Niche markets: Christian ‘chick lit’

Penny CullifordIn the latest in our series on so-called niche markets, we speak to Christian ‘chick lit’ author Penny Culliford. Penny first came to fame with the Theodora’s Diary series, which were described by one critic as ‘Bridget Jones Goes to Church’. After concluding the third in the series, Penny turned her hand to a reporter sleuth mystery, The Art of Standing Still, (Zondervan, 2007) about a community that revives a series of mediaeval mystery plays. She also writes poetry, plays and articles for magazines.

TCW: I know you’re an accomplished writer in many fields, but would you agree that you are best known as the author of Christian Chicklit?

PC: My first books were Christian Chick lit, and I’m still comfortable with that, although I don’t dye my hair pink these days. I’ve given talks and interviews on the subject. As long as people buy the books, I’m happy.

TCW: How do you feel about being categorised in such a way? Has it been beneficial to your career or detrimental?

PC: I haven’t found it a problem so far. If I need to, I’ll use a pseudonym for other genres.

penny-culliford-theodoras-diaryTCW: Is the label one you suggested when you sent in your first proposal for Theodora’s Diary or was it one slapped on you by publishers, marketers and / or the press?

PC: I was amazed to discover that I wrote Christian chick lit. It came up in my very first press review for Theodora’s Diary. However I do consider Adrian Plass and Helen Fielding as my influences. I was delighted to get the credit for inventing a genre.

TCW: Why do you think there’s a compulsive need to categorise books as something-or-other lit?

PC: People – publishers and readers – like what they can relate to. They like comparisons to something that already exists: “this book is a Jane Austen-meets-John Grisham” or whatever. They like to have something on which to hang their hat.

TCW: What are the pros and cons for the writer?

PC: This need to categorise can be turned to the writer’s advantage if they make the comparisons themselves when pitching to the publisher. The disadvantage can be a sort of literary type-casting.

TCW: And the reader?

PC: I suppose it can lead to certain expectations from the reader, but it is good to have a following. I still get e-mails asking if there are going to be more Theodora books. I don’t think I’m going to turn my hand to hard-bitten war stories or erotica, although some of my stories and plays are very different from the Theodora books.

TCW: Would you advise still-to-be-published writers to target a niche market or genre?

PC: I would advise them to write what they think they can write really well. Write their passion. If it fits into niche all the better, but niches can be limiting. Pitching a book that would only be bought by your Auntie Mabel and her dog isn’t going to get publishers excited.

TCW: As to the Christian part of the label, did you try to get Theodora published through a secular publisher?

PC: I tried a couple of agents first, who were not interested, but I did my research and HarperCollins (UK) were the first and only publisher I sent it to. I was very fortunate that they liked it and published it initially under their Marshall Pickering imprint, which went on to be acquired by Zondervan, a publisher of Christian books based in Michigan, who are still part of the HarperCollins family, all part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Confused?

TCW: Would you agree with the widely-held belief among Christian writers that ‘secular’ publishers are anatagonistic towards them and their writing?

PC: My honest answer is, I don’t think so. Publishing is a business and they publish what they think they can sell. Most publishers specialise to a greater or lesser extent. If religious books is not one of their fields, of course it’s going to be turned down.

TCW: Would you define all of your writing output as ‘Christian’? Why or why not?

PC: A difficult question. I think my faith influences my life and therefore my writing. Themes such as grace, forgiveness, transformation, sacrifice, etc which are central to Christianity, also work beautifully woven into stories. If you’re asking if I’d use my writing to preach or evangelise, I’d say no.

TCW: In your opinion, what defines a book as ‘Christian’ or otherwise?

PC: That’s a difficult one. For simplicity of categorising a book, I’d define it as one written by someone with a Christian faith, published by a niche publisher and with the intended readership made up of Christians. Having said that, it is a weak definition in that any book may have elements in it that are drawn from, or point to aspects of Christianity, intentionally or unintentionally. For instance ,there are many books that don’t meet my first definition but that use some of the themes I mentioned above. “A Christmas Carol” is one of the most Christian books I can think of, as it deals directly with themes of repentance and rebirth.

TCW: Do you think someone who doesn’t define themselves as a Christian can still engage with and enjoy Christian literature?

