Publishing Christian fiction can pay, and pay big, but it’s harder than ever to succeed in the category, publishers say. Many companies have abandoned Christian fiction in recent years and others have cut title output, which can make it seem as though the market is contracting.
But industry statistics tell a different story. Steve Oates, v-p of marketing for Baker Publishing Group’s Bethany House and Chosen imprints, estimates annual sales for Christian fiction at about $20 million and says that has even trended up in the past two years. The growth is from the mass market format, which is gaining market share in Christian fiction despite its decline in the market at large.
Oates says, “In the past 10 years, market share has shifted to Harlequin’s mass market books, because price point is a big issue.” He calls Harlequin’s Love Inspired line of Christian romances, which sell for $5.99, “snack food fiction”—and fans seem to have an insatiable appetite.
While Christian fiction seems to be healthy and even growing slightly, just three publishers now take almost half the market, and just a few authors—such as Karen Kingsbury (Brush of Wings) and Wm. Paul Young (The Shack)—tend to dominate sales. In 2017, the prolific Kingsbury has two new titles coming, and, with a just-released movie version of The Shack, Young is doing a booming backlist business.
Whole Lotta Love
Harlequin’s Love Inspired line celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and Tina James, executive editor, calls it a “strong franchise with faithful readers.” Harlequin’s Reader Service book club offers online community, early announcements of new titles, discounts, and other benefits. It also keeps romance fans buying plenty of books direct, offering them six new titles each month.
James says that last year Love Inspired published 75 mass market paperbacks in the contemporary romance genre, 72 in romantic suspense, and 48 in historical novels, and that title output in 2017 will be about the same. The popularity of Amish fiction (both contemporary and historical) might have waned somewhat, but it is still a genre favored by romance readers, and top Love Inspired titles this year include Their Pretend Amish Courtship by Patricia Davids (June) and Second Chance Amish Bride by Marta Perry (Sept.). The Bride’s Matchmaking Triplets by Regina Scott (June) is a historical set in pioneer-days Texas; Bodyguard by Shirlee McCoy (Aug.) is romantic suspense. In contemporary romance, the imprint has books such as Thanksgiving Protector by Sharon Dunn (Oct.).
Romantic suspense is Baker Publishing’s particular strength: its Bethany House imprint is releasing The House on Foster Hill by Jaime Jo Wright (Dec.), which tells the story of woman fleeing a stalker, and Deadly Proof by Rachel Dylan (Sept.), the first in the Atlanta Justice series of legal romantic suspense from an author who is a litigator in a national law firm. Its Revell imprint’s romantic suspense titles in 2017 include Dangerous Illusions by Irene Hannon (Oct.), Chasing Secrets by Lynette Eason (Aug.), All She Left Behind by Jane Kirkpatrick (Sept.), and A Matter of Trust by Susan May Warren (July).
HarperCollins, which publishes Christian fiction under its Thomas Nelson and Zondervan imprints, is coming out in 2018 with The Heart Between Us by Lindsay Harrel (Thomas Nelson, Mar. 2018), and If I Live (Zondervan, Mar. 2018), a romantic suspense novel by Terri Blackstock, who has sold more than seven million books and hit a number of bestseller lists.
Although the Christian imprints of two major houses have trimmed their fiction lists in recent years, they still have top-selling authors. In 2007, Hachette imprint FaithWords partnered with Windblown Media, the two-man team that originally published Young’s The Shack. FaithWords handled marketing, sales, and distribution and shared the Shack wealth. According to FaithWords, The Shack has sold 23 million copies in all editions, including a study guide published in late 2016 as a movie tie-in for the film, which released March 3. In 2013, FaithWords published Young’s follow-up novel, Cross Roads, which the press says has sold 500,000 copies.
With no new Young book on the horizon, FaithWords is pinning its frontlist hopes this year on Susan Sleeman, who won the 2013 Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Best Book Award for Thread of Suspicion and has twice been a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence. FaithWords will publish Sleeman’s Fatal Mistake in May and Kill Shot in February 2018.
In 2015, Howard Books, the Christian imprint of Simon & Schuster, published Eve, a novel by Young that has sold some 500,000 copies and continues to do well in backlist. Howard also publishes Christian fiction’s other cash machine: Karen Kingsbury’s Love Story (June) and In This Moment (Nov.) are on its 2017 list.
