Thursday, 28 April 2016

Shoes, Bare Feet and a Christian Book Fair

by Jeanette O'Hagan

You have probably heard the story about the two shoe salesmen sent to Africa in the early 1900's to scout the territory.

      One telegraphed back: "Situation hopeless. Stop. No one wears shoes."

      The other telegraphed: "Glorious business opportunity. Stop. They have no shoes."

Now, I’ve seen a couple of interpretations of this probably apocryphal story – most laud the second salesman for seeing opportunity. Some point out that modern marketing often exploits people by creating a yearning for false and even unhealthy 'needs' (the beauty industry, for instance), while one suggested that salesman A went back to Europe to a lucrative career while salesman B struggled to sell shoes to people who didn’t want them.

Whichever way we look at the story, sometimes I feel that being an Australian or New Zealand Christian author is a little be like trying to sell shoes to barefooted people. We often struggle to interest people in our books.

Why is it so hard?

Now, partly that’s because Australian is a small market. We have a smallish population 22 million compared to 320 million in the US. And, hard as this is understand, not everyone is a reader and, if they are, not everyone reads fiction. A successful book run in Australia is 500 copies.

Then too, the percentage of people who not just vaguely identify themselves as Christian, but are actively involved in their faith in some way, is a much smaller percentage of our already small population – maybe 7-30% (depending on how the measurements are done).

But the problem goes deeper than this – I know many avid Christian readers who aren’t interested in reading ‘Christian’ fiction. They prefer the big name secular titles (yes, mostly US and British authors). Some may have read Christian Fiction in the past and not liked it (it might have been too sanitised or maybe the quality of the writing was the issue or the themes didn’t interest them).  And those who do read Christian fiction tend to read the big US names – Jeanette Oke, Francine Rivers, Dee Hendersen etc. rather than say Mary Hawkins, Meredith Resce, Paula Vince, Carol Preston or Jo-Anne Berthelsen. In part, this is because the big-chain Christian bookstores have often promoted US (& UK) authors and when they stock Aussie Christian authors, those books don’t always sell.  Why – because readers are spoiled for choice and they often don’t want to waste their time on a bad book, so they stick to the authors they know and love or follow the recommendations of friends. So you need to be popular to become popular.

And, to be frank, many of my avid reading friends don’t know about Aussie Christian authors except for the fact that I’ve mentioned them (at which point their eyes begin to roll).

So what do we do?

We can be Salesman (or Saleswoman) A

  • We can give up on the Australian market and address our works to the overseas market, such as the UK or USA. But often, these readers may not interested in reading about Australian location or Australian protagonists (this is not always the case of course). And the Christian market in USA has it problems.
  • We can aim for the general market in Australia or overseas – though again the gatekeepers in this market may be wary of books with obvious Christian content or may expect certain problematic content (like gratuitous explicit sex scene in some romance titles).
  • We can decide that it doesn’t really matter if anyone buys our books, because it's more important that we are obedient to God in writing them.
  • We can sell our books to our fellow authors, friends and family; who will enjoy reading them.

 All these can be valid and realistic responses. I’m not critiquing them (in fact, I think there are good arguments for writing 'crossover' fiction or aiming for the general market  – but what I do ask myself is, are there other opportunities we are not seeing? What would Salesman (or woman) B do?

What would Salesman B do?

In other words, how can we give Aussie & NZ Christians greater choice – so that they are aware that there are many good Aussie Christian authors and books available? Which they might enjoy if they knew about them?

I’m thankful for our pioneers – our ‘veteran’ authors who have been writing and publishing for decades, for the writing groups like Omega Writers, Christian Writers Downunder, Faithwriters and Australasian Christian Writers. For Christian publishers who often struggle to stay afloat and have a passion to have books of quality and influence published.  For efforts to get Aussie Christian writers in bookstores or to reach new readers (through Book Fairs, Light the Dark, Books in Stock etc).

One thing I’m sure of is that this is something we can do together – as we promote to our friends and fans not only our own writing, but work of our fellow Australasian authors that we read and enjoy – or think they would enjoy.

By encouraging, promoting and helping each other we ensure that our books are not lonely little pin points of light struggling against the wind of indifference – but a bonfire that is visible for kilometres around.

