Books on prayer, the heart of most religions, make up a huge subcategory in religion publishing. The topic is not only foundational but offers a range of possibilities across the spectrum of beliefs.
As with books in general, each new title needs something distinctive to have a prayer of success in such a crowded market. Is its author already known for the subject matter? Or is it the first time a certain popular writer has addressed this theme? Is the point to introduce a classic book or mystic to a new generation? Or to reach a niche audience? Publishers and booksellers say any of these elements may play a role in selling a book of prayers or about prayer.
"I don't think of it as a big category because so much of it is driven by the author's networks and the author's speaking engagements," says Jon Sweeney, associate publisher at Paraclete Press, which has several prayer titles across the range of Christian traditions for spring and summer. "It's not so imperative that a publisher come up with something really innovative to make a prayer book stand out."
Sweeney says Paraclete is unlikely to publish general introductions to prayer unless they are exceptionally written or by an author with a built-in audience. The press's current offerings all reflect one trend: rediscovery.
In Praying with the Church: Developing a Daily Rhythm for Spiritual Formation (Paraclete, May), directed at evangelicals exploring liturgical prayer practices that might be unfamiliar, Scot McKnight (InProfile, p. S14) explains the importance of fixed-hour prayer. The Anglican prayer book is examined in The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer (Oxford Univ. Press, June), edited by Charles Hefling and Cynthia Shattuck. And former PW contributing editor Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayer for Springtime and The Divine Hours: Prayer for Summertime are out in paperback (Doubleday, Feb. and June, respectively).
Oblation: Meditations on St. Benedict's Rule (Paraclete, Feb.) by Rachel M. Srubas tunes into the current fascination with Christian monasticism and mystics. So does another Paraclete book—though not directly related to prayer—How to Be a Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job: An Invitation to Oblate Life (Feb.) by Benedictine Brother Benet Tvedten.
More titles reflect the interest in monasticism: Wisdom from the Monastery: The Rule of St. Benedict for Everyday Life (Liturgical Press, June) by Patrick Barry, Richard Yeo, Kathleen Norris and others; A Monk's Alphabet: Moments of Stillness in a Turning World (Shambhala/New Seeds, Aug.) by Benedictine monk Jeremy Driscoll; and The Way of the Mystics: Ancient Wisdom for Experiencing God Today (Jossey-Bass, June) by John Michael Talbot with Steve Rabey.
The Lourdes Pilgrim: A Prayerbook & Guide (Paraclete, Mar.) by Oliver Todd provides a link between prayer and religious travel, as does Praying the Chartres Labyrinth: A Pilgrim's Guidebook (Pilgrim Press, June) by Jill Kimberly Hartwell Geoffrion.
Paraclete author Frederica Mathewes-Green, whose other books have been aimed at people who want to know more about Orthodox Christian practice, writes about prayer for the first time in First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty-Day Journey Through the Canon of St. Andrew (Jan.).
Escape to Prayer
Church Publishing, the publishing arm of the U.S. Episcopal Church, regularly publishes prayer-related books. "There are almost always books from each of our imprints that center around the theme of prayer in any season," says Jeff Hamilton, director of sales.
He says an important audience now is the busy multitasker, which these days is virtually everyone. "While prayer will always be treasured as a place to escape to—a place for solitude—like all other activities that we encounter in our daily lives, prayer has become something we have to fit into our daily regimen."
With that in mind, Grace on the Go: 101 Quick Ways to Pray (Morehouse, Apr.) by Barbara Botocci is aimed at the liturgical trade, the CBA market and the general trade. "We're marketing that as a personal prayer book, primarily geared toward women," Hamilton says. Other prayer-on-the-go books include Paper Bag Prayers: Finding God in Little Things, Any Time Any Place (Liguori Publications, Mar.) by Bernadette McCarver Snyder and On-the-Job Prayers: 101 Reflections and Prayers for Christians in Every Occupation (ACTA, Mar.) by William David Thompson.
Like St. Benedict, St. Francis has a universal appeal beyond the Catholic tradition. Emulators can turn for inspiration to Susan Pitchford's Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone (Morehouse paper, May), which Hamilton says will be sold to the liturgical and general Christian markets, including the United Methodists' Cokesbury chain. "There seemed to be a need for a practical book like this for those interested in Franciscan spirituality." Harper San Francisco offers a way for readers to learn more about Francis and about another famed mystic from the same town with Francis and Clare of Assisi: Selected Works (May) edited by Cindy DiTiberio.
