Despite mixed fortunes in 2013 in a category that might be feeling digital disruption more than any other, publishers of Christian and inspirational fiction remain optimistic as they look to the coming year. It’s a glass-half-full view based on some new strategies, strong lists, and unswerving belief in the power of a good read.

Up, Flat, Down?

Karen Watson projects growth for Tyndale House, where she is associate publisher for fiction. That’s based in part on forthcoming titles from bestselling authors Joel Rosenberg (Escape from Auschwitz, Mar.) and Francine Rivers (Bridge to Haven, Apr.). The company’s 35–40 releases in the year ahead will be “fairly consistent” with previous years, Watson says. Though sales in 2013 were “fairly flat,” Watson was encouraged by “excellent response and critical recognition” for several titles, and Christy Award prizes for three authors with new books coming in 2014: Chris Fabry (as yet untitled, Oct.), Tracy Groot (The Sentinels of Andersonville, Feb.; profiled in this issue), and Susan May Warren (Take a Chance on Me, Feb.). Tyndale has added a full-time social media specialist to train and support its authors’ efforts.

At HarperCollins Christian Publishing, v-p of fiction Daisy Hutton says, “We plan to maintain the size of our program in terms of the number of titles we publish.” The combined Thomas Nelson and Zondervan fiction catalogue will feature 60 new frontlist novels, 12 trade paper conversions and repackages, and 27 e-single novellas.

HCCP’s inaugural “e-first” project, the Calendar Brides Collection, was one of 2013’s highlights. In addition to combining Nelson and Zondervan editorial and marketing teams, the year also saw marketing and PR teams restructured according to category rather than task. As a result, “each member is cross-trained and focuses on a specific category,” Hutton says, “allowing them to become experts in that category and build strong relationships with the gatekeepers—publications, bloggers—and also allowing each of our authors to work with a single team member for their full campaign.”

Dave Lewis, Baker Publishing Group executive v-p of sales and marketing, says that creating the new position of e-book promotion analyst played “a significant role” in increasing fiction revenues. Last year was “solid” for Baker, with Revell and Bethany House print sales also up, he says. This year Lewis anticipates further growth, with about the same number of new titles. One will be June’s Child of Mine by Beverly and [author] David Lewis, whose Sanctuary sold more than 250,000 units a few years ago.

“In publishing one sees growth in a couple of ways: being aware of market shifts and publishing better-selling titles,” Baker’s Lewis says. “There are specific authors who sell much better as an e-book than they do in print. The reverse is also true. So as we move forward we want to maximize the marketing and sales in each format for each author.”

While sales last year were below expectations for Moody Publishers’ River North imprint, associate publisher Deb Keiser looks forward to growth this year. Part of that rests on their first book from bestselling author Davis Bunn (profiled in this issue), whose The Turning releases in April.

David C. Cook will likely trim its fiction list by almost half compared to five years ago, according to Don Pape, speaking shortly before announcing his departure as Cook’s trade publisher to NavPress at the turn of the year. Cook is “assessing how to move forward in this category,” Pape says. “There are a number of players crowding the shelves—add the self-published fiction tribe and it makes it hard for good new stories to be discovered.”

Abingdon Press will be retrenching some, though Pamela Clements, associate publisher for fiction and Christian living, is confident that ”readers still love fiction, and they love our fiction.” One challenge last year was getting stores to carry and display as a line the imprint’s Quilts of Love series—aimed at the country’s 20 million-plus quilters—with each title written by a different author. “Each book covers different genres and settings, so we understand how stores would want to shelve the books according to their traditional categories,” says Clements. “The advantage of grouping the books together as a line remains to be seen, though. In the meantime, we are continuing to see orders of the backlist as readers discover the new releases.”

Digital Still Expanding

After a few years of frenzy, publishers are getting more of a handle on the scale and impact of digital fiction—something that Pape notes “went from zero to one hundred quickly.” Sales in that space are about 25% of Cook’s business, accounting for some 70% of fiction unit sales. “We would like to see more fiction in digital format,” he says. “The standard is still the same for both physical and digital; there is always that danger of thinking, well, we can’t sell it as a book, maybe it’s a digital. That [format] shouldn’t lessen the content’s quality.”

