Praying—speaking to God in formal or informal ways—is a universal form of human communication. Members of every world religion, from Anabaptists to Zoroastrians, practice some form of prayer. And prayer is popular; a 207 Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life poll showed that more than half of Americans say they pray on a daily basis, even those who are religiously unaffiliated.
So it should come as no surprise that books about prayer and other spiritual practices, as well as devotionals—books of regular, usually daily, prayers and/or inspirational readings—are as strong as ever and show no sign of decline. And unlike some categories that are driven by social trends and current events, this category remains largely immune to outside influence, though do expect to see a sprinkling of new titles of this kind from Catholic publishers tied to the election of Pope Francis I.
As in the past, most of these books are written by women, since they remain the primary readers of such books. Many of these authors build up a following, and some rise to superstar status. That, too, is unlikely to change as new and established authors increasingly maintain contact with readers through social media; their short formats are well suited to sharing brief prayers and meditations (Christian meditation is a form of prayerful contemplation, while Buddhist meditation is a practice of mindfulness, concentration, and stillness).
Still, change may be afoot. As older Americans give way to younger generations, books about prayer, meditation, devotions, and other forms of spiritual practice may have to change to survive— young people report much lower levels of daily spiritual practice than their elders, only 48%, according to a 2012 Pew Forum report on millennials, compared to 58% among older Americans. But across the board, publishers remain enthusiastic about the category’s staying power. “Increasingly, we believe people both inside the church and those people of Christian faith who may not regularly attend religious services are desiring a deeper connection with the God they claim to believe exists,” says Jeff Crosby, associate publisher and director of sales and marketing at InterVarsity Press. “And books on prayer, meditation, and spiritual practices are giving them a portal to experience God in deeper, fresh, meaningful ways.”
Crosby says InterVarsity Press has seen a significant increase in its output of spiritual formation books, which include devotionals and spiritual practice titles, since the 2005 founding of its dedicated Formatio line. Critical to sales has been Formatio’s partnering with leaders of spiritual centers and ministries to both write and promote its titles. “The organizational partnerships are often the key,” Crosby says. “Our work with the Transforming Center, Renovaré, and Aprentis has elevated the stature of our Formatio books and given us entrée to key leaders in this area. That, layered on top of traditional venues such as the Religious Booksellers Trade Exhibit, has helped us gain visibility in what can be a crowded landscape.” IVP has also begun co-sponsoring spiritual formation events with some of the centers, another way of getting its titles to stand out, such as An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest by Alan Fadling (June), executive director of the Journey, a Christian leadership ministry; Hidden in Christ: Living as God’s Beloved by James Bryan Smith (July), director of the Aprentis Institute on Christian Formation at Friends University; and A Guide to the Blessing Life by Gerrit Dawson (Sept.), pastor of a Louisiana megachurch.
Other publishers swear by the partnerships they form with brand-name authors who take readers through the steps of daily prayer, meditation, or spiritual growth. Just as consumers put their trust in a certain ketchup, soft drink, or automobile, so do they trust certain authors. But Tracy Danz, Zondervan’s v-p and publisher, says even the best brand name must be combined with an undiluted, timely message. “When you have a solid message, no matter how many other books are published, the book will find a home in the hearts of readers,” he says. Engaging celebrity authors allows Zondervan greater marketing possibilities, like tapping into the author’s Web site, social media feeds, and special events.
Nowhere is this more evident than with Encouragement for Today: Devotions for Everyday Living by Lysa TerKeurst (with coauthors Renee Swope and Samantha Evilsizer; Sept.), a bestselling author (Made to Crave) and leader of Proverbs 31, a women’s ministry. Zondervan is teaming with Proverbs 31 to create a national advertising campaign that includes a social media contest, a street team, blogger outreach, and a week’s worth of free devotions. “We will be equipping these women to share with all their friends,” says Alicia Mey, Zondervan’s senior marketing director.
For All In: You Are One Decision Away from a Totally Different Life by Mark Batterson (Sept.), Zondervan will focus heavily on online promotions, key to reaching the young, city-dwelling Christians who form the core of Batterson’s audience as he is the pastor of a large urban congregation. Also new from Zondervan are Wounded by God’s People: Discovering How God’s Love Heals Our Hearts by Anne Graham Lotz (Sept.) and Couples of the Bible: A One-Year Devotional Study to Draw You Closer to God and Each Other by Robert and Bobbie Wolgemuth (Apr.). Other new titles by celebrity authors include The Gift of Joy: Daily Meditations by Mother Teresa, edited by Angelo D. Scolozzi (Servant Books, July); Billy Graham: A Legacy of Faith and Coach John Wooden: Winning with Principle, both from B&H Publishing in September as part of its Life Wisdom series; and God Will Carry You Through by Max Lucado (Thomas Nelson, Sept.).
