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If the Bible is the dairy section of religion publishing, then Bible stories for children are milk cartons sized for kid consumption. Children’s religion publishing sells a lot of those cartons, but it also offers a wide variety of books on topics beyond the Bible, such as good manners, mindfulness, and dystopia. Publishers agree that the children’s market is a challenging one. It’s sensitive to price points, has different gatekeepers than the adult market, requires its own kind of marketing, and is broad enough to accommodate lots of niches and needs.

Publishers agree they need to shape their message carefully to be accepted by the general market. “We got pushback about things that were too preachy,” says Julie Solomon Backman, publicist for Nelson’s gift and children’s lines. Too much religion lands a children’s book in the religion section of a bookstore and makes it harder to get general market reviews. “It’s like a whole different world, learning who’s important, how long it takes for things to get established,” says Anita Eerdmans, v-p of publicity and promotion at Wm. B. Eerdmans. That said, opportunities and success do exist.

One Major Expands

The children’s line at Thomas Nelson is getting bigger, anchored in market-tested authors and products. Christian pastor Max Lucado’s Hermie & Friends line is relaunching in the fall, with new art, a new character named Little Hermie, and new pricing. The line will include DVDs, board books, and readers. The original Hermie line sold more than 5.5 million units. Another market veteran, Sheila Walsh, kicks off a new series, Gabby, God’s Little Angel, for 3–7-year-olds, following the success of Walsh’s Gigi, God’s Little Princess line, which has sold more than 1.5 million units. The current market heavyweight is Nelson’s bestselling Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo, which has logically spawned an illustrated children’s edition, releasing in November. The adult book recounts what Burpo’s three-year-old son, Colton, experienced as a visit to heaven when the child underwent major surgery.

Middle-grade fiction is being revamped, with plots and topics that parallel mainstream fiction for those age groups, says Nelson publicist Backman. Think variations on Percy Jackson: Spirit Fighter by Jerel Law, a pastor, opens the Jonah Stone, Son of Angels series. Jonah and his sister, Eliza, must save their mother, who is a Nephilim, or half-angel, when she is kidnapped. “We’ve seen parents looking for titles that make Christianity and faith-based themes exciting,” says Backman.

Another Refocuses

Zondervan is intentionally shrinking its children’s line. When publisher Annette Bourland took the helm of Zonderkidz, the children’s group at Zondervan, in 2007, the line included 120 titles a year; that has been decreasing by 15%–20% to concentrate resources. Premium picture book titles are also being decreased as that part of the market continues to contract, and Zondervan is moving toward more value pricing of $10 or less. Because digital is another market imperative, Zondervan will test Kindle singles—short stories that YA and middle-grade authors will pen to promote or continue their stories that are in print; the singles won’t appear in print.

Zonderkidz also has deliberately shifted its market. When Bourland began, almost 80% of its market was Christian, with the rest general market. Today, Bourland says, around one-third of sales and revenue come from the Christian market, another third from general market outlets including big boxes, and a third from ABA bookstores. “We have books that are clearly and solidly CBA-centric, and books with crossover appeal,” Bourland says.

Zonderkidz is developing two new brands for which it has great expectations: one is the Nature of God series of books and DVDs by Peter Schriemer, a wildlife educator and filmmaker who hosts Critter Quest! on the Smithsonian Channel. Zonderkidz wants to take advantage of interest in PBS-style documentaries and DK-type children’s reference books that school or religious educators can use. “We had a curriculum developer work with us” in development, explains Bourland. A new brand coming soon: picture books by popular Christian personality Joyce Meyer featuring animal characters, for kids ages 4–7. Every Which Way to Pray will kick off the line in spring 2012.

Using Value Pricing

Tyndale House’s roots are in children’s publishing—Kenneth Taylor founded the company in 1962 in part to make the Bible understandable to his own children. “It’s always been a mainstay here,” says Katara Patton, acquisitions director of children’s and family products. “It’s also a very hard market.”

The house is looking at price points, given the draw of value pricing, and doing some repackaging of proven backlist. Tyndale’s Little Blessings line is being repackaged, and two books from its Question line are due next Easter in soft cover at $3.99. Tyndale sees an opportunity among all the season’s bunnies for some Christian products, and “sometimes people just don’t have $10 to spend on a kid,” Patton says.

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