The combination of readers’ changing habits and a depressed economy has made marketing and promoting physical and digital books increasingly challenging. Book discoverability for Christian fiction, publishers say, is a little easier because of a built-in niche audience. But as e-books continue to change the publishing world, they have also spurred relentless creativity and experimentation from Christian and general fiction marketers alike.

In 2011, according to Digital Book World, nearly half of consumers changed their book-buying behavior. Kelly Gallagher, then Bowker v-p of publishing solutions and current v-p of content acquisition at Ingram, reported in 2012 that instead of simply browsing online or in physical bookstores, readers now discover books in as many as 44 different ways. Even readers of the same genre may have several different means of discovering books via tablet, laptop, or bookstore browsing.

Innovation, Reorganization

To get Christian books noticed in as many ways as possible, houses have revamped their approaches to marketing and promotion by doing everything from redesigning their Web sites and investing in blogger book review programs to experimenting with lower price points for new author series. “The entire industry has been making it up as we go along and figuring out what works and what doesn’t,” says Pamela Clements, associate publisher at Abingdon Fiction and Christian Living. “We’re getting more strategic and savvy as we go.”

At some companies, promotional teams have been restructured to promote by genre instead of marketing authors one by one, while others have worked on changing their online presence to promote author brands. Shrinking shelf space and a crowded digital book market have created fierce competition for readers’ attention, Clements adds. “Discoverability is harder than it’s ever been. There are fewer shelves and more people trying to stand on them. For booksellers in a down economy, you stick to the familiar, so we’re intentionally fighting, struggling every day toward getting our share of shelf space and to get those books off the shelves.”

One way to get a share of shrinking retail space has been to augment the word-of-mouth and expert recommendations of in-store sellers with comparable discovery tools, such as niche book bloggers. Some Christian publishing houses like Abingdon and Bethany House use outreach to niche and general book bloggers via review programs, to have them serve as a kind of word-of-mouth online street team. They also use author and company social media profiles, as Zondervan does with its Christian Fiction Facebook page. At Bethany House, joining NetGalley, a virtual clearinghouse for reviewers and book bloggers, expanded the global reach for its books while also cutting down on shipping costs, according to Noelle Buss, Bethany House fiction publicist. “There are also people requesting our titles that don’t usually read Christian fiction.”

At Harvest House, publicist Aaron Dillon says that the popularity of Amish fiction in recent years has inspired interest among readers for other titles. “Trying to stay with or ahead of trends, capturing the cultural zeitgeist, has become very important as a marketing tool,” Dillon says.

For some publishers, change in their marketing strategies has taken place at the same time as consolidation and corporate shifts. At the HarperCollins Christian Publishing Group, Thomas Nelson and Zondervan will continue to operate as distinct brands, while marketing and promotional efforts have been combined. Katie Bond, director of marketing and public relations for HarperCollins Christian Publishing, says that in response to a mercurial marketplace for Christian fiction, the publisher has reorganized its team by verticals, making specialists responsible for titles by genre. The cross-functional team change was launched in September.

Daisy Hutton, v-p and publisher of fiction at HarperCollins Christian, says that the team reorganization was necessary because of the “intimacy to fiction reading that makes it especially different for readers. We want our marketers to be better equipped to understand that, so to have them become real experts and specialists in their fields really helps.”

Relationships with Readers Key

As Clements mentioned, niche book and brand promotion is a key marketing tool for publicists in Christian fiction. Author engagement with readers—both as creators of content and online marketers—continues to be an integral part of boosting discoverability. Brandi Lewis, marketing manager at Simon & Schuster’s Howard Books imprint, says that strategizing for promoting fiction for a Christian audience also requires that authors take on social media. “We need authors to understand that we need them to go above and beyond just writing the book. Fans of fiction books have more of a connection to the authors”—something that social media fosters.

