Fiction continues to be a mainstay for Christian publishers as they tap into an audience eager to follow favorite authors, find new content, and welcome fresh voices, and publishers employ a number for strategies for their programs to achieve those goals. But one of the biggest challenges is getting their books in front of those readers, who find content in ways that range from digital downloads to Sam’s Club, from indie bookstores to Amazon.
Relatively new lines, such as Abingdon Fiction, launched four years ago, are still looking to increase visibility among vendors and writers and to build trust with those groups and readers. According to Ramona Richards, senior acquisitions editor, that trust is growing as Abingdon publishes books that meet reader demand yet push them beyond the usual.
“Christian fiction as a genre tends to be risk averse; there are not a lot of edgy books out there,” says Richards. “We’re bringing in a number of authors who already have a fan base, such as Deb Rainey, and growing our new authors. I’m looking at every aspect of Christian fiction and seeing where we might make a breakthrough, yet trying to focus on the things that have worked for us.”
Discoverability is the buzz word in publishing these days, and is used by both David Morris, v-p and editorial director of Guideposts Books and Summerside Press, and Daisy Hutton, fiction v-p and publisher at HarperCollins Christian Publishing.
For Morris, discoverability is especially hard for new authors. “With no long-lead media out there, how do you reach readers with new authors? How do you start those word-of-mouth sales?” he asks. Summerside Press, a small house, will work with a good number of new authors in its new iteration to launch later this year. Guideposts Books acquired Summerside in 2010, then sold its nonfiction component and Ellie Claire imprint.
“Buyers today are smart; it’s more about how good a story it is, how good the packaging is, and if the author is at least known for good writing. That’s what will count in the end,” says Morris.
For Hutton, blending the Thomas Nelson and Zondervan fiction lines after the 2012 purchase of Nelson by Zondervan parent HarperCollins is part of the discoverability mystery. The two imprints will remain distinct, allowing each to create its unique brands. But editorial and marketing functions will be centralized. “The thinking behind consolidating fiction is that the challenges of this category are unique, but Zondervan’s fiction was taking place under their Trade category. They didn’t have dedicated fiction [marketing] people. The shift to digital purchasing has increased dramatically in fiction. We have to change our business practices more rapidly, marketing has to change, and content has to change,” says Hutton.
Along with the challenge of discoverability comes the pressure of competing against a broader swath of content and the pressure of price. “Fiction is more price sensitive than ever, and price must be managed carefully,” notes Hutton, who says her team has become “pricing experts,” offering price promotions to introduce content but keeping long-term price points higher.
Balancing is part of the process for Jennifer Leep, editorial director for Revell, an imprint of Baker Publishing Group. Revell is in the process of rebalancing its fiction list, which had skewed heavily toward historical fiction. E-books, she says, caused that category to struggle against myriad backlist titles and cheap e-books.
“Our biggest challenge is that we’re contracted way out into the future with established authors, so we don’t have room for more historical novels,” says Leep. “Our new model going forward is one-third historical fiction, one-third suspense or romantic suspense, and one-third contemporary romance/women’s fiction.”
Deb Keiser, associate publisher for River North, the fiction imprint of Moody Publishers, knows that being “The Name You Can Trust” is part of the bloodline for publishing under the umbrella of Moody Ministries. It’s a calling they take seriously, even as River North strives to bring in new readers.
“People pick up our books who might not have picked up a Moody book,” says Michele Forridor, audience development manager for River North. “Reviewers, bloggers, librarians, and journals have been interested in River North books. We want to speak into a group that may have pigeonholed Moody into an academic position.”
Keiser and her team reorganized River North about six months ago and now focus on four areas: contemporary, romance, historical, and mystery/suspense. They aim for 12 books a year but in 2013 will do 20, including some rereleases of Moody titles and of some in the youth fiction series. They’d love to branch out the line a bit and are eager to engage an A-list author or two as well as bring on promising new writers.
“The world of fiction is so huge, and to break into that market we have to be choosey,” says Keiser. “We want to be different, to be a voice out there that makes a difference. We always keep Moody as a whole in mind when we publish. Our books always have a Christian theme, so we’re interested in books with that, especially contemporary novels.”