WaterBrook Multnomah has grown its output in the devotional/spiritual practices category by a few titles a year, yet Ken Petersen, v-p and editor-in-chief, is cautious in his approach. “In the Christian market daily devotional practice is considered an essential part of a person’s relationship to God, so devotionals play an important role,” he says. “Yet it’s a crowded category, lots of competition, so we need to be cautious in what we publish, making sure that the devotionals we do have a strong concept and rich content.” WaterBrook Multnomah looks among its bestselling authors in other categories to develop related devotionals. Upcoming is Sun Stand Still (Nov.) based on megachurch pastor Steven Furtick’s 2010 book of the same title, and Limitless: Devotions for a Ridiculously Good Life (Apr.) by Nick Vujicic, whose inspirational memoir, Life Without Limits: Inspiration for a Ridiculously Good Life (2010), was a strong seller. “The success of a devotional in the reader’s hands each day rests in the thoughtfulness, insight, and voice of the content, in how it speaks to the reader in a quiet moment,” Petersen says. “That takes time to write well.”
Devotionals are Barbour Publishing’s foundation—its first title was a 1998 reprint of Oswald Chambers’s 1924 classic, My Utmost for His Highest, still a strong backlist seller. Today’s new titles largely target women, with His Praise Is on My Lips: A Celebration of Worship for Women by Valorie Quesenberry (Apr.), Lord, You Have My Heart: Devotional Prayers for Women by Linda Holloway (June), and New Every Morning: A Celebration of God’s Faithfulness for Women by Leah Slawson (Aug.).
Dan Balow, until last week Barbour’s v-p of business development, likens devotionals to Bibles, in that the packaging possibilities are endless, providing publishers with opportunities to reach newer and smaller niche markets. “[They are] something the market never seems to tire of,” he says. But that doesn’t mean publishers can relax when it comes to marketing—with so many devotionals, the books have to stand out. At Barbour, this means promoting them as friendly, easy, and welcoming, not “work,” he says. “I recall a friend of mine in the industry joking that some Christian books seem to be ‘Castor Oil for the Christian Soul,’ ” he says, riffing off Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul, a 1997 runaway bestselling devotional for HCI. “Consumers need to be convinced this is something they want to spend a month or two or 12 reading.”
Harvest House is strong in women’s devotionals and has What Happens When Women Say Yes to God by Lysa TerKeurst (Aug.) and A Book of Prayers for Young Women by Stormie Omartian and her daughter Paige Omartian (Apr.). Other niche devotionals include Prayers and Promises for Worried Parents by Robert Morgan (Howard Books, Sept.), as well as Bible Promises for Dad by Mary Grace Birkhead and Bible Promises for Teachers by Karen Moore (both B&H, May). Harvest House even has one for hunters, with a new, updated version of Steve Chapman’s A Look at Life from a Deer Stand: Hunting for the Meaning of Life (April).
Reaching the Time-Starved
In some devotionals and spiritual practice titles, “condensed and quick” seems to be the goal, with many authors promising greater spiritual depth or awareness in a matter of minutes, days, or weeks. Time-driven titles are a staple for all publishers of devotionals, from the Catholic and evangelical houses to the nondenominational and general spirituality ones. That can make it hard for these titles to stand out, says Amber Moore, Chalice Press’s marketing and client services manager. “You have to show how your book has a benefit the others do not,” Moore says. “How will the reader’s experience be different and better with your book?” To accomplish that, Chalice is creating hybrid devotionals, titles that mix devotionals and spiritual practice with memoir and self-help. Among such books are Who’s Got Time? Spirituality for a Busy Generation by Teri Peterson and Amy Fetterman, Ten-Minute Transformation: Small Spiritual Steps to Revolutionize Your Life by Chris Altrock, and Wilderness Blessings: How Down Syndrome Reconstructed Our Life and Faith by Jeffery M. Gallagher (all Sept.). In the same vein, Thomas Nelson has 31 Days to Happiness by David Jeremiah (Sept.); Kregel Publications offers God Is for Us: 52 Readings from Romans by Simon Ponsonby, Straight to the Heart of Psalms: 60 Bite-Sized Insights by Phil Moore, and Straight to the Heart of Solomon: 60 Bite-Sized Insights by Phil Moore (all July). From B&H comes The Love Dare Day by Day by Stephen and Alex Kendrick (Sept.); Image, the Random House Catholic imprint, has 99 Blessings: An Invitation to Life by Br. David Steindl-Rast (Feb.)—two more examples of developing devotionals around well-known authors and books.
