The more things change, the more they stay the same”—the old saw describes the state of Christian fiction in 2012. Try to spot inspirational fiction trends for spring, and you could get run over by an Amish buggy. But could the bonnet craze be cooling off? As PW looks at the category at the start of a new year, it appears the appetite for all things Lancaster County, while still healthy, may be spawning new, perhaps smaller, trends. Romance and the longing for a simpler life, along with nostalgia for the pioneer spirit, are fueling the imaginations of authors and the acquisitions of publishers.
Love + History
Donna Kehoe, executive director of the Christy Awards for Fiction since their inception in 2000, notes there has been a steady increase in the number of entries with romance themes over the past five years. “In 2012, entries in historical and contemporary romance categories were up 25% over the romance entries in 2008,” Kehoe says. As PW talked to editors, we found that in almost every genre romance usually plays a key role—perhaps no surprise, since the vast majority of Christian fiction fans are women.
Historical is gaining the most momentum, but not just any historical—get ready for the British invasion. Says Ami McConnell, senior acquisitions editor at Thomas Nelson, “Many Christian fiction historical novels are set in early America, but with the rising popularity of Downton Abbey, I expect and hope we’ll see more novels set in Britain.” There is strong appeal in a more pastoral life with the requisite servants, manor, and a precarious inheritance, McConnell says. Ramona Richards, acquisitions editor at Abingdon Press, adds that the popularity of Downton Abbey, and also Sherlock, “will be reflected in fiction acquired in the next few years.” Rebecca Germany, senior fiction editor at Barbour Publishing, sees the series prompting more Gilded Age– through–WWI stories set in England.
Bethany House senior acquisitions editor Dave Long says, “The eras that we’re seeing in historical fiction are broadening. I think we’ll especially start seeing Regency fiction emerge.” He notes that Julie Klassen’s The Maid of Fairbourne Hall (Jan.) was published with “wonderful acclaim and success,” and agents have been passing on a lot of Regency proposals that will likely see print in the future. Revell editorial director Jennifer Leep also sees Regency period books as a smaller trend that’s picking up steam. “While others had attempted it, Julie Klassen’s books gave it traction, and authors like Laurie Alice Eakes and Ruth Axtel are growing the trend,” Leep says.
Worthy Publishing also reaches toward Britain in its first-time venture into fiction this spring with The Irish Healer by Nancy Herriman (Apr.). The novel is set in London during the 1832 cholera epidemic, and it is “a powerful story of a young woman’s struggle to trust God to rebuild her life after she is falsely accused of murder,” says Jeana Ledbetter, v-p of editorial.
Still, American 20th-century novels are still going strong. B&H has Amish fiction, with Beyond Hope’s Valley by Tricia Goyer (Apr.), the third novel in her Big Sky Amish series set in Montana, but WWII continues to be “very popular,” especially among baby boomers, says Julie Gwinn, manager of fiction acquisitions and marketing at B&H Publishing Group. Gwinn also notes that Irish historical romance and “coming to America” stories of immigrants are trending in a small way. At WaterBrook, senior fiction editor Shannon Marchese points to Where Lilacs Still Bloom by veteran novelist Jane Kirkpatrick (Apr.), which features an early 20th-century immigrant housewife who leaves a lasting legacy through the more than 250 varieties of lilacs she develops. And Christina Boys, editor at FaithWords and Center Street, points to “nostalgic fiction that is set in the 1950s,” such as Carla Stewart’s third novel, Stardust (May).
Another rising genre might be romantic suspense, says Richards; Bethany’s Long agrees and points to the May debut of Submerged by Dani Pettrey (30,000 first printing). The house “expects terrific things from it,” Long says.
And make room on your bookshelves, series aficionados. Thomas Nelson senior v-p and publisher Allen Arnold says the biggest change he’s seen in the past year is the growing desire for fresh voices. “Readers are less hungry to read the 14th novel from an author or a cookie-cutter series in a proven genre than [they are for] unexpected, fresh stories from a new breed of Christian fiction authors who are rising up,” he says.
Buggy Slowdown Ahead?
