Someone really ought to weave a tale about selling Christian and inspirational fiction: the overcrowded market, the distracted readers, and the rewards for those who overcome the odds. Oh, but wait a minute, someone has.

With its themes of stony ground, short attention spans, and limited openings, Jesus’ parable of the sower might almost be a metaphor for some of the main problems facing those tasked with marketing inspirational storytelling in 2014.

With less retail shelf space available for established authors, let alone newcomers, and an ever-increasing number of platforms offering promotional opportunities, writers have to take on more of their own marketing, while publishers’ teams need to be increasingly nimble and inventive.

Perhaps nowhere in publishing is “discoverability”—making sure readers will know about and be able to find your books—more critical than when it comes to Christian fiction. It is “a huge issue with both challenges and advantages in today’s market,” says Cynthia Ruchti, an author—her most recent is When the Morning Glory Blooms (Abingdon Press, 2013)—and the professional relations liaison for the American Christian Fiction Writers group.

The larger the ocean, she notes, the more difficult it is for one wave to get noticed. “The increase in numbers of books published—both traditionally and through other methods—makes the pool of possibilities for the reader almost horizonless,” she says. “And it has always taken effort for a book or author to be discovered.”

Katie Bond, director of marketing and publicity for fiction at HarperCollins Christian Publishing, agrees that discoverability is the big issue. “It happens in all sorts of new spaces, but most research proves that the number one factor in the purchase of a new book is still personal recommendation,” she tells PW. “But the places and ways those recommendations happen have changed. Our theater for discovery is different—oftentimes an increasingly crowded, noisy online space.”

For Dave Lewis, executive v-p of sales and marketing at Baker Publishing Group, with its Revell and Bethany House fiction, “discoverability is not the issue” if a publisher really believes in a book and spends its money in the right places. “When you launch a new book and give it minimal marketing support, discoverability is a significant issue, but whose fault is that?”

Jeane Wynn concurs that “word of mouth is still very good for books, whether someone recommends it to a friend over coffee or tweets it out to her followers.” Running Wynn-Wynn Media with her husband, Tyson—they are long-time publicists for Christian fiction’s prestigious Christy Awards—she adds that now, more than ever, “a comprehensive media approach is essential.” Rob Birkhead, v-p and associate publisher at Simon & Schuster’s Howard Books, notes that through the likes of GoodReads, Book Shout, Book Bub, Shelfari, NoiseTrade, and retailers’ online promotions, there are many more ways of reaching avid book buyers online. “But going beyond the core audience is becoming more difficult with so much vying for consumers’ attention,” he says. “And that’s critical to have major sales success. That’s when you go to school on the market for the unique subject matter of the book, look for new ways to expose it to people who may be interested in it, and give them incentives to try it.”

A “constantly morphing media landscape” means that “platform” is no longer limited to a small collection of high-profile news outlets, so publishers’ marketing teams have to be particularly calculated but flexible in their approach to promotion, says Bond. Successful marketers must be experts in both targeting traditional or “core” media and exploiting the opportunities created by new and emerging media, adds Wynn. “The growth of social media has affected the way in which readers discover new interests, books included.”

Everyone acknowledges the critical importance of social media, while admitting it’s hard to know what works and what doesn’t. Says Wynn, “While we have yet to see definitive data that social media sells books, what we do know is that it has allowed readers to be closer than ever to their favorite writers.” Apart from anything, fiction lovers often can’t get enough of their favorite authors’ work, so “social media keeps everyone connected between books.”

ACFW encourages its members to pick and choose where to spend their social media time. “There’s evidence that the rush to join all social media and milk it for marketing purposes may be waning,” Ruchti says. She likens it to the billboard era, when overused roadside advertising not only diminished its impact “but became annoying scenery blockers.” At HCCP, “we’re selective about how we ask authors to use their valuable time on social media,” says Bond. Publicists act as coaches, “helping [authors] to follow strategies we see working well for other authors and brands.”

Authors who are using social media well are conscious of its social and relational aspects, Ruchti says. They use it to build trust, to offer added value that may not necessarily be related to their books. “And they use it to listen as much as to talk.”

