about Christ and his story, right?
And yeah, that's true. But when it comes to the marketplace, and with selling ideas and engaging with people, building know, like, and trust, you got to engage in a way that people demand and require you to do so. And that means focusing on building your brand, whether it's through blogging, tweeting, writing your bio in a way that incorporates, let's call it your Christian credentials, your ministry credentials, or maybe you're a youth group, you can put that in your bio to signal to people that, hey, yeah, I'm a Christian who does Christian things.
A Christian publishing friend of mine encouraged me to put in my bio that, not only was I a pastor, but a pastor within the Evangelical Covenant Church because that signals, hey, he's part of this known denomination. He's an evangelical. It's building know, like, and trust. So I think that branding issue is one of those things that's going to be interesting for Christian authors to navigate, but it's a tension that has to be done. And I would encourage people to be okay with it for the sake of not building yourself up, but for the sake of Christ and his story, and hopefully bringing life transformation.
Joanna: Yeah, well you mentioned Rick Warren. He's a well-known personality. You know, I've read “The Purpose Driven Life,” you know. I think lots of non-Christians may well have read some of his stuff. And I think a personality can help all of us. And you write non-fiction as well, right?
Joanna: So it's interesting you say that because I would've thought that Christian publishers, in the same way as other publishers, would want the author to build up their own brand so that they are a known entity, so that people will say, “I want Jeremy's next book.”
Jeremy: Well, yes, I think you're for sure right. Especially with evangelicalism, there is definitely this fascination with personalities, and churches are personality-driven. Unfortunately we've had some recent examples of the downside of personality-driven prophets as well as churches.
Joanna: That happens everywhere.
Jeremy: What's that?
Joanna: That happens everywhere. That's not a Christian thing.
Jeremy: It happens everywhere, for sure. And that's, I think, the tension. Obviously publishers are going to want to know your Twitter stats and know what your brand is and whatever. But I think as an online author, it's awkward to figure out how to be okay with that, and to navigate, building that, not for the sake of myself or even the publisher, but for leveraging my experiences…
So for instance, for me I think I should. And you’ve helped me and my wife has helped me, who's a marketer, helped me to grow into it and be okay with is being okay with letting people know that I was a pastor to politicians, that I was part of an evangelical progressive organization, and that I have degrees in Divinity and Theology. And so I can leverage those parts of my story and my own experiences with having a crisis of faith in order to talk about my next book, which is sort of a spiritual coming-of-age story, which helps people navigate their own crises, crises of the faith, or however you say it.
So, the point is not to build myself but to help, hopefully, build Christ and his story as well as encourage other people. So I guess that's just a mindset shift that Christian authors need to make when it comes to branding, is leveraging their experience and their story for the sake of the message that they want to communicate.
Joanna: Which you did very well there. And brings us onto asking about your novel. So you're moving into fiction and you mentioned the coming-of-age story there.
Tell us a bit more about that and how you have balanced that truth versus fiction aspect, which I think is a real line that will be difficult to walk through, right?
Jeremy: Sure. Well, my interest in fiction or in writing fiction really grew out of pastoring. The conversation at the beginning about pursuing the academy versus pursuing the church, yeah, it really crystallized when I started pastoring and realizing people engage ideas not in like some theological tract or… My best sermons, to be frank, were the ones that were story-driven. Those are the ones that people engaged with, not where I was just droning on about some theological idea. And so I began to realize, Matt, if I want to influence or help people in their own spiritual journey, the way to do that, I think, is through story.
And so I thought back and just try it. And so I never wrote a thing of fiction in my life. Signed up to NaNoWriMo two years ago. Of course, right? That's where it all starts. And churned out this story that sort of fictionalizes my own spiritual journey and to, in a way, that I hope will help others who have sort of grown up in a similar, well, it's called, fundamentalist environment, and wonder if that faith still connects to their modern world.