“Trends, like horses, are easier to ride in the direction they are going,” author John Naisbitt once said, and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than with the Amish genre. Amish releases this spring are as plentiful as the calories in shoofly pie, and those white bonnets might not only be Amish, either. The genre now includes everything from Mennonite and Shaker characters to books where quilts are central themes. According to Kim Moore, senior editor at Harvest House, subcategories of Amish fiction now include Amish suspense, Amish western, Amish contemporary, and Amish historical. No mentions of Amish science fiction... yet.
Can there be too much of a good thing? Moore says she believes the genre is “no longer white hot,” but believes that is not due to diminishing reader interest as much as to the large numbers of titles in the market. Others agree. McConnell at Nelson notes that the category “has reached a plateau of sorts—the imitators or those late to the game aren’t really finding an audience.” While Amish titles still “provide solid sales for our list,” Thomas Nelson senior editor Natalie Hanemann says, over the past three years she’s seen sales level off, “which was expected since the marketplace has been deluged with Amish novels.”
One recent success, Hanemann says, was The Promise of an Angel by Ruth Reid (2011), which combines Amish romance with an angelic presence. “The strongest voices in this subgenre will stand the test of time,” she notes, adding that novelists like Beth Wiseman have a consistent presence on the Christian bestseller lists.
Germany at Barbour agrees that the market is “a bit flooded,” and “according to sales we see, there are still only two to perhaps five authors who write about the Amish who are seeing the best sales,” she says. “Other sales are not so remarkable. Still, I don’t see the interest in people like the Amish going away anytime soon.”
One of the best-known authors with a book out this spring is Beverly Lewis, whose The Fiddler (Apr.; 240,000 first printing) is her first in a series of stories that return to the setting of The Shunning, which launched the bonnet fiction craze. It’s “full of her trademark storytelling, unforgettable heroines, and charming details,” says Bethany House fiction publicist Noelle Buss. At WaterBrook, Marchese says Cindy Woodsmall continues to enjoy a “very eager fan base.” Her novella, The Scent of Cherry Blossoms, is out February 21; a new series, Amish Vines and Orchards, launches September 18 with A Season for Tending.
What does the future hold for this genre rooted in the past? Some editors, like Boys at FaithWords/Center Street, believe Amish fiction will continue to be solid. “It has the same appeal as historical frontier romances or smalltown novels,” Boys says. “As our society increasingly relies on the convenience of the Internet for social interaction, the desire to escape to a simpler lifestyle, a supportive and nurturing community, and more interaction, will continue.” Zondervan’s associate acquisitions editor Becky Philpott sees authors becoming more creative in their plots, “including other characters who might have different lifestyles, but interact with the Amish in their day-to-day lives.”
Adds Long, “Amish fiction is its own genre at this point. It may plateau or regress a bit, but it’s not disappearing.” He notes that the books might highlight romance a bit more, or, as in the case of Nancy Mehl’s Mennonite-themed Inescapable (June), it might have mystery elements. “But I don’t think [the genre] will divert too far from what draws readers to the novels.”
Stitching Together a Trend
It was sew inevitable. One offshoot of all things Amish is the quilt novel, complete with patterns or crafting instructions. Some titles combine both Amish themes and quilting, such as Wanda E. Brunstetter’s The Half-Stitched Amish Quilting Club (Barbour, Apr.). “The book has added bonuses of Amish quilting history, photos, and a quilted wall-hanging pattern,” says Germany. FaithWords has The Hidden Life (June), the second in a trio of Amish quilt novels by Adina Senft that include quilting instructions for readers. Harvest House will publish the new Apple Creek Dreams series on Amish quilts by Patrick E. Craig, opening next year with A Quilt for Jenna. Senior editor Nick Harrison notes, “We are open to further expansion in this area.”
But quilt novels don’t have to be Amish. Germany at Barbour points to The Key on the Quilt (Barbour, Mar.) from Stephanie Grace Whitson, which kicks off the Quilt Chronicles series with non-Amish characters. A September release, A Patchwork Christmas, is a collection of three novellas by Judith Miller, Nancy Moser, and Whitson set in Victorian-era America. “Quilts in historic settings will play a major role in each of the stories,” says Germany.
In 2013, Abingdon will publish the Quilts of Love series, and it’s not about the Amish, either. “The stories will cover everything from the Civil War, the gold rush, and WWII up through modern families and community quilt projects such as the AIDS quilt,” says Richards.