Keiser echoes the discoverability theme as well, saying, “The unknown is discoverability. But you can’t beat good content, a good theme, and a good read.”
While River North stays close to the Moody name when it comes to content and themes, Kregel Publications and Lion Fiction, a new imprint of Lion Hudson distributed in the United States by Kregel, promise to tackle new challenges and take chances other publishers won’t.
Lion Fiction, which launches this spring, plans to release up to 24 titles a year in genres such as thriller, crime, women’s fiction, and fantasy. Based in the United Kingdom, Lion Fiction, via Kregel’s distribution channels, wants to tap into the vital Christian fiction market in the U.S.
Noelle Pederson, manager of Lion Hudson distribution for Kregel, calls it “an outlier in the Christian fiction market. As a foreign publisher in a sea of U.S. publishers, Lion Fiction brings a refreshing view to Christian fiction in general,” she says. “They are publishing a lot of straight up mystery while the general trend has been to focus on suspense.”
Lion Fiction recently launched its Secret of the Journal series by debut writer C. F. Dunn (Mortal Fire, Aug. 2012, Monarch Books; Death Be Not Proud, July 2013, Lion Fiction). It’s a romance series with an unexplained paranormal element, though neither fantasy nor alternative universe. Pederson calls Dunn “compulsively readable and on the top of my list as Lion’s next star author; she has the type of Christian market/secular market crossover appeal that Lion Fiction is targeting.”
Kregel Publications also offers some edge with its fiction. They published Unholy Hunger by Heather James (Jan.), the first in the Lure of the Serpent series, with an unsympathetic main character and a plot involving murder and pedophilia. “Featuring an unlikeable main character is something that even literary fiction has a hard time getting away with and is not often tried in Christian fiction,” says Pederson. “Yet Kregel sees a dramatic human story that represents the redeeming story that should be at the heart of Christian fiction.”
One of the biggest challenges for Barbour Publishing is life after Heartsong Presents Book Club, which the company sold to Harlequin in early 2012. Heartsong provided its members with four novels a month. Says Dan Balow, v-p of business development and publisher, “Heartsong gave us a great entrée to some great authors, but book clubs can cause a company to be a bit like a book ‘factory.’ We need to convince authors and agents that we are interested in long-term relationships.”
Barbour’s backlist is strong, allowing the company to deepen those relationships in terms of marketing and sales. Balow and his team plan to add one or two significant authors each year. “As we focus on fewer authors and go deeper with them, we can harness all the marketing tools that go along with developing a committed readership,” Balow says. “The magic in publishing is an author writing a great story. All we hope to do is identify those great writers and provide the fertile ground to grow.”
WaterBrook Multnomah, a division of Random House, has invested big in the Christian fiction market. “It’s a full market right now, and we’re making sure to put out the best titles each year instead of the most titles,” says Shannon Marchese, senior editor at WaterBrook Multnomah. “We’re choosier about what we do to hit certain markets and publish the strongest titles in that market.”
For Marchese, as for so many others, it’s identifying which authors people are listening to and growing a social network with them. “We’re sorting voices out not from the chaff, but from the ocean of other authors out there,” she says. “Being found is the biggest challenge.”
Karen Watson, associate publisher of fiction at Tyndale House Publishers, is moving away from series fiction and toward standalone novels, or novels that are loosely tied to previous books. “We tend to have more standalones,” she says. “Years ago it was all about series, but there is so much out there, and it can be a challenge to hold their attention.”
She is also seeing a swing back to historical fiction after a spate of contemporary women’s fiction, and is specifically targeting male readership. “There is a very wide scope of what Christian fiction can look like,” says Watson. “The challenge is knowing reader expectations. People who write for the Christian industry have chosen a bigger challenge to write authentically and to winsomely wrestle with hard issues.”
For Julie Gwinn, acquisitions editor for B&H Fiction, one of their biggest initiatives is the Bloomfield series, written by nine different authors and published in both e-book and print formats. The series will center on the small town of Bloomfield and its inhabitants. The authors write about different townspeople and plot lines, communicating with one another on backstory and details.
“Fans of one author will read the series, then meet other authors who are also writing for the series,” says Gwinn. “We get more for our marketing dollars because we have that many more authors talking about that many more books.”
