Christian Fiction is Not Dead

Last week’s news of Abingdon Press deciding to no longer acquire new Christian fiction has created another clamor of claims regarding the demise of Christian fiction. The articles, emails, and comments range from glee (“it needs to die”) to consternation (“woe is me of ever getting a book deal”).

Fewer Publishers

There is no question that there has been considerable shrinkage in the number of publishers actively acquiring new Christian fiction. The news about Abingdon was disappointing but not a surprise. They had stopped acquiring a year ago July (2014). Then last November they announced they were going to start up again, but that never got off the ground and eventually the decision was made to halt last week. Therefore we had not really been able to sell new projects to them for over a year.

Back in late 2007 I had some conversations with executives at Abingdon about what it would take to run a successful fiction division. I mentioned two key things. One, a top-quality acquisitions person  and Two, a commitment to the program for at least five years. They officially launched the line in Fall 2009. They indeed gave it five years and apparently were unable to sustain an economically successful publishing program.

But all that does is remove another option for those authors looking to find a new home for their work. It does not mean the genre is dead.

Last year someone suggested that the reduction in title output by the Christian fiction industry was a “correction” much like what happens when a stock is overvalued by Wall Street. The stock doesn’t disappear, it simply corrects to a more realistic value. Once that correction occurs the value slowly builds again over time. And that is what I suspect is happening here. Could it be that there were too many books being pressed into the market at the same time? Or were there other factors?

Economic Factors

The entire fiction industry, both general market and Christian market, is trying to grapple with a number of key issues:
1) Discoverability – an appropriate term describing the challenge in helping readers find new fiction, especially yours.

2) e-book proliferation –the simplicity of anyone to independently publish adds thousands of new choices each month, which affects discoverability.

3) Pricing – The ease of driving prices lower using ebooks in an effort to create any sort of sales volume. Cheaper books means less revenue per sale which makes it harder for a traditional publisher to sustain their economic models.

As one editor put it, and I paraphrase, “We are selling more units but making less money.” Take that comment into any business of any kind and see how the decision makers react. Working harder for less money is the opposite of most business models.

More Readers Than You Think (Really?)

But there is a bit of sunshine in this seeming dreary analysis. In May a major research report on Christian fiction (done by Pew Research) found that nearly 50% of Christian-fiction readers read more than 10 books annually, while only 36% of the readers in the general market read that many. This suggest a voracious appetite for the genre. That appetite is found in the assertion that nearly half of the readers are purchasing more titles today than they were five years ago! (Click here for access to the full report titled “Christian Fiction Readers: Worthy Pursuing, Work Keeping.” I recommend you download and read.)

The top reasons people buy a particular Christian novel?
1) story itself (94%)
2) the author (89%)
3) desire to keep reading a series (69%)
4) recommendations (like reviews) (68%)

So Why are Publishers Giving Up?

In the first place, they aren’t giving up. Those that have been publishing in the space for a long time continue to do so and continue to be successful. Very successful.

If you look at the history of those publishers who started a reasonably sized fiction program and dropped it you will find that most began during the height the genre’s success – around 2008 or so…which was during the economic recession of the U.S. (Summerside, NavPress, B&H, Abingdon, Moody, and Worthy) In other words, they gave it a shot and it wasn’t sustainable. That can be for reasons like overpaying advances, growing the line too fast,  or simply never getting that one big hit that covers all the initial investment. Publishing is a business. And if there isn’t enough of a profit at the end of the day, the business cannot survive.

Silver Lining

There are still Christian fiction contracts to be had. I talked with another leading agency last week and we shared some data with each other. Together our agencies have sold nearly 60 new contracts in the first six months of 2015. And those aren’t all one-book deals. This probably represents close to 150 new books being contracted…in half a year, in the Christian fiction industry… and between only two agencies.

Combine that with the earlier mentioned survey that suggest there are plenty of readers out there who want to read Christian fiction and you can find hope. Even make a case that the industry is not dead, despite claims to the contrary.

Our agency remains committed to our authors and to the genre of Christian fiction. We continue to actively seek out new opportunities (both traditional and indie) and to support the efforts of our publishers to find new talent or make their existing talent that much more successful.

It’s a new day. Let’s get busy.

 

29 Responses to Christian Fiction is Not Dead

  1. Avatar
    Amy Sorrells July 13, 2015 at 4:58 am #

    Thank you so much for this important and data-based insight. A great way for this Christian fiction writer to start the week!

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      Elaine Stock July 13, 2015 at 5:23 am #

      And Amy, on the note of Christian fiction selling, I just purchased your THEN SINGS MY SOUL.

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    Becky Charles Smith July 13, 2015 at 5:14 am #

    Thank you for cutting through the rumors and encouraging those of us hoping to publish.

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    Elaine Stock July 13, 2015 at 5:20 am #

    Steve, thanks so much for this encouragement. And so, yes, I will get busy on my WIP, as soon as I Tweet this post!

