Despite the much-discussed 15% drop in Christian fiction print unit sales from 2013 to 2014, as reported by Nielsen BookScan, publishers aren’t sounding the category’s death knell yet. At the same time, they acknowledge the challenges that Christian fiction faces.

At Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, publisher Jonathan Merkh cites a readership that has been branching out beyond Christian fiction, and the difficulty in launching debut authors, who in the past may have bumped up sales numbers. And while “we’re already seeing progress in sales this year,” he says, last year’s drop has Howard doing some close self-examination. “We have to be smarter about how we publish books, and we must find new ways and new channels for getting the word out.”

Steve Oates, v-p of marketing for Bethany House, part of Baker Publishing Group, says that while “we have seen a decline in sales,” it’s less than 10%. “There really isn’t a ‘sky is falling’ mentality from us,” he says. “Bethany has over 50% of its sales in fiction; we are in it and we are committed.”

Abingdon Press, which had stopped acquiring and publishing fiction for a short time in 2013 and 2014, is cautiously stepping back in with 12–16 titles a year, compared with the 25–36 novels it used to publish annually. “With the ongoing changes in the marketplace, we are watching closely and evaluating, as are most fiction publishers,” says Ramona Richards, managing editor, Christian Living and Abingdon Fiction. “Every publisher has genres that work better than others; our core has always been contemporary women’s fiction and suspense. This renewed focus on our core strengths will allow for a broader marketing spread and brand identity.”

Daisy Hutton, v-p of fiction for HarperCollins Christian Publishing (HCCP), says that fiction sales via its Thomas Nelson and Zondervan lines increased slightly in the first quarter of 2015, compared with the same period in 2014. “We’ve seen nice growth on the print side of the business,” she says. “This is really encouraging based on the reality we live in.”

For Hutton, standing out in the marketplace presents one of the category’s big hurdles. “There has been tremendous convergence in the way our readers discover and read books,” she says. “We’re no longer in a time when readers walk into a segmented environment to find books. They are finding them on endless bookshelves with endless content available to them.”

Translation: rather than browsing the Christian fiction sections of bricks-and-mortar shops, readers now buy hard copies and e-books online from Amazon or similar retailers, shop at big-box stores, borrow more often from libraries and friends, make more purchases at secondhand stores and yard sales, and wait for deep discounts at bargain tables and on websites.

“In my mind this is the challenge,” Hutton says. “Our books are competing in the marketplace that all fiction readers have access to. We aren’t publishing into a theater where readers only look for the Christian fiction we’re offering, but to readers who are looking at everything offered in all places.”

Oates, of Bethany House, also has a take on the phenomenon. “E-book pricing is changing expectations for what is a fair price for print books, and books increasingly need to be price-pointed to move in volume,” he says. And Christian retailers, believing that e-book sales would take over, have reduced shelf space for fiction and replaced it with higher-yield merchandise such as cards and gifts. “They created their own sales decline,” Oates says, “and pushed readers who wanted broad selection into purchasing online, but they also shrank the market.”

Targeted Marketing

To meet these challenges, publishers are searching for ways to target particular audiences and tailoring their marketing efforts toward reaching those audiences. “We’re getting very specific about our sales channels,” Hutton says, “and we’re a lot more focused on digging in and doing activities that work in specific channels.”

For example, HCCP fiction marketing director Katie Bond began attending the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in 2010 to get perspective on how the publisher might meet readers in that venue. Last year, HCCP hosted an open breakfast that featured a number of its romance authors; more than 300 guests attended. “We could not have anticipated that kind of response,” Bond says. “We were blown away.” This year, 19 Christian fiction authors from HCCP and other publishers will attend the breakfast.

HCCP is also tapping into corporate opportunities such as the ChurchSource catalogue, as well as the church library market and women’s online communities. And when a retailer steps forward to support a particular book or author, HCCP “is going to honor that support,” Bond says, with marketing that directs consumers to that retailer, and with price incentives.

Dave Lewis, executive v-p for sales and marketing for Baker Publishing Group (BPG), also sees focused marketing as key to success. “We continue to support fiction with robust marketing in print and social media, and with author websites,” he says. “Also, we have taken our older backlist titles and created significant price point promotions for retailers to help them combat cheaper e-book prices.”

Online promotions are aggressive, with 200–300 fiction and nonfiction titles on sale at least a few days every month. Every title, especially backlist, ends up on sale at least one or two days a year. “We’re always experimenting,” Lewis says. “We test each author and each genre to learn where we can maximize pricing.”

FaithWords is also focusing particular attention online. “Social media offers a whole array of ways to connect readers with our books,” says Christina Boys, senior editor. The FaithWords Facebook page has more than two million “likes,” and the publisher has begun creating book-specific Pinterest boards “that take the reading experience beyond the pages of the novel,” Boys says. One example: the board for A Flying Affair, by Carla Stewart (June), a romance about a female aviator set in the 1920s, showcases relevant images from that time period, including photos of pilots like Bessie Coleman and Amelia Earhart, vintage magazine covers and advertising, and 1920s fashion.