Go West, Christian Reader
“Everyone seems to love a cowboy,” says Long at Bethany. “The books have their own underserved niche, plus I think they can have an appeal to historical romance readers.” Bethany House published Yvonne Harris’s A River to Cross last year—complete with a Texas Ranger—and “we’d certainly consider doing more,” Long says.
Love is the secret. “We only do westerns that have strong romance,” says Germany at Barbour, adding that Susan Page Davis’s Prairie Dreams series would fit this description. Bestselling author Gilbert Morris will release Riordan’s Gun, the first in his new Western Justice series for Barbour early next year. “The romance and the history should appeal to our core readership of women ages 30–80, while still appealing to some men and young adults,” Germany says.
Not only love, but also specific geography might make the difference between success and failure. “We are very interested in Christian westerns,” confirms Moore at Harvest House. “Western-themed stories, especially placed in Texas, seem to be doing well, but they need to have a romantic element to them.” Melody Carlson’s Westward Heart, the first book in the Homeward on the Oregon Trail series for Harvest House, releases September 1. And with a nod to another strong category, Moore will publish The Heart’s Frontier (Mar.) by Lori Copeland and Virginia Smith. “This story is Amish–meets–Old West and a very fun read,” Moore says.
At Abingdon, “We see western romances as a trend that’s growing slowly but surely,” Richards says. Two series are currently underway: Shelley Gray’s second book, A Texan’s Honor in the Heart of a Hero series, releases this month (Feb.), and Margaret Daley’s first book in the Men of the Texas Rangers series, Saving Hope, comes out in March.
Hanemann notes that Thomas Nelson doesn’t have westerns—“not like Bonanza in book form”—but does have historical novels that take place in the west. Dawn Comes Early (Apr.) is Margaret Brownley’s first book in the Brides of Last Chance Ranch series. “The target audience for this subgenre is the woman who may have been a fan of Little House on the Prairie, stories of families who traveled west to settle the land and met constant challenges. Juxtaposing the wild with domestic life offers endless entertaining possibilities,” Hanemann says.
Moore sees the appeal of western romances as much the same as those in the Amish genre. “These are stories of simpler times, when life was less complicated,” Moore says. “There is some romance in the honor and ruggedness of the cowboy and life on the trail, and also in the good woman and hearth at home waiting for him.”
Fantasy, Angels, and Vampires? Oh, My!
Visionary and supernatural are a mixed bag right now for most inspirational publishers. While some told PW they have been disappointed in the genres, others are finding them profitable.
At Howard Books, Frank Peretti, the grandfather of Christian supernatural (This Present Darkness, 1986), has Illusion out March 6; Becky Nesbitt, v-p and editor-in-chief, calls it a “genre-bending” novel: an “epic love story” with suspense and time travel. The forecast also is strong for supernatural at Thomas Nelson. “Within the novels that are generating the most buzz, I see a trend toward supernatural—across genres—that explores the thin places between the seen and the unseen,” says Arnold. It’s a category Nelson is continuing to grow, adds acquisitions editor Amanda Bostic. “Our extensive research with focus groups has confirmed a desire among readers for more novels in this genre,” she says.
Tyndale’s senior fiction acquisitions editor, Jan Stob, notes that there’s an appetite for the genre, but “in the past, it’s been tough to break new authors in.” However, she says the genre is doing well in e-books, “and I think that will open up a wider readership.”
Fantasy also looks favorable at some publishing houses. On the heels of the Christy Award–winning Tales of Goldstone Wood series by Anne Elisabeth Stengl, Bethany House is debuting Prophet by R.J. Larson (Apr.), the first novel in her Books of the Infinite series. “It’s a reimagining of the Old Testament prophets, like merging Jeremiah with something like The Hunger Games,” Long says. Another series will release next year. “We think this is the perfect time to begin getting back into the category,” Long says. “Fantasy is a timeless genre—readers will always love it.”
Boys points to FaithWords’ first title in a Christian vampire series by Debbie Viguié, Kiss of Night (2011). “Debbie created a vampire mythology that is biblically based and tells a story of redemption,” Boys says, adding, “Supernatural novels often appeal most to readers in their teens and 20s, and the core Christian fiction readers are women in their 40s, which makes it a challenging subgenre in Christian fiction.” Germany says Barbour is testing the supernatural genre with the release of The Soul Saver by Dineen Miller (May), which merges supernatural elements with contemporary women’s issues.
