In these tough economic times, it's a rare publisher who's expanding. But after doing due diligence, strategic planning and careful acquiring, Abingdon Press will launch a Christian fiction line in late summer.

In recent years, the market for Christian fiction has been so successfully cultivated by a handful of evangelical Christian publishers, such as Nelson, Tyndale, Bethany House, Zondervan and Barbour, that even large, otherwise secular houses have formed their own Christian imprints. Abingdon, an imprint of United Methodist Publishing House based in Nashville, is hoping to get in on the action. In order to do so, the house is taking particular aim at reading groups, many of which are attached to churches. According to Abingdon's market research, 59% of mainline Protestant congregations have book reading groups, and 14% of Methodist congregations have fiction-only book reading groups. Abingdon novels—eight on the initial list, and 10 planned for spring 2010—are intended to appeal to both evangelical and mainline audiences.

“All people want to hope and be inspired,” says senior acquisitions editor Barbara J. Scott. “That's what I hope will find broad acceptance.” Scott worked for Zondervan before being hired by Abingdon to develop its fiction. The launch has been seeded by money from the United Methodist Church, and its startup aims are deliberately modest.

“We're not expecting to make incredible profits the first couple years,” says Scott. “We hope to cover our expenses and grow the program.” Many Abingdon authors are newer writers that Scott found by recruiting heavily at industry trade shows, through blogs and in consultation with other writers. “We have the luxury of being able to find new voices, and I feel really confident we've discovered some good ones,” Scott says. Authors Abingdon has acquired include Cynthia Ruchti, new president of the American Christian Fiction Writers, and Kay Marshall Strom. Strom is no novice —she's published 34 books and is active in the campaign to end contemporary slavery. Her novel The Call of Zulina opens a historical series set in 18th-century Africa about the origins of the slave trade.

Abingdon will be pushing its fiction line at summer publishing trade shows as well as at the ALA annual conference, advertising to the trade. The house will make its authors available to book groups and is putting discussion guides in its books.“Before, we always had to go to booksellers, but it's changing so dramatically,” Scott says. “It's really the readers, especially in this market.”

One Strategy: Diversify

Other publishing houses say economic life on the religious fiction block is still good—in a few cases, great—even when overall book sales are flat.

“Fiction offers escapism that doesn't cost a whole lot of money,” says Allen Arnold, senior v-p and publisher for fiction at Thomas Nelson. “It's not recession-proof, but comes out better than other things at retail.”

Arnold says it's been a great year for Nelson fiction. “We're over 100% of our plan and we went in with an aggressive plan,” he says. Over the past five years, Nelson has grown its fiction list, and sales, by diversifying genres. Last year Nelson started a series in Amish fiction—a hot subcategory—with Beth Wiseman's Plain Perfect, which has sold 40,000 copies since its September pub.

“The model we follow is a tapestry of many voices, many genres—some general, some Christian, everything from Amish to suspense,” says Arnold.

Nelson is also adding audiences, growing Ted Dekker's thriller brand by reaching out to women and teens. Dekker co-authored Kiss with Erin Healy, published this January. Dekker is also adding to his young adult series the Lost Books. Trying in another way to lure more women into reading suspense, Nelson is launching in April a Triple Threat series, featuring three women in media who follow crimes, penned by Fox News legal analyst Lis Wiehl.

Another reason for Nelson's good performance is growth in custom content. The house has packaged two books into one volume exclusively for some large retailers, using such popular authors as contemporary novelist Karen Kingsbury and legal thriller author Robert Whitlow. “A lot of retailers want a point of distinction,” Arnold says.

Tyndale, a large evangelical house based in suburban Chicago, has developed a diverse portfolio of fiction genres, publishing 40 titles a year. “We have something in every category except fantasy,” says Karen Watson, associate publisher, fiction. “I think our releases have held up very well in a difficult climate.”

Watson has noticed shifts: stores are limiting inventory, and it's harder to establish emerging authors, even while solid backlist continues to sell. Tyndale's strategy has been to be more selective, especially with new authors. “We're being very deliberate in how and why we ask readers and retailers to invest in an author,” Watson says.

