By Melanie C. Duncan
With its focus on biblical values and traditionally low emphasis on profanity, sex, or violence, Christian fiction (CF) has long been popular with a certain readership, mostly white, female, and coming from an evangelical Protestant background. I’m not sure I’d describe all of our readers as white women of child-bearing years or [suffering from] empty-nest syndrome, says Harvest House publicist Aaron Dillon. But our core demographic does seem to be middle-aged mothers, primarily white. We also have a large contingent of readers who homeschool their children.
However, Christina Boys, editor for Hachette Book Group’s FaithWords and Center Street imprints, believes the CF audience to be much more diverse than the conservative stereotype held by the secular mainstream. The core readers are said to be women in their 40s who like novels set in the United States. But there are CF readers who do not fit into this demographic, and there are women in their 40s who like to read about a variety of characters and circumstances different from their own.
Preaching to the converted?
Often referred to as evangelical fiction to distinguish it from secular fiction, CF is still erroneously pigeonholed by some critics as simplistic storytelling or gentle reads that can’t compete with mainstream novels for complexity of plot and character development. Bethany House’s 1979 ground-breaking publication of Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly, which combined an evangelical worldview with a historical romance, filled a niche long ignored by mainstream publishers, and is credited with pioneering modern inspirational fiction. However, the CF publishing industry could not have continued to thrive as it does today by offering a steady diet of bland novels under the guise of religious fiction.
Nor could the genre have expanded if it had followed a strictly fundamentalist path. While its early years were described in John Mort’s Christian Fiction: A Guide to the Genre (2002) as having preached to the converted and industry organizations like the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) and the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) continue to prescribe guidelines for authors and publishers, today’s target CF audience has become more sophisticated and demographically diverse. There are more male and younger readers joining the fold and a steadily growing African American market.
A faith-based perspective remains at the core of evangelical fiction, but today’s fans are reading these books not just because of the Christian focus. They also love this genre because it quenches their inner thirst for knowledge, spiritual guidance, and, yes, entertainment.
Seeing the genre light
As their readers’ literary tastes have broadened, so have CF publishers’ lists. The past decade has seen houses like Baker Publishing Group’s Bethany House and Revell divisions, Hachette’s FaithWords and Center Street imprints, Thomas Nelson, Tyndale House, and Zondervan push beyond their traditional historicals and inspirational romances to embrace mainstream fiction’s most popular‚ and edgiest‚ genres: mysteries and thrillers, romantic suspense, sf and fantasy, women’s fiction, and even African American urban fiction.
Catching this growing wave, the bimonthly FamilyFiction (see CF on the Web, p. 28), an online magazine that covers CF and family-friendly movies, this month is launching a spin-off title that will cater to CF readers who enjoy suspense, speculative fiction, YA/teen fiction, and comics. The first issue of FamilyFiction Edge features a cover profile of CF supernatural thriller author Frank Peretti.
It’s essential [for us] to publish a wide range of Christian fiction to meet the needs of diverse readers, explains FaithWords editor Boys. Last October, the Hachette imprint launched its first Christian vampire series with the release of Debbie Viguié’s Kiss of Night. Boys notes that there are many Christians who enjoy the fantasy and paranormal genres as evidenced by the popularity of C.S. Lewis’s classic Narnia books and spiritual warfare novels by such authors as Peretti.
Vampires and other monsters are our modern-day versions of demons‚ after all, common weapons against them include crosses and holy water, says Boy. In secular paranormal fiction, most recent series focus on a vampire who fights against his nature and seeks redemption, but Boys points out that in Viguié’s trilogy, the author finally allows the faith element to be openly played out. Who but God could grant such redemption?
Angels and demons
Speculative fiction is also trending up for Thomas Nelson, which was acquired this past October by HarperCollins.We see a growing hunger for what I’ll refer to as ‚Äòsupernatural’ fiction‚ stories that take readers to the thin places between the realm of the seen and the unseen, says Allen Arnold, Thomas Nelson senior VP and fiction publisher. These are stories in which angels, demons, visions, dreams, prophecies, and other supernatural phenomena are key elements.
Coming in April is Robert Liparulo’s The 13th Tribe, a supernatural thriller about a group of immortal Israelites who hope to earn their way into Heaven by killing sinners. Senior acquisitions editor Ami McConnell raves, His debut novels with Thomas Nelson years ago [Comes a Horseman; Germ] were applauded for their suspenseful writing, but he’s recently made a switch to more overt Christian content with The 13th Tribe. The difference is stunning‚ and the writing is awesome.
