In 2014, sales of Christian fiction were down 15% over the previous year, and several houses have either cut back or eliminated their fiction acquisitions. So that’s the bad news. The good news is that in some corners, faith-based fiction continues to thrive. To find out what’s trending, what’s waning, and where the new opportunities are, we spoke with eight industry veterans:
Christina Boys, senior editor, FaithWords, a division of Hachette Book Group
Daisy Hutton, v-p and publisher, fiction, HarperCollins Christian Publishing (HCCP)
Tina James, executive editor, Love Inspired, a division of Harlequin
David Lewis, executive v-p of sales and marketing, Baker Publishing Group
Shannon Marchese, senior editor, WaterBrook Multnomah, a division of Random House
Ami McConnell, v-p and editor-in-chief, Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster
Annie Tipton, senior acquisitions editor, Barbour Books
Karen Watson, associate publisher of fiction, Tyndale
What is hot in Christian fiction right now?
Watson, Tyndale: Romantic suspense seems to be a strong, growing genre. Romance has always been a big genre in the CBA [Christian Booksellers Association], and one of the advantages in romantic suspense is that you have female leads in a more empowered position. Characters aren’t just teachers or nurses anymore. They are solving crises.
Boys, FaithWords: Biblical fiction has been a longtime subcategory of Christian fiction, but, with the continued focus of Hollywood on biblical movies in theaters and on television, I think we may see a resurgence in that genre.
James, Love Inspired: Interest in romantic suspense continues to grow. In fact, in May 2014 the Love Inspired Suspense line expanded from four to six books a month.
What’s happening with Amish fiction?
Lewis, Baker: Amish fiction for us is still very significant, but it has declined since the advent of so many new writers in the category. Beverly Lewis’s sales are down double digits from what they were in the past, but she is still our bestselling author. Amish fiction is not as strong as a digital read as it is as a print read. In 2014, between all of our writers in Amish fiction, we sold over 400,000 units in print and 150,000 in digital.
Marchese, WaterBrook: We’ve stayed consistent with Amish fiction, just publishing Cindy Woodsmall. I’ve heard some folks refer to the changes in the Amish fiction market in dramatic terms, and I think that’s unfair, because there are still better-than-average sales in that category.
Hutton, HCCP: Amish fiction is holding strong for us. We have probably the broadest program in terms of number of authors in that category. We launched a brand-new Amish writer into the marketplace, Kelly Irvin. It’s a good sign to see that there’s still room in that market to launch new authors.
Tipton, Barbour: Wanda Brunstetter continues to be our #1 fiction author, and Amish fiction is our #1 category. In the past five or six years, there were a lot of authors who tried to get in on the game because it was a hot subject. But the authors who are going to stand the test of time are the Wanda Brunstetters and Beverly Lewises. We are trying to position Olivia Newport in that line, and she’s unique because she’s writing historical Amish fiction. Most Amish fiction is set in the contemporary time.
What trends are you seeing in historical fiction?
Marchese, WaterBrook: We’re seeing more titles that are WWII, or that are in the Revolutionary time period, or colonial.
Lewis, Baker: We’re introducing one new Regency romance and one Edwardian. People are really connecting with that whole English nobility world—thank you, Downton Abbey!
McConnell, Howard: There’s a trend of novelists bringing to light the forgotten women of history. For instance, Deanne Gist’s Tiffany Girls (May) features the women who made Louis Comfort Tiffany’s stained-glass chapel for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Tipton, Barbour: In the past nine to 12 months, I have gotten a ton of proposals of what I would consider the nostalgia category, mostly Greatest Generation storylines focusing on WWII and post-WWII... [But] we continue to see our best sales in historical romance, typically in the 19th century. Texas is a perennial setting that we find a lot of success with. In fact, Texas is one of the top five words within our system when you search for keywords by title.
Hutton, HCCP: We are very interested in stories about underserved time periods. We have a book on our fall list that’s set in the fifth century C.E., the time of St. Augustine.
What category is not working in Christian fiction?
Tipton, Barbour: There was a time that we were doing some first-run contemporary fiction, and we aren’t doing that anymore unless it’s contemporary Amish fiction. Contemporary sales were just not successful.
Hutton, HCCP: We haven’t seen any overall category fall off the map, except fantasy. Fantasy has been a struggle for everyone, except in the YA space.
McConnell, Howard: We’re scaling back publication of debut novels and putting more energy and capital behind brand-name authors.
Watson, Tyndale: The purest form of sci-fi does not work for us. Some futuristic does, but there has to be some connection to a currently experienced reality. A lot of publishers have tried, but for some reason they have not been able to identify or capture the audience.
The average reader of Christian fiction tends to be a middle-aged woman, or even older. What are you doing to court younger readers?
Marchese, WaterBrook: A huge percentage of our Christian readership is in the library market. That patron may be older, but we’ve also raised a new group of younger readers through authors like Katie Ganshert. We published her fourth novel, The Art of Losing Yourself, last month. I see Katie as the crux of the change in the market. I don’t think she’s 30 yet. She’s a youth group leader, and she watches Vampire Diaries. She’s that kind of postmodern Christian.
Hutton, HCCP: We don’t do a lot of YA publishing, but we’re very excited about Mary Weber, who has moved over to us. We don’t publish YA that we can’t code with a general BISAC. Our editorial and content filter hasn’t changed, but we believe that in that category our books have to be on the shelf with the other books that teens are reading.
Lewis, Baker: We saw from a Nielsen report that currently 27% of our sales in inspirational fiction are coming from people over 65. That’s partially because they have more time to read and more disposable income, and they love our books. But we are also concerned that our books need to appeal to all ages. So we are trying some dystopian fiction, the kind of thing that adults can read or enjoy, but are geared for teens.