New Hope for Faith-Filled Fiction | Christian Fiction Genre Spotlight

The inspirational fiction publishing landscape has shifted quite dramatically over the past few years. Harper­Collins Publishing’s acquisition and integration of two key brands—Thomas Nelson and Zondervan—into the HarperCollins Christian Publishing (HCCP) program, along with the retreat from releasing fiction of several CBA (Association for Christian Retail, formerly the Christian Booksellers Association) houses such as Abingdon Press, B&H Publishing Group, and Moody Publishers, are seen as reflections of a shrinking Christian fiction (CF) market. Can the genre regain its momentum to thrive and grow in this challenging environment?

Despite a gloomy outlook—Nielsen BookScan reported a 15 percent drop in CF sales between 2013 and 2014—some publishers see favorable signs. Stirring excitement with its fiction-only mandate is Gilead Publishing, a start-up launched this spring by longtime industry professionals Dan Balow, Sue Brower, and Bill Giarratana. “Fiction is ancillary at most publishing houses with a focus on nonfiction and Bible sales,” explains Balow, who is best known for heading the marketing for Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s “Left Behind” series at Tyndale House. “Gilead differs in that it will concentrate solely on fiction and channel the Christian readers where they are.”

a bouquet of possibilities

Another house seeing opportunity is Kensington Publishing, which has been growing its program in this genre. “Kensington’s focus on Christian fiction and crossover fiction has been a relatively new development for us,” says communications director Vida Engstrand. The company entered the inspirational market in 2014 with Amish romances and noticed these titles sold very well in such non-CBA retail outlets as Walmart, Target, Books-a-Million, and Barnes & Noble. In turn, Ken­sington editors increased their CF acquisitions.

With a reputation for publishing commercial fiction well, Kensington applied many of the same successful marketing strategies and sensibilities to inspirational fiction. Last year the house launched Bouquet, a program designed to distinguish books on its list that might appeal to CF readers. With Ken­sington now promoting the Bouquet line in both the Christian and general bookstore markets, Engstrand describes its authors as crossovers in reverse. “Rather than starting in the Christian market and crossing over into the mainstream, we started them in the mainstream and crossed over into ­Christian,” she says.

Of course, the crossovers work both ways. In April 2017, the publisher is releasing Miramar Bay by Davis Bunn, the best-selling author of Christy Award–winning suspense and historical novels. Kensington editorial director Wendy ­McCurdy describes the book as Bunn’s first work of romantic fiction written for a crossover market. “The underlying themes of faith and forgiveness will appeal to his existing readership. More mainstream readers will go for the Nicholas Sparks–like love story,” she says. A major marketing campaign in both Christian and general markets is planned.

Kensington is committed to expanding the Bouquet program, even into its digital-first Lyrical Press imprint. “Given our success on the print side, we’re hoping to grow our inspirational list in Lyrical as well,” says editor Martin Biro, who oversees the imprint. In October, Lyrical released Irene Onorato’s A Soldier Finds His Way, which will be followed by two more books in the “A Veteran’s Heart” trilogy. “We were especially drawn to Irene’s series not only for the inspirational element, but because each book tackles real-life issues faced by our veterans,” Biro notes.


9780373719976_p0_v2_s192x300__1478901236_64489In light of the We Need Diverse Books movement, Shannon Marchese, a senior editor at Penguin Random House’s WaterBrook & Multnomah imprints, acknowledges that publishers must make a more concerted effort to acquire and promote diverse inspirational stories. “On the nonfiction side, we’re seeing more diversity in our publishing categories, but the fiction category needs to do better, without a doubt.” Melissa Endlich, senior editor of Harlequin’s Love Inspired imprints, agrees. “We need books that better reflect who we are as Americans,” says Endlich. In December, the imprint is releasing Belle ­Calhoune’s Reunited at Christmas, featuring a white hero, his African American wife, and their biracial child.

As an author of color who first published in 1999, Sharon Ewell Foster sees continued diversity-related challenges within CBA. Even though her first two books, Passing by Samaria and Ain’t No River, were CBA best sellers, Foster has constantly been told by CBA publishers that books by black authors don’t sell.

