Wednesday, January 5, 2011

An Interview with Jeff Gerke - by Nick Harrison

The following is an interview Nick Harrison conducted and published on his blog November 16, 2010. I thought it was a terrific interview - lots to chew on here. We're re-running it on our blog with Nick's gracious permission. Enjoy!

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 forK├Ânig’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 not 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.


Latayne C Scott said...

Does this give anyone else a sense of great hope for the future of those of us who write literary fiction?

Unknown said...

It does me, yes!
There's much to absorb in this interview, but I liked this bit:

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."

If admitting there is a problem is half the battle, then CBA needs to admit they are not reaching the majority of Christian readers.
The issue is, that in order to change anything, it will take time, and money. Precious resources.

Nicole said...

Jeff wrote the essence of this interview over at Into the Fire when I asked professionals their desires for change in Christian publishing. He's right on target in so much of what he says.

There's a huge audience out here if publishers are willing to divide their spoils into niche markets.

Megan Sayer said...

This has been SO interesting. And Latayne...YES, great hope.

I discovered Christian fiction years ago through Frank Peretti and CS Lewis, and often wondered why there was so little else out there of that ilk (or calibre). Never considered myself a speculative fiction reader before today though.

Jeff's comments about the demise of the bricks-and-mortar bookstore echo what I've been thinking about a great deal recently; namely, if I want to support the publishing industry should I be supporting my local bookstores more? My answer (surprisingly, to me) is no. I'd much rather see a break-out of ebooks from small indie publishers that are accessible to a worldwide niche audience than be limited to the mass-market tastes of what my local bookstore (especially the local Christian bookstore) can offer.

Jeff offers a lot of hope for me as a reader of Christian fiction as well as a writer. Looking forward to checking out his work more closely.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Latayne, just curious - what is the connection you make between the popularity of fantasy/science fiction and the success of literary fiction?

Unknown said...

Elizabeth: I can't answer for Latayne, but I'd like to jump in with this - Jeff publishes speculative fiction, yes, but his vision is much larger and embraces a huge variety of genre.
He mentions literary fiction in the interview as being one of the areas that Christian fiction isn't serving because of the current narrow focus of publishing.

I will rush in to say that the lack of variety in Christian publishing isn't because editors/publishers don't want variety. They do! Very much so. But it is a difficult time to take chances and fiddle with what they know is working. They are caught in the middle.

Latayne C Scott said...

Elisabeth, I took my hopes for literary fiction from Jeff's statement: "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."

I took Jeff's comments to mean that there's hope for many previously-unaddressed genres within the Christian book marketplace. His success with speculative fiction seems to encourage, I would hope, the other niches.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Truly you have made my day, maybe even my year! Thank you thank you. First for redirecting me to Nick Harrison's blog because I lost the coordinates but more importantly
I have wondered where a sci-fi story (light on the techo wizardry and dark with captivity and altered consciousness) with rapture intonations could ever fit in. It is now known to the universe as 'speculative'. How apt! New rituals, new philosophies based upon the ancient Sacred text....speculating how God's people will live and interact 1000's of years from now and proving that human nature follows the same groove no matter the age. I have suddenly great hope that someone somewhere will eventually want to distribute my story further than my limited acquaintance. Thank you!
(Perhaps you have been aware I have not been able to write since my brother's death which came just as I was recovering from my beloved friend's death. You have given me a much needed boost and I am grateful. 2011 HAS to be better than 2010)

Latayne C Scott said...

Henrietta, allow me to represent NovelMatters in our sympathy to you regarding your two immense losses in your life. May God comfort and sustain you.

How wonderful, too, that you have found (as we have!) hope and inspiration in today's post.

You are dear to us, and we pray God's help in your pursuits.

Anonymous said...

This was an excellent interview. I got even more out of it this time. I'm with you, Latayne. It gives me hope for a broader CBA, even if it comes about because of innovative people like Jeff Gerke, who, by the way, took Every Good & Perfect Gift and Lying on Sunday to committee at NavPress, resulting in my published novels. Yay, Jeff!

BK said...

Jeff says: "Similar presses are rising up to fill other niches, like...military/men’s."

I'd like to know who the niche publishers are for military/men's. Since my first preference, historical non-romance, is very difficult to find, my next alternative would be military/men's as it usually contains the elements I'm looking for in a read.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Novel Matters has been the most excellent source of inspiration in this past year. I feel connected and encouraged while I wait for the season to run its course. My craft improves every time I read this blog and I know God will use it in the writing, which is coming back gently. Your kindness is wonderful.

Anonymous said...

Henrietta, what a nice thing to say. We're so glad we're able to contribute to your writing life in such a positive way. Thank you for all you contribute through your comments.

Melissa said...

This has to be my favorite Novel Matters quote of all time!!:

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.