Here's one informal measure of growth in the market for what some call Christian and others call inspirational fiction. In 2010, the number of novels received by PW's religion department for review consideration increased by 15% over 2009. That's one eye-catching indicator of just how hot this corner of the fiction market is, and more publishers have been jumping in (see "Joining the Fiction Frenzy," p. 12). As in general trade, a handful of established novelists—Karen Kingsbury, Francine Rivers, Beverly Lewis, Ted Dekker, and Joel Rosenberg—dominate the category. Yet as publishers look for the next generation of writers and readers, they say they're open to new voices.
"Fiction is huge," says publishing veteran Ramona Richards, editor for fiction at Abingdon Press. Richards recently took over for Barbara Scott, who founded the United Methodist house's fiction line in 2009. She thinks the niche for speculative fiction, always small but steady, is growing a tad, and points to the popularity of steampunk novels in the general market. "I'm open to [steam punk in this market], and I have not heard of anyone writing one," Richards says. Abingdon is developing a few Amish fiction authors, but recognizes that market has demographic limits. "There is an entire segment of young people looking for literature that speaks to them, and Amish cozies may not be it," she says. Like other faith-based fiction publishers, Abingdon is growing its line modestly, potentially doing as many as 25 titles annually.
At Barbour, one of the market leaders, business is holding steady and expansion is in the offing for 2012, senior fiction editor Rebecca Germany tells PW. Romance is the house's best genre; "romance lifts the soul during trying times," Germany observes. The house plans a new line of brides and weddings romances, and is touting a new—of sorts—author: Grace Livingston Hill, a prolific 20th-century romance author who died in 1947. Her work is being revived in trade paper editions.
Bethany House, which almost single-handedly invented the category with the 1979 publication of Janette Oke's prairie romance Loves Comes Softly, is "having a nice year," says senior acquisitions editor David Long. He says sales are improving in big-box outlets and growing a little in Christian chains like Family Christian Stores. "That feels like the recession coming out of its slumber a little bit," he says. One hallmark of the house is historical fiction; Long says authors are digging more deeply into different eras of the early 20th century, even as Bethany House also is experiencing success with the 19th-century Regency-era novels by Julie Klassen. Long says a new generation of authors "who are going to be writing for a long time" is making its way into the marketplace; he cites Karen Witemeyer and Jody Hedlund among those new authors.
Reconfiguring at B&H included the elimination in January of the position of executive editor Karen Ball, a fiction veteran who continues as a consultant there and freelance editor. "We're still focusing on suspense and thriller, and just starting to move forward into straight romance," says Ball, who developed the house's Pure Enjoyment brand. B&H signed longtime Zondervan suspense author Brandilyn Collins to a three-book deal that begins with Over the Edge (May). Tosca Lee, whose previous novels Demon and Havah won attention and acclaim, next takes on the traitorous Iscariot (Jan. 2012). Like other publishing veterans, Ball is keenly aware of the need to do fresh things, especially to reach younger readers, who may be reading several books loaded on an electronic device instead of curling up in a chair poring over a print novel. "Capturing them and getting them to engage, that's the key," says Ball.
David C. Cook was not known for fiction, and getting its identity established as a fiction publisher was a "rocky road," says Don Pape, publisher for trade books. Cook's foray into fiction began years back, when it quietly launched what became the wildly successful Mitford series by Jan Karon. Cook's 12–15 titles per year are about 20% of its list. "I would probably say, from the proposal side, we see fiction 10 to 1," Pape says. Cook's target readers are women, and its genres include suspense and historical. Authors Travis Thrasher and Lisa Bergren have also begun YA series; Bergren's River of Time series began with Waterfall (Feb.)
"Our FaithWords fiction program is definitely growing," says Christina Boys, FaithWords editor. Fiction appeals as escape, but readers also want "characters they can relate to who deal with complex and realistic conflicts," she says. His Other Wife by Deborah Bedford (Feb.)—who moved to Christian fiction from the general market—is the tale of a divorced woman whose teenage son makes a disastrous choice, bringing her ex-husband and his new wife back on the scene. The model for the tale is the biblical story of Hannah. Like many other editors, Boys says she too is open to new authors.
"We don't do dark and edgy at Harvest House," says senior editor Kim Moore. With 22 fiction titles a year, Harvest House doesn't do a lot of fiction, but does have several Amish fiction authors, including mystery writer Mindy Starns Clark. A new line, to be called Angels and Heroes, will feature first responders in emergency situations emphasizing elements of hope and help. "For our house and audience, historicals are doing well, and we're looking for prairie westerns," she says. A couple of years ago, prairie westerns were hard to sell. "In fiction, the pendulum swings," notes Moore.