An Interview with Jeff Gerke

As promised, today I have an interview with Jeff Gerke, one of my favorite people in our industry. Even if you don’t write speculative fiction, you need to read this interview as part of your assignment to keep up on what’s going on in the publishing world.

Jeff has been called the de facto gatekeeper of Christian speculative fiction. After his own six novels were published (under the pen name Jefferson Scott) and his time spearheading the launch of a fiction imprint dedicated to Christian speculative fiction at a major Christian publishing company, Jeff branched out on his own to launch Marcher Lord Press, an Indie publishing house billing itself as the premier publisher of Christian speculative fiction. His popular fiction how-to book The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction is available through Amazon or Marcher Lord Press and his new craft book from Writer’s Digest Books, Plot versus Character, released in October 2010. Books Jeff has edited, acquired, and/or published have won the Christy Award, the ACFW Carol (Book of the Year) Award, the EPIC Award, the Indie Award, the INSPY Award, and the Foreword magazine Book of the Year Award. Jeff was one of three finalists for the 2010 ACFW Editor of the Year Award. Jeff lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, teenage daughter, 10-year-old son, and 2-year-old adoptive daughter from China.

Nick: Jeff, you’re passionate about speculative fiction and yet many readers don’t know exactly what it is. Could you define it for us?

Jeff: Speculative fiction is an umbrella term that includes a number of subgenres like science fiction, fantasy, time travel, vampire, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, supernatural thrillers, superhero, horror, alternate history, and urban fantasy. Or, as I like to say, anything weird. Christian speculative fiction is anything weird from the Christian worldview. Christian speculative fiction adds two subcategories not included in secular speculative fiction: end times fiction and spiritual warfare fiction.

Nick: Speculative fiction is a hard sell in CBA. Is it because, as publishers fear, the market is small? Or is the market there, but publishers are just failing to reach that market?

Jeff: The market isn’t small. Every time Ted Dekker comes out with a Christian novel, it sells 100,000 units. And of course there were the millions who bought the Left Behind books. Same potential audience. But these readers don’t always identify themselves as fans of SF or fantasy—they just know they like Ted Dekker. So between Dekker releases, they’re not scouring the shelves for other books like those but from different authors.

The audience who normally reads Christian fiction is not the same audience who reads Dekker and Peretti and Jenkins. Christian publishers have done a great job reaching the core fiction demographic, the dear ladies who love their bonnet and buggy fiction. But Christian publishers have, perhaps understandably, not devoted much energy, time, or money toward developing other audiences. You can’t put an ad for a vampire novel in Just Between Us magazine and have a good response.

Nick: Some publishers seem more willing to take on speculative fiction if it’s aimed at the YA market. Is it true or a myth that to be successful with speculative fiction in the CBA market, it must be aimed at younger readers?

Jeff: It’s true that, to have your best shot at getting your fantasy published, it had better be YA. YA is sort of reaching the home school market, but only with fantasy. Other Christian speculative fiction, even if it’s YA, will not be well-received.

Home schoolers love Christian fantasy. If you go to any Christian writers conference that has a teen writers track, and you ask the teen writers what they’re writing, they will unanimously say, “Fantasy.” I like to say that this is the generation that is going to save us (well, those of us longing for Christian speculative fiction). Because in 10 years they’re going to be running Christian publishing companies—and they’re not going to be publishing Amish fiction.

Nick: Is there something that can be done to change the future for speculative fiction in CBA or will it always be this way?

Jeff: So long as traditional Christian publishers are allowed to exist with their current publishing model, CBA will not change. For them, it’s all about the bookstore-publisher dyad. Whatever the women who walk into Christian bookstores want is what traditional Christian publishing companies publish. Those dear ladies want Amish, so publishers keep giving it to them, and rightly so.

But bookstores are dying. Not coincidentally, the traditional Christian publishing model is dying. Traditional Christian publishing companies are shrinking and scaling back and trying to wait out the recession. But I believe it’s not just the recession causing the diminishing of this model. I believe it’s a model whose time has passed. There’s no weathering the storm and then going on like usual afterward.

We’re in the age of the small press, the micro-publisher, the niche publisher, and the self-publisher. The Internet has transformed how we think. It used to be that if we had an idea for something (book, car, restaurant, knowledge, etc.), we’d ask the people we knew if there was any such thing. We might even go the library. But if we couldn’t find it, we’d figure it didn’t exist, and we’d settle back to hope someone created it in the future. Now, we’re pretty sure that whatever it is we’ve thought of, someone else has thought of it, made it, and is offering it online. Google is 100 times more powerful than a visit to the library—and 1,000 times more convenient.