A role model in this regard might be consistently bestselling Karen Kingsbury, whose most recent, Fifteen Minutes (Howard Books), debuted on the New York Times list last fall. Birkhead attributes that in large part to her social media efforts. “She has done an amazing job of attracting a huge online audience of nearly 300,000 and keeping them engaged through the years,” he says. Birkhead emphasized advertising in music markets because of the American Idol–like plot line, earning such strong radio attention that Kingsbury was invited to guest-host national morning drive-time shows on several occasions. “An author having strong social media means there is a built-in audience that is waiting for the next thing,” he says. “Capitalizing on that should be part of every marketing campaign.”

Digital publishing’s sizable bite out of the print fiction pie also requires adept marketing. Says Bond, “When it comes to digital promotions, the good news is that developments in results tracking make it much easier to observe effects on sales and change course quickly.”

She adds, “We’re constantly learning about the messaging and imagery that works best with various outlets and to experiment with different advertising outlets,” she adds. “Gone are the days of developing a marketing plan, pushing it into motion, and waiting months before guessing about what made an impact.” As a result, teams are “on constant alert,” Bond says, planning for future campaigns while making real-time adjustments to those in play.

But instant access to digital books cuts both ways. While it affords an opportunity for impulse buys, it also means readers can be lured away more easily. They not infrequently download free books that they never get around to reading.

“We’re hearing readers tell us that the devotion to stick it out with a book that doesn’t immediately grab their attention may soon be a thing of the past,” observes Ruchti. “The importance of telling a great story in a compelling way is stronger than ever for a society that sees products as disposable but time as an endangered commodity.”

Lewis believes online retailers like Amazon have helped discoverability rather than hurt it, “because they carry nearly everything and all books are more or less equal at those sites. That allows books to be found and read that didn’t make the cut with a bricks-and-mortar buyer. The fiction reader now has a much larger selection to choose from.”

The digital marketing space can be tough. Book giveaways are popular, but not always possible for electronic-only editions, notes Wynn. “We’ll soon see technology advances that make this possible,” she adds. “For the time being, though, it’s a marketing hurdle that must be considered.”

For Birkhead, offering free content or even exclusive interaction with an author “is crucial in a digital world,” and that’s fairly easy with so many different digital platforms. But launching new writers is tougher than ever, according to Birkhead. It’s largely a money thing—marketing budgets are often based on projected sales that are easier to estimate with a proven name. “There are certain marketing tactics you know will work, especially since fans anticipate the next release,” he says. That’s why working with authors to develop their own social media presence and grassroots efforts is so important.

One way Bond’s fiction team changed things last year was with “programmatic campaigns” that promoted multiple titles in different core genres—from romance to suspense and young adult—rather than just one book. “We are still focused on book-by-book marketing as well,” she says, “but these genre-focused campaigns both raise the profile for author brands we’re still growing and allow us to extend the length of active promotion for all titles, since they are ongoing throughout the year, tied to seasonal and thematic topics.” Team members are cross-trained in all aspects of advertising, publicity, and social media, Bond says, “each one serving as an expert for the genres in her care, charged with developing a deep understanding of what those genre readers want.”

Wynn affirms the marketing value of awards—”they are a way to narrow down a field of books for readers in one particular genre.” Ruchti, whose ACFW presents its own annual Carol Awards, says that while prizes “may not translate into a directly measurable marketing advantage,” they do offer credibility. Birkhead echoes that; they add to an author’s credentials, he says. “It’s great to put them on the cover, flap copy, or in the bio, to get readers to take a chance on the author and hopefully gather new fans.”

Longterm, there are some fears that the digital explosion may be damaging for Christian fiction. With so many free and low-priced books, Ruchti sees “a natural, though not necessarily healthy, sense of entitlement” to underpriced books. “We’ve grown accustomed to microwave meals and can’t imagine waiting an hour for an oven-baked potato,” she says. “We’ve also grown accustomed to books priced as if they’re fast-food meals rather than art.”

Wynn is optimistic, however. “As competition continues to grow, it forces the quality of Christian literature to get better and better,” she says. “Though the means and methods of delivery and marketing continue to change, as they always have, at its heart it’s people telling stories that change lives, because ultimately they are telling an old, old story.”