Christian Fiction Sees the Light

This past year has been a game changer in the publishing industry. In the wake of the Penguin Random House merger, the traditional Big Six publishers are now five. Likewise, the Christian fiction (CF) landscape has experienced seismic shifts through mergers and changes in publishing strategies. In May, B&H Publishing, a division of Lifeway Christian Resources, announced that it was “realigning” its B&H fiction line. The publisher of such award-winning authors as Amanda Flowers, Brandilyn Collins, and Ginny Yttrup would now only publish novels that tied to other B&H/Lifeway brands and initiatives. Titles scheduled through next spring (Mar./Apr. 2014) would still be released, but B&H in effect was shutting down a fiction imprint that had published about 20 novels annually.

What does this mean for the CF industry? According to Karen Watson, associate publisher at Tyndale, the biggest impact is not on new writers but on midlist authors. “All publishers are very careful about the number of new authors on their list. The bigger squeeze is for those who have several books published without a significant breakout book,” says Watson.

HarperCollins’s July 2012 purchase of Thomas Nelson marked another major change, when the publisher created a new division, HarperCollins Christian Publishing, to manage both its new acquisition and its Zondervan line. In explaining why the two Christian publishing brands would operate under the management of a single publishing team, Katie Bond, director of marketing and publicity for Thomas Nelson, points out that each brand has developed distinct vision statements that guide their individual programs.

“Both Zondervan and Thomas Nelson reach a large segment of the market that is distinct from our parent publisher’s market. HarperCollins sees our content focus and the trust of our readers as our biggest asset. We now have the dual strength of an autonomous publishing division but with the resources and economies of scale of a larger organization.”

For the moment, other publishers, editors, and agents are waiting to see what develops from this merger. “With 15- to 18-month prepub acquisitions, any changes that result may not be seen until 2015,” says Abingdon senior acquisitions editor Ramona Richards.

Mainstreamed with a difference

The trademark heart of CF, a transforming message shared through a well-told story, hasn’t changed, but today’s readers no longer fit old industry stereotypes. Christina Boys, a senior editor at Hachette’s FaithWords and Center Street imprints, notices that the market attracts more mainstream readers with strong values who do not necessarily want to be labeled as Christian book fans.

“These readers often prefer sweet romances, cozy mysteries, or small-town series, yet may not browse the Christian section,” says Boys, who cites the rise in the popularity of ebooks as responsible for attracting readers new to the genre who otherwise might feel uncomfortable searching shelves labeled “Christian fiction.” “A book that doesn’t physically exist can be shelved in multiple places to broaden exposure to readers in a variety of genres.”

Websites such as Goodreads, Bookish, and Pinterest point readers to books based on their interests. Yet Boys detects an inherent challenge for CF readers who are looking for new titles as these sites still rely on “a person or computer algorithm selecting the books the reader sees. Those selections will generally be the most popular titles.”

Thomas Nelson prides itself on publishing highly curated fiction—both overtly CF and novels that appeal to a wider audience. “Our readers are looking for powerful, transformative stories, and providing that experience…remains our focus,” explains Bond. “The books that we publish reach an audience searching for overtly faith-filled stories, but they also reach beyond that audience to readers who are simply looking for authentic and ultimately hopeful stories.”

Tyndale’s Watson agrees, noting that CF content has a much wider spectrum of theme and style than a decade ago. “These stories,” adds WaterBrook Multnomah senior marketing manager Amy Haddock, “are becoming more enamored with reflecting life as it exists rather than what we would like it to be.”

But Kregel Publication’s Noelle Pederson, manager of Lion Hudson Distribution (a UK Christian publisher with a strong presence in the international market), sees a shift back to CF’s evangelical roots. “Early Christian fiction was very didactic and rigidly defined, yet as it grew more popular it focused on entertainment value. In the core market, I see the pendulum swinging back somewhat as readers and publishers ask, Why is this Christian fiction?”

