Christian Fiction Hasn’t Lost Its Allure

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Publishing Christian fiction can pay, and pay big, but it’s harder than ever to succeed in the category, publishers say. Many companies have abandoned Christian fiction in recent years and others have cut title output, which can make it seem as though the market is contracting.

But industry statistics tell a different story. Steve Oates, v-p of marketing for Baker Publishing Group’s Bethany House and Chosen imprints, estimates annual sales for Christian fiction at about $20 million and says that has even trended up in the past two years. The growth is from the mass market format, which is gaining market share in Christian fiction though it has generally been in decline (see “Is Mass Market Dying, or Just Evolving—Again?“).

Oates says, “In the past 10 years, market share has shifted to Harlequin’s mass market books, because price point is a big issue.” He calls Harlequin’s Love Inspired line of Christian romances, which sell for $5.99, “snack food fiction”—and fans seem to have an insatiable appetite.

While Christian fiction seems to be healthy and even growing slightly, just three publishers now take almost half the market, and just a few authors—such as Karen Kingsbury (Brush of Wings) and Wm. Paul Young (The Shack)—tend to dominate sales. In 2017, the prolific Kingsbury has two new titles coming, and, with a just-released movie version of The Shack, Young is doing a booming backlist business.

Whole Lotta Love

Harlequin’s Love Inspired line celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and Tina James, executive editor, calls it a “strong franchise with faithful readers.” Harlequin’s Reader Service book club offers online community, early announcements of new titles, discounts, and other benefits. It also keeps romance fans buying plenty of books direct, offering them six new titles each month.

James says that last year Love Inspired published 75 mass market paperbacks in the contemporary romance genre, 72 in romantic suspense, and 48 in historical novels, and that title output in 2017 will be about the same. The popularity of Amish fiction (both contemporary and historical) might have waned somewhat, but it is still a genre favored by romance readers, and top Love Inspired titles this year include Their Pretend Amish Courtship by Patricia Davids (June) and Second Chance Amish Bride by Marta Perry (Sept.). The Bride’s Matchmaking Triplets by Regina Scott (June) is a historical set in pioneer-days Texas; Bodyguard by Shirlee McCoy (Aug.) is romantic suspense. In contemporary romance, the imprint has books such as Thanksgiving Protector by Sharon Dunn (Oct.).

Romantic suspense is Baker Publishing’s particular strength: its Bethany House imprint is releasing The House on Foster Hill by Jaime Jo Wright (Dec.), which tells the story of woman fleeing a stalker, and Deadly Proof by Rachel Dylan (Sept.), the first in the Atlanta Justice series of legal romantic suspense from an author who is a litigator in a national law firm. Its Revell imprint’s romantic suspense titles in 2017 include Dangerous Illusions by Irene Hannon (Oct.), Chasing Secrets by Lynette Eason (Aug.), All She Left Behind by Jane Kirkpatrick (Sept.), and A Matter of Trust by Susan May Warren (July).

HarperCollins, which publishes Christian fiction under its Thomas Nelson and Zondervan imprints, is coming out in 2018 with The Heart Between Us by Lindsay Harrel (Thomas Nelson, Mar. 2018), and If I Live (Zondervan, Mar. 2018), a romantic suspense novel by Terri Blackstock, who has sold more than seven million books and hit a number of bestseller lists.

Although the Christian imprints of two major houses have trimmed their fiction lists in recent years, they still have top-selling authors. In 2007, Hachette imprint FaithWords partnered with Windblown Media, the two-man team that originally published Young’s The Shack. FaithWords handled marketing, sales, and distribution and shared the Shack wealth. According to FaithWords, The Shack has sold 23 million copies in all editions, including a study guide published in late 2016 as a movie tie-in for the film, which released March 3. In 2013, FaithWords published Young’s follow-up novel, Cross Roads, which the press says has sold 500,000 copies.

With no new Young book on the horizon, FaithWords is pinning its frontlist hopes this year on Susan Sleeman, who won the 2013 Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Best Book Award for Thread of Suspicion and has twice been a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence. FaithWords will publish Sleeman’s Fatal Mistake in May and Kill Shot in February 2018.

In 2015, Howard Books, the Christian imprint of Simon & Schuster, published Eve, a novel by Young that has sold some 500,000 copies and continues to do well in backlist. Howard also publishes Christian fiction’s other cash machine: Karen Kingsbury’s Love Story (June) and In This Moment (Nov.) are on its 2017 list.

Atria president and publisher Judith Curr oversees Howard, and she says Kingsbury is the centerpiece of its fiction program. In addition to publishing her new titles, Curr says, “we will be repackaging Kingsbury backlist in trade paper, and pitching more of her books for TV and movies.” Curr adds that Walmart has been buying more Howard fiction, particularly Kingsbury.

Curr stresses that in the wake of S&S’s closing Howard’s Nashville offices and moving it to New York City, “we’re as committed as ever to Howard’s mission—we might even grow it a bit.” She adds: “We want to do more contemporary women’s fiction, including historical, that’s for younger readers and not necessarily family-focused. We’re developing story lines for paperback originals and also commissioning books.” Half of Howard’s list is fiction, with 20–25 new novels planned per year, “and we’ll also be mining the backlist,” Curr notes. Unlike Baker’s Oates, Curr sees mass market continuing to decline, adding, “We would only do it if there was a real opportunity for Karen.”

Tyndale House fiction publisher Karen Watson affirms that having marquee authors is crucial—fans will wait eagerly for books by authors such as Francine Rivers, whose The Masterpiece is on Tyndale’s spring 2018 list.

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SOURCE: Publishers Weekly
Lynn Garrett

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