Holiday seasons like Christmas/Hanukkah and Lent/Passover/Easter are short and crowded sales windows, but they offer generous payouts to religion publishers who know how and when to position their titles.

Seasonal products are “a multimillion-dollar market, a significant part of our business” for Abingdon Press, says Susan Salley, associate publisher of Ministry Resources for the imprint’s parent, United Methodist Publishing House. Tapping into church groups looking for devotional studies during Lent, for example, can significantly multiply sales—“in some seasons we resource 15,000 or more church communities, along with individual readers,” Salley says.

Time-sensitive titles are also “very important” to Kar-Ben, the leading Jewish children’s publisher, whose first quarter 2013 releases included It’s a Mitzvah, Grover!, part of a series of Sesame Street–related holiday books. “The Jewish world very much operates around its holidays,” notes publisher Joni Sussman.

Readers and retailers are “not interested in Lent and Easter books until Christmas is over,” notes Salley. Lent began February 13 this year, “just six weeks into the new year. It’s not a big window to share your message,” she adds. However, the traffic increase at Christmas provides “a wonderful opportunity” for sales, according to Todd Niemeyer, v-p of sales for HarperCollins Christian Publishing, where seasonal books are “always an important part of our publishing plan.”

Though holiday titles dominate the shelves for only a quarter, “it can be a glorious three months,” says Barbara Baker, director of marketing, sales, and Internet for Franciscan Media. The Catholic publisher approaches holiday titles as perennials with repeat potential, having stopped dating devotionals to a specific year in 2009. Baker cites Richard Rohr’s Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent (2010) as “a wonderful perennial seller for us.”

First Communion season, the six to eight weeks after Easter, is “very important” for Catholic publishers, notes Don Cooper, executive director of the Word Among Us. “We are pretty careful in what we select [for holiday releases]; it’s a short window,” he says. “But if you hit it right, it can be well worth it.” The publisher scored a hit with its 2009 children’s title, Jesus Speaks to Me on My First Communion, which continues to sell well.

With short-season books, “marketing has to be coordinated well ahead of time,” says Jeff Crosby, associate publisher and director of sales and marketing for InterVarsity Press, which does only a few holiday-focused titles, though this year republished Michael Card’s 2000 A Violent Grace: Meeting Christ at the Cross, offering a companion live CD in collaboration with the singer’s label, Covenant Artists. “Retailers and consumers need to be made aware of the books, and print runs have to be managed well,” says Crosby.

Though Christmas might be a small window, “it’s one that opens every year,” observes Shauna Summers, executive editor at Random House, which acquired bestseller Debbie Macomber’s general-market writing—including a popular annual Christmas story—last year. Macomber sells well in the Christian market, where she is published by Howard Books.

At Tyndale House, which takes a cautious approach to holiday titles, Karen Watson, associate publisher for fiction, observes there is a subtle risk with seasonal books that don’t take off: a poorly performing holiday title can provide “an unfair comparison” to retailers basing orders of future titles on an author’s history.

Slow to Go Digital

Though e-books have been making inroads into every category, holiday titles have been among the least affected for two reasons. They are often bought to be given to others, and those who purchase a title for themselves as a devotional or reflective exercise like to handle a physical copy as part of the experience.

Digital extras can help with the “perennial” push Franciscan Media’s Baker referred to. Abingdon Press attributed part of its ongoing success with Adam Hamilton’s 24 Hours That Changed the World, first released in 2010, with associated downloadable church resources made available this year.

Though holiday e-book sales may be small, the same is not true for devotionals, which sell particularly well around holidays like Easter, Christmas, and New Year’s. “This genre is experiencing solid digital growth,” says Laura Minchew, senior v-p and publisher for gifts, children, and new media at Thomas Nelson, “especially with regard to apps.” She points to the app for Sarah Young’s bestselling Thomas Nelson devotional, Jesus Calling, which has “consistently ranked in the Top 10 book apps on iTunes.”

Another technological development, the rise of print on demand, has eased some of the pressure on holiday titles. No longer do publishers have to risk a big initial first-print run because a traditional reprint might not be completed in time. “Managing inventory is easier,” says Abingdon’s Salley.