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What Changes in the Christian Fiction Industry Mean for Indie Authors

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.)

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.

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{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Heather Day Gilbert October 13, 2014, 8:05 AM

    Great post, Mike. I am happy with the ACFW changes, especially including indies in Fiction Finder. I can only hope that Christian review sites will follow suit and begin finding and featuring cutting edge indie authors…author who ARE reaching those demographics and niche markets previously unreached by the CBA. For years, I’ve read CBA readers’ comments that they want MORE…more topics, more realism, etc. I have seen CBA pubs integrate some of that, but as you pointed out, with houses closing and slots becoming extremely limited, I feel indies are really paving the way now and pulling in the new readers the CBA has desperately wanted and scrambled to reach for years. As you know, Christian indie authors are far from the minority now…in our FB group we are nearly at 600 members now. And as more and more big-name CBA authors go hybrid, it only makes sense to embrace positive change (God is using indie authors to reach new audiences) instead of pretending it’s not happening.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller October 13, 2014, 9:55 AM

    get it into places mainstream inspirational fiction would never tread.

    But that’s the problem, isn’t it. Indy books don’t get into any places apart from online stores, and there’s such a glut now that no one knows how to find the good stuff, so the indie authors I know are selling small numbers of books to the people in their circle. I don’t see that anyone has come up with a way to get indie books into places where inspirational fiction would never tread.

    I honestly wish that were different. I just read one of the best books–The Color of Grief Isn’t Blue by Sharon Souza. I’d describe it as literary fiction written from a Christian worldview. While it’s “clean” in the traditional sense of the word, it’s not “safe.” It deals with subjects such as marital fidelity, doubting/blaming God, suicide, all in the context of loss and the grief and guilt that accompany it.

    I’d love to see this book get a wide audience because it is so honest, so beautifully written, so true, but as much as Christian fiction has expanded in recent years, I don’t see this book in a traditional Christian publisher’s catalog. Which I’m sure is why Sharon self-published.

    But the problem remains: how will readers find it? If it was in a Christian bookstore, yes, the number of readers would be limited, but is it really better that it’s in NO bookstore?

    I’m not seeing the advantage for writers or for readers.


    • Mike Duran October 13, 2014, 11:56 AM

      Becky, discoverability is an issue for any author, not just indie authors. As Mir mentioned below, unless you have name recognition or are poised to be the next big thing, even trad houses do not put a lot into marketing authors. So it’s still a matter of the author maintaining a social media presence and researching different ways to build and increase their fan base. Also, not adhering to strict Christian guidelines and genres potentially opens up market options (at least for those published mainstream Christian). Sure, the author will still have to find that market. Like you have been saying, there IS an audience for Christian spec-fic. If this is true, and Christian houses only address a small segment of that audience, then with a little work the indie author could reach a market that is simply not addressed. I wouldn’t sell short online stores as being a significant part of this.

    • Heather Day Gilbert October 13, 2014, 3:47 PM

      Becky, actually, indie authors can have a much farther reach than tradpub CBA authors. Our books frequently go free or on special and reach thousands of readers–many unsaved. For example, in my last 3-day freebie, there were 11,000 downloads of the book. Now, not everyone will read it, but I see indies getting in doors strictly CBA cannot. You just have to work for it, pound the pavement, and get the word out to the appropriate venues.

  • Mirtika October 13, 2014, 11:08 AM

    I think many writers would rather write their story their way and sell fewer copies. Some. And when a writer like Lisa Samson sees her latest contract offer and says, “Okay, I’m done writing for a living, off to massage therapy school,” it’s not as if the regular pubs are working the quality books they could already have.

    Being found is always an issue. For indies, it’s the main one: discovery. Not ever trad pub book makes a lot of money, which says they aren’t marketing or promoting it to the hilt, either. It’s an imperfect system.

    I don’t even go to bookstores anymore I can’t remember the last time I ws in a bookstore. If someone wants me to find them, they’ll have to find a way to lead me to them online or via some medium that then sends me searching for them online (a talk show, an ad on the radio, word of mouth).