Gone are the days when people think, if they’ve never heard of a Christian science fiction novel exploring what would happen if sharia law dominated the future, that such a thing simply doesn’t exist. Now they keep searching online until they find something like that (A Star Curiously Singing by Kerry Nietz). We’re pretty sure we can find whatever it is we’re looking for. And if we can’t find it, we feel like someone needs to do it—and maybe it should be us.

A large percentage of Christian fiction readers don’t want to read about Hannah’s secret love for Josiah the Amish carpenter. They want to read about mutant alien vampires who will eat your brains. Or they want to read Christian military thrillers (Operation: Firebrand by Jefferson Scott). Or they want Christian literary fiction. These people, this majority of Christians, are not being served by traditional Christian publishing. That’s the kind of situation that is not going to last. An artificial imbalance like that will be naturally self-correcting in time. That’s what we’re seeing now.

After Marcher Lord Press rose up and showed people what a small, indie press dedicated to Christian speculative fiction could do, several other similar presses have sprung up to help meet the needs of that demographic. Similar presses are rising up to fill other niches, like Christian poetry, true crime, military/men’s, literary, and more. All the dispossessed authors and readers are beginning to walk around in the sunshine and find each other. And that’s only going to increase.

It’s a great day to be a writer and reader of a kind of novel that has previously been squelched by the traditional Christian publishing paradigm.

Nick: You struck out on your own with Marcher Lord Press in an effort make speculative fiction more visible for Christians (and presumably non-Christians too) who enjoy that genre. When you began, were you confident you’d succeed?

Jeff: I was certainly not confident MLP would succeed. I was under so much stress the six weeks before the launch that I thought I wouldn’t survive. It didn’t help that I had titanic problems with the online storefront/shopping cart software right up until the night before the launch.

The good news was that I hadn’t exceeded my conservative budget parameters. I also knew I was going to be able to break even on any given book with only a handful of units sold. Whereas traditional Christian publishers need to sell ~12,000 units to begin to break even, I knew I’d break even on about 300. I was hopeful I could sell at least that many. But I was not remotely sure I would. We’d spent the previous 12 months spreading the word about the impending launch, and we had a big prize giveaway contest going for launch day, but even so, I had no idea if it would fly.

Praise God, we’ve been in the black since day 1 and continue to be there. It’s a very lean model that is pretty much designed to exist and even flourish in a recession and with a niche audience, and of course to scale upward if the recession eases.

Nick: You’ve received several good reviews in Publisher’s Weekly. That must be gratifying.

Jeff: It’s been amazing to receive positive reviews in PW. For a small press, we’ve been mentioned in PW an inordinate number of times—4 times in 2 years—with a similar number of mentions in Library Journal. It’s incredible for a small press to be able to put a positive quote from PW right on the front cover of one of our books. The front cover quote for König’s Fire by Marc Schooley includes the phrase “gold mine” from PW. Very cool.

Nick: In addition to speculative fiction, there are other genres in CBA that don’t fare as well as in ABA. What advice can you give writers who are writing in a genre that’s currently out of step with the market?

Jeff: Anything that does not appeal to the core Christian fiction demographic will note fare well in CBA. That’s simply a consequence of what that readership wants. Christian publishers would actually be unwise to publish books their constituency doesn’t want. That’s a good way to go out of business. It’s hard enough finding a hit without producing books you know won’t appeal to your market.

My advice to those of you/us who don’t write fiction that appeals to that market is to keep writing and to keep looking to the horizon. Your help draweth nigh. You may have to give up on the old publishing dream of massive advance, multi-city book tour, and tremendous marketing support. But in the age of niche publisher, someone is going to think your “off-beat” book is the very thing they got in to publishing to publish. Just ask Stuart Vaughn Stockton, author of Starfire, a far-future non-earth SF about computer-using dinosaur people. No one in CBA would touch that. But I did, and it was up for ACFW Book of the Year this year.

We’re on the very threshold of the heyday of the obscure novel genre!

Nick: Do you have any advice for publishers who are scratching their heads over failed attempts to publish speculative fiction?