“Embracing authors of color is in some ways like embracing immigrants. The publisher has a brand image in mind, and often authors of color don’t fit the brand…. Also, authors of color require marketers and salespeople to venture into new territory. That can be challenging.” Foster is convinced the Christian market will continue to shrink unless publishers embrace more diverse readers and writers.


Considering that Hispanics form a large presence in both the evangelical and Catholic churches, it would seem publishers would want to explore this market in their CF. Love Inspired had recent success with Jolene Navarro’s The Soldier’s Surprise Family (Sept.), which features a Latina protagonist; many of Navarro’s other romances also feature Hispanic characters. Coming in December is Lee Tobin McClain’s The Nanny’s Texas Christmas (Love Inspired), in which a Latina teacher agrees to spend her holidays caring for one of her pupils who has a single father.

Yet other Hispanic authors, frustrated by the lack of interest from the CBA market, have turned to independent publishing to reach their readers. In 2015, Mimi Milan launched her historical suspense series with A Rebel in Jericho (Eaton House), about a young Mexican American woman in 1918 who is kidnapped and sold across the border to a saloon. The author chose the boutique track because it gave her independence and enabled her to tackle such sensitive subjects as human trafficking. This past July, she released Twice Redeemed (Eaton House), the second volume in the “Jericho Resistance” series.

Also turning to self-publishing is author Foster, whose Three Sisters imprint partnered with Church World Services’ Crop Hunger Walk initiative to rerelease her multicultural historical novel Abraham’s Well. (Oct.). Winner of the 2006 Romantic Times Award for Best Inspirational, this title tells the story of a mixed-race woman—African American and Cherokee—who walks the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of Native Americans from the East Coast to what is now Oklahoma in 1838. “The indie market is new to me. But I come to the indie market with books that have already been positively reviewed and endorsed,” says Foster. “I’m hopeful that with the desire for more diverse books, this will be a great fit for all concerned.”

Grittier TOPICS

Once known for happily-ever-after endings, CF is changing with the times. Citing the example of Katie ­Ganshert’s 2015 Carol Award–winning The Art of Losing Yourself, which addressed the emotional devastation of infertility, WaterBrook’s Marchese notes the tremendous shift in topics and how characters in those novels engage with those themes. Writers are now addressing in their fiction once forbidden subjects—depression, substance abuse, family abandonment, domestic abuse, and sex and gender issues. Ganshert’s next novel, Life After (­WaterBrook, Apr. 2017), focuses on the lone survivor of a train bombing who struggles with grief and loss and what it means to hope in an uncertain future.

51jmbxvjszl__1478901310_97450In Billy Coffey’s Some Small Magic (Thomas Nelson, Mar. 2017), Abel Shifflett, longing for magic to heal his broken body, runs away with a mentally disabled but protective childhood friend in search of a cure. Of Stillness and Storm (Thomas Nelson, Dec.), by Michèle Phoenix, is a tale of troubled love and good intentions gone wrong featuring a couple who are missionaries in Nepal. What once felt like a calling begins to unravel the family as Lauren’s past returns to haunt her.

Kregel Publications is seeing more dark story lines, with only partial resolutions that more accurately reflect the realities of life. “Today’s Christian fiction readership want to go through tough situations alongside an [empathetic] protagonist and are ready to face the mundane evil of characters who are not villain caricatures,” says marketing and publicity manager Noelle Pedersen. She points to Kregel authors Cindy Sproles (Liar’s Winter, Jun. 2017) and Susie Finkbeiner (A Trail of Crumbs, Mar. 2017) , whose true-to-life characters find hope and redemption even when there is no promise of a happily ever after.

Even authors of genteel Amish romances are tackling delicate topics. Kensington communications and marketing manager Jane Nutter highlights two forthcoming entries in Amy Lillard’s “Wells Landing” series—Titus Returns (Zebra, Jan. 2017) and Marrying Jonah (Zebra, Mar. 2017)—that will explore such issues as life after prison, premarital sex, and miscarriage. Also, Charlotte Hubbard’s first hardcover release, A Mother’s Love (Kensington, Mar. 2017), deals with adoption, expanding the idea of what the typical Amish family looks like. “The genre is ready to grow into unexpected territory,” says Nutter. “Not in a way that adds explicit content or language but in the different ways people can explore faith.”