Atria president and publisher Judith Curr oversees Howard, and she says Kingsbury is the centerpiece of its fiction program. In addition to publishing her new titles, Curr says, “we will be repackaging Kingsbury backlist in trade paper, and pitching more of her books for TV and movies.” Curr adds that Walmart has been buying more Howard fiction, particularly Kingsbury.
Curr stresses that in the wake of S&S’s closing Howard’s Nashville offices and moving it to New York City, “we’re as committed as ever to Howard’s mission—we might even grow it a bit.” She adds: “We want to do more contemporary women’s fiction, including historical, that’s for younger readers and not necessarily family-focused. We’re developing story lines for paperback originals and also commissioning books.” Half of Howard’s list is fiction, with 20–25 new novels planned per year, “and we’ll also be mining the backlist,” Curr notes. Unlike Baker’s Oates, Curr sees mass market continuing to decline, adding, “We would only do it if there was a real opportunity for Karen.”
Tyndale House fiction publisher Karen Watson affirms that having marquee authors is crucial—fans will wait eagerly for books by authors such as Francine Rivers, whose The Masterpiece is on Tyndale’s spring 2018 list.
The New and the Returning
In what might be called a triumph of hope over experience, some smaller publishers are getting (or getting back) into faith fiction. Concordia launched a new fiction line in 2014 with one book, published one more in 2015, and expanded to four in 2016. In 2017, there are another four, including The Messengers: Concealed, the third book in the Messengers trilogy of speculative fiction. Expansion of the fiction line to four to six titles per year is in the works.
InterVarsity Press rarely publishes fiction, but An Extra Mile by Sharon Garlough Brown, the fourth and final book in the Sensible Shoes series, comes out in February 2018. The series follows a group of female friends who support each other through events that bring both joy and loss. Brown’s first book in the series, Sensible Shoes, has sold nearly 50,000 copies since its 2013 release. The subsequent two books, Two Steps Forward (2015) and Barefoot (2016) have combined sales of more than 20,000—respectable for a small publisher that only does some fiction.
A more literary offering comes from In Extenso Press, an imprint of Catholic publisher ACTA Publications. Pistaco: A Tale of Love in the Andes by Lynn F. Monahan (May) is a debut novel releasing simultaneously in hardcover, paperback, and e-book. Says ACTA publisher Greg Pierce, “Unlike many novels published for the Catholic trade, Pistaco is aimed at the broad general literary market for suspense stories set in exotic locations,” in this case 1980s Peru during the time of the Shining Path guerilla uprising. An American priest and a Peruvian school teacher meet and fall in love amid the violent struggle between the army and the rebels; they are shadowed by the threat of el pistaco, a mythical fiend the villagers believe feeds on people. Says Pierce, “The story illuminates tensions between Catholicism and indigenous religion, power and justice, and celibacy and intimacy.”
Paraclete Press returns to fiction after a 10-year hiatus with Can You See Anything Now? (Sept.), a debut novel by Katherine James. Set in a small town in upstate New York, the story features a suicidal painter, her therapist husband, their college-age daughter, and her roommate, who comes home with her for Christmas and drowns in the town’s freezing river. The publisher says the book is aimed at literary fiction readers and Christians who want unsanitized stories that reflect the messiness of life. Paraclete plans an expanded fiction line of one or two books a year that it hopes can reach the growing number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation.
In addition to romance and literary offerings, a number of other subgenres are significant in Christian fiction. Amish fiction remains popular. Bethany House publishes Beverly Lewis, a top-selling author of Amish fiction; her The Proving releases in September.
Barbour, a press based in Ohio’s Amish country, publishes one of the best-known authors of Amish novels, Wanda E. Brunstetter, whose The Blessing releases in August. It tells the story of an Amish woman and her six students who bond while cooking favorite Amish dishes in Holmes County, Ohio. The Beloved Christmas Quilt (Sept.) is coauthored by Brunstetter and her daughter-in-law and granddaughter, Jean Brunstetter and Richelle Brunstetter, respectively.
