|Engaging an ever-changing market|
|Written by Natalie Gillespie|
|Thursday, 07 August 2014 04:56 PM America/New_York|
Relentless readers drive the twists and turns of Christian-fiction publishing
Talk to Christian retailers, publishers, editors, agents and authors, and they all say the same thing about the state of Christian fiction: Like a good suspense novel, the plot keeps changing.
It is changing because some longtime authors like Bill Myers, Robin Jones Gunn, Angela Hunt and others are trying their hand at self-publishing rather than sticking only to traditional publishing houses. It is changing because readers often devour the latest fiction on their device instead of picking up the print version at their local bookstore. It is changing because a tight economy has forced publishers to make cutbacks—in the number of titles they publish, the new authors they are willing to try, and the number of sales representatives that visit stores. And it is changing because slowdowns in sales have caused retailers to reduce the number of titles they put on the shelves.
That’s one big bunch of twists and turns.
But there are a few key elements that remain the same. First and foremost, people still love to read great stories. Talented Christian authors still want to write them, publishers still want to find them, and booksellers still love to put them in readers’ hands.
“The publishing houses have changed,” said Robin Jones Gunn, author of 85 books, including the best-selling Young Adult (YA) “Christy Miller” series. “The trends have changed. The bookstores have changed. The genres my agent has contracted me for have changed. But my readers have not changed. They are loyal, and they are relentless.”
Chris Jager, fiction buyer for Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for 17 years, has this assurance for stores: “If you carry fiction and do it well, you will make money at it. My customers come back because I love fiction and I read fiction, so they trust what I have to tell them about it. It takes time. You have to work at it and build your reputation, but when you do, readers will trust you, and your fiction sales will grow.”
TRENDS IN TRADE
Today’s Christian fiction continues to generate subgenres within traditional genres—for example, Amish with a twist such as a mystery element; suspense, but with a legal or medical bent; biblical fiction written like action-adventure stories; or dystopian with biblical themes.
“The readership is changing, both in taste and in how and where books are being discovered,” said Daisy Hutton, vice president of fiction for HarperCollins Christian Publishing. “We can never sacrifice the soul of who we are as Christian publishers, but we simply must address the changing needs of our readers. A core aspect of that, I believe, is that our readers want their faith to be engaged with the world they live in and in conversation with it. They crave a faith that is unafraid of challenge, of struggle, of controversy, and they want to read novels that, in the words of Flannery O’Connor, ‘make belief believable’ in the larger world.”
Readers’ tastes have become more sophisticated, yet they also long for old-fashioned values and lasting love without erotica and one-night stands. In the wake of the overwhelming success of the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey and as anticipation builds around the Fifty Shades movie, some readers are turning to Christian publishers and retailers to find love stories that do not center around explicit sex scenes. Regency romance also has seen a resurgence, perhaps for the same reason, but also because of the popularity of the PBS television series Downton Abbey.
Suspense is another growing category, with veteran authors like Dee Henderson and the recent breakout author Dani Pettrey gaining ground. And while there are fewer new authors signing with big Christian publishers for their first book, those who have something unique can still make the cut.
“We are really excited about suspense,” said Amy Green, fiction publicist for Bethany House. “Dee Henderson has been the big name for a long time, and she is back, plus we have Dani Pettrey coming up and expanding that genre.”
“Romance, Romantic Suspense and Suspense remain the strongest categories for us, and we are also seeing success publishing writers who ‘defy category,’ ” Hutton said. “We are profoundly committed to publishing new voices and helping them find readership. Some recent debut authors we have published who have seen early success include Sarah Ladd (The Heiress of Winterwood) and Katherine Reay (Dear Mr. Knightley).”
SOON TO COME
Retailers can expect a strong fall fiction season, with Bethany’s September releases including The River by best-selling author Beverly Lewis, as well as Mary Connealy’s Tried and True, a “humorous historical,” Green says. Lynn Austin’s Keepers of the Covenant (September), the second installment in the biblical fiction series “The Restoration Chronicles,” centers around the Old Testament prophet Ezra. Bethany introduces the Regency romance-laced-with-intrigue The Secret of Pembrooke Park by Julie Klassen in late November, followed by some big names with biblical fiction titles coming in early 2015.
“There was a time when biblical fiction was out of fashion, but in 2015, we will have Angela Hunt’s Esther: Royal Beauty (the first in the “Dangerous Beauty” series, January) and Cliff Graham’s Exodus, the story of Caleb and his conquest of the Promised Land (May),” Green said, adding that the success of biblical themes at the box office and on TV have helped bring back the genre fiction.
“This seems to be a time when we are looking for heroes, and the closest thing you can get to a superhero without Marvel or DC comics is biblical characters,” she observed. “They are flawed heroes, and that resonates with people and adds depth to our Bible reading.”
WaterBrook Multnomah releases Cindy Woodsmall’s Amish offering A Love Undone (September), followed by Kim Vogel Sawyer’s Mennonite tale When Mercy Rains (October). Carrie Turansky’s latest “Edwardian Brides” title, The Daughter of Highland Hall, also hits stores in October.
From HarperCollins’ Thomas Nelson side, contemporary suspense offering The Promise by Beth Wiseman Thomas releases in late September, followed by the anticipated Playing Saint thriller by Zachary Bartels and Austen-flavored Lizzy & Jane by Katherine Reay (October). Mystery Sister Eve, Private Eye by Lynne Hinton hits store shelves in November.
