ST. LOUIS – Nearly 700 published and unpublished authors, agents, editors and other publishing representatives are descending on St. Louis for the 10th annual American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) conference. For a group that began life as the American Christian Romance Writers 11 years ago, a decade convention milestone is one that has founders and current leadership reflecting on the past and looking ahead to the future of Christian fiction.
“Christian fiction itself has witnessed the development of new genres and rapid growth in reader interest since ACFW’s inception,” said Cynthia Ruchti, ACFW professional relations liaison.
ACFW President Margaret Daley pointed out, “With the growth of Christian fiction, we are continually trying to find ways to educate and promote our members. ACFW is The Voice of Christian Fiction. People in the industry are coming to us concerning fiction.”
ACFW came about as the result of a vision six authors had in January 2000 to form an organization of Christian writers.
“I truly believe this organization came about in God’s perfect timing. Sooner and it might not have had the same support,” said Tracie Peterson, one of the founders and an award-winning author of more than 95 bestselling Christian fiction novels. “We are so blessed to see support from not only writers, but publishers, agents, marketing pros and the bookstore owners and operators. We are also blessed to see such a wide support for Christian fiction in the general markets. I think ACFW members working with the above-mentioned industry people has made this happen.”
DiAnn Mills, another founder and author of more than 50 Christian fiction books, added, “We saw a need for a community of writers to be inspired, encouraged and taught writing excellence through the common denominator of Jesus Christ.”
From the very beginning, writers, agents, editors and publicists caught the vision the organization. In 2004, the group changed its name from American Christian Romance Writers to American Christian Fiction Writers to better encompass its mission to be the voice of Christian fiction.
“The group has grown in numbers as well as in accountability and wisdom,” said Peterson, who is the keynote speaker at this year’s conference. “We have added a multiple of professionals to our numbers and have been blessed to see the membership expand to include writers worldwide.”
ACFW experienced its share of growing pains, but the explosion of the Internet made connecting with writers from all over the United States and abroad easier. “There have been a lot of additional helps added to the organization. We have online workshops and 24/7 help for writers who are seeking answers to their issues. We’ve seen the local chapters form and that has allowed for face-to-face helps in numerous locations across the nation,” Peterson noted.
Currently, ACFW boasts some 2,500 members.
Daley outlined programs that are continually being developed to meet the needs of its members.
“For example, this year ACFW has formed ‘The End’ Program to encourage members to finish a book; a Newcomers Loop to help familiarize the new members with what ACFW has to offer them; weekly Volunteer Spotlights to highlight the amazing people who volunteer for ACFW; the final stage in the Novel Track program to help our members learn how to edit, polish and set goals to complete their novels; the genre loops with leaders to encourage the exchange of ideas concerning that particular genre; webinars for our members about social media and the Internet; and more opportunities to showcase our published writers.”
Part of the ACFW mission is to put on an annual conference for members. From the first conference in 2002 that had around 100 attendees to the 2011 conference with more than 700, the ACFW convention has added “more layers, more benefits and an increasing level of professionalism and opportunity for attendees,” said Ruchti.
“I remember our first conference in Kansas City,” Peterson reminisced. “Karen Kingsbury came and spoke to us. It was amazing. As the years have gone by, we’ve watched the conference grow in numbers and in professionalism.
“We now have multiple levels of workshops available to authors so that no matter where they are in their career, they can find encouragement and help. We been blessed by the number of professionals in the industry who have willingly lent their help to see this industry strengthened.”
This year’s conference features a host of workshops by award-wining authors, including Tamera Alexander, Tricia Goyer, Kristen Heitzmann, Randy Ingermanson, Jenny B. Jones, Natasha Kern, Julie Lessman, Cara Putman, Deborah Raney, James L. Rubart, and Sarah Sundin. Authors use the convention to meet friends, to grow professionally and to connect with the publishing side of the industry.
“I try to attend ACFW every year, and my focus is usually different each time,” said Trish Perry, an award-winning author and conference attendee. “This year I simply want to touch base with friends I’ve made over the years – both writers and editors – and get to know a few editors I haven’t yet had the chance to meet. And there’s always something new to learn in the classes. The entire experience is refreshing, even though it totally wears me out!”
Looking Into the Future
While the recession has impacted book sales across the board, there are some signs that Christian fiction sales are improving. According to Pubtrack Consumer, in 2010, fiction sales accounted for around 18 percent of all religious book sales. A recent Bowker market survey found that the overall religion category has grabbed 10 percent of the book market as measured in sales dollars.
The Association of American Publishers found that religion (religious fiction and nonfiction books and Bibles) saw movement from 2008 to 2010: 0.5 percent in net sales revenue and 1.1 percent in net unit sales. Overall net sales value for the Religion market in 2010 was $1.35 billion with 204 million net unit sales.
The rising popularity of ebooks has helped sales, with Christian fiction the third-most popular genre of ebook sales, capturing a 16 percent slice of the market share, according to Bowker.
“I think ebooks are a popular format whose day has come. You have offerings from Christianbooks.com, Amazon and Barnes & Noble to name just a few and the numbers continue to grow,” said Peterson. “I think the more we make the books available and reasonable in price, the more we will see in sales. I am hopeful that the authors will continue to work to produce the very best quality work and to hone their skills as storytellers.”
Daley observed that Christian fiction has grown in popularity in recent years as “people are turning to it for hope in times of hardship.”
As such, ACFW expects Christian fiction to continue to publish compelling stories that offer hope. The conference runs Sept. 22 through Sept. 25.