Still, Bethany House senior acquisitions editor Dave Long stresses the importance of story over any short-term trends. “The biggest shift over the last nine to 12 months as Amish fiction plateaus is a sense of looking for what’s next. You’re seeing more experimentation in time periods and subgenres.” He’s leery of stories pitched as issues fiction, which is more than likely going to be heavy-handed propaganda. “Great stories are going to have real issues at their heart—but they need to be about so much more than just that issue.” Marchese of ­WaterBrook & Multnomah agrees, noting that “the balance is in offering novels for some who are still reading fiction for entertainment as well as those looking to explore sensitive issues.”


Historical inspirational fiction remains perennially popular, with Edwardian-era novels still basking in the post–Downton Abbey glow. High on WaterBrook’s winter/spring 2017 list is Carrie Turansky’s Shine Like the Dawn (Feb. 2017), a tale of a young aristocratic woman who blames another family for the boating accident that claimed her parents’ lives and who struggles with issues of forgiveness and redemption. “Roseanna White’s upstairs/downstairs novels continue to be the perfect read for those [fans] who have been missing Downton Abbey,” says Bethany House fiction acquisitions editor Raela Schoenherr. A rising star in Edwardian romance, White released the final novel in her “Ladies of the Manor” trilogy, A Lady Unrivaled, in September.

Several other new releases are slotted to satisfy the current interest in all things Edwardian. In Christy Award–winning author Nancy Moser’s The Pattern Artist (Barbour, Dec.), English housemaid Annie Wood arrives in early 20th-century New York City with her wealthy mistress. Looking for new possibilities beyond a life of service, she discovers she has hidden talents as a pattern maker and fashion designer when she lands a job in Macy’s sewing department. Jen Turano’s Behind the Scenes (Bethany House, Apr. 2017) is a Gilded Age tale of a wallflower–turned–gossip columnist and her unlikely romance with a department store owner. Erica Vetsch’s My Heart Belongs in Fort Bliss, Texas: Patricia’s Reveille (Barbour, Jan. 2017) may attract fashionista fans with its heroine, a high-steppin’ Eastern fashion artist who heads west to gain custody of her troubled niece and nephew.

Bethany House’s Schoenherr also observes an ongoing interest in 19th-century British-set historicals. Coming in December is The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill, the debut title in the first series for Julie Klassen, a leader in Christian Regency romance. Jennifer Delamere’s The Captain’s Daughter (Bethany House, Jun. 2017) centers on a penniless young woman in 1880s London who dreams of a career in the spotlight instead of her backstage theater job. Delamere is a RITA finalist whose books Schoenherr describes as strong historical romances that are clean but will appeal to a broad range of readers.

Amish & Colonial history

51tmcuzincl__1478901375_28655On the Amish fiction front, Kensington editor in chief John Scognamiglio notes that Molly Jebber, whose “Keepsake Pocket Quill” novels are Amish romances set at the end of the 19th century, is one of the few authors writing about the Amish in a historical context. “Her novels are unique to the genre,” he notes. The next book in the series, Two Suitors for Anna (Zebra: Kensington, Feb. 2017), features charming historical details about Amish culture.

Also taking a look at Amish history is best-selling author Suzanne Woods Fisher. The second installment in her “Amish Beginnings” series, The Newcomer (Revell, Jan. 2017), takes place in 1737, when Anna König and her fellow church members look to start a new life on the Pennsylvania frontier.

Fiction set in Colonial America has a devoted following, notes WaterBrook’s Marchese, who anticipates “more growth in coming seasons.” Christy nominee Laura Frantz’s A Moonbow Night (Revell, Jan. 2017) opens on the Shawnee River frontier, where a settler and his unexpected female guide encounter danger, love, and ambushes. Heidi Chiavaroli’s Freedom’s Ring (Tyndale, May 2017) revolves around two central dates in Boston history: the marathon bombing in 2013 and the 1770 Boston Massacre.

Westerns, Traditional & edgy

The Western, a favorite of CF fans since Janette Oke’s 1979 Love Comes Softly, remains popular with more traditional readers. Harlequin’s Love Inspired Historical (LIH) line releases as many Western-set novels per month as possible, including its multi-author miniseries “Lone Star Cowboy League.” “Trendy eras and time periods don’t interest LIH’s core readership,” explains Love Inspired’s Endlich. “They love tried-and-true Western historicals, featuring wagon trains, cowboys, and ranchers.” In Linda Ford’s Montana Cowboy Family (Love Inspired Historical, Jan. 2017), a cowboy falls for a schoolteacher as he helps her search for her abducted students.

