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R. J. Larson on why Christian publishers shy away from fantasy

By guest blogger R. J. Larson

I never intended to become a fantasy author.

A fantasy reader? Yes, always! A fantasy movie-goer and fantasy television fanatic? Definitely! But never a fantasy author—fantasy was not my calling.

However…

Cover of RJ Larson fantasy novel ProphetTwo and a half years ago, I awoke with a dream-fragment spinning through my brain—an obviously Biblical fantasy plotline complete with a courageous young main character, Ela, who commanded my writing attention to the ruination of my work-in-progress.

Instant problems.

I’d never written fantasy. History is my thing. Neolithic, Biblical, medieval, eighteenth and nineteenth century eras are my writing comfort zones. Why, and in what world was I supposed to write this fantasy? The question stopped me cold.
More worrisome. My agent handled romantic historicals—not fantasy—and for a reason:  Big Christian Publishing houses love inspirational romantic historicals. But fantasy?

Not so much.

Despite the overwhelming success of Christian-acclaimed classics such as The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and fantasy/sci-fi blends, such as A Wrinkle in Time, most Christian publishers have traditionally shied away from fantasy fiction.

Why?

Because in the past, inspirational-fantasy sales in Christian bookstores have been less-than-inspiring, and Christian publishing is a business, and in order to survive, businesses must offer products that sell. At least that’s what fantasy authors have been told until recently. And that is what I believed. Until after I caved to Ela’s demands and settled down to work on Prophet.

So, what changed? And how did I—mild-mannered history nut—end up inside publishing’s hitherto unwelcoming fantasy realm?

First, the book industry itself has changed more rapidly in the past two years than in the previous hundred years. Book lovers now have numerous online bookstore options, with the promise of instant gratification to anyone armed with an e-reader.

Also, in recent years, supernatural fiction has been storming up the charts.
Publishers have realized (some through e-readers statistics) that fantasy/sci-fi lovers are voracious readers and the trend is growing within evangelical circles. In addition—surprise!—the generation that propelled Lord of the Rings into America’s bestseller stratosphere, starting in1965, continues to love and read YA fantasy. Indeed, my own statistics (conveyed to me faithfully and unblinkingly by my online computerized stat counters) reveal that my average reader is 35-55 years old, and someone’s mom or grandma! Which comforts me, though I still ask myself, “How did I end up in the fantasy realm?”

Perhaps I should rephrase my question to me.

“Why was I blindsided by the obvious?”

I’ve read fantasy since I was a small child. I’ve been delighted by fantasy moviessince about age four, when I realized they existed. I simply didn’t believe that I was meant to write fantasy, nor did I believe CBA booksellers would accept my fantasy works, particularly since most of my previous Biblical proposals with hints of the supernatural had suffered multiple rejections.

But now I believe the door is opening for fantasy/sci-fi authors. Moreover, my agent and my publisher, Bethany House, believe demand will continue to grow.
In fact, within the past few years, Bethany House has signed Anne Elizabeth Stengl, me, and Patrick Carr to join Karen Hancock in their fantasy lineup. (I’ve been a Karen Hancock fan for years!)

Now you’re wondering—as I did—“Why was Prophet accepted for publication in a traditionally tough market?” That is, apart from my odd writing style?

I believe, and I’m only guessing here, that because Prophet’s storylines are traditional Biblical/historical/fantasy style, inspired by Biblical prophets and kings, evangelical readers can enter the storyline with ease. Prophet’s fantasy realms are filled with tyrants, monsters, and swords, yet the setting retains an “ancient Earth” atmosphere acceptable to most readers. And, perhaps most important to many devout readers, the only “magic” in the Books of the Infinite series is in each character’s relationship with their Creator, the Infinite, and in His glorious works.

Okay, by now I can hear some of you growling, “Fine for you, R. J. Larson! But you’ve written a traditional fantasy—of course traditional publishers would be interested! Meanwhile, my cutting-edge fantasy manuscript with amazing hybrid characters is still gathering rejections.”

Perhaps it is. But I’ve also suffered rejections. So hang in there, polish your work, and watch for your chance to shine!

The publishing world is changing and it’s testing speculative fiction as never before. Every “Big Publisher” has recently signed at least one fantasy/sci-fi author into their ranks. And each author offers something different, from Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s lyrical, action-packed fairy tale world, to Debbie Viguie’s supernatural Kiss Trilogy, and Jill Williamson’s exciting new dystopian Safe Land series.

Fantasy Author RJ LarsonNext year, who knows? Cutting-edge fantasy books with amazing hybrid characters might be the next “Big” book. Or, given recent e-book trends, “Big House” novellas or serial novels will soon be offered exclusively to e-readers, necessitating contracts for up-and-coming speculative fiction authors. But, as authors, are we ready?

Blessings, everyone! And thanks, Kristen Steiffel, for inviting me to contribute to New Authors’ Fellowship!
R. J. Larson is the author of the Books of the Infinite series from Bethany House Publishers. Learn more at http://www.rjlarsonbooks.com.

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12 comments on “R. J. Larson on why Christian publishers shy away from fantasy

  1. I really want to read this series! Hey, if you happen to have an extra copy of each just lying around, you can always send them my way. 🙂 Just kidding…not really, but I know you can’t do that. The covers are gorgeous and will add beauty to my book shelf one day. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and God bless!

    • Hi, Chaplain Debbie!!! So glad you love the covers–they’re so brilliantly colored! Hey, demand that your library order them for you–quite often they do!!! Hope you have a wonderful, BLESSED Thanksgiving!!! 😀

  2. Great post! We read Prophet in our book club and I think it was the liveliest discussion we had. When Heartless by Anne Elisabeth Stengl came out, it blew me away. I was amazed to see it traditionally published through Bethany House. Stengl, Karen Hancock, you, and along with all other authors as well like Donita K. Paul, Bryan Davis…and I knew the industry was opening its doors to spec-fic. Maybe too slow for some, but it is what it is. I’m so going to be skinned for not listing all of them. Ha! I see the change. It’s exciting. The industry across the markets is in such upheaval, but how do we get ready for it?

  3. J. L., that’s the big question! What will happen? What is the next trend? I believe clean, cutting-edge novellas, most likely dystopian, or a unique other-world fantasy realm, will lead the way in ebooks! The next few years will be fascinating indeed. 🙂

    I’m delighted that Prophet provoked a lively discussion. Guessing now…was it Pet? LOL!

    • Oh, Pet had his highlight all right, but all the characters, and the speculation of whether or not Kien and Ela get together 🙂 The worldbuilding too along with the Biblical themes. Very engaging story. 🙂

  4. Good to see there is some hope for us Christian fantasy writers! Hoping to be testing the waters with my historical fantasy next year some time!

    Lisa

  5. RJ, thanks for coming and giving us some words of encouragement. 🙂

  6. […] Guest Post: R. J. Larson on why Christian publishers shy away from fantasy (newauthors.wordpress.com) […]

  7. […] Guest Post: R. J. Larson on why Christian publishers shy away from fantasy […]

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