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Christian fiction continues upswing via established authors, key publishers

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–The growing popularity of Christian fiction, especially spiritually based romance novels, has led many secular bookstores to carve out space to include Christian genres.
This is due to a remarkable increase of Christian book sales through secular book stores within the past year.
“We are seeing tremendous growth in the market,” said Catherine Palmer, a Baptist who has authored a number of Christian romance novels, including the Prairie anthology, “Prairie Rose,” “Prairie Fire” and “Prairie Storm.”
Palmer, a well-established secular author and wife of Missouri’s state Baptist managing editor, Tim Palmer, said she, like many other writers, has found renewed success in the Christian market.
“Many Christians who have been writing in the secular realm are moving over to the Christian market,” said Palmer, adding the influx has also resulted in a dramatic increase in the quality of writing.
Palmer, along with author Terri Blackstock, were featured in a recent book signing at Books-A-Million at Eastwood Mall in Birmingham, Ala.
Palmer praised those Christian publishers who are recognizing the value of publishing Christian fiction, including Tyndale House, Zondervan, Bethany, Multonomah and Word.
Palmer explained Prairie Storm, set in Kansas right after the Civil War, typifies the powerful message of today’s Christian romances. The main female character is a bitter woman whose abusive upbringing in a supposedly Christian home embitters her against the things of God.
In contrast, Palmer said, the main male character is a young cowboy who knows nothing about the Christian faith until he attends a tent revival service and comes to a personal relationship with Christ. The book details the Holy Spirit’s work in bringing these vastly differing lives into a relationship with each other and with the Lord.
“This series is primarily about God’s healing, transforming people’s lives,” Palmer said. “Christian romance is basically the story of the Christian marriage foundation. … [T]hey’re written with the element of faith.”
Blackstock is another writer who spent many years as a popular secular author. She credits a “spiritual awakening” for her move into Christian fiction. “When I was in the secular market, I was not walking with the Lord. I think God just tapped some of us on the shoulder and said, ‘Come over here.'”
Blackstock’s books have sold more than 3.5 million copies worldwide. She came to know the Lord at the age of 14, but only in recent years has she dedicated her talents specifically to writing in the Christian market.
“I now see my role in the fiction arena as that of challenging other Christians to strive to be more like him and continue the work that he started,” Blackstock said. “At the same time, I hope to write powerful enough stories that unbelievers will be drawn to them, as well, and find their way to Jesus Christ.”
Blackstock pointed out even non-Christians will venture into the Christian market looking for a clean read.
“Five years ago I predicted that we would be able to go into a Christian bookstore and find anything we want to read,” she said, adding, “It’s so wonderful to see that happening now.”
And just who is reading Christian fiction? “I think everybody,” Blackstock said.
Palmer agreed, noting that 50 percent of all marketed paperbacks are romance novels read primarily by women.
“I believe that figure translates into the Christian market,” said Palmer, who feels rejuvenated since she started writing books with spiritual substance.
“It’s been so fantastic to see the way the Lord has worked in my life. I get mail from young women, even 13-year-olds,” Palmer continued. They’re reading Christian books, books that teach values. They aren’t just reading — they’re learning.”
Blackstock, who writes romance as well as a popular suspense series, said, “Years ago when people read Christian fiction, they were disappointed. … Now with the competition much heavier, we can’t rest on our laurels. We have to work hard to keep up. Our quality should be the best because it’s for Christ.
“In a Christian romance, Christ is the one orchestrating the relationship. … [I]t’s God’s plan,” Blackstock said.
“Through Christ, the characters’ problems are resolved — they’re always looking to him,” Palmer said.
“Or they learn to look to Christ through the situations that happen to them during the course of the book,” Blackstock added. “I love writing about relationships.”
Asked why a secular bookseller like Books-A-Million would host a Christian book signing, Palmer was eager to reply. “This is what is so absolutely thrilling. We’re seeing more and more Christian fiction moving into the mainstream outlets. Books-A-Million, like many other secular sellers, is seeing there is money to be made, and this gives us the ability to reach the non-Christian market.”
David Shepherd of Word publishers agreed. “Only a short time ago a book signing like this would never have been done. This is great. … We’re going to keep doing it. Secular booksellers are beginning to realize the popularity and salability of Christian publications.”
Last year Word was invited into a Birmingham bookstore to organize and revamp the store’s stock of Christian books. “Within the year Christian book sales increased 60 percent,” Shepherd said.
“One of the things that is very exciting,” Palmer said, “is that we are paralleling the secular market in what we’re doing — romance, intrigue, suspense, mystery — gritty, issue-driven stories that deal with things people really deal with in life. We’re doing more of the core issues that face people today.”
Travis Thrasher, author relations manager for Tyndale House, is also enthusiastic about the growth he sees in the Christian book market. “I think there are several Christian publishers who are going strong [with Christian fiction]. What we [Tyndale House] are hoping to do is get [books] coming out once a month.”
Thrasher also stated the market was open to new authors. “We’ve contracted with quite a few who’ve done novellas for us. We’re offering an alternative to what’s out there … drama in wholesome entertainment.” Thrasher noted Tyndale House is Palmer’s publisher and she helped kick off their new romance line, HeartQuest.
“Tyndale House has gone from having no romance novels to having a complete line for them,” he pointed out, adding when he came on board, the whole concept was “brand new.”
Now Tyndale House has both an acquisitions editor and a full staff assigned strictly to HeartQuest, Thrasher noted.
“HeartQuest’s novellas have helped introduce many new writers,” Palmer said. “We like to have a known writer do the lead story, then introduce three unknowns or lesser knowns in the same volume.” She cited the Victorian anthology “Victorian Tea,” “Victorian Quilt” and “Victorian Cottage” as books Tyndale House is now marketing.
Asked if Christian romance was more entertainment or inspirational, Thrasher, who has his own book coming out within the next year, was quick to reply. “If it was pure entertainment with a sprinkling of God, Tyndale wouldn’t publish it. HeartQuest’s team’s goal is to have the message of Christ primary to every story.”
Zondervan, Terri Blackstock’s publisher, has just released “Seasons Under Heaven,” the first of two books Blackstock has co-authored with Beverly LaHaye. The book details the lives of four women and how their love, faith and friendship takes them through their situations.
This fall Tyndale House will begin marketing a new series by Palmer. In spring of 2000, “Finders Keepers,” Palmer’s first mainstream thriller, will be released.

    About the Author

  • Judy Woodward Bates