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”).
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?
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.
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.