With a bird’s eye view of which authors and topics get through publishers’ doors, Christian literary agents remain optimistic about an industry that is experiencing more consolidation as bricks-and-mortar stores close.
“Christian publishing is a viable and growing marketplace,” Steve Laube, president of the Christian Writers Institute and Enclave Publishing, as well as longtime literary agent, tells PW. “The death of publishing has been forecast for 40 years, and it’s never been right.”
Though they are surviving and some even thriving, publishers remain cautious, according to agent Wendy Lawton of Books & Such Literary Management, who says that publishers are more risk-averse now than ever before in her almost 15-year career.
“Advances are tied closely to past sales and we see less inclination to offer advances based on what they believe ‘might’ be possible,” Lawton tells PW, noting that prudence may be the reason for the industry’s viability. “Perhaps this attention to the bottom line is why Christian publishing continues to remain healthy and the future continues to be bright despite hundreds of store closings.”
Publishers continue to brace themselves for the loss of even more Christian retail outlets this year, but the strongest impact of store closings could be leveled at authors in the category. The shrinking footprint of Christian retailers is already leading to a new normal where writers are also expected to have a marketing team behind them, according to Blythe Daniel of her eponymous literary agency.
“Authors are going to have to make up for fewer sales channels,” Daniel says. “The future of publishing does not depend on retail outlets—it’s going to be important for authors to create marketing avenues around themselves that aren’t reliant on publishers.”
It’s not unusual for authors to influence book sales through strong followings on social media, podcasts, blogs, YouTube, etc., but the concept of an author platform continues to be “confusing” for all concerned, says Lawton. “Most publishers understand that numbers [of followers and website visitors] mean little; it’s the level of engagement and the care with which a platform is maintained.”
According to Alex Field, founder of The Bindery, if a publisher sees a connection to potential readers, “they are betting that his or her books will have a similar appeal to readers. Sometimes that bet pays off, especially when the author is deeply engaged in the marketing and launch campaign around the book, and sometimes it doesn’t,” he says.
The key, according to Field, is that authors need to be “active and influential online in some way, because many book purchases these days happen online.”
Yet Laube notes that publishers still look beyond an author’s platform when considering a manuscript. “It’s rarely a cut-and-dried formula of platform=publishable,” he says. “Sometimes the instinct of ‘this is a great book’ can get someone past the publishing gatekeepers.”
In addition to changes to how books are acquired and sold, agents are also noticing several content trends in Christian publishing. Daniel sees more opportunities for agents to bring creative concepts that don’t necessarily fit with the usual Christian living titles. “Publishers are asking me to help create a book that might include DIY guides or recipes, and are looking at four-color or two-color books for, say, family gatherings or teen girls,” she says. “They are also looking at brand development, creative packaging, and concept-driven books.”
Laube sees an uptick in books on social justice issues, sexuality, and racial issues, as well as a wave of books for “disaffected young women—” or women dealing with issues such as the stress of marriage, job, and family. He points to Rachel Hollis’ Girl, Wash Your Face as an example. “I suspect acquisitions of this ‘trend’ will slow down and the best authors in the category will become those who fill this need,” he says.
Field, of The Bindery, says publishers are “chasing after ‘books for the church’ lately,” with some seeking books for leaders while others are looking for devotionals and gift books aimed at churchgoers. Many publishers are also developing new children’s book lines or deepening their lines to appeal to parents as well as grandparents. “Publishers are looking for authors who will appeal to a wide audience generationally and to millennials in particular,” Field says.
Remaining largely unchanged, perennial topics such as prayer, parenting, and marriage continue to be big business in Christian publishing. “It’s either tried and true authors or tried and true subjects presented in a fresh, new way,” Lawton says.
Laube adds, “There continues to be acquisitions of readily consumable and evergreen topics that can be seen as ‘self-help.’”
Fiction’s hottest subgenre at the moment is romantic suspense, but, according to Lawton, “We are beginning to hear calls for straight suspense.” Laube says publishers’ lines are relatively full of romantic suspense, and so interest may wane. He and Lawton both perceive a renewed interest in straight historicals, and agree that Christian fiction on the whole remains a strong category.
“The number of publishers offering fiction has dwindled in recent years, but the readers have not gone away, so we’re seeing growth in the publishers who continue vigorously acquiring novelists,” Lawton says.
Overall, agents are optimistic about the Christian publishing industry. The Steve Laube Agency averages a new contract every two business days, Laube says, while The Blythe Daniel Agency has 95% of its projects picked up, and The Bindery contracts nearly all of its projects.
“Publishers continue to look for new content and new authors,” Laube says. “Is it hard sometimes? Yes.”