(Courtesy of Tyndale)

America’s first bestsellers were collections of Puritan sermons written in 50 shades of grey.

My lawd, how times have changed! But Christian publishing is still a significant section of the book industry, even if it attracts somewhat less attention nowadays than the latest dystopian novels for teens.

Earlier this week, the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association announced the finalists for its annual Christian Book Awards in seven categories. The faithless need not apply. To be eligible, a book must include “explicit Christian content and an overtly Christian message.” But more than that, “the Christian content in each entry must be evangelical,” and nothing in the book can contradict the organization’s belief in the Trinity, the infallibility of the Bible, the Virgin Birth, the Atonement, the Resurrection, heaven, and the eternal damnation of sinners.

(Courtesy of Tyndale)

I know of no other literary contest that sets down such explicit and detailed content qualifications. But perhaps that’s to be expected. After all, the National Book Award judges are just trying to save literature, not their immortal souls.

Here are the finalists for this year’s Christian Book Award in fiction:

• “Burning Sky,” by Lori Benton (WaterBrook Multnomah). A romance about a woman captured by Native Americans.

• “Dark Justice,” by Brandilyn Collins (B&H). A thriller about terrorists who target America’s electrical grid.

• “Iscariot: A Novel of Judas,” by Tosca Lee (Howard). A historical novel about Judas, from his childhood to his role as the man known for betraying Jesus.

• “The Prayer Box,” by Lisa Wingate (Tyndale). When an elderly landlord dies, one of her tenants discovers a series of prayer boxes that tell the story of a long, complex life.

• “Wings of Glass,” by Gina Holmes (Tyndale). The story of  a young woman in a small town who falls in love with a handsome farmhand who begins abusing her as soon as they get married.

(Courtesy of B&H)

This contest gives feature editors another chance to consider how they’re covering this section of the market. The Christian book industry is estimated at $1.4 billion a year, and yet its books remain mostly invisible to mainstream newspapers and magazines. Marcia Z. Nelson, a religion editor for Publishers Weekly, says many of these novels are better than literary snobs might assume. “At its best, it’s good commercial fiction. It’s certainly not as formulaic as it used to be; the explicit come-to-Jesus resolutions are few. The best of it is thoughtful and develops engaging characters, believable dialog and plotting that reels you in,” Nelson said.

Karen Watson, associate publisher of fiction at Tyndale — best known for the miraculously bestselling “Left Behind” series — laments that the “old snapshot for this category is fairly unyielding.” She suggests that people who scoff at Christian fiction probably haven’t read it lately. “Critics say that it is full of poorly written, simplistic stories with little literary quality. But that is an old snapshot. The quality is there for readers who are looking for an inspirational read,” Watson said.

(Courtesy of Howard)

Nelson notes that PW has started referring to these novels as “inspirational” rather than “Christian.” “Think Mitch Albom, with a little more God sauce,” she says. “It’s a genre characterized by stories intended to edify and uplift, like Oprah’s Book Club titles, but with a few more rules, including no swearing and no sex before marriage. They are clean reads for those who really don’t want to get inside the mind of a serial killer or don’t expect that fictive romantic relationships require explicit sex.”

Jennifer Smith, director of publicity at Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, says that the Christian novels that her house publishes are just like other works of fiction. They try to tell “amazing stories with characters that readers can identify with and that will take readers on an exploratory journey.” The difference is that Howard books “have a faith theme woven into the mix of story-telling and character development.”

Smith also notes that controversy can be good for sales. “With the success of outspoken celebrity Christians, like the Robertson family (from A&E’s “Duck Dynasty”), we have found that there is an extreme need in the marketplace for this type of literature that people gravitate toward,” she said.

(Courtesy of WaterBrook)

But just as God sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust, these inspirational publishers find themselves struggling with the market pressures that traditional publishers suffer. Nelson says, “The category’s not quite as hot as it used to be in terms of sales. The market is just saturated.”

Watson agrees, although she says that Tyndale is in the middle of a very successful year. “The Christian fiction market is facing many of the same challenges as general market fiction. The loss of channels like Borders impacted our sales, as has the closing of many Christian bookstores. There is significant downward price pressure brought to bear from the shift to e-books,” Watson said.

But if Amazon has disrupted the traditional pricing structure, Watson acknowledges “one of the interesting advantages of the Amazon model” for the kinds of novels she publishes: Christian books “are given an opportunity to be considered simply by genre without the designation or separate placement that can occur in stores. Many readers have found authors and books they would have never encountered otherwise,” she said. Such are the benefits of letting the wheat and the chaff grow together until the harvest.

The winners of the Christian Book Awards will be announced on April 28 at the ECPA Leadership Summit in Colorado Springs.

(Disclosure: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)