Christian fiction is a formidable segment of the religion and spirituality category, but no one knows just how big it really is. Steve Oates, v-p of marketing for the Bethany House unit of Baker Publishing Group, says that based on industry data, he estimates the market to be in the $75 million–$85 million range.

Though large and small publishers are all active in the market, a few key Christian houses dominate. At the top are Baker’s Bethany House and Revell imprints, Tyndale House, and HarperCollins Christian Publishing, with its Thomas Nelson and Zondervan imprints.

Chief among the problems confronting these publishers is pricing. With the advent of e-books, and the proliferation of self-published titles and low-priced backlist books, the downward pressure on prices is significant, Oates says. “There is a race to the bottom in price, and this makes selling new books for something resembling full price very challenging.”

Rolf Zettersten, publisher for Hachette’s FaithWords unit, agrees: “Pricing is a major issue—Christian fiction is heavily discounted, and the prices are too low to work [for us].”

Pricing pressure has contributed to a shakeout in Christian fiction over the past few years. Some houses, such as Howard and FaithWords, have scaled back their fiction programs; HarperCollins Christian Publishing combined its Zondervan and Nelson fiction programs, cutting title output; and others got out of the business altogether (B&H, David C. Cook, and Moody; Abingdon announced it will exit by 2017). At present, title output among the major houses seems to have stabilized, albeit at lower levels than a few years ago.

Daisy Hutton, v-p and publisher of fiction for HarperCollins Christian Publishing, says the company is now doing 50–55 fiction titles per year. Baker’s Bethany House and Revell imprints published a combined total of 81 new titles in 2015; they have 91 planned for 2016 and project 85 in 2017.

Annie Tipton, senior acquisitions editor for Barbour, which primarily publishes fiction, says that with all of the house’s various formats, price points, and release strategies (including full-lengths, repackaged shorter stories, series omnibuses, and novella collections), Barbour released more than 30 fiction titles last year and this year, and it plans to continue that pace next year. Typically, Barbour does three to four fiction titles per month.

Ami McConnell, executive editor for Howard Books, says: “We’ve pared back in fiction over the last 12 months. Our acquisition focus is on novelists who have great content, strong platforms, and strategic timing. Platform has become just as important in publishing fiction as it has with nonfiction.”

“We’re not seeing a lot of growth [in fiction],” Zettersten says. “We’re being more selective about who we publish,” doing about 15 titles per year but with no target number. FaithWords’ star author is Wm. Paul Young; in advance of the release of the movie adaptation of his The Shack in March 2017, FaithWords will publish both trade paper and mass market movie tie-in editions of The Shack this October, with movie stills and a new author’s note.

Even as other Christian publishers have reduced title output, one is headed in the opposite direction.

Dan Balow, president and publisher of Gilead Publishing, says: “A foundational premise behind our new company is that fiction is not a crowded market. If Christian publishers published fiction in the same ratio as the general market, there should be about 1,000 new releases every year. Right now, not counting the Love Inspired imprint from Harlequin, there will be only about 150 new titles released this year. Christian fiction lacks critical mass—the problem is not a lack of interest by consumers but a lack of choices.”

Gilead plans to publish 40–50 titles in 2017, with a target of 85–100 per year by 2021. “We plan to actively publish debut authors, who, as publishers increasingly want books to be a sure thing, have more trouble than ever getting published,” Balow says. “Right now, midlisters have no home.” Gilead aims to provide one.

Following the Readers

Another issue for Christian fiction publishers is shifts in the popularity of its various genres. Several publishers, including Bethany House, cite current growth in romantic suspense; one of Bethany’s top authors is Dee Henderson, whose Traces of Guilt was released in May. In September, Tyndale will publish a debut fiction title from bestselling nonfiction author Beth Moore: The Undoing of Saint Silvanus, which is a contemporary novel.

According to executive editor Tina James, Harlequin’s Love Inspired—a general trade line of Christian novels—has seen “steady performance across most genres, but interest in the romantic suspense genre and in Amish-themed and holiday stories continues to draw readers.” Amish Christmas Blessings, in the Love Inspired series by Marta Perry and Jo Ann Brown, will be released in November. Howard has the prolific bestselling author Karen Kingsbury on its list; her Baxter Family Christmas comes out in October.

