For the longest time, the Christian fiction industry seemed somewhat impervious to changes in publishing and the economy. For instance, back in June 2009, at the front-end of the recession, Christian Retailing reported:
Defying current sales trends, Christian fiction continues to grow, offering a bright spot for retailers, publishers and readers in a bleak economy.
But in 2014, reality appears to have finally caught up.
Take for example, Publishers Weekly reporting of the most recent ACFW conference which notes up front that
“…four publishers closed, paused, or slimmed down their fiction lists.”
The “slimming down” and “shrinkage” of front list titles is important for an industry with a limited number of big houses. But despite the “winnowing,” industry reps framed the changes in an opportunistic light:
A lot of the buzz this year was about “hybrid” authors, defined fluidly but generally meaning authors publishing via some mix of digital, indie, and traditional means. ACFW offered a session on the indie option. “The biggest challenge in ACFW is trying to serve indie members,” said Colleen Coble, novelist and CEO of the group, which has more than 2,600 members worldwide. “We still are going to be very focused on traditional publishing, but we don’t want to leave behind the indie writers.”
Although the number of fiction slots may be shrinking at traditional publishers, industry veterans saw plenty of opportunities, even if those opportunities look different in a changing business in which agents can be publishers and authors must be social media-savvy marketers. Major established fiction publishers aren’t pulling back, and there is room for the new, small, and nimble as digital becomes the accepted vehicle for risk management and author audition.
(A possibly interesting sidenote: PW appears to have changed its initial headline from “Christian Fiction Writers Meet Amid Shrinkage, Growth” — see Tweet below — to “Hybrid Publishing is Hot at Christian Fiction Conference,” the article’s current title. Feel free to speculate as to the reason for this change.)
Christian Fiction Writers Meet Amid Shrinkage, Growth http://t.co/v08zd5cvYK
— Publishers Weekly (@PublishersWkly) October 1, 2014
A result of this “shrinkage” seems to have whittled the industry down to its core audience:
As the Christian retail channel continues to contract, general romance readers are an especially attractive market for Christian/inspirational publishers. HCCP has begun exhibiting at the RT Booklovers Convention, where Katherine Reay’s Dear Mr. Knightley, a debut novel that won two Carol Awards this year, gained readers and traction. Changes in the way Christian readers express their faith–toward greater engagement with the broader culture–have affected book content, Hutton noted. “A different demand is being placed on the books by the readership,” making them more attractive to general readers, she said.
From my perspective, this is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s fantastic to see Christian writers seeking “greater engagement with the broader culture.” In this case, that means crossing over into the general market. The downside, again from my perspective, is that “general romance readers are an especially attractive market for Christian/inspirational publishers.” So while market / industry changes are causing publishers to look more to the general market with more nuanced “book content,” general romance remains the go-to Christian genre.
As a hybrid author, it’s the industry’s changing stance on independent authors which fascinates me. The ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers, the world’s largest Christian writers association) recently made significant policy changes by allowing indie authors and publishers potential inclusion into their ranks (see THIS post on the ACFW website as they address policy changes). This coincides with mainstream publishers making “room for the new, small, and nimble as digital becomes the accepted vehicle for risk management and author audition.” Of course, it’s that caveat — “risk management and author audition” — that makes digital publishing through a mainstream house rather unattractive to many indies. Either way, it’s easy to see the Christian publishing industry and the ACFW’s renewed emphasis on indies as begrudgingly reactionary rather than forward thinking.
Whatever your perspective on all this, the changing economy, the morphing book business, and the “shrinkage” in the Christian fiction industry potentially provides a great opportunity for Christian indie authors. Not only is it good to see mainstream industry insiders finally making room for authors outside their approved circle, it concedes important ground to an elusive, but very important demographic: the Christian reader / writer who doesn’t like Christian fiction.
The affirmation of the “Christian indie author” is important for a number of reasons. Here’s five of them:
- Christian indie authors potentially broaden the reach of Christian storytelling. If a goal of Christian publishing is to expand the harvest field, empower more Christian artists, and draw more readers to the Light, then having more Christian artists tilling the soil and sowing seeds is a good thing.
- Christian indie authors force the industry to adapt. Like any industry, the Christian publishing industry can calcify and fossilize. Conceding ground to indie authors forces the industry to rethink its methods, values, systems, goals, and product.
- Christian indie authors can broaden our conception of what Christian fiction is or can be. The mainstream Christian market, whether intentionally or unintentionally, reinforces a concept of what Christian fiction is. The indie author is not bound by the typical guidelines used to frame the culture’s concept of Christian fiction.
- Christian indie authors are free to cull genres typically ignored and under-represented by Christian publishers. The predominance of certain genres in the Christian market — women’s fiction, Amish, romance, historical — have forced, or limited, the representation of other popular genres (like horror, crime, sci-fi, steampunk, literary, comedy, space opera, Western, epic fantasy, etc., etc.). The indie author, however, is not bound by such genre restrictions.
- Christian indie authors can potentially reach audiences who don’t like Christian fiction. Mainstream Christian fiction appeals to, and is marketed to, a specific demographic of person. The indie author is free to attempt to reach people who would typically not buy Christian fiction or shop in Christian bookstores.
The changes in the Christian fiction industry potentially provide a great opportunity for Christian indie authors. Not only does it empower more authors, it enables us to potentially expand our conception of Christian storytelling and get it into places mainstream inspirational fiction would never tread. The indie and hybrid author could prove to be the most important thing that has happened to Christin fiction in a long time.