Clements at Abingdon says that using one writer’s fan base to determine the reading tastes of an audience is also key. For instance, if there’s an author readers love who is in between publishing books, she asks “how can we give them an alternative” so they can discover a new author like the ones they’ve already read?

So far, relentless tweaking of promotional efforts seems to have paid off for writers and publishers. But some tools, like book trailers or fiction serialization, haven’t been as successful. Howard’s Lewis says that while book trailers for fiction titles are considered a must for new media promotion, she rarely sees more than a few hundred views: “I wonder how effective they are, then, when it comes to selling the books.” Dillon at Harvest House, on the other hand, says that book trailers are part of an aggressive marketing strategy that works for its authors. What hasn’t worked at Harvest House are social media efforts on Google+, Dillon says. “We found our audience wasn’t there, and, as a publisher, it didn’t fit with our social media goals.”

Serialization of new fiction releases wasn’t successful for HarperCollins Christian Publishing either, Bond says. “We released a portion of a book at one price point, then released the second half, and we did not have success with that experiment. The jury is still out on serialization.”

This is especially true for new authors. Buss at Bethany House says that new authors are generally becoming harder to launch as the breadth of shelf space in big box stores narrows. “You also see how little retailers are willing to risk on a new author as opposed to sticking with the old ones. They’re wanting to focus and trim down.”

Web Tools

In cyberspace, publishers are finding success by making their sites easier to navigate, grouping titles together thematically, and offering shorter works of fiction by established authors to build book buzz. Abingdon, for example, will sell some of its titles for Valentine’s Day using a “Love Is in the Air” campaign. At Bethany House, Buss says that, in addition to investing heavily in the company’s blogger review program, which has several thousand subscribers to its newsletter, they also made an exclusive landing page for all of the book specials and will continue to work on offering unique content in the future. “When you have a lot of options, publishers make themselves stand out by offering something different or special,” Buss says.

In November, to mitigate the risks of Christian fiction getting lost in the online shuffle, WaterBrook Multnomah launched an online portal where various publishers’ books in the category get a showcase. The hope is that an online hub at will keep buyers from wandering and getting lost in a forest of alternatives.

Sometimes offering readers unique value takes the form of a giveaway or an online community. Most publishers have continued to give readers more content, in print and online, like q&as with authors interviewing authors—something that is also common for Kensington titles. Giveaways and exclusive content spur a lot of activity and sales for publishers, Dillon says.

Lewis says that Karen Kingsbury sold 30,241 copies of an excerpt from The Bridge—a chapter that didn’t make the final edit—which helped generate sales for her first venture into hardcover fiction when it released in October. But Kingsbury is also very engaged with her 270,000 fans on Facebook, Lewis adds. “I don’t know that it would work for a new author, other than it’s cheap,” Lewis says. “It’s really for the fans who want more and just can’t wait for the book.”

An estimated 14% of fiction e-books purchased are first seen in the special offers section of a print or digital book, like the digital excerpts of fiction that Lewis mentioned. Bowker data show that browsing was the #1 source of book discoverability online and in print in 2011, which underscores the need for publishers to adopt dynamic book promotion practices so their books can be found.

In addition to enabling better browsing, Hutton says that publishers must also use pricing wisely.

“We’re not moving aggressively into e-only publishing, but we are doing e-first to increase discoverability. We have much more access to links and shorter publishing lead times. Timed price promotions are also a factor. You have to keep dropping price promotions and adding discounts on second or third products. That’s how we’re trying to capture for print books what we’ve captured for digital books.”

For the four members of the HarperCollins Christian marketing team, Bond says that time management for the newly reorganized department will be the next big hurdle, so that “we don’t go into silos instead of working as a team, making sure our specialists are using their time well and in the right way.”

The challenges that publishers and authors face are not unlike those in any genre, Lewis says. “If anything, it’s a little easier because of the Christian marketplace, and because of the Christian bookstores that have databases of fiction buyers.” What general fiction and Christian fiction ultimately have in common is that both “still need to find an audience,” Lewis says.