A desire to make spirituality a more integral part of everyday life combined with the technology that makes that easier would seem a match made in, well, at least Silicon Valley, if not somewhere higher. But while some religion publishers report success with digital editions and even apps, it’s still too early to talk about “evotionals” as a hot new trend.
As a proportion of total sales, e-books in the religion and spirituality category lag behind general trade numbers, says Jon Sweeney, publisher at Paraclete Press. Like others, he wonders whether the tactile, ritual aspects of prayer, meditation, and reflection mean people engaged in those practices are more likely to want to hold and interact with a “real” book. He adds, “It might also have something to do with the audience for religion being more traditional overall, so they tend to be an audience that will hold onto the physical book more enduringly.”
At Franciscan Media, Barbara Baker, divisional director of sales, marketing, and Internet, sees “a lot of different things happening right now. People are sort of all over the board.” She says, “Some of our devotional things have done fairly well [as e-books] and others not.”
That the digital upheaval has yet to settle into a clear pattern is reflected by the contrasting experience of InterVarsity Press’s associate publisher and director of sales and marketing Jeff Crosby. “A few years ago, I mistakenly believed that our spiritual formation titles would likely lag behind other general and academic books in digital adoption,” he says. “That has not happened. Overall, we are seeing the same percentage of digital titles in this category sold as in any other.”
At Shambhala Publications, president Nikko Odiseos credits savvy, segmented direct-to-consumer marketing with creating e-book sales for backlist titles like When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön that are better than the industry average. “As we have converted our backlist to digital, we are able to let subsets of our email and social media audience know,” he says, “avoiding information overload to our wider audience.”
There’s an App for That
In an article headlined “From Sexting to Sacraments: How Mobile Apps Are Taking on Religion,” technology website Gizmodo recently observed that though the Bible was the first text to achieve widespread mass production, it has taken a bit longer for it “to latch onto today’s hot, new medium: mobile apps.”
Still, use of tablets and smartphones for Bible searches almost doubled in the three years leading up to 2014, according to “The State of the Bible: 6 Trends for 2014,” an April 8 report by the Barna Group, longtime researchers of religion in America.
Probably the single most successful commercial daily devotional app for mobile phone users so far is the one for Sarah Young’s multimillion-selling Jesus Calling. Thomas Nelson has sold 200,000 copies of the app “without cutting into book sales,” notes Laura Minchew, senior v-p and publisher of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan Gift Books, Tommy Nelson Children’s Books, and New Media.
That success helped prompt the company’s recent Devotions Daily app, which offers a free introduction to other devotional apps by Young and by Max Lucado.
Hachette Book Group’s FaithWords is pursuing the app space aggressively, with more than a dozen currently available and plans to create more for backlist devotionals. Its biggest success has been with a version of The Confident Woman Devotional by Joyce Meyer, “but most of our apps sell pretty consistently across the board, especially devotional apps by Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen,” says Michele McKee, digital content director.
Loyola Press’s Three-Minute Retreat app, developed from an online resource launched a decade ago, has proved popular, but there are no plans as yet for book-based apps, says Joe Durepos, executive editor, trade acquisitions. “Catholics are a little bit behind the curve technologically,” he says.
Our Sunday Visitor’s four apps include one for praying the rosary and a guide to saints’ names drawn from its longstanding Dictionary of Patron Saints’ Names. “We have tested the market, but we are cautious,” says president and publisher Greg Erlandson. “The challenge with apps is the revenue stream.”
New World Library has produced almost 30 apps in the past six years. Works by Eckhart Tolle and Mother Teresa are in its apps catalogue, from which associate publisher Munro Magruder projects six-figure revenues in 2014. “We believe that apps reach a different customer than e-books and are another factor that can help the discoverability of a particular title in all of its formats,” he says.