The Business of Christian Fiction Continues to Evolve

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Christian fiction is a formidable segment of the religion and spirituality category, but no one knows just how big it really is. Steve Oates, v-p of marketing for the Bethany House unit of Baker Publishing Group, says that based on industry data, he estimates the market to be in the $75 million–$85 million range.

Though large and small publishers are all active in the market, a few key Christian houses dominate. At the top are Baker’s Bethany House and Revell imprints, Tyndale House, and HarperCollins Christian Publishing, with its Thomas Nelson and Zondervan imprints.

Chief among the problems confronting these publishers is pricing. With the advent of e-books, and the proliferation of self-published titles and low-priced backlist books, the downward pressure on prices is significant, Oates says. “There is a race to the bottom in price, and this makes selling new books for something resembling full price very challenging.”

Rolf Zettersten, publisher for Hachette’s FaithWords unit, agrees: “Pricing is a major issue—Christian fiction is heavily discounted, and the prices are too low to work [for us].”

Pricing pressure has contributed to a shakeout in Christian fiction over the past few years. Some houses, such as Howard and FaithWords, have scaled back their fiction programs; HarperCollins Christian Publishing combined its Zondervan and Nelson fiction programs, cutting title output; and others got out of the business altogether (B&H, David C. Cook, and Moody; Abingdon announced it will exit by 2017). At present, title output among the major houses seems to have stabilized, albeit at lower levels than a few years ago.

Daisy Hutton, v-p and publisher of fiction for HarperCollins Christian Publishing, says the company is now doing 50–55 fiction titles per year. Baker’s Bethany House and Revell imprints published a combined total of 81 new titles in 2015; they have 91 planned for 2016 and project 85 in 2017.

Annie Tipton, senior acquisitions editor for Barbour, which primarily publishes fiction, says that with all of the house’s various formats, price points, and release strategies (including full-lengths, repackaged shorter stories, series omnibuses, and novella collections), Barbour released more than 30 fiction titles last year and this year, and it plans to continue that pace next year. Typically, Barbour does three to four fiction titles per month.

Ami McConnell, executive editor for Howard Books, says: “We’ve pared back in fiction over the last 12 months. Our acquisition focus is on novelists who have great content, strong platforms, and strategic timing. Platform has become just as important in publishing fiction as it has with nonfiction.”

“We’re not seeing a lot of growth [in fiction],” Zettersten says. “We’re being more selective about who we publish,” doing about 15 titles per year but with no target number. FaithWords’ star author is Wm. Paul Young; in advance of the release of the movie adaptation of his The Shack in March 2017, FaithWords will publish both trade paper and mass market movie tie-in editions ofThe Shack this October, with movie stills and a new author’s note.

Even as other Christian publishers have reduced title output, one is headed in the opposite direction.

Dan Balow, president and publisher of Gilead Publishing, says: “A foundational premise behind our new company is that fiction is not a crowded market. If Christian publishers published fiction in the same ratio as the general market, there should be about 1,000 new releases every year. Right now, not counting the Love Inspired imprint from Harlequin, there will be only about 150 new titles released this year. Christian fiction lacks critical mass—the problem is not a lack of interest by consumers but a lack of choices.”

Gilead plans to publish 40–50 titles in 2017, with a target of 85–100 per year by 2021. “We plan to actively publish debut authors, who, as publishers increasingly want books to be a sure thing, have more trouble than ever getting published,” Balow says. “Right now, midlisters have no home.” Gilead aims to provide one.

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SOURCE: Publishers Weekly
Lynn Garrett

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