Readers of inspirational fiction have a story of their own to tell these days: they love e-books, especially when the price is right. But can publishers keep them coming back after the novelty wears off?

For now, publishers in this niche are riding a wave. E-books make up a larger percentage of sales in Christian fiction (5.4%) than in any other trade category, according to a PubTrack Consumer survey of book-buyers' habits between January and September 2010. Evangelical publishers commonly derive 8%–10% of their Christian fiction sales from e-books, says Mark Kuyper, president and CEO of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.

It's a rapidly growing business. Tyndale has seen e-book sales climb from 2.5% of fiction sales in 2009 to 10% in 2010. At Baker, with the Revell and Bethany imprints, fiction accounts for just 38% of all sales (print and e-book), but it accounts for a whopping 67% of all e-book sales.

Industry insiders say inspirational fiction is a natural fit for e-books because e-reading devices like the Kindle, Nook, and iPad work especially well for voracious pleasure readers on a budget.

"You're reading it as a leisure read and not with pen in hand because you won't need it as a reference later on," says Don Gates, Zondervan's v-p of marketing for trade books. "And you're reading many more books as a fiction reader, and thus the value is right to make a move to [less expensive] e-books."

Free Is a Good Price

Short-term offers of free downloads continue to fuel buzz, not only for new books but for entire series. Abingdon, which launched a fiction line in 2009 and now draws 12% of fiction revenue from e-books, gives away free copies of a different e-book just about every week.

In a strategy that's also used by Thomas Nelson, Abingdon's giveaways are often the first book in an author's series. One week last summer, readers downloaded 30,000 copies of Judy Christie's first novel, Gone to Green. While boosting sales of e-books and print versions of Gone to Green, the promotion also helped generate attention for Goodness Gracious Green, her soon-to-be-released second book. The new title received about 25 reviews on the Web in one day, according to Maegan Roper, marketing and publicity manager for Abingdon Press Fiction.

To date, publishers have been using free e-books as a hook to grow readership. Baker has expanded its reach by attracting mainstream readers who might have never bought a Baker title, according to David Lewis, executive v-p of sales and marketing. But free giveaways aren't boosting sales as strongly as they did at first, Lewis says.

"We've been taking the easy, low-hanging fruit," he notes. "We now need to focus more specifically on the opportunity and the change in the economy that e-books are bringing to publishing."

Baker continues to offer free downloads, Lewis says, but it's also running new promotional experiments each month. That reflects an industrywide trend of exploring and learning through trial and error what will work today and tomorrow in a fast-changing environment.

Trying Different Strategies

Publishers are trying to keep pace with an electronic landscape that's shifting by the month. The past year has witnessed the iPad's debut, a Kindle price drop to $139, and the arrival of Google's e-bookstore. Techniques to boost sales last year might not work this time around. In Christian fiction, publishers are using e-books as a tool to re-energize backlists.

"No consumer sees fiction as backlist—it is simply a title they haven't read yet," says Allen Arnold, v-p and publisher of Thomas Nelson Fiction. "The digital world gives us even more opportunities to bundle collections, offer free first novels in a series, and [give] bonus content to readers."

One early-stage strategy: price-cutting. Baker has in the past offered a free e-book download in conjunction with a 53% discount on other e-books in the same series. This spring Baker will also try bundling three e-books for the price of two. Tyndale plans to experiment with different price points while continuing to offer free downloads for titles by emerging authors, according to Andrea Lindgren, associate publisher for marketing.

Marketing experiments tend to focus on the Internet. Zondervan, which publishes close to 30 fiction titles annually, is concentrating resources on blog tours, social media campaigns, and e-mail blasts since the Internet is a logical place to find readers of e-books. Some publishers are also including QR codes in their online or print advertisements, Kuyper says. This allows an interested reader to scan the code with a smartphone, connect instantly to layers of information about the book, and, of course, buy it.

Experimentation goes beyond marketing. Publishers are developing new content to complement the fiction text. Thomas Nelson, for example, plans to bring more readers together around shared reading interests. Just as fans of Amish fiction now meet up at, similar online communities will spring up and help shape story lines in years ahead, according to Arnold.

Unique Features, New Opportunities

In some cases, lines between narrative content and social networking are beginning to blur. Kuyper notes how publishers are designing e-books to serve as a launching pad for making new connections.

"Someone was just telling me they went to highlight a line in a book and it said, ‘within your community'—however that was defined—‘87 other people have highlighted this,' " Kuyper says. "You could tell who they were. You're actually going to be able to connect with those people and have dialogue on it."

At Zondervan, novels will soon take on new dimensions in e-book formats that come to life, especially on the iPad. When former journalist Lee Strobel comes out with The Ambition this spring, the novel's e-book version will include video of Strobel visiting Chicago sites where he reported on events and found inspiration for particular scenes in the book.

The project echoes Zondervan's efforts in nonfiction to allow e-readers access to related video and audio, such as by clicking to hear an author's sermon on a relevant topic. Fiction, though, adds a new wrinkle in that Zondervan can't just tap an author's electronic library for content. It needs to produce original video. The company expects to recoup these additional costs in part by charging about $3 more for what the industry is calling "enhanced e-books."

For now, publishers are still enjoying the add-on effect in sales, as free e-book downloads spur more e-book and print sales. But they're also aware the climb is likely to get steeper.

"We may find that [free downloads] are only effective for a certain amount of time, and [maybe then] we're going to do it to drive interest for those books that are part of a series," Roper says. "For now, though, we feel we've tapped into something that works, so we're sticking with our strategy."