CF Books: Heading toward extinction? Or adapting to a new market?

For years the question has lingered: what’s happening with the publishing market?  In a world so consumed with the latest technological trends (so many of which seem to center on forms of more digital entertainment), books have always lingered as the unanswered question.  Is the publishing market dying?  Is it just changing?  Do people still buy books?

In the world of Christian fiction, the question is no less concerning than in the general market.  Much has been made of the concern over whether or not Christian fiction, itself, is dying.  Sources cite falling sales numbers, closing fiction divisions of Christian publishing houses, and changes in how easily one can shop for Christian fiction titles.

Stirring the Pot

I’ve appreciated Christian fiction for a long time.  When I was younger, I had favorite publishers.  Westbow was my favorite (it’s now changed to offer Christian fiction self-publishing, so the offerings are not as they once were).  Thomas Nelson remains a fairly consistent favorite.  Bethany House and Tyndale offer pretty solid offerings.  Harvest House a little less so, but still has the occasional winner.  (These opinions, of course, are based entirely on my own book preferences).

After some of these publishers began changing (or closing), though, I made a new discovery through reading the acknowledgments written by some of my favorite authors:  many were (or had at one time been) represented by literary agent Chip MacgregorMacGregor.  This led to my discovery of a few more authors I enjoyed.  What it also led to was the discovery of his website and blog, which leads me back to the point of this post.

In 2015, Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary posted a blog that stirred the pot a little in Christian fiction.  This blog, among other things, took issue with the way that LifeWay Stores select their Christian fiction offerings.  In a favorite quote of mine from the blog, MacGregor writes:

…the fiction decisions at Lifeway have been a huge disappointment to many of us in the industry (meaning the company only wants VERY safe Christian romances where nothing truly bad happens, sex doesn’t exist, everyone talks like they’re living in Andy Griffith Land, and in the end the characters will fall to their knees and accept Christ so that All Life Problems Will Be Resolved)

THIS is a consistent problem in Christian fiction: works that trivialize life.  A genre that must tie everything in a perfectly neat bow, not just once, but with every written work.  Novels that, along the path toward a redemptive ending, make the struggles seem lame, temporary, or without real substance.  Ones that treat light sin as depravity and ignore truly depraved acts and situations because they fear audiences are too sensitive to understand the difference between light and darkness.

Anyway, I digress.

MacGregor brought this up and it resulted in a large number of responding comments.  So many that in a follow-up blog, he wrote that he had reached out to the LifeWay Stores fiction purchaser to clarify his stance.  This resulted in a post written by the purchaser herself.

It’s an interesting discussion and if you have time I recommend you checking the whole thing out.

The Crux

The most interesting line in MacGregor’s discussion is one I believe to hold the key to the current publishing dilemma:

…the talent and readership are there, but so far it’s proven to be a very tough task trying to link them.

He claims that books are still being purchased.  He also claims, with the credibility of being a literary agent, that there are authors out there producing good work.  (As I’ve read many, I second this).  But he summarizes the big problem as being how to best connect authors with their readers (both existing and potential readers).

Late last year (2016), Julia M. Reffner wrote an article for Library Journal that highlighted some of the more positive news in Christian fiction.  It discussed some new publishers, as well as some new trends in the market.  In essence, it discussed changes in the publishing market that are showing positive signs (or at least positive potential) in their outreach to readers.

That’s all well and good but what I want to draw our attention to in all of this is the role a reader has in this uncertain publishing world.

Our Job as Readers

15-20 years ago when I wanted a book I’d head to my local Christian bookstore and browse the shelves.  I’d pour over the summaries on the back covers of new titles, I’d hem and haw over the best way to spend my money.  I’d do my best to decide if I should be deterred by an billerbeckunattractive cover, or cheesy title.  In one extreme case (I was SO hesitant to try my first “chick lit” book) I eventually opened to the last line (not the last paragraph…just the last line) to see if it was written well.  That line sold me and I discovered a delightfully hysterical author who writes hyperbolic stories that still manage to get to the heart of real struggle (Kristin Billerbeck, by the way).