Contemporary novels perform best for Tyndale. Watson says romantic suspense author Susan May Warren has a growing fan base; Warren has a series beginning in May that features P.J. Sugar, a Stephanie Plum—like investigator. In another genre, author Randy Singer, a lawyer who pens legal thrillers, has crafted an unusual strategy for reaching his readers. A YouTube video enacts the closing arguments of a gun-control case that provides the story for his forthcoming novel The Justice Game (July); the video then directs viewers to render a verdict at his Web site. Watson says that the feedback will determine the outcome of the case.

Zondervan, too, publishes in a wide variety of genres. “By focusing on contemporary and suspense novels and broadening our offerings into historical, Amish and some literary categories, we are providing inexpensive entertainment that also provides hope and encouragement in these slower economic times,” says Dudley Delffs, v-p and publisher.

Another Strategy: Focus, Go Slow

Sometimes, what's bad for almost everybody is good for a few. The recession is driving more shoppers to Wal-Mart, and Bethany House Publishers, the pioneer of Christian fiction, is benefiting from that shift. Wal-Mart customers like historical and Amish fiction, Bethany's specialty. “We publish right in the center of Wal-Mart's preferences,” says Steve Oates, v-p of marketing. He estimates that Bethany books make up 35%—40% of the fiction the mass marketer sells. As a result, sales increased in December and January by double digits. But that streak may halt. “February looks like it might be the end of the run,” Oates adds.

He and Dave Horton, v-p of editorial, credit a slow and steady pace for Bethany's fiction growth. In 2001, fiction was half Bethany's sales; today it is two-thirds. Last year, the company released 39 new novels and plans the same number this year. “Not being more aggressive,” says Horton, “produces the kind of growth that works for us.”

A relatively new marketing initiative for Bethany—the one that Abingdon is counting on—is outreach to book clubs. Bethany mails every other month to 350 book clubs it has identified. “We were quite surprised to find church-based groups doing fiction,” says Oates.

Fiction is the strongest sales category at Barbour in Uhrichsville, Ohio. This year it will publish 16 trade fiction titles, an increase over last year's 12. Like Bethany House, Barbour is planning to stick with genres it does well—romance and Amish. Its bestselling author Wanda Brunstetter kicks off a new Amish series with A Cousin's Promise (Mar.). The house has tried other genres—suspense, for one—but couldn't make it work. “They say men read, but we couldn't tap into that,” says Mary Burns, v-p of publishing.

To develop the category, Barbour is working with its authors, signing more to multibook and exclusive contracts, helping with career-building by making greater commitments to marketing titles. The house sends new release kits to retail stores two months before publication, including a galley, posters, shelf talkers, bookmarks and advice for setting up an author chat. “We're sending that to stores and getting great response,” Burns says. It is also working with authors to set up pages for them on ShoutLife, an online Christian social network with an author community.

Strategy: Reading Satisfaction Guaranteed

At David C. Cook in Colorado Springs, fiction sales are down this fiscal year compared to last. But prior year sales got an unusual bump from two novels related to the film The Ultimate Gift, which starred James Garner. “Overall, we're at budget,” says C. Ryan Dunham, senior v-p of sales and marketing. Cook is not releasing any fiction titles this year compared to 15 the previous fiscal year, but it's standing by what it brings out in a promise. “Good read guaranteed” tells readers they can get their money back if they aren't satisfied. Few have taken Cook up on the offer, and Dunham says it helps less established authors.

Cook is also venturing into mass market in a limited way this summer. The cheaper editions are a way to hook readers into a series. They're also aimed at summer readers. “Our strategy is 'Escape with a good book,' ” Dunham says.

Some readers are choosing an unorthodox escape route. At Realms, the fiction imprint of Strang Communications in Lake Mary, Fla., imprint editor Debbie Marrie says that fiction about hell or the devil is doing well. “Maybe,” she speculates, “it makes people feel better about their lives.”