Amish Fiction: Bonnet Books Rise in Popularity
- Friday, March 11, 2011
In 1997, The Shunning by Beverly Lewis, published by Bethany House, ushered in a new subgenre of Christian fiction. Fourteen years later, Christian Amish fiction has exploded.
“Sales of Amish fiction continue to be strong. There used to be one company doing Amish fiction, now there are a dozen. Basically every CBA publishing house doing fiction is either publishing or planning to publish an Amish novel,” says Chip MacGregor, president of MacGregor Literary Inc.
According to Pubtrack Consumer, in 2010, fiction sales accounted for around 18 percent of all religious book sales. In a 2009 Wall StreetJournal article, a Barnes and Noble buyer said that Amish fiction accounted for 15 of the chain’s top 100 religious fiction books. Today, nearly every Christian publishing house releases Amish fiction titles.
For example, in 2010, 11 out of 20 fiction titles published by Harvest House were Amish fiction. This year, Harvest House will bring out at least nine Amish titles. Nick Harrison, senior editor, says Amish titles comprise a little more than half of its fiction list.
“Amish fiction titles are, by far, one of the strongest categories in our published fiction. Sales have been very positive throughout our Amish books,” says Shane White, national Christian trade sales manager for Harvest House.
Thomas Nelson put out seven Amish fiction titles last year and will do the same number in 2011. “Amish is a major subgenre that we specialize in, as well as part of our overall growth in romance. Romance (historical, contemporary, Amish, etc.) continues to grow and currently makes up more than 50 percent of our new titles each year,” said Allen Arnold, vice president and publisher of Thomas Nelson.
Even secular publishers have started to jump on the Amish fiction bandwagon. “Publishers notice when authors start selling tens of thousands of titles, so the general market has already moved in to offer Amish settings, although sometimes without the redemptive messages,” says MacGregor.
Nicknamed “bonnet books” by fans because of the ubiquitous covers showing women wearing prayer kapps, Amish fiction generally tells a story—either contemporary or historical—set within an Amish community. “Readers want to imagine a way of life that isn’t dictated by busy schedules. A place where Hollywood isn’t the final say on what’s relevant. The most important things to an Amish person are God, family and community,” says Natalie Hanemann, a Thomas Nelson senior editor who handles Amish fiction.
That definition has expanded to include other genres under the Amish label. “It’s interesting to see that what started as gentle romances set in Amish country now extend to historical novels, romantic suspense, women’s fiction, mysteries, literary novels, thrillers—there’s even some Amish horror and paranormal being produced,” says MacGregor.
Faith plays an integral role within the books. “At the core, I would say that an Amish story does include main characters who adhere to the Amish faith, or at least they did at one time,” says Vannetta Chapman, author of A Simple Amish Christmas. Chapman is currently writing Amish books for three publishers.
“Many purists, however, feel that the only real Amish books are the ones with an Amish main character struggling with Amish-related issues in mostly-Amish surroundings,” adds Mindy Starns Clark, author of the nonfiction A Pocket Guide to the Amish Life and three Amish novels, including The Amish Midwife.
Why readers flock to Amish fiction is no mystery, these experts say. As Harvest House’s Harrison puts it, “The perceived simplicity and stability of Amish life is a large component of the genre’s popularity.”
Hanemann points to three things that make the books appealing to readers. “First, it allows the reader to escape from the trappings of modern life into a simpler time. Second, we have a natural curiosity about self-marginalized groups and fiction allows us to learn about them while still being entertained. Third, women in particular love to imagine a life where their main priorities are their faith, their families and their friends,” she says.
“It’s a romanticized past where the people worked the land, lived quiet lives and had a strong faith,” adds MacGregor. “It speaks to the best of American values of God, work, family and achievement. Yet in the midst of the culture, people were living full lives—lives filled with romance and joy and heartbreak and passion.”
