The last five years haven’t been easy for Christian fiction publishers. Several of them have stopped doing fiction altogether in the face of dwindling sales and small returns, while others have trimmed their lines. Nielsen BookScan reports Christian fiction sales dropped 15 percent from 2013 to 2014.
Abingdon Press Fiction and Moody’s River North imprints dissolved; B&H Publishing Group only does fiction tied to brands or initiatives, such as movie tie-ins. WaterBrook Multnomah has trimmed its fiction output, according to sources at the Random House-owned company.
However, Christian fiction houses such as HarperCollins Christian Publishing (HCCP) with Zondervan and Thomas Nelson lines, Baker Publishing Group’s Revell and Bethany House, Barbour Publishing, and Tyndale House continue apace with their fiction programs.
Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas and Ashberry Lane are jumping strong into Christian fiction, while Howard Books sat atop best-seller lists at the end of 2015 with Karen Kingsbury’s A Baxter Family Christmas. Barbour Publishing continues to do well with its novella collections and the contemporary Amish novels of Wanda E. Brunstetter, and Gilead Publishing released its first novels in fall 2015.
Yet struggles abound as publishers face competition from a wide variety of entertainment options available for buyers, and those buyers requiring lower and lower price points to entice them to purchase.
“We’ve lost our theater for publishing Christian fiction,” says Daisy Blackwell Hutton, VP and publisher, fiction, at HCCP. “During the heyday of Christian fiction, our reader was shopping in an enclosed environment. Their decision-making about what they would read next, as well as our competition, was limited to other books in the Christian fiction category.”
Christian bookstores no longer are the gatekeepers for Christian fiction to the extent they once were, with customers shopping online, at big box stores, and at general market bookstores.
“We’re competing for our readers’ attention not only with other Christian fiction houses but with all fiction publishers, as well as with all other forms of content that consumers engage with—movies, TV, social media, etc. The bar is now much higher for capturing and keeping a reader’s attention,” says Hutton.
Barbour’s Rebecca Germany, senior fiction editor, says the company experienced a slump in sales over the last several years but the biggest contributing factor is unclear. “For awhile the CBA market seemed to be saturated with fiction,” she says, adding, “Fiction struggles in a world of multiple distractions. Modern people have too many choices and shortened attention spans.”
For Steve Oates, VP of marketing for Bethany House, sales aren’t as big an issue as price points. “Readership might be increasing, but clearly what you’re selling at what price point and where, matters. If you’re selling at low retail prices, say under $8 or at $4, you’ve seen tremendous growth in recent years.”
There’s no question that making a profit is harder as readers want lower prices while production costs remain the same. “The amount of special pricing required to keep volume up is crazy compared to five years ago,” says Oates. “We struggle with what we can get in yield from a book, which is steadily declining. We’re netting $2 less per book over the last five to six years.”
Karen Watson, fiction publisher at Tyndale House, points to the “Left Behind” novels as a pricing benchmark for the house. “‘Left Behind’ novels sold generally at a much higher retail price than they would today. Now we offer novels at value pricing with the hope and expectation that with the lower risk, readers will sample an author and then come back for more from that author at a higher price.”
For Tyndale, sales expectations are also lower. “We’ve had to shift our model as far as expectations go, with so many Christian bookstores gone now,” says Watson. “But we’re working to make up those numbers.”
Tyndale is looking at niche markets for specific kinds of fiction and using social media. “We spend lots of time on social media,” she says. “We have to introduce a product and author many times before people make a decision to purchase.”
Some categories of Christian fiction are doing better than others, especially at $14.99 or $15.99 trade paper prices. Contemporary romance, according to Oates, is hard to sell but long historical novels and romantic suspense tales are easier.
HCCP has “stayed focused on core categories that have always been strong in Christian fiction—romance (contemporary, historical, and Amish), suspense, and romantic suspense,” says Hutton. “We’re also focused on publishing voice-driven crossover books that transcend genre, and women’s fiction is an area where we see growth opportunity.”
Hutton also sees opportunity is Southern fiction, coming-of-age, and historical fiction.
“It has been a great few years for thoughtful, well-researched historical fiction,” she says.
Optimism still evident
Despite ups and downs, Christian fiction publishers are optimistic.
“Fiction is interesting now,” says Oates. “The quality of what we’re seeing is amazing. There’s good product out there and growth in certain categories. If you do anything well, you’ll sell books and do fine.”
Hutton of HCCP agrees. “The quality of the publishing is improving dramatically. You can’t go through the kind of market correction we’ve had in this category over the past five years and not ask tough questions about what we could be doing to offer books that are relevant and appealing to readers.”
Watson remains bullish about the Christian fiction market. She describes the pendulum swinging back to fewer books releasing, but “fiction can and should be part of the Christian retail landscape. I believe people are still looking for stories with good news because the world is hard.”
For more information about the importance of debut authors to the growth of Christian fiction, continue reading this article at: www.cbaonline.org/FictionStory.
Fiction Best-Sellers in Christian Retail
The following fiction titles made the December, 2016 and January, 2017 top 50 book best-seller lists, selling through Christian retail stores as reported by CROSS:SCAN, powered by Parable Connect:
Barefoot by Sharon Garlough Brown (InterVarsity Press)
A Baxter Family Christmas by Karen Kingsbury (Howard Books, a division of Simon & Shuster
The Book of Mysteries by Jonathan Cahn (Charisma)
The Cottage by Michael Phillips (Baker Publishing Group)
Finding Father Christmas & Engaging Father Christmas by Robin Jones Gunn (Hachette Book Group)
The Girl from the Train by Irma Joubert (Thomas Nelson Publishers)
The Harbinger by Jonathan Cahn (Charisma)
The Inheritance by Michael Phillips (Baker Publishing Group)
Kissing Father Christmas by Robin Jones Gunn (Hachette Book Group)
Long Way Gone by Charles Martin (Thomas Nelson Publishers)
The Scarlet Thread by Francine Rivers (Tyndale House Publishers)
Sea Rose Lane by Irene Hannon (Baker Publishing Group)
Tangled Webs by Irene Hannon (Baker Publishing Group)
The Undoing of Saint Silvanus by Beth Moore (Tyndale House Publishers)
War Room by Chris Fabry (Tyndale House Publishers)
Waves of Mercy by Lynn Austin (Baker Publishing Group)
Ann Byle is a freelance writer for local and national publications, author of the upcoming Christian Publishing 101, and a literary agent with Credo Communications. She and her family live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.