Mixing oil with water: Christian Fiction and Contemporary Literature (Guest Post – Michel Sauret)

Note from RWR: I recently had an in-depth discussion with author Michel Sauret about a common issue many indie authors face.  Let’s call it genre confusion.  Michel has written a collection of short stories, Amidst Traffic, that has been lauded for its literary merit.  At the same time, his book has drawn attention for its Christian themes.  In other words, his book appeals to two different demographics.

On the surface, that may seem like a nice position to be in.  However, such diversity does pose a problem.  Where do you spend your marketing efforts?  The two demographics are normally at odds, a position that usually forces an indie author to make a business decision that goes against his or her artistic sensibilities.  Welcome to the sometimes frustrating world of indie publishing.

I know nothing about the Christian market.  I’ve been labeled evil by readers who love and hate my books, so it’s probably a good idea I stay away from the gentile-inclined readers.  But I gave Michel my opinion based on my knowledge of marketing.  I found the discussion so interesting that I asked him to write up something for my blog.  I know other indies stop by every once in awhile, and I thought they might find his perspective edifying.  Without further ado, I give you multi-award winning author, Michel Sauret.

Michel Sauret: Can oil and water mix? Can they become the same substance? Or, at the very least, can they be packaged into a single product?

Several years ago, when I was thinking of proposing to my (now) wife, Heather, I came across a passage in scripture that halted me:

Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14)

That same passage came to mind years later when I returned to writing fiction.

If you’re like me, when I first read that passage , I had no clue what a yoke was. I actually thought the Bible was talking about an egg at first. But a yoke is a harnass that allows multiple animals to plow or till a piece of land in unison. It joins the two bests in a common purpose, and for the animals to work efficiently, they must move in the same direction and at the same pace, otherwise the land might look like a sloppy mess.

When I published my collection of short stories, titled “Amidst Traffic,” I thought I could have the best of both worlds. I thought I could market to both the Christian and Literary readers together.

What I came to realize, however, is that there is a fundamental divide between the literary market of readers and the Christian one. The two don’t mix well.

oil_by_loumavis-d4xb2pr

Photo by LouMavis

Christian and literary fiction are not necessarily exclusive (the way, for example Christian and Erotica are), but a chasm has grown between the two genres over the last few decades.

Contemporary literature has a tendency to explore existential philosophies, life’s meaninglessness, sexual “freedom,” human individuality, personal lonesomeness, along with a myriad of other themes. The prose is usually rich and full of metaphor. The tone is often moody and its style can be gritty or even experimental.

Christian fiction (as of late), has a tendency to be more straight forward, filled with supernatural elements, less prosy, more spiritual and often even preachy. The tone appeals to a sense of hope and the writing style is more traditional and less risky.

Also, not to overstate the obvious, but the literary movement typically sides with the liberal camp on most political and philosophical topics, while the Christian movement is politically conservative.

For these reasons the Christian reader often guards himself against contemporary literary books and the literary reader rejects Christian fiction.

Though shallow and generalized, the expectations are simple: The literary reader thinks a Christian book will be preachy and trite (full of false hope), and the Christian reader often won’t appreciate the more experimental nature of contemporary lit. I’m not saying this is true all the time, but generally it is true. I’ve met enough readers in both realms who were willing to cross the border and judge a work based on its merit rather than its label, but typically readers remain in their “safe” zone.

My_Venn_diagram_by_failing_senses

There is a small overlap of readers who consider themselves BOTH Literary and Christian (Photo by Failing Senses)

Not to be overly dismissive, but I’ve actually noticed that the literary reader is more guarded against the “Christian” genre than the Christian reader is to the “Literary” one. I once had a book reviewer ask for a copy of my book, and as soon as she found out that “Amidst Traffic” held Christian themes, she refused to even read it. On the other hand, I’ve sent the same collection to Christian readers/reviewers who weren’t nearly as threatened by its gritty style and moody tones. In fact, they found those elements refreshing.

When I tried to market my work to both camps, I thought I was appealing to a larger audience, but really I was just attracting the narrow overlap from the Venn Diagram. Thanks to a conversation I had with author R.W. Ridley, I was able to identify the weakness in my marketing strategy. He said that I shouldn’t try to “serve two masters” (such an appropriate phrase, actually), but pick one camp and stick with it. Then, in the end, I’d have a better chance to break out. I consider this to be a wise choice so long as I didn’t have to change my writing style.

For that reason, I’ve decided to brand myself to the Christian camp (even though I personally find Christian fiction pretty weak when it comes to literary substance and prose quality). By identifying with a Christian market, I won’t have to compromise on personal conviction or message. Even though the Christian market isn’t currently molded to accept experimental and gritty fiction, I have a better chance of finding readers in this market than the literary one. It is by staying true to my Christian faith that I can write fiction I love to write and inject literary prose into it.

