by Dan Balow
Last year, a couple Christian publishers stopped publishing fiction. Some publishers are nervous about it and in a wait-and-see mode. Others are excited about growth potential. The answer to the title question is no, but it is certainly interesting to explore the reason behind such widely diverse opinions on the subject.
NOTE #1: For full disclosure, I am a member of the advisory board for the Christy Awards, had a substantial period of my time in publishing during growth years of Christian fiction and our literary agency is committed to Christian fiction and its authors (as well as non-fiction projects). Therefore I have an interest in seeing Christian fiction grow both personally and professionally.
NOTE #2: I am limiting my comments to traditional publishing only, not self-published novels.
Here is why I think Christian Fiction is causing some publisher-confusion right now:
- Fiction is the segment of book publishing most affected by the sales of eBooks. In some cases, 50% of sales can be digital. Because eBooks are cheaper than printed editions, overall revenues will decrease or remain flat, all the while readership increases. A new model emerges, but it takes a while to adjust from a financial standpoint. (The audio book industry experienced this a few years ago…in a relatively short timeframe, it changed from being a premium priced CD and cassette-based market to a much cheaper digital download product. Industry revenues actually dropped significantly from one year to the next, even as listening surged)
- Relatively small number of titles published – even in good years, the total output of new Christian fictions titles by the main ECPA Christian publishers are not more than 250-300 annually. (Not counting the various Harlequin Love Inspired and Heartsong lines which publish over 200 per year.)
- Limited number of genres published – for reasons that may or may not be obvious, Christian publishers cannot publish in as many genres as a general market publisher. For instance, erotica will never be a category in Christian publishing, while it is a major category in the general market.
Combine these three things happening at once and maybe we can understand why it is rather confusing time in the Christian fiction category. What can be done about it?
- Christian publishers could take a long-term strategic approach to publishing fiction that involves a steady 5-10% annual increase in fiction title output for the next five years. For some publishers this amounts to adding just 1-2 titles per year.
- Each publisher could add a new genre in the next two years so they are publishing in more categories.
- Limit free and cheap eBooks. The short-term benefit of free and cheap could undermine the category in the long term.
- Educate the sellers of Christian fiction to effectively do their work. Authors can help here. Don’t assume publishers know everything.
- Work to develop new marketing and sales channels. Author/Publisher partnerships can address this. Don’t assume publishers have connections everywhere. They know large channels, authors might know niche channels. So talk!
The Christy’s gave awards in eight Christian fiction categories (nine including First Novel) last year. As I see the number and type of titles submitted, there is a lot of room for specific category growth.
Keep in mind, that if readers don’t find what they need in the Christian market, they will look elsewhere and personally, I’d rather they find a lot of great reads among titles from Christian publishers.