Christian Retailing

A touch of romance Print Email
Written by Christine D. Johnson   
Thursday, 20 January 2011 05:06 PM America/New_York

New trends and advice on in-store promotions


From Karen Kingsbury’s contemporary series to Bodie and Brock Thoene’s “Zion Diaries” to Wanda Brunstetter’s Amish tales and Lori Copeland’s Westerns, romance is a wide-ranging and growing category in the Christian market. 

Christian Retailing brought together a number of in-the-know publisher representatives to discuss the ins and outs of the category. Taking part in the conversation were:

  • ?Sue Brower, executive editor, fiction, Zondervan
  • ?Susan Downs, senior fiction editor, Summerside Press
  • ?Melissa Endlich, senior editor, Love Inspired, Steeple Hill
  • ?Rebecca Germany, senior fiction editor, Barbour Publishing
  • ?David Long, senior acquisitions editor, Bethany House (Baker Publishing Group)


CHRISTIAN RETAILING: As a category, how is romance fiction doing in the Christian market?


Long: In general you see Christian fiction being driven by a lot of real “name authors.” You have Karen Kingsbury, you have Joel Rosenberg, you have these people who are identifiable as brands. Outside of that, I think when you start looking at categories, romance, whether it’s in historical or in the different flavors of romance, really does seem to be at the top of the market’s reading list right now. Bethany House has been in historical romance pretty much right from the beginning. We published Love Comes Softly—what else is that but a romance in many ways? And so we’re continuing to see particularly on our end, we are a little bit heavy on the historical romance, but it’s performing well for us.


Endlich: Romance in the Christian market is super healthy. We can’t give our readers enough books. We started out 14 years ago in 1997 with three books, and starting in January, we’re offering 14 books a month. 


CHRISTIAN RETAILING: What subcategories of romance fiction are doing very well?


Brower: We all have our one or two Amish fiction authors. Mine is Amy Clipston and she is doing extremely well. I think the other areas are the historical and the suspense. What I’m finding for our line is that we’re primarily categorized as contemporary, suspense or historical with romance. When we categorize as strictly romance, we don’t fit with that genre quite as well. We have a healthy (presence), particularly on the contemporary side with Karen Kingsbury, Alison Strobel and DiAnn Mills, where the romance is the stronger piece to it, but they have very good plot-driven stories that are not dependent on the romance to intrigue the reader.


CHRISTIAN RETAILING: What do you think of the Amish subcategory and other subcategories?


Germany: Amish is definitely strong, and it kind of surprised us when Wanda (Brunstetter) took off. We didn’t really set out to create a best-seller or phenomenon to follow Beverly Lewis or anything like that, but it just seemed timely that there was this interest in Plain people and plain and simple faith, so it is interesting to see how every house seems to have their Amish line. We are continuing that with some Mennonite fiction that we have from various authors. 


Downs: We are inclined to try and experiment with a lot of new things. Summerside Press has only been publishing fiction for three years now. We’ve found great success with our “Love Finds You In” line. That features real towns across America, and the romance is set in that real town. We do 12 titles a year. Half or more are historical romance and half contemporary. And of course, like everyone else, we see the Anabaptist/Amish (is) very popular, although we don’t have a specific line or specific author, we do sprinkle those among all of our fiction, so we’ll have a title or two that carry the Anabaptist characters. 


CHRISTIAN RETAILING: “Love Finds You” has done very well, I understand.


Downs: Yes and expanding. They’ve really taken off. That has really been the bread and butter up to this point of our fiction lines. We discussed in our editorial board meetings what the secret behind the Amish/Anabaptist fiction was, and we decided that it was that simple lifestyle, characters that the reader can relate to and taking the reader back to a simpler place or time. So we have launched a series of books called “When I Fall In Love,” and those feature books with song titles that were popular back in the 20th century. Each book is titled with a song and the era the story is set in when the song was most popular. For instance, Love Me Tender or UnforgettableSome Enchanted EveningStranger In the Night, those are all some of our upcoming titles. And we’re hoping to really play on that time of life that takes us back in our memories to a simpler time.


CHRISTIAN RETAILING: Who is reading romance these days?


Brower: I don’t think it’s any different for Christian women than it is in the romance category at Barnes & Noble. It’s all women. There are subgenres within the romance category itself, and so you have those women who prefer the historical or the contemporary or the it’s not really chick lit as it used to be, but it’s that sarcastic, kind of witty character. Then there’s also the suspense. I think she is anywhere from 18 to 80. My mother is 84 and she continues to read romance. She skips over the juicy parts and just enjoys the story and the hope. I would guess that a lot of them are either moms or have families, but it is a wide age range and I think that it will last forever. It’s been one of the most popular categories for years. It’s been over 50% of the bookstore sales for a very long time, and I think it’s going to continue that way.


CHRISTIAN RETAILING: Are there any new trends?


