Just back from the International Christian Retail Show 2006 in Denver, I was amazed at how few Christian biographies were on the stands, except perhaps with the self-publishing imprints.
There have always been plenty of problems in writing Christian biography: the market expects that ‘Christian biography’ be (vaguely) different from biography about Christians because certain things are expected to be left out and others worked in.
Typically, Christian biographers may allow some Biblical anchor to organise the whole, showing perhaps how God proves faithful to his promises. On the other hand, secular biography is often fuelled by ‘juicy bits’: the underside of great public events, gossip and even put-downs of other famous people.
The other permanent issue is that (as Paul said) “the letter killeth”: it is so hard to encapsulate the spiritual and supernatural on the printed page without losing something essential. And it is easy to come over as boastful.
Publishers know that it is easier to sell biographies when the subject is famous or even infamous. So are there not enough famous Christians around? Or do they live in countries which we in the West don’t know about? Or should we blame the usual scapegoat, postmodernism, on the grounds that models and heroes are considered passé except in comic book fiction of course where they are huge! Finally in these days of ubiquitous flights, TV and business trips, missionary stories are less exotic.
We at Highland certainly wish to carry on publishing biography: but our problem is that the very famous are likely to head for our larger competitors while we do need to establish a perceived difference between ourselves and self-published materials.
The easiest thing (which we have done quite often) is to separate the function of author from the subject, even if it ends up being written in the first person. The other practice is avoiding the hard-to-market situations: mostly these can be summarised as extreme versions of ordinary problems most people face (bereavement, rejection, redundancy, depression, disease, bad genetics). What we have found ourselves drawn to are stories of bad/tough guys who are found by Christ.
Can you think of some story-lines that we should be covering that are different from tough conversions and yet not about the very famous or from those facing horrible problems? Are there any great preachers or church planters that we should cover?