Chris Jager started selling fiction at Baker Book House, one of the largest independent Christian bookstores in the United States, more than 25 years ago. Back then, the Christian fiction section comprised roughly 40 feet of novels, mostly historical romances and the Left Behind series. Now the section runs about 260 feet—almost the length of a football field. It offers historical, historical romance, Amish, suspense, romantic suspense, and contemporary fiction, with a smattering of science fiction and fantasy and a whole lot of harder-to-categorize titles.

“Twenty-five years ago, I couldn’t carry three-fourths of what we carry now,” said Jager, a veteran fiction buyer for the bookstore in Grand Rapids, Michigan that is owned by Baker Publishing Group. “Readers weren’t ready for it.”

Today, Christian fiction readers, authors, publishers, and agents say they are more than ready for the transformation of the industry, which has been underway for years—even if skeptics have yet to notice.

The genre broadly labeled Christian fiction—novels written mostly by evangelicals, for evangelicals, and about evangelicals living out their faith—was arguably birthed in the early 1900s with the gentle, Christ-centered romances of Grace Livingston Hill. It became associated with books like the prairie romances of Canadian author Janette Oke, whose 1979 debut novel Love Comes Softly became a Hallmark television series. And soon the genre also became synonymous with novels about spiritual warfare and the end times.

Those themes still abound. But if you pull randomly at spines of Christian fiction titles in a bookstore this year, you might just as likely encounter a creepy tale by Jaime Jo Wright (The Vanishing at Castle Moreau is one) or a suspense-filled novel by Dani Pettrey (One Wrong Move) or Lynette Eason (Double Take).

Susan Poll, who lives in southwest Michigan, has been reading Christian fiction for 30 years. Early on, she loved the Cheney Duvall, M.D. series by Lynn Morris and Gilbert Morris—picture Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman played out in multiple locales—and novels by Brock and Bodie Thoene. She says she has witnessed a swing toward stories that address tougher issues such as trauma, sexual or domestic abuse, addiction, and race. And Poll’s own tastes have expanded: These days, she reads roughly five novels a month, ranging from military suspense to Regency romance to mystery.

“Christian fiction has definitely broadened its content,” Poll said. “Back when I started reading Christian fiction, the stories were more about religion in general rather than the characters’ personal issues. Now, probably half the books I’ve read have offered life lessons that were exactly what I needed.”

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Poll is not alone. Longtime Christian readers and authors say they’ve seen a noticeable shift in Christian fiction away from safe sentimentality and toward messier characters and story lines.

“If Christian fiction’s only contribution is escapism from reality, we are missing people where they’re at in their hardest moments,” said Sarah Arthur, a nonfiction author turned YA novelist who has lamented in CT that much Christian fiction betrays “an almost uncurable nostalgia for a ‘simpler,’ more heroic past.” Now, Arthur says, she is seeing a new interest in subjects that are “real life on the ground for a lot of people.”

Stephanie Broene, senior acquisitions editor at Tyndale’s fiction division, says readers are connecting with the contemporary wave of grittier Christian novels. “Often, the best novels … reflect their lives and experiences in some way and offer insight, compassion, or hope,” she said. “All readers struggle with one of these tough issues—or know someone who has—at some point in their lives.”

Broene points to Tyndale author T. I. Lowe, who addresses mental health in her breakout bestseller Under the Magnolias and includes a scene of sexual violence in Indigo Isle. Broene also highlights Patricia Raybon, who addresses racial issues in the historical Annalee Spain Mystery series that began with All That Is Secret. It won a 2022 Christy Award, an annual literary prize for Christian fiction that is administered by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. (The second book in Raybon’s series, Double the Lies, won the 2024 CT Book Award for fiction.)

After years as a nonfiction writer, Raybon turned to fiction because “it shows God at work in all manner of desperate, uncertain, wild, brave, and imperfect lives,” she said. “Christian fiction doesn’t hide those struggles, showing the faith story in real, dramatic ways. Readers seem to appreciate that.”

Author Kelly Flanagan, a clinical psychologist with several nonfiction books to his credit, has also pivoted to fiction. The move was unplanned. Flanagan was working on a book featuring seven principles for moving forward in life when his agent suggested changing those principles into people and his publisher, InterVarsity Press, suggested turning the book into a novel. The Unhiding of Elijah Campbell was released in 2022. Elijah returns to his hometown to discover the meaning of a recurring childhood nightmare, encountering loved ones who help him discover the secrets of his past and who might help save his marriage.