I don’t think the opposite would be true if I tried to market myself as a literary author.

2012-10-06-Michel%20Headshots-008%20SMALLAbout Michel Sauret: Michel Sauret was born in Rome, Italy, and is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s English Writing department. He published his first novel, “Breathing God,” at the age of 19, and has been serving as a public affairs specialist and journalist for the U.S. Army since 2004.

His work has won several journalism awards, including the Keith L. Ware, giving him the title of Army Journalist of the Year in 2008.  His short story, “Lost in the Night” appeared in the anthology, “Best New Writing, 2008” and his work has appeared in literary publications in the U.S., Britain and Australia.

Closing message from RWR: If you’re a reviewer, writer or reader, and you have an idea for a post that you’d like to write or see on the blog, contact me and give me your best pitch.

Details on The Takers free promotional period

9200 copies downloaded

The Takers’ free promotional period is over.  In three days, with your help spreading the word, The Takers was downloaded 9200 times.  I’m very pleased and excited by that number.  For an indie guy like me, you get excited when a couple of hundred people download your book.  This whole process brought up some interesting questions, and I’d like to take this opportunity to answer those (this is the part where I mix real questions with made up questions people have asked me).

Q: Why are you excited about giving a book away for free?  Aren’t you losing money?

A: In the short run, yes I am losing money, but not that much. The cost of The Takers is currently $0.99.  I make 35% off each sale.  So according to my math (which is incorrect 98% of the time) I lost out  on about $3100.  But I’ve never come close to selling 9200 books in three days or three months, for that matter.  Giving the book away for free exposes The Oz Chronicles to a much larger audience, which will hopefully lead to increased sales on my other books.  A lot of people who downloaded the book won’t get around to reading it.  Some will start it and never finish it.  Others will finish it and forget all about it.  And a few will dislike it.  Some will hate it and let me know via email.  There will be a group that likes it, but for whatever reason won’t rush out to read the other books in the series, and then there will be my favorite of the free downloaders.  The ones who read it, love it, tell their friends about it, write a review, and send me emails telling me how much they love it.  They’re the reason I do the free promotional periods. I need those readers more than sales at this point in my journey.

Q: Why do you think this free promotional period was more succesful than the others you’ve done?

A: The simple answer is because I did those other free promotional periods.  Every time I do a giveaway, I pick up a handful of readers that become invaluable advocates for The Oz Chronicles. They help me spread the word about all things Oz.  I’ve been fortunate enough to build a lasting readership.  Some of the people have been Oz “fans” (The quotes indicate I’m so not comfortable with that word because I view them as more than fans.  They feel more like friends of Oz.) for years, and I’ve been fortunate enough to come to know them through this blog, social media, and email exchanges.

Q: Why are you still promoting The Takers?  You published that book in 2005.

A: Because it’s the first book in a series.  The lore of Oz builds from book to book, and each book ends on a cliffhanger.  When it’s all said and done, and I’ve published the seventh and final book in the series, the result will essentially be one long very long book: approximately 1600 pages containing about 450,000 words.  Granted, Stephen King and the late Robert Jordan could crank out a book that long in one sleepless weekend, but that’s what makes/made them King and Jordan.  I’m doing my epic apocalyptic novel in seven parts.  Each is dependent on the other, and they should be read from first to last.    When I promote The Takers, I’m promoting the entire series.

Comment: (This one is an actual comment I got from a reader recently).  I just wanted to write you to let you know I got a free copy of The Takers on my Kindle and read it in a day.  I’ve already purchased Book two and can’t wait to start it.  I posted a review on Amazon.  I really hope it helps!

A: Reviews on Amazon do help tremendously with sales and giveaways.  If a book doesn’t have a lot of reviews, people won’t bother to download it.  I’m not one to ask for reviews because it just feels weird, so I’ll cop-out here and just encourage you to write reviews for any book or author you like.  While you’re at it, tell five friends about the book.  Write the president of movies and demand they make a movie out of the book.  Rush to the offices of any of the big six publishers, find any acquisitions editor, grab him or her by the collar and just say “Really?”  They’ll know what you’re talking about.

On a final note, I’d like to thank the friends of Oz for helping me spread the word about this giveaway, and anything having to do with the series.  If I didn’t have your help in all this, I wouldn’t be doing this in the first place.   Writing is fun, but writing for an audience is a friggin’ blast!

Weirdest Question I Was Ever Asked About My Books

Doesnt this look real to you?

Doesn't this look real to you?

A person who claimed to have read my first Oz Chronicles book, The Takers, asked me if it was based on a true story.  Odd question considering that the one sentence description for The Takers is: A 13-year-old boy wakes up to discover that he is responsible for the end of the world.  Even odder when you consider that everyone who didn’t survive the end of the word was eaten by creatures very similar to the monster in the picture above. Of course it’s based on a true story.  Do you even have to ask?