But that was a long time ago.  The days of shopping at a Christian bookstore are over.  Family Christian Stores has closed many branches and those that do exist have a small fiction section that offers few “new” authors or titles.  My favorite Christian bookstore (Johns Christian Store of Carol Stream, Illinois) closed a long time ago.  I still feel the twinge when I remember what it felt like to dive into their MANY aisles of books…it was an amazing place.

Today, I research books online.  I read e-books to save space, then buy the hard copy if I REALLY love a book.  I shop at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.  Sometimes Google Books or Christian Book Distributors.  And when I live by a good library, I try to discover new authors there (because I really don’t want to spend $15 on something I hate).

But is this all I can do?  Or are there more ways I can contribute to this genre that I believe in and REALLY don’t want to see die off?

While I’m not a social-media oriented person, I’m understanding that industry changes are making the social connection of author to reader and essential concern.  And in the past couple of years I’ve realized it’s not only the author’s job to somehow get my attention.

It’s my job to find books I like and then help get the word out about these books.  And even more than that, it’s important for me to pour into authors in any way I can.  Encouraging them to create worthwhile books can keep them going.

So I leave you with this – a few ways that we, as readers, can help encourage authors and get the word out about good books.

  1. First and foremost:  buy books.  Even if you borrow a book at first, make sure you buy it if you like it.  That author deserves to be paid.  And don’t worry about buying a paperback, hardcover, e-book, or audiobook.  Just make sure you buy something.
  2. Interact with authors.  When you reach out through email, Twitter, or Facebook, it means the world to an author.  Followings are important in today’s world.  Help grow the followings of your favorite authors.
  3. Recommend!!  If you like something, tell people!  Anyone in your social circles that reads would be DELIGHTED to hear about a book you enjoyed.  It’s always up to them if they read it or not, but do everyone a favor by sharing your opinion.  It may prompt others to support an author you particularly love.  And the more support they get, the more they can write.
  4. Lately I’ve been noticing more and more authors contributing to things like Fiction Scavenger Hunts (online) or Book Sweepstakes.  These can be useful tools for giorellodiscovering new authors or getting more information on those you’ve heard of but don’t know as well.  (A scavenger hunt was how I discovered Sibella Giorello and I’m so thankful for that!)

All in all, do something.  Anything.  It may seem like very little to you, but the more we can help connect to good authors, the more of a following they can gain.  And if they gain a following…

We get more good books.

And I’m all for that.

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31 thoughts on “CF Books: Heading toward extinction? Or adapting to a new market?

  1. Sibella Giorello says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    This post by Discerning Lilies makes some important points about the state of fiction in general and “Christian fiction” in particular. She also calls out one of my favorite writers, Kristen Billerbeck. She also mentions the Raleigh Harmon series. What an honor.
    I’ll write a follow-up later—and explain my complete loathing of the term “Christian fiction”—but for now read this and let me know your thoughts about it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Kate says:

      Thanks much, Sibella. Definitely interested in hearing your own thoughts on the CF term. I’ve got plenty of my own, but I struggle with finding an accurate and recognizable alternative phrase.

      As a side note, thanks very much for your Raleigh Harmon offerings. I discovered them only in the past year and now am quick to purchase every new title. Your writing style became a quick favorite.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Gail Hollingsworth says:

    I’ve been really disappointed in the books available in my area to purchase. My local SAMs Club and Walmart have practically no Christian fiction, and if they do they are not new. Even our Lifeway does not carry the books I’m interested in purchasing. Barnes and Noble is the only bookstore in my area and their prices are too extravagant. I had made a list of several books I wanted and visited all the above stores. Therefore I went to Amazon and ordered all five I wanted at reduced prices and with prime I got free shipping. I’m beginning to think that is the way to go. Saves time, money and gas!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kate says:

      Thanks, Gail. I second your opinion on the tiny selection offered at retailers like Walmart and Sam’s Club — and while I don’t live near a Lifeway, I’m not surprised by your inability to find particular books among their aisles. Bookstores are few and far between – and what few there are have the impossible task of stocking a few shelves with titles that appeal to everyone. There’s just no possible way to do that. So I agree, Amazon is a great resource. Part of me hates to claim that because I usually like to avoid the huge & popular stores. But it’s hard to argue with their prices (most of them) and the title availability. I just find it hard to browse for new authors there. It’s a great resource when I already know what title I want, but I really struggle to narrow the field when I’m looking for something new.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. atmadunes says:

    I’m on my third series as a self-published author, and while my books are pretty clean, I don’t have the ABCs plan of salvation in most of them. I write about characters who have normal lives and what I see as typical Christian relationships. I try to ‘smooth in’ the Christian aspects of their lives so they seem natural, instead of chunked in on a whim. If it comes up, I write about it. I don’t have a sermon in every story, though I do try to include a few scriptures. My greatest compliments are from people who aren’t Christians, because I’ve had many tell me they feel like my books show them a Christianity they could understand and be inspired by.
    Thank you for the great article.I spend a great deal of my writing time promoting, and it definitely makes a difference.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kate says:

      Getting back to the whole “Christian fiction” label that Sibella brought up in her comment, the genre is unique and sort of weird. There’s a broad continuum that holds books with very structured, detailed salvation models in their narrative. On the other side, there’s the “clean” aspect, which may hardly (if at all) touch on the “Christian” aspects of life. I enjoy a well-written offering from either side, but I find it very difficult to use the same genre title to describe them. I find books on one side (the model that doesn’t always feel compelled to detail salvation) to be more consistently realistic, but well-written offerings on the other side can do a very good job of profoundly dramatizing experiences that I, as a Christian, have encountered (or long to encounter). They both have a place — and I LOVE hearing of authors who have heard from readers that their writings (on either side) are having an impact. Thanks for sharing and keep it up!

      Like

    • ramblingsofabottleblonde says:

      I’d love to read your stuff. As a Christian I find that some CF is too safe and offers a sanitized version if being a Christian. We have bad days, get in bad moods, etc. We also don’t go around proselytizing at random. CF is a unique genre. You’re writing to a Christian audience. It yet publishing houses want you to beat people over the head with the salvation message. You’d be already preaching to the choir. I also think a nuanced approach will interest unbelievers more and possibly cause that person to looking into Jesus more on their own. Does that makes sense? Kristin Billerbeck and Rene Gutteridge do this masterfully.

      Like

      • Kate says:

        I so agree. Some of it is too sanitized. Alongside that, I will fully admit that there are things on the other side of the coin that I really have a problem with. For instance, if there’s too much swearing in a book, I can’t read it. It’s something about how my eyes/mind process the printed words. It affects me WAY more than swearing in a tv show or movie. I don’t know why — but it’s a significant thing for me. So I appreciate cleanliness in that way. But at the same time, I want to read something “real.” It’s a weird balance.

        I really appreciate Kristin Billerbeck. And Rene Gutteridge, thanks for bringing her up!!! Have you read My Life as a Doormat (In Three Acts)?? It was written quite a while ago but I loved the masterful job it did at taking some super legit character struggles and making them relateable through hyperbole and humor. Billerbeck does this, too. For instance, Ashley Stockingdale is what many would consider an over the top character. However, I find it so easy to relate to her because many of her written thoughts and lines of dialogue hit close to home and really make me think (and laugh).

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Rachelle Rea Cobb says:

    Great points, especially at the end! It’s a great big circle after all: “It may seem like very little to you, but the more we can help connect to good authors, the more of a following they can gain. ” 🙂 Thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. carrieturansky says:

    I enjoyed your post, Kate, and shared it on my Facebook page. Thanks for supporting authors and helping spread the word!

    Like

  6. breehayashi says:

    I actually prefer solid Christian fiction with happy endings. Life is hard and I like the escape. Besides, as a Christian I believe that I am a secret Princess and someday My Prince will come riding on a White Horse to rescue me from The Dragon and take me to our Mansion in the Sky to live Happily Ever After. ❤

    Like

    • Kate says:

      You bring up an interesting point about escape. Sometimes I get that – the desire to break away from the stresses of my current situation – and lose myself in a world that eases everything. Some books give me a good chance to do that – but my favorite ones are those that do that while also teaching me something (about myself or the world, etc).