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    Richard Mabry July 13, 2015 at 5:41 am #

    Steve, Thanks for this post. I hope the future bears out your optimism. I am one of those affected by Abingdon’s decision, and I have to admit that my first thought was, “That’s it. I’ll have to self-publish.” But after sober reflection (my Baptist background, I guess), I want to look at all the options and act accordingly. I agree with you. The readers are out there. It’s our job–the authors and (where applicable) the publishers–to find them. But first, we have to write the book they want to read.

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    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser July 13, 2015 at 6:04 am #

    Interesting and reassuring post! Thanks.

    I do feel that CBA in general is making a grave mistake by paying scant attention to Catholic readers. I’ve heard it said that this has happened partly for doctrinal reasons, but also because of the perception that Catholics don’t read…the stereotype of the “poor simple faithful” is alive and well, living cheek by jowl with the black and white images of Irish, Italian, and Mexican immigrants from out great-grandparents’ day.

    Also, it seems to me that there may be more problems at Abingdon; announcing that the Christian line would reopen, and then pulling the plug indicates either very poor communication at high levels, or a lack of continuity in managerial leadership.

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    Clint Hall July 13, 2015 at 6:40 am #

    Steve – I would love a blog from you sometime about the attached report. While I completely understand the methodologies applied to researching these outcomes, I do believe it could potentially lead to faulty conclusions if not viewed in a broader context.

    Essentially – and I totally understand why this research was carried out in this manner – this survey only measures people who are already regular customers of Christian fiction (85% of respondents are buying more than 4 titles a year). And of course this is important data – how to retain your existing customers.

    However, it sounds like the challenge facing publishers is about growth rather than retention. That is, how do we better reach Christians that are active readers but are not currently reading Christian fiction? I’m sure this is far more difficult to measure because nobody has email distribution lists for people who are not their customers.

    Still, this type of information is fascinating, and I’m sure I don’t know 10% of the data most agents and publishers are reviewing. Thank you for sharing it. I would love to hear more of your perspectives on the topic.

    • Avatar
      Clint Hall July 13, 2015 at 6:58 am #

      *Amending my own comment – 85% are reading more than 4 books a year; looks like about 73% are buying more than 4 books a year.

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    Vannetta Chapman July 13, 2015 at 6:53 am #

    Thank you for the update and for spreading the word that Christian fiction really is NOT dead. Blessings!

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    Cynthia Herron July 13, 2015 at 6:59 am #

    Finally. Some GOOD news.

    Thanks, Steve.

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    Jan Cline July 13, 2015 at 7:18 am #

    Thank you, Steve for explaining it so well. We live in a world where nothing stays the same and shifting to fit into the ever changing publishing biz can be a daunting task for new authors and I imagine for publishing professionals as well. I truly believe we need to keep supporting each other by encouraging our friends and fellow readers to read Christian fiction – I find that many Christian readers only read from the secular market. There are so many fantastic Christian authors out there and wonderful titles to choose from. We can all help spread the word by doing a little marketing for the Christian authors on our social media sites. Thanks for keeping us informed.

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    Terry Whalin July 13, 2015 at 7:28 am #

    Thank you, Steve, for this great article. Opportunity is still available to authors but the story has to be excellent and the author has to actively promote their own work. It doesn’t matter who publishes your work or how you publish it–the author (yes even the fiction author) has to be actively telling others about their book. With over 4500 new books a day being published (a statistic I got from a good friend who runs a marketing company and tracks such things with Bowker and others), every author is responsible for their own success–and promotion–whether Christian or general market.

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    Susie Finkbeiner July 13, 2015 at 7:45 am #

    Thank you for this heartening news, Steve. Those of us who write for the CBA market need to remember that the quality of our writing is one of the factors for helping our industry thrive. We need to put our noses to the grind and do the work. When I look at the fiction section of my favorite local Christian bookstore, I see that authors are doing just that.

  12. Avatar
    Sara Goff July 13, 2015 at 7:46 am #

    Great information. I shared with ACFW’s Northeast and Beyond the Borders groups. Thanks.

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    Janny July 13, 2015 at 8:05 am #

    As long as Christian fiction publishers continue to snub Catholic books, Catholic characters, and Catholic readers, they’re only publishing a small sliver of what can be considered “Christian” anyway. It’s even more ironic when Amish books get the green light, while those of us who are Catholics are told we’ve got to remove all references to that lest someone be “offended.” Stop offending your Catholic brothers and sisters by telling us that the Church that gave you your Bible isn’t welcome within your pages, and maybe you’ll see an even BIGGER growth in the field.

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    Rachel Newman July 13, 2015 at 9:02 am #

    Very encouraging!

