Pioneering Efforts in Christian Historicals

Sarah Johnson profiles Bethany House

Bethany House, the Minneapolis-based Christian publisher, takes a refreshing approach to historical fiction. Not only do their historical novels sell well, but the genre is a staple of their front list. As Solander readers know, this is unique in today’s market. The back cover of their summer 2005 catalog boasts a colorful ad with the heading “Historical Fiction – What’s New and Hot!” Both their focus on the genre and their efforts to attract new readers are worth noting.

Bethany House has been publishing books for over fifty years, and their initial venture into historical fiction grew out of author interest. “Since we didn’t set out to be a big fiction publisher, the development of our line, at least at first, was somewhat a product of what authors brought us,” said David Horton, Fiction Acquisitions Editor. “Many writers were writing historical works, and since readers seemed to like that genre, we simply continued along those lines.” In 2002, Bethany House was acquired by the Baker Publishing Group, yet its editorial and marketing departments remain separate from the parent company.

The emergence of Christian fiction

In 1979, Bethany House published Love Comes Softly, Janette Oke’s first historical romance. It was their first step into fiction publishing, and it clearly filled a niche. Response was so tremendous that Oke followed up with seven more in the series. She has since written dozens of novels for Bethany House, most of which incorporate historical settings. Oke’s pioneering influence on Christian historical fiction, and Christian fiction as a whole, has lifted her to near-legendary status.

Love Comes Softly, set on the Canadian prairie sometime in the mid-19th-century, tells the story of Marty Claridge, a young woman from the big city forced to fend for herself after her husband’s death. For the sake of her unborn child, and to have a home during the coming winter, Marty agrees to marry a complete stranger: Clark Davis, a widower who needs a wife and whose young daughter Missie needs a mother’s guidance. Although Missie adapts fairly quickly to the new arrangement, Clark is best described as the strong, silent type, and his relationship with Marty is awkward at first. Over a period of months, Marty and Clark grow steadily closer, sharing their lives, hopes, fears, and beliefs. Soon they realize that neither wants to live without the other.

Although no specific year is given in Oke’s novels, and outside events rarely intrude, readers should have no doubt that they’re reading historical fiction. Oke, the daughter of an Alberta farming couple, grew up during the Depression years. In her novels, she includes elements of her own loving home environment, as well as the homespun details of 19th-century pioneer women’s lives: sewing clothes, baking bread, killing chickens for the evening meal, and reliance on friends, neighbors, and their faith during tough times.

Love Comes Softly was made into a Hallmark television miniseries in 2003, and a sequel was produced in 2004. Oke’s novels have sold over fourteen million copies in all. This, if nothing else, should demonstrate their lasting significance to readers—and not just Christian readers, either. The religious elements feel appropriate to the time period and setting, and Oke’s novels appeal to people who simply wish to read a gentle, romantic, and heartwarming story.

The mainstreaming of Christian fiction

The publishing industry insists on segregating Christian (also called “inspirational”) novels from other fiction genres in general chain bookstores. This belies the fact that in the United States, Christian fiction is mainstream, and has been for at least the past decade. This may surprise many Solander readers, as the inspirational fiction genre doesn’t really exist outside of North America. As a Library Journal article posited in 1991: “Many books [from Christian publishers] would be on mainstream best seller lists were they not sold almost exclusively through Christian bookstores.”(1) While Christian publishers still derive a considerable amount of sales from specialty religious bookstores, their novels are also found in neighborhood retail outlets, such as Wal-Mart, throughout the United States.

This same Library Journal piece mentioned that inspirational fiction was often ignored by traditional review sources because of the trade paperback format. This is no longer true. Bethany House’s historical novels are frequently reviewed in Library Journal (which instituted a Christian fiction column to meet the demand of library patrons), Booklist, and Publishers Weekly, not to mention the Historical Novels Review.

Contrary to stereotype, most inspirational novels are not conversion stories. The authors create characters who strive to follow the religious doctrine they themselves follow, and they place them in plots and settings that reflect the religious beliefs of the era. The protagonists learn how to survive adverse circumstances in which their faith is tested and strengthened. As demonstrated by Bethany House’s diverse backlist, the historical settings for these novels can vary tremendously. They often reflect author interest and preference rather than what is currently seen as marketable.

