Could You Write for the General Market?

Guest Blogger: Phyllis Wheeler

Maybe you’re one of those Christian writers casting an eye at the general market these days and thinking about writing for it. Here might be your reasons:

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the big publishers have cut way back on the number of books trad-pubbed in CBA.

Perhaps your genre is speculative, and you’ve noticed that the Christian speculative readers hang out in the general market.

Or perhaps you feel called to reach a nonbeliever or two.

Here’s some news for you: agent Chip MacGregor thinks you cannot do it. “Most novelists in CBA struggle mightily to write to a broader audience. They don’t know how to stop using religious language. Their examples are often Bible-based. The situations they describe are frequently the things talked about in church. They over-worry about sex and strong language.” (See source #1 at the bottom of this page.)

What if you’re determined to prove him wrong? What kind of novel would you write?

book store

Photo by mordoc • FreeImages

Here’s some advice from someone who knows, Rachel Leigh Smith, a Christian general-market author commenting on a different post on Chip’s blog.  The general market reader, she says, “wants a rip-roaring good read they can’t put down.” And only that. “Going into it with any kind of agenda, no matter how subtle you think it is, will get you set on fire.”

She’s seen it happen to a favorite author whose fans are “beyond ticked off at her” for putting too much religion into her books.

What is Rachel’s goal as a YA paranormal author in the general market? “To illustrate a Biblical approach to sacrificial love, without being ‘Christian’ about it.”  Christian protagonist? Conversion scene? Not at all. “You won’t find Christians in my indie fiction. But what you will find is a message of hope, and pictures of sacrificial love. …  That’s something general market romance readers don’t see much of. But I don’t do it in the typical CBA way. I do it using language the broken, hurting world can understand and connect with.”

Christian horror author Mike Duran wants to reach Christian readers like Rachel who read primarily in the general marketplace. This is an “untapped demographic,” he argues. It’s not small. And these readers are willing to read edgy books and books with fictional ambiguities.

Mike thinks that what market you aim for depends on your genre. If you’re writing romance, historical, or cozy mysteries, aiming at CBA readers makes sense. But if you’re writing sci-fi, horror, crime, YA, or urban fantasy, aiming at the general market makes sense.

He has more things to consider. Your book will be grouped alongside various general market books, including possibly erotica. What do you think about that? And, can you talk about yourself or your book without “playing the God card”?

Be prepared: Christians reviewing your book may not think it’s Christian enough.  You’ll have trouble writing a book pleasing to both Christian and general markets. So don’t bother.

So, here’s your assignment, writers. Read in the genre you want to publish into, and realize you’ll be making a lot of adjustments.


Phyllis Wheeler is co-founder of Castle Gate Press and writes for the blog there. For plenty of writing and marketing tips, sign up to follow the blog. And if you’re looking for a small Christian publisher to partner with you in your writing journey, check out Castle Gate Press.


Chip MacGregor’s blog post “Can CBA novelists move to the general market?”

Chip MacGregor’s blog post “What’s Going on with CBA Fiction?”—see comments for Rachel Leigh Smith quote.

Mike Duran: A talk given at the Realm Makers 2015 conference for Christian speculative writers.


15 comments on “Could You Write for the General Market?

  1. Show me a Christian writer having trouble writing general market books, and I’ll show you a person who only reads Christian books.

  2. “…and not play the God card…” Although I wasn’t a participant at RM 2015 so I don’t have the full context of this statement, I have noted at least one bestselling “Christian” author who, interviewed in a “secular” blog, bent heaven and earth itself to avoid in almost every way imaginable being identified as a Christian. Jesus said whoever is ashamed of Him, of that person He will be ashamed in the end. Are we to hide who we are, because we do not wish to offend, and because that’s where the money is? Are we to adopt unbiblical worldviews in our fiction to “fit in” the general market? Because that’s where the money is? Aiming at the general market doesn’t mean we hide our faith, we bury our love for Jesus Christ and avoid being associated publicly with “those people.” I’m sure that’s not what Mike meant — but it is what’s happening. Yes, the general market wants a rip-roarin’ good time, and we can give them that, but never at the cost of being afraid to be known as a Christian. Jesus also said whoever denies Him, that person He will deny. Those are tough words, but they trump everything else. Especially where the money is.