In September, Tyndale House releases contemporary offerings The Story Keeper by best-selling author Lisa Wingate and Driftwood Tides by Gina Holmes. The Story Keeper centers around a New York City editor who gets caught up in the story after a mysterious manuscript appears on her desk, while Driftwood Tides brings together an isolated widower and the daughter his late wife gave up for adoption—whom he didn’t know.
“We’ve always been strong in contemporary women’s fiction, but historical is still selling, and romance is making a comeback,” said Jan Stob, senior acquisition editor of fiction for Tyndale. “We also have a debut dystopian novel coming out next year by Rachelle Dekker (daughter of award-winning author Ted Dekker). The nice thing about Tyndale is that we have always been very diversified.”
While Bethany, HarperCollins, Tyndale and WaterBrook Multnomah all report holding steady this year in the number of titles they are releasing, Moody’s fiction imprint, River North, has cut its list to just a handful.
“We are trying to publish smarter,” said Janis Backing, publicity manager. “Before, if we found a good story we thought people should read, we would publish it. Now we can concentrate on finding out what people want to read and find the right stories.”
River North’s two fall offerings include debut novel Farewell Four Waters by Kate McCord (October), author of the nonfiction title In the Land of Blue Burqas and the business fable Sync or Swim by Gary Chapman (of “Five Love Languages” fame), Paul White and Harold Myra (November).
Kregel continues to make slow and steady inroads with its own fiction as well as imports from U.K.-based publishing partner Lion Hudson. From Kregel, The Bachelor by Stephanie Reed is the second title in the “Plain City Peace” series (October).
“Kregel fiction has focused on stories with a strong sense of place and history,” said Adam Ferguson, chief publicist. “For example, The Bachelor is the second in an Amish romance series, but it’s set in Plain City, Ohio, during the Vietnam War era. All of these elements add chances to pique the interest of the reader and provide bookstores with more merchandising and grouping possibilities.”
Lion Hudson releases The Heretic by Henry Vyner-Brooks (October), a post-medieval mystery set against the backdrop of the Reformation, and Dead Gorgeous by Elizabeth Flynn, a modern mystery set in the world of high fashion (November).
On the independent side, Robin Jones Gunn has revived her beloved characters Christy and Todd with the new “Christy & Todd: The Married Years” series. Forever With You released in May, while Home of Our Hearts will be available to consumers in November (Robin’s Nest Productions/Anchor Distributors).
“When publishers were reluctant to take on this series, my husband persuaded me to self-publish the books,” Gunn said, but she admits that getting the word out to retailers has been a bit of a challenge.
Kirk Blank, president of Munce Group, is addressing the author-retailer disconnect at the Writing for the Soul and American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) conferences this month. He wants authors to know that Munce’s 420 independent retail store members need to be remembered.
“Fiction can still be a traffic driver, but authors need to stop focusing their readers to purchase at Amazon,” said Blank, who has conveyed to hundreds of authors a desire to see a change in their message.
Rather than stating that their books are “Available at Amazon,” he asks authors to use this phrase instead: “Available at Your Favorite Bookstore.” Blank noted that the advertising campaigns to “Shop Local” work to draw customers to stores, but it helps tremendously if customers are reminded by their favorite authors to go to their local Christian bookstore.
“Authors can help by joining into the conversation with consumers,” he said. “Authors should have a relationship with retailers. That’s what we are doing at the Munce Group—building strategic relationships with authors from Christian Authors Network (CAN), ACFW and the advanced Writer’s Guild through Writing for the Soul conferences.”
CONNECTED WITH CUSTOMERS
While fans follow their favorite authors on social media, book buyers at stores often don’t have the time to research and chase down every title. Sales reps used to stop in stores to describe upcoming titles and promotions. Now buyers spend their days on the computer, reading Christian publications, scouring websites, blogs, Facebook pages and online catalogs in order to figure out what they need to order.
“Because there are not as many sales reps on the road and because some authors are self-publishing, I have to work harder to chase information down, but I try very hard to do it,” Jager of Baker Book House said. “There is so much information online now that readers do not need to ask me when the next book is coming out because they already looked it up, but they do trust my blog and my reviews.”
To grow sales, she posts reviews and author interviews every weekday on her blog (bbhfiction.blogspot.com), tries to stay on top of the novels coming out, reads as many of them as she can, and holds plenty of in-store events.
One event that has grown during her tenure is Librarian Day, held each April and October. Jager invites church librarians to attend a full day of seminars and shopping. She reviews recent books, gives away books and offers extra discounts that day. She said Librarian Days significantly boost fiction sales at the store.
“The first year, I had four librarians show up,” she said. “Now I have 80 to 100 each time. And I don’t do any outside advertising, just a few email blasts.”
Publishers agree that in the fiction category, old-fashioned hand-selling and word-of-mouth are still the best sales drivers.
“There is still no more effective vehicle for fiction sales than a passionate, well-educated salesperson or reader,” Hutton said. “Personal recommendation—whether through a friend, a social-media contact, or through a knowledgeable and engaged salesperson—is still the most effective way to sell fiction. Fiction reading is highly personal and subjective, and a strong recommendation from someone the reader trusts is unrivaled in its persuasiveness.”
Munce Group’s Blank knows the value of relationship in sales.
“Customers want a relationship and to be known by who they are—not just a sales history,” he said. “They want recommendations for books based on the relationship the local retailer has with the customer, not by Amazon’s algorithm.”