Christian music, movies, apparel, Web sites.
And Christian romance.
It’s quite possibly the “next big thing” in the Christian subculture.
Christian romance novels are hardly, well, novel. Grace Livingston Hill remains a popular author in the “inspirational” romance genre, and she began publishing early in the 20th century. She died in 1947 having authored over 100 books.
But Christian romance novels are now a blip on the radar of even mainstream publishers, and they’re steadily infiltrating the broader market.
“While sales in Christian bookstores have soared, secular publishers like Random House and HarperCollins have dispatched their acquisitions staffs to nail down distribution deals with Christian companies they previously ignored,” wrote Lauren Sandler at Salon.com.
Why even bother? Consider that romance generated $1.37 billion in sales in 2000, according to statistics compiled from the Book Industry Study Group, American Bookseller Association and Ingram’s catalogue of book releases.
So Harlequin’s Steeple Hill division now has the Love Inspired line, “a series of contemporary, inspirational romances that feature Christian characters facing the many challenges of life and love in today’s world as they learn the important lessons about the power of trust and faith,” according to eHarlequin.com.
Today’s Christian romance novelists aren’t writing without a roadmap. They have groups like the American Christian Romance Writers (ACRW) which provides encouragement, education about marketplace conditions, and fellowship with other writers.
And there are some hard-and-fast rules when it comes to Christian romance. For example, Love Inspired is looking for “strong family values and high moral standards,” “an emotional, satisfying and mature romance,” and “drama, humor and even a touch of mystery” in a story.
But “characters should not make love unless they are married,” according to eHarlequin.com. Furthermore, “physical interactions … should emphasize emotional tenderness rather than sexual desire.” And there should be no “foul language, swearing, and scenes containing violent content.”
These story parameters obviously constitute liabilities for more mainstream romance publishing lines. “Redeeming Love,” by best-selling author Francine Rivers, is a fine example of this dilemma.
It’s a retelling of the relationship between the prophet Hosea and his unfaithful wife Gomer.
“It was far too racy for the Christian market,” Rivers told Salon.com. Yet, its “Christian content” made it less palatable to secular publishers. After some broken deals and in-again-out-again scenes, Rivers’ book finally found an outlet through Multnomah Press.
“Redeeming Love” is currently atop the CBA (formerly Christian Bookseller Association) best-seller paperback list.
Some say the growing interest in Christian romance coincided with a downward turn in the secular romance market.
“For authors who have left the mainstream for Christian writing, it was simply a choice for them because there was more opportunity,” said Carol Stacy, publisher of Romantic Times magazine, in the Salon.com article. “Why stay in this really rocky market that’s just creating anxiety for them when they can go into a new market that’s opening up and embracing them?”
And yet one of the selling points of Christian romance is its alleged inclination to tackle serious subjects.
“Writing mainstream romances never gave me the freedom to deal with the serious stuff like I’ve done in the Christian market: anger, abortion, AIDS, homosexuality, promiscuity, terminal illness,” Rivers, who formerly wrote secular romances, told Aspire magazine in 1997. “The CBA market that thought fiction wasn’t godly now realizes it’s a tool to reach people who are struggling in all aspects of faith.”
Tracy Farrell, editor of the Love Inspired line, agreed that Christian romance can deal with “grittier situations.”
“Readers who are more religiously centered tend to look at life as more of a commitment to certain things,” she told Salon.com. “They like to see characters who have real experiences and real purposes.”
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.