Embracing the Ebook

There is no doubt that the coming of age of ebooks has revolutionized publishing and the CF genre. The advantages for authors include new exposure to an audience who might otherwise not discover their books in a brick-and-mortar store. Free and reduced pricing initiatives have encouraged readers, many who do not consider themselves CF fans, to sample authors they might not try ordinarily, which has broadened readership. In addition, Christian publishing companies are increasingly offering digital shorts to garner interest in an author’s newest book in anticipation of its release date. This month, WaterBrook is releasing Just As I Am: A Short Story Extra for What Once Was Lost, a follow-up to Kim Vogel Sawyer’s previous novel and a prequel to her January 2014 title Echoes of Mercy.

Tyndale House associate publisher Karen Watson has learned that some authors and genres perform more strongly in the ebook format. Romance readers tend to be more voracious, she says, and the lower pricing and immediate download is attractive to them. Suspense has a higher percentage of male readers, and many who enjoy this category tend to be more tech-savvy. LJ’s September 2013 materials survey indicates that 84% of libraries offer ebook formats of Christian fiction; interestingly, a majority of libraries (64%) do not plan to purchase e-originals.

Dual roles for CF

To meet the challenges of this new publishing world, Kregel will continue to target its fiction offerings to the traditional CF consumer, while distributing Lion Hudson’s new Lion Fiction imprint, a mix of mysteries, historical fiction, fantasy, and women’s fiction aimed at readers drawn to “complex characters and exciting historical settings.” Launched in March 2013, Lion Fiction’s initial list included such established names as fantasy author Stephen Lawhead and crime writers Donna Fletcher Crow, Mel Starr, Fay Sampson, and C.F. Dunn, as well as a debut thriller author, David Steven.

Coming in June 2014 is Edoardo Albert’s Edwin: High King of Britain, a debut historical novel about Britain’s early Christian rulers. “Set in a unique time period—seventh-century Britain,” says Pederson, “this title showcases Lion Fiction’s strength of publishing exciting fiction that is also historically accurate.” In tone and appeal it is similar to Mel Starr’s “Chronicles of Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon,” a medieval murder mystery series with a substantial international fan base. The sixth book in that series, Rest Not in Peace, releases this month.

The UK imprint is also interested in authentic British stories, and Pederson cites Pam Rhodes’s “Dunbridge Chronicles” as an excellent example. The second volume in the series, Casting the Net (Mar. 2014), continues the story of a vicar assigned to a village full of colorful characters. “Through the [villagers’] interactions and the inevitable small-town church politics, the reader senses the quiet, everyday miracle of life.”

On the Kregel side, it will reissue two classic titles of biblical fiction by respected ancient history professor Paul Meier: Pontius Pilate (1968) and Flames of Rome (1981) in October 2014. “These best-selling novels have [long] been a staple of Kregel’s fiction list and still speak to readers today,” explains Pederson. And coming in February is Defy the Night, a new young adult novel by Heather and Lydia Munn, coauthors of the acclaimed How Huge the Night. Set in World War II France, it centers on a young woman and her desire to fight actively the Nazi regime. “Historically accurate and compellingly readable, this is a true coming-of-age story that is beautifully written,” says Pederson.

New authors in a new climate

Despite the shifts in the industry, new authors remain the lifeblood of CF publishers, and the upcoming winter 2013/spring 2014 season sees a diversity of voices that will attract both traditional CF fans and a broader readership interested in exploring a new genre. Out this month from Marcher Lord Press is Never To Live, a psychological, mind-bending fantasy by 19-year-old Just B. Jordan. “I’ve been calling it Lord of the Rings meets Sucker Punch,” says publisher Jeff Gerke.

Adding a Christian twist to the dystopian fiction trend is Nadine Brandes’s A Time To Die, about an America divided by a wall running north-south through the continent. “Both novels are beautifully written and are by new voices I’m so excited to present to the marketplace,” comments Gerke.