Becky Monds, a Thomas Nelson associate editor, points out that the Christian story is the perfect setup for the paranormal tales that especially draw teenage readers. Authors can explore the interaction of angels and demons among humans and witness miracles performed in everyday life. But while these writers delve into the supernatural side of Christianity, we are careful to make sure [their] characters are examples to the readers of how to live a real life and how to deal with real issues.
Christian sf/fantasy finds its audience
For years, speculative fiction was the stepchild of Christian publishing, a handy category for any title that did not easily find a home in another genre. In 2008, Jeff Gerke, who had worked in the CF industry as a writer and editor for more than a decade, launched his own publishing house specializing in Christian sf and fantasy. I was frustrated that the kinds of novels I loved best‚ Christian fantasy and sf‚ seemed to be getting short shrift…and that the ones that did get published seemed to sell very poorly. It finally dawned on me that this was because the core readership for Christian fiction didn’t want speculative fiction. They wanted bonnets and buggies, not mutant alien vampires who will eat your brains.
There was also the old fundamentalist suspicion of the genre. Christian bookstores and certain elements of the core fiction readership have long had a mistrust of ‚Äòmagic’ in Christian fiction, explains Gerke. If it weren’t for that pesky C.S. Lewis, they’d be able to say that all magic in Christian fiction is of the devil. Narnia notwithstanding, they still shy away from anything fantastical.
Gerke also believes the success of the Harry Potter books held back the growth of Christian speculative fiction. In many genres, what’s hot in secular fiction becomes hot in Christian fiction three to ten years later. But not in speculative fiction. The hotter the Harry Potter and Eragon and similar books got in secular fiction, the cooler became the reception to fantasy and other speculative fiction at Christian publishing houses. That’s when the frustration in me was growing.
That frustration and knowing that there were many Christian readers like him who loved sf/fantasy were the driving forces that led Gerke to start Marcher Lord Press (MLP). Despite its small list (four to six titles annually), the press in just four short years has accumulated an impressive collection of awards and nominations, including a 2010 Christy Award for Jill Williamson’s By Darkness Hid.
High on MLP’s spring 2012 list is Kathy Tyers’s Daystar (Apr.), the fifth and final book of the Firebird saga. Tyers is known for her best-selling Star Wars¬Æ novels, and Gerke describes her CF series as a science fiction retelling of the gospel‚Ä¶in a world in which [the Virgin] Mary said no. MLP will also debut Morgan L. Busse’s Daughter of Light (Apr.), a fantasy about a young woman who may not be entirely human and who can heal [through touch] and see [into] souls.
Gerke interprets the growing demand for YA Christian speculative fiction as a reaction to the popularity of paranormal titles, like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, and as a way to provide an alternative on which teens can spend their money. In April, Bethany House, one of the few CF publishers to offer speculative fiction continually over the years, will debut R.J. Larson’s Prophet, the first in a new series targeted at fans of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy. Now is the time, says MLP’s Gerke, when Christian speculative fiction can come out of the shadows and begin to find its audience.
Back in the real world
At the other end of the genre spectrum, contemporary CF’s popularity continues to expand. Tyndale House senior acquisitions editor Jan Stob and senior marketing manager Babette Rea say the sales and reader response they see indicate that this category is gaining strength. Especially doing well, they note, are books with a strong sense of place, like Southern fiction, and stories that strike an emotional chord with readers.
Joining Hachette’s Center Street imprint in 2012 is Charles Martin, whose best-selling novels mix a regional flavor with Nicholas Sparks‚ like sensibility. His latest work, Thunder and Rain (Apr.), is a contemporary Western about a retired Texas Ranger torn between his past and his future. Center Street’s sister imprint, FaithWords, is launching Jane Myers Perrine’s The Welcome Committee of Butternut Creek (Apr.), a new contemporary series with a small-town setting that might appeal to Jan Karon fans.
Zondervan associate acquisitions editor Becky Philpott agrees. I would define contemporary Christian fiction as novels that contain relatable characters and themes of contemporary life, whether they be in the categories of romance, suspense, mystery, literary, thriller, etc., she says. While women’s fiction remains hot, Philpott was not seeing as much chick lit these days. Although she didn’t speculate on the reasons for the decline, there is a sense among publishers that those readers have matured. Now marrying and having children, they are more likely to be interested in novels that deal with family drama, social issues, marriage, and relational topics.