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“I’m called as a Christian fiction author to bring the same sort of authenticity to the healing process that nonfiction authors have been doing for centuries,” Flanagan said. “With nonfiction, you can learn how to heal. But when reading a story, you can actually heal while reading it.”

Flanagan admits his book doesn’t fall into traditional Christian fiction subgenres. But “readers know exactly what they want. I want to write about what they need, so the challenge is being able to successfully invite them into that. Whether or not it can work is the question.”

Publishers and agents strive to know what readers like. But long lead times make that a moving target: Authors who sign a book contract now may not see their book in print for a year or more, by which time tastes may have shifted or world events may have readers focusing elsewhere.

Yes, Christian fiction readers have their time-tested favorites, and publishers are always looking for unique takes on old formulas. “Our query box is flush with the usual suspects—women’s contemporary; historical, especially WWII; and a slight uptick in mysteries,” said Janet Kobobel Grant, president and founder of Books & Such Literary Management, an agency that negotiated nearly 50 fiction contracts in 2023.

But she’s also hearing from editors that they’re looking for the “unexpected”—split-time novels that move back and forth between eras of history, genre-bending concepts, or unique points of view.

Tamela Hancock Murray is an agent with The Steve Laube Agency, which represents more than 100 Christian novelists. She says romantic suspense—a popular genre in general-market fiction that blends love and crime—is also a consistent seller in Christian fiction. “Authors who have a law enforcement background who can easily research procedures and can write realistic plots can be successful in this genre,” she said.

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Many in the industry feel that Christian novelists have stepped up their game, especially over the past decade.

“Early on, Christian fiction had a reputation for being poorly written,” said Colleen Coble, an author and the CEO of American Christian Fiction Writers, an association with about 2,200 members worldwide. “You can’t say that anymore. Our authors can go toe to toe with the general market.”

The organization’s annual conference brings in speakers from Christian and general markets “because we want the authors’ arsenal to contain every possible tool for good storytelling. Good craft is good craft no matter what market the author is targeting.”

That kind of investment in the Christian fiction community has helped elevate talent, according to Jessica Sharpe, senior acquisitions editor at Bethany House, part of Baker Publishing Group. “We’re getting interesting proposals all the time.”

She thinks there are writers who now see Christian fiction as a viable publishing option but would not have in years past.

“I also wonder if generations of writers who grew up reading Janette Oke, Judith Pella, the Thoenes, and others are now using their talents to carry on the legacy of these categories they love and that helped shape them as teens,” Sharpe said.

Another factor that has put upward pressure on talent: increased competition. A little over a decade ago, a weak economy and competition from e-books pushed down print book sales across the publishing industry. A number of smaller Christian imprints closed, leaving fewer fiction slots at publishing houses. “There is a lot of competition, and that’s tough,” Coble said. “So many publishers stopped carrying Christian fiction during our dark period.”

Rachel McRae, senior acquisitions editor for Revell (also a division of Baker Publishing Group), said she feels “there is such excellent storytelling and a real upgrade in the writing talent.” She points to writers like Amanda Cox, who won two Christy Awards in 2021 for her debut novel, The Edge of Belonging, and two more the following year for her second work, The Secret Keepers of Old Depot Grocery.

“There is much more openness to an authentic, raw, honest look at humanity,” Cox said. “In the past we’ve wanted to shy away from that.”

To be clear, there is plenty of room to grow. Some authors want to see publishers do even more to embrace minor-key themes. Arthur, for instance, wants more “stories about people who are one paycheck away from having to live in a shelter and what it means to be in solidarity with those who struggle.”

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And leaders in the Christian fiction industry have been honest about the need to add more writers of color to meet readers’ growing appetite for diverse voices. Consider the contemporary romance works of Toni Shiloh, a Black author whose novel In Search of a Prince, a retelling of The Princess Diaries, was named a best romance novel of 2022 by Oprah Daily and won a Christy Award.

Raybon, who is also Black, cites Shiloh’s success and says she continually encourages Christian publishers to “put away fear, then fall in love with BIPOC [Black, indigenous, and people of color] characters and stories and showcase our books in bold, exciting ways.”

Novels have always been a small slice of the Christian publishing pie. Fiction makes up about 3 percent of total Christian print book sales, according to Circana BookScan. Roughly 1 in 12 books bought in the United States are Christian books—led, of course, by Bibles.

Sales figures for individual titles are proprietary and can be difficult to pin down. But the Christian fiction market has grown steadily over the past 10 years—especially e-books, the sales of which were up 7.9 percent in 2022, even as other Christian e-books struggled during the same period, according to data from the publishing research firm Bookstat.

