Friday, 10 June 2011

A Gem of a Yarn - a publisher describes the development of a Christian fiction list

Tony Collins of Monarch Books is creating a Christian fiction list, despite the discouraging history of Christian fiction in the UK (Monarch's website is here and Facebook page here).  Here’s his progress to date, as described in his article "A Gem of a Yarn", originally written for the magazine of the Association of Christian writers, whose website homepage is here and magazine page here.

For many years I have been convinced that well-conceived and well-executed Christian fiction has a part to play, not only in entertaining the faithful but in creating an imaginative and spiritual milieu in which our faith can take its natural place.  Christian truth is real – true truth – and should enrich every part of life, the arts included. 

Yet the British Christian community, generally, has been lukewarm.  Bookshops are leery, because customers are thin on the ground. British believers tend to the mainstream in choice of entertainment. Not an easy context in which to pioneer new Christian fiction.

Nevertheless, over the years Monarch has had some successes – This Present Darkness, Redeeming Love (both bought from American houses). We have also had our full share of failures, and for some years abandoned the enterprise.

In 2006 we cautiously decided to have another go.  Lion Hudson (our parent company) had taken on UK distribution of the Baker list, and this gave our sales team experience in selling fiction. We agreed to focus on just two areas, crime and romance.  Bonnet fiction and prairie romances were really too American; science fiction and thrillers would be more limited in appeal; ‘literary’ fiction too specialised. Crime and romance both afford admirable scope for tension, awkward moral choices, personal growth, real darkness and authentic light.

We also resolved to seek only novels that would appeal to world markets. Success in the US was critical to the venture.  But what could we bring to the party, faced with the might of Baker, Tyndale, Zondervan, Harvest House and David C Cook?  We couldn’t buy the big names, so we had to start from scratch.  We told several agents that there was a new kid on the block, and started looking.

A friend in the States, who taught a writing course, recommended that I review the first novel by a pupil of his, a retired history teacher, Mel Starr. Mel had visited Britain – specifically, the village of Bampton near Oxford – after he had quit work, and there had discovered the novels of the delightful Ellis Peters, creator of the Cadfael series.  Mel had simultaneously fallen under Bampton’s medieval spell, and had devised a whodunit, The Unquiet Bones, set in the Bampton of Chaucer’s England and featuring a young surgeon, Hugh de Singleton.  Master Hugh was called upon to identify the former owner of some bones found in the castle cesspit.  It was a good story, blending skulduggery, murky motivations and a helping of honest reverence.  But a first novel, by an unknown American? We gulped, shut our eyes and signed.

Sometimes the angels are with us. The third chronicle of Hugh de Singleton, A Trail of Ink, appeared last autumn, and the fourth, Unhallowed Ground, is released in October.  A fifth is in view. UK sales are respectable and American sales quite gratifying.  Several translations are in progress.

Mel has got important basics right: a really good storyline, an attractive central character, a tinge of humour,  a strong sense of place and period, an eye for compelling  detail - medieval medicine is not for the queasy.  There are knotty moral dilemmas, and an abiding awareness of the spiritual.

So far we have published a dozen or more novels. About half have met or exceeded our commercial criteria, and only one or two have flopped utterly. We are quite pleased with this strike rate, and have decided to increase output.

If there were a formula we could all follow it and get rich.  In the absence of a silver bullet, here are some reflections on what can work:

  • -         It’s Christian fiction.  There needs to be some element of a spiritual journey, of spiritual growth and challenge. Not dragged in, but integral.
  • -         It’s Christian fiction. Graphic ugly detail, sex scenes, bad language, casual New Age thinking will all get you barred.
  • -         It’s fiction. It requires character, plot, ideas, fresh crisp writing, accurate detail, an agreeable authorial voice. Get these right.
  • -         It’s entertainment. Command the reader’s attention and don’t let go.
  • -         Good fiction informs. Write about what you know.
  • -         It’s an immersive experience, and many fiction readers consume at a gallop.  One-off novels are less likely to succeed than series, where you have space to develop and befriend characters.

A plug to finish. A recent discovery has been Martha Ockley, whose novel The Reluctant Detective features policewoman-turned-priest Faith Morgan.  It’s an excellent book.  Buy it. There’s a sequel in the wings.

Find and download Monarch's catalogue online here.
Monarch Books is an imprint of Lion Hudson, who can be found online here.


Buzzfloyd said...

I hope that the new fiction list does well. I had a little poke around on Lion's site to see what books they had. I'm interested in the mystery ones.

Naturally, after reading this, I can't help but start to wonder what I would write if I were going to write a Christian fiction book! I do find it hard to get away from fantasy and sci fi though. But then, their metaphoric language is perhaps less necessary when one can openly acknowledge the realms of ethics and spirituality under discussion.

