Here's one informal measure of growth in the market for what some call Christian and others call inspirational fiction. In 2010, the number of novels received by PW's religion department for review consideration increased by 15% over 2009. That's one eye-catching indicator of just how hot this corner of the fiction market is, and more publishers have been jumping in (see "Joining the Fiction Frenzy," p. 12). As in general trade, a handful of established novelists—Karen Kingsbury, Francine Rivers, Beverly Lewis, Ted Dekker, and Joel Rosenberg—dominate the category. Yet as publishers look for the next generation of writers and readers, they say they're open to new voices.
"Fiction is huge," says publishing veteran Ramona Richards, editor for fiction at Abingdon Press. Richards recently took over for Barbara Scott, who founded the United Methodist house's fiction line in 2009. She thinks the niche for speculative fiction, always small but steady, is growing a tad, and points to the popularity of steampunk novels in the general market. "I'm open to [steam punk in this market], and I have not heard of anyone writing one," Richards says. Abingdon is developing a few Amish fiction authors, but recognizes that market has demographic limits. "There is an entire segment of young people looking for literature that speaks to them, and Amish cozies may not be it," she says. Like other faith-based fiction publishers, Abingdon is growing its line modestly, potentially doing as many as 25 titles annually.
At Barbour, one of the market leaders, business is holding steady and expansion is in the offing for 2012, senior fiction editor Rebecca Germany tells PW. Romance is the house's best genre; "romance lifts the soul during trying times," Germany observes. The house plans a new line of brides and weddings romances, and is touting a new—of sorts—author: Grace Livingston Hill, a prolific 20th-century romance author who died in 1947. Her work is being revived in trade paper editions.
Bethany House, which almost single-handedly invented the category with the 1979 publication of Janette Oke's prairie romance Loves Comes Softly, is "having a nice year," says senior acquisitions editor David Long. He says sales are improving in big-box outlets and growing a little in Christian chains like Family Christian Stores. "That feels like the recession coming out of its slumber a little bit," he says. One hallmark of the house is historical fiction; Long says authors are digging more deeply into different eras of the early 20th century, even as Bethany House also is experiencing success with the 19th-century Regency-era novels by Julie Klassen. Long says a new generation of authors "who are going to be writing for a long time" is making its way into the marketplace; he cites Karen Witemeyer and Jody Hedlund among those new authors.
Reconfiguring at B&H included the elimination in January of the position of executive editor Karen Ball, a fiction veteran who continues as a consultant there and freelance editor. "We're still focusing on suspense and thriller, and just starting to move forward into straight romance," says Ball, who developed the house's Pure Enjoyment brand. B&H signed longtime Zondervan suspense author Brandilyn Collins to a three-book deal that begins with Over the Edge (May). Tosca Lee, whose previous novels Demon and Havah won attention and acclaim, next takes on the traitorous Iscariot (Jan. 2012). Like other publishing veterans, Ball is keenly aware of the need to do fresh things, especially to reach younger readers, who may be reading several books loaded on an electronic device instead of curling up in a chair poring over a print novel. "Capturing them and getting them to engage, that's the key," says Ball.
David C. Cook was not known for fiction, and getting its identity established as a fiction publisher was a "rocky road," says Don Pape, publisher for trade books. Cook's foray into fiction began years back, when it quietly launched what became the wildly successful Mitford series by Jan Karon. Cook's 12–15 titles per year are about 20% of its list. "I would probably say, from the proposal side, we see fiction 10 to 1," Pape says. Cook's target readers are women, and its genres include suspense and historical. Authors Travis Thrasher and Lisa Bergren have also begun YA series; Bergren's River of Time series began with Waterfall (Feb.)
"Our FaithWords fiction program is definitely growing," says Christina Boys, FaithWords editor. Fiction appeals as escape, but readers also want "characters they can relate to who deal with complex and realistic conflicts," she says. His Other Wife by Deborah Bedford (Feb.)—who moved to Christian fiction from the general market—is the tale of a divorced woman whose teenage son makes a disastrous choice, bringing her ex-husband and his new wife back on the scene. The model for the tale is the biblical story of Hannah. Like many other editors, Boys says she too is open to new authors.