From Sizzle to Fizzle?
Like Silly Bandz, Netflix, and Justin Bieber, some genres may be fizzling, although sometimes what’s lost momentum differs from publisher to publisher.
Cozy mysteries have slowed, says Harrison at Harvest House, and Germany at Barbour agrees: “We had an interest in cozy mysteries and their potential in the Christian market, but that did not go anywhere for us and is no longer an interest.”
Philpott at Zondervan notes that chick lit has cooled, and Moore at Harvest House adds that she is currently cautious about acquiring women’s contemporary, contemporary romance, speculative, biblical, and men’s fiction. Harrison at Harvest House says women’s contemporary fiction also has slowed for them, but Stob at Tyndale says the contemporary fiction category is “popular and gaining strength.” She adds, “Books with a strong sense of place, like Southern fiction, tend to do well.”
Richards at Abingdon notes that readers are looking for different themes. “We’re seeing less interest in women’s fiction that centers on a woman recovering from a tragedy, especially if she does so by going home.” Instead, she says, readers of women’s fiction seem to be looking for “that everyday struggle that leads a character to making a remarkable or life-changing decision and facing the consequences of that decision.”
Other trends on the wane: Harrison says shorter trade fiction “seems to be going away” and readers want longer novels, 100,000 words or more. Long observes that “general suspense seems to have cooled off,” and McConnell says, “Books that showcase evil, the ones with serial killers, for instance, that have a last-minute redemptive message—readers have said ‘no thank you’ to that kind of book.” Stob adds that some of the successful genres in the general market, such as chick lit and vampire novels, “struggle to resonate with our core market.”
Trends come and go. But “I think the stories, at heart, are changeless,” says Long. “Faith, family, courage, hope, love—these are the themes that have filled inspirational novels since Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly . They don’t traffic in cynicism or irony or ennui or the other pervasive afflictions of modern literature. They haven’t embraced the antihero. They wear their heart on their sleeve.”
Adds Nesbitt, “We never grow tired of reading about forgiveness, redemption, second chances, or unconditional love. While plots or settings might suffer from ‘overexposure,’ finding truth in a story, something that strikes a chord in us, never grows old.”
Buoy, Oh, Buoy! Titanic Novels Make Waves
Nothing promises to keep a spring fiction list afloat like a good historical disaster novel. April 15 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, one of the greatest peacetime shipwreck disasters of all time. The tragedy will be commemorated by Christian publishers with multiple inspirational novels, both new and re-issued.
Wife and husband duo Mindy Starns Clark and John Campbell Clark join forces for Harvest House’s Echoes of Titanic (Mar.). “It’s a modern-day mystery about a descendant of a Titanic survivor, interspersed with the story of her ancestor on the ship and what happened that fateful night,” senior editor Kim Moore says. In addition to traditional marketing, Harvest House’s v-p of marketing Barb Sherrill has a plethora of promotions planned, ranging from a special Titanic anniversary podcast with the Clarks that will be distributed through Facebook and Twitter, to a Titanic blog tour the week before April 15. Harvest House will also give away Titanic-related items such as games, puzzles, and memorabilia and provide Titanic facts via Facebook and Twitter.
Tyndale’s Promise Me This by two-time Christy Award–winner Cathy Golhke (Feb.; 11,000-copy first printing) is “a dramatic, sweeping love story that opens with the Titanic disaster and continues through the end of WWI,” says Jan Stob, senior fiction acquisitions editor. Publicist Christy Stroud says book giveaways and e-blasts are planned, as well as full-page ads in Called, Charisma, Family Fiction, and HomeLife magazines.
At Barbour Publishing, By the Light of the Silvery Moon by Tricia Goyer (Mar.) offers readers “a charming romance with a love triangle,” says Rebecca Germany, senior fiction editor. Abingdon’s Hearts That Survive by Yvonne Lehman (Mar.) will follow the story of two families that were on the Titanic “through subsequent generations, showing how the sinking affected their lives,” says Ramona Richards, acquisitions editor.
Two backlist novels will get a new life when B&H Publishing Group re-releases Jim Walker’s Voices of the Titanic (1999) and Murder on the Titanic (1998) as e-books, according to Julie Gwinn, manager of fiction acquisitions and marketing. Both will be available April 1.