This will be short. I’m leaving on a week-long trip in a few days and there are a million things to do before I go. (Including one more blog early next week).

As an editor, I’m used to seeing writers follow trends. After the Left Behind series came out, I saw writers who wanted to find that kind of success with their own version of the end times. Then when Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life sold more than 20 million copies, I saw various book proposals formatted to the “40-day” concept. Of course, most recently, Amish fiction has attracted a lot of attention as writers are doing their best to tap into that genre’s unexpected success. But what’s really interesting to me is that with upwards of ten million copies sold (I think that’s the present number) of The Shack I have yet to see anyone tell me their book is comparable to that novel. There may be one, but I don’t remember. I know some have suggested Jim Rubart’s book Rooms appeals to that readership, but that’s really about the only one. Anyone have any ideas as to why aspiring writers aren’t trying to aim for that gigantic readership in the same way they have other bestsellers? It’s a mystery to me.

By the way, I don’t have anything against finding a trend and trying to catch a wave (so to speak). I do it myself. I have several proposals for books that I try to tie in to existing interests in the reading public based on what’s already selling. My only reservation is that it seldom works (even for me). I’m happy to see the occasional successes when it does work.

22 replies
  1. susanne lakin
    susanne lakin says:

    You know, Nick, I bet there have been a lot of Shack copycats. They are probably so bad though you have not seen them make an appearance. One shack is enough, IMHO. And just who is the Shack readership and what are they loooking for? Are they believers? Seekers? Maybe Blue Like Jazz fills some of that (and I liked a lot of that book). Maybe there is another side to The Shack, and it will be called The Mansion (for those who are into the name it and claim it style of religion).

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  2. Richard Mabry
    Richard Mabry says:

    Nick, Leaving aside any comments about The Shack or other books, I find it hard to convince myself that trying to ride a trend in literature would be any more successful than an investor trying to time the market. Besides, it takes me a minimum of six months to write a novel, and by that time the next trend may be in full swing.
    Enjoy your trip, and hurry back. We miss your posts when you’re gone.

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  3. Lori Stanley Roeleveld
    Lori Stanley Roeleveld says:

    I think that while all three of the books you mentioned garnered outstanding book sales, The Left Behind series and The Purpose Driven Life were largely accepted in the evangelical community. Any debate about them lagged far behind their popularity. The Shack, however, received polarizing reviews from the start, despite being widely read. With the insecurity rampant among new writers, it seems that it would be a risky move to compare one’s novel to The Shack. Can you claim the comparison based solely on its booksales without embracing the possibility of controversy as well? Bold move for an unpublished novelist. Plus, it seems to me that the Left Behind trend is clearly one of an “End Times” genre and Purpose Driven Life is a “40-Day formula” book – but what is the trend set by The Shack? Is it theology embodied in story? Is it facing hard issues through fiction? Is it psychotheological drama? OR are you saying you’ve written a novel so unique in style and message it will create a trend that, like The Shack, will not be easily duplicated? There’s something to which a new writer might aspire. IMHO

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  4. Nick
    Nick says:

    I don’t know, Richard. A lot of authors are doing well with Amish fiction, even when that genre is not the one they would normally choose to write.

    Lori, “The Shack” obviously touched a nerve among the Christian reading public. Doctrine aside, is it not possible to identify that nerve and prayerfully write to that same need,if it’s possible for you as a writer? I’m just astonished that apparently so few writers will or can write to it.

    Susanne, I think “Blue Like Jazz” targets the same readers, but from the point of view of non-fiction. I’ve seen a few proposals that cite “BLJ” as the intended audience. Just none for “The Shack.”

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  5. Carol Lee Hall
    Carol Lee Hall says:

    Nick, I think my as yet unpublished Asian American Christian novel could be compared to The Shack in that it is serious Christian fiction and that it has the capability of crossing over to the ABA. Unfortunately, like The Shack, no one in the CBA would touch it with a ten-foot pole even though it won an award. I am leery of comparing my work to a best-seller because a lot of speakers at writers conferences tell you not to do that.

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  6. Lori Stanley Roeleveld
    Lori Stanley Roeleveld says:

    Nick, I think it’s absolutely possible to touch that nerve and WRITE to it. What I’m saying is that I’m not sure it’s a no-brainer to PITCH to it or MARKET it. New writers, especially, have no idea if the editor to whom they are pitching is a fan of The Shack or believes it is heresy so even if someone felt their book was written to that felt-need trend, they would likely find some other way to express it in their pitch.

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  7. Lori Stanley Roeleveld
    Lori Stanley Roeleveld says:

    Although, that would be the pitch, wouldn’t it? Identify the nerve The Shack hit and explain how your work speaks directly to that same need like “My novel will appeal to readers who were drawn to The Shack by a desire to know that God not only speaks, He listens.” Or, “My story ventures into the same stream of deep woundedness and the need to explore fresh images for understanding God that drew readers to The Shack.” Does that make sense? Still unpublished on a book level, I offer this thought remaining open to correction.