Oregon-based independent publisher Harvest House also has Amish titles, including What the Bishop Saw by Vannetta Chapman (May), the first book in the contemporary Amish Bishop Mysteries. WaterBrook, the Christian division of Penguin Random House, has its own Amish-themed novel, Gathering the Threads by Cindy Woodsmall (Aug.), the third and final book in her contemporary Amish of Summer Grove series.
Also from WaterBrook are two historicals by Kim Vogel Sawyer, Bringing Maggie Home (Sept.), set in 1943, and Beneath a Prairie Moon (Mar. 2018), set in pioneer-era Kansas. Kregel Publications also has some new historicals in 2017: A Song of Home: A Novel of the Swing Era by Susie Finkbeiner (Nov.), the final book in the Pearl Spence series set in 1930s Michigan, and Liar’s Winter by Cindy K. Sproles (Aug.), set in the Appalachians in the 19th century. Its regency romances include The Captivating Lady Charlotte by Carolyn Miller (June) and The Dishonorable Miss DeLancey by Carolyn Miller (Oct.).
Harvest House’s My Daughter’s Legacy (July), by Mindy Starns Clark and Leslie Gould, begins in antebellum Virginia and reaches the present day; A Daring Escape by Tricia Goyer (Jan. 2018) is the second book in the London Chronicles series, set during World War II.
At Baker, Bethany House’s 2017 historicals are exploring lesser-known eras of history and different locales—Where We Belong by Lynn Austin (Oct.) is set in the Sinai Desert during the reign of Queen Victoria—and Revell is set to publish The Return by Suzanne Woods Fisher (Aug.), who is best known for her Amish tales.
Watson of Tyndale House says: “There seems to be an ongoing interest in storytelling that bridges or twists traditional concepts of time and history. Rather than just straight linear historical fiction, we see a lot of novels that bridge two periods of time—what we call time-slip stories.”
Melanie Dobson’s Catching the Wind (May), which flashes back to World War II, is an example of that approach. The trend continues at HarperCollins: Lost Castle by Kristy Cambron (Feb. 2018) launches an eponymous historical series set in three different time periods—the French Revolution, World War II, and the present day.
Biblical fiction is another Christian genre. In October, WaterBrook publishes Isaiah’s Daughter by Mesu Andrews, a tale of the imagined daughter of the Old Testament prophet. More biblical fiction comes from the HarperLegend imprint HarperOne: Deborah Calling by Avraham Azrieli (June) is a fictionalized retelling of the story of the biblical prophetess Deborah. It is the sequel to Azrieli’s Deborah Rising (2016). In this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, Shadows of My Father by Christoph Werner (HarperLegend, Sept.) uses the fictional letters and diary entries of Paul Luther, Martin Luther’s (real) youngest son, to tell the reformer’s story.
Tyndale House’s Watson sees room in the market for more headline-driven international suspense. “We believe the departure of authors like Vince Flynn and Tom Clancy creates an opportunity” for books such as Randy Singer’s Rule of Law (Sept.), with a plotline centered on a failed rescue mission by Navy SEALs in Yemen. (Singer was recently a finalist—alongside John Grisham and Michael Connelly—for the inaugural Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.)
Another Tyndale title tied to current events is Kremlin Conspiracy (Mar. 2018), a thriller by Joel C. Rosenberg, whose 12 novels have sold more than three million copies. Under HarperCollins’s Thomas Nelson imprint, A Time to Stand by Robert Whitlow (Sept.) is a legal thriller that deals with racism and other ripped-from-the-headlines issues.
Other potentially fruitful genres have presented themselves. The Cover Story by Deb Richardson-Moore (June) is a contemporary mystery being published under Kregel’s Lion Fiction imprint. Thomas Nelson will publish the coming-of-age story Steal Away Home (Jan. 2018) by Billy Coffey. And, though it has no fiction program per se, Crown’s Convergent Books imprint will publish Noelle by Greg Kincaid in October. Kincaid is the author of the bestseller A Dog Named Christmas, and Noelle also explores the bond between a family and its dogs in a story set during the holidays.
Sales in Christian fiction are strong, says HarperCollins Christian fiction associate publisher Amanda Bostic. “But this is certainly a category with its fair share of challenges. It forces us to be more creative—in our channels of distribution, in our packaging, in our pitches, and in how we help readers find stories—but it also helps us find new opportunities.”
