The United Methodist Reporter is offering the latest headlines in the RSS format.
Christian fiction a hit for UM publisher Mary Jacobs, Mar 16, 2012
'The Dead Saint', one of Abingdon’s fiction offerings was written by Marilyn Brown Oden, wife of United Methodist Bishop William Oden.
By Mary Jacobs Staff Writer
Beth Clarke walked into the Cokesbury store in Chesapeake, Va., looking for materials for her 4th and 5th grade Sunday school class at St. Andrew’s UMC in Virginia Beach.
But she walked out with a murder mystery: The Lord Is My Shepherd, part of the 23rd Psalm series published by Abingdon Press, an imprint of the United Methodist Publishing House.
Like Ms. Clarke, more and more readers are discovering Abingdon’s new line of Christian fiction books. Launched in 2009, Abingdon’s fiction sales grew to more than $1.2 million in fiscal 2011.
“Fiction is a relatively new endeavor for Abingdon and we have seen significant growth year over year, and expect that to continue,” said Pamela Clements, associate publisher for Abingdon Press fiction.
Julie Chapman, the new manager of the Cokesbury store in Dallas, saw the popularity of Abingdon’s fiction in her last job managing the Chesapeake store.
“We had a hard time keeping (the fiction titles) on the shelves,” she said.
Many of Abingdon’s fiction books are also flying off virtual shelves—in the form of ebooks. Digital books accounted for about 40 percent of Abingdon’s fiction sales last year, and that’s trending even higher this year.
“We are seeing that people are discovering and reading more fiction on their digital devices,” said Ms. Clements. “Our fiction sales far outpace non-fiction at this point.”
Abingdon’s sales reflect a broader trend. Nationally, fiction is the leading sales driver of e-books, according to Publishers Weekly, and Christian fiction is the third most popular genre in sales of e-books, with a 16 percent share, surpassing both general trade romance and mysteries.
The success of Abingdon’s fiction line was one contributor to stellar sales tallied in the first half of fiscal 2012 for the United Methodist Publishing House (UMPH).
Sales topped $44.8 million for the period between August 1, 2011 and January 30, 2012—exceeding the prior year by $2.2 million and surpassing the budget by $260,000. Total sales for fiscal 2012 are expected to reach $90 million.
Brisk sales of the Common English Bible, Worship & Song, and popular books by Adam Hamilton, Mike Slaughter, Robert Schnase and Reuben Job also added to the uptick.
“We are thrilled by these results in a period of seismic changes in church life, book publishing and retailing,” said Neil Alexander, UMPH publisher.
Abingdon Fiction has been releasing about two dozen titles a year—and expects to add even more in 2012. The line-up includes contemporary novels as well as historical fiction, romances, mysteries and thrillers, plus a few hard-to-categorize titles like the recently-released The Dog that Talked to God, and Lethal Remedy, a medical mystery penned by a physician.
Many of Abingdon’s fiction titles are part of series. Honor Redeemed is the newest in a series called First Responders, about a Search and Rescue (SAR) team leader, Honor Mackenzie, who trains SAR dogs. The Hope of Shridula continues a series called Blessings in India; Her Restless Heart is the first in the series Stitches in Time, set in an Amish community.
Upon discovering a favorite series, many readers will quickly purchase all of the available titles. Witness Ms. Clarke: after finishing the first book in the 23rd Psalm series, she read the second, I Shall Not Want, and then began calling the Cokesbury store regularly to find out when the next arrived in the store. (Lie Down in Green Pastures was published in March 2011.)
Abingdon’s fiction mix mirrors overall trends in the Christian fiction market, according to figures provided by the Christian Booksellers Association. More than 40 percent of Christian fiction book sales in 2011, nationally, were historical fiction (26 percent) and suspense (16 percent), and both of those segments are trending toward even higher market share in 2012. Other key segments were contemporary fiction (35 percent) and romance (10 percent).
Currently, Abingdon is tracking growth in contemporary western romances and young adult novels. Two series set in Amish communities by author Barbara Cameron have been brisk sellers, too.
“We’ve also seen increased interest in historical romances of the early 20th century, especially the times of the World Wars, and romantic suspense,” said Ramona Richards, senior acquisitions editor for Abingdon Press fiction. A few recent examples: Saving Hope, from the new Men of the Texas Rangers series by Margaret Daley, and the 1940s holiday novella, The Christmas Star.
Truth in fiction
Picture this story: Bishop Lynn Peterson starts her Wednesday morning sipping coffee in the French Quarter in New Orleans, then watches in horror as a good friend, a player for the New Orleans Saints, collapses on the street, felled by a single gunshot. Soon, the bishop finds herself in a maelstrom of espionage, secret messages and life-threatening situations. Ultimately, it’s up to her to prevent disaster involving the highest echelons of the U.S. government.
The Bishop isn’t real, and her denomination is never named. She’s the heroine of The Dead Saint, an Abingdon fiction book by Marilyn Brown Oden.
As the spouse of retired United Methodist Bishop William Oden, Ms. Oden drew on her knowledge to create the character—but promises that no real United Methodist female bishops were emulated in the novel.
Ms. Oden, who has also written several non-fiction books, says that writing fiction is difficult but rewarding.
“Fiction is so much more work, but it reaches a wider audience,” she said.
Ms. Oden believes that fiction can speak to readers in a way that non-fiction can’t.
“Stories touch our hearts,” said Ms. Oden. “They motivate compassion and show us a different way to see and be. We identify with a character and glimpse a new way to live.”
Groups and singles
Ms. Chapman sees individuals as well as church groups purchasing the fiction books, many of which offer discussion questions at the end. She was part of a small group herself that studied the Bible most of last year—but switched to fiction, Abingdon’s A Time to Love, for the summer months.
Ms. Clarke, who serves as secretary at St. Andrew’s, identified with one of the sleuths in the 23rd Psalm series: church secretary Cindy Preston, who stumbles over a dead body at First Shepherd Presbyterian. She teams up with Jeremiah Silverman, the rabbi of the neighboring synagogue, to find the killer. The events take place during Holy Week, which coincides with Passover, and soon it’s clear that the timing has special significance for the killer.
“It’s a fun, fast read,” Ms. Clarke said. “The books draw you into the characters.”
She added that the author, Debbie Viguie, accurately captured the day-to-day life of a church secretary, and that’s no accident. According to her Amazon bio, Ms. Viguie worked as a church secretary before becoming a full-time author.
Some of the Abingdon fiction books portray faith in a fairly overt way, showing characters who pray over problems, or seek counsel from a pastor, for example. Others are more subtle.
Ms. Chapman, who was initially skeptical about Abingdon’s fiction line, says she fell in love with the books partly because they do have a lighter touch.
“They’re not preachy, but they deal with real-life, both pleasures and disappointments,” said Ms. Chapman. “My own bias is, I don’t want something where every other paragraph has the character in deep prayer. To me, that’s not real life.”
While they may not obviously preach, stories that aren’t true can convey truth, according Curtis Riskey, executive director of the Christian Booksellers Association, who cited Jesus’ parables as an example.
“While fiction is often seen as an entertainment medium, the stories and testimonies that come through Christian fiction can help build individual faith as readers live through the conflicts that Christian authors depict,” he said.
Plus, Christian fiction is reliably wholesome as well as enjoyable, according to Rachel Lane, a reader in Nolanville, Texas, who downloads Abingdon fiction onto her digital devices.
“The world is so inundated with nastiness, it’s a relief to have a reprieve from the foul words and explicit scenes,” she said. “You don’t feel embarrassed. You feel good at the end.”