    Whoever develops the best apps and systems for locating one’s audience wins the billion dollar prize–as all writers will buy their system/app. 🙂

    Still, for those who want to express themselves in their own way without worring if it fits a house’s guidelines, indie is still the way to go. And everyone who loves a book then becomes responsible for being part of the promo-team. Love it: promote it. Tweet it. Blog it. Review it. Buy extra copy and gift it.

    If bookstores all went kaput tomorrow, how would trad houses push their books? Maybe in answering that, we get more of a clue to how to promote everyone effectively.

    I always vote for freedom and leverage. Before indiedom, writers had no leverage.. They were offered a contract and it was not very negotiable, and for some newbies, not at all negotiable. Sign or let your book rot in a drawer (or pay a vanity press to print copies at high expense). Indiedom gives writers options: if a house wants it and you like the terms: sign; if a house offers and you hate the terms, negotiate; and you can negotiate becuase if they say no, you can self-publish.

    Indiedom offers writers a fallback and leverage. It’s not just a trad pub game anymore, even if having a lovely offer from a trad pub is desirable. Options. Always better to have that than nothing.

    Because you never know if that book that is not making it now, makes it next year. Or some person discovers it n 5 years and touts and buzz gets going. You just never know. But at least it can be out there for whomever wants it instead of on some hard drive, languishing.

    I’ve seen various indie Christian writers rising in the rankings and making some money. Some are able to fund a retirement. Over the last 9 months of visiting a particular forum, I’ve seen writer after writer leave day job and support themselves entirely as indies. Are they household names: no. But they found enough of a fan base to support them at a middle class level. Shoot, one author not only left her job, but her hubby is set to leave his to be her assistant. And she’s still not on the NYTimes list or USA or any list of note. But it pays the bills and maybe = two incomes.

    But how to find your people, your readers: Always a challenge.

    I still love that this revolution came. I wish I had been writing when it exploded in 2009. I was on writing hiatus then. Stupid me.

  • Heather Day Gilbert October 13, 2014, 3:49 PM

    I would add that I was recently in a Barnes and Noble, and while I enjoyed SEEING new books, I knew that if I found one that interested me, I would get the ebook for much cheaper. And for indie authors, we are generally cheaper STILL than tradpub. Becky–have you seen sites like this that feature Christian indies? indiechristianfictionsearch.blogspot.com

  • Mirtika October 13, 2014, 5:36 PM

    People with ebook apps and readers shop differently. We see recommends. We actively search lists/genres. We look online for reviews. We DISCOVER people all the time. We don’t have enough time to read the books we already bought. I have probably 2000 books on my TBR between print and ebooks. I still buy more, because it depends on what catches my eye. I may not read all those 2000, but if the price is low and the book tempting, I figure I’ll buy it for later.

    With Kindle Unlimited, I can try new authors with little monetary investment, as many as I want, 10 at a time. For browsing and discovery beyond samples, it’s fabulous. I totally expect to find new faves to replace old faves as they dry up, die, or get too pricey.

    The reader is now the active “looker” for books..the hunter. Browsing is more sophisticated than walking up and down aisles.

    Different world.

  • Kat Heckenbach October 14, 2014, 10:06 AM

    THIS: “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.”

    The ACFW is being forced to accept indies to a certain degree because so many authors are being forced to go out on their own. The big houses are limiting their content so much, and “slimming” their catalogs, and if the ACFW doesn’t include at least some indies, their members will completely dwindle. But if you look closely, the requirements for indies to be included in the ACFW are rather out of reach for a lot of us. I’m a member because the small press I’m with is one of ACFW’s recognized publishers–but on my own, with my sales numbers, they’d never let me in.

    Anyway, I think one of the best things about the indie trend for Christian writers is that it allows us to not be limited by CBA strictures. I am working on a paranormal novel that is the closest to overtly Christian of everything I’ve written, but it would never, ever be accepted by a CBA publisher.

  • Robert Treskillard October 14, 2014, 12:02 PM

    My thought is that ACFW’s movement toward accepting indie authors has a lot to do with Randy Ingermanson’s presence on the board of directors. As such, I would disagree that they are “begrudgingly reactionary”. Rather, I think Randy is rather forward thinking, leading the charge, and helping others.

    Anyway, nice article … a lot to think about!

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