Publishing novels devoid of profanity, violence, or explicit sexuality is still the modus operandi for Christian houses. Increasingly, however, content within the Christian fiction category is changing from overtly religious to subtle faith-based themes, such as forgiveness or hope. This shift has created a gray area between what is considered Christian fiction versus clean fiction. Janyre Tromp, acquisitions editor at Kregel, cites “endless discussions” about distinctions between Christian fiction and clean fiction. “Both are defined on such an individual level that it’s sometimes hard to really nail down what any particular book is or isn’t,” she says.

While Christian fiction is clean fiction, not all clean fiction is Christian fiction, Tromp continues. “Christian books would be a clean read plus some kind of biblical content. Biblical content absolutely does not mean beating people over the head with scripture or tacking on salvation scenes. For Kregel, biblical content means that at least one character’s arc contains realistic responses to outside pressure that reflect a realistic believer’s struggle.”

For example, a character in a Kregel book may question the church’s teachings on forgiveness, or struggle to apply the Bible’s teachings to a cultural issue. For other publishers, Christian fiction can include prayer, mentions of God, or quotes from scripture. At Harlequin, which calls the Christian fiction published under its Love Inspired line “inspirational,” every story “upholds the values and beliefs of Christianity,” the publisher says. Tina James, executive editor for Love Inspired, describes its stories as “wholesome Christian and family-values based.” She adds, “We’ve found that our books provide a way for families to connect through a shared love of reading.”

Karen Watson, publisher at Tyndale Fiction, acknowledges there are some common stereotypes about Christian content, but maintains there is more variety among current and forthcoming Christian novels. “Christian fiction has long been known to be clean—which generally means no explicit language or strong sexual content—but also historically came with what many assumed would be a heavy, didactic message,” she says. “Today’s Christian fiction leads with quality storytelling and is worthy of trial by readers of ‘clean’ fiction in a wide range of genres.”

Clean fiction’s crossover power

The crossover between clean fiction and Christian fiction can be beneficial to religion publishers, as books from Christian houses that are categorized as clean fiction often lead to more readers in mainstream markets. Tyndale uses clean fiction in data keywords, search terms, and descriptions on fact sheets. “We believe it is an advantage for attracting readers to our books,” Watson at Tyndale says. “This is a designation that influences online, e-book, and self-published titles most significantly.”

Andrea Doering, editorial director for Revell, says the overlap that exists in readership between clean and wholesome fiction readers
and Christian fiction is, “great for our placement and appeal in the general market.”

Tim Pietz, publicity manager at inspirational fiction publisher Mountain Brook Ink, adds, “We’ve found that while Christian speculative fiction risks being niche, clean speculative fiction can be marketed to a wide audience while still tapping into our loyal core of Christian readers.”

Correction: this story has been updated to reflect Pietz's reference to speculative fiction.

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