Issues fiction comes of age
These books seem to blur the line between truth and fiction, says B&H Publishing Group fiction manager Julie Gwinn who acknowledges growth in issues fiction that tackles a range of problems, including drug addiction, sexual abuse, depression, and the loss of a child. In February, B&H will release Ginny L. Yttrup’s Lost and Found , a novel that addresses materialism, pleasing others, and emotional abuse. Yttrup’s first novel, Words, Gwinn explains, was taken from her experience as a survivor of 18 years of sexual abuse.
Tyndale House’s upcoming contemporary fiction 2012 list runs the gamut in mood and tone in dealing with complex personal, social, and moral issues. Winner of the Christian Writers Guild First Novel contest, Tim Owens’s The Search Committee (Feb.) is a humorous and poignant novel about seven congregational members seeking to recruit a new minister and is certain to appeal to Philip Gulley fans.
Senior marketing manager Rea praises Susan May Warren’s The Shadow of Your Smile (Jan.) as one of her best for capturing the essence of a family surviving a heartbreaking loss. She also lavishes accolades on two-time Christy Award winner Chris Fabry’s Not in the Heart (Feb.; see review, p. 92), a suspense novel about a journalist investigating the innocence of a death row inmate who wants to donate his heart to the journalist’s dying child. Chris creates a protagonist whom readers will want to walk away from, but in his typical fashion [he] pulls the reader in [for] an amazing reading experience.
Kensington Publishing’s Dafina line consists primarily of women’s fiction targeted at African American readers, and senior publicist Adeola Saul confirms the popularity of titles dealing with such topics as adultery, financial problems, and loss of trust. Coming this year are Vanessa Davis Grigg’s Forever Soul Ties (Jan.), Rhonda Bowen’s One Way or Another (Mar.), Michelle Stimpson’s Falling into Grace (Jun.), and Griggs’s The Other Side of Goodness (Jul.). While these books are not specifically labeled as inspirational fiction, their characters make decisions rooted in faith that CF readers can use for guidance.
Despite the spurt of new edgier realistic titles aimed at a more diverse readership, the core CF consumer still enjoys a little escapism in her inspirational reading. Zondervan executive editor Sue Brower reports that the core readership of white, middle-aged women is still buying primarily contemporary titles by Karen Kingsbury, suspense by Terri Blackstock, and historical fiction by Tamera Alexander. In Zondervan’s spring pipeline are DiAnn Mills’s tale of contemporary romantic suspense The Chase (Mar.), Blackstock’s thriller Downfall (Feb.), and Kingsbury’s Loving (Mar.), the highly anticipated finale in her popular Bailey Flanigan series.
Romantic suspense rules
Just as romantic suspense is enjoying a resurgence in the mainstream market, it, too, is on an upward swing again in the Christian market. Jennifer Leep, editorial director of Baker Publishing Group’s Revell division, sees the most growth potential for publishers in this genre. With both Irene Hannon and Lynette Eason, we’re finding readers who love that perfect blend of engaging romance and heart-stopping suspense. There’s been a healthy market for romantic suspense for quite some time‚ but it seems there is a renewed energy in this category recently with more new authors entering the genre. And readers seem to be appreciating the new voices.
Revell’s top spring title is Eason’s When the Smoke Clears (Feb.), a series launch that introduces female smokejumper Alexia Allen. This summer Hannon brings her Guardians of Justice series to an exciting close with Lethal Legacy (Aug.), about a woman determined to prove her father’s suicide was murder. Irene is building a great reputation for herself with stories that are full of high-intensity action, taut suspense, and just the right amount of romance, says Leep.
Revell’s sister imprint, Bethany House, is also jumping into this category. We are releasing titles now in historical romantic suspense, something that is new to our market, explains Steve Oates, VP of marketing. The way I judge demand in the market is based on the quantity that stores will commit to for a title versus other genres. For example, we know that Amish titles sell better just because of their genre compared to others. A similar dynamic happens with romantic suspense. Forthcoming titles include Nancy Mehl’s Inescapable (Jun.), which sets romantic suspense in a Mennonite small town, and debut author Dani Pettrey’s series launch, Submerged (May), which blends murder with Alaskan deep-sea diving.
