Publishers of Christian fiction aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to new genres and topics. They’re just tweaking the size, width, and tread to make the wheel cover more ground. Historical, romance, contemporary, and suspense continue to be mainstays for publishers eager to build on proven successes, but they’re just as eager for fresh stories and fresh voices to keep readers interested.
For Rachel Meisel, editorial director of Summerside Press (acquired by Guideposts Books in 2010), it’s about “small and incremental innovations.” Amish fiction is popular, so Summerside focuses on the Amana Colonies in Iowa, as well as Quaker and Moravian groups, to fulfill readers’ need for different cultures. “Summerside is at an interesting crossroad. We’ve pinpointed that we want the real-life element in our fiction, and we’re changing the proven sellers just a little bit,” says Meisel.
Men in the Mix
For Revell, an imprint of Baker Publishing Group, that little twist of change comes in part from injecting male voices into the traditionally female-written romance category. Dan Walsh—The Reunion (Revell, 2012), The Homecoming (Revell, 2010)—and Gary Smalley teamed to write The Dance (April), first in the Restoration Series, the tale of a wounded wife who leaves and her husband who has no idea why.
“Women who have read the book felt very accepted and encouraged,” says Walsh. “I felt a real camaraderie with my women readers. The guys are raising eyebrows, but when they read it they’re crying and liking it.”
Jennifer Leep, editorial director for Revell, says, “This series has stretched Dan in new ways, but his writing has been solid from the start. I believe Dan will be around for the long haul.”
Other male authors tip-toeing into the bastion of women’s fiction include Murray Pura, author of The Wings of Morning, published by Harvest House (2012) and the upcoming Ashton Park (Jan.), first in The Danforths of Lancashire series, also by Harvest House. Another is Tim Lewis; Shannon Marchese, senior editor at WaterBrook Multnomah, likens his style to that of Garrison Keillor. Lewis’s novel, currently titled Forever Friday, will release in the fall. “Tim has a really unique voice and I was blessed to find him,” says Marchese.
While male authors are moving into women’s fiction, publishers seem to be veering away from books for male readers. Marchese doesn’t say that male-oriented fiction is dead in the water, but she does say that “until we can figure out the male-oriented market, we have to be cautious when publishing books for men.”
Tyndale House, on the other hand, is making a concerted effort to reach male readers. Karen Watson, associate publisher for fiction, calls it a “disturbing trend that fiction for the entire industry is taking a turn away from male readership.” She points to Joel Rosenberg (Damascus Countdown, Mar.) and Randy Singer (Dead Lawyers Tell No Tales, May), whose work continues to draw male fans. Watson also mentions female writers such as Tracy Groot (Flame of Resistance, 2012), whose writing crosses gender lines with ease. “We work very hard to make our books available and accessible to a wide range of readers,” says Watson. “Often folks are surprised by what they find.”
Besides Revell’s foray into male-written romance, Leep feels that romantic suspense will get crowded quickly as more publishers tap into this genre, and that cozy mysteries are coming back. She cites Revell’s success with backlist titles by Lorena McCourtney (Dying to Read, 2012). “We weren’t publishing with Lorena because we hit a wall with sales awhile back, but we started selling her titles as e-books and found a ton of new readers. That told us we can make this work, even though Christian retail may not know what to do with these books. I think we’re going to do well in the cozy mystery category.”
What Editors Want
Deb Keiser of River North is on the lookout for good mystery and suspense and will continue the company’s strong work in biblical fiction, with three such titles releasing this year. Keiser is looking to add a bit of global spin to her fiction line. “I’m trying to find stories with international themes, to look at all of God’s kingdom. The characters don’t have to be tied to the U.S.,” she says. Key is honesty when it comes to writing about difficult issues, Keiser adds.
B&H Fiction has found success with issues-driven novels, according to acquisitions editor Julie Gwinn, citing Ginny Ytrupp’s Christy Award–winning Words (2011) about abuse, and her upcoming Invisible (April), which focuses on weight and self-esteem. “This kind of book blurs the line between truth and fiction,” says Gwinn. “Folks who aren’t ready for a nonfiction book on a topic can still find hope and healing within a fictional story.”