Here some ideas:
  • Taking time to read, enjoy and review Aussie & NZ Christian books
  • Give Aussie & NZ Christian books (that you enjoy) as gifts at Christmas or birthdays or as giveaways
  • Participating in readers groups like book clubs, Goodreads, reading challenges etc,
  • Being active on Goodreads and/or Booklikes – review books, add them to lists, recommend them to friends
  • Author talks at schools, libraries, bookclubs – maybe even churches and youth groups?
  • Have a book party
  • Have a book fair
  • Joint ventures like anthologies, boxed sets etc where fans of one author may discover another author to love reading
  • Joint book launches

Perhaps you have some other wonderful ideas or stories – I’d love to hear them.

Christian Book Fair

There is one thing that Raelene Purtill and I are planning to do (under the umbrella of Omega Writers). In early September, we will be running a Christian Book Fair in Brisbane – with stalls from authors, booksellers and publishers. Others like editors, illustrators, cartoonists etc. are also welcome. The Fair will be run in conjunction with workshops run by Omega Writers. 

However, our primary focus will be on books and readers – as we aim to reach a wider audience for all our books. We (the organisers) will be promoting the event as wildly and as targeted as we can. However, I think this will be a success if we all own it. The best promotion is word of mouth.  And of course, we appreciate your prayers – for unless the Lord build the house we labour in vain.

The story about the salesmen reminds me of some other scouts - twelve to be exact; ten of whom looked at the giants in the land; two who saw the promise and had faith in God.

More information on the Book Fair coming soon. (And if you live too far away to come to the Book Fair this time round  – maybe this is something you could think of for your own local area :) )

Image source: Jeanette O'Hagan

See also What is Christian Fiction?  and Saints, Seekers and Sleepers or Cecily's Paterson's What is Christian Fiction?

 Jeanette O’Hagan enjoys writing fiction, poetry, blogging and editing. She is writing her Akrad’s Legacy Series—a Young Adult secondary world fantasy fiction with adventure, courtly intrigue and romantic elements. Her short stories and poems are published in a number of anthologies including Glimpses of LightAnother Time Another Place and Like a Girl.
Jeanette has practised medicine, studied communication, history, theology and, more recently, a Master of Arts (Writing). She loves reading, painting, travel, catching up for coffee with friends, pondering the meaning of life and communicating God’s great love. She lives in Brisbane with her husband and children.

You can find her at her Facebook Page or at Goodreads or on Amazon or on her websites or Jeanette O'Hagan Writes .


  1. Great post, Jenny. Loved the way you started and ended it. I have to confess that I grew up in Sri Lanka reading only secular fiction and Christian fiction was unheard of. All the Christian reading available was non fiction. I do read Aussie Christian fiction now - mainly to support my Author friends. The Book Fair is a great idea - I'm sorry I live too far away to support it as well as I should. But will be cheering you from South Australia and be praying for a rich harvest.

    1. Thanks Anusha Appreciate your cheering us on. I guess it would be true for many areas as the first priority might be Christian non-fiction in the local language. Maybe we are blessed at having a long history of Christian fiction in English - from Chaucer & Pilgrim's Progress onward.

  2. Hi Jenny, what an encouraging and comprehensive post. There should be an idea or two for everyone. I love the story of the two salesmen. Over the years, I'd say I've tried to put in place ideas from both of them :) As you say, our small market is definitely part of the equation. I have a new friend coming over for lunch on Sunday who has always loved Christian fiction, but until I enlightened her a few weeks ago, she thought you could only get American! I gave her 'The Greenfield Legacy' to introduce her to several of us at once, and now she's interested in getting hold of more and more Aussie Christian fiction.
    I hope the Book Fair goes really great! We'll have to try something similar in Adelaide too.

    1. Hi Paula - that's a wonderful story about your friend. I think there are people out there that would enjoy our stories if only they knew about them. And yes, you've been at the coal-face. Maybe success doesn't come instantly - but as we keeping persistently, eventually we will see a change.

  3. Thanks for this excellent post, Jenny, and all the great thoughts and ideas it includes. I love your positive attitude, your preparedness to try new things and put a vast amount of time aside to support and encourage other authors. Well done to you! Re the Christian book fair in Brisbane, I will give thought to that and see if we can wend our way up there in early September, so please keep us posted re the actual date and all that might be involved.