Coming Up in Faith Fiction
Weaver’s Needle by Robin Caroll (June). Two women search for a lost treasure map in Arizona, but soon learn that someone doesn’t want them to find it.
Fatal Trust by Todd M. Johnson (Aug.). This legal thriller follows a defense attorney struggling to build a law practice while caring for his sick mother. He accepts a case promising big money, but it could cost him his career.
A Name Unknown by Roseanna White (July). In Edwardian England, a young woman falls in with thieves to survive on the streets of London until she becomes a spy sent to determine whether a friend of the king is loyal to him.
The Promise of Dawn by Lauraine Snelling (Aug.). A Norwegian family emigrates to Minnesota in 1910, dreaming of owning a farm of their own, but must contend with difficult relatives and backbreaking work. Snelling is the author of 70 books that have sold a combined five million copies.
A Plain Leaving by Leslie Gould (Oct.). The first book in a new series set in both the past and the present as a woman returns to Amish life after years away in the wider world.
The Soldier Who Killed a King: A True Retelling of the Passion by David Kitz (July). This novel is set amid the events leading from Jesus’s ride into Jerusalem to his crucifixion.
An Amish Summer by Shelley Shepard Gray, Amy Clipston, Kathleen Fuller, and Kelly Irvin (June). This is a collection of four romance novellas by authors who have written many books about the Amish community.
Sweetbriar Cottage by Denise Hunter (June). A freshly divorced man moves to a remote horse ranch and finds new love but discovers he is still married because his ex-wife-to-be didn’t file the final paperwork. Hunter is the author of A December Bride and The Convenient Groom, which have been adapted into original Hallmark Channel movies.
Beneath Copper Falls by Colleen Coble (July). Bestselling author Colleen Coble returns to her fictional small town of Rock Harbor and finds both romance and danger. Coble’s books have sold more than four million copies.
Abiding Mercy by Ruth Reid (July). This is the first book in a new series from a bestselling author of Amish fiction who has charted on the Christian Booksellers Association and Evangelical Christian Publishing Association’s bestsellers lists.
Under a Summer Sky by Melody Carlson (June). A high school teacher finds love on her summer vacation in Savannah, Ga., but complications ensue. Carlson is the author of more than 200 books with sales topping 6.5 million.
Fault Lines by Thomas Locke (Aug.). This is speculative fiction by Davis Bunn writing under a pseudonym; his books have sold seven million copies and been published in 25 languages.
Naomi’s Hope by Jan Drexler (June). In an Amish community in 1846 Indiana, a woman finds romance but must decide what’s right for her adopted son. Drexler’s ancestors were among the first Amish, Mennonite, and Brethren immigrants to Pennsylvania in the 18th century.
Over Maya Dead Body by Sandra Orchard (July). A suspenseful romance about an FBI agent visiting family on Martha’s Vineyard who gets caught up in a murder mystery and finds love. Orchard is the winner of six Canadian Christian Writing awards, a Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award, a Holt Medallion Award of Merit, a National Readers’ Choice Award, and a Daphne du Maurier Award.
Bread of Angels by Tessa Afshar (June). In ancient Rome, a woman establishes her own business and struggles against the norms of that male-dominated society. She hears the message of the Apostle Paul and her life is transformed.
The Divide by Jolina Petersheim (June). A combination of dystopian and Amish fiction tells the story of a young woman whose Old Order Mennonite community must flee to the mountains after invaders take down the power grid; she searches for the Englischer pilot who held off invading looters long enough for the community to escape.
Loving Luther by Allison Pittman (Sept.). A fictionalized tale of the woman who left the convent and became the wife of Martin Luther, leader of the Reformation.
Crisis Shot by Janice Cantore (Sept.). A police officer fatally shoots an unarmed teenager but is cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury and moves to Oregon to escape the bad press. She must solve a mystery and find love with a small-town sheriff. The author is a retired police officer.
To Wager Her Heart by Tamera Alexander (Aug.). A former gambler buys a railway in antebellum Nashville and falls in love with a high-society woman, risking everything to have her.
The Writing Desk by Rachel Hauck (July). An author wrestles with the follow-up to her bestselling book, finding romance and an old manuscript that inspires her. Hauck is the author of the bestseller The Wedding Dress, which was also named Inspirational Novel of the Year by the Romantic Times.