"We don't do dark and edgy at Harvest House," says senior editor Kim Moore. With 22 fiction titles a year, Harvest House doesn't do a lot of fiction, but does have several Amish fiction authors, including mystery writer Mindy Starns Clark. A new line, to be called Angels and Heroes, will feature first responders in emergency situations emphasizing elements of hope and help. "For our house and audience, historicals are doing well, and we're looking for prairie westerns," she says. A couple of years ago, prairie westerns were hard to sell. "In fiction, the pendulum swings," notes Moore.
Howard would like to grow its fiction, says editor-in-chief and v-p Becky Nesbitt. "The marketplace will always desire fiction; readers are looking for entertainment," she says. The house's list is now around 70% nonfiction, and Nesbitt would like to see it move toward a 50/50 split. Christian horror pioneer Frank Peretti has a book due next spring; the house is currently doing well with women's fiction. Of particular interest to her are books that can appeal across the marketplace, to general readers as well as those with an interest in a novel's faith elements. That's logical: Howard is an imprint of general market giant Simon & Schuster.
Marcher Lord is a tiny specialist in speculative fiction, publishing six books a year, and they're good—the house has won both Christy and Carol awards. Publisher Jeff Gerke, a diehard promoter of the genre, is repackaging in a single volume, with notes and the author's preferred text, The Annotated Firebird by Kathy Tyers (Apr.), a niche favorite. Later this year and next will come two new volumes in the series. The house's small size enables it to be nimble and experimental: Adam Palmer is currently Tweeting his novel Space Available. "The beauty of my model is I thrive on a small number of sales," Gerke says, "a luxury almost nobody else enjoys."
At Steeple Hill/Love Inspired, owned by Harlequin, the outlook is "rosy," says Joan Marlow Golan, executive editor, who oversees the Love Inspired lines. Love Inspired began in 1997 and now includes Love Inspired Historical and Love Inspired Suspense. All the lines have grown since they started, and "people are asking us to expand some more," Golan says. Her readership wants wholesome editorial. Surveys done of buyers in the house's direct-to-consumer operations show her that 5%–10% of customers report "the religious element has nothing to do with what they read," she says. "They like nice clean books." She has no trouble finding fresh voices in a crowded and talented marketplace of authors and has already signed three new authors this year. Regency-era inspirationals are enjoying a boomlet; contemporary cowboys and westerns are selling, as well as suspense with thriller elements or cop heroes—cozy mysteries, not so much.
At Revell, where fiction makes up 50% of front list, "we're on track for projections and thrilled about it," says executive editor Andrea Doering. New writers are an important part of the fiction program; Doering points out the house has published eight new authors in the past two years. "The Help [Kathryn Stockett's acclaimed debut novel] is why we all look at a new novelist." She sees nostalgia driving interest in earlier periods of the 20th century, with historicals set in the '30s, '40s, and '50s. Romantic suspense and author Irene Hannon are also doing well. Publishing veteran Doering says she doesn't see new topics and themes as much as a difference in how narrative is done: less description, faster pacing, more and crisper dialogue. "Readers are changing even when they don't know they're changing," Doering says.
"I'm very bullish on the future," says Allen Arnold, senior v-p and fiction publisher at Thomas Nelson. One of the top-tier fiction publishers, Thomas Nelson expects to grow its list of 40 new titles by seven. "We're looking at adding staff in 2012," says Arnold, calling the publisher's growth plans "aggressive." He sees opportunities in YA, historical, and Amish. Nelson wants to publish new authors, "because they are going to be tomorrow's bestsellers." As longtime Nelson author Ted Dekker moves increasingly into general fiction, Arnold also sees a sweet open spot for an author of supernatural thrillers, and he's got a candidate: Robert Liparulo. His The 13th Tribe is due in fall 2012.
Tyndale is one of the few publishers not doing Amish fiction. "No one needs us to do that," says Karen Watson, associate publisher for fiction. But the house is happy with the bestselling success of authors Francine Rivers and Joel Rosenberg and likes its strength in the competitive category of contemporary fiction. It adds new writers by publishing the winner of the annual Operation First Novel contest run by the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild. Jenkins also helped Tyndale build its reputation in the 1990s with the Left Behind series of 12 apocalyptic novels written by him and Tim LaHaye, which sold 42 million copies. The Rapture still hasn't happened, so the series is being repackaged for a new generation of readers. The first volume, in case you forgot, is Left Behind (Apr.).