Digital grew at a slower rate for Baker in 2013 than in previous years—but still in double digits. Digital business overall now adds up to slightly more than a quarter of the company’s total revenues, Lewis says, while total fiction sales make up 36%.

River North saw “steady growth” in digital. “We continue to think of digital as an additional sale of a title, not as a substitutionary sale,” says Keiser. “However, we are encouraged by increased sales of print books from e-book promotions and are measuring the best way to balance this tension.”

Digital sales appear to have leveled off for Abingdon. “We continue to look for ways to use digital backlist as a promotional tool for new releases and to remind readers that they can get previous books from an author or series on digital,” says Clements. “I think it is key that we cross-promote so readers can find our books in whatever format best meets their needs. We’ve heard it before—to succeed in publishing today means we must produce stellar content that can be applicable across all formats.”

Tyndale’s Watson says, “In general, the [digital] numbers have become more predictable. There are always exceptions, certainly. But finding new ways to draw attention and heat for digital promotions and social media efforts is always on the table.”

The print-to-e-book mix “is no longer the obsession for publishers that it has been for the past two years,” says HCCP’s Hutton. “The focus has shifted to optimizing the content we publish in every format, channel, and environment. This calls for unimagined levels of creativity, innovation, and flexibility. The challenges are real, but there has never been a more exciting time to work in book publishing.”

Shrinking Shelf Space

E-books and online print sales might be growing, but publishers remain concerned about declining physical retail space. “We are hearing that accounts continue to shrink fiction shelf space, which presents an even greater challenge for us,” says Clements at Abingdon. “While retail will continue to be our primary focus, we are looking at every way possible—including inventive digital strategies—to reach our core market.”

Lewis acknowledges that stores saw “a dramatic decrease” in fiction sales as the category became the first to rapidly gain readers in e-format. But Baker did see a “modest turnaround” in the erosion of print sales last year, he reports. “The challenge in 2014 is to encourage bookstores to continue supporting the fiction category, since the most frequent shoppers and biggest buyers are still fiction readers,” he says.

That’s something of a Catch-22 situation; as backlist sales shift to digital, bricks-and-mortar retailers have been cutting their inventory of older titles, which in turn sends shoppers to online booksellers who also offer new releases. But “we don’t blame retailers for cutting back their selection based on the shift in the consumer’s buying habits,” Lewis says. “They must invest their shelf space and inventory dollars where it gives them the best return.”

Hutton observes that online retailing doesn’t replace the “discovery environment” of a physical store, and might never do so as effectively. “This is the real concern,” she says, “not whether readers are choosing to read digitally or in print. Most people in this industry right now believe that we will continue to live in a bifurcated environment in which publishers must strive to manage both print and digital production, discovery, and fulfillment optimally. The key is making sure that we have the best possible content delivered to readers in the most persuasive ways possible.”

Watson at Tyndale expresses concern about the reduction in the number of Christian stores nationwide “and the internal reduction in these stores of the breadth of inventory that is being carried. This significantly impacts our ability to find exposure for new authors,” she says. The growth of digital also means that it is increasingly difficult to keep print books on the shelves longterm. “The frontlist turn is shorter and inventories are trending down,” says Watson.

Jeff Gerke is less bothered about the future of Christian bookstores. The founder of the science fiction and fantasy specialist Marcher Lord Press—where digital sales top those for print 10–1—sees “a continuing but slowly shrinking demand” for “bonnet and buggy” fiction. “The next 25 years of Christian fiction belong to the science fiction and fantasy authors and readers,” predicts Gerke, who recently sold Marcher Lord to agent Steve Laube. “Go to any Christian writers conference with a teen track and ask those writers what they’re writing, and you’ll hear one thing: speculative fiction. They’re writing fantasy and dystopian SF. They’re avoiding bonnet and buggy like, well, like their mothers’ and grandmothers’ sort of fiction.”

He adds: “Bookstores, not to mention publishers, are going to have to change radically to reach that entirely new demographic. Frankly, I don’t see most Christian bookstores and/or publishers being even able to make such a change if they wanted to, and I don’t see them wanting to.”

The Price Point Factor

Part of the reason for the shift to digital sales, of course, has been the lower price point. “The combination of the shrinking retail market and the battle for the consumer’s mind-share means that we have to be more intentional and more creative with marketing than ever before,” Clements says. “We must equip our retailers to be successful and drive the consumer to them. We have to be ever more mindful of the margins and make hard decisions about the things that impact cost of product, but may not influence the consumer to purchase the book. There are so many moving parts and we are working to keep all the wheels turning and going forward.”

