In its 18th year, the American Christian Fiction Writers conference attracted over 400 aspiring writers, authors, agents, and publishers to San Antonio, Tex. from Sept. 26-29. Talk of LifeWay’s store closures dominated, but a positive vision for the future of Christian publishing remains.

“It was encouraging to hear that the authors, publishers, and agents who were in attendance are not too wary of the changes in our industry, but are eagerly anticipating how we will adjust and grow stronger in the middle of it,” says Rachel McRae, acquisition editor at Revell. “I had a successful weekend hearing great pitches and noting a handful that could be real potentials for us.”

Jan Stob, director of fiction at Tyndale House, used the conference to meet with Tyndale authors–including some of those nominated for Carol Awards. Fiction remains a healthy category for Tyndale, according to Stob, and notable trends include a greater demand for Southern fiction and the increasing appeal of crossover titles that fit CBA as well as ABA markets.

“We want to reach current readers and also expand,” Stob says, noting that today’s publishing climate is increasingly beneficial to debut authors. “It’s easier to pick up debut authors because they don’t have a bad sales history,” she says. Among the publisher’s lead frontlist titles are A Long Time Comin’ by debut author Robin W. Pearson (Jan.) and Beach Haven, the second novel by T. I. Lowe (Apr. 2020).

Janyre Tromp, acquisition editor at independently owned Kregel Publications, and Kregel’s publisher Catherine DeVries, attended ACFW to show their support for writers in the category and to make new connections. “It can be the beginning of something–meetings can actually happen here that lead to author contracts,” says Tromp.

The press is releasing A Cross to Kill (Oct. 14) by debut novelist Andrew Huff as well as a literary novel, The Beautiful Ashes of Gomez Gomez (May 2020), by Buck Storm. “Other houses seem to be paring down their lists,” says DeVries. “We’re poised for growth.”

Referring to ACFW as a “stepping stone in the publishing journey,” fiction publisher at HarperCollins Christian (HCCP) Amanda Bostic attends ACFW to support a pipeline of growing authors. Attending the conference for the first time, Chris Jager, fiction buyer for Baker Book House, learned about the issues Christian fiction writers face today. And Steve Laube, president of eponymous literary agency, noted changes in the kinds of books being published due to shorter lists at publishing houses.

“There’s always room for brilliant fiction and there will always be publishers; the shrinkage of slots only means the competition is greater and the books have to be better,” says Laube.

ACFW 2019 sessions included How to Keep Publishing in this Ever-Changing Industry, How to Decide Between Traditional and Indie Publishing, and Brave New Christian Fiction World, which featured three industry panelists, including this writer. The conference also featured keynote speaker Frank Peretti, author of the bestselling This Present Darkness.

New to the conference this year, HCCP editors met with aspiring authors during 10-minute quick-pitch sessions. The experimental method emphasized the importance of a story’s premise and hook, allowing editors to know quickly if the project is a fit. ACFW’s board will meet in January to decide if the abbreviated sessions will be available at next year’s conference.

The conference’s closing, the ACFW Awards Gala, recognized author Angela Hunt with its Lifetime Achievement Award, Hartline Literary Agency’s Linda Glaz (Agent of the Year), and Bethany House’s Raela Schoenherr (Editor of the Year). For a full list of winners, click here. ACFW 2020 will take place in St. Louis, Mo., from Sept. 17-20.