Mar 5, 2015

The Christian fiction market has a problem

Is Christian fiction in crisis?

For the first time since the late 1980s, the evangelical fiction market seems to be in real trouble. Religious novels did not sell well in 2014. After many years of robust growth, a number of publishers are pulling back from the market.

According to BookScan, which tracks sales volume, religious fiction sales declined 15 percent in 2014. Adult fiction in general didn't do well, with sales volume down 8 percent for the year. Even in a bad market for fiction, though, religious fiction did particularly poorly.

Given evangelical fiction's recent history, this downturn is notable. It wasn't that long ago that novels put out by evangelical publishers seemed to dominate the marketplace.

American evangelicals discovered they had a big appetite for fiction in late 1980s. Frank Peretti's spiritual warfare fiction and Janette Oke's prairie romances were so wildly popular they changed the Christian book market. By 1987, Oke's latest was outselling the most popular male authors at the Christian bookstore, James Dobson and Charles Swindoll. People were staying up all night to read Peretti's thriller, This Present Darkness, and then buying five copies to give away the next day.

At the time, the average Christian bookstore was doing about $200,000 per year, according to an official history of the Christian Booksellers Association. Over the next decade, religious publishing saw a 6.3 percent increase in sales. A lot of attention has been paid to evangelical's political activities, during this period, but for every dollar evangelicals spend on political organization, they spent another $13 at Christian bookstores.

Then at the end of the 1990s, evangelical publishing went mainstream.

Beverly Lewis published The Shunning in 1997 and gave birth to a whole new genre, Amish Romance. Publishers soon saw the potential in evangelical fiction with Amish settings and characters, and there was a boom in so-called "bonnet books." The growth was exponential, as Valerie Weaver-Zercher reports in her study of the genre, Thrill of the Chaste. The top three authors sold a combined 24 million books. In 2012, there was a new Amish Romance released, on average, every four days. Suburban bookstores gave the genre its own section; big box retailers made space for inspirational romances too.

The evangelical fiction that really got everyone's attention, however, was Left Behind. The apocalyptic series, co-written by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, broke through to the general market in 1999. The fifth book of the series, Apollyon, was distributed by Walmart that year. This was a first for Christian fiction and the impact was huge. (I write about this in detail in "The Economic History of Left Behind," in the recently published collection, Religion and the Marketplace in the United States). Within a year, Apollyon sold 3.5 million copies, more than the first four books of the series combined. The sixth installment, Assassins, sold almost 1 million copies in the first week, and made the New York Times bestseller list, another first for evangelical fiction.

Some speculated that this was a fluke of a bestseller, triggered by Y2K anxieties. The publisher, Tyndale, disagreed. They put 40 printing presses to work for 40 days to print the first run of The Indwelling. It was released in May 2000. It took 79 semi-trucks to deliver the books. That first run sold out in two weeks.

Nothing since has quite captured public attention as Left Behind did. But the market for Christian fiction continued to grow in the 21st century. Other books followed this blockbuster into the general marketplace, selling on the shelves of suburban bookstores and in big box warehouses. It could seem that Christian fiction was everywhere.

More religious publishers turned to Christian fiction, at this time, even if they hadn't been interested in the past. Abingdon Press, for example, an arm of the United Methodist Publishing House, was attracted to the market in this period. Secular publishers also got involved. One New York editor told the Guardian in 2005 that though her specialty had previously been gay and lesbian fiction, now she and everyone else was looking to publish evangelical novels. "Whatever we all think about the Christian right," the editor said, "the fact is that if we in New York only published to please ourselves, we'd all be out of business. There are books that Christians want to read -- and we now want to sell them." Religious fiction wasn't just for religious publishers anymore. One of the publishing giants, HarperCollins recently acquired a second Christian publisher, Thomas Nelson, adding to its previous acquisition, Zondervan. The move gave HarperCollins control of about half of the evangelical publishing market.

Recent estimates by industry experts put the number of Christian novels published every year between 250 and 300. This is only a fraction of the evangelical publishing output, of course. There are roughly 10,000 new evangelical titles, annually. Fiction is nothing compared to the market than Bibles, a mainstay for publishers, but it's a good-sized business nonetheless.

The real attraction wasn't the size of the market, though, but it's history of growth and the indications that it would only keep growing, which is where the profit really is. Religious fiction was seen as a good investment in the publishing world.

At least, that was the sense among until 2014, when a silent question seemed to run through the industry.

Last year, a number of publishers seemed to be second guessing the growth potential of evangelical fiction. Dan Barlow, a representative from the Steve Laube Agency, which represents evangelical authors, recently wrote that people are even asking "Is Christian fiction dying?" While that's hyperbolic, according to Barlow, it is true that "a couple Christian published stopped publishing fiction. Some publishers are nervous about it and in a wait-and-see mode."

