The Myth of the Crossover Book

My last post I talked all through the dilemma with book categories that bookstores expect to see when your book is finally published. You either have a clear one or your book will get lost.

BookwormBut what of the intended audience—and message–for your book? Does this also have to be perfectly obvious to get any traction in sales; to make any impact in the world?

I hope I don’t harp on this too much, but I’ve got 20 years and about 2,300 books I’ve had the privilege of representing. About 10% of my sales over the years have been through general market houses. In all of that time I’ve heard hundreds of authors and potential authors tell me they wanted to write the book for “the crossover market.” Read: I want to do some appropriate, hidden preaching so that the reader will consider faith or make a conversion.

Here’s what I know: New York editors don’t want books that surreptitiously preach or try to win anyone to faith. And they really don’t want overt Christian books unless you’re got a massive sales history and platform. “That’s why,” they infer, “our parent company bought a specific Christian publisher…so that we wouldn’t have to see/publish these books.”

So if you tell me you want me to sell a proposal to a general market publisher, saying something to the affect of “let’s be bold and take the Cross over to a secular publisher,” I’ll be sympathetic with your goal, then immediately talk you out of it. Your heart may be in the right place, but your realistic knowledge of what publishers want is lacking.

The truth: It can’t be done. General market houses care about great books that serve readers … and sales. They don’t want to hear from a Barnes and Noble manager that books were returned from angry customers who felt duped (or offended) by the content. My opinion is that those few books that do escape the religious section in B&N (perhaps 1 or 2 a year) really aren’t making a lasting impact. They’re not even planting seeds. Why? Because there likely is not another actual human to help the reader take their seeds of faith and make sure they have been placed on fertile soil.

The small percentage of adults who ultimately do come to faith do so after watching a genuine believer over time, getting their specific questions answered, and usually finding a community where they feel loved and accepted. They rarely (if ever?) stick to the faith because they bumped into a book at B&N.

People mostly buy books because of word of mouth. And they come to faith by watching a consistent imperfect life, and then likely directly interacting with God’s Word in some meaningful way.

Yes, there is the very rare exception. But so rare it borders on impossible.

So if you want to write anything that may make the life of Jesus more attractive, write it to those already in the faith, and hope that they are able to naturally hand the book off to someone they know; someone who if they do come to faith will then have a natural tie back into a community of real people helping each other through life.

Books are a powerful tool for good. People do get moved to consider faith because of them. But 99% of those books were published by a Christian publisher written primarily to Christians.

And let me say a word about the middle. If you try to hit the middle, you likely lose both audiences. The middle isn’t looking to be converted or for Christian content. If you want to write a book for the general market audience, build your platform or skills and write it without expectation you’ve taken the Cross over. If you include Christian content in your book, fiction or nonfiction, do so in a natural way that communicates a strong and obvious message.

Question: Do you know of any book that has made an impact with your friends as it relates to faith?

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This entry was posted in Agent's Desk, Non-fiction, Publishing, Writing and tagged , by Greg Johnson. Bookmark the permalink.

About Greg Johnson

I’m the president of WordServe Literary in Centennial, Colo. and founder and president of FaithHappenings.com. More importantly, I’m married to Becky, and together we share six adult children, and are grandparents to seven. In previous years, I've been a Campus Life leader (10 years), Breakaway magazine editor (5 years), author or coauthor of 21 books. But for the last 22 years, I've been a literary agent privileged to work with a great family of authors and staff trying to make a dent for the Kingdom.

6 thoughts on “The Myth of the Crossover Book

  1. Another thing to note – and this is entirely without industry experience backing it up – is that christians will be more likely to trust a christian publisher. I can imagine they would be more trusting of them to accurately portray ideas of their religion. And, on the other side of things, I have plenty of anecdotes of nonreligious people’s vehement hatred of being preached at. As you say, it’s better to stick to your audience.

  2. Greg, very helpful. I do think of people like Kathleen Norris, Ann LaMott, Annie Dillard, Frederick Beuchner (all favorite writers–except LaMott) who write from faith but who have a wide readership and publish with New York houses. They write with such honesty, humanness and beauty that all are invited in. No preaching to be found. This is the kind of writer I hope to be.

  3. Well put. People know what we’re up to, anyway. If we try to dupe them, they’ll resent us when they figure it out. EG (above) has it right.

  4. This post really hits home to me right now. I’d like to ask a followup. I really don’t think I’m writing religious fiction–certainly it’s not strong enough in religious terms to fit in the Christian market–but I’ve been struggling for years to figure out how to make the characters authentic without becoming preachy. Most people hold some sort of faith, however loosely, and to delve into their emotional journeys while ignoring any references to faith seems inauthentic to the character. Most real people would send up an occasional scattered prayer, or think about faith-related topics at least at a surface level, when confronted with the crisis moments of life. So if I write that sort of character, am I pigeonholing myself into the Christian market?

  5. Thanks, Greg, for telling it like it is. It makes sense, too. Most of us newbies want the truth, even though it’s not easy to hear.

  6. Pingback: The weekly roundup – Part 2: On publishing, bookselling, and libraries | Books: Publishing, Reading, Writing

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