Blog reader Katharine asked: What’s with all the bonnets? Why is it that the best sellers in the CBA are of the Amish/historical fiction/period romance type of book? Not every Christian reader is drawn to those type of novels, yet that seems to be the trend. Do CBA publishers drive the market toward what is safe? Are they really aware of the tastes of the post modern Christian reader? Is there hope for writers who are smart, literary, funny and refuse to wear a bonnet?
→ Let’s start with the obvious: romance books make the bestseller list because a lot of people buy them. And publishers, wanting to stay in business, provide the kinds of books that large numbers of readers buy. Still, of the CBA top 20 fiction titles each month, typically less than half are “bonnet books.”
→ Christian publishers don’t drive the CBA market as much as consumers do. I think there are very few editors in the Christian market who are unaware of the contemporary postmodern zeitgeist—that is, the tastes, values, and opinions of today’s society. And they DO publish books to appeal to all kinds of Christians. But no matter how many new and different books they publish, traditional romance continues to soar. In fact, there are several publishers who resisted “bonnet fiction” for a long time, believing it wasn’t high-quality enough for their house. Most have now picked up on the trend because of the potential for sales, and also because they’ve realized:
→ Bonnet fiction is often high quality fiction. I represent several authors who are gifted writers and amazing researchers, with tremendous knowledge of history as well as subcultures such as the Amish. Their work isn’t substandard just because it’s romance—they study writing and work hard for years to nurture their craft, just like you do.
→ CBA publishers consistently release “literary” fiction as well as other genres such as suspense, legal thrillers, supernatural and fantasy. The Christy Awards exist to recognize quality Christian fiction across nine different genres, but being a finalist for a Christy, or even winning one, doesn’t usually increase sales.
→ The retailers choose which titles to buy, promote, and give premium shelf space to. Like publishers, they put the most effort into the titles they know they have the most chance of selling. If you’re only looking at the Christian fiction section at Walmart, then yes, you’re going to see mostly bonnet fiction, because that’s what sells in Walmart. If you’re not looking beyond the CBA bestseller list, then you’re missing out on thousands of good books that are not bonnet fiction.
→ I’m not sure why people complain about “formulas” in bonnet fiction—after all, most genre fiction has a formula, and the cover design of genre fiction is meant to tell the reader what kind of book it is. It’s a key to marketing—the cover helps sell the book, and it must convey in a fraction of a second what kind of book it is, to quickly draw in its intended reader.
→ Romance readers have always been reliable book buyers (both within CBA and in the general market). While many of us sit around and moan that the bestsellers aren’t “quality” enough for us, the romance readers don’t give a hoot. They’re quietly out there BUYING BOOKS—over and over and over again. In other words, they shut up and read.
→ Finally—why is “bonnet fiction” popular in the first place? If you look at the history of romance books in general, they’ve been one of the staples of the publishing industry since it began. From the “dime novels” of the late 1800s through the “Fabio” books of the 1980s and ‘90s to the more steamy books of today, romance has always sold well. But as romance novels got more racy and explicit, many romance readers became uncomfortable reading it. They still wanted romance, but they wanted it cleaner—more romantic, less sexy—like it was in the past. The Christian publishers fill this need with their bonnet books and other clean romances.
As for why “Amish” fiction itself is such a popular type of romance, think of it this way. In today’s world, it’s more difficult to write the kind of “clean” romance readers want without it feeling unrealistic; yet if you set a contemporary romance in an Amish, Mennonite or other obviously religious community in which certain moral guidelines are followed in courtship, the story can be “clean” and yet still completely realistic. So this is one of the reasons I think it’s so popular. I also think it’s a trend that is going to continue for quite some time, especially as mainstream romance continues to push the edges of eroticism.
Bottom line: You don’t have to like bonnet fiction to appreciate the important role it plays in keeping the Christian book market alive.
Does the prevalence of romance or “bonnet” fiction bother you?
P.S. After I wrote this post, I clicked on the website of Katharine, the reader who asked the question, and the first thing I saw was a positive review of a bonnet book — Jody Hedlund’s The Preacher’s Bride, which I’d already planned to use as an illustration for this post. Serendipity!
P.P.S. CBA stands for Christian Booksellers Association and is the common acronym used to denote the entire Christian publishing industry, consisting of dozens of publishers, literary agents, and large bookstore chains along with hundreds (thousands?) of authors.
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