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Fiction: the great escape Print Email
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Monday, 08 June 2009 01:01 PM America/New_York
Growing category is a bright spot fornewcomers, fueled by ‘hunger for hope’

Defying current sales trends, Christian fiction continues to grow, offering a bright spot for retailers, publishers and readers in a bleak economy.

In the midst of the economic recession, some publishers are targeting growth while others are launching new fiction lines for the first time.

Although some have suggested that even flat sales are good in the current economy, considering a February Association of American Publishers (AAP) report of a 19% drop in religious books for the month, news of growth is even better.

“From the news, the trend is now saying that flat is the new good,” said Allen Arnold, senior vice president and publisher, fiction for Thomas Nelson. “(The reports indicate) if you’re flat, be thankful you’re not negative, but we have not seen that in the fiction area at Nelson.”

In fact, Arnold said the category has seen double-digit growth this year versus 2008, translating to “millions in revenue.” Weeks into the new fiscal year, the company is “projecting aggressive growth” for the next year, which includes summer releases from Ted Dekker, Colleen Coble, T.L. Hines and Eric Wilson.

“No publishing group is bulletproof, but fiction that offers hope is one of the best places to be right now,” Arnold said.

On his blog, leading agent Chip MacGregor recently acknowledged the “crazy” surge in sales of fiction for the last four to five years, but also said he believed current sales were slowing down.

“My guess is that we’ll still see some growth in fiction, but it will be moving much more slowly as the various houses shake out what’s working and who is selling,” he wrote.

As those houses find out what’s selling, others are finding success with their first entries in the category.

Carlton Garborg, president of Summerside Press, found a “market extremely welcoming to inspirational fiction” when his company launched the new fiction line “Love Finds You” last fall. Pre-sales were “quite encouraging,” and the company has been doing large print runs to keep up with demand, he said.

Elsewhere, United Methodist Church-based Abingdon Press is taking the fiction plunge this summer with its new line of inspirational novels. The company will release The Call of Zulina by Kay Marshall Strom, Surrender the Wind by Rita Gerlach and Gone to Green by Judy Christie in August, with other new releases coming the following months.

Paul Franklyn, executive director of new business development for the company, said the new titles had generated “even higher interest than expected.”

“Booksellers seem eager to sell more fiction at a time when most inventories are cutting back,” he said. “The best is yet to come.”

Nordskog Publishing, which began its venture in Christian publishing in 2006, is launching a new fiction imprint. Noble Novels made its debut last month with West Overseas by Lars Walker, a story about the Vikings during the time of a massive conversion to Christianity in Norway.



If fiction is bucking the trend of declining sales, some say it’s because the category offers hope and an escape from life’s difficulties.

Shannon Marchese, senior editor, fiction for The WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group, sees a parallel between fiction’s popularity during the current recession and previous economic troughs.

“Historically speaking, novels have been an affordable means of entertainment and ‘escape,’ so to speak,” she said. “The Wizard of Oz is one of the best examples, in both book and film form, of a very popular choice, written during an economic shift and attracting fans during the Great Depression. (In) an environment where it’s difficult to turn on the news, I believe fiction that offers a different view of the world, like fantastical or allegorical stories or some of the sub-genres, with embedded truth will draw an audience looking for a good story and a bright spot.”

Marchese said even though readers are responding to fiction titles, she cautioned that publishing shouldn’t be “reactionary” and “dogging that interest with a flood of product for a particular reader.”

Karen Watson, acquisitions director for Tyndale House Publishers, agreed that fiction titles tend to surge during “times of stress,” adding that the genres that are selling well include suspense, romantic suspense, historical and general fiction for women from authors like Jason Elam, Joel C. Rosenberg, Angela Hunt, Susan May Warren and Randy Singer.

Francine Rivers’ “Mark of the Lion” backlist series is also experiencing a “whole new audience,” Watson said.

“I think this shows that in times of stress, readers often go back to books that have strongly impacted them in the past,” she added.

Barbour Publishing’s fiction category is “strong,” Publicist Angie Brillhart told Christian Retailing. Summer titles from the publisher include Montana Rose by Mary Connealy, Menu for Romance by Kaye Dacus and The Blue Enchantress by M.L. Tyndall.

“We’re booking new contracts and looking forward to promoting some new authors in the coming year,” Brillhart said. “I know it’s rough out there in the economy, but I think people are still enjoying finding entertainment in books.”

Karen Campbell, director of public relations for Zondervan, referenced the popularity of titles from Terri Blackstock and Karen Kingsbury, and said: “I definitely can see where people would turn to Christian fiction as a form of entertainment and escape.”

Recent and upcoming titles from Zondervan include Kingsbury’s Take Two, Robin Lee Hatcher’s A Vote of Confidence, Robin Jones Gunn’s Coming Attractions and Amy Clipston’s A Gift of Grace.

