While other conferences and trade shows struggle with declining attendance, the American Christian Fiction Writers association packed the house for its annual conference September 17–20 in Indianapolis, Ind. Reflecting the vigor of this market niche and the ambitions of its members, 620 people attended the conference, up 100 from last year’s gathering. The conference, which offered workshops, appointments with editors and agents, and an awards banquet honoring both established and unpublished authors, came on the heels of the release of a new Evangelical Christian Publishers Association report showing that purchases of fiction were second only to Bibles in 2009, accounting for 19% of sales of Christian products.

“This is the one I have to come to every year,” said Sue Brower, executive editor for fiction at Zondervan, who was named editor of the year by the group. In addition to meeting with her own authors—seven of them did signings—Brower was shopping for books that might lend themselves to movie screenplays and smartphone apps. “You can’t just think about the book,” she said. Zondervan was a conference sponsor for the first time.

Allen Arnold, senior v-p and fiction publisher at Thomas Nelson, said ACFW was his favorite conference because of the authors’ passion and because it fits Thomas Nelson’s move toward finding new voices. “The ideas are the best they’ve been in four or five years,” he said.

Agent Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary had a full schedule teaching and meeting authors. He handles a lot of fiction and his agency is expanding. “We’re very bullish on publishing,” he said.

From a modest beginning in 2000 with a handful of members, ACFW has grown to 2,200 members, adding 300 in the past year alone. Around a quarter of the members are published in traditional Christian publishing. The association’s mission is to train its members in the craft of writing, educate them about the business of publishing, and advocate for Christian fiction in the Christian and general markets. The ACFW awards were renamed the Carols this year to honor trailblazing fiction editor Carol Johnson, who launched the category when she acquired Janette Oke for Bethany House in the late 1970s; she signed megaselling Beverly Lewis in the late 1990s. At the conference, Johnson was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award (see related story). Steeple Hill took home three Carols for titles in its various Love Inspired mass market lines. Thomas Nelson novelist Jenny B. Jones won two Carols, and The Unfinished Gift by Dan Walsh (Revell) won in both debut and short historical categories. See a complete list of winners at www.acfw.com/boty.shtml, as well as a list of winners of the Genesis Awards, for unpublished authors, at www.acfw.com/genesis/2010winners.shtml.