Scarlett Dunn writes inspirational Western historical novels for Kensington’s Bouquet program under the Zebra imprint. In August 2017, the publisher is launching her new trilogy with Whispering Pines. Scognamiglio notes that Dunn’s historicals stand out from others in the way she integrates her characters’ faith into her novels. “Here characters are ranchers and cowboys, living in the Old West. They are rarely shown anywhere near a church, and some of the actions might be considered sinful in modern-day society. On a superficial level they may not seem very Christian. Yet their relationship with God and faith helps them get through challenging times.” Dunn’s novels are also a bit edgier than traditional Westerns because there is usually an element of danger.


World War II continues to top the list of favorite historical eras for CF readers. “Such a dark period of history offers opportunity to tell amazing stories of bravery, heroism, and faith,” explains Tyndale House senior acquisitions editor Stephanie Broene. She also attributes its enduring appeal to the existence of still-living survivors (although dwindling in number), which adds a familiarity and poignancy to these stories. Next March, Tyndale is publishing Dandi Daley Mackall’s With Love, Wherever You Are (Mar. 2017). The best-selling YA author decided to write an adult novel about the war because she had heard stories from her parents, an army doctor and a nurse. When her father died, Mackall was left with 600 letters that her parents wrote to each other during World War II.

Kelli Stuart also gathered stories from survivors in the course of her 15-year research for Like a River from Its Course (Kregel, Jun.), a multi-point-of-view novel set in war-torn Ukraine. Best-selling author Tricia Goyer writes about cryptography and spies in A Secret Courage (Harvest House, Apr. 2017), a novel featuring an American member of the Women’s Army Corps who finds romance (and danger) in a London bookstore.

Sustaining suspense

Romantic suspense remains a hot category, and the Love Inspired Suspense (LIS) line is a huge draw for Harlequin. Senior editor Endlich credits the genre’s continued popularity with the irresistible mix of danger and romance. What is new, she adds, is the cute factor (e.g., canines). “We’ve found great success with a multiauthor miniseries “K9 Unit.” The books all feature K9 dog units, with or without their handlers, on the covers. In December, LIS is offering Rookie K9 Unit Christmas, a holiday novella collection featuring top authors Valerie Hansen and Lenora Worth. The imprint is set to launch the “Classified K9 Unit” series in spring 2017, with Terri Reed, Laura Scott, and Hansen.

51bolx_v_1l-_sx322_bo1204203200___1478901450_21885Longtime romantic suspense author Dee Henderson returns next spring with Threads of Suspicion (Bethany House, May 2017). This entry in Henderson’s “Evie Blackwell Cold Case” mysteries has Evie and her new partner investigating two missing persons cases in Chicago. The duo’s concept of justice for all is put to the ultimate test. Best seller Irene Hannon’s Sandpiper Cove (Revell, Apr. 2017) stars Lexie Graham, a busy single mom and the police chief of Hope Harbor, who has no time for romance until she meets ex-con Adam Stone. Daphne du Maurier Award winner and rising star Patricia Bradley mixes intrigue and nail-biting suspense in Justice Delayed (Revell, Jan. 2017), while Christy Award winner Susan May Warren releases a second installment in her “Montana Rescue” series with Rescue Me (Revell, Jan. 2017), set in Glacier National Park.

cf in brief

Some industry professionals think short is the thing to capture fans’ attention between releases by favorite authors and as a promotional tool for new writers. Noelle Buss, Bethany House’s fiction marketing manager, comments that “nothing makes a more faithful reader than encountering good writing. Shorter formats and lower price points aid in that first introduction.”

Harvest House has had great success with free, bonus short stories and novellas that are either prequels or that profile a secondary character from a full-length title. Senior editor Kim Moore says readers love the extra glimpse that adds backstory, depth, and a different aspect to a series.

“We are publishing short novellas where it makes sense,” says Revell fiction publicist Karen Steele. A perfect example is when fans want to know more about a character or characters within a story. “We will sometimes feed the customer’s need with an e-novella.”