Baker offers “aggressive pricing promotions on print fiction titles, as we do with e-book fiction titles,” says Lewis. “Broadly speaking, there is a general downward pressure on the retail price of fiction books in all formats. It also seems to be more challenging to launch new authors into the bookstores, since they seem to prefer investing their space and money in the more proven authors.”

Bargain price fiction that taps into the “impulse buy” is doing well, notes Tessie DeVore, executive v-p at Charisma House. Recognizing that price point “is becoming a more sensitive issue,” she says, the company experimented with bundling titles by some of its Realms fiction authors in 2013. “We have also begun evaluating manuscripts not just for print but for e-book-only potential,” DeVore says. “That’s a new thing for us to start doing. We have done a few e-books only, but not in the fiction category yet.”

While the number of titles from traditional publishers remains in decline, self-publishing activities “continue to explode,” notes Hutton. “While this variety and choice is ultimately good for readers, it also creates tremendous challenges for discovery. With so much inexpensive and free content available to readers, authors and publishers must work even harder to communicate the identity and value of the stories we offer.” She adds, “The pressure on the marketing function is unprecedented. This is no time for the same old thing; it’s an innovate-or-die moment for publishers in category fiction.”

Keeping Up with Changing Consumers

Not all of the business difficulties publishers expect are directly technological or commercial. Some are cultural. River North’s Keiser believes that the openness she sees in Christian women to reading books like erotic fiction megaseller Fifty Shades of Gray “is something I think Christian publishers need to consider seriously.” She wonders: “How can we provide content that serves this audience in a way that honors Christ and captures the imagination of the reader? This is both a challenge and an opportunity.”

Keiser also points to younger and younger users of digital devices. “What does this mean for content development as machines become faster, smaller, and more powerful?” she asks. “And as always, what’s next? We need to anticipate the trends.”

Hutton, too, expresses concern about how reading is changing in an electronic era. “Many of us in this industry have deep underlying concerns about undeniable changes in expectations that readers are bringing to content,” she says. “The primacy of the immersive read has been unassailable for the past hundred-plus years. Has this changed? As we become accustomed to the hundreds of frequent and fragmented bursts of content that we experience each day, do our brains begin to shape themselves around this new reality and make us crave story immersion less?”

Says Clements, “The battle for attention and mind-share has never been more intense.” She adds: “E-mail, social media, television, gaming—all demand time and focus, which means less time is spent reading for entertainment. The attention span of readers is shorter than it was even a few years ago.”

All of this shapes the changing market, Clements says. “We counteract this by co-opting these mediums to engage readers and funnel them back to our books, and by selecting and publishing books that are so compelling they will overcome the other options.”

But as people increasingly become what Hutton calls “daily memoirists,” capturing and commenting on their own and others’ experiences in real time, she asks, “Do we begin to lose a sense of distinction between ad hoc commentary and the art of storytelling? As a publisher—not to mention as a person of faith, a parent, and a human being—I agonize over these questions. The best answer I know—right now, today—is to work as hard as I can to help preserve the power of immersive reading and the craft of storytelling through finding the smartest and most effective ways to support our authors in what they do.”

Some see opportunities as well as obstacles. Watson thinks that the popularity of Pinterest and other “more image-driven social media channels will be providing new opportunities for beautifully designed books.” Visually arresting books will be more important in catching browsers’ attention during the shorter time titles spend on the shelves, she says.

Another area Watson hopes to explore is what she dubs “reason-to-be fiction,” with the May release of debut author Jake Smith’s Wish, which promotes support of the bone marrow registry. “Christian fiction has too long been criticized for being lesson-heavy and didactic,” she says. “We believe that Wish breaks from that mold in a winsome and heartwarming way and can engage a wide range of people to find inspiration to make a difference in the life of another person.”

Publishers remain confident. “People still love a great story,” says Pape. “A story well told can still find an audience.” Clements believes “the quality of the fiction being published by Christian houses has never been better.” She says: “We are facing the same challenges the secular houses are facing, only we know that our books speak to the heart as well as entertain. The readers are still out there—we just have to adapt and focus in order to connect with them in the midst of change.”