Thirty-one years after the publication of Janette Oke’s first pioneer romance, Love Comes Softly, veteran Christian fiction editor Carol Johnson was warmly applauded as she received a lifetime achievement award September 19 at the annual conference of the American Christian Fiction Writers in Indianapolis. Oke was on hand to help present the award at a banquet crowded with more than 600 published or aspiring novelists who write in the market that Johnson helped develop.

In an interview Johnson told RBL about growing up in Borneo as a missionary kid and living with her family in California when they returned to America. She began her career in publishing in her college years, working in a print shop where she operated a Linotype machine and did her first editing right on the machine. Eventually, Johnson rose to editorial director at what was then Bethany Fellowship Publishers, led by her husband, Gary. She remembers being captivated by Oke’s manuscript, but that it was one tough sell in a male-dominated editorial meeting.

But she prevailed, and the publisher took 45 copies of its new Christian novel to the 1979 CBA convention. “We noticed copies kept disappearing off the floor display,” Johnson said; the last copy had to be anchored in place by shrink wrap. Since that sodbusting title, the audience for Christian fiction has grown steadily, with key titles bringing in new audiences and subgenres multiplying, until fiction now accounts for 19% of sales in the Christian marketplace, second only to Bibles, according to an ECPA report released earlier this month. Johnson was also the acquiring editor for Beverly Lewis, whose 1998 novel, The Shunning, launched the Amish novel juggernaut.

Johnson stepped down from her full-time role at Bethany House, now a division of Baker Publishing Group, in 2008, though she continues in a part-time capacity there. Married for 48 years, she and her husband also continue working together as J&J Literary Advisors. A current project is working with Hendrickson Publishers (see PW’s April 20, 2010, report) to develop a line of fiction reprints to debut in spring 2011.

As the Christian fiction market matures, Johnson today considers herself an advocate for quality within the category. Stories need time and care in development, she noted; Christian retailers in particular need to recognize that the Christian fiction reader is their most frequent customer. “Retailers don’t like to be told what to do by editors,” she conceded. “I’d like to make sure every bookstore has a fiction advocate [on staff].”