Likewise, Kensington is exploring digital short content from some of its Zebra mass market authors, such as Amy ­Lillard’s “The Quilting Circle” novellas, which are companions to her full-length “Wells Landing” works. “Having digital-only short content as well as a print component helps to create synergy across a broader base of readers,” explains Alexandra Nicolajsen, Kensington director of digital sales and social media.

Some houses, like Kregel’s Lion Fiction imprint, don’t offer digital shorts, but the company encourages authors to do it on their own. “It is a good tool to expand readership,” notes Pedersen.

Other forces at play

And what about the other forces that are pushing the CF industry in a new direction? As more readers turn away from CBA retail outlets and go online to find their books, WaterBrook & Multnomah’s Marchese notes that these changes have required great creativity and agility from marketing and sales departments alike. “But it’s the quality of the reading experience that is key, and we are in line with the commitment our parent company, Penguin Random House, has to the value of books. The best quality books will always be worth paying for, and that’s how we view our list.”

In addition, the explosion of boutique indie houses has pushed more traditional publishers to step up their game. However, Marchese wishes fewer authors would give away their books at deeply discounted prices. Otherwise, she argues, readers come to believe that a book resulting from six months or more of work should cost less than a latte.

The ebook tidal wave of the past few years seems to have subsided. According to Kregel’s Pedersen, the number of readers buying only from the digital market is shrinking, as a small but significant group now see the presence of a printed, traditionally published book as a sign of high quality. “These consumers may still choose to buy the digital version, but their option is based on more than price point alone.”

Hope for the future

Despite the upheavals of the past few years, many publishing professionals remain hopeful. Steele says Revell is making no cuts in its fiction program and is currently reaching a diverse audience because it sells in all markets. While bonnet fiction, Western historicals, and romance remain CF staples, publishers like Kensington that have found growth in this market are also looking for authors who will push the boundaries of inspirational fiction.

Birth of a CF House

Why start a new publishing endeavor when sales of the fiction genre you plan to publish have in recent years experienced a 15 percent drop? (Its nonfiction counterpart, in contrast, has grown 11.3 percent, as reported by Nielsen BookScan.) Have readers lost interest in inspirational fiction?

“Not at all,” says Dan Balow, president and publisher of Gilead Publishing, a house launched in April that will release only Christian fiction. He still believes there are plenty of fans of the genre, but the market has changed. “The Christian readership is now split,” explains Sue Brower, vice president of editorial. “There is the over-45 crew whom publishers once considered their core Christian market and the Gen-Xers and Millennials.” Balow, Brower, and CEO Bill Giarratana aim to offer reads that will appeal to both sets of readers.

The trio bring years of publishing experience to the venture, which will be based in Grand Rapids, MI, and Wheaton, IL. Balow was a director of business development at Tyndale House for 13 years and a literary agent. Brower is a former Zondervan/HarperCollins Christian Publishing executive editor, and Giarratana worked in marketing and in ministry fundraising at the American Bible Society and Biblica. Also joining the company is Steve Laube, whose Enclave Publishing was acquired by Gilead. Known for speculative fiction with a Christian worldview, Enclave is now a Gilead imprint headed by Laube.

Boldly acquiring

Brower says a fresh beginning has its benefits, allowing Gilead to be more adventurous in its acquisitions. “A new house has an advantage without the baggage that is based on past perceptions of what Christian fiction was or should be.” Gilead’s inaugural list debuted in October with two romance novella collections: Cowboy Christmas Homecoming, by Mary Connealy, Ruth Logan Herne, Julie Lessman, and Anna Schmidt, and Sleigh Bells Ring, which features stories by Sandra D. Bricker, Lynette Sowell, Barbara J. Scott, and Lenora Worth, generally midlist authors who appeal to traditional CF readers.

Brower, however, is mindful of the literary tastes of newer readers. “These younger generations are looking for grittier, more intense reads.” One such title is first novelist Chawna Shroeder’s Beast (Oct.), an allegorical fantasy about a young girl raised by wolves and enslaved and abused by her human captors who eventually learns the true meaning of mercy. And Carol Award winner Nadine Brandes concludes her dystopian “Out of Time” trilogy with A Time To Rise (Oct.), a twisty sf thriller about true sacrifice and hope.