Jeff: Yes: stop doing it. Every other one you put out will fail too. It’s because soccer moms and grandmoms don’t want SF or fantasy or horror. They want bonnet girl meets Amish boy. Give them that, and stop trying to give them what they don’t want. How many times do they have to say no before we get it?

I personally think CBA houses should choose to redefine themselves now, instead of waiting to be redefined (or deleted) by the market forces that are only going to squeeze harder in the months and years to come. They should get rid of all but about eight people—most of them editors, with maybe 1 sales guy and 1 marketing person. They should break into 3-5 versions of Marcher Lord Press, each one serving a niche they’re known for. Go small, save money, be king of a niche…and prosper.

But people in traditional Christian publishing houses have everything to lose by the paradigm shifting, so they may be tempted to just plug their ears and keep doing what they’re doing until they finally have to close their doors.

Unfortunately, the world will not long mourn the demise of what has been the norm for decades. So long as people find ways of getting what they want—and they will now, more than ever—they’ll be happy.

Nick: Jeff, can you name some names of those who are doing it right in CBA? Is there an editor or publishing house that “gets it?”

Jeff: I always think Thomas Nelson seems to be the most willing to try new things, especially with their fiction line. I almost always like what Michael Hyatt and Allen Arnold come up with. Zondervan’s last round of layoffs and hirings seemed to indicate they were moving toward e-publishing aggressively. That’s probably good.

But I think it’s the new, small houses that truly get it. Houses like Splashdown Books and Written World Communications and Port Yonder Press and, if I can include my own company, Marcher Lord Press. These and others like them will be the leaders for the next 5-20 years.

And watch out for those new presses that will spring up under the guidance of now-adult home schoolers. Those will be the real leaders for the next generation of Christian fiction publishing.

Nick: Do you have any additional plans for the future you’re at liberty to share?

Jeff: There’s a change in the works that, if it happens (and it very well may not), would be a game-changer for MLP. It would allow me to do more books per season, branch out into YA, explore graphic novels and computer games and blended media apps, maybe look into Christian film, become kind of a patron for other small Christian presses, do a lot more marketing, and get back to my own fiction and screenwriting.

If that doesn’t happen and we continue just motoring along as we have, I’ll be fine with it. Hopefully we will continue to win major awards and steadily establish ourselves as the premier publisher of Christian speculative fiction.

Nick: Who are the authors you enjoy reading, and what’s on your nightstand right now?

Jeff: People are always amazed to hear that I don’t read fiction for pleasure. I’m interacting with it about 70 hours per week. And even though I love it, in my down time I want to do something else. I play games on the PC or the PS3. On the nonfiction side I’m re-reading Search for Significance and the excellent little summaries I get from getAbstract.

Thanks Jeff. This was very informative. I passed around the following quote to my colleagues here at Harvest House and got some interesting responses.

“A large percentage of Christian fiction readers don’t want to read about Hannah’s secret love for Josiah the Amish carpenter. They want to read about mutant alien vampires who will eat your brains.”

A great note to end on.

23 replies
  1. Rebecca LuElla Miller says:

    Really interesting interview. Thank you both.

    I guess I find it odd that the “answer” for traditional publishers is to stay conservative and wait for their target market to die out, when they too will of necessity cash it in.

    Why not branch out instead of pull in? Why not aggressively go after a new target market?

    I’d start with middle grade novels. Women are already buying most of the CBA books, so why wouldn’t they want to buy books for their children or grandchildren, too? Besides, general market children’s books aren’t what they once were. There’s a gap to fill.

    But I’m not talking about one middle grade book every six months by a well known adult fiction or non-fiction writer. I recently read a horrible book by Well-Known Author. Sadly it was also fantasy, so when it doesn’t sell (and I can’t imagine very many adults reading that book, let alone middle grade children), it will be a double black eye—for fantasy and for children’s books.

    No, when I say “aggressive,” I mean a search for the best writers doing children’s books and a concerted marketing plan. It would require a lot of risk, but I think the rewards would be fantastic—and I don’t mean only monetary rewards.

    But my, it’s so much easier to kibitz than to be on the front line of a publishing house. God’s blessing on you both.


  2. E. Stephen Burnett says:

    Let’s here it for home-schoolers (of which I am a graduate). And here I had still been thinking most of them were still trapped in environments and circles that discouraged fantasy and even encouraged some legalistic lifestyles. Very glad to have my own myth demolished in that area!

  3. Kirk says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. I think there is an abyss between chapter books and young adult. Middle-grade, both in the general and CBA markets, is ripe for some great storytelling. I’ve lamented for some time that the reason kids turn to the secular market is because there just aren’t ANY choices in MG.