    1. Wow, Jo-Anne - it would be wonderful if you could come to the Book Fair. I know it's a long way for many, but hopefully other places can think about doing something similar :) Will definitely keep you informed of developments.

  4. Thanks Jenny for reinforcing the 'we can do this together' attitude. Keep us posted.

  5. Great ideas and appropriate for what I'm going to ask you. Glimpses of Light, can you send me the pic and book blurb and something about our authors, Jenny? I'll post it on my weekly blog
    BTW, the info at the top on Having trouble w blogger? was exactly what I needed to get on again. Thanks.

    1. I can't use the pic up top because Facebook et al symbols appear blotting the title.

    2. Hi Rita - great the 'info with blogger worked' (done by someone before my time :) Lee Franklin perhaps).

      Would love to send you the cover pic, blurb and info about the authors. That's fantastic Rita.

  6. Great post Jenny. This is great encouragement for us all and very timely. It's so important for Aussie authors to keep urging each other on so that we don't give up.

    1. Thanks Carol - yes, we can do it together and with God's grace and power.

  7. Thanks Jenny!

    And to any interstate authors who are considering the journey to the book fair in September, I'm sure we can arrange billeting with some of our Omega Brisbane members. We can probably organise an unofficial dinner too :).

  8. Great idea, Jenny! I'd love to be able to make it, but I can't justify that *and* the October conference . . .

    1. Thanks Iola - Understood. Looking forward to seeing you in October.

  9. I've also found this to be true amongst my Christian reading friends: And, to be frank, many of my avid reading friends don’t know about Aussie Christian authors except for the fact that I’ve mentioned them (at which point their eyes begin to roll).

    I really don't get why they roll their eyes, why aren't they thrilled to get their hands on books set in Australia? I was excited to discover Aussie authors writing about places I actually knew. I get a bit bored/annoyed with American-isms in books.

    I'd also love to come to the book fair - but it's a bit far... Hope it goes well.

    1. Thanks Susan. That's fabulous that your friends are excited to get book by Aussie authors. It's not the response I get all the time. Maybe it's because many are not big readers of Christian fiction - and then I wonder if I begin to sound like a cracked record. But I have had some converts :)

  10. Great analysts and great encouragement! Lots to consider. The book fair idea is great. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  11. Great post Jenny and some great suggestions. If I could just comment on your suggestions about being involved in groups. For others who might not be aware, Jenny and I are currently taking part in the Pop Sugar Reading challenge in which you have to read 41 books in a year with each book being in a different category (e.g. book set in Europe, book with a blue cover, science fiction, autobiography). So although the categories are set, there's a lot of scope within each category and a lot of the categories could be filled with Christian books.

    A Facebook friend of mine set up a Facebook group so we could share the books that we're reading. A few of us are Christians, some have other religious beliefs or are atheists, and we come from a variety of different backgrounds. However, everyone loves books and it's been a respectful atmosphere. Some of us have posted reviews of Christian books and others have indicated an interest in reading them. Others have politely said it's not their cup of tea. But a couple of the Christian novels I've posted reviews for have since been read by others in the group. (We put the reviews in Goodreads and then link to those reviews in the Facebook group, which subsequently gives the book greater exposure).

    The point is that if a book has a great story and is well written, people will read it if others recommend it. So I don't think we can underestimate the value of being in those types of groups and getting the word out. But of course quality is the key. I have to believe in a book I'm recommending or I'll lose credibility pretty quickly and people will be less likely to take up my recommendations in the future. Maybe we could do our own version of a reading challenge next year that has more scope for including Christian books?

    1. Hi Nola - I was just thinking the other day how wonderful it was to be able to share Christian authors along with others as part of the Reading Challenge group. It's a great opportunity.

  12. Great post Jeanette. Difficulties and some suggestions to help clearly laid out. All the best for your plans for the book fair.

  13. Yes, the idea of a book fair of some sort was floated last year, if I recall. I think it's a fantastic idea and I'm glad it's going to happen. :-) It's a great way for us to support each other by inviting our friends, family and others along. Every little bit helps. :-)

    1. Hi Lynne - yes, we had a discussion about it last year but nothing eventuated. Glad to initiate what is a great idea. As you say, bit by bit :)

  14. Encouraging post, Jenny! Love the idea of the book fair. Go team!

  15. Brilliant ideas Jeanette. Love it!!