    • Hi H.G. Your comments here read like the point by point examples I used at RM for why some Christians object to crossing over — namely that it requires compromise. By “playing the God card” I mean always having to shoehorn God into every conversation. To me, showing that we know the genre and the craft is the first step to winning readers. Not showing that we know apologetics. If our books are nothing more than springboards for sermons, we will have a difficult time reaching readers who need the message we have. Second, must all our stories and interviews contain references to God / Scripture / Jesus / the Gospel in order to validate us as “real” Christians and prove we’re not denying Jesus? If so, this whittles being a Christian down to some very, very narrow requirements. For the record, avoiding public mention of God / faith CAN be evidence of compromise. It can also be evidence of tact and wisdom. I think it’s best left up to the individual author to decide when, where, and how those references are best made. I agree that a Christian who writes for the general market in order to hide their light under a bushel has big problems. However, just because a writer doesn’t speak as often and openly about their faith as I’d like is no bearing on their actual spiritual condition.

  3. can i find a group that can help me publish my book

  4. One wacky thing I’ve observed about Christians going mainstream is that they have no idea how edgy is too edgy. So they write graphic rape and prostitution and other really extreme awful things, as if they’re not sure how to have story conflict any other way. It’s this weird pendulum swing from G-rated to R.
    Not sure what to do about that situation. Writers have to get it out of their system and mature, I guess.

    • Doesn’t it make you want to hand them the list of 7 conflict types, Kessie?

      I think a couple of conflicting (heh-heh) issues are at work here. So many Christians going mainstream have taken to heart the saying that graphic sex, brutality, etc. is what sells, so they take edginess to the extreme. But too often, they also want the underlying message to come through that God (whether mentioned or not) is in control and fixes things. The rape victim is healed from trauma, the rapist is punished and/or repents, the prostitute seizes a second chance at a wholesome life, and so on.
      The extreme awful stuff becomes the vehicle for the redemptive agenda.

  5. I’ll be honest …. I don’t think I can write for the general market. I don’t think I *want* to write for the general market! Why does everyone think we have to cross over? I’m happy to give my Christian friends a fantasy adventure that doesn’t hide who I am. And I’m ready to support and market it when the time comes. That doesn’t mean other authors should follow me. It only means that I’m doing what I feel God is calling me to do.

  6. My time trying to write for the Christian market was limited, and little of what I wrote was Christian enough for the gatekeepers of that relatively recent genre specialty. My reading & writing teeth were cut in an era when there was no such division. Works by Christian writers had to be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with anything secular writers produced. As such, stories stood (or fell) on their own merit, their own quality, rather than depending on a Christian marketing label.

    I bailed out of Christian writing but not because I want to hide that I’m a follower of Christ and certainly not because of monetary ambitions. I bailed because I saw no reason to place myself under the authority of an exclusive (i.e. exclusionist) portion of believers who would dictate what/how I write and under their judgment when I don’t conform. I write speculative, creative non-fiction, literary, experimental, and poetry. There’s not much place for me in the Christian market unless I comply with what I view as intensely restrictive formulae.

    I don’t begrudge anyone the liberty to choose to write within the confines of a safer, more comfortable arena. I simply claim the same liberty to write in the mainstream arenas.

    • Glynda, you’re so right about Christian writers in the general market. I think we forget that the formation of the CBA came about less because the general market pushed Christians out and more because Christians chose to leave.

      Even now, there are Christian writers like Jan Karon who are writing in the general market and doing rather well, thankyewverymuch, despite having some outright come to Jesus moments in her books.

  7. My question is: where does worldview fit in? What bothers me about people saying that “readers don’t want any kind of agenda” is that every book has an agenda. You can’t get away from the author’s worldview. You can’t get away from it, especially if you put your characters through the ringer and make them go through terrible things. They have to reach out or reach in to find something to cling to, something meaningful in their lives. What fills that hole in secular fiction? “Finding inner strength” = humanism. Plain and simple.

    There was a very popular series written by a Christian that featured an ending many people disliked as pointless and stupid. The author was trying to put in an “ultimate sacrifice.” The problem? The heroic sacrifice had no meaning, because the reason for the sacrifice wasn’t big enough. Throughout this series, the heroine kept having issues about right and wrong, and ultimately found no truth other than to keep throwing herself on the chopping block.

    Now, I find a lot of the restrictions in CBA publishing to be difficult to deal with. I don’t believe the answer is fitting within narrow molds. However, I would caution against a pat “no preaching!” answer that seems to be so common these days. Christians should seek excellence in story telling. But the fact remains that a well-rounded character will believe in something or someone, even if it’s themselves or that nothing matters. The question is, in writing a crossover book, what do they believe in? Or does the author leave that “belief hole” blank?

