In a year in which four publishers closed, paused, or slimmed down their fiction lists, members of the American Christian Fiction Writers held their annual conference Sept. 25-27 in St. Louis to honor their best, talk shop, and see who was still standing. Registered attendance of 575--which included 150 first-timers--was down slightly from last year. The conference offered two full days of workshops, along with concurrent sessions with agents and editors hearing pitches from aspiring authors, which in a few cases produced contract offers.

A lot of the buzz this year was about “hybrid” authors, defined fluidly but generally meaning authors publishing via some mix of digital, indie, and traditional means. ACFW offered a session on the indie option. “The biggest challenge in ACFW is trying to serve indie members,” said Colleen Coble, novelist and CEO of the group, which has more than 2,600 members worldwide. “We still are going to be very focused on traditional publishing, but we don’t want to leave behind the indie writers.”

Although the number of fiction slots may be shrinking at traditional publishers, industry veterans saw plenty of opportunities, even if those opportunities look different in a changing business in which agents can be publishers and authors must be social media-savvy marketers. Major established fiction publishers aren’t pulling back, and there is room for the new, small, and nimble as digital becomes the accepted vehicle for risk management and author audition.

Daisy Hutton, v-p and fiction publisher at HarperCollins Christian Publishing, which includes the Thomas Nelson and Zondervan imprints, said the consolidation of those two strong fiction brands has brought some winnowing that will shrink the HCCP front list next year to 50 titles, down from 60. “Publishers who are committed to this category are going to find opportunities,” she said.

At ACFW’s annual awards banquet on Saturday night, the organization honored not only Christian/inspirational authors and novels, but also industry professionals, including agents, editors, unpublished writers, and mentors.

Robin Lee Hatcher received the Lifetime Achievement Award. Hatcher has written more than 70 books over her 30-year career, and also has won RWA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Published by both Christian and general-market houses, Hatcher said Christian editors were the best in the industry. Vicki Crumpton of Revell was honored as Editor of the Year; Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary was named Agent of the Year.

Baker Publishing Group imprints Bethany House and Revell took home five of ACFW’s Carol Awards; HarperCollins Christian Publishing won three; David C. Cook--which cut its fiction list this year--had one (for Christy winner Julie Cantrell’s sophomore novel When Mountains Move); River North/Moody--which has cut back substantially on its fiction publishing program--took one; and Harlequin also was awarded one. See a complete list of winners. ACFW also presented awards in 10 categories of its 2014 Genesis awards for unpublished authors.

As the Christian retail channel continues to contract, general romance readers are an especially attractive market for Christian/inspirational publishers. HCCP has begun exhibiting at the RT Booklovers Convention, where Katherine Reay’s Dear Mr. Knightley, a debut novel that won two Carol Awards this year, gained readers and traction. Changes in the way Christian readers express their faith--toward greater engagement with the broader culture--have affected book content, Hutton noted. “A different demand is being placed on the books by the readership,” making them more attractive to general readers, she said.

One demand remains perennial. Coble closed the ACFW awards banquet with a benediction and a charge to the 600 assembled writers and supporters: “Don’t be boring.”