    Nick – thanks for the great interview. I never tire of hearing Jeff’s thoughts on the business. He is indeed a trendsetter.

  4. Lynn Dean says:

    Terrific interview! Dare I say “prescient”?

    I am not only a writer, but a home school mom. I’ve seen firsthand the power of the “micro-niche”–the vertically structured tribe of loyal followers, if you will. They are not, by and large, served by the CBA market model of the past (with all due respect to the noble motivations that gave rise to many Christian publishing houses). Whereas the goal of the old model seemed to be providing safe, clean, encouraging amusement–something to curl up with and unplug, there is a market hungry for quality fiction of all genres that makes readers think and challenges them to grow deep. Meat to follow the milk? Let us feed them!

    Thanks so much for providing this timely insight!

  5. Dana Bell says:

    Great Article. I’m going to also add that a number of secular small press publishers are also picking up Speculative Christian Fiction. I know of a couple, my own soon be released novel ‘Winter Awakening’ among them. (By the way it is appropriate for YA and Adult markets.)

    One thing I do find of concern is that most SF/F/H writers in the secular world get a start by publishing short stories first. There is no avenue for this in the Christian world. Oddly enough, an anthology I’ll be editing in early 2011 is receiving tremendous interest by writers of this genre. It too, was pitched to and accepted by a secular publisher.

    One last thing I will add, I whole-heartedly support MLP, Splash Down books and other small press publishers, both secular and Christian. They are serving niches overlooked by large publishers and allow writers a new market to pitch to and be published by.

    I, too, am tired of the Amish romances. They aren’t what I want to read.

  6. Ginger R. Takamiya says:

    Wow, what a refreshing article. I write a lot of short stories when not working on novels and some definitely lean SpecFic. Try and sell that stuff today.

    I’m glad to hear that more niche publishers are opening up.

    I want to see a new kind of Christian romance begin to develop in new ways as well and not the status quo of the last decade. To accomplish this, our magazine is working on Romance Writers’ Retreats to help equip and train the next generation of CR writers.

    I had an editor tell us one time that if we wrote Amish romance they would buy it. I declined. Our purpose is not write the next clean-mushy but to connect our readers to the heart of God.

    With all that said. Niche publishing is becoming more attractive to my little group of writers.

    Thanks Mr. Harrison for having Jeff today and thanks Jeff for the wonderful insights 🙂

  7. Rosslyn Elliott says:

    Jeff and Nick, thanks for a very specific and thought-provoking interview. As I’ve told Jeff before, I love good fantasy and other types of speculative fiction, though personally I’m writing for the traditional CBA demographic. I hope Marcher Lord Press continues to thrive, and that inspirational fiction reaches new levels of quality and variety as a result of all the new market forces Jeff analyzes.

  8. Michael K. Reynolds says:

    I remember playing in a band in my youth, with the prime objective of somehow being impressive to hordes of beautiful young ladies. Instead, we mostly played before a handful of teenage boys, shouting, “Rock on.” We weren’t performing the right music to reach our target audience. (And, of course, there was the part about us being three geeks with minimal talent.)

    Fantasy and science fiction books were mostly all I read in my teens and the first book I wrote at age 17 was a speculative novel. I spent a great of time drawing up maps of strange lands and dreaming up fanciful characters. It would be great fun to write in this genre again sometime.

    When I was young it was more about what I wanted to write. Now what drives me is what God wants me to say, and who He would like me to say it to.

    I think it’s best if we start with the needs of our target audience and work backwards. Then we consider our passion and talents as we determine genre, style and brand. This way, we’ll be able to connect to our readers in a way which will trump all other trends and marketing efforts.

  9. Jeff Gerke says:

    Thanks for all the great replies, you guys. I wanted to comment on Ginger’s lament that there is no market for Christian speculative short stories.

    Not so! They may not pay much or at all, but short story e-zines like “The Cross and the Cosmos” ( and “Ray Gun Revival” and “Mindflights” a handful of others welcome this kind of short fiction.

    Like I mentioned in the blog, someone somewhere has probably at least thought of the thing you’re wanting to do or see. Keep digging online until you find it.


