In a market historically skewing toward older readers, Christian fiction publishing professionals have stepped up marketing to 20-to-40-year-old audiences. Their tactics include issues-driven plot lines, new young authors, fresh approaches to covers, and more social media and special events.
“We have been working with a new generation of authors to complement the long-standing authors on our list,” said Raela Schoenherr, senior acquisitions editor for Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group. “Younger audiences seem to resonate with fiction that weaves the issues they and their peers are facing, along with a satisfying arc and compelling characters. Recent releases have touched on themes of foster care, addiction, mental illness, and adoption.”
Cynthia Ruchti, professional relations liaison for the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), said expanding the readership in a youthful direction is “a matter of tapping into their felt needs with our stories. It's tied to getting the word out to the places where younger reading audiences congregate online. Perhaps the greatest challenge remains finding new inroads to inform younger audiences that if their needs and reading tastes have seemed neglected by Christian publishing in the past, they need to take another look.”
The ACFW, a trade group for authors whose membership includes the top names in Christian fiction, already has a wide age range for membership, said Ruchti, who gives some of the credit to technology. “Many of our veteran authors began their careers as young moms trying to hit their deadlines in an era of typewriters and postal-only manuscript submissions,” she said. “Technology is helping break down barriers in writer education, mentoring, research, and knowledge about the industry for younger writers.”
ACFW is also seeing “an increase in well-trained younger writers stepping into genres like suspense, historical romance, general fiction, military fiction, and other categories,” according to Ruchti.
When Amanda Barratt, now 24, set out to building her novel-writing career, she faced reverse ageism when trying to land an agent. “I had an appointment with a literary agent at a conference, who told me I was too young to write the book I was pitching. Otherwise, I’ve had no barriers in the Christian writing community,” she said. Her first adult novel, My Dearest Dietrich: A Novel of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Lost Love (Kregel), came out in 2019 and her second book, The White Rose Resists: A Novel of the German Students Who Defied Hitler (Kregel) released in May. “If a book is powerful on a relevant topic, younger readers will find it,” Barratt said.
Karen Watson, publisher for Tyndale Fiction, addressed twin challenges – finding authors in every age range and marketing to multiple audiences. “We are looking for authors with great engaging concepts and a high level of craft who understand and can function in the current social media driven environment.”
Marketing to younger readers includes “pitching to them via social media channels that appeal to younger readers like Instagram and Twitter. We’re also looking to connect with opinion leaders and bloggers who speak to young moms and young professionals,” Watson pointed out.
For Amy Lokkesmoe, fiction publicist for Bethany House, “shifting some of our marketing budget from print to online ads means that we're reaching a younger demographic naturally. Our Bethany House fiction Instagram page and blog consistently get great interaction, and we're also adding in more video content and experimenting with fresh cover design looks.” Bethany House fiction covers have most often featured women in chaste poses and clothing. But new covers are featuring only graphic elements and brighter colors, particularly for contemporary fiction.
Chris Jager, fiction buyer for Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Mich., has seen a “natural progression of covers,” calling them “hipper covers with brighter colors, fewer people, drawings instead of pictures.” This new generation of covers mimics those in the general market that have leaned into graphic elements instead of people, she said, pointing to covers on recent and upcoming books by Bethany Turner (Hadley Beckett’s Next Dish, Revell, out now) and Melissa Ferguson (The Cul-de-Sac War, Thomas Nelson, Nov.)
Even so, Jager said, “With contemporary fiction, readers don’t buy the book based on what the character looks like, but on what the character does.” She points to issues-driven books published this spring such as Lisa Wingate’s The Book of Lost Friends (Ballantine) that addresses racism and economic disparity, and The Water Keeper by Charles Martin (Thomas Nelson), which deals with human trafficking.
“Christian novels are now featuring people who have cracks in their faith, who are allowed to wrestle with their faith,” Jager said. “While all ages of readers like these books, younger readers find them especially appealing. These books help us wrestle with the same issues and think them through on our own, allow us to be flawed and find our way back to God,” Jager said.
Amanda Dykes’ novel Set the Stars Alight (Bethany House, out now) is an example of characters wrestling with faith. The endings may not conclude with perfect happiness and faith, but rather show characters – and readers – discovering “I can bring those struggles into my own life [and grow through them].”
Bookstores and publishers have tried using online and some in-person events to attract readers as the pandemic ebbs and flows and either option is seen as a strong line to reach younger readers any time. For Jager, “it’s not so much the books I carry but what I’m doing to draw younger readers into the store, whether it’s the physical or online store.” Baker Book House offers book clubs, discussion groups, and author visits. Its annual Fiction Readers Summit is one way younger readers can find “community and a place to connect,” she said.
Adds Noelle Chew, fiction marketing manager at Bethany, “We saw a lot of strong interactions with younger audiences at reader-focused in-person events, such as Book Lovers Con or the Christian Fiction Readers Retreat, making evident that young inspirational readers are not unicorns. Hopefully, safe ways can be found to keep these great events happening going forward."