Troubling Trends in Christian Fiction
There are troubling trends in Christian fiction. According to Nielsen Bookscan, fiction sales have dropped by 15 percent in recent years.
Christian fiction imprints at Abingdon and Moody Press have vanished. Some Christian fiction publishers, like B&H Publishing Group and Tyndale House have cut back their fiction publishing programs.
Yet, some secular companies that have Christian brands, such as Harper Collins (Zondervan and Thomas Nelson Publishers) and Simon & Schuster (Howard Books) are keeping their fiction sales alive.
Christian Fiction Has Small Margins
Christian fiction is an $85 million business according to comments by Steve Oates reported in Publishers Weekly. Oates is Vice-president of Marketing at Bethany House, a division of the Christian company, Baker Publishing Group. Even with $85 million changing hands each year, Christian fiction is the low-margin segment of publishing. That’s why publishers are making careful book acquisition and marketing decisions.
Rolf Zettersten is head of the FaithWords division of the secular international conglomerate Hachette Publishing. He told Lynn Garrett at Publishers Weekly that, “Pricing is a major issue—Christian fiction is heavily discounted, and the prices are too low to work [for us].”
Why Trends Are Changing
Fiction is a form of entertainment and that sets it apart from all other Christian writing.
Kim Moore at Christian publisher Harvest House interviewed industry professionals at the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) conference in late 2015, and we are seeing many projected trends coming to pass.
The trends she identified as changing included the ways books are delivered, a shift in content, different criteria for book acquisition, and the growth of self-publishing and Indie publishing.
The changing trend in delivery is coming to pass. Christian fiction is less likely to be purchased in a Christian bookstore than it is online or in big box stores. That means readers will be more likely to find new authors and books through the recommendations of other people, not by browsing in a local Christian bookstore.
Content will become less Christian and more inspirational to reach a larger audience.
Publisher book acquisition editors will be more exacting. They will be less likely to take a chance on new authors unless their writing is extraordinary. They will also be more likely to sign authors who have built a large following as a self or Indie publisher.
Finally, fiction authors realize they might be able to get a huge following and greater profits without the need to go the traditional publishing route. Success will not go to most of these authors, however. It will be reserved for those who understand the importance of a professional-looking book, whose books have undergone quality editing, and who are willing to put their heart and soul into book promotion.
The Future of Christian Fiction
Christian fiction will not die, but it will look very different in the future.
Self-published Christian fiction, especially eBooks, will attract a larger share of readers. These books have already made a notable difference in the Christian fiction world and that trend is likely to continue. Indie publishing is alive and well and getting healthier in the Christian fiction field, especially Christian romance.
The key to success for self-published authors will continue to be good, well-edited books and an emphasis on building a large fan base.
Mass-market paperbacks are likely to replace trade paperbacks. Right now, secular company Harlequin is dominant in this market segment with their Love Inspired Christian imprint. Harlequin is another division of Harper Collins, so their Love Inspired imprint is in direct competition with the trade fiction published by sister publishing divisions, Zondervan and Thomas Nelson Publishers.
The fly in the ointment of mass-market paperbacks is their very low-profit margins. Editorial and royalty budgets are tiny compared to trade paperback publishing, so rewards are potentially less for both authors and publishers.
Writers with a great track record, who can achieve high sales with minimum promotion, are likely to be the big winners if this high-volume, low-profit trend takes hold.
There will be more crossover Christian fiction. This is when Christian fiction becomes less Christian and more “inspirational.” When that happens, Christian fiction loses its uniqueness to appeal to a wider, more profitable demographic.
Literary agent Chip MacGregor told Library Journal, “I see several CBA [Christian Booksellers Association] publishers trying to create fiction that is less constrained by strict Christian fundamentalist restrictions.”
Apparently, MacGregor does not have his pulse on contemporary theology. “Fundamentalists” read little fiction, especially bodice-rippers, even when the main characters are Amish or members of other conservative groups. The main market for romance appears to be Evangelicals, not Fundamentalists. Evangelicals have very different theological sensibilities. If Evangelical readers are left behind by crossover fiction, it will mean that distinctively Christian themes will be abandoned in favor of a type of undifferentiated “feel-good” religiosity.
Perhaps a better type of crossover would be Christian writers continuing to maintain Bible values, but incorporating them into other fiction genres such as urban fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries. There is potential for Christ-centered fiction in all genres, with the possible exception of erotic fiction.
Christian fiction has been with us since the first century. It’s not going away. However, the economics of Christian fiction publishing is changing dramatically. That will ultimately change the nature of the content.