And so I follow this protagonist, Peter Daniel Young, who returns back home to go train to be a pastor, and takes his sort of new progressive faith with him, and is challenged to reconnect to the historic Christian faith. And I kind of use that as a way to teach. Because it's definitely a teaching book. It's definitely a book where, I'm still kind of unpacking my own thoughts and answering and asking my own questions. But it's definitely more interested in encouraging people to kind of, in some ways, do what I did, to not let go of the vintage Christian faith, as I put it, but to realize that that does still connect. So it is kind of more of a teaching book. But it's meant to help people who have grown up in the church and might have left and wonder if this whole Christian thing still makes sense.
Joanna: And what's the title and when is out?
Jeremy: Yeah, “From There and Back Again,” releasing, actually, pre-orders start in like a week, releasing the end of January. Yeah, I'm excited to see how this works with communicating and kind of fleshing out ideas in a fictional form rather than a non-fictional way that I've done it before.
Joanna: And is that title influenced by “The Hobbit”?
Jeremy: Embarrassingly, I didn't even realize that. “The Hobbit’s” little book was “There and Back Again.” But no, I can't say that. It just was what was in my head when I was thinking about my story, and the story that I wanted to tell.
Joanna: Well, that kind of resonance. It's funny because when I wrote “Pentecost,” I had an original title, which was “Mandala.” and I chose the title “Pentecost” in order to resonate in people's minds with people who would know what Pentecost means. And what's funny is when people read it who don't know what Pentecost means, they get the word wrong. So I'll get e-mails where people just mangle the word because they didn't know what it was. And so it's interesting. As soon as you say that title, a lot of people will get a resonance, which isn't a bad thing. However, you know, “The Hobbit,” which you know is not…
Jeremy: It's similar about journey, and conquest, and coming-of-age, and those are the themes of the book. So I guess that's a good thing.
Joanna: It is. No, I think the resonance thing for me… You know, I love one-word titles. I'm only just moving off them at the moment. But I think these strong words, like “Desecration” for me was, I mean, it's a very violent word, which I think…
Jeremy: Kind of slaps you in the face, doesn't it?
Jeremy: And that's okay because as people want to try and flesh out ideas, that's what we want to do, as authors, is kind of slap you right in the face.
Joanna: We do. But it's interesting, with the Christian side, I think the words, the title and words, they do make a big difference because they do bring up, like you say, these stories. The film is called “Noah” because everybody knows what Noah is, and it immediately brings up the resonance of all of that history. Even if you're not a Christian, you still have it in your school background, or your whatever background, if you're white and Western, you know generally. That's what you would get. So anyway, that was just a comment on marketing through titles. You know, these words are so important, aren't they?
Jeremy: Absolutely. They're pregnant with meaning, especially for people who grew up in the church or in Western context, yeah, their mind's going to jump to something immediately. That's a great marketing tip, for sure.
Joanna: Yeah. Okay. So where can people find you, and your books, and your blog online?
Jeremy: Sure. Thanks to you. JeremyBouma.com is where people can find my stuff. And then Amazon has it all, as well as Kobo, and Barnes & Noble.
Joanna: Yeah. I hope you don't… Well, I always hate doing critiques. But a lot of people wouldn't know what “Novus Lumen” means.
Jeremy: Absolutely no. It was the best, best thing to happen to my writing career. Thank you, Ms. Penn.
Joanna: Oh, no, not at all, no. And I really appreciate your time, Jeremy, and your honesty. I love discussing this stuff and I hope we can continue to have these types of conversations because I continue to wrestle with these questions and many people do. We often don't talk about it because it's difficult. But I think, like you said, the big questions are so important to people, and become part of our lives, and part of our writing. And I'm just re-reading Stephen King's “It” at the moment. Do you read Stephen King at all or not your thing?
Jeremy: I do. I do.
Joanna: You've read “It”?
Jeremy: Not “It,” no.
Joanna: Well, I'm reading it at the moment, and what's so fascinating is it is just a good versus evil story, you know. And as it progresses, I'm like, this is just good, this is evil. It's like “The Stand” and “The Shining” and so many of his books are good versus evil, and good triumphs, generally, after a lot of gore. So you know, this is what a lot of people want in their books, regardless of religious persuasion. You know, it's fascinating. Anyway, enough. So brilliant. Thank you so much for your time, Jeremy. That was fantastic.
