Acquiring editors face a daunting task when it comes to Christian and inspirational fiction: find gifted writers with strong voices presenting distinctive stories to lure readers looking for familiar yet unique, similar yet special books.

Some editors are excited about the future of the category, others are stymied; some are willing to take risks, others not so much. All are producing fiction they hope meets a need, hits a nerve, and sells beyond expectations. “What’s exciting and frustrating about publishing Christian fiction is that you never know what that next big thing will be,” says Christina Boys, senior editor at FaithWords.

FaithWords publishes about 10 novels a year, each one filling a specific niche, from Lynn Morris’s Regency novel The Baron’s Honourable Daughter (May) to the 1860s historical A Captain for Laura Rose by Stephanie Whitson (Mar.), or the as-yet-untitled suspenser by Ted Dekker coming out later this year.

Get Readers to Hear New Voices

On the other end of the spectrum, Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group, publishes approximately 50 fiction titles a year, 65% of which are historicals (down from 75%–80%), according to David Long, senior acquisitions editor. Bethany is home to numerous bestselling and perennial favorites like Beverly Lewis (The Last Bride, Apr.), Dee Henderson (Undetected, Apr.), Tracie Peterson (A Sensible Arrangement, Apr.), and Lynn Austin (Refiner’s Fire series repackage, Mar.).“In print we’re seeing readers flock to longtime authors, which makes it harder to launch new writers,” says Long. “But readers who love Bethany House authors are going to like the new voices as well, so we’re making them available and hoping sales follow.”

His sentiments are echoed by Shannon Marchese, senior editor for fiction at WaterBrook Multnomah. “If I had to launch a campaign for Christian fiction I’d say something like ‘Try Something New’ or ‘Branch Out.’ There are really strong voices out there just waiting to become known.”

Emily Rodmell, editor at Harlequin’s Love Inspired imprint, signed seven debut authors last year and is open to more. “We’re excited to get new authors. They have fresh ideas and offer fresh voices,” she says.

Harlequin—with its Love Inspired, Heartsong, Heartsong Presents, Love Inspired Historical, and Love Inspired Suspense imprints—will offer 20 books a month starting in May, with LI Suspense increasing to six new books each month. The expansion of that line has Rodmell especially excited. “We’re open to a lot of different books we wouldn’t have looked at before, including new authors with their first books,” she says.

Movement in the Genres

Interest in suspense and its sister, romantic suspense, is growing across the board, from small houses to larger ones. Along with romantic suspense, “I’m excited to see growth in medical suspense,” says Ramona Richards, editor at Abingdon Fiction. “Richard Mabry’s Prescription for Trouble series for us (2010-2011) kickstarted our interest in acquiring more.” Outside the suspense genre, Richards cites “novels that have medical interest points,” including Severed Trust (2013) and the forthcoming Out of the Ruins (May). She adds, “There is also an interest in character-driven mysteries, but that’s still a weaker genre than [suspense]”

Long of Bethany House agrees. “The most popular genres to emerge in the last couple of years are suspense and romantic suspense, a category that has grown substantially at Bethany thanks to Dee Henderson, Lynette Eason, Dani Pettrey, and Irene Hannon. We’re always open for more.”

FaithWords editor Boys adds, “Suspense is hard, though, because it’s all or nothing; I’ve found that people who read suspense tend to be one-author readers. This makes it hard for new authors to break out.”

Ami McConnell, senior acquisitions editor for fiction at Harper Collins Christian Publishing, sees historical romance sales on the wane but readers eager for contemporary romance, citing Colleen Coble (Rosemary Cottage, 2013) and Denise Hunter (Dancing with Fireflies, Mar.) as prime examples.

“Readers are interested in historical romance during turbulent economic times because they want to harken back to simpler times, but as we emerge from turmoil and from the Fifty Shades erotica, readers are seeking new, clean romance,” she says. “It’s wonderful that we’re able to reach readers in new ways. If we can get readers to read one of an author’s books, they then want the whole backlist.” McConnell isn’t acquiring new historicals unless the authors are solid sellers and unless it’s a high-tension time period such as Nazi Germany. Biblical fiction remains a tough sell, and she plans to stick with writers of Amish fiction who have a strong following.