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  8. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    I guess it’s fairly difficult to leave the doctrinal aspirations out of this discussion because the “easing” of some of those classic Christian doctrines is precisely why the book appealed to some people who read it. Although it served the purpose of releasing some Christian readers from a rigid legalism, it also portrayed a weird liberalism that incensed other Christian readers who couldn’t get past it for the story’s sake.
    Appealing to the eclectic audience of The Shack’s grouping of readers might be a fantasy of many writers but an un-trustworthy assessment.
    Sometimes the appeal or success of any novel can only be attributed to the grace of God, and with this particular novel I’m sure some irate readers of the little novel would argue vehemently againt this.

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  9. James L. Rubart
    James L. Rubart says:

    Nick, thanks for the mention!

    I’m pleased people mention The Shack in the same breath as ROOMS–I believe it’s helped sales, especially from those who say they enjoyed ROOMS more.

    But I wrote ROOMS in ’03 and ’04 so The Shack didn’t have any influence on my writing. I just wrote the book that wouldn’t stay in my head.

    While ROOMS is quite different than The Shack, I think it’s fair to describe them as being in the same genre (no, I don’t know what that genre is).

    That might be part of the reason you haven’t seen more book proposals that are Shack-like.

    The other categories you mention fit in a clear genre, but The Shack doesn’t which might be making it harder for authors to wrap their pens around it.

    Jim

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  10. Nick
    Nick says:

    Let me add something that may seem strange, given the fact that I’m using “The Shack” as an example in this particular blogpost. The truth is I have not even read “The Shack.” So from my perspective as an editor, I have no occasion to address any doctrinal issues, but I CAN address it as a publishing phenomenon. And that’s really my whole point. WHY is this book selling? And if an aspiring writer understands the reasons the book is selling so well, is it possible for him or her to try and capture that same readership?

    Essentially, that’s what’s happening with much of the Amish fiction right now. I know quite a few fiction authors who would not normally choose to write Amish fiction, but because there’s an existing readership for Amish fiction, they’re willing to use their talents to tell stories that will sell to those readers.

    I have not read “The Shack” for one reason. As anyone knows who has attended one of my fiction workshops, I do not generally like message-driven fiction for my personal reading. I also don’t care for plot-driven fiction. I prefer character-driven fiction….which, I must admit does not sell well in CBA. I have to make a distinction between what I read in my leisure and what others prefer to read. In my role as an editor, I’m mostly concerned with what others are reading.

    I think this is true of most editors. Sometimes there is an overlap between what we read and what we edit. In fact, looking back at my editorial acquisitions over the years, one of my favorite fiction acquisitions was extremely message-driven and is thus also one of my favorite books on a personal reading level too. That’s an obvious exception to my normal disinterest in message-driven fiction.

    I do think that’s it’s possible for a novelist to examine why a particular novel or genre is selling well and to ask themself, “Can I write to this market?” Perhaps the answer is no….but as I said earlier, in several cases that I know of (regarding Amish fiction) the answer is yes. My blog was merely an observation that I have not seen a similar interest among novelists regarding the obvious interest in a book like “The Shack.”

    Reply
  11. Rebecca LuElla Miller
    Rebecca LuElla Miller says:

    Interesting that you brought this up, Nick. I just blogged on my editing site about what I termed Different Fiction. I compared a recent release, Imaginary Jesus (Tyndale) by Matt Mikalatos to The Shack and a couple of C. S. Lewis’s “not really novels.”

    I didn’t bring in the idea of audience. Instead, I was dissecting a different style or perhaps genre.

    Personally, I think this kind of writing is extremely hard to do well. I mean, it is completely message driven, so what makes readers want to buy it instead of a good non-fiction book discussing the same topics?

    I suggest Paul Young capitalized on pathos and controversy. Matt Mikalatos, whose book just came out and may or may not sell well, uses humor. With a title like “Imaginary Jesus” it could be controversial or it could be ignored.

    If you don’t want to read The Shack, Nick, you can get a whiff of what everyone is so stirred up about by reading a few blog posts. I’d recommend my own (a series of 10), but you can find plenty by doing a Google search.

    Becky

    Reply
  12. Matt J.
    Matt J. says:

    The folks I know who really liked The Shack don’t want to read another novel in a similar vein.

    They have moved on to non-fiction written by folks in the same circle. For example, books by house-church advocate Frank Viola. Or they have cast a bit wider net that includes things like the mystic writings of Thomas Merton.

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  13. Nick
    Nick says:

    Rebecca, I know quite a bit about “The Shack,” including the plot, theme, and all that. I do keep on all that sort of thing.

    Matt, maybe you’re right. I could, I suppose, offer up the question as to what readers who read “The Shack” were wanting when they read it. What motivated them to read it? And then the follow-up question might be: if you were assigned to write a novel to the same readers who loved “The Shack” could you take a stab at what that would look like? Or is “The Shack” simply a novel unto itself with no really discernable target reader who would respond to novels “in a similar vein” at Matt says.

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  14. Lori Stanley Roeleveld
    Lori Stanley Roeleveld says:

    It seems to me that part of what attracted many readers to The Shack was that it was a unique voice. In order to duplicate that success, it would be important for a writer to identify the need it met, write to that need but then for the publisher to avoid marketing the work as “Shack-like”, something that readers looking for a unique voice would find suspicious.