Debbie Marrie, editor for the Realms fiction imprint of Strang Book Group, also reported interest on the company’s spring and summer releases, including The Deliverer by Linda Rios Brook, The Y Factor by Liam Roberts, Mohamed’s Moon by Keith Clemons and The Firstborn by Conlan Brown.

“We’re thrilled to see several of our books in the suspense/thriller genre starting to take off and exceed our sales expectations,” Marrie said.

Contemporary, thrillers and suspense are hot genres for David C. Cook, said Don Pape, publisher. He echoed the comments of fiction’s role in supplying hope, although he said he did not believe that was limited only to the hard times and noted that he had seen “no tangible proof” of a surge in sales of his titles.

“I am not sure that readers turn to fiction because of tough times,” he said. “I think people turn to fiction to go (to) another place, and that can be in good times and bad.”

New fiction titles from Cook include Lisa T. Bergren’s Breathe, Tom Davis’ Scared and Bonnie Grove’s Talking to the Dead.

Summerside’s Garborg believes the fiction trend could be due in part to readers using paperbacks as an inexpensive way to explore the world. In his company’s “Love Finds You” series, authors like Melody Carlson, with her forthcoming release Love Finds You in Sisters, Oregon, use real towns for romantic settings.

“It could be that in an economy where people are more careful about how they invest their hard-earned dollars, they have rediscovered the power of quality fiction to transport them to other times and places,” Garborg said. “We’re really offering exciting vacations between two covers.”



Even if Christian fiction is selling well, Christian retailers have to ensure that their customers are aware of the latest and best-selling titles.

According to a recent statistic reported by Kelly Gallagher of RR Bowker during the April Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) Executive Leadership Summit, Christian book titles comprise only 41% of “active” Christians’ book purchases. So retailers have a wide open market to reach the other 59% of their purchases.

“If I were in a store today, I would be positioning fiction as hope-filled entertainment,” Arnold said. “I’ve heard many people say that lately they’ve quit watching the news or reading newspapers. What they’re really saying is they need hope.”

Meeting that desire is even considered in cover design. During the design process for Robert Whitlow’s Higher Hope, Arnold went back to the artist to lighten what appeared to be a darkened sky in the design. Also, Lis Wiehl’s Face of Betrayal had a last-minute face-lift to brighten its coloring.

“These are subtle changes, nuances,” Arnold said. “We’re trying to speak to the need in the marketplace. I think Christian fiction is uniquely positioned to do that.”

At retail, Arnold said a good idea would be for stores to gather eight to 10 new and best-selling novels in a prominent place in the store for $9.99 each.

“For $10, readers can walk out with a story of hope that will carry them through the next week,” he said. “So much entertainment is dark, so I would position for customers: ‘Here’s a way to put hope in your life.’ In Christian novels, every novel does that, where in the general market, you have to cherry-pick.”

Marchese also believes “expendable dollars” are being watched carefully by consumers and noted several WaterBrook Multnomah titles releasing this summer at low price points. They include full-length historical romances by authors like Angela Hunt, Lisa T. Bergren and Jane Kirkpatrick for under $7, and Shepherd’s Fall, a recent bounty hunter novel by W.L. Dyson, priced at $9.99.

Another potential market includes fiction for men, according to Gallagher, who also presented demographic research at CBA’s Industry Conference early this year. In the general market, women accounted for 68% of fiction sales, while in the Christian retail market, they made 89% of such purchases.

“Where are we with fiction for men?” Gallagher asked industry leaders at the ECPA meeting. “Are you making your fiction section so focused on one segment that you’re missing out on another?”

Gallagher also pointed out survey findings that the No. 1 series for Christian customers is Harlequin romances, followed by Steeple Hill, Harlequin’s Christian retail imprint.

“Do you want to start publishing Harlequin romance?” he asked. “No. But readers of secular material—what are you doing to engender them to better alternatives? To move them into a different point of opportunity and enlightenment?”

In recent months, some Christian fiction has received favorable mainstream media exposure.

Novelist Ted Dekker, who released The BoneMan’s Daughters (Center Street) in April and will release Green (Thomas Nelson), the newest in “The Circle” series, in September, was profiled in a story on The article noted Dekker’s sales of more than 3 million units and his unique spot nestled in between Christian and horror audiences.

Also in April, in an article titled “Amish Fiction: No Bonnet Rippers,” Time magazine spotlighted the popular genre and authors like Beverly Lewis, Cindy Woodsmall and Wanda E. Brunstetter.

“Lewis’ G-rated books, set among the Old Order Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, have sold more than 12 million copies, as bodice rippers make room for ‘bonnet books,’ chaste romances that chronicle the lives and loves of America’s Amish,” Andrea Sachs noted in the article.