    I’d be interested in any thoughts from crossover authors who work with the general market.

    • I agree, Jan, that an author can’t escape writing from his/her worldview. It’s the sum of our perspective and experiences; it’s how we see the world and interact with it; it’s who we are. In the introduction to my short story collection, I make the case that fiction is a form of autobiography, not of life events but of heart & mind. Even an author who builds a story by formula uses touchstones from personal life events/experiences, interests, & knowledge to color it and flesh it out. Our characters, the children of our minds, bear the DNA of our psyche. They are facets of us though we may not be able to pinpoint exactly where that facet really is.

      One of the most difficult things for a Christian used to writing Christian fiction only is allowing a character to draw on the humanistic inner strength, to have a strong sense of right & wrong and moral/ethical conviction apart from Christian religion.
      It’s important to consider from the standpoint of verisimilitude. I’ve known smokers, drinkers, fornicators, homosexuals, atheists, agnostics, gamblers, wiccans, etc. whose moral standards and daily behavior were more Christ-like than a good number of Christian preachers and congregational members I’ve encountered.

      The question, then, arises whether a writer of Christian fiction could include such characters based on real-life observations/experiences and if so, how to present them. Can the writer take them through the story without showing or judging them as broken people? Can the writer respect the characters enough to neither vilify/disparage nor convert them? With a character who is a Christian (or follower in the religious system of the story-world), can the writer allow the character’s doubts/struggles/failings without resolving them by having God fix them (such as what I’ve seen prosperity gospel/”name it-claim it” Christians too often write into the stories)?
      IMO, this is one of the major items at the crux of the preaching issue.
      And it’s another among the reasons I bailed from exclusively Christian writing. CBA restrictions invalidate not only who I am as a human and artist but also as a Christian outside many of their non-salvational boundaries.

      Anyone who’s read widely in mainstream fiction knows that religious/spiritual content occurs in many books. In the speculative genre, you can’t read Frank Herbert’s work without spotting Zen influences or Charles De Lint without seeing wiccan-type influence. Other big names in spec fiction (Jim Butcher and Dean Koontz come to mind) have included Christian themes and blatantly Christian content (consider the story Warrior by Butcher, or Brother Odd by Koontz), but neither write their stories representing suitable doctrine according to most fundamental/evangelical worldviews.

      Back in pre-Christian fiction days, I took a writing class in which one of our assignments was a set of character bios. Fill in the blank stuff for the most part, but among them were these: What does your character believe in? What would s/he die for? What would s/he kill for? What is her/his spiritual orientation? How do these contrast/conflict/conjoin with character A? Character B? Character C?

      Mainstream writing does not preclude religious/spiritual dimensions in a story or a character. How it’s handled makes the difference.

      • The editing part of my brain just looked at pre-Christian fiction. Maybe I should’ve hyphenated all of it: pre-Christian-fiction. Hmmmm.

        For the record, I was born in the 20th century. 🙂

  8. I appreciate the well-considered comment. 🙂

    I agree on the counts of having other perspectives in fiction. In fact, I wrote a post for this very blog on the need for different religions and worldviews, even in Christian fiction. I write for the crossover market myself because I prefer to have a variety of perspectives present, and show a spectrum of different belief systems.

    “One of the most difficult things for a Christian used to writing Christian fiction only is allowing a character to draw on the humanistic inner strength, to have a strong sense of right & wrong and moral/ethical conviction apart from Christian religion.
    It’s important to consider from the standpoint of verisimilitude.”

    The English teacher in me appreciates the use of “verisimilitude.” Showing that other ways of belief have a sense of authenticity or credibility can be a really difficult thing to deal with, and one thing I’m cautious about is acting as if this is a negative thing. Like Pam Halter mentioned, there is nothing wrong with wanting to write an explicitly Christian fantasy or science fiction. Will it sell? Will it get the readers? That’s up in the air, because independent publishing means authors can reach readers on concepts and platforms that CBA publishing houses can’t afford to take risks on.

    Those who can write for the crossover or general market? Go for it. For those who feel convicted about having to go for a more humanistic worldview? Don’t write that way, and don’t feel guilty about it. In this push for the crossover market where the readers and the artistic freedom (and yes, possibly more money) is, it’s important not to act as if it’s superior than than writing explicitly Christian fiction. Good storytelling is good storytelling.

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