In particular, many Christians have embraced Amish fiction for its portrayal of faith. “We share the same faith and the same values, but we live out that faith in different ways in some respect. The Amish offer choices, give us ways to simplify our lives, and that can be a good thing,” says Chapman.
“I think Christian readers find it deeply satisfying to learn more about characters who believe as we do, but who have chosen to live out that faith in an extremely radical way,” says Clark. “The big differences between us and them aren’t about theology, but about how they have chosen to live out that theology in their day-to-day lives.”
A Saturated Market?
Some publishers believe the Amish fiction category has not reached a saturation point, while others think that place could be reached in the near future. “The Amish category has reached a maturation, rather than saturation, point. Amish fiction has been—and continues to be—a category that attracts passionately loyal readers,” says Arnold of Thomas Nelson.
“I don’t think it has reached a saturation point yet. The sales are still very strong. Whether it will reach such a point in the future is anyone’s guess. Amish-themed fiction could potentially endure as a genre, as we have seen prairie and Western-themed Christian fiction do, for example,” says Elizabeth Colclough, marketing copywriter and co-creator of AmishReader.com.
MacGregor thinks a market saturation point for Amish fiction is the wrong question to be asking. “In the 1950s, people were asking this question about westerns. In the 1960s, it was spy novels; in the 1980s, it was techno-thrillers. … Each of these genres eventually faded, but not because of over-saturation. They faded due to the natural course of things—over time, the reading culture moves away from one genre and toward another. As a sub-genre, I believe Amish fiction is here to stay for a while.”
A Bright Amish Future
All indicators point to the Amish fiction category continuing to expand and grow for the foreseeable future. “The future of Amish fiction rests on new ideas and fresh hooks within the genre,” says Arnold. Thomas Nelson has put that into practice with its upcoming Amish fiction releases, including Beth Wiseman’s new series that follows an Amish family relocating to Colorado, Kelly Long’s series on how quilting connects an Amish community and Ruth Reid’s new series that features both Amish and angles.
“Amish fiction is here to stay. The sales for Amish titles may come down some in future years, but it will always be good selling category in the Christian book market,” says White. Harvest House has several Amish series that will have new releases this year, including the Little Valley Series by Jerry S. Eicher, The Amish Farm Trilogy by Gayle Roper, The Wayne County Series by Mary Ellis and The Women of Lancaster County by Clark and Leslie Gould.
For the Fans
For fans of Amish fiction, this year brings a slew of new releases from new and current authors. Below is a partial list of 2011 Amish fiction titles. For more information about the Amish and Amish fiction, check out:
Currently in Bookstores
The Amish Midwife by Mindy Starns Clark and Leslie Gould
A Wedding Quilt for Ella by Jerry S. Eicher
A Rose Revealed by Gayle Roper
The Search by Suzanne Woods Fisher
Lilly’s Wedding Quilt by Kelly Long
Plain Proposal by Beth Wiseman
What the Heart Sees by Kathleen Fuller
Abigail’s New Hope by Mary Ellis
The Judgment by Beverly Lewis
Ella’s Wish by Jerry S. Eicher
The Promise of an Angel by Ruth Reid
Double Take by Melody Carlson
The Amish Nanny by Mindy Starns Clark and Leslie Gould
A Baby for Hannah by Jerry S. Eicher
Healing Hearts by Beth Wiseman
Hide and Secret by Kathleen Fuller
Treasuring Emma by Kathleen Fuller
Ella Finds Love Again by Jerry S. Eicher
Falling to Pieces by Vannetta Chapman
A Lancaster County Christmas by Suzanne Woods Fisher
The Mercy by Beverly Lewis
A Marriage for Meghan by Mary Ellis
The Wonder of Your Love by Beth Wiseman
An Amish Wedding by Wiseman, Fuller, Long
The Captive Heart by Dale Cramer
Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer and editor, and author of Hired @ Home: The Christian Mother's Guide to Working From Home. She lives in Fairfax, Va., with her husband and four children. Visit her at www.sarahhamaker.com.
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