Until recently, many booksellers shelved all faith fiction together, alphabetically by author surname. Others shelved faith fiction alphabetically by author within a few broad subcategories--such as Historical and Contemporary. The faith fiction sections of most bookstores ended up being a catch-all that customers found hard to navigate.
But in the past several years, faith fiction--specifically the category of novels written from an evangelical Christian perspective--has taken off. In 1990, there were about 500 faith fiction titles in print. Fifteen years later, 2,500 faith fiction titles are now in print. More than 400 faith fiction titles were published in 2004 alone. What was once perceived as vanilla reads for ladies of a certain age now runs the gamut of genres, including mysteries, fantasy, science fiction--and even a growing body of more literary titles (see "Great Aspirations" in this issue).
"When people thought of Christian fiction 10 years ago, they thought of Janette Oke, prairie romances, and biblical stories," says Donna Kehoe, executive director of the Christy Awards program. "But now you have medical and legal thrillers, apocalyptic fiction and contemporary fiction, including chick lit and issue-driven novels. It's not your grandmother's fiction anymore--it appeals to a wider range of readers. The variety of genres and subgenres in ABA fiction is pretty well replicated in CBA fiction." Shelving faith fiction titles alphabetically by author, or even shelving them within a few broad subcategories, just doesn't cut it anymore.
Helping Seeking Readers
In response to the growing need to shelve faith fiction in a way that helps consumers find what they are looking for, an ad hoc group of CBA publishers has been meeting twice a year for the past five years to strategize. The CBA group recommends that booksellers break out faith fiction into seven subcategories: Contemporary/General, Futuristic or End of Days, Historical, Romance, Suspense, Western, Allegory, and YA.
"It's the next step up for CBA stores who are competing with the general market bookstores," says Carol Johnson, a member of the CBA ad hoc group and v-p of editorial at fiction giant Bethany House, a division of the Baker Publishing Group. "They have to be as astute and knowledgeable for their market as customers would see when going to the general market stores." She added, "If stores could imaginatively arrange fiction sections into groupings, customers would find other books in that genre. But getting stores to actually do it is an uphill slog."
Most of the CBA booksellers and even a few ABA booksellers contacted by PW are contemplating breaking out faith fiction into genre-based subcategories. But surprisingly few stores--notably those in the Hastings Entertainment and Books-A-Million chains, Logos Bookstore Association members and some unique CBA bookstores--have actually taken the leap. Booksellers who have divided the books into subcategories are happy with the results, citing positive customer feedback and a significant increase in sales.
Try It, You'll Like It
Logos Bookstore in Springfield, Ohio, broke out faith fiction about three years ago. "It was painful, unshelving and reshelving, having to go through every book and decide where they went. Some were marked, but others weren't," says owner Jay Weygandt. "But I'm glad we stuck with it. Having one big fiction section was overwhelming. Categorizing books helps the fiction browsers, who tend to stay with one genre. And it helps the staff make recommendations. There's been an overwhelmingly positive increase in sales since we did it. And our in-store fiction reading group tells us it's much easier to find books."
One unexpected side benefit for Weygandt of categorizing fiction titles was more efficient inventory control. "Categorizing helped me decide to cut back on stock in Christian romance, since I found out it wasn't doing well in my store. That saved me a lot of time and money, as we deal with a lot less returns now," he says.
Shane Kardos, co-owner of the Logos Bookstore in Kent, Ohio, has shelved faith fiction titles by category since 1998. He started off by breaking out into three subcategories--General, Romance, Historical. Since then, he's expanded that to include Futuristic and Allegory, for a total of five subcategories. And Kardos goes one step further: he shelves nonfiction titles that may be of special interest with related fiction. For instance, nonfiction books about the Lord of the Rings trilogy are shelved with Tolkein in the Futuristic section.
Kardos does cite a problem in shelving books by authors who write in different genres. "We generally split authors apart by genre in that case, though some people don't like that. But we keep other crossover authors together, like Francine Rivers and Karen Kingsbury. It depends who it is. We even have a section just for all of C.S. Lewis's books. We're not consistent, but we try," he says.
Hastings Entertainment, a 150-store chain in 20 states, broke out Christian fiction into four subcategories-- End Times, Romance, Suspense, General--in all of its stores in October. Religion book buyer Kayla Smart says the chain's decision to divide faith fiction into subcategories was a response to "sales, consumer research and author strengths. We're breaking out Christian fiction because it is so successful for us. It's grown a lot in the past two years, and it's still growing fast." She continued, "We used to have just a Christian fiction category, and a Christian living section. It wasn't enough--we had to make it more customer-friendly. Now there are four faith fiction subcategories and five nonfiction subcategories."
Although Smart declined to reveal sales figures, she states that the chain has seen a dramatic jump in sales of faith fiction titles since Hastings broke down the category. "Sales were already increasing before the switch, but since the changes, sales have increased even more," she says. "We know it's a direct result of the changes."
According to Verne Kenney, v-p of sales & forecasting at Zondervan, it is essential for booksellers to shelve faith fiction to reflect consumer interests. Kenney led a team from Zondervan in advising the Borders Group on category management of religion titles last year.
"Faith fiction is not just about a few key titles, a few bestsellers," he says. "The shelf life of Christian fiction seems to be stronger than that of other fiction. Six months after pub date, Christian fiction is just starting its shelf life. It's because the audience is loyal to authors, they're loyal to subgenres. If a reader likes an author, they'll want to read other titles by that author. And if the reader likes a certain subgenre, they'll want other books in that subgenre. The more you pay attention to backlist and the more you pay attention to subgenres in faith fiction, the more successful, you'll be," he says.
Despite Zondervan's advocacy on this issue, Jay Hyde, religion category manager for the Borders Group, says that while Borders now tracks faith fiction sales by genre in its database, the chain does not break out the Christian fiction section on store shelves. Still, he doesn't rule out the idea of Borders trying that strategy.
"Religion is one of the fastest-growing categories at ABA stores," Hyde notes. "Christian fiction is part of that. Our goal is to increase our market share, so we're always looking at our categories for the opportunity to increase sales. If we think that breaking out faith fiction might increase sales, we might entertain implementing it," he says.