Although the authors typically write for their fellow Christians—market research revealed that the average Christian fiction reader is a 42-year-old woman(2)—readers not fitting this description may find these novels of interest. Christian historicals offer family-oriented content set in a wide variety of locales and eras. They can also provide what some readers may consider a more accurate view of our religious past. By combining research with their own beliefs, the novelists can take readers back to a historical time when religion played a major role in the average person’s day-to-day life. Because of the religious focus, profanity, explicit violence, and sexual content are avoided.

Beyond Janette Oke

Looking at Bethany House’s summer 2005 catalog, it’s clear that historical fiction forms a strong part of their publishing program. From May through August, they will publish at least two new historical novels each month, and many longtime favorites will be reissued with new covers designed to appeal to today’s readers. One example includes Gilbert Morris’s House of Winslow series, an American saga following members of the same family from colonial times through World War II. Each cover not only features characters in period garb but also announces the date when each takes place. The Gypsy Moon, thirty-fifth in the series, will be published for the first time this June. The Winslow novels have sold over twelve million copies in all; this is a significant number for the historical fiction genre, a field where “selling well” usually means that novels have sold in the tens of thousands. Bethany House has also repackaged Janette Oke’s Canadian West novels, a six-book series, complete with vibrant colors and vivid scenes of the early Canadian frontier.

What are some new and upcoming titles the company is enthusiastic about? “Check out Deeanne Gist’s A Bride Most Begrudging, forthcoming this July, for a truly funny historical set in colonial Virginia in the 1640s,” David Horton advised. The gorgeous cover of this historical romance was clearly designed to catch readers’ attention. A colonial woman wearing an elegant gown faces away from the reader, fingers crossed behind her back as if she has a secret to hide. In addition, Horton adds, “We are also excited about Judith Miller’s first solo historical series with us, beginning with First Dawn in July 2005.” Miller’s novel takes the reader to the author’s home state of Kansas during the Civil War. Like most of Bethany House’s historical novels, Miller’s latest forms part of a series. It will follow a sharecropping family from the war-torn South through their settlement in the small pioneer town of Nicodemus, Kansas.

Working with authors and readers

Miller had previously written two series jointly with Tracie Peterson, Bells of Lowell and Lights of Lowell, both set in the mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, during the early- to mid-19th-century. Tracie Peterson, a bestselling author whose most recent novels are set in 1880s Montana, launched her own career by co-writing novels with another author, Judith Pella. Likewise, many of Pella’s historical novels for Bethany House were written jointly with well-known novelist Michael Phillips.

This marketing strategy, common in Christian fiction but not nearly as widely used in other genres, has worked well for Bethany House. “The pairings with more established authors gave these relative newcomers a built-in audience, and it gave them a built-in writing mentor, as well,” David Horton said. “Increased visibility and sales potential were strong benefits for all concerned.” The publisher finds most of its new authors via agents, writers’ conferences, and by referrals from their current authors. Historical novels are defined by the publisher as novels with pre-1950 settings.

One need only look at the Christian Marketplace Best-Seller List (online at http://www.cbaonline.org) to see how well Bethany House’s Christian historicals are performing. Fiction bestsellers for April 2005 included Lauraine Snelling’s Opal (women’s lives on the western frontier, #9); Tommy Tenney’s and Mark Andrew Olsen’s Hadassah (a retelling of the Queen Esther story, #17); and Tracie Peterson’s and Judith Miller’s A Love Woven True (abolitionists in 1840s Lowell, Massachusetts, #18).

Bethany House actively promotes its historical titles to readers. Readers may sign up for a historical fiction e-newsletter on their web site (www.bethanyhouse.com) and the site offers a handy “search by series” feature that lets readers track what their favorite authors have written. Brett Benson, Public Relations Director, mentioned ways in which they market historical romance titles: “We work with numerous romance magazines and web sites to promote our titles that could be categorized as inspirational romance. And with the online romance community growing in leaps and bounds, we plan to have a very active role there.”