Across the board, publishers report that devotionals tied to a season or to the liturgical calendar are among their bestsellers. Moore says Chalice’s Advent and Lenten devotional titles sometimes sell out. While these books are hard to promote because they come from many publishers and have a short shelf life, they can be bread and butter for many publishers in the category (see “Publishing for Holidays a Business Challenge, p. 10).
This is especially true in the Catholic market. Franciscan Media has a long list of such devotionals, including Let Us Adore Him: Daily Meditations for Advent and Christmas by Richard Fragomeni (July), Yes/And... Daily Meditations by Richard Rohr (July), and The Advent of Christ: Scripture Reflections to Prepare for Christmas by Edward Sri (July). Pauline Books and Media, a Catholic publisher, expects the election of Pope Francis I will lead to new titles in multiple categories about his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, including devotional and spiritual practice titles. Brittany Schlorff, editorial assistant to acquisitions at Pauline, says that’s just fine with the Catholic publishing house, where devotionals and spiritual practice books are considered growing categories. “There’s a renewal of interest in classical spirituality, even among young people,” Schlorff says. “These books are timeless.” To reach the young—and anyone else with a smartphone—Pauline has developed book-based apps, including some on prayer and spiritual practice. New apps include Beginning Contemplative Prayer, based on the 2009 book of the same title by Kathryn J. Hermes, and the 2012 Walk with Me the Way of the Cross by J. Francis Sofie Jr. (see “Category Apps Expand Audiences for Religion Books,” p. 12)
Also continuing strong in this category across the faith spectrum—Christian, Catholic, Jewish, and general spirituality—are books that promise to teach the reader the basics of prayer or another spiritual practice like meditation. Stuart Matlins, publisher of both Jewish Lights and the more general spirituality-oriented SkyLight Paths, says driving this category is a yearning among readers for a do-it-yourself spirituality. “We find strong response in our readership to our approach to these subjects—practical, relevant to daily life, yet dealing with the mystery of our lives and our relationship with the Divine,” Matlins says. An example from Jewish Lights is Jewish Men Pray: Words of Yearning, Praise, Petition, Gratitude and Wonder from Traditional and Contemporary Sources, edited by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Stuart M. Matlins (May); from SkyLight Paths comes Men Pray: Voices of Strength, Faith, Healing, Hope and Courage by the editors of SkyLight Paths Publishing with introductions for each type of prayer by Brian D. McLaren (Apr.).
Other guides include Prayer: Our Deepest Longing by Ronald Rolheiser (Franciscan Media, Aug.), 10 Prayers You Can’t Live Without: How to Talk to God About Anything by Rick Hamlin (Guideposts, Apr.; profiled in this issue), Connecting with God: Prayers for Those Who Have Yet to Find the Words by William J. O’Malley (Orbis, Feb.), and The Mercy Prayer: The One Prayer Jesus Always Answers by Robert Gelinas (Thomas Nelson, July). Tarcher has Heaven on Earth: Timeless Prayers of Wisdom and Love by Stephanie Dowrick and The Power of Meditation by Edward Viljoen (Sept.); from Moody Press comes It Happens After Prayer: Biblical Motivation for Believing Prayer by H.B. Charles Jr. (May).
That desire for a practical spirituality is also evident in new titles about employing painting, writing, and traveling as spiritual practices. Paraclete has Color: Drawing a New Path to God by Sybil MacBeth (Apr.); from Jewish Lights is Pilgrimage—The Sacred Art: Journey to the Center of the Heart by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook (June). Servant Books offers The Holy Land: An Armchair Pilgrimage by Fr. Mitch Pacwa (Sept.). Eerdmans takes a look at a series of Zen drawings and poems as a Christian spiritual practice in The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd: Finding Christ on the Buddha’s Path by Addison Hodges Hart (Aug.).
As innovative as some of these titles are, there is surely more change to come as people under 30, who polls show are less likely to be involved with organized religion than their elder counterparts, look for spiritual materials. Balow says Barbour is already paying attention to such polls, reaching out to authors grappling with the challenge of how to practice faith outside of church walls. Still, he thinks spiritual practice titles have a future with those readers, and that one coming trend may be a blend of contemplation and activism. As for devotionals, he is less sure. “Daily devotional books as we have known them may well not be as much a part of the publishing future as people look for more substance, more honest wrestling with issues and uncertainties related to faith and more narrative elements within the resources they read.”
Jewish Lights/SkyLight Paths’s Matlins also thinks younger, unaffiliated people will shape the future of the category. “There is going to be a sharp divide between books that are denominationally driven and only contain inspiration and wisdom from a particular perspective, and books that are more broadly driven across all the world’s wisdom traditions,” he says. “I think the latter category is going to be what appeals to this growing group” of the religiously unaffiliated.