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Novel ideas

Christian publishers expand definition of worthy fiction

Grip. Grin. Flash. Oliver North, the Iran-Contra fall-guy turned one-man media conglomerate, posed for photos with fans who lined up to meet him at a booth operated by his fiction publisher, Broadman and Holman. Mr. North's new novel The Jericho Sanction won't hit stores until September, but in late May he showed up at Book Expo America (BEA) to do a little advance promotion. Standing in front of a huge blowup of Jericho's cover, Mr. North chatted briefly with each fan, then leaned in for a low-key PR shot-and hundreds of other authors were doing the same in the Expo's 16 acres of exhibit space at the L.A. Convention Center from May 30 through June 1.

Some of the booths were unusual. New World Library, a Novato, Calif.-based publisher of spiritual eclecticism, displayed the forthcoming book God's Messengers: What Animals Teach Us About the Divine. One idea behind the book, said New World's Jason Gardner, is that "the way your dog loves you is a lot like the way God loves you." He added that his company planned "to do a lot more books on 'animal spirituality.'" But among Christian publishing houses, one trend of the past few years was continuing: Still building on momentum generated by the "Left Behind" series, major CBA publishers including Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, and Word are committing more resources to fiction.

Members of the Christian Booksellers Association are no longer pushing for mandatory conversion scenes or squeaky-clean words and action, according to literary agent Chip MacGregor. The two requirements now, he said, are "an understanding of absolute truth, that ideas do have meaning and consequences, [and] that the book must have some kind of redemptive value." As a result, fiction genres that once were the sole domain of secular publishers have crossed over into CBA. For example, Harvest House will this month release The Accused, the third title in Craig Parshall's "Chambers of Justice" series, made up of novels that feature not only the suspense and tense courtroom action expected in a legal thriller but also characters who regularly wrestle with questions of faith, ethics, and morality.

Oliver North's military techno-thrillers also represent a newer CBA genre, as do books that fall into a self-revelatory category for female readers known among publishing insiders as "Chick Lit." (Think Bridget Jones's Diary, cleaned up.) Neta Jackson's The Yada-Yada Prayer Group (Integrity), due this fall, is among the first titles in this category. Novels with grittier and more realistic themes-for example, Michael Morris's A Place Called Wiregrass (Cook Ministries), a book about spousal abuse-have also appeared.