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    Dolley Carlson July 13, 2015 at 9:13 am #

    Thank you, Steve, for this fabulous article!
    My reply is especially for our Catholic sister, Janny.
    Dear Janny,
    Thank you for sharing the concerns/longing of your heart. I hope you’ll take a minute to visit the website for my recently published novel, The Red Coat – A Novel of Boston. Within its pages you’ll meet Irish-Catholic Norah King and be privy to her prayers and ongoing conversations with our Lord. A very dear Evangelical Protestant friend of mine said he was blessedly enLightened after reading of Norah’s granddaughter’s First Holy Communion. Blessings to you, Dolley Carlson http://www.theredcoatboston.com

  16. Avatar
    Sandie Bricker July 13, 2015 at 10:08 am #

    As I told you recently, Steve, I was affected by the post you wrote a couple of years back about hybrid authors. So while I was impacted by the Abingdon decison, I had already begun looking at different roads when the rumblings began last year. My allegiance to Moody, Abingdon and B&H still intact, it’s lovely confirmation from you here that there are other roads out there to reach readers.

  17. Avatar
    Angela Castillo July 13, 2015 at 10:46 am #

    I’m an Indie writer, and it was extremely hard to get traction for my MG series online, though I sell lots at booths when I can talk to kids one-on-one. But I sold 300 copies of my new Christian Historic Novel for Kindle in the last two days, so I would definitely say Christian Fiction, or the market for it, is absolutely not dead!
    http://angelacastillowrites.weebly.com

    • Avatar
      Rachel Pellegrino July 14, 2015 at 8:07 pm #

      Angela,
      Congratulations on your sales! As a middle grade and young adult publisher, it’s so good to hear about your work with kids and how even though it’s challenging you’re still reaching out. I look forward to reading some of your work soon. Best Wishes!
      http://www.littlelambbooks.com

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    Mary Kay July 13, 2015 at 12:14 pm #

    Thanks, Steve, for this encouraging news and some new facts. Staying aware of the business side of things is important for us, but as a writer primarily (not a business person) I appreciate your perspective on it.

    Yea, readers! Now, back to editing …

  19. Avatar
    Marcia Z. Nelson July 13, 2015 at 12:37 pm #

    Steve,
    I don’t have a ringside seat anymore but I did for a long time and until recently, and I must say you are as astute and grounded as ever. Markets don’t collapse — but they always change, sometimes in a plummet. Keep holding your clients’ hands for the ride.

  20. Avatar
    Lisa Taylor July 13, 2015 at 1:26 pm #

    Realistic and encouraging. Thanks Steve.

    I don’t suppose you’d be willing to share what categories and genres of Christian fiction are thriving (because I seriously doubt it’s all of them). How is children’s doing? YA? Adult? Is adult predominantly selling in the Romance genre? For myself, I’m quite curious about YA (and how does Christian fiction sell compared to non-Christian in that category). This might be another blog post, of course.

    • Avatar
      Rachel Pellegrino July 14, 2015 at 8:03 pm #

      I’ve been interested in this same topic as well. We are conducting our own survey to see what young readers are wanting. But, their desire to read is real and they are purchasing books (not just ebooks) daily/regularly. Although the trend for dystopian series is waning, there is still a very real desire for strong, relatable characters who are justice seekers and fighters for the good. There are some great general fiction out there for ages 8-18, but there is a definite lack of stories with a faith-base for our kiddos to find on the bookshelves of the corner bookstore. Parents have to scour reviews, online sites, and such to find clean reads for their tweens and teens. I don’t know the stats yet on the comparison, but I think if we can find stories/books/authors to write for our youth and publishers who will market and publish them, I believe they will sell. The audience is there. Just my thoughts.

  21. Avatar
    Dolley Carlson July 13, 2015 at 2:17 pm #

    About being a writer but not a promoter/sales person, etc.
    No one is going to love your book/characters more than you!
    You’re the mother/father of this “baby” and it is important that you look after the baby’s nurture.
    Trust me, I know promoting can be daunting but “Just do it!”
    When my first book came out I visited Barnes & Noble stores among others and after meeting my “baby” all were very enthusiastic about having a book signing for a local author. Thank You, Lord.
    Take your wonderful, creative self and your “baby” out of the house 🙂 & introduce . . .Oh, gift stores are a great source too.
    God bless your work, darlin’ writers!

  22. Avatar
    Rachel Pellegrino July 14, 2015 at 7:51 pm #

    Steve,
    Thank you for this information. As a new publisher of Christian Fiction for middle graders and young adults (and a voracious reader too), I’ve heard quite a bit of negative discussion about the publishing industry in general and in Christian Fiction specifically. It can be disheartening. However, I believe wholeheartedly that there is a need for faith-based fiction, especially for our tweens and teens. Kids ages 8-18 WANT to read, and when they do, they usually want to read an actual paper book. Yet, there seems to be such a shortage of good faith-based teen fiction for those readers. I appreciate hearing about how the industry is changing and we at Little Lamb Books are trying to grow, learn and change with it. But, I also am hopeful that strong stories and creative authors will continue to write for Believers of all ages. http://www.littlelambbooks.com

  23. Avatar
    Lynette Harrell July 15, 2015 at 7:59 am #

    Thank you for the encouraging words. They are a shot in the arm for those Christian fiction writers, like myself, who are just getting started.

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