The enduring appeal of bonnets
For many publishers, the popularity of Amish titles continues to be a driver for their acquisitions. The market remains healthy, says Revell’s Leep.We’re pleased to have seen those readers embrace Suzanne Woods Fisher. Her [fans] particularly seem to love the twists and turns they find in her novels. The second book in Fisher’s Stoney Ridge Seasons series, The Haven , will release in August.
FaithWords’ Boys also believes that what started as a finite trend has become firmly established as a strong CF subgenre. The publisher recently launched its first Amish novel, The Wounded Heart, by Adina Senft, with the next in the series, The Hidden Life, coming out in June.
Leep attributes bonnet fiction’s attraction to the world many of us live in: increasingly fast-paced, busy, and filled with distractions. These are contemporary stories, but they feature characters who are living without many of the distractions and complications we face in the modern world.
And Zondervan’s Philpott points out that readers are seeking great stories that contain elements of family and faith. Yet her boss, executive editor Brower, warns that the Amish category is becoming a very crowded market and that individual author/title sales are not as high as they might have been two to three years ago when only a handful of authors were writing in this genre.
With the April centennial of the sinking of the Titanic rapidly approaching, CF publishers are throwing their hats into the commemorative tie-in ring. This month, Tyndale House releases Promise Me This (see review, p. 90), a historical by two-time Christy Award winner Cathy Gohlke. Along with book giveaways, Tyndale plans a host of social media promotions in April, including having Gohlke blog on their website about her research.
In March comes Tricia Goyer’s Titanic-themed historical romance, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, from Barbour Publishing, while mystery is represented by Echoes of Titanic (Harvest House) by the husband-and-wife team of Mindy Starns Clark and John Campbell Clark. We are very excited for this book in-house, says Harvest House publicist Dillon. Promotional efforts include a book trailer discussion featuring the Clarks (ow.ly/8y2tl). Last but not least is Yvonne Lehman’s family saga about the ship’s survivors and their descendants, Hearts That Survive (Abingdon Pr., Mar.). While specific marketing plans have not yet been announced, Abingdon is investigating media outlets where anniversary specials may be planned.
Is CF crossing over?
While some evangelical writers‚ most notably spiritual thriller author Ted Dekker‚ have enjoyed a crossover appeal to the mainstream market, CF publishers are changing marketing strategies to appeal to secular readers. Although Dekker’s books are now targeted to both mainstream and Christian readers, Harry Helm, VP and associate publisher for FaithWords and Center Street, stresses that the Hachette imprints create distinct messaging appropriate for each of the markets. Many Christian writers can certainly build a readership in the mainstream, but it is essential that the publisher continue to speak directly to the Christian market in vehicles and language that resonate with that segment of readers.
Rather than the genre becoming more secularized, Jennifer Leep of Revell notes that many Christian novelists like Steven James are simply writing excellent stories with rich characters who strike a chord with a broad range of readers. His books, she explains, don’t contain explicit Christian messages as much as they implicitly explore spiritual questions such as the nature of good and evil in a way that’s consistent with Christian faith.
Bethany House’s Oates credits the increased availability of what once had been a niche genre sold mainly to Christian bookstores for its growing success among general readers. Christian fiction is now the third top-selling ebook fiction category, and Oates believes the expanded audience has become more tolerant on content. I would not see that as being more secular, just more in touch with the values of the readership, he adds.
Still, the Christian worldview remains front and center when editors are building their lists. Thomas Nelson’s McConnell explains, While we often find new readership in folks simply looking for inoffensive content, the thing that makes Christian fiction so appealing and what engenders reader loyalty isn’t what a book lacks‚ it’s what it offers: a distinctively Christian viewpoint. Zondervan’s Brower does not encourage her authors to dilute their message in order to reach a mainstream audience. When they do, they lose their most ardent fans, the Christian consumer…. Keep in mind that we focus on the Christian fiction reader no matter where they pick up their books‚ Christian bookstores, libraries, mainstream stores, or digitally online.
CF on the Web
Collection development librarians, do you need some divine inspiration when it comes to selecting CF? The following online resources will help you see the light, with reviews, author interviews, awards listings, and news.
American Christian Fiction Writers
Launched in 2000 as the American Christian Romance Writers, the group changed its name in 2004 to reflect better the diversity of its 2000-plus members who write in a variety of genres. It sponsors the Carol Award (see Awards, below) and administers Fiction Finder (www.fictionfinder.com), a site dedicated to connecting readers and CF titles; registration is required, but the site is free.