While most prayer books this season aim to be new explorations of the old, at least one reinvents liturgy for the contemporary age. The Hip Hop Prayer Book (Church Publishing, May), edited by Rev. Timothy Holder, reflects the growing Christian hip-hop movement and grew out of services at an Episcopal church in the Bronx.
The book "has a really good flow to it" and a "nice community feel," says Hamilton, describing the shiny cross on the imitation leather cover as "sort of that bling-bling look." Holder works an active speaking schedule around the country, and the book will be promoted at his appearances, at Christian youth conferences, to the youth market and to the general trade.
Views from the Stores
With so many choices, how are booksellers deciding what to buy? PWspoke with representatives of two independent stores with different customer bases and with a Family Christian Store buyer. (Borders and Barnes & Noble declined to comment.) Hip-hop has made few inroads into South Dakota, where a country or nature angle would be more likely to sell, says Peggy Bieber of Little Professor Book Center in Aberdeen. She has a heavily Christian demographic with a strong Catholic base, and her customers are interested in Benedict, Francis, the pope, anything on Mother Mary, and devotionals.
Spring/summer offerings that might appeal to them include Praying with John Paul II (The Word Among Us, June) by Jo-Garcia Cobb and Keith E. Cobb and The Complete Rosary: A Guide to Praying the Mysteries (Loyola, Apr.) by William G. Storey.
In urban San Francisco, what does Green Apple buyer Kevin Ryan look for in prayer books? "I think I would boil it down to 'I know it when I see it,' " he says. "We don't sell denominational books very well, but we do sell more generally spiritual books." He says books on prayer across faiths or with a more Buddhist perspective or of the searching variety move better at his store, where How to Pray Without Being Religious (Element Books, 2004) did well.
Possibilities for his customers, among a raft of largely Christian books, could include The Energy of Prayer: How to Deepen Our Spiritual Practice (Parallax Press, Apr.) by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (InProfile, p. S15); Blessing the Animals: Prayers and Ceremonies to Celebrate God's Creatures, Wild and Tame(Skylight Paths, Mar.), edited and with introductions by Lynn L. Caruso; and The Power of Prayer: Make a Joyful Noise (Baha'i Publishing, May).
The Family Christian chain bases choices on past experience with an author and other factors, says buyer Tim Way. "We never set out to find new books in a particular category." He says the chain is not trying to maintain a certain number of prayer titles at any one time.
Way finds readers generally get more serious about prayer toward year's end and into the new year, and that devotionals sell more quickly than books on prayer. Family Christian shelves the two types in the same section, but separates them. The prayer subcategory has been soft since a boom after 2000's Prayer of Jabez, he says. "This past year there were just at best a handful of books on prayer [in our stores], and none that did particularly well."
One he expects will perform is Philip Yancey's Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? (Zondervan, Sept.). Among other new and forthcoming books by established names are two devotionals from Nelson's J. Countryman imprint: Max Lucado's Grace for the Moment, Volume II (Mar.) and Stormie Omartian's 7 Prayers That Will Change Your Life Forever (Aug.). Despite depressed sales, Way sees the subject matter of prayer as timeless, and says it's not time for publishers to pull back.
Revisions and reissues make up a number of "new" prayer books. Case in point: Catholic publisher Ave Maria Press's Opening to God: A Guide to Prayer (Apr.) by Jesuit priest Thomas H. Green and With Open Hands: 34th Anniversary Edition (Apr.) by the late Henri J.M. Nouwen, with a new foreword by Sue Monk Kidd.
"Both of these books have been in our line for years and have a solid track record," says Bob Hamma, AMP editorial director. Green brings "the classic tradition of meditative prayer to an audience in a very accessible way," Hamma says, while Nouwen's reputation has spread from Catholic readers through mainline Protestants to evangelicals.
"Our main hope is that we can get these books to the general trade, and that's where the younger audience will see them," says Hamma. "We're seeing that younger Catholics are looking for materials that really come from the heart of the Catholic tradition, and that in particular is why we think that Opening to God, which draws so specifically from the Catholic mystical heritage, will be of interest to them."
Other important reissues include Doubleday's The Way (May) by Josemaría Escrivá, originally published in 1934 and described as the definitive work for Opus Dei; An African Prayer Book (Mar.) by Desmond Tutu, published in hardcover in 1996; and Who Am I, God? The Doubts, the Fears, the Joys of Being a Woman (Berkley, May) by the late inspirational writer Marjorie Holmes, first published in 1971.