Endlich: For the Love Inspired group of lines, we are finding a lot of authors recently that are under 35, and we think it’s fabulous adding something fresh and new voices.


Downs: It’s probably too early to see if it’s a true trend, but we’re seeing more and more interest in World War II-era stories. 


Long: We haven’t acquired as much toward World War II. We are actually seeing more of World War I, into the 1900s. ... We’re seeing (1918) Spanish Flu, kind of pre-Depression, I don’t know if it’s this time period and some of the echoes that people are picking up on, so I think the early 20th century just in general feels like it’s coming to the forefront a little more. 


Brower: The prime time was Americana 1890s, post Civil War to the beginning of the 20th century. Now you are going over that curve and into the 20th century as people look at that as an historical time. Even maybe five years ago I don’t know that we would have classified World War II as historical yet. … I am (also) getting more opportunity for Civil War romance or historicals, and I believe there will be a little bit more interest in them as we come up to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which is in April of 2011 because there will be lots of programs on television.


Endlich: In our Love Inspired Historical line, we are doing a few Civil War stories. But getting back to World War II for a second, for so long we have been hearing about the greatest generation, and it’s been in our psyche. What’s ended up happening is the people in the greatest generation, (we) have been kind of slowly been losing them. So there are less and less people who think of that as recent times and younger people coming in who see it as historical, so I would guess that’s probably why more people are looking at that and World War I as historical eras instead of a “when I was alive” kind of thing. 


Downs: For the majority of readers, it would be their grandparents’ generation ... and many of them are gone now. 


Germany: I think you’re absolutely right, and it could continue as people want to learn more about their grandparents.


CHRISTIAN RETAILING: What do you think is the role of writers’ associations?


Long: Romance Writers of America, I don’t know how long it’s been around, but you talk about a vocal voice for romance and that’s just a powerful organization with just a lot of people behind it. I think the inspirational side of that has been coming along. They are a small component of it. Within the Christian market, you see American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), which I think has grown leaps and bounds, and it’s gaining that presence and that stature. I don’t know the percentage of authors that we publish that are members of ACFW, but it’s a pretty substantial number.


Endlich: ACFW in particular does an amazing job helping their authors with mentoring programs, writers who have been writing for a long time helping authors who are just coming up, really just helping increase editorial and making it stronger and helping to get authors published. I remember I went to ACFW conference a couple of years ago, and it was very small, and now I hear that the conferences are 1,000 people.


CHRISTIAN RETAILING: How would you advise store book buyers in this area of romance?


Downs: If there were any way possible to feature series rather than cataloging by author name, it would be an interesting study to see if you could do both. 


Long: Try to have a fiction advocate as part of the staff reading these stories and being able to make informed choices. … Readers come in and they’ll always look for the name authors, but being able to then talk about a newer author or somebody who might have flown under the radar a little bit is just a great way to build loyalty. 


CHRISTIAN RETAILING: Have you seen any unique ways to hand-sell?


Long: I’ve seen stores start blogs, review blogs. … It’s just, “I sat down with this book, and this is who it reminds me of and this  is one I can recommend.” You could find a lot of hidden gems among all publisher lists. I think just broadening the number of authors who readers are coming in and taking a look at (will help).


Germany: Our local bookstore is doing something that’s a little old-fashioned. They are somehow tracking their buyers and their favorite authors, so they’ll send a postcard and say, “Hey, Wanda Brunstetter’s newest title is available and you’ll want to come in and get it on this date.” It seems to be a fairly effective thing especially for a small-town small bookstore to bring that traffic in. Usually they will offer 10% off. 


Brower: Many of our books, in fact, almost all of them now have discussion questions in the back, and I would encourage the stores to create book clubs or an environment where a book club could meet. Sometimes people don’t want to admit they read romance because it’s not thoughtful reading when, in fact, it is and what helps that is having these book club questions. Utilizing the tools that are in the books themselves where they have discussion questions, the trailers that are on the Internet—so many of the books have trailers. They could easily set up something in their store that is a nonstop loop of all the different books and that would certainly get a lot of the newer readers out there. I see that as the most critical piece that the Christian bookseller can do. They have the opportunity to have the depth that other big box stores or mass-market stores don’t. They can really push the new authors. They can create that space for talking about romance and also provide them the middle books in the series and the backlist.


Downs: I actually know a few authors who have held conference calls with book clubs to discuss the discussion questions from the authors, so a bookstore could arrange, if they worked on it far enough in advance, to actually have the author address a book club group in the bookstore, online or in a conference-call kind of setting.


CHRISTIAN RETAILING: What is the future for the category?


Germany: It can morph into different categories and subject matter, but I think romance in general will always draw readers’ hearts. 


Long: The books are going to look different, but I think in general these books are absolutely here for as long as we are.  


Read excerpts here and listen in on the complete conversation at: