A Gem of a Yarn - a publisher describes the development of a Christian fiction list

Tony Collins of Monarch Books is creating a Christian fiction list, despite the discouraging history of Christian fiction in the UK (Monarch's website is here and Facebook page here).  Here’s his progress to date, as described in his article "A Gem of a Yarn", originally written for the magazine of the Association of Christian writers, whose website homepage is here and magazine page here.

For many years I have been convinced that well-conceived and well-executed Christian fiction has a part to play, not only in entertaining the faithful but in creating an imaginative and spiritual milieu in which our faith can take its natural place.  Christian truth is real – true truth – and should enrich every part of life, the arts included. 

Yet the British Christian community, generally, has been lukewarm.  Bookshops are leery, because customers are thin on the ground. British believers tend to the mainstream in choice of entertainment. Not an easy context in which to pioneer new Christian fiction.

Nevertheless, over the years Monarch has had some successes – This Present Darkness, Redeeming Love (both bought from American houses). We have also had our full share of failures, and for some years abandoned the enterprise.

In 2006 we cautiously decided to have another go.  Lion Hudson (our parent company) had taken on UK distribution of the Baker list, and this gave our sales team experience in selling fiction. We agreed to focus on just two areas, crime and romance.  Bonnet fiction and prairie romances were really too American; science fiction and thrillers would be more limited in appeal; ‘literary’ fiction too specialised. Crime and romance both afford admirable scope for tension, awkward moral choices, personal growth, real darkness and authentic light.

We also resolved to seek only novels that would appeal to world markets. Success in the US was critical to the venture.  But what could we bring to the party, faced with the might of Baker, Tyndale, Zondervan, Harvest House and David C Cook?  We couldn’t buy the big names, so we had to start from scratch.  We told several agents that there was a new kid on the block, and started looking.

A friend in the States, who taught a writing course, recommended that I review the first novel by a pupil of his, a retired history teacher, Mel Starr. Mel had visited Britain – specifically, the village of Bampton near Oxford – after he had quit work, and there had discovered the novels of the delightful Ellis Peters, creator of the Cadfael series.  Mel had simultaneously fallen under Bampton’s medieval spell, and had devised a whodunit, The Unquiet Bones, set in the Bampton of Chaucer’s England and featuring a young surgeon, Hugh de Singleton.  Master Hugh was called upon to identify the former owner of some bones found in the castle cesspit.  It was a good story, blending skulduggery, murky motivations and a helping of honest reverence.  But a first novel, by an unknown American? We gulped, shut our eyes and signed.

Sometimes the angels are with us. The third chronicle of Hugh de Singleton, A Trail of Ink, appeared last autumn, and the fourth, Unhallowed Ground, is released in October.  A fifth is in view. UK sales are respectable and American sales quite gratifying.  Several translations are in progress.

Mel has got important basics right: a really good storyline, an attractive central character, a tinge of humour,  a strong sense of place and period, an eye for compelling  detail - medieval medicine is not for the queasy.  There are knotty moral dilemmas, and an abiding awareness of the spiritual.

So far we have published a dozen or more novels. About half have met or exceeded our commercial criteria, and only one or two have flopped utterly. We are quite pleased with this strike rate, and have decided to increase output.

If there were a formula we could all follow it and get rich.  In the absence of a silver bullet, here are some reflections on what can work:

  • -         It’s Christian fiction.  There needs to be some element of a spiritual journey, of spiritual growth and challenge. Not dragged in, but integral.
  • -         It’s Christian fiction. Graphic ugly detail, sex scenes, bad language, casual New Age thinking will all get you barred.
  • -         It’s fiction. It requires character, plot, ideas, fresh crisp writing, accurate detail, an agreeable authorial voice. Get these right.
  • -         It’s entertainment. Command the reader’s attention and don’t let go.
  • -         Good fiction informs. Write about what you know.
  • -         It’s an immersive experience, and many fiction readers consume at a gallop.  One-off novels are less likely to succeed than series, where you have space to develop and befriend characters.

A plug to finish. A recent discovery has been Martha Ockley, whose novel The Reluctant Detective features policewoman-turned-priest Faith Morgan.  It’s an excellent book.  Buy it. There’s a sequel in the wings.

Find and download Monarch's catalogue online here.
Monarch Books is an imprint of Lion Hudson, who can be found online here.