Appeal and diversity

When asked why he felt historical settings were so popular with Bethany House’s readers, and with inspirational fiction readers in general, David Horton replied: “I suppose the focus on historical settings was initially popular in Christian fiction for the same reasons it has long been popular in general market fiction. Many people love reading about other times, in particular ‘the good old days’ when, or so we like to imagine, life was simpler and/or more exciting. Historical fiction often avoids the language and sensuality issues more prevalent in contemporary fiction because authors and readers—perhaps mistakenly—imagine that these issues did not exist in the same measure they do today. Historical (or “nostalgic”) fiction is a great match for anyone desiring a ‘gentle’ read.”

Although some of Bethany House’s historical fiction falls into the “gentle read” category, which would include Janette Oke’s prairie novels, readers should not assume that today’s Christian historicals avoid tackling serious issues or focusing on tumultuous times in history. Jack Cavanaugh’s forthcoming novel Dear Enemy will center on the complicated relationship between an American nurse and a wounded German soldier during World War II. Multicultural fiction is also on the upswing, as demonstrated by Michael Phillips’ Shenandoah Sisters series (2003-04), in which a North Carolina planter’s daughter and a former slave are forced to fend for themselves during the Civil War, as well as Denise Williamson’s The Dark Sun Rises (1999) and its sequel When Stars Begin to Fall (2001), critically acclaimed novels about slaves’ experiences in antebellum South Carolina. Ann Tatlock’s award-winning All the Way Home (2002), which Publishers Weekly called “unusually fresh and inventive,” centers on the friendship between two American girls, one of German-Irish and the other of Japanese ancestry, at the time when Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps.

Judging by Bethany House’s backlist, it seems that there are few if any settings that are considered off-limits. (This isn’t exclusive to Bethany House; it reflects Christian historical fiction as a whole.) Though some settings, such as Biblical times, are perennial favorites, historical fiction fans have a wide selection of settings to choose from in their repertoire. For example, it is hard to imagine any general trade publisher deriving success from novels about Norwegian immigrant women settlers in late 19th-century North Dakota, yet “Lauraine Snelling is having great success with her Dakotah Treasures series,” said Horton. Other settings and topics found in their backlist, yet not commonly found in general trade fiction, include Harvey Girls in the early 20th-century West (Tracie Peterson’s Westward Chronicles and Desert Roses series), the War of 1812 (T. Davis Bunn’s and Isabella Bunn’s Heirs of Acadia series), and the trials of a female lawyer in early twentieth-century Los Angeles (Tracie Peterson’s and James Scott Bell’s legal thrillers, The Shannon Saga).

Like all good publishers of historical fiction, Bethany House expects its authors to respect historical truth. As Horton replied: “We expect our authors to strive for complete accuracy in regards to known historical facts. In terms of the fictional storyline, we expect historical plausibility.”

Looking toward the future

Although historical fiction dominated the market in past years, today’s reader of inspirational fiction has many genres to choose from. These range from contemporary thrillers to women’s fiction to contemporary romance. David Horton reported on Bethany House’s experience: “Sales of our historical novels remain strong, but as a percentage of the whole market, historicals are not as dominant as they once were. This is due in large part to the diversification of Christian fiction into all sorts of other genres … Historical fiction is not all we do, although it still plays a major role. Many other genres seem to get most of the press these days, but based upon reader interest, historical fiction isn’t going away anytime soon.”

Surely good news for fans of inspirational historicals, and historical fiction fans in general.

Notes

1 Lauer, Jonathan D. “Popular Fiction for the Faithful.” Library Journal 1 Nov 1991: 65.
2 “Communication from CODES.” Reference and User Services Quarterly 42.1 (2002): 95.

Sarah Johnson, American coordinating editor of the Historical Novels Review, is the author of Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre (Libraries Unlimited, 2005). She would like to thank Brett Benson, Public Relations Manager at Bethany House, and David Horton, Fiction Acquisitions Editor, for answering questions related to this article.

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First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, v.9 no.1 (May 2005): 26-28.

Posted by Sarah Johnson

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