Both lines at WaterBrook/Multnomah aim at the core market for women's fiction, addressing topics in depth, says senior editor Shannon Marchese. The house is also doing some middle-grades/young adult fiction, mining the current taste for fantasy elements with its authors Donita K. Paul and Chuck Black. Marchese cites authors David Gregory and Sigmund Brower for thriller themes and treatment that appeal to male readers. She's keeping an eye on how digital publishing is changing the landscape. "You need to think about the next five years," she says.
Zondervan executive editor Sue Brower pinpoints a number of trends that the house's fiction program is addressing. She foresees opportunities for the next four years in Civil War–related fiction as the nation marks the sesquicentennial of the conflict. An Eye for Glory by debut novelist Karl Bacon is the house's opening salvo. While chick lit is still dead, women want to read about female friendship, so this fall's Barcelona Calling by Jane Kirkpatrick (see profile in this issue), who usually does historical novels, fills that bill. Within the historical category, Brower also sees possibilities in ancient times that aren't tied to Jesus. Set in the time of King David, Cliff Graham's the Lion of War series, starting with Day of War (Apr.), has epic scale, a movie option, and male readers in mind. n
Recipe for an Amish novel
One young woman (Sarah, Katie, or Rebecca).
One young man (Jacob, Daniel, Samuel).
Add one, or more, problems:
Someone is 21 and unmarried.
Someone has a family secret.
Someone is tempted by life outside the Amish community.
Someone's heart has been broken.
Mix together with one Daed, one Mamm, assorted siblings.
(Optional: add grossdawdi and/or grossmammi).
Bake together for 352 pages till resolved.
Garnish with Pennsylvania Dutch glossary or recipes or quilt pattern.
Nobody has included a quilt pattern in an Amish novel—yet. But that might come as publishers in this competitive subniche within the niche of inspirational/Christian fiction work to distinguish their offerings. April brings the publication of eight Amish novels from seven publishers, with Sarah's Gift by Marta Perry (Berkley, Mar.) a month earlier making nine, like a large Amish family.
The Mamm (mother) of what is becoming a category by itself is Beverly Lewis, whose The Shunning (Bethany House, 1997) launched the Amish fiction phenomenon. Lewis has written seven Amish series, and The Judgment (Bethany House, Apr.), second in the Rose Trilogy, has a first printing of 250,000. Lewis's books (she has more than 80 altogether) have sold more than 12 million copies. Coming up behind her, Barbour's Wanda Brunstetter has sold more than five million copies and inaugurates a sixth series with The Journey (Apr.). Sales for Amish novel author Beth Wiseman (Plain Proposal, Thomas Nelson, Apr.) approach 400,000. With just three Amish novels and one nonfiction volume about the community, Revell author Suzanne Woods Fisher has sold 260,000 books.
Publishers agree that Amish fiction offers a big helping of nostalgia, feeding a cultural appetite for the way things were (or are imagined to have been): simpler, slower, more family oriented. Joan Marlow Golan, executive editor of the Love Inspired lines of inspirational fiction at Harlequin, observes that the Amish don't watch TV or use Twitter. "The rate of change is so fast in today's society that it creates anxiety, and the Amish remind us of the deeper values and what counts," she suggests.
Yet because the range of story possibilities in a small, homogeneous community of Sarahs and Samuels is narrow, publishers are thinking hard about how to stand out in the Amish field, with variations on the Plain People theme emerging. Some novels use settings outside Lancaster County, Pa., the region associated with the Amish. Brunstetter's new Kentucky Brothers series follows a young Amish man to Kentucky; Paradise Valley by Dale Cramer (Bethany House, Jan.; profile in this issue) is set in Mexico; Beth Wiseman's Land of Canaan series moves to Colorado, where real Amish are really moving as the Amish population grows.
Quilting is one natural element to stitch into Amish stories. It makes a mighty gut cover illustration and can broaden appeal to readers who like crafts. Lilly's Wedding Quilt by Kelly Long (Thomas Nelson, Apr.) is the second volume in the Patch of Heaven series. In fall 2011, Zondervan will launch an Amish cozy mystery series with Falling to Pieces by Vannetta Chapman, set in Shipshewana, Ind. "We're looking for things outside the traditional Amish genre that will allow ours to stand out a little bit and gain a good audience," says executive editor Sue Brower. Thomas Nelson will marry Amish and angels—two reader pleasers—in The Promise of an Angel by Ruth Reid (June), kicking off the Heaven on Earth series. Operation Bonnet by Kimberly Stuart (David C. Cook, Feb.) pays tongue-in-cheek homage to the category in a humorous tale of a wanna-be detective hired by an Amish dropout to spy on his former girlfriend.
