Is your teen talking back? Is your toddler not yet talking? There’s a book for that.
A search for “parenting books” on Amazon.com reveals more than 70,000 unique titles, giving rise to an ordeal religion publishers identify as their number one issue in this category: standing out from the pack. “The greatest challenge we face is the glut of product already on the shelves,” says Debbie Wickwire, senior acquisitions editor for Thomas Nelson. “Honestly, how many ‘launching’ and ‘survival’ guides can a parent read?”
Religion publishers have responded to this challenge in various ways, but five strategies are proving particularly helpful in the flooded category of parenting books.
Addressing Specific Needs
It used to be so simple, didn’t it? First you learned What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and then Dr. Spock walked you through all the usual illnesses and milestones of Baby and Child Care. If your school-age son got mouthy, you could Have a New Kid by Friday or learn How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, both courtesy of Kevin Leman (Baker Books).
What all those books had in common was that they held to a one-size-fits-all standard; they dealt with challenges that were not unusual. Even in the smaller religion market, parenting books assumed that kids were kids and that parenting issues were more or less universal.
Nowadays, the publishing trend is to divide and conquer the parenting market. “It appears that the topics and segmentation are becoming much more defined and more advanced,” explains Barry Russell, sales manager for Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, Mo. “Instead of having a book on boys, it seems to be a book on boys with ADHD.”
Some titles are specific about both audience and subject, like Bethany House’s What a Son Needs from His Mom (Mar. 2013) and What a Daughter Needs from Her Dad, which has sold 47,000 copies since 2004. Others zero in on the subject matter. “I see more parenting books that are issue-oriented,” reports Cat Hoort, marketing and publicity manager for Kregel Publications. “They tackle a specific relevant topic. Bullying is one right now.”
Books that address the changing American family are on the rise. “Single parenting continues to be a growing topic with readers as we see more and more kids raised in single parent and/or blended family homes,” says Jeff Rustemeyer, senior director of the publishing arm of Focus on the Family. “We are also seeing an ongoing, growing trend toward adoption and the special challenges families face assimilating adopted children.”
While slicing and dicing is a great way for publishers to find new audiences and for readers to receive advice tailored specifically to their needs, it’s not a sure-fire recipe. A niche audience is by definition smaller than a general one, and it can be harder to reach. “Because books are becoming more segmented in their target audience, it is more and more difficult to reach that segment of the market,” says Beacon Hill’s Russell.
Emphasizing Author Platform
As audience segmentation increases, marketing departments are often stretched thin. More of the burden of promotion is shifting to the author. While author platform is important in every book category, from fiction to cookbooks to dieting, it may be even more significant in the parenting arena, where readers feel vulnerable and want rock-solid guidance they can trust.
“Issues like special needs, adoption, a strong-willed child, or the rise of autism send parents into a bookstore or library,” says Chicago Tribune columnist Jennifer Grant, mother of four and author of MOMumental: Adventures in the Messy Art of Raising a Family (Worthy, May). “They’re hungry for narratives that mirror what they’re going through while giving them a sense of how to manage whatever the issue is.”
Grant views author platform not as a contest to see who has the most Twitter followers but as an opportunity to engage with readers. Some of her columns about adoption, and specifically the experience of adopting a child from Guatemala, resulted in letters and e-mails from readers all over the country. “I’m not at all an adoption expert, but what I found was an organic community of people with similar experiences,” she says.
This is exactly the kind of connection to readers that publishers are looking for. At Ave Maria Press, publicist Amanda Williams sees bloggers as already having a built-in relationship with their audience. “We’ve certainly seen an uptick in the number of bloggers-gone-authors, and we are pleased to have signed some of the best-known Catholic mommy bloggers,” she says. Since Ave Maria’s books are “steeped in Catholic tradition,” the publisher looks to authors who can bring a Catholic perspective to topics like pregnancy and motherhood. It will release Sarah Reinhard’s A Catholic Mother’s Companion to Pregnancy in September.
At Thomas Nelson, senior v-p and publisher for gift and children’s books Laura Minchew notes that the rise of social media presents an exceptional opportunity for authors “to build credibility through their platforms.”
Platform is key for debut author Maralee McKee, who is described as a “Manners Mentor” and who has appeared on the Warner Bros. national morning show, The Daily Buzz. McKee’s first book, Manners That Matter for Moms (Harvest House, Oct.), teaches moms to apply time-tested etiquette to such modern problems as texting at the dinner table or how to please both a mom and a stepmom on Mother’s Day.
But the blog platform can cut both ways, cautions Jeana Ledbetter, v-p of editorial for Worthy Publishing. “With the proliferation of mom blogs, there is a wealth of information available for free on the Internet,” she says. “As a result, a parenting book has to be compelling enough for readers to spend their hard-earned money on it.”
Walking with the Reader
Author expertise has always been key in the category of parenting books; for example, Dr. Spock’s authority derived from his professional role as a pediatrician. But today, an author’s platform must also include relatability. The author is not just an expert but a fellow traveler who is also trying to navigate the confusing world of parenting without a road map.
“Over the past several years, parenting books have become more narrative-driven and less prescriptive,” says Worthy’s Ledbetter. “Readers want to read relatable stories to help them deal with the issues they face in their own families.”