      Like

  7. Barbara says:

    Wow, I loved your thoughts on this subject. So much.

    I’ve been thinking that if someone is confined to only Library reading (due to financial strain) that another gift that they can offer the author (in lieu of a book purchase) is media hype, a thank you email, and a review (on Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, etc.).

    Like

    • Kate says:

      Yes, yes and again YES! Years ago I bought MANY books. If I tallied the amount spent, I’d be humiliated and embarrassed with how much they cost, I’m sure. In recent years I’ve had to significantly limit my spending just based on life circumstances that God pointed my family to. I still buy a few, but it mostly must wait until I get those random $1.99 e-book sales (and when I see them, I do this internal happy dance). It’s important to realize that even in those situations, when finances preclude us from purchases, we still have a way to contribute and give…and it’s still powerful. Thanks for the encouragement!

      Like

      • Barbara says:

        My family has always encouraged library reading, and I never saw any problem with it until I began to dream of writing my own books. As my friendship with favorite authors bloomed, I realized how important their livelihoods depended on my financial support as well. Suddenly, I started to feel guilty about borrowing books at the library, and I became hyper aware of friends who would say to the author, “I’ll look for your book at the library.”

        I could almost see the eye twitch that my author friends would get.

        However, I still love the library. As I’ve processed those “guilty” feelings of using the library, I’ve realized that I can still give back to those authors. That realization has offered me such freedom.

        Like

        • Kate says:

          Ha! I’m envisioning those looks and eye twitches. 🙂 It’s true, though, that there are SO many ways to give back. I have to be frugal with purchases, but I enjoy giving in the ways I can. Usually they’re beneficial for me, too!

          Like

  8. sophialorenabenjamin says:

    Hi Kate, very relevant in every way, what you said. I am all for garnering support for writing that remains relevant to today’s need. I still do think there’s books that haven’t been written as yet which people out there need to read. It is this quest that drives my desire today. Let me know in what way I can help as I definitely vouch to spread the word and giving out as you said.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Laurel says:

    I find new authors through BookBub links. (My link to this blog came from a BookBub book I bought, read, and liked the author.) Some are good, some only worth the free price I paid Unfortunately. It does take work by readers to find the good or new authors and give them a chance. Unfortunately, some CF is just grocery-store romance with a “Christian” message and no sex. As a reader and a married woman and mother, I want more thoughtful writing and something that has some meat and not just a light sugary meal.

    The market is certainly there for Christian fiction. People have not stopped reading books.

    I met KD Harp through a class we were both in. Her writing is still a bit rough, but she is not one for the “happily ever after” novel. Too many of her teenage friends thought that’s the way life really was and were disappointed when it wasn’t so she’s writing books that are more true to life. She has a disclaimer in the front of them to that effect.

    Like

  10. Kate says:

    First: BookBub — thank you for mentioning this! I didn’t know about it, so I went to check it out. And it’s great! So, again, thank you!

    I’d agree with you, that some Christian fiction is just light and pure entertainment. There’s stuff out there that’s much more than that, but like you said, it can take a lot of work to find those things. Then I’ve also found that a novel that works for someone else still doesn’t work for me. In the end, it feels like we just need to keep reading until we find something we love – and then we rejoice…only to start the process all over again.

    KD Harp – I haven’t read any of theirs. Would you recommend them?

    Like

  11. Laurel says:

    I would recommend KD Harp’s books, especially if you like location-based or gritty Christian fiction. Her books are set in the Atlanta area mostly, though the last one spent time at the space camp in Alabama. I personally would like her main character to be involved with a different character than the one she seems to be involved with, but that’s part of good reads that I like. She writes about people with imperfect lives as compared to perfect, fake ones.Her writing is edgy and gritty, but her characters show strength and failures. One of her first books, not part of the “True Colors Suspense” series does not read like her especially because she wrote it for a specific market, but the others show her style more. I’d suggest reading the “True Colors Suspense” books in order. They’re all good reads.

    Note that these are not books to share with your elementary aged child. The main character has a son, but these are books that deal with subjects that show up in the evening news. I don’t have a lot of money to spend on books, but I do buy hers and am waiting to see what happens to the characters next.

    Like

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