Honors in Christian fiction and changes in the challenging field were talked-about topics at the International Christian Retail Show held June 22-25 in Atlanta. The 16th annual Christy Awards, which honor and promote excellence in Christian fiction, were announced Monday, June 23, in eight categories, with Burning Sky by Lori Benton (WaterBrook) named as Best Historical, Best Debut, and Book of the Year. Benton, who lives in Oregon and is a cancer survivor, was unable to attend the event but posted on her blog that she was stunned by her win. The novel was runner up in 2010 for the Genesis award given to an unpublished manuscript by the American Christian Fiction Writers. A complete list of winners is available here.

The annual awards dinner was MC’ed by novelist Davis Bunn, who was inducted into the Christy Hall of Fame, and keynoted by Marcia Z. Nelson, religion reviews editor at PW. Nelson urged the assembled writers, agents and publishers to continue writing and publishing fiction despite challenges. “Whether fiction changes lives is best judged over time, and one of its measures is faithfulness," Nelson said. "Show up at your books and the computer at which you compose early and often.” Bunn, the author of 30 novels, four of which have won Christys, also offered encouragement: “Failure is defined as a singular, temporary, passing event. I have two words for failure: Rise beyond.”

Earlier that day, the 2,700-member American Christian Fiction Writers announced finalists for this year’s Carol Awards in eleven categories. Winners will be named at the annual ACFW conference Sept. 27 in St. Louis, Mo. A complete list of finalists is here. Winner of the ACFW Lifetime Achievement Award is Robin Lee Hatcher, author of more than 70 novels and novellas and a recipient of the RWA Lifetime Achievement Award.

Not all the news about fiction at ICRS was celebratory. River North, the fiction imprint of Moody Publishers, launched in 2011, is no longer actively acquiring and let go of associate publisher Deb Keiser effective July 1. David C. Cook is also trimming the sails of its fiction program, cutting its list by half. The publisher “is only going to do fiction that makes sense for us,” publicist Lisa Beech said, adding that meant books that fit Cook’s identity as a provider of Christian leadership and discipleship resources. Ironically, Cook published the 2013 Christy Book of the Year, Into the Free by Julie Cantrell, a debut novel; the 2014 Christy Award winner for historical romance, Harvest of Gold by Tessa Afshar, was published by River North.

A Tuesday Christian fiction trends panel attracted 50 people, a mix of publishing staff, agents, and retailers, who were addressed by 13 novelists writing in a variety of genres. A few pointed to an uptick in stories of suspense or tension; Karen Witemeyer said the historical category, always popular but tending to wax and wane, “is revitalized.” Panelists also addressed concerns of retailers in the audience, noting that contemporary marketing methods and outreach, including social media; critical assessment by a store buyer combined with discounting to help readers make more tailored choices. Cross-promotion among novelists themselves supports fellow writers as well as booksellers. “We Christian fiction authors are on your side,” noted Cynthia Ruchti, novelist and panel moderator.

Daisy Hutton, fiction publisher at HarperCollins Christian Publishing, which includes the Thomas Nelson and Zondervan imprints, said she thought the shifts in the industry would ultimately strengthen the market for Christian fiction. Closing and trimming existing fiction programs would benefit smaller houses, she suggested, who might then have more talent available to them. Shakeouts in the highly competitive Christian fiction market also allow publishers to more clearly define their brands. “We’re deeply committed to [fiction],” Hutton said.

Look for a complete wrap-up of ICRS on Friday.

Ann Byle contributed to this report.