Abingdon Press has stopped acquiring new titles and may discontinue fiction after 2015. They previously published between 20 and 30 evangelical novels a year. HarperCollins trimmed its fiction list. The number of new titles published by the two imprints will decline by about 17 percent after a "winnowing," according to Daisy Hutton, the company’s vice president of Christian fiction. Representing the change in the market, Barlow notes that he's more interested in representing non-fiction, this year, though other agents at Steve Laube still list fiction as their top priority.

Problem of e-books
Part of this anxiety can be traced to the uncertainty around e-books. 

For a few years, it seemed that e-books would save the publishing industry. Then e-reader sales plateaued. The number of people going on that first-time e-book buying binge dropped off sharply, and the existing Kindles and Nooks became digital repositories of unread books. Buying outpaced reading, in the early years, and then buying slowed down. One expert told the New York Times this was the "overloaded nightstand effect."

One our of every three owners of an e-reader had completely stopped buying new e-books by 2012.

When e-books are selling, they generally sell for less, compounding the problem. Digital books have not been as profitable as many small religious publishers had hoped. Part of this stems from the fact that a notable part of the market is driven by discounts and "flash sales." When e-book sales spike for a particular novel, that almost always means that per-unit revenues have been slashed, sometimes to nothing. The hope is that an author will establish a small loyal following among the masses who downloaded a title because it was free. That model is not sustainable for small presses.

In addition to that, there are lingering anxieties about Amazon itself. There have been high profile fights between publishers and the online retailer over who gets to set the price of an e-book. Some publishers say that Amazon holds down prices, cutting into profits and making the business impossible for all but the corporate behemoths.

Amazon is also increasingly experimenting with ways to replace publishers all together. Self-published e-books, using Amazon's service, compete for with traditional publishers for readers. In the second half of 2014, there were about 100,000 new titles published "independently," through Amazon. Most are priced significantly lower than the titles released by the Christian presses. Amazon's search algorithms offer up these novels side-by-side with the ones published traditionally. It's also not always obvious on Amazon.com when a novel is self-published and when it's not, so even while many readers are suspicious of the quality of self-published fiction, they don't necessarily recognize self-published fiction when they see it. And some are willing to drink straight from the firehose, without a publisher's guarantee of quality. All of this cuts into the promise of the growth of the Christian fiction e-book market.

Of course, these changes are not a surprise to publishers. But responses to the evolution of the market was still very experimental.  "Adapting is the key," Dave Lewis, executive vice president of marketing and sales for Baker Publishing Group, told Publishers Weekly last summer. "While you keep serving the traditional market, explore and test how best to enter and succeed in the new one." It's often not clear what that means, though. At least some publishers decided in 2014 that the safest way to adapt to these changes was to withdraw from the Christian fiction market.

Readership not growing
Besides the ways that the market is changing, the ways in which it isn't changing are also the cause of anxiety for publishers. 

The audience for evangelical fiction has not significantly expanded since the 1990s. It's mostly older, middle class, white women. Attempts to attract other demographics, notably men, younger people, and non-white readers, have been limited and only had limited success. African American authors in the evangelical fiction market have often felt like orphans

The market seems to be able to sustain one or two really successful male authors at a time, but no more than that. Author Joel Rosenberg, famous for writing apocalyptic political thrillers, is very successful. One recent title, The Auschwitz Escape, was ranked the 10th bestselling evangelical novel of 2014. Partly, Rosenberg's success has been in pulling in a new audience of right wing talk radio listeners. His early books were blurbed by talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. That mostly male audience hasn't gone on to read other evangelical fiction, though, when they're done with Rosenberg's thrillers. The other really notable evangelical author with a male readership in recent years is Christian horror writer Ted Dekker. He has sold more than 10 million books and has a devoted fan following, much of it young and male. Publishers haven't figured out how to repeat that success, though. It seems Dekker is the exception that proves the rule that men don't read evangelical novels.

The real growth in the market has come from the reliable readers of genre fiction--white, middle class women. These have been the readers who made it possible for evangelical presses to profitably publish a new Amish-themed romance every four days. These are the readers who continue to buy the long-established authors of evangelical fiction, romance writers who continue to be bestsellers, including Beverly Lewis, Francine Rivers, and Karen Kingsbury. But even this most avid audience can only read so much. When most of the 250 to 300 evangelical novels published every year are competing for this audience, the profit potential of one more title is increasingly elusive.

The fear is that 2014 is the year that the law of diminish returns kicked in.

This is a crisis for the Christian fiction market. What we're seeing at the moment, though, is not a collapse, but a hesitation, as some publishers get nervous and that makes others in the industry nervous and the market forecast fills with anxiety. There are some real limitations on the market at the moment. It 2014, those limits became real to the industry. Now either the field will continue to contract, as publishers sell less and publishers produce less, or, as with the success of Left Behind, someone will find a way to overcome these market limits and the industry will transform.