Looking Forward

Beyond new marketing strategies, publishers are counting on the strength of their lists to draw new readers and keep seasoned fans coming back to their books. Howard is one of the few Christian publishers that release hardcover fiction (Tyndale is another), including books by Karen Kingsbury and Tosca Lee; the publisher has four jacketed hardcovers among this year’s list of 20-odd titles.

Merkh says that, going forward, Howard is likely to acquire proven authors over newcomers, citing the cost and limited success of debut releases. “We firmly believe in the power of fiction and don’t want to slow down,” he says, “but we will probably slow down in the acquisition of first-time authors.”

BPG, Lewis says, depends on the longevity of key authors for future success—Tracie Peterson in historical fiction, Beverly Lewis in Amish fiction—and on the popularity of the growing romantic suspense genre. BPG has also found success with Regency and other British historicals and is considering books in the emerging new adult category.

“We’re always looking,” he says. “We know where the money is—in traditional genres such as historical romance and Amish—but we also want to find new talent and try new things around the edges.”

HCCP’s Hutton forecasts a “focus on building on our existing author brands and building our new voices. There will be more crossover authors coming from us—those who write for all audiences but from a Christian worldview.” The house is looking at where their audiences congregate at live events and online, and testing different messages to find the best strategies to reach crossover readers. Oates, of Bethany House, sums up what publishers are doing—and should be doing—as sales begin to edge up and the market stabilizes: “I think you’re going to see a lot of experimentation on the part of publishers, but, from most people’s perspective, they will see the market as very stable and not changing much,” he says. “Smart publishers will use this time to refine their programs and be ready when the market opens back up in a few years.”

New Players

Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas

Founded: Raleigh, N.C., 2007

List: Up to eight books per year from each of seven fiction imprints. Genres include contemporary and historical fiction and romance, Southern fiction, and speculative and fantasy fiction.

Payment: 40%; books are released as e-books and POD.

Notable title: Once Beyond a Time, by Ann Tatlock, who heads historical fiction imprint Heritage Beacon, is a 2015 Christy Award finalist. “We want to bridge the gap [for] debut novelists who have really good work but were spending $5,000 to self-publish a book,” says founder and CEO Eddie Jones. Jones says that LPC is filling “the debut author niche.” He adds: “Our mission is to launch careers. If I can bring on a debut novelist, sell a few thousand copies of his or her book, and they go on to land a larger contract with a bigger house, we have fulfilled our mission.”

Ashberry Lane

Founded: Gaston, Ore., 2009

List: Nine books per year.

Payment: 50% royalty on POD and e-books.

Notable titles: On the Threshhold (2013), by Sherrie Ashcraft and Christina Tarabochia, and Dianne Price’s Thistle series.

Cofounder Tarabochia published her debut novel, The Familiar Stranger, with Moody in 2009, but she failed to land subsequent contracts. In 2013, she and Ashcraft, her mother, launched Ashberry Lane in order to self-publish On the Threshold. Shortly after its release, Price, who was terminally ill with cancer, approached the pair about publishing her six-book historical romance series. “We decided that we would be a traditional publisher,” Tarabochia says. “We want to be the middle ground for those who can’t get [one of] those eight to 10 slots at major houses, but whose story is really good.”

Mountainview Books

Founded: Hopeland, Pa., 2013

List: Eight to 10 books per year.

Payment: 50% royalty on POD and e-books.

Notable title: West for the Black Hills (2015), by Peter Leavell, was recently reviewed by PW—a first for the fledgling company. The reviewer called it “a nicely textured narrative” and an “absorbing read.” Founder C.J. Darlington says she launched the company with her mother and sister because her author friends were losing contracts with large houses, and talented new authors were not getting in the door. “We say the need,” she says. Darlington won Jerry B. Jenkins’s Operation: First Novel competition in 2008 with Thicker than Blood, and she rereleased it as a Mountainview title in 2013.

Enclave Publishing

Founded: Phoenix, 2014

List: 12 novels scheduled for 2015.

Payment: Enclave declined to reveal royalty rates.

Notable titles: A Time to Die, by Nadine Brandes, and Failstate: Nemesis, by John W. Otte, are 2015 Christy Award finalists.

“We in the speculative fiction genre are considered weird by nonfans,” says owner Steve Laube, who purchased Marcher Lord Press in 2014 and renamed it Enclave. “So we understand that we have to band together to accomplish more.” For Laube, the role of the indie publisher remains consistent despite the changing publishing landscape. “Intrinsic to the small publisher is the ability to support outlier authors and books—those that don’t fit the normal market but still have a powerful voice and story to tell.”

Anaiah Press

Founded: Pinellas Park, Fla., 2014

List: 25 titles scheduled for this year; the house mainly publishes fiction, including adult, YA, early readers, and picture books.

Payment: 40% royalty on net for digital formats, and 9%–12% on print, with a token advance offered in some circumstances.

Notable title: Runaway (2014), a historical romance novella by Renee Donne, was the press’s first release. “The hardest thing about being a smaller house is that we don’t have the major resources that larger publishers do,” says executive editor Eden Plantz. “It’s not scary so much as interesting and fun.” That said, she adds, “Our plan is to stay small. We like our community feel. We like knowing who our authors are and what they’ve written.”