Ya, Amish fiction looks to be staying. Yet in these nichey times, not everyone is buying. In an interview on the blog "Novel Matters," Jeff Gerke, publisher at Marcher Lord Press, which specializes in speculative fiction, maintains that some readers prefer other-world alternatives to the Amish world. "They want to read about mutant alien vampires who will eat your brains," Gerke says. —M.Z.N.
American Christian Fiction Writers: A Training Ground for Authors
Writers' associations are almost as common as book clubs. But within its niche—inspirational fiction—American Christian Fiction Writers is the mother of them all. ACFW's growth mirrors that of this booming category. Born with a handful of members who started American Christian Romance Writers in 2000, in 2004 it broadened to become ACFW. Today there are more than 2,200 members, 300 who joined in the past year. Its first conference in 2002 attracted 100 people; its fall 2010 conference, drawing writers, editors, and agents, had 600-plus attendees. ACFW's mission is to educate its members about the craft and promote the genre to the public and the trade. Around 25% of its members are published, and the group tries to move that indicator each year with its Genesis contest, which recognizes unpublished writers. Current president Margaret Daley sold her 75th book last year. The 2011 conference will take place September 22–25 in St. Louis. —M.Z.N.
PW's Top Inspiration Fiction Picks for Spring/Summer
Forthcoming Christian/inspirational novels from new and established authors, eras historical and contemporary:
An Eye for Glory by Karl Bacon (Zondervan, Apr.). A debut novelist and student of the Civil War traces the journey of Union soldier Michael Palmer into the battle of Gettysburg, an event that changes the Civil War and Palmer's life.
Snitch by Booker T. Mattison (Revell, May). Present tense speeds up the urban action from a young writer-filmmaker.
The Promise of an Angel by Ruth Reid (Thomas Nelson, June). Crowd-pleasers meet in this novel with angels and Amish.
Pompeii: City of Fire by T.L. Higley (B&H, June). A nonbiblical historical offers a new perspective on ancient times.
The Canary List by Sigmund Brower (WaterBrook, June). This suspense thriller wrestles with the possibility of demons in the world.
Hearts in Flight by Patty Smith Hall (Love Inspired Historical, July) highlights women as aviation pioneers in WWII.
The Doctor's Lady by Jody Hedlund (Bethany House, Aug.). Hedlund's first novel, The Preacher's Bride, was well reviewed, debuted on the CBA bestseller list, and took a less traveled historical road.
The Second Messiah by Glenn Meade (Howard, Aug.). Irish author Meade gives the thriller genre a boost in a tale of archeological finds, the pope, and conspiracy—sound familiar?
Edge of Grace by Christa Allan (Abingdon, Aug.).
A young woman who becomes estranged from her brother when he reveals he is gay is forced to evaluate her choices and attitudes when her brother becomes the victim of a hate crime.
Space Available by Adam Palmer (Marcher Lord, no date) is a sci-fi comedy being written on Twitter. Really. Check it out: twitter.com/AdamAuthor. —M.Z.N.
Fun with Fiction Numbers
The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association is the trade group for the publishers who produce Christian fiction. ECPA gathers sales data from retailers to produce its monthly bestseller lists; while the data doesn't include sales at big-box outlets such as Wal-Mart, it captures sales in the core market. For the fourth quarter of 2010, fiction accounted for 12% of Christian book sales.
"Everybody's looking for a growth opportunity," says Michael Covington, ECPA information and education director and the group's numbers guru. ECPA's sales data can be sliced and diced in ways publishers can use for guidance. For example, according to Covington:
• Counts of titles in a category (historical, romance, etc.) in relation to sales can yield a measure of opportunity. The ratio of titles to sales shows relative potential in the categories of futuristic and historical; the romance category is saturated.
• Although 85% of Christian fiction is published in paperback editions, five of the top six books in the fourth quarter 2010 were cloth.
• The top five Christian fiction publishers in the fourth quarter 2010 are Tyndale, Baker Publishing Group, Thomas Nelson, Zondervan, and Barbour. —M.Z.N.