For the soft launch of the Bloomfield series, Debby Mayne’s Waiting for a View was released as an e-book exclusive. The series’ first print book, Gail Sattler’s Take the Trophy and Run, was published in November 2012. B&H plans one Bloomfield release per publishing cycle, which meets readers’ needs for quicker series availability and publishers’ desires to keep the series in front of fans.
B&H Fiction is also branching into novels connected to movies distributed by Lifeway Films, which launched in early 2012. October Baby by Eric Wilson and Theresa Preston released in September 2012, as did the movie tie-in, Unconditional, by Eva Marie Everson. Davis Bunn will do the novelization of the upcoming movie Unlimited, and Melody Carlson will write Grace Unplugged for the upcoming movie.
“By getting authors on board with the films Lifeway Films is distributing, we get to introduce them to a whole new group of readers,” says Gwinn. “And there’s a second sales spike with the release of the DVD.”
Gwinn plans another multi-author series, this time set in World War II, to launch in winter 2014. The novels take place in England, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and the United States.
Abingdon Fiction also launched a multi-book series titled Quilts of Love. Each of the 24 books—not all contracted yet—will center on one quilt and the story behind it. Richards has seen success so far in sales of the first three books; the third in the series, Path of Love by Jennifer Hudson Taylor, released in January.
Good Old Word of Mouth
Word of mouth is still the best way to spread news about a book, but for Christina Boys, senior editor for FaithWords and Center Street of the Hachette Book Group, the question is how to generate that word-of-mouth activity. “It’s really a mixed bag. Social media is a good way to find books, especially if you have similar reading tastes as your friends,” she says. “But for a book to really break out, it has to reach to that outer circle of people who read only a few books a year.”
Boys’s goal for FaithWords is to continue to reach into the CBA market with 10–12 books a year in genres such as romance, romantic suspense, small-town tales, Amish, contemporary, and biblical. “I don’t have immediate plans to expand, but if I see an area that I can expand, I will. We’re focusing on finding strong women’s fiction,” says Boys, citing Lauraine Snelling’s novel Reunion (2012) as an example.
The goal is finding that balance between publishing what sells in the Christian market and something with a fresh spin. “On the one hand you want to find something where precedent has been set, that has sold before. But on the flip side, you don’t want a whole market of the same stories told over and over. We’re looking for something better than those around it,” says Boys.
Don Pape, v-p for trade fiction at David C. Cook, sees no waning of interest in Christian fiction from readers or authors. He does see, however, a slide in Cook’s print sales while digital sales rise. The company must become agile, he says, to reach both digital and print readers.
The foundation for all publishers is quality. “We’re seeing better writers who are doing quality fiction that is faith infused, rather than faith driven. There’s an element of faith there, but no proselytizing,” says Pape. “We have to find the very best storytellers out there because at the end of the day, the story has to hold up.”
Christian publishers face obstacle in a fiction space glutted with print and digital content. One issue is reader demand for more content from writers who must balance writing and marketing. And as the quality bar rises, publishers must be discerning in what they acquire. But the biggest issue of all is discoverability.
“Being found is still the biggest challenge,” says Marchese of WaterBrook Multnomah. “If you gave me a million dollars to market a book, it’s still a huge problem. I emphasize to our marketing and publicity people that it’s how we get those voices out from amongst the wide plain of voices that really convinces readers to pick up that book.”
Working Two Jobs
American Christian Fiction Writers—ACFW—boasts more than 2,600 members, with about a quarter of those published. The challenges authors face in this modern world of Christian fiction are myriad. The biggest, according to ACFW Professional Relations Liaison Cynthia Ruchti, is keeping up with trends and opportunities.
“Authors are pedaling as fast and as hard as they can to keep up with what’s happening in Christian publishing. We have to work on social marketing, but also have time to create great stories,” says Ruchti, whose novel When the Morning Glory Blooms, releases in April with Abingdon Fiction. “How do we partner with publishers to do marketing, but not cheat our time to write?”
One of the benefits of the fast-paced publishing environment is how quickly word of new projects and opportunities comes out. Authors are eager to tap into e-books and other options, but want to make the best choices.
“The days of locking ourselves in a writer’s cottage are over,” says Ruchti. “We know and understand that, but it does present challenges.