Gilead will also issue more novels set in overseas locales in such genres as suspense, medical thrillers, and fantasy adventure. “Younger readers are more open to foreign settings,” notes Brower. South African debut author Joan Campbell’s Chains of Gwyndorr, a fantastical tale of secrets and dark forces based in a medieval world, was out in October. Susan Mason’s A Most Noble Heir (Feb. 2017) is a Victorian historical bound to please Anglophiles. Also forthcoming are new works from thriller writer Richard Mabry, Amish suspense author Jen Turano (Finding Margo, Nov.), and Elisabeth Musser, an American missionary living in France whose books are best sellers in Holland.—Julia M. Reffner

Midlothian, VA–based freelance writer Julia M. Reffner has reviewed books and DVDs in a variety of genres for LJ. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and Word Weavers

Chapter & Verse

Below are the recent and forthcoming CF titles mentioned in this article.
Bradley, Patricia Justice Delayed Revell Jan. 2017
Brandes, Nadine A Time To Rise Enclave: Gilead Oct. 2016
Bricker, Sandra D. & others Sleigh Bells Ring Gilead Oct. 2016
Bunn, Davis Miramar Bay Kensington Apr. 2017
Calhoune, Belle Reunited at Christmas Love Inspired Dec. 2016
Campbell, Joan Chains of Gwyndorr Enclave: Gilead Oct. 2016
Chiavaroli, Heidi Freedom’s Ring Tyndale May 2017
Coffey, Billy Some Small Magic Thomas Nelson Mar. 2017
Connealy, Mary & others Cowboy Christmas Homecoming Gilead Oct. 2016
Delamere, Jennifer The Captain’s Daughter Bethany House Jun. 2017
Dunn, Scarlett Whispering Pines Zebra: Kensington Aug. 2017
Finkbeiner, Susie A Trail of Crumbs Kregel Mar. 2017
Fisher, Suzanne Woods The Newcomer Revell Jan. 2017
Ford, Linda Montana Cowboy Family Love Love Inspired Historical Jan. 2017
Foster, Sharon Ewell Abraham’s Well Three Sisters Oct. 2016
Frantz, Laura A Moonbow Night Revell Jan. 2017
Ganshert, Katie Life After WaterBrook Apr. 2017
Goyer, Tricia A Secret Courage Harvest House Apr. 2017
Hannon, Irene Sandpiper Cove Revell Apr. 2017
Hansen, Valerie & Lenora Worth Rookie K-9 Unit Christmas Love Inspired Suspense Dec. 2016
Henderson, Dee Threads of Suspicion Bethany House May 2017
Hubbard, Charlotte A Mother’s Love Kensington Mar. 2017
Jebber, Molly Two Suitors for Anna Zebra: Kensington Feb. 2017
Klassen, Julie The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill Bethany House Dec. 2016
Lillard, Amy Marrying Jonah Zebra: Kensington Mar. 2017
Lillard, Amy Titus Returns Zebra: Kensington Jan. 2017
McClain, Lee Tobin The Nanny’s Texas Christmas Love Inspired Dec. 2016
Mackall, Dandi Daley With Love, Wherever You Are Tyndale House Mar. 2017
Mason, Susan A Most Noble Heir Gilead Feb. 2017
Milan, Mimi Twice Redeemed Eaton House Jul. 2016
Moser, Nancy The Pattern Artist Barbour Dec. 2016
Navarro, Jolene The Soldier’s Surprise Family Love Inspired Sept. 2016
Onorato, Irene A Soldier Finds His Way Lyrical: Kensington Oct. 2016
Phoenix, Michèle Of Stillness and Storm Thomas Nelson Dec. 2016
Schroeder, Chawna Beast Enclave: Gilead Oct. 2016
Sproles, Cindy Liar’s Winter Kregel Jun. 2017
Stuart, Kelli Like a River from Its Course Kregel Jun. 2016
Turano, Jen Behind the Scenes Bethany House Apr. 2017
Turano, Jen Finding Margo Gilead Nov. 2016
Turansky, Carrie Shine Like the Dawn WaterBrook Feb. 2017
Vetsch, Erica My Heart Belongs in Fort Bliss, Texas Barbour Jan. 2017
Warren, Susan May Rescue Me Revell Jan. 2017
White, Roseanna M. A Lady Unrivaled Bethany House Sept. 2017