A few years ago, Joanna Sussman attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony of a library in a small community in northern Minnesota. She was there to support her husband, an architect, who had designed the building. But as publisher of Kar-Ben Publishing, Sussman couldn’t help taking note of what was inside the walls as well. On one table, a copy of Ten Good Rules: A Ten Commandments Counting Book (Kar-Ben, 2007) by Susan Remick Topek, was displayed beside a sign saying “New and of Interest.” Sussman was “pleased and surprised” to see the book prominently featured in a town with few Jewish residents, and she silently praised “thoughtful librarians everywhere who believe in curating broad collections for their patrons and encouraging them to read outside their comfort zones.”

The Challenge of Choosing

Megan Weeden is one of those librarians. As the youth services librarian in Cranston, R.I., for the past two and a half years, Weeden has worked hard to maintain a collection of children’s books that will appeal to the community’s largely Catholic and Christian population, but also serve the library’s Muslim and Buddhist patrons. “I’m always looking to be as diverse as possible,” she says.

Publishers and librarians agree that aiming for a diverse collection of religion books for children is ideal. But even as publishers do their best to produce popular, eye-catching books, librarians say choosing which titles they will purchase isn’t always easy or straightforward. Given the limited resources of many libraries, not to mention the many types of media vying for patrons’ time, publishers must consider several factors in selecting for promotion books that will catch the attention of both librarians and readers.

Children’s books that put faith and religion into context through good stories, rather than simply relaying facts, often circulate well, says Weeden. Popular titles in Cranston include Brother Son, Sister Moon by Katherine Patterson (Chronicle, 2011) and Naamah and the Ark at Night (Candlewick, 2011) by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. Weeden says that both parents and children are most attracted to books like these because they are “beautifully illustrated and tell a good story.”

Careful with Those Labels

Hillary Dodge, head of youth services at the Clearview Library District in Windsor, Colo., says that the way she labels the titles in her catalogue often makes a difference in how patrons perceive the books. She has found that an “Inspirational” label can help raise the appeal of religion or spirituality books aimed at youth. “The term ‘inspirational’ can mean many things and is all-inclusive of the world’s religions,” Dodge says. “A label such as ‘Christian Fiction’ can bring up the age-old debate of ‘If the library has Christian books, why don’t they have Buddhist fiction, Muslim fiction,’ and so forth.” Dodge agrees that it also helps if the books are engaging, attractive, and concise. She says popular subjects include Noah’s ark, angels, holidays, heaven, Bible stories, prayers, and world religions.

At Zonderkidz, senior v-p and publisher Annette Bourland pays close attention to the way books are labeled and aims to produce books that aren’t easily pigeonholed. Her hope is that Zonderkidz books will reach a market beyond even the general “Inspirational” category, but she says just the name of a religion publisher can sometimes cause problems. “We have found that just because a book has the Zondervan logo, some librarians do not want to consider this ‘religious’ book,” she says. “I find that interesting given the fact that even Diary of a Wimpy Kid contains a church scene. We know this position exists because librarians at ALA and PLA have given us that feedback.” She says the company’s goal “is to reintroduce ourselves to the library market with titles that make sense. At the end of the day, librarians want good literature. This is what we are striving for.”

Bourland also pays close attention to library journals, which she described as “powerful and influential.” Jacqui Milliern, youth services librarian at the Mitchell Community Public Library in Mitchell, Ind., confirmed their importance and the need for these resources to feature more reviews of religion books. She says that the professional library review sources she uses “do not review religious/spiritual nearly often enough for me to purchase all the books my patrons want.” Instead she turns to blogs and peer-to-peer reviews for additional guidance.

Bourland says that, in her experience, librarians tend to favor books by authors that already are well-known and who are considered to have made contributions to literature, as well as those who might be rising stars and those that can help readers deal with contemporary or ethical issues. Rachel Coker, has been “an inspiration” to many, Bourland says, since she published her first book, Interrupted: Life Beyond Words (Zondervan, Mar.) at the age of 16.

