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How Healthy Is the Christian fiction Category?

Publishing professional and friend, Dan Balow, recently took a look at the Christian fiction category in his blog for the Steve Laube Agency. His analysis includes some counterintuitive insights for publishers and some very specific advice to retailers that I wanted to share here. (Since my novels are considered “tweeners” – somewhere between the Christian and general markets, I especially appreciated what he had to say.) Dan – thanks for permission to use the following!

Just how well is Christian fiction doing?

Last year, two Christian publishers downsized or suspended their fiction programs. Currently, some Christian publishers are nervous about fiction and in a wait-and-see mode before they attempt to expand it or try new things. Others are excited about growth potential in the category and are taking an aggressive stance toward it.

Similarly, some Christian retailers are doing quite well with fiction, others are lukewarm with it and some are not doing well at all.

The answer to the question, “Is Christian fiction thriving?” is no, but it is certainly interesting to explore the reason behind such widely diverse opinions on the subject of Christian fiction today.  How can one group see great potential and another see little or none?

Here is why I think Christian Fiction is causing some publisher and retailer confusion right now:

First and foremost, fiction is the segment of book publishing and retailing most affected by the sales of eBooks. In some cases, 50% or more of unit sales on a particular title can be digital.  Because eBooks are cheaper than printed editions, overall revenues to the publisher will decrease or remain flat, all the while readership increases. For a particular novel, digital sales might be 50% of the units and 20% of the revenue.

A new business model eventually emerges, but it takes time for publishers and retailers to adjust to new realities.

Retailers can easily recall how the decline in physical product sales were affected by music downloads (iTunes started in 2001), video download/streaming and audio book downloads. The migration to digital delivery in music, video and audio resulted in a corresponding drop in physical product sales at retail.  But knowing the cause doesn’t make it easier to handle.

The second major contributor to publisher and retail confusion about fiction is the 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.  (I am not counting the various Harlequin Love Inspired and Heartsong mass market lines which publish over 200 titles per year.)

According to R.R. Bowker data from a couple years ago, the entire U.S. publishing industry (not self-publishing) released over 250,000 new titles annually, of which about 40,000 are novels. There is no completely accurate data available on Christian publishers, but not long ago the total output of books from Christian publishers was around 10,000 new books annually. If Christian publishers followed the same ratios in fiction as the general market, there should be over 1,000 new novels each year, not 250-300.  Not every category growth problem is solved by doing more books, but in this case, I believe it has something to do with it.

Similarly at retail, when a category suffers a slowdown, reducing shelf-space for the category only hastens the decline.  The huge disparity between fiction in the general market retail and that in the Christian market would leave one to wonder whether some are giving up too early on it.

The final reason for confusion about fiction is there are a limited number of genres published by Christian publishers. 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…eroding physical sales due to digital delivery, a small number of titles in relatively few categories  and maybe we can understand why it is rather confusing time in the Christian fiction category.

What can retailers do about it? (other than stocking current best-sellers and new titles)

  • Begin with the inventory. Carry the classic backlist.  Not just In His Steps or Pilgrim’s Progress but the authors who made the category successful over the last 30 years … Janette Oke, Frank Peretti, Jerry Jenkins/Tim LaHaye, Bodie and Brock Thoene, and Francine Rivers to name a few.
  •  Decide to add a new genre of fiction that heretofore you have not carried or promoted.  This is to grow your customer’s taste for a wider type of fiction.
  • Consider rearranging the fiction section by genre to help readers find new authors. Perhaps using a variation of the umbrella categories that the Christy Awards uses to separate the genres.
  • Encourage fiction reader groups among your customers. This will show how fiction can communicate spiritual truth in an effective manner.

Steve Laube, the founder and owner of the literary agency with whom I work, was a Christian retailer himself before getting into the publisher side of the equation over 20 years ago.  In 1989, his Berean Store in Phoenix, Arizona was named the CBA Store of the Year.  I asked him to give his perspective on how retailers can sell more fiction:

The key was that great story that got people telling their friends. Word-of-Mouth.  Second was a staff that was knowledgeable about the various fiction offerings. Hand-selling is still a critical piece of what makes the physical store a destination. Hand-selling is a form of word-of-mouth. For example, when Mrs. Sally came in the store each month and asked us, ‘What’s new?’ we could direct her to the latest and greatest because we knew the type of stories she liked and the type of stories that were on our shelves.  That principle has not changed over the years. I am always attracted to the part of any bookstore that has a ‘Staff Recommendations’ section. I find it fascinating to see what other people think is worthwhile to read.

Keep in mind, that if readers don’t find what they need in the Christian store, they will look elsewhere and personally, I’d rather they find a lot of great reads among titles from Christian publishers in Christian bookstores.

The Four Queens of Crime – When Women Ruled Murder Mysteries

Ngaio Marsh was one of the Four Queens of Murder.While growing up I consumed a lot of Agatha Christie novels – I even solved one of the murders before the ending. (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.) I met another of my favorite “locked room mystery” authors – almost as popular as Christie – when I was a junior or senior in high school – Ngaio Marsh.

Marsh was born in New Zealand and split time between there and London. She wrote 32 crime novels and was considered along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Margery Allingham one of the “Queens of Crime.” Women novelists dominated the genre in the 20s and 30s – and they don’t do too bad today either.

Marsh’s most famous character was Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Alleyn was smart and witty but didn’t have the noir edge of a Spade and Marlowe – two detectives “across the pond” as mysteries and all genres became more “modern” and heroes were shown with all their flaws.

Circling back to read A Man Lay Dead took me back to a different era of entertainment, when even murder was polite, civilized, and almost wholesome!

I highlighted Ngaio Marsh from a Pinterest board I keep with book covers that feature my favorite spies, detectives, hit men, and vigilantes.


Is Jack Reacher the Most Unique Character in Commercial Fiction?

a quick glance at jack reacher

Reacher has a major attachment issue – he can’t commit to living in one place.

In Jack Reacher, Lee Child has created one of the most unique and interesting male characters in commercial fiction today.

Army brat, West Point grad, and decorated military veteran, Reacher never lived in one place more than a year or two growing up or in his military career, so why start now? He doesn’t.

When Reacher leaves the Army – as a matter of honor, of course, he begins a new life as a drifter, traveling by bus or as a hitchhiker with the clothes on his back, a toothbrush, and an ATM card. He always finds trouble – and he is always ready to fight for the underdog.

Oh, and when his clothes get dirty, he throws them away and buys new ones. He’s not real particular on brands. So he’s done the math and it makes perfect sense to him.

Reacher is pretty lucky. None of the bad guys shoot as well as he does. And whatever mess he gets in the middle of, there is always an extremely attractive, independent, and unattached woman for him to consider the possibility of settling down with.

Reacher hit the big screen in 2013 with Tom Cruise in lead role, which created a storm of controversy with fans of the 6′ 5″ literary character. Cruise is always great in an action role. He’s not great at being taller than most everyone else in the room.

As of this writing Child has written 18 full novels … the series might finally be losing steam (at least for me), but Child has pulled off no small feat.

Adapted from my Pinterest board, Spies, Detectives, Hit Men, and Vigilantes.

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The Runaway Pastor

I’ve worked in the publishing industry for more than 25 years now and have been blessed to have my hand on a number of bestsellers. I tried counting that exact number up the other day and I know I’ve missed a few – and maybe not accounted for some returns or remainder sales – but I think I’ve worked directly on at least 18 books that have sold more than a million units and somewhere close to 70 that have topped 100 thousand units. Okay, sounds like I’m bragging, but really, I want to make a point, which is: I have a fairly decent feel for what will work in the marketplace.

That’s what surprised me so much about publisher response to a book I represented as an agent, The Runaway Pastor, by a friend from my college days. Responses were tepid at best – and there was definite resistance by some. A few thought it was written as a negative indictment of ministers, the ministry, and the church. One publisher even waggled a finger at me! I spoke with a few general publishers who weren’t aware that anyone in America goes to church, so they weren’t convinced there is a market.

I admit, I was a little worried when David first asked me to give it a read. I was afraid that I would find the material poorly written and would have to figure out a diplomatic way to tell him that. But the book was very well written, exceptionally well for a first time fiction author. But what I thought the book really had going for it was a raw – but kind – honesty that gave it a couple of amazing “hooks” for several audiences. Because one thousand ministers leave the ministry every month:

  • I thought this book would strike a nerve with pastors – duh!
  • I figured most regular church attenders have been impacted by this career exodus, and that would make it a book of acute interest.
  • I assumed sociologists – particularly those who observe religious patterns in America – would find it fascinating.
  • I was certain that professors at Bible colleges and seminaries – and others who provide academic and professional development for ministers – would consider this must reading for themselves and those they work with.
  • I even suspected that some critics and skeptics of the church and Christianity might find the title intriguing.

Now I know the publishing industry is distressed and not as many books are being acquired – and new-author fiction has always been a high risk venture. But I still assumed this book proposal would sell quickly. I’ve got other projects that have been selling in short order. So when The Runaway Pastor didn’t have a taker within three months, David and I got back together and decided I would put this out as a micro-publishing project under one of my imprint names. He made me nervous – again – when he said his wife Shelly could design the book cover. I’ve seen a lot of author-directed book covers in my day and many have been awful. But I think she did a bang up job!

So voila. The Runaway Pastor is now available on Amazon and I think it is going to do great over time. I think it may get picked up by a major publishing house. I think it will generate a lot of publicity. In fact, David got an extended note from one person who reviews books for ministers:

I read The Runaway Pastor word for word, cover to cover this weekend and as far as realistic fiction is concerned, the book is nearly too realistic. The book reads so well also, causing the reader, especially one who may be prone to run away from it all, to consider the outcomes of running, to consider the options of seeking help, to muster the courage to wake up and tend to his/her inner life, his/her marital life, his/her emotional life. The book is a wake up for the Church as well. To consider its expectations of pastors as real or hyper-unrealistic, to consider a pastors marriage as something to be cultivated, to consider a pastor’s life as more precious than the goods and services the pastor offers. David Hayes, in my opinion, has a winner of a book which I hope helps pastors seek the help and guidance they need. The events surrounding Pastor Trent and his wife Natalie’s brokenness are all too real.

I’m not going to give a spoiler on how the story ends here. Just let me say that this book is a great tale of loss and redemption. A very clever storyline. Always respectful of the church, the ministry, and a life of faith. By the way, David knows whence he writes of. No, he didn’t run away from it all, but he did experience a significant bout of ministerial burnout – and survived it! In fact, he pastors a church today.

The nature of my business doesn’t require that I give a sales pitches on this blog – so I’m not real good at this – but I would encourage many who read this to strongly consider ordering a copy of The Runaway Pastor from Amazon right now.

(Publishers who are thinking maybe they should take a look at this … you know where to reach me! LOL)