For the growing male CF readership (see “In Search of the Male Reader,”, Tyndale is offering two notable debuts. Luke Wordley’s self-published The Fight (May 2014) deals with the theme of “the angry young man,” says associate publisher Karen Watson. Set in a down-on-its-luck boxing club in England, the novel revolves around an older family man wrestling with his own demons while trying to save a talented but self-destructive young protégé. “It has such a strong redemptive message that I simply couldn’t let it go,” says Watson. “With the success of films like Courageous [an independent Christian film released in 2011], we believed that this book could appeal strongly to the same audience of both men and women.”

Jake Smith’s Wish (Tyndale, May 2014) is a tale about showing hope and courage in the face of long odds. “What sport is better at doing that than [baseball]? A young boy in need of a bone marrow transplant makes a wish that his dad would get a chance to play one day in the majors. It is fiction with a mission,” says Watson, who hopes readers will be inspired to sign up for the national bone marrow registry.

Other newcomers include Kate ­Breslin, whose World War II novel For Such a Time (Bethany House, Apr. 2014) offers biblical parallels to the Book of Esther; Amy Sorrell’s How Sweet the Sound (David C. Cook, Mar. 2014), which is inspired by the story of Tamar in the second Book of Samuel, chapter 13, and designed to show that true help and healing come only from God; and Patricia Bradley’s Shadows of the Past (Revell, Feb. 2014), which has already garnered several prepublication literary awards (2012 Daphne du Maurier, 2012 Touched by Love). Tapping into the still popular Jane Austen spin-off trend is Katherine Reay’s Dear Mr. Knightley (Thomas Nelson, Nov. 2013), an epistolary novel about a young woman who adopts the traits of her favorite literary characters. Nelson marketing director Bond describes this debut as a “booklover’s book.”

Edgy bonnet fiction

Amish fiction is no longer catching fire but still corners a strong section of the CF market. According to an LJ survey of 225 libraries conducted in September 2013, two of the top four circulating CF novelists are leading writers in the Amish genre, Beverly Lewis and Wanda Brunstetter. And Amish fiction remains the top CF subgenre carried (91 percent of libraries own some Amish fiction), with romance trailing right behind (88 percent of libraries). Tapping into the genre’s continuing popularity, Thomas Nelson maintains, which includes online reading groups, book discussion forums, and many other sections geared to Amish fiction fans.

Yet Amish fiction, like other CF subgenres, is changing to meet readers’ shifting interests. Publishers are looking for varying angles and story lines, as well as new settings. Abingdon marketing and publicity manager Cat Hoort sees more novels taking place outside the traditional Amish areas in Pennsylvania and Ohio. She points to A Season of Change (Abingdon, May 2014), the first book in Lynette Sowell’s new series about an Amish community in Pinecraft, FL. Sowell, citing regional differences among the various Amish sects, chose to set her book in a town where the Amish are allowed to use electricity. She hopes to overturn outsiders’ preconceived notions about the Plain People.

“What was once a rather insular look at a certain type of family life has expanded to mystery, suspense, Amish–meets–the–Wild West, and Amish-meets-Shakespeare,” says Harvest House senior editor Kim Moore. The Amish are even meeting the undead in outer space, the subject of Kerry Nietz’s Amish Vampires in Space (Marcher Lord, Oct. 2013).

FaithWords’ Christina Boys agrees with Moore. “Because of the number of Amish novels being published, we may start to see subgenres become established, such as Amish mysteries. We have a new series debuting next summer with Herb of Grace by Adina Senft (Aug. 2014) that follows an Amish woman who becomes a dokterfraa (healer) in her community, using the herbs she grows in her garden. As in a cozy mystery or small-town series, she will be a continuing protagonist.”

Moore also notes that versatile CF authors are finding satisfaction by offering fresh interpretations in this subgenre. Susan Meissner, well known for her literary CF fiction (The Shape of Mercy), is making her first Amish foray with The Amish Groom (Harvest House, Apr. 2014), coauthored with Mindy Starns Clark. Likewise, CF adult and teen favorite Melody Carlson explores the clash between two different worlds in My Amish Boyfriend (Revell, Feb. 2014). Still, the emphasis on the simple life and community traditions remains at Amish fiction’s core. Coming in January from Kregel is Dee Yoder’s The Miting, which explores the ramifications of one girl’s decision to study the Bible rather than strictly follow the rules of her ­community.