    Reply
  15. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    Since Paul didn’t recognize himself as a real author, having written The Shack to his family as a kind of release for his childhood sexual abuse issues, his collaboration with the group who helped him write and publish the little book before signing on with Hachette hasn’t implicated Young specifically in another novel. (Paul himself reads almost exclusively non-fiction theology books.) His collaborating authors (John Lynch, Bill Thrall, and Bruce McNicol) wrote Bo’s Cafe, an interesting but forgettable little story of conversations between and about individuals deciding what’s really important in life.

    Reply
  16. Steve G
    Steve G says:

    I read the Shack, and had no problems with its theology. I know several people who didn’t read it because of the subplot of finding the dead little girl who was abducted. Isn’t this a question about market rather than genre? Look at the top 20 books on the ECPA’s fiction list: Rivers, Kingsbury, and Bonnet books.
    http://www.ecpa.org/bestseller/fiction-current.php#
    Seriously, count the number of bonnet’s on the books covers! The books that sell in the Christian market focus on a very thin slice of the traditional church – that’s why, for example, you can’t write a scene with a man and woman who are not married in the same bed. You can’t have a guy do Tai Chi and then pray. Christian love stories and the “gentle” stories are what sell, and in these tough economics I hear again and again agents and pubs saying they have to go safe, with sure sells, and contracts that have been dropped if the numbers aren’t there.
    So those that want to write what the Shack had are going to the general market. Author’s are slowly getting what the CBA is about, and the Shack isn’t it.
    I have also discovered that just as “Christian” houses can’t cross over to the general market, neither can agents (yes, these are generalizations). The CBA books will end up in religious inspirational shelves, not on the main literary shelves. The CBA agents will get next to no ear time with the general market editors and houses.
    To get the Shack readership of 10 million means you have to go through the general market agents and houses. That’s my take.

    Reply
  17. Nick
    Nick says:

    Steve, that’s largely true about bookstores. A bio of a Christian sports hero is often shelved in the religious section, not with the other sports bios. In my own case, a baby name book I did was not with the other baby name books, but in the religious section.

    I think, though, “The Shack” started selling well in CBA stores before crossing over into ABA. But you’re right in that most CBA publishers would not have published it anyway.

    One challenge we editors face is that when we do try something fresh and risky, departing from what you’d call “sure sells,” the CBA readers do not buy it. That’s a sad discussion I’ve been part of several times. We don’t know what to do, if anything, to change what our readers want.

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  18. Steve G
    Steve G says:

    I don’t know about it selling well in CBA stores first, but I do know he had to self publish because no one was interested. It was apparently not well written to begin with as well. It was the word of mouth SALES more than anything that sold it initially.

    As you see it, the market is driven by the readers (I have heard some people say it is driven by the publishers (sales people at the pub committees to get technical)). The CBA also has some pretty stringent rules about language etc, because, as I understand it, of who controls the vast majority of the bricks and mortar places. I am still surprised by how many CBA professionals prefer general market books over Christian Fiction in their personal reading.

    Reply
  19. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    Nick, I think there’s a marketing/promotional glitch in the variance factor of “sure sells” and the departure from those books. The large volume of internet consumers is on the rise mostly because of Amazon pricing as compared to full market retail at CBA stores or author sites. When I can find a novel I want at Border’s with a 40% off coupon, guess where I’m going to buy my CBA book. When I can buy from Amazon or other internet sources with shipping included in the price and still get it for less than going to a Christian bookstore, I’m not going there anymore.

    It seems more like “What we have here is a failure to communicate” scenario. The cries by publishers for authors to handle more of their marketing implies the authors are just as likely to be able to sell their books as the marketing team attached to the task. I get it’s a money thing, but c’mon. Something is failing to communicate that those books which are popular in the general market–be it literary fiction or horror–can sell in the CBA market if the publishers are willing to focus in on significant niche marketing. Given the right exposure, I believe there’s a market beyond “bonnet books”, historical romance, and Karen Kingsbury novels (absolutely nothing against this market, the authors, or their readers). I think the publishers should be mining for this expanded audience and they just might find some gold.

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  20. Nick
    Nick says:

    I don’t think I really disagree with anything either of you say, Steve and Nicole.

    In a tough economy, publishers do take less risks. Our readers love the “bonnet” books and so they are somewhat easier to get through the committee than, say, a contemporary suspense novel.

    I think the bonnet books (Amish and historical romance) really became popular pretty much the way “The Shack” did–through word of mouth at first. That’s what also gave “This Present Darkness” a foothold all those years ago.

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  21. Steve G
    Steve G says:

    I think the biggest difficulty of trying to recreate The Shack would be not coming across as preachy, or message driven. That would be the biggest barrier. Same with This Present Darkness. If Peretti had written it a little bit different (ie, wasn’t as good a story teller as he was), it wouldn’t have worked. I don’t think Young approach the Shack as a message to share about God – he wasn’t worried about “bad” theology, but rather the story that gave him freedom to tell his pain.

    It’s about being a story teller, isn’t it?

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