In this Religion Update, PW assesses the popular category of inspirational/Christian fiction. It's a crowd of bonnets, but there's more: YA, a soupçon of speculative. Marketing's tough, and getting a great advance even tougher, but stories with screen appeal have an edge, and it helps more than ever to bring your own audience. All the round tables and stories are compiled or written by Jana Riess.

Christian fiction has historically been “issue driven”—infidelity, abortion, addiction, etc. Are there any new issues driving Christian fiction right now?

Scott, Abingdon: The Christian market has moved away from “issue-driven” fiction to a more eclectic mix of novels. In fact, several agents have told me in the last year that they have problems selling issue-oriented fiction. We have not shied away from that type of book; for instance, Walking on Broken Glass by Christa Allan (Feb.) is about an English teacher living in an upscale neighborhood who finally admits her alcoholism and enters rehab.

McConnell, Nelson: Marriages are under fire in our culture. Christian novelists are responding with novels that reflect the struggles and blessings of marriage. Our own Fireproof—based on the popular movie about a couple who revive their broken marriage—has sold nearly 300,000 copies.

Watson, Tyndale: We have talented authors who are writing books that thoughtfully challenge readers to wrestle with their response to a wide range of issues. For instance, Randy Singer's upcoming legal thriller will deal with the issue of honor killings in the Islamic community and a Christian lawyer who defends the local imam charged with instigating the killings. I can promise you there won't be an easy answer in that one.

Brower, Zondervan: We are seeing an interest in books that explore the impact of autism, such as Unlocked by Karen Kingsbury (Oct. 2010) and abuse—physical and psychological—such as Daisy Chain by Mary DeMuth (2009) and the upcoming Weight of Shadows (Apr.) by Allison Strobel.

Ball, B&H: We're releasing a few novels in the next year or so dealing with spousal abuse (Angel's Den by Jamie Carie and Dancing on Glass by Pamela Ewen) and have just signed a new author, Ginny Yttrup, to write a book addressing sexual abuse of a child. While those issues aren't new by any means, they have been bypassed more than others in the past.

What trends do you see in “bonnet fiction,” about closed religious groups like the Amish? Do you think the market is oversaturated with these novels, or is there still room for them?

Brower, Zondervan: 35% of the February CBA bestseller list was “bonnet fiction.” I don't see the market slowing down soon, and I think the reader is thrilled to have more variety to choose from.

Long, Bethany: I would've said three years ago that we were near saturation, so my insight here is suspect. At this point, though, you'd have to say it is its own category of Christian fiction. Judy Miller is exploring life in Amana in her newest historical series.

Scott, Abingdon: “Bonnet” fiction has gone mainstream and crossed over into the general market, so I definitely think there is still a market for them. Romance in any form dominates sales, and since “bonnet” fiction by its nature is a clean read, it remains quite popular in Christian markets. We have signed Barbara Cameron to write a series titled the Quilts of Lancaster County.

Golan, Steeple Hill: Amish books are alive and well, and we think there's still a market for more. In our Love Inspired Suspense line, we published an Amish series, Three Sisters Inn, by Marta Perry that was so popular we are bringing Marta's Amish suspense editorial to Harlequin's secular HQN line, with the first release, Murder in Plain Sight, scheduled in December. In Steeple Hill's Love Inspired line, we're offering Amish romances to our readers beginning in March, with Katie's Redemption by Patricia Davids. We also hope to explore other “bonnet” communities, such as the Mennonites.

Marchese, WaterBrook: [Amish fiction] will look different from the way it looks now. The readership will evolve into a more discerning audience in coming years and begin choosing the quality writers, writers who are growing. You won't see just retelling the same romantic story of the Outsider and the Plain person.

What do you see happening in women's fiction? Is chick lit dead? What newer trends?

Watson, Tyndale: The current strength of the historical category has provided a short-term challenge at retail for attention (and space) for new contemporary women's fiction. I fully expect the pendulum will return. Our experience with authors like Karen Kingsbury and Francine Rivers in our list has left us with no doubt that there is a big consumer appetite. Chick lit—at least in its strictest interpretation—isn't a genre we're pursuing.

Scott, Abingdon: Calling a novel “chick lit” seems to be the kiss of death these days in publishing, but if an author is interested in writing about younger characters, it can be done by deepening the story. Pure fluff is out; authenticity is in. Romance will always be a staple of women's fiction, and romantic comedy is a genre that we have embraced.

Brower, Zondervan: Women's fiction is more author driven, with Karen Kingsbury far and away the leader. While readers say they want more realism in their fiction, the reality is that they still want to see that God is with them and that there is always hope. I don't see as much interest in chick lit as the economy makes it less popular to celebrate brand labels and excess. However, interesting characters with spunk, wit, and attitude will always be popular for younger (25—45) readers.

Golan, Steeple Hill: Many of the readers who once devoured chick lit have grown up and become wives and mothers, and they're more interested in romance or general women's fiction titles. And the younger readers are voraciously reading YA fiction.

Ball, B&H: I do think chick lit is past its prime. What seem to be hitting the target lately are contemporary family sagas.

Marchese, WaterBrook: I think the most exciting development in women's fiction is the honesty (in some cases deemed as edgy or gritty), the layers, and the maturity of the writing. Female characters in fiction written by believers used to fit a pattern, rather nice and tidy, and that is just not the case anymore. The happily-ever-after ending may not be how these books conclude, and that makes for much more candor in the storytelling.

McConnell, Nelson: In terms of trends, the novels that are doing well are less dark in subject matter than just a couple of years ago—it's like an Oprah book club backlash. There is a renewed sense of optimism in women's fiction these days.

What are the trends in speculative fiction? Are Christian readers more open to edgy speculative fiction than they were a decade ago?

Watson, Tyndale: There is renewed interest in apocalyptic fiction. We've seen a significant increase in the Left Behind series in the past 12 months. Movies like 2012 and The Book of Eli play into the theme that has been big in our industry for some time. Joel Rosenberg's upcoming novel, The Twelfth Imam, will be in this category.

Long, Bethany: Vampires are just a bite of what is basically “horror fiction” being labeled something else. They're not going to emerge, as in ABA, as their own subculture. But horror stories (edgy, speculative) will continue to thrive.

Brower, Zondervan: Yes, Christian readers are more open to speculative and gritty fiction. However, it is still a very small group of consumers in Christian bookstores, and it's difficult to market in the general market. The problem with speculative fiction is logistics. Readers who like speculative fiction browse the YA, fantasy, and science fiction sections of the store. Even if they would like a Christian novel, they rarely venture into the religion section of the bookstore.

Marchese, WaterBrook: While it remains a smaller segment of readers, the audience has certainly shifted in its willingness to accept speculative types of storytelling. Our company has a reputation for good speculative fiction because we have seen success in that area and we recognize its potential to explore meaningful spiritual connections.