Some publishers say Amish is fading, but Barbour’s top author is Wanda E. Brunstetter, whose second serialized novel, The Amish Millionaire, came out in six monthly installments in the first half of 2016. “Her serial novels can be big events that get readers excited for multiple months, gaining momentum as they eagerly await the next release,” Tipton says.

“This has been a great time for serious historical fiction,” Hutton says. “Our top-selling frontlist title this fiscal year was a translation, The Girl from the Train, a seriously researched historical saga from South African author Irma Joubert.” This September, HCCP releases Colleen Coble’s Twilight at Blueberry Barrens, book three in the romantic suspense Sunset Cove series.

Shannon Marchese, senior editor of fiction at WaterBrook Multnomah, says historical romance has sold well, along with biblical fiction, which “draws new readers to novels as a supplement to Bible-study programs.” WaterBrook is also investing in contemporary fiction such as Katie Ganshert’s The Art of Losing Yourself (2015), “which takes a candid look at infertility and the changing nature of what makes a family today,” Marchese says.

Bethany’s Oates notes: “Many of the trend categories in our market over the past 20 years have been in subgenres that are unique to the Christian market, like apocalyptic—Left Behind and Joel Rosenberg’s books—Amish, biblical, and [Christian] movie tie-ins. We struggle more in categories that mirror trends in the wider market.”

Moving to Mass Market?

When it comes to formats, two of the largest Christian fiction publishers are considering expanding their mass market lines. Bethany has experimented with doing backlist in mass market, but not frontlist. Oates notes: “In print, our biggest competition is coming in the form of mass market editions, primarily from Harlequin in their Christian imprints. Measured in units, Harlequin now makes up 32% of the entire market for Christian fiction in the print format, easily the largest player.” He adds: “Mass market is a whole different model in terms of recouping costs, because we have a fairly high-cost model for producing trade fiction—we pay decent advances, do extensive editing of the manuscripts, put $3,000–$5,000 covers on the books, and have whole marketing campaigns. You can’t do all of that and sell books for half the price.”

HCCP also has been working on expanding its mass market program to include recent backlist. “This will allow us to offer our content in print at a very appealing price point, without eroding the core, highly curated trade publishing focus of our program,” Hutton says.

The proportion of print to digital sales also is a moving target. Oates says: “We saw a 24% decline in digital in 2015 [compared to 2014], but that has now played out and sales have stabilized; some months they are up, some months they are down. Many consumers have shifted back to print. People are realizing the value of a print book—that they can read it, own it, share it, sell it, donate it.”

Hutton says: “The shift to the pure agency model has had a massive impact on the configuration of e-book pricing, [unit] sales, and revenues. Our revenue from e-book sales is down, but our unit sales are up by significant double digits. We’re having to sell more units to stabilize e-book revenues under the new model.”

James says print still drives sales for Harlequin. Karen Watson, associate publisher of fiction for Tyndale, also sees a leveling off of e-book sales: “Digital sales will remain strong. They simply won’t continue to increase at the rate they have in the past five to 10 years,” she predicts.

High on Libraries

When it comes to channels, publishers of Christian fiction see increasing demand from the library market. Oates says Bethany is doing well with libraries and has been publishing hardcover library editions of some books. Hutton says that HCCP is “embracing the library market as extremely important for our books and are experiencing double-digit growth in that channel.”

Tyndale’s Watson also says libraries are a channel where growth is possible: “Our readers are voracious, always looking for more from their favorite authors, as well as new books they might love, and librarians provide great browsing opportunities when the closest bookstore may have limited shelf space.”

Publishers in the Christian fiction category are engaged in soul searching, as they have been since the segment first emerged as an important one for religion publishers. “We need to talk about who we are and what we do in a different way,” Hutton says. “While reader demand for Christian fiction, as it has been defined by the industry for the past 40 years, is declining, the organic demand for compelling, transformative, redemptive stories will never go away. I want to publish the best novels out there, not the best Christian novels.”

WaterBrook Multnomah’s Shannon Marchese agrees: “Authors and publishers—and many readers, too—want stories that are challenging and reach beyond genre or style, that have a take on topics without black-or-white answers, and that can stretch the expectations among some readers who prioritize that our novels be safe or clean.”

For Dan Balow of Gilead, there are larger questions: Is publishing a science or an art? Should it be driven by data or guided by the gut? “Fiction is art,” he says, “but publishers are trying to turn publishing it into a science.”