Jeremy: Absolutely. Thanks for having me. And let me know when you want to do it again.
Pete Bauer says
I loved this interview. It was nice to have an Evangelical viewpoint into the Christian market. When we were developing our YA Thriller series, we did extensive research into the Christian marketplace.
With the majority of Christian publishing focused on non-fiction and with our main character a young Catholic, our research showed that our novel series would not be readily acceptable in current mainstream Christian marketplace.
It’s why we decided to create our own imprint and independently publish. Another challenge is there is a massive void in the Catholic marketplace for fiction. It too is primarily non-fiction, bibles, saint medals, rosaries, etc. Catholic’s don’t have book shops, they have gift shops.
It’s going to be a massive uphill battle for us, but we feel it’s worth the struggle. All good things are.
Joanna Penn says
That’s interesting, Pete – and I appreciate you sharing the perspective of young Catholics. With a huge growth of Catholicism in markets that are currently underserved digitally, I would expect you’ll see growth as those markets mature. For example, Spanish language and Portuguese for Brazil, Africa and Asia. We certainly live in exciting times – and people want to read books where the characters believe as they do.
Pete Bauer says
I agree. Like you, our primary goal is to write compelling stories with faith layers, but our series is not about proselytizing Catholicism, but with a Catholic youth trying to figure out what her faith means to her while also trying to stop a mass murderer.
So, we’re unsure of the acceptance of even standard Catholic organizations because, in the first novel, the character isn’t even sure if she’s going to remain Catholic. There isn’t anything in contradiction to the church, but it’s not a feel good story or Amish or a period piece. Like Pentecost, it’s a thriller that includes spiritual elements.
We’ll see how it all plays out. But, it was great to hear from Jeremy’s take on it all. It validated some of our educated guesses about where we should and should not focus on the outset of the series.
Jeremy Bouma says
Glad you found the interview and rock on with your series! I wouldn’t write the evangelical market off, however, even with a strong Catholic protagonist—especially among younger evangelicals, like myself.
One of the developments within evangelicalism has been an interest in and “conversion” to higher forms of Church—Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican expression of the Church. There is a lot of resonance among younger evangelicals with liturgy, so-called “smells and bells,” the creeds, and other more ancient expressions of the faith. So I think you could definitely position your fiction series among this market in the broader evangelical one—especially since it’s YA.
Anyway, glad you found it helpful! Feel free to connect if you have other market specific questions.
Pete Bauer says
Jeremy – Thank you. We’ve always felt our core audience would be Christian youth, but we didn’t want to start there because, like Christian musicians, its harder to go “mainstream” once you’ve been labelled a Christian artist. Our goal will be to put the first book out there simply as a thriller and see how the readers identify it. If we end up living in the Christian fiction space, that’s okay, but our goal is to reach all young adults.
ed cyzewski says
I’m regularly contacted by publicists and authors to promote books on my blog, and I think that many of them underestimate how niche some Christian blogs and book reviewers can be. If you want to promote a book in the Christian marketplace, especially the evangelical end of things, it really helps to understand some key differences between the sub-groups such as the conservative PCA and SBC vs. more progressive groups like Red Letter Christians and Sojourners.
Sandra Hutchison says
Interesting! I am one of those authors who has written what I consider a Christian novel that I don’t dare market as a Christian novel (though, to be fair, I have still gotten quite a few Christian reviewers, and many have been quite supportive, or at least tolerant, though others speak darkly of my agenda or of various crimes like taking the Lord’s name in vain).
One of my earliest blog posts was actually sharing my angst about who owns the category: http://sheerhubris.com/2013/06/18/just-who-counts-as-a-christian-anyway/
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Sandra 🙂 I am not a Christian but many of my readers ARE – so my angst is from a different angle! Perhaps we should just write what we love and not worry too much about who will enjoy them!
Pete Bauer says
Sandra, I enjoyed your blog post. In the arts, what “Christian” means is a moving target at best and playing in the Christian realm is a hard task. I’ve found Christianity is treated more like a cultural experience by a lot of people than a belief system and the approach on tackling Christian themes varies greatly because of it.