  10. Kathy Brasby says:

    My homeschooled teenagers both read and write fantasy and sci fi. I think you’re right, Jeff, that the future belongs to such as these… and they’re not reading bonnet books. I am happy to see spec fiction offerings for our teenage boys, who have trouble finding any Christian books to read. My son, at 15, has read every MLP book (Maybe not all the latest ones…) but he counts down the days until the next trio is released. So thanks for offering reading material for him and other young men.

  11. Linda Evans Shepherd says:

    Nick and Jeff, great interview. I’m so glad that Jeff is breaking the Christian publishing mold. There are so many novel ideas that could live long and prosper both the bottom line as well as the soul, if there were more gatekeepers like Jeff.

  12. David A. Bedford says:

    People should read all kinds of things, and not stick just to a single theme. I say theme instead of “genre” because genre refers to novel, story, poetry, etc.

    It’s true we’re in print-on-demand mode now almost entirely and that the number of bookstores is shrinking. That’s not good: More books than ever now get published and most of them are of low quality. Good literature now languishes without readers because no one is willing to print up several thousand copies of a book and promote it.

    The publishing world used to combine commercial interests with a mission to make good books known by and available to the public. Now only commercial interests matter.

  13. Susan Meissner says:

    Awesome interview. I raise my banner to welcome the advent of the obscure fiction genre. I respectfully long for Christian readers to increase their appetite for plots beyond the safe hamlet of Lancaster County. Dare I say if we do not expose our brains to new genre horizons mutant vampire aliens will come and melt them. . .

  14. Jan Cline says:

    I would imagine that with all the changes happening in “the church” worldwide, it’s bound to make an impact on what Christians want to read. Some of my Christian friends are afraid to read speculative fiction, for fear of being infected with a viewpoint of Christianity that is too broad. I personally would rather be challenged by today’s writers and publishers – not comforted.

  15. Jeff Gerke says:

    David, I respectfully disagree with your comment that now only commercial interests matter. In the age of the niche publisher and the self-publisher, people whose missions and callings (through publishing) were being squelched by the traditional Christian publishing bloc are now free to move forward with their visions. In a sense, the mission is now of more importance than commercial interests (though of course people would like to make money on what they publish).

    It’s true that most of what will get published in such a Wild West scenario will be of lower quality (especially those projects that are given no editing and/or vetting), but that’s the price and the flipside of wide open access.

    It will be a YouTube model now. How do you find worthy content on YouTube? Some of us go looking for it, but most of us wait for referrals from people we know. So it will be in this brave new world of self-publishing and niche publishing.

  16. Dena Dyer says:

    I love how Jeff isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. As someone who spent the last several years in the CBA, only to become frustrated and demoralized by the constant theme of “numbers” as king, I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing and hearing. Technology and the Internet has made a huge difference to those of us who don’t have huge platforms. Thanks for sharing the interview, Nick. 🙂

  17. R. L. Copple says:

    Good comments, Jeff. Great interview. I see many of the same trends, not only myself, but other writers who are secular (Dean Wesley Smith, Michael Stackpole to name two).

    It’s a whole new world of possibilities for the writer out there. A good time to be an author.

  18. Alan Oathout says:

    Nick, I found your site today through a link to the interview w. Jeff. Love what you’re doing here…I’ll be sure visit again.

    Jeff is one of the most eloquent voices today for the “Long Tail” of Christian Publishing. May his star (curiously singing or otherwise…) continue to rise.

  19. Kristine Pratt says:

    Hello…wonderful interview, Jeff!

    Speaking as one of those small publishers, we owe you a lot for paving the way into the world of niche publishing.

    As a side note, our own spec fic magazine premiering later this month is looking for short fiction that’s ‘weird.’

    Also wanted to add that we’re addressing that middle reader market as well though I know there is a solid need for more presses like ours to tackle that gap. Would love to see it happen!

    As R. L. Copple said earlier, it is truly a good time to be an author!

  20. Janet says:

    I just want to say that this former home-schooling mother and present grandmother gags at the thought of Amish romance, or any romance for that matter. Give me my science fiction and my fantasy! Or suspense, or literary fiction, or historical fiction — just about anything but romance. So yes, I do tend to find the fiction section in Christian bookstores pretty depressing.

  21. spiritual fiction says:

    The fact that this instinct cannot be quenched as easily as the others,
    makes it even more tempting. It is for this reason that we will
    consider it separately, apart from the general view of religion, giving it a category of its own. Those facing North bear the Abhaya (fearlessness) mudra, while those in the East show the Bhumisparsha (earth-touching) gesture.

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