What do readers want to read?

What do readers want to read? That may be the question of the hour.

While authors claim that readers are asking for “messier” fiction, publishers equally maintain that readers aren’t buying what’s already available. Yet, during a recent author panel at the Christian Fiction Readers Retreat (CFRR), the overwhelming consensus from the audience of readers called for more authentic Christian fiction.

Readers and authors alike are tired of prose that feels forced or isn’t authentic to real life or even to the characters. Richard Mabry, award-winning author of medical suspense novels, explains, “What I see in some Christian fiction is a disguised sermon, either detailing the need for acceptance of Jesus or a retelling of how to go about accepting His forgiveness.”

And while the sermon certainly has its place—and its readership—in Christian fiction, author Jennifer Rodewald’s observations align with other reader feedback. “I think they’re saying they’re tired of everything needing to be ‘likable,’ which usually translates in the Christian fiction world as ‘as almost perfect as you can get without actually being Jesus himself.’ So many readers simply cannot relate to that, and it makes them soul worn.”

Chris Jager, fiction buyer for Baker Book House, echoes what readers (including herself) are craving, “Some of the best books in the Christian market that I have read included a Christian character that just lived alongside someone and tried to answer questions to the best of their ability. No preaching, just real life.”

At the same time, readers don’t want edgy for edgy’s sake either. Kristi Ann Hunter, a member of the Subtle Faith Panel at CFRR, observes, “I don’t think there’s a lot of readers wanting more cuss words or blood spatters. I think people just want it real, and Christian fiction has such a reputation for being neat and pretty that simple real life has become edgy.”

Rachel Dixon of BookwormMama.org agrees, “When a story is forced (and I have read quite a few), the reader can tell. There’s a lack of connection with the characters and the passion (and not just the romantic kind) falls painfully short of expectations.”

That applies to both the edgy and the preachy sides of Christian fiction. Amy Green, fiction publicist for Bethany House Publishers, believes this need for authenticity is “a good challenge for authors passionate about difficult issues to learn to write in such a compelling way that the issue doesn’t outweigh the story.”

So, back to our original question: What do readers want to read?

“Readers are looking for authenticity, characters, and situations they can relate to, stories that show them God’s grace and love are bigger than their past, their weaknesses, and their circumstances,” says Beth Erin of FaithfullyBookish.com.

Reviewer Melissa Parcel adds, “Personally as a reader, I’m looking for real-life situations that can help me see that I’m not alone, and that show the power of God in those messy situations.”

Heather Trost of The Greatest Gift and Scripture Supply in Pueblo, Colorado, says, “We’re hungry for new, well-written works that show people how to live out their faith in real ways.”

The mystery remains why the sales numbers don’t reflect these desires. Whatever the reason, readers, authors, and publishers need to invest more time in talking about this discrepancy and finding solutions together. Our love for Christian fiction, for the Gospel, and for each other requires nothing less.

—Carrie Schmidt

 Read parts 1 and 2 of the conversation in the August and September Christian MARKET, respectively, or at cbaonline.org/living-edge-part-1/ and cbaonline.org/living-edge-part-2/.