PC: Of course. The themes I mentioned are universal and common to the human condition. But I suppose a book that used a lot of jargon or had “in jokes” might alienate a reader.

TCW: In your experience of meeting readers, what preconceptions do people have about what a ‘Christian’ book should be?

PC: I suppose people’s preconceptions may revolve around things like no swearing, no sex and that God gets a mention. I’ve had some very strange comments when books haven’t lived up to people’s expectations. Some people, particularly some American readers, expect Christian books to have absolutely no alcohol and no gambling, not even a raffle. These are cultural differences and it’s important to know what a particular publisher and their readership expect.

TCW: How does the Christian book market in the States differ from that in the UK?

PC: It’s much bigger. Exponentially bigger. More readers and a lot more writers. From a business point of view it’s more successful too. Many more books are bought and sold and there are several prestigious conferences every year where new writers learn from old hands. In the States “Christian” books are far more likely to be sold through mainstream bookshops than they are here.

TCW: How does this affect you as a writer?

PC: Most of my books are sold in the USA. It’s really nice, and still seems a bit weird, to get e-mails from people in America who have read them.

TCW: How much do you consider the potential readership while writing?

PC: More so as I understand more about the business of writing. My first book was just for me. My current book is much more focussed on who might read it – although I’m having fun too.

TCW: What advice would you give to British fiction writers hoping to get published through a Christian publisher?

PC: Do your research. Find out what kind of things the publishers take, and target them. There are only a few publishers based in the UK that take fiction, but they are accessible. You can meet them in person at places like the Christian Resources Exhibition, and ask them directly. Most Christian fiction is published by American publishers and like all publishing, it is not easy to break into. Some people find it is helpful to attend conferences like Mount Hermon and Glorieta, if they can afford it.

TCW: Finally, what are you currently writing?

PC: A play for a school’s tour of Rome and a murder mystery that I hope to sell to the mainstream British market.

Penny has very kindly offered to judge a mini-chicklit competition on The Crafty Writer. If you would like to enter, just write a short chick lit scene in the comments box below – maximum 200 words. The winner will receive a signed copy of Theodora’s Diary. And if you don’t want to enter the competition but have something you would like to add to this discussion, please feel free to weigh in.

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7 comments on “Niche markets: Christian ‘chick lit’

  1. Gill D'achada on said:

    What a fabulous picture!!!! An encouraging and informative interview. i wonder, should I try my hand at the chick lit competition – you don’t say who it is or isn;t open to. In advertising we always say friends, family of or their advertisers may not enter etc. …

  2. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    I know, doesn’t she look gorgeous! Gill, I won’t be judging this one, it will be Penny’s decision as she’s the expert on chick lit so I don’t think there’ll be a conflict of interest. If there is, I’ll just disqualify you!

  3. Rosalie Warren on said:

    A fascinating interview. I didn’t even know that Christian chick-lit existed. I’ll be looking out for Penny’s books.

  4. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    You heard it here on the Crafty Writer! Are you going to try your hand at the competition, Rosalie?

  5. Stan Evers on said:

    As a Christian and a published writer, I’ve found the interview with Penny Culliford very interesting.

  6. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Thanks for stopping by Stan. Perhaps you would like to give your perspective on the Christian publishing industry.

  7. Deb Gerace on said:

    Jesse’s a bagger at the big Farmers Market downtown but most of all, he’s a greeter at Holy SonRise Baptist Church right next to the Market. That’s how I met him – he always greeted us when we come in to church and he particularly took a shine to me in that he took my hand in his gloved one (greeters wear white gloves and sometimes even hats) and bowed over it like I was royalty or something. He says stuff like, “Well, how-do, my young African Queen,” and when I’d get tickled, he’d tip his hat and then swoop it to the side where we always sit, like he was clearin’ the way for us.
    The first time he did that, Mamma said, “Roosha, that man’s done drawed a bead on you, Girl.” Since I was only 12 then, I wasn’t sure what her words meant, but I was old enough to see that twinkle in his eye and it made my heart take a leap and my belly feel kinda warm all at the same time, if you know what I mean. When I told Mamma this she said, “Girl, you a ‘wakin up to being a woman, aincha?”

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