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Christian Fiction Finally Has a Prayer of Selling

Publishing: Once just a niche market, it's going more mainstream, with bestsellers and a broadening style.

July 06, 2002|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A literary dawn is beginning to penetrate Christian fiction's "dark and stormy night," a decades-long era of critically snubbed novels plagued by cartoonish characters, preposterous plots and preachy prose.

Higher-caliber literature is moving aside a generation of enthusiastic writers whose evangelical zeal far outstripped their literary abilities. The record-breaking "Left Behind" series, based on the Bible's book of Revelation, generated the No. 1-selling novel in the U.S. last year, "Desecration." Respected mainstream writers, feeling a missionary call, have jumped the fence to the Christian market--a career move analogous, in terms of audience potential, to a big leaguer sending himself down to the minors. And some Christian novels are even being reviewed--favorably--by secular publications.

"You can't base your opinion on Christian fiction by what you read three years ago," said Brandilyn Collins, one of the genre's hot new writers. Her book, "Color the Sidewalk for Me," won glowing reviews in mainstream magazines. ("Excellent ... beautifully written ... well-developed characters ... exemplifies how Christian fiction is finally coming of age," wrote Publishers Weekly.)

The upswing in quality has resulted in a doubling of sales in Christian fiction since 1995, with novels now accounting for about 20% of revenue in U.S. Christian bookstores, according to industry estimates. During the same time, the number of available novels has grown from 500 to 1,800, many now published by divisions of major houses such as Viking, Warner and Doubleday.

"It's clear people want intrigue, drama, suspense and romance without the blood and gore and sex," said Bill Anderson, president of the Christian Booksellers Assn., the trade group that represents 2,450 member retail stores and 685 publishers in a $4-billion industry. Christians "have a rich heritage in this area. Jesus was the greatest storyteller that ever lived."

How to sustain the momentum in Christian fiction will be a main topic of discussion next Saturday during the CBA's annual gathering at the Anaheim Convention Center. The event, closed to the public, is expected to draw a crowd of more than 11,000, including publishers, booksellers, pastors, authors and musicians.

Before the convention, a group of 100 Christian novelists will meet in Anaheim for a two-day writing retreat. And on Friday, more than 300 people will attend the third annual Christy Awards, which honor the best authors in six categories of Christian fiction: historical, romance, futuristic, suspense, Western and first-time novelists.

Keeping Story in Mind

The power of a well-written story has become more attractive to patrons of Christian bookstores who traditionally favored how-to, self-help and inspirational books based on biblical principles.

"A good story can captivate your mind and emotions the way something more didactic cannot," said Carol Johnson, vice president of editorial at Bethany House Publishers in Minneapolis. "I know we've published novels that would compare favorably to Oprah's picks. The only difference is: Christian novels leave readers with hope."

Distinguishing features of Christian fiction include a biblical message woven into the plot, no cursing and no gratuitous violence. Sex, if it takes place at all, happens behind closed doors.

Over the last 20 years, Christian publishing has had a few breakthrough novels--one was Frank Peretti's "This Present Darkness" in 1986--that earned Christian fiction a tiny space on the shelves of the major bookstores and a small measure of respect. But it is the juggernaut "Left Behind" series, which began in the late 1990s, that changed the reputation of Christian novels, including their potential to make huge profits.

The first nine "Left Behind" books sold 34 million copies--50 million if you include children's books and videos, according to Publishers Weekly.

"What Tiger Woods has done to golf, 'Left Behind' has done for Christian titles," Anderson said.

"Those days are over when people thought it was commercial suicide to deal with God elements in novels," said Bill Myers, a Los Angeles-based writer whose children's and adult novels and videos have sold an estimated 6 million copies.

While a typical Christian novel will earn an advance of $10,000 to $15,000, big-name authors can receive payments in the six figures.

Still, Christian novelists have a long way to go to catch up to their mainstream counterparts. It's a leap that Christian musicians such as Jars of Clay, the OC Supertones and Amy Grant successfully made during the 1990s in that industry. Today, Christian fiction remains wildly uneven.

"I feel fairly passionate about the potential for Christian fiction and feel frustrated by when it doesn't reach that potential," said Jana Riess, religion book review editor of Publishers Weekly. Her biggest complaint: the preachy tone of many of the books.

She recently read a novel in which a teenage boy tried to talk his girlfriend into having an abortion.

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