Gwinn continues to search for the perennial historical fiction, with a slant toward Regency and Civil War, but is also interested in speculative fiction, dystopian, modern fairy tales, suspense, and biblical artifact stories. Southern contemporary is popular as well, with B&H Fiction publishing titles such as Chasing the Wind (2012) by Pamela Ewen and Gone to Ground (2012), Southern suspense by Brandilyn Collins.
Marchese sees renewed interest in the Colonial Period, both pre– and post–Revolutionary War. She attributes some of that popularity to television shows but also to video games such as Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. The publisher will release Burning Sky: A Novel of the American Frontier by Lori Benton in August, in which a white woman living with the Iroquois returns to her original family. Marchese also sees revival of the romantic comedy, biblical fiction, fantasy, and North American historical/prairie fiction genres.
Four-year-old Abingdon Fiction is relying on tried-and-true topics such as Amish and historical, but also looking at trends. Ramona Richards, senior fiction editor, says its upcoming Amish fiction by Lynette Sowell is set in Florida instead of the usual Pennsylvania or Ohio, and Richards is considering early-20th-century historical romances. “I’m looking for things people can find familiar, but with a new twist,” she says.
From Screen to Page
One of the most fashionable topics publishers are interested in is books set in the Edwardian era, made popular by the wildly successful PBS Masterpiece Classic television series Downton Abbey. The show began pre–World War I as the Earl of Grantham, his family, and their servants embroil themselves in intrigue, romance, and domestic dramas.
Daisy Hutton, v-p and publisher of Harper Collins Christian Publishing, admits to being a fan of Downton and wants to find a true “upstairs/downstairs novel, with a richness in the lives of servants and the aristocracy.”
“Historical fiction is still very strong, but there is much more of a willingness to touch on topics in more recent time periods,” says Hutton. “There is also more willingness to have settings take place in different parts of the world, which opens fiction to the vast riches of different places. This is very exciting, and hints that readers are more expansive in their thinking. There is so much more rich ground for authors and readers.”
Christina Boys, senior editor of FaithWords and Center Street, says that American readers seem to like American settings, with the exception of Regency and Edwardian England. Books by the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen and movies such as Pride and Prejudice seem to drive this trend. Pura has tapped into it with Ashton Park, and Christy Award–winner Julie Klassen treats readers to Regency England in her novels such as The Tutor’s Daughter (Bethany, Jan.; reviewed in this issue) and The Girl in the Gatehouse (Bethany, 2011).
“People love historical fiction to see what life was like at that time,” says Boys. “And historical lends itself to Christian fiction because of the mores of those times. Christian fiction is probably more realistic in those time periods because the faith element was strong.”
Edging Out, Staying Close
Cynthia Ruchti, professional relations liaison with the American Christian Fiction Writers, is happy with the widening range available to both authors and readers. The more than 2,600 members of ACFW “can pick just about any kind of book, with practically no topics off limits,” she says. “It’s wonderful that there is such a wide variety of issues and topics.”
Ruchti sees ACFW authors moving beyond the usual paradigms. For instance, authors who write Amish fiction are adding elements such as Amish suspense or Amish mystery. “That causes that freshness to make the book something more,” says Ruchti.
She sees authors tackling genres such as allegory, fantasy, adventure, and some dystopian in the YA market. Ruchti also sees a lot of military fiction, rescue fiction (EMTs, first responders, firefighters), medical and legal thrillers, as well as whatever is happening in the news, including human trafficking, bullying, abuse, and the like.
Publishers also continue to look for top writers who are doing evergreen topics well and who come to those topics with fresh ideas and fresh voices. “On the one hand you want to find something with precedent that has sold before; but on the flip side you don’t want a whole market full of stories told over and over again,” says Boys of FaithWords. “Readers want a fresh spin and want to be invested in the character. We want a book to work in the market, but also be fresh and new.”
Editors are trying new takes on old favorites, from Christmas romances set in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s based on popular Christmas songs (Summerside) to British mysteries (Lion Fiction), from e-book short stories that bridge the gaps between books in a series (Revell) to missionary fiction (Moody). They are tapping into the richness of new historical eras and different cultures; they are testing the waters in fantasy and supernatural.
“I think there’s room for Christian fiction to grow,” says Richards of Abingdon. “There is a lot more openness than there used to be in the general market to faith-based fiction. As the well-written books find a broader market, and they will, the image of Christian fiction as badly written will change. I don’t think Christian fiction has peaked.”