A number of publishers in the religion category offer gift books with spiritual or religious themes, some just a few per year or a lone title here and there. Others are in the gift book business in a big way, with whole divisions or imprints devoted to them.

These hybrid products can be more gift than book, and publishing them can be a significantly more complicated business than publishing trade books. Sometimes they are returnable, sometimes not. Though content can be cheaper and shelf life longer, sales costs are higher, with the added burden of renting display space in multiple gift showrooms, using specialized rep groups or dedicated in-house reps, and working several additional trade shows beyond BEA or ICRS every year. Production and printing are expensive because of the illustrations and special cover treatments that make these books “giftable.” A store fixture program is routine for many of these publishers, and promotions around seasons and special occasions are a must.

Publishers Weekly will explore in depth the unique business challenges of gift book publishing in the January 5 issue, training a wide-angle lens on the publishers who produce them, the retailers who sell them, and on new and forthcoming gift titles, as well as bestselling backlist. Meanwhile, here are a few of the players in the spiritual and religious gift books category:

Thomas Nelson has long been an 800-lb. gorilla in the Christian gift book market. Now, post-acquisition by HarperCollins, the HarperCollins Christian Publishing Group comprises both Nelson Gift Books (including the popular J. Countryman line) and Zondervan Gift Books. Nelson Gifts publishes 45-50 titles per year; the Zondervan gift division, launched in 2013, is publishing about a dozen titles in fiscal 2014, with plans to ramp up, according to Laura Minchew, senior v-p and publisher for gift books, children's, and new media. She says Christian gift books have grown far beyond the familiar short, small-format books of the past. “There is much more breadth of product, especially for us,” Michews says. “Devotionals are big, and some of those go to 400 pages.” One of Nelson’s most successful gift book lines is the Jesus Calling franchise, with 13 million in combined sales for the original book (Jesus Calling) by Sarah Young and its spin-offs (Jesus Today; Jesus Lives; Dear Jesus; 40 Days with Jesus); children’s editions bring the total to 14 million. A boxed 10th anniversary edition of Jesus Calling with a bonded leather cover releases in spring 2015; a compilation of quotes from the book also is coming next year.

Nelson and Zondervan gift books often are created from backlist material, and Minchew says that offers brand authors like Sarah Young “a way to open up their publishing program. Even if they don’t write a book every year or six months, they are expanding their brand and audience.” HCCP’s gift lines publish original content too, some from first-time authors. Minchew says the keys to their success in gift books are a rich backlist to tap for content and a wide range of titles designed to reach across audiences: “We publish everything from ‘core Christian’ to more inspirational,” she says.

Worthy Publishing purchased the Ellie Claire gift division from Guideposts in 2012; Ellie Claire now publishes 82 titles per year that are retailed in bookstores (both Christian and general interest) as well as gift stores and mass market outlets. One unique feature of gift books is the range of retail settings where they can be found. According to Jason Rovenstine, creative director of Ellie Claire and senior v-p of Worthy, their gift products also are sold in department stores such as Von Maur and in specialty retailers like Brooks Brothers, as well as in drugstores, hospital gift shops, toy stores, airport outlets, cruise ship gift shops, even truck stops. Ellie Claire’s top sellers are its Signature Journals line (For I Know the Plans Butterfly) and gift series (When God Thinks of You He Smiles).

Rovenstine says Ellie Claire products stand out because of high production values. “The number one complaint of ‘journalers’ is thin paper that bleeds through or indents the back of the page. Ellie Claire journals use 120GSM paper and Smythe-sewn book blocks, when most use glue. Our journals lay flat; most others are mousetrap style. Ellie Claire is the ‘Audi’ of journals, so to speak. The extra attention to quality is a primary reason the imprint has done so well for us.”

BroadStreet Publishing, a new house founded by Carlton Garborg early this year, has a substantial gift books program—no surprise, since his father, Rolf Garborg, owned an eponymous Christian gifts company for many years, where Carlton cut his teeth. Carlton Garborg sold his own Ellie Claire line to Guideposts in 2010.

BroadStreet has 26 gift books currently in print and plans to publish another 24 in 2015 under its Belle City Gifts imprint. Garborg says titles will include movie tie-ins, biographies, author-driven devotionals, devotional journals, and Bible promise books (compilations of “promise” passages from the scriptures). “Our primary focus is quality, both in content and packaging,” says Garborg. “We work with authors to tell meaningful stories and bring messages of truth and inspiration; we package those into a variety of beautiful, gift-able formats that our retail partners can promote every day as well as seasonally.”

Tristan Publishing produces gift titles for the non-secular inspirational market. Says publisher Brett Waldman, “We typically publish 6-10 books a year, but it varies based on the year.” As with other companies, Tristan’s books are found in a wide variety of retail outlets in the U.S. and Canada. “Our authors work hard with us to do everything they can to engage readers by way of speaking engagements and special events," Waldman says. "We have to be creative, now more than ever.” He uses gift sales rep groups around the country: “The key is to find the right home for your books, being able to connect with and work with the reps to help them with their challenges. Many times they may have a great solution from what they learn on the front lines.” Tristan’s top sellers have been A Cup of Christmas Tea, which Waldman says has sold more than 1.7 million copies. The Next Place—a book about the afterlife—has sold nearly 800,000 copies.

“It’s not easy, but we love what we do,” Waldman says. “And the responses that we get from readers around the world--when they share what our titles have done to touch their hearts or help them look at the world a little differently--continue to fuel us.”