A Reader-Centric Library Tool (“the intersection of fiction and faith) was launched in September 2012 as a tool to “raise the profile of Christian fiction and serve as an online curator of the vast amount of content out there in the marketplace,” says Amy Haddock, senior marketing manager of WaterBrook Multnomah, the publisher that developed and runs NovelCrossing. The site’s searchable database now includes 5,687 CF titles representing 165 publishers.

Haddock believes NovelCrossing helps save librarians valuable time by working with them to keep a “pulse” on the CF community in one central hub. Articles, member reviews, and features present an invaluable snapshot of readers. The databases also allow librarians to customize searches based on the needs of the individual patron. One section, Book Bridge, features articles that could be helpful for library-based book clubs looking to generate great discussion.

Is sf the future of CF?

Marcher Lord publisher Gerke asserts there is a growing acceptance of sf and fantasy by CF readers, especially among younger people. “Teens are searching for science fiction and fantasy in large numbers and, as a result, more publishers are willing to give it a try.” He also works with hundreds of teens and twentysomethings through his writing workshops and notes that a majority write speculative fiction, leading him to believe that these genres may have a strong future in the Christian market, especially with YA readers.

Other publishers seem to agree with Gerke. Next year ­WaterBrook is releasing two YA fantasy titles: Sigmund Brouwer’s Blades of Valor (Jan. 2014; ebook only), the conclusion to the “Merlin’s Immortals” series, and Chuck Black’s series launch, Cloak of the Light: Wars of the Realm (Mar. 2014).

Up the down staircase

Since prairie romances first graced the shelves of CF bookstores, historical CF has remained popular with genre readers. “Fiction focusing on historic eras often represents a romantic and simple look at times that were not so rushed and demanding as our 21st-century lives,” says Harvest’s Moore. “Whether it’s escapism from difficult times or a break from daily stress brought on by too much technology, fiction entertains and helps people rejuvenate, relax, and recharge.”

While the subgenre has long been dominated by novels set in the late 19th century on the American frontier, FaithWords’ Boys believes readers are starting to look for something new and different, which is why this spring/summer 2014 the imprint will publish three inspirational historical novels set in some new periods. Stephanie Grace Whitson’s A Captain for Laura Rose (Mar. 2014) follows a female riverboat captain in the 1860s on the Missouri River; The Baron’s Honourable Daughter by Lynn Morris (May 2014), set in Regency England, is described by Boys as Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey; and The Hatmaker’s Heart (Jun. 2014) by Carla Stewart is set in the fashion industry in New York and London in the 1920s. “All three novels are richly researched and [offer] full period detail,” says Boys.

Thomas Nelson is also hopeful about the opportunities for stories set in the 20th century, especially with novels dealing with World War II. High on its 2014 summer list is Kristy Cambron’s debut, The Butterfly and the Violin (Jul. 2014), which focuses on a young violinist who plays in a women’s orchestra at Auschwitz in order to survive. Of course the success of Downton Abbey continues to spawn new upstairs/downstairs tales, such as Butterfly Palace (Jan. 2014) by USA Today best-selling romantic suspense author Colleen Coble, which is set in 1904 Austin, TX. Even Regency historicals are incorporating this theme. Thomas Nelson publicity director Bond is excited about one particular author. “Sarah Ladd is a delightful newcomer to our list (Heiress of Winterwood, published this past spring, and the forthcoming Headmistress of Rosemere, Dec.), writing Regency novels with the upstairs/downstairs angle.

The beauty of historicals, says Tyndale’s Watson, is that “they do present the opportunity to (re)live periods of history where life challenges have been survived and often conquered. That, in some small way, provides a level of hopefulness that I think everyone is looking for. For books in the Christian fiction genre, providing hope is at the core of what we do.”

Fairport, NY–based freelance writer Julia M. Reffner has reviewed books and DVDs in a variety of genres for LJ and for a variety of websites such as The Title Trakk and Christian Library Journal. She is an active member of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW)