Christian Fiction Struggles to Remain Relevant

Christian Fiction Struggles to Remain RelevantOf all the categories in publishing, print book sales of Christian Fiction declined 25% from 2012-2014. This follows recent announcements that:

  • Abingdon Press suspended fiction acquisitions, (removing 25-35 titles per year from the market) – (I’ve also heard recently that Abingdon is acquiring, again.Hope so.)
  • River North (Moody Publishing’s fiction imprint) will reduce its title offerings to 3-5 books per year
  • B&H Publishing Group has “realigned” its fiction strategy to only publish novels tied to its films
  • And Harlequin’s “Heartsong Presents” closed its doors in January

Combine that with news that Family Christian Bookstores, the nation’s largest Christian retail outlet, has filed for bankruptcy, and you have a perfect storm of catastrophic proportions for Christian Fiction authors.

What is Christian Fiction and how did we get here?

[Christian Fiction] is a genre of books [that] typically promotes values, teaches a lesson, always has a happy ending (good prevails over evil in all books), [and] adheres to a decency code (certain boundaries such as sexuality, strong language, and topics of such cannot be crossed).
Deborah Bryan of the Kansas Library Association

Bryan also notes that a Christian Fiction author must comply with certain restraints such as:

  • Accept the truthful authority of the Bible
  • Address dilemmas through faith in Jesus
  • Believe that Jesus died and rose for sins of all people
  • Avoid writing about certain ‘taboos.’

As Ron Benrey notes in his book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Christian Fiction, “Readers of Christian Fiction in America are Caucasian women, of childbearing through “empty nester” age, who identify themselves as evangelical Christians.” Given that this demographic represents such a narrow slice of the reading public and the recent decline in sales and new title offerings, Christian authors may ask: Will there still be a viable market two years from now? Or are we witnessing the end of the inspirational genre?

As it relates to the general reading public, adult males, teens / tweens, young adults, and readers of color remain an underserved market within Christian publishing. Contrast that to Jesus’ words to “Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” Could it be this decline in Christian Fiction is an opportunity to take God’s Good News beyond the walls of the church to a hurting world? If so, let’s consider the obstacles Christian authors face (and at least one advantage).

First, too many Christian authors cannot relate to (or in some cases even tolerate) secular readers.

From an agent’s perspective, many faith-based writers simply don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to writing for non-Christian readers. They aren’t part of the non-faith world, they don’t hang out with non-Christian people, they don’t watch non-religious TV or listen to radio programming that’s antithetical to their beliefs. In essence, they CAN’T speak to that group, because they don’t know the language.
Literary agent Chip MacGregor

To reach readers in “Samaria”, we need to spend more time at the well in the heat of the day.

Second, too many Christian authors would rather preach than teach. Judging from Amazon reviews, large numbers of readers – even Christian readers – are turned off by such words as, “prayer, pray, Jesus, Christ, conversion, salvation, and sin.” Stories that emphasize a conversion experience may come across as manipulative and “preachy” in tone. On the other hand, those same readers express similar discomfort with stories that overtly include and promote violence, promiscuity, and profanity. Regardless of the message and author’s agenda, it seems most readers want a story, not a sermon.

Third, Christian authors have an advantage over secular writers. We already have plenty of examples of great stories that move readers to action and leave them pondering God’s truths and challenge us to change.

The Prodigal Son – a story of a parent’s unconditional, long-suffering love. Themes: trust, hope, and the importance of home and family.

The Good Samaritan – a story of inclusiveness. Themes: tolerance, institutional pride, religious hypocrisy, service, and generous giving.

The Hidden Treasure – a story of one individual’s journey to find his purpose. Themes: Passion, perseverance, risk and commitment to a noble cause.

I’m sure you can think of other ways to spin Jesus’ parables. The point is, a great writer can shape the story to move the reader without relying on “Christian” words.

Will ChristianFiction go away? Probably not. But if you want to write to a larger market and expand your chances of publication, consider focusing on story above all else. Do that and you may find God’s Spirit working in the hearts of readers eager for your stories.



Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

5 thoughts on “Christian Fiction Struggles to Remain Relevant

  1. Deborah Bryan’s definition is rather limited, I would say, but it accurately describes much Christian fiction — and that is why such fiction is on the wane. Such books as “Winterflight” by Joseph Bayly (which doesn’t have a “happy ending,” but a strangely victorious one), would never be published in the current market. But this is the typical trend of publishing in general, and Christian publishing in particular. A few brave publishers will swim upstream and bring thoughtful, quality books into print. Then everyone else jumps on the bandwagon, thinking they have discovered the “secret formula.” The momentum started by quality and creativity is stalled by schlock, so that even the creative, quality books get passed over, and the industry has another downturn.

  2. I think your post is missing a vital factor: Christian fiction is alive and well with Indie authors and eBooks. If you accept only the numbers from the CBA, dealing with printed books, you’re missing the real story. Christian Indie authors lead many of the fiction categories on Amazon and their sales are growing. Thirty percent of eBooks sold don’t have ISBN numbers and, therefore, aren’t even tracked. As such, numbers from groups like the CBA and Bowker are unreliable. And more and more Christian authors are turning to Indie publishing because the traditional publishing model is so restrictive and unrewarding.

    I, personally, find your definition of “Christian fiction” quite limiting, as well. But then, I’ve always thought the CBA’s definition to be near-sighted. As a Christian Indie author, I don’t shy away from “taboo” topics. Mild profanity can also be found in my books. That’s because the real world that we’re supposed to reach out to is like that. As such, I call my novels “true-life” Christian fiction and others have called them “cutting-edge” and “real page-turners.” And I’m not alone; other Christian authors are writing with the secular reader, as well as fellow Christians, in mind. Unlike authors of books endorsed by the CBA, we’re not trying to preach to the choir. We still offer a moral message, even the conversion experience, but our desire is to reach those who need to hear the Gospel, without being “preachy.”

    So, if you’re looking for the real story about Christian fiction, take a look at the Indie world.

    God bless.

  3. Well said, Eddie. There aren’t too many of today’s world topics that can’t be spun into a “christian” topic. I think it’s a matter of placing yourself in that setting and feeling what the protagonist feels. That’s what makes it real in the readers eyes. MOonly.

  4. Troubling and encouraging at the same time. I too, dislike being preached to when reading Christian fiction. I recently read Lake Surrender, by Carol Stratton. She did a terrific job of writing a story with characters that I actually cared about. It was both captivating and inspirational, without being preachy. I can’t help but think that there will always be a market for books like that. I’m so grateful to LPC for giving authors an opportunity to tell stories such as these.

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