At Chalice Press, marketing and client services manager Amber Moore sees “more parenting memoirs being published” nowadays, citing Chalice’s own chronicle PregMANcy: A Dad, a Little Dude, and a Due Date (Apr.). The memoir, which relies on vulnerable personal revelations and laugh-out-loud humor as it walks expecting fathers through the experience of pregnancy, was one that author Christian Piatt says he initially wrote as “catharsis and therapy for myself.” But after showing early drafts to others and hearing from them that it was the best writing he’d ever done, he decided to publish it. “Laughter humanizes the story,” he says.
In a more serious vein, at Westminster John Knox Press, Patheos.com blogger Ellen Painter Dollar shared her story of deciding whether to use advanced reproductive technology to conceive a child or risk passing on her gene for a debilitating disorder. Her book No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction, released in February from WJK, blends memoir with research into the rapidly changing possibilities for human conception. And at Zondervan, a memoir by Emily Colson (daughter of Charles, who provides a foreword and epilogue) details the author’s personal struggle to find help for her autistic son. Dancing with Max came out in 2010, and the paperback version will be released in September.
“What is different today versus five years ago is that young parents are looking more for experiential learning, rather than didactic learning,” says Don Gates, v-p of marketing at Zondervan. “They would rather have a seasoned parent share experiences where principles organically emerge, rather than have a Ph.D. share 10 rules or the latest whiz-bang model.”
Building on Backlist
Still, it can be hard for new authors to make a name for themselves in the parenting category. But the silver lining to that problem is that a title that does strike gold is likely to stick around for a long, long time.
At Thomas Nelson, The Blessing: Giving the Gift of Unconditional Love and Acceptance by John Trent and Gary Smalley has sold more than one million copies in all editions, including a 2011 update. Nelson’s 1995 workbook Reflections from a Mother’s Heart has sold 2.2 million copies, with its most recent edition in 2010.
In backlist, Moody Publishers also sets a gold standard with The 5 Love Languages of Children, co-written by megaselling author Gary Chapman. First published in 1997, it has remained a robust performer for 15 years, selling more than 68,000 copies in 2011. Moody refreshed the book in February with updated content.
While a strong backlist is important, it’s equally crucial for publishers to respond to what parents view as the issues of the day, including tough problems that they might have a difficult time discussing with others. Bethany House has had success with What Your Son Isn’t Telling You—a 2010 book that has sold nearly 45,000 copies—and its companion book, What Your Daughter Isn’t Telling You (2007). It will repackage the latter in March 2013, adding information and advice on teens and social media.
Kregel has a whole series devoted to some of the difficulties teens and tweens face in today’s society. All six of Kregel’s Hot Buttons books are authored by Nicole O’Dell, a mother of six who hosts Teen Talk Radio and Parent Talk Radio. Kregel’s Hoort says that O’Dell sometimes encounters resistance from Christian parents who don’t want to believe the things that their children are facing at school and online. “She sees the challenge of getting Christian parents to accept that their kids are exposed to issues like drugs, pornography, and Internet predators,” says Hoort. “And they’re being exposed at younger and younger ages. The challenge is to convince parents to be proactive about addressing those issues so that their kids are prepared.”
With that in mind, the Hot Buttons series launched in June with its first two titles, which focus on dating and the Internet. Future books will deal with drugs, sexuality, bullying, and self-image—the last two topics a result of the series’ early response.
Part of “getting real” for parents also has been how to set limits and impart altruistic values in a culture of affluence. In May, WaterBrook Press released Kay Wills Wyma’s Cleaning House: A Mom’s Twelve-Month Experiment to Rid Her Home of Youth Entitlement, a memoir about Wyma’s year of putting her five kids to work around the house. According to publicity manager Beverly Rykerd, “this book has struck a chord with the mommy bloggers,” and has been featured on the New York Times parenting blog and on CNN Headline News.
Another book about family limits is MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time (Chalice, Sept.; reviewed in this issue). Dana recounts the strategies her family has used to keep the Sabbath day holy, whether it’s logging off from Facebook or shoving the dirty laundry in a closet until Monday.
Laura Minchew at Thomas Nelson sees a real need for books that teach parents how to help their kids adopt “a simpler lifestyle without some of the emphasis on material possessions. Today’s parents are still living in a self-indulgent world, but they are trying to raise kids with a heart to serve others and be more selfless,” she says. In March, Nelson will release Dave Stone’s guide Raising Kids in a Self-Centered World.
Whatever the topic, there is no end to the proliferation of parenting books. As long as there is a need, there will be a book—or perhaps 70,000.
Help for Dad
Although “Mom is still the primary buyer of parenting books,” as Thomas Nelson’s Laura Minchew suggests, there’s a definite uptick these days in books for dads and about boys. Moody’s Janis Backing agrees. “I think more books are now directed toward fathers than in the past because men are demonstrating an interest in taking an active role in parenting their children,” she says.
To help dads do this, Gospel Light/Regal has Be a Better Dad Today! Ten Tools Every Father Needs (May), and FaithWords will release The Playbook for Dads: Parenting Your Kids in the Game of Life by former quarterback Jim Kelly (Sept.). Earlier this year, Abingdon raised the specter of fatherlessness in African-American families with Our Father: Where Are the Fathers? (Mar.).
Then there are the classics, James Dobson’s 2001 book Bringing Up Boys and others. At Focus on the Family, which partners with Tyndale House for its publishing, a perennial favorite is Raising a Modern-Day Knight: A Father’s Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood, first published in 1997 and updated in 2007. “It has sold over 450,000 copies and continues to be one of our top-selling backlist titles consistently every year,” says Focus on the Family’s Jeff Rustemeyer.