“We keep saying we think Amish is waning, but it’s really not,” says McConnell. Marchese at WaterBrook plans to stick with bestseller Cindy Woodsmall (Seasons of Tomorrow, Apr.); Richards of Abingdon says, “Amish continues to draw readers, although they are looking for more variety in the genre.” Abingdon will publish Lynette Sowell’s new Amish series, Seasons of Pinecraft, set in Sarasota, Fla. (A Season of Change, May; A Path Made Plain, Nov.), and will continue Barbara Cameron’s Amish Roads series themed around the rumspringe of Amish young people (A Road Unknown, Feb.). FaithWords plans a new series featuring an Amish herbalist (Herb of Grace, Aug.) by Adina Senft.

Long says, “As a genre it’s well established. I see it plateauing rather than vanishing.”

Almost all houses hope for growth in tales set in the Edwardian era. “The early 20th-century stories will appeal as long as shows like Downton Abbey hold our imagination in thrall,” says Richards.Amy Haddock, associate editor at WaterBrook, calls it “a fascination with English culture” and says readers are looking for that experience in a novel. WaterBrook author Carrie Turansky, inspired by the series, traveled to England to research her novel The Governess of Highland Hall (2013), the first in the three-book Edwardian Brides series. Book two, The Daughter of Highland Hall, will release later this year.

“The ‘upstairs/downstairs’ divide and the cultural revolution during the Edwardian era leaves many plots to explore—and the fourth season return of Downton Abbey to PBS was incredibly strong,” says Haddock.

Regency and Victorian continue strong, according to Long of Bethany and Rodmell of Love Inspired, though there is contradictory thought on the popularity of colonial, Revolutionary War, and early 19th-century fiction. Richards of Abingdon sees less interest in those periods, while WaterBrook is excited about Lori Benton’s follow-up to her debut, Burning Sky (2013). The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn (Apr.) explores what Haddock calls “a time in history that is largely left out of the classroom: the formation of the State of Franklin during the Revolutionary period that almost gave us a different version of the America we know.”

WWII historicals seem to be making a comeback, at least at WaterBrook, with Sigmund Brower’s Thief of Glory (Aug.), which draws on autobiographical sources. According to Long at Bethany, the readership for WWII has disappeared, but he’s looking to the Civil War—and several upcoming anniversaries from the conflict—to draw interest.

Open to Experiments

Publishers are trying a variety of topics and time periods, from holiday tales (Sharyn McCrumb’s Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past; Abingdon, fall 2014) to coffee production (The Taste of Many Mountains by Bruce Wydick; Thomas Nelson, Aug.), from 1950s Americana (Miracle in a Dry Season by Sara Loudin; Bethany, Aug.) to 1920s New York City (The Hatmaker’s Heart by Carla Stewart, FaithWords, June).

Bethany’s Long admits to not having as clear a vision for trends as he usually does. “We’re casting about for a vision for what is next; we’re not looking to plug holes in genres.” Says Boys of FaithWords, “We need to keep an open mind and experiment a little. There’s a chance a novel might not do well, but it’s worth the risk because it might break out.”

American Christian Fiction Writers, which positions itself as the Voice of Christian Fiction, has members ranging from bestselling to unpublished authors. Cynthia Ruchti, much- published author and ACFW professional relations liaison, says, “Authors are exploring a wide variety of topics, eras, and felt needs from a storytelling perspective, blending genres—Amish and mystery, women’s fiction with threads of suspense, historical novels with a nod to a time period not normally addressed—something for every reader’s taste and interest.”

McConnell is taking the long view. HCCP looks at metadata to get a much more molecular look at reader interest, as well as offering readers more specific ways to search for certain topics.“We are better able to respond to readers than ever before,” she says. “We used to get handwritten letters from readers in a particular demographic, but now twe are getting so much field data via Facebook, e-mail, and other digital means. We listen to why certain topics or books are resonating, and try to keep readers in mind as we respond to ideas for books as well as manuscripts.”

McConnell speaks of a shift in the house’s focus: “We want to publish novels that expand our experience of the world instead of limit it. In the past we wanted to affirm what people believe, to reflect that back to them. But that’s not the times we are in. Readers are much more interested in expanding their worlds, and fiction is a safe place to experience perspectives outside their own.”

Ruchti of ACFW says, “Although social media can be a time drain for an author, it also holds the potential to foster true engagement with readers. Fiction writers are braving new territory in debunking the myths of Christianity being equivalent to going to church on Sunday and praying when in trouble. Christian fiction is showing faith at work in daily life, faith responding to dramatic crises, and eternal truths on the pages, no matter the genre or tone.”

Haddock of WaterBrook sums it up: “Christian fiction offers readers what it has always promised: an inspiring read. Stories are less reliant on a sweet idea with an idealistic approach to plot, and more reflect life as it exists. This paves the way for more authentic voices.