Christian Fiction Blog
CF author Dee Stewart (A Good Excuse To Be Bad) blogs about a wide variety of genres and authors. Recently, she’s covered Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee, listed her top 20 African American CF titles for 2011, and the 2011 INSPY Award (see below) winners.
Christian Fiction Online Magazine
Affiliated with the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance (christianfictionblogalliance.com), this online publication offers author interviews and reviews and tips for aspiring CF writers.
This comprehensive CF resource includes news, interviews, and information about current and forthcoming book, comics, and movie/DVD titles for adults and children, broken down by genre. Readers can sign up for a free weekly e-newsletter, or download the free bimonthly digital magazine, which covers Amish fiction, historical fiction, romance, contemporary, women’s fiction, and children’s books. Starting with the February/March 2012 issue, a spin-off, FamilyFiction Edge, will focus on the latest in Christian suspense, speculative fiction, and YA/teen fiction.
Overbooked.com: A Resource for Readers
This site, started and run by librarian Ann Chambers Theis, covers all genres of fiction, including CF, with rosters of publishers, booksellers, authors, reading lists, and starred reviews. It won the 2008 Louis Shores-Greenwood Publishing Group Award for excellence in book reviewing and other media for librarians.
Originally the Book of the Year Award from the American Christian Fiction Writers, the award was renamed in 2010 in honor of longtime editor Carol Johnson, who acquired Janette Oke for Bethany House in 1979. The award is given for the best CF published in the previous calendar year in a variety of genres.
Named after the title character in Catherine Marshall’s CF classic novel, the award was established in 1999 to recognize excellence in CF in a variety of genres.
ECPA Christian Book Awards
Presented by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) and given annually since 1978, this prize (formerly known as the Gold Medallion Book Award) honors the best of Christian publishing in seven categories, including fiction.
Established in 2010, this “Bloggers Award for Excellence in Faith-Driven Literature” judges books published for the CF and general markets as long as faith is a key component.
Chapters & Verse: A CF Concordance
Below are the recently published and forthcoming titles mentioned in the article.
For a full list of other forthcoming books, see the online version of this article
|Bowen, Rhonda||One Way or Another||Dafina: Kensington||February|
|Busse, Morgan L.||Daughter of Light||Marcher Lord||April|
|Clark, Mindy Starns & John Campbell Clark||Echoes of Titanic||Harvest House||March|
|Eason, Lynette||When the Smoke Clears||Revell||February|
|Fabry, Chris||Not in the Heart||Tyndale House||February|
|Fisher, Suzanne Woods||The Haven||Revell||August|
|Gohlke, Cathy||Promise Me This||Tyndale House||February|
|Goyer, Tricia||By the Light of the Silvery Moon||Barbour Publishing||March|
|Griggs, Vanessa Davis||Forever Soul Ties||Dafina: Kensington||January|
|Griggs, Vanessa Davis||The Other Side of Goodness||Dafina: Kensington||July|
|Hannon, Irene||Lethal Legacy||Revell||August|
|Lawson, R.J.||Prophet||Bethany House||April|
|Lehman, Yvonne||Hearts That Survive||Abingdon||March|
|Liparulo, Robert||The 13th Tribe||Thomas Nelson||April|
|Martin, Charles||Thunder and Rain||Center Street: Hachette||April|
|Mehl, Nancy||Inescapable||Bethany House||June|
|Mills, DiAnn||The Chase||Zondervan||March|
|Owens, Tim||The Search Committee||Tyndale House||February|
|Perrine, Jane Myers||The Welcome Committee of Butternut Creek||FaithWords: Hachette||April|
|Pettrey, Dani||Submerged||Bethany House||May|
|Senft, Adina||The Wounded Heart||FaithWords: Hachette||2011|
|Senft, Adina||The Hidden Life||FaithWords: Hachette||June|
|Stimpson, Michelle||Falling into Grace||Dafina: Kensington||June|
|Tyers, Kathy||Daystar||Marcher Lord||April|
|Viguié, Debbie||Kiss of Night||FaithWords: Hachette||2011|
|Warren, Susan May||The Shadow of Your Smile||Tyndale House||January|
|Yttrup, Ginny L.||Lost and Found||B&H Publishing||February|
|Yttrup, Ginny L.||Words||B&H Publishing||2011|