It’s a dramatic change from a decade ago, when Christian fiction sales dropped 15 percent in 2013 and 2014 alone. Some publishers shrank their fiction lists or exited fiction entirely.

But by 2017, Christian fiction sales had turned around and have been trending upward since. That is, according to publishers and editors across the industry, in part thanks to a new kind of reader coming to Christian fiction: the clean reader.

“The general market has gone in a more graphic direction, and many readers are looking for a compelling story without the bad language and graphic sex scenes,” Coble said. “More general-market indie stores are carrying our books, so readers have an opportunity to pick up a novel that sounds interesting; and, once they read it, they realize there is an alternative that gives all the drama and character growth they’re seeking without the elements they’d rather not read.”

Rom-com authors such as Bethany Turner and Pepper Basham have capitalized on this trend. Popular titles like Turner’s Brynn and Sebastian Hate Each Other: A Love Story and Basham’s Authentically, Izzy offer girl-meets-boy-drama-ensues story lines—but without the sexual fireworks of many general-market rom-coms.

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“There is an openness by publishers and readers to enjoy clean reads,” Revell’s McRae said. “There doesn’t have to be faith-heavy content, just clean. This is a nice trend that allows us to explore new writers and new topics, and hopefully gets us new readers.”

The newfound general-market desire for chaste fiction has had another effect on the industry: enticing some authors away from traditionally Christian publishers to places that allow them to write clean books without overt—or any—Christian messaging. Katherine Reay, who published with Thomas Nelson, made the move to Harper Muse; her latest is A Shadow in Moscow, a Cold War spy yarn featuring female protagonists. She did signings in general-market bookstores such as McLean and Eakin in Petoskey, Michigan.

Author and agent Rachel McMillan prefers the term closed door when describing novels without overt sexuality. She publishes with both Thomas Nelson (The Mozart Code) and Harper Muse (The Castle Keepers). None of her books have overt Christian messaging, and they reach mostly into the general market. She sees some authors moving toward places like Harper Muse not as a pathway to avoid Christian readers but as a way to extend beyond the Christian reader space—what she calls “the Hallmark effect.”

“There are opportunities on both sides,” McMillan said. “Opportunities for writers of faith to find new readers and publishers to find those readers of faith with their value-based novels.”

Poll, however, urges publishers to keep publishing books with clear Christian messages and to not shy away from being overtly religious.

“Don’t go so far away from religion that we skip it altogether. I get that publishers are, in general, trying to make all their readers happy, but I hope they don’t forsake the Lynn Austins to get to the others,” she said. “There are still us die-hards out there.”

Austin herself, whose latest novel, All My Secrets, releases in February, says the goal is always to tell a good story that stems naturally from her Christian worldview. But she also wants to help readers on their journeys of life.

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“We all experience grief or health issues or other things, but how do we deal with those things? For me, it’s always through Christ,” said Austin, who doesn’t sit down to write with a list of things to include in her tales but says she lets the stories unfold naturally.

“I want to help readers find Christ and find solutions” that come through Christ, she said. “I offer them the same things I would tell my children or my best friend or anyone else going through similar struggles.”

For readers to find Christ in a novel, they first have to find the novel.

Luring readers in, be they fans of overt or of covert Christian messaging, is one of the toughest jobs for Christian fiction publishers—as it is for nearly all publishers. Most authors, especially debut novelists, struggle to build a platform. The diminished role of brick-and-mortar bookstores, the constantly shifting whims of social media algorithms, the volatile rules of internet marketing—all of it makes reaching new customers online just plain difficult. “Our team is having to relearn their jobs every six months to maximize our efforts,” said Bethany House’s Sharpe.

Even on retail bookstands, Christian publishers have long complained that their books are hidden or miscategorized. “Readers would enjoy our novels if they could find them where they’re shopping,” said Broene, the Tyndale editor. “It feels like Christian novels are the only ones separated out from the rest of fiction in such a wholesale manner.”

Retailers such as Target, Walmart, and chain bookstores ask about Christian content in books, but crafting Christian novels that will sell there isn’t that simple. “It feels like Christian authors are criticized for either being too Christian or not Christian enough, sometimes both at the same time,” Broene said. “Their books are judged by a whole additional set of criteria,” making it even more difficult to get in front of a wide range of readers.

But for readers who do discover a new Christian novelist—and for those willing to leave their familiar genres and venture for the first time into the unfamiliar world of Christian fiction—publishers are confident the ending will pay off.

“The storytelling is getting better, and writers are just smart,” McRae said.

Ann Byle writes about the Christian fiction industry from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her latest book is Chicken Scratch: Lessons on Living Creatively from a Flock of Hens.

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