Thanks, Tony, for a helpful couple of articles, and Ember for posting them. My verification word is 'spire'!

Ember said...

I think Monarch is going with *mainly* romance or murder mysteries at the moment, Buzz. But I would think the main criterion is excellence. I can imagine you writing a cracking good murder mystery! Er . . . just saying . . . not that your soul lacks romance or anything . . .

Anonymous said...

Hello Pen! Haven't had a chance to read Tony's words properly yet but do you know if any research has been carried out into what kind of secular fiction Christians enjoy?

Ember said...

:0) Hi Sarah!
The short answer to your question is 'No.'
I guess it depends on the Christian. There are likely to be quite strong gender differences here too, I imagine.
Speaking for myself alone - but I suspect I am fairly typical, here are the things I look for in a novel (or a film or TV drama):

1) To be well-written; bad writing really annoys me.

2) To be edifying; I like a story that will uplift me, strengthening my faith, my sense of purpose, and my belief in the goodness of life.

3) A happy ending. I've known too much sorrow and struggle in real life to find it entertaining in a book.

4) Characters who are believable, human but GOOD. I am fed up of books where everyone is into adultery or pulling mean tricks on each other or spiteful or jealous or even plain rude. I like reading about kindness and good intentions and faith and decency and hope.

Who writes this kind of book? I enjoy reading books by Alexander McCall Smith, Patricia Cornwell, Margery Allingham and Jan Mark. I liked 'The Secret Life of Bees', 'The Buddha, Geoff and Me', 'The Scarlet Pimpernel','The Wizard of Earthsea' trilogy, and 'Torrie'. I liked some of Dorothy Sayers work, but think she took it too far with Lord Peter Wimsey.

What I do NOT want to read about is cruelty, violence, explicit sex, schadenfreude, horror or any other frightening things.

And, if I think a book has anything, but anything, that could be called a graphic description of torture, I won't even have it on a shelf where I can see it. I prevailed upon my husband to get rid of - completely - Mary Doria Russell's book 'The Sparrow' and its sequel 'Children of God' because, having read some of 'The Sparrow', even the sight of it on the shelf upset me. He protested, quite accurately, that they are excellent, brilliant books. 'I don't care,' said I: 'Get it out of the house (please)'.

That's just one Christian's taste!

A lot of Christians I know really like Terry Pratchett.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! :) I am totally with you on what you like and don't like.

My taste in books changed dramatically after I became a mother, now I just won't read anything too upsetting or bleak.

I've recently discovered Kate Atkinson, and am racing through her books while trying to avoid the TV adaptation.

Adrienne said...

How interesting, I thought. I had a history teacher in high school who was named Mel Starr. So I googled the author. :) And what do you know, the author is indeed my history teacher. :) He was a great teacher, I'm so glad he has met with success after his retirement.

And I'm glad to have read about him on your blog.

Ember said...

I'll check out Kate Atkinson, Sarah - I haven't read her books.

Adrienne - I told Tony about your comment and he says he'll pass that on to Mel :0)

Julie B. said...

May I add my two cents, Ember? I agree with what you and those who commented said about what makes a good Christian fiction book. For me, I also appreciate these things: I want a book to give me something to think about long after I've put it down. I want to be able to keep turning it over and over in my mind, revisiting parts that stood out. I want to learn something. I want to learn new words, new information, things that can't be found in just any old book. I want some detail. I don't need tons of details, but I want the author to paint a picture with his/her words so something memorable unfolds as I read. I want to read something that asks me to come up higher in life. To be as kind as that character, or to persevere as steadfastly as this one. I want a book that shows flawed people working through messy life with God's principles, even if the characters don't really know they're doing it. The book doesn't even have to say they're God's principles...but a husband being faithful when he could easily not be, a child finding pleasure in obeying his parents, a woman learning satisfaction and peace in faithfulness. I want to visit places I've never been in a book. They don't have to be exotic and foreign, but the setting and surroundings should be part of the story too. I don't mind sin portrayed in a book (as long as it's not explicit and not cruel torture as you mentioned, Ember), but I would like for it to be portrayed correctly - as something that never satisfies and eventually undermines and breaks things down in a life. I love a book that transports. I like surprises in a book too. I prefer a book that assumes the reader is highly literate - I like to look the meanings of words up and also don't want to be talked down to. I want a book that is hard to put down (don't we all?) and one that is so memorable we want to buy ten copies to have on hand to give as gifts. This might seem like a tall order, but there are books out there that are all these things - I think of Hugo's Les Miserables, of Penelope Wilcock's The Hawk and the Dove series, of Leif Enger's Peace Like A River, and (perhaps surprisingly for some) Jan Karon's Mitford Series. One of life's joys is finding a book you want to read over and over....they're worth searching for and investing in.

Ember said...

Nice one! Thanks Julie! x