Multiplying Formats

Milliern says that her patrons request books in a variety of formats, which can be difficult for publishers looking to please a wide audience. “Your choices used to be open-and-shut, very simple,” Milliern says. “Now some patrons want only books in print, some want only e-books, and some patrons only want audiobooks. Even when a publisher decides to go with one of these three formats, [it] still has a multitude of decisions to make concerning DRM, digital delivery, caps on simultaneous or total checkouts, etc.”

If a publisher sticks with the traditional print format, Milliern suggests paying close attention to the cover. “Books with stellar covers will sell themselves,” she says. “Even if the book’s religious/spirituality bent isn’t what typically interests the patron, she will pick it up and consider it if the cover has real appeal.”

But Milliern says that, in the end, even the most beautiful books must be weighed against the benefits of purchasing those that are the most popular. “Something they don’t teach you in library school is the gut-wrenching feeling you will get when you’re down to the end of your budget and you can either buy a well-researched, award-winning, professionally reviewed, nonfiction series that will get used maybe twice a year, or a slew of faddish paperback books that are poorly written but terrifically en pointe with readers’ interests, and sure to fly off the shelves,” she says. “I consider my patrons’ wants and needs with every purchase.”

As a publisher, Sussman acknowledges this struggle. She says that while the competition among publishers of religion books for kids may not be as fierce as in the general market, those books must still compete with others “for the same library dollar.” And given that libraries, in contrast to booksellers, tend to buy fewer copies of more titles in an effort to give depth to their collection, religion books with broad appeal tend to sell better than those about more obscure aspects of faith. Books like Kar-Ben’s Hannah’s Way (Mar.) by Linda Glaser, about a Jewish girl trying to fit into her Midwest community, take up themes of diversity, tolerance, and friendship. “Books with the most universal appeal, such as folktales, stories about the Holocaust, as well those dealing with major Jewish holidays, such as Hanukkah and Passover, as opposed to minor ones, tend to sell better than other of our titles to libraries,” Sussman says.

Know Your Audience

Laura Minchew, senior v-p of specialty publishing at Thomas Nelson, says that given the tremendous number of titles published each year, as well as e-books and other distractions, now “more than ever each publisher has to know the audience for each book.” She says publishers should avoid marketing books using vague claims, like they appeal to readers “from 8 to 80.”

“Who is that?” she says. “What eight-year-old wants to read something that appeals to an 80-year-old? A book really has to capture the reader in the first 15 seconds of reading the title.”

She says fantasy and dystopian books with religious themes are popular, among them Thomas Nelson’s Son of Angels, Jonah Stone series by Jerel Law.

Anita Eerdmans, v-p of marketing at Eerdmans, who also oversees the house’s children’s imprint, says that librarians are generally more open to books on religious subjects than booksellers, but she says “as is the case with bookstores, it is easier to sell librarians a book about religion or a religious topic than a book written from a faith perspective or intended to teach particular beliefs.”

“The less sectarian the approach, the greater the sales appeal into markets, like public libraries, that serve a diverse range of readers,” she says. “We have some Bible story books that sell equally well into Jewish markets and Christian markets.” Books by Brian Wildsmith, Ruth Sanderson, and Nikki Grimes are among Eerdmans’s most popular titles.

Even as the industry changes, some topics, however specific, remain safe bets. “At every library conference I go to I talk to public librarians who are always happy to find a new book on saints, because they are located near a large Catholic school, where the students always have to do reports on saints,” Eerdmans says. “Even though [the libraries] aren’t the parochial school or the church, they are happy to fill the needs of a large segment of their patrons.”

Although a community’s demographics play a role in a library’s purchases, Zondervan’s Bourland notes that readers aren’t simply looking for books that mirror their daily lives. Readers “in every area of the country and of the world have different sensibilities,” she says. “But while you may think stories about farms work only in rural areas, and big-city stories work in the urban areas, that’s not always the case. Readers love books because they open up new worlds.”