As a devout Catholic, I certainly understand that what is one person’s cultural comment may feel like an insult to another person’s core belief system. I think the key, especially for me, is to approach the subject from an authentic and respectful way. It doesn’t mean I can’t be critical or have a character that makes mistakes or even ignores what their faith calls them to do. That is, after all, the struggle. I just feel I have to present the struggle authentically.
But, because the western world has been integrated with Judeo-Christian beliefs for so long, what is an artistic commentary on Christianity can have many different flavors. I think the only way an author can expect to be accepted in the Christian marketplace is that it can’t offend those core beliefs.
I don’t think my novels will do that, but because of their dark nature and their real world language and violence, I don’t think I can expect an audience used to Amish romance faith stories to accept my crime thriller easily. It’s going to be an uphill struggle. I think the best we can do is write the best stories we can and let the market decide where they fit.
Sandra Hutchison says
I wish you good luck, Pete. Since my novel certainly shows devout Christians supporting marriage equality and debating some pretty liberal theology, it could definitely offend what a lot of people consider their “core beliefs” — heck, it would have offended mine, in my early years as a Christian. I do sense a general liberalization among Evangelicals in recent years, especially younger one.
From what I understand, you can get away with quite a bit of language and violence in this market, as long as you have NO SEX (yet another way in which my books offends). But the typical Amish romance reader is probably not going to pick up a Christian crime thriller anyway. (Unless it’s free — that’s when you really get the comments, because people download those books without even reading the description!)
Mike Cipolla says
While the mainstream movie studios have tried to enter the market, it seems their efforts have been panned and vilified. Even when evangelicals take to the big screen people disagree with the way bible stories are presented. Noah and Nicolas Cage’s version of Left Behind are two recent examples. And though people love them, the majority of the contemporary religious films are flat. You know that when things get tough or disappointing, the main character will say a prayer or an angel will appear and they will all live happily ever after. The majority are straight to video. Maybe that’s so the buyers won’t be going to the movies.
With novels you seem to have a bit more leeway in how you present the story. Most bible stories are short, so you can fill in the gaps with something appropriate as long as you don’t deviate too much from the main story. Or a religious quest is used as the basis for a thriller, mystery, or romance.
Joanna Penn says
I’m going to get Cage’s Left Behind as I enjoyed some of those books, and I love Nic Cage 🙂 Con Air is my favorite movie!
Lots to think about in this podcast, but I have a suggestion for Joanna. It came to me when I was watching Lone Survivor, which I liked quite a bit. One of the peculiarities of American foreign policy is that we never go to war, we go on Crusade. There has to be a moral underpinning, so that we see ourselves as the good guy, or it won’t get public support. Anyway, the groups like the SEALs and some of the others do have a lot of similarities to the orders of knights, and one might be able to build a very interesting story around that.
I’ll also do a minor plug that I’m on schedule to get out the first book in a series with major, MAJOR, Biblical themes early next year. It’s science fiction, and the one line pitch is: “What if Eve had chosen the other tree?” Look for Shadows of the Fall (first of four).
Joanna Penn says
That sounds good Jack 🙂 Please do email me when that’s available – sounds like my kinda thing!
Rosalind Minett says
I am not a religious writer, but perhaps because my trilogy (www. amzn.to/1rdcuEd) A Relative Invasion contains no sex or swearing and the main character is a youngster who, under duress, is and remains well-meaning, many of my original supporters 4 years ago on the website Authonomy were US Christian advocates.
Therefore, I am wondering if novels that have some underthrust of morality, good human interactions in the face of bad, might be a hidden sub genre of this Christian market?
Joanna Penn says
Hi Rosalind, I think books from writers of any religion or no religion can be about moral choices, good over evil – that’s not only the realm of Christianity. Usually Christian fiction specifically distinguishes itself by pointing the way to Christ or expounding the teaching of the Bible. But of course, Christians, like any other reader, can enjoy your type of books – as they do mine.
Tialie Simpson says
Is there an update to this article’s statistics?
Joanna Penn says
Best to ask Jeremy 🙂 — https://www.jeremybouma.com/