Since digital publishing is perfect for serializing fiction almost as fast as authors can finish their latest installment, it makes sense that Christian publishers exploring that developing space are also making things up as they go along.

With the rules of e-publishing still being written, companies like Barbour Publishing have been tweaking their efforts. Barbour launched the direct-to-digital Shiloh Run Studios imprint earlier this year with Olivia Newport's 13-part Hidden Falls mystery series.

However, although Hidden Falls was a success, the second e-serialization that launches July 4—Ronie Kendig's Operation Zulu thriller series—will have just five installments. “We've reworked the release schedule based on feedback we received from Hidden Falls readers,” says Mary Burns, Barbour's v-p of marketing. “Some readers felt the episodes were too short, so our main adjustment has been fewer but longer episodes.” The 80-page opening slice of Operation Zulu will be free, with the four subsequent installments each running to about 240 pages and priced at $4.99. That compares to $1.99 for each of Hidden Falls’ approximately 60-page episodes.

Operation Zulu will be followed in October by The 12 Brides of Christmas series, which will offer weekly installments through Christmas. “E-readers are voracious readers,” says Burns, who notes that for many, reading the story in chapters as it develops is “an exciting way to approach reading.” The collected Hidden Falls books will be available in print in a single volume in October, when it will cost $19.99 rather than the $23.88 digital readers who bought all the individual episodes have paid.

Rather than developing a separate digital-first list, HarperCollins Christian Publishing’s emphasis is on bringing out short e-pieces that can later become a full-length novella collection for print and digital. “Our goal is still to publish the best books in our category and make them available where readers are,” says v-p and publisher for fiction Daisy Hutton. “Our e-first program is simply a part of that larger goal.” E-releases in the Calendar Brides series have “been strong out of the gate,” she notes.

One of the contributors to that series is Colleen Coble, who is also CEO of the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) association. “About half of my sales are now digital, so it's a quick way to get some fill-in content out to readers who like that format,” she says. “It's made it easier for authors to feed the insatiable market with shorter works that can be quickly completed.”

Tyndale House Publishers added a print component to its direct-to-digital initiative earlier this year with Pam Hillman's romance, Claiming Mariah, and others to follow. Several digital-only novellas by Lisa Wingate “dig deeper into the characters from her novels,” says Jan Stob, senior acquisitions editor for fiction, while an e-prologue is in the works for the novelization of the apocalyptic movie, The Remaining, due out in the fall. The digital back-story will be released ahead of the print book “to whet readers' appetites,” says Stob.

“The beauty of direct-to-digital is that it allows us to explore these opportunities as they arise,” Stob tells PW. “We continue to assess the marketplace for the most effective pricing, length of content, and popularity of genre.” But while e-publishing affords experimentation and is a good way to introduce new writers, Stob notes that the explosion of self-publishing makes discoverability a challenge. “Without backlist titles, it's difficult for a debut author to stand out in a sea of titles,” she notes.

Digital-first releases can “fuel the buzz about a book before its print release” by gaining reviews from a broad spectrum of readers, says ACFW professional relations liaison Cynthia Ruchti, herself an author—though she notes there can be a downside, with the subsequent print release perhaps being seen as “old news.”

It's no surprise to anyone that romance is the hottest category for digital fiction, but science fiction and fantasy are other genres that do well in digital, according to author and fiction coach Randy Ingermanson, who is also an ACFW executive board member. More important than what's happening with publishers' digital initiatives, Ingermanson says, is that “large numbers of indie authors are using a digital-only strategy and doing very well at it.” In fact, some do so much better by publishing their own e-books, he says, that they “simply refuse to work with traditional publishers.”

Meanwhile, Baker Publishing Group is beginning to “experiment, measure, and evaluate publishing in digital first,” says Dave Lewis, executive v-p of sales & marketing. That testing includes new and established authors, novellas, and full-length novels. “Overall, it is encouraging,” he says.