In 1924, a new book appeared on the scene that did not excite high initial sales expectations. Written by the late Scottish pastor Oswald Chambers, the 365-day devotional My Utmost for His Highest seemed an unlikely import for an American reading audience that did not know the author’s name. Millions of copies later—6.5 million of which were sold by Barbour Publishing, which acquired rights to Chambers’s classic in 1990—My Utmost for His Highest is not only one of the bestselling religion books of the last century, but also jump-started the genre of the daily devotional.
Today, devotionals and books on prayer are part of a healthy genre that keeps publishers happy. Many houses have at least one backlist title in this category that is a gift that keeps on giving. Harvest House reports that Quiet Times for Couples has sold more than 600,000 copies in all editions since its release in 1990, and HarperCollins Christian Publishing has had a massive hit on its hands ever since Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling was released in 2004. Over the past decade, Jesus Calling has sold more than 14 million copies in multiple editions, including a children’s version and a gift books line. “Every year we sell more than the year before,” reports Laura Minchew, senior v-p and publisher of gift books, children’s books, and new media at Thomas Nelson, who notes that in February, the book again reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for religion.
Big Names, Small Books
The general trend in devotionals and books on daily spirituality is that the bigger the name is, the better the sales are. “Of course everybody migrates to the Dalai Lama because he’s so loved and influential,” says Bonni Hamilton, director of marketing and digital content for Red Wheel, which distributes for Hampton Roads. Hampton Roads has enjoyed strong sales for several “little books” by His Holiness: The Dalai Lama’s Little Book of Inner Peace (2009) has sold about 33,000 copies and The Dalai Lama’s Little Book of Wisdom (2010) has sold more than 28,000, Hamilton says. She hopes their next offering from the Tibetan spiritual leader will equal or surpass those sales. The Dalai Lama’s Little Book of Buddhism will be released in June, to be followed in October by a similar title showcasing another wildly popular world spiritual leader. “Pope Francis’ Little Book of Wisdom is aimed at Catholics—both lapsed and active—and a broad Protestant market,” Hamilton says. “In many ways, Pope Francis transcends multiple sectarian boundaries.”
Francis, in fact, is the star of a number of 2015 devotionals, prayer books, and meditative gift books. In March, Skyhorse has The Wisdom of Pope Francis, edited by David Birch, which senior publicity manager Samuel Caggiula emphasizes is accessible for all readers. “You can open to any page and read a short selection or saying,” Caggiula says. In June, the Penguin Random House imprint Image will publish Encountering Truth: Meeting God in the Every Day, the pope’s morning homilies arranged as daily readings. Like the Skyhorse offering, Image’s is divided into small papal nuggets. “Each chapter is very short—many times just a single page—but it offers an intimate view of the pope that many of us never see,” says Gary Jansen, senior editor for Image.
If one trend is that the authors of devotionals are often big names, another is that the books themselves are getting smaller. “We’ve had incredibly good luck with small-format books,” Hamilton says. “They are gifty and they usually come with flaps.” Rachel Bomberger, director of marketing for Eerdmans, a spirituality and religion publisher that has several books coming this spring and summer, agrees there is “a consistent trend toward ever more ‘bite-sized’ devotional materials—neatly portioned collections designed to help readers more easily fit moments of transcendence into their hectic lifestyles.” Abingdon Press will even offer the words of a famous Protestant leader in small daily chunks via a desktop calendar. John Wesley’s Words & Wisdom Devotional Calendar 2016 quotes briefly from the sermons and writings of the cofounder of the Methodist Church.
The trend toward small books and short quotations crosses many religious traditions. Marketing communications manager Steven Pomije cites recent “considerable popularity” for smaller-formatted books on meditation released by Shambhala Publications. Lodro Rinzler’s Sit Like a Buddha: A Pocket Guide to Meditation has sold about 8,000 copies since its release in December; Mindfulness on the Go: Simple Meditation Practices You Can Do Anywhere, a December release by Jan Chozen Bays, has sold more than 9,000. “We’ll continue to experiment and research smaller formats appealing to beginners and people on the go,” Pomije says.
Packaging Is King
The growing appeal of small-format books is often paired with consumers’ desire for those products to be beautiful. “The better a book looks, the more it appeals to both readers and gift-givers,” Pomije says. Annie Tipton, senior acquisitions editor at Barbour, says that it is imperative that devotional books be packaged gorgeously. “A colorful design on the interior, quality paper, ribbon markers, even special paper treatment like a deckled edge or gilding can make the experience all the more appealing. Readers feel like they’re giving themselves an extra treat.”
In 2010, Westminster John Knox Press published God Is in the Manger, an Advent devotional compiled from writings by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “The cover was attractive, but it was a paperback,” says David Dobson, v-p and executive director of publishing. “It sold very well, but we heard from people that it would be nice to have a better edition. So in 2012 we came out with a jacketed hardcover edition that sold almost twice as many copies.”
Paraclete Press has also made memorable design a stock-in-trade. “We only publish daily devotionals and prayer books as physical books when we can make them beautiful, and, of course, this is much more important now than ever before,” Paraclete publisher Jon Sweeney says. “In fact, we take it as our challenge to appeal to the long-standing tradition of a book of prayer and devotion that feels just right in the palm of the hand. That’s our market.” This fall, Paraclete has the leatherette-covered Holy Spirit, I Pray: Prayers for Morning and Nighttime, for Discernment, and Moments of Crisis (Sept.), by Jack Levinson, and Vinita Hampton Wright’s The St. Teresa of Avila Prayer Book (Oct.), which will appear in a French-flap paperback. The latter is part of a popular series that includes Sweeney’s own The St. Francis Prayer Book, which has sold 21,000 copies since 2004.
All this focus on the extra bells and whistles of print packaging raises the question of whether devotionals and books on daily inspiration are as successful in e-book format as they are in print. In a word: no. Or at least not yet.
“Religion books in general are somewhat insulated from the digital shift,” says Andrew Yankech, business development manager for Loyola Press. “But prayer books in particular tend to be print-focused because readers are more often than not seeking a respite from the pressures of the daily grind, and that includes modern technology.” At Loyola, Yankech says, the sales ratio of print prayer books to digital ones is 10-to-one—“or higher.” The figures at Harvest House tell a similar story. Of its top 10 nonfiction e-book categories, devotionals have the lowest percentage of sales in e-book format, with e-book versions accounting for just 6% of total sales for all devotionals.
Bomberger of Eerdmans agrees: “Despite the ubiquity of screen-based devotional resources, there will always be at least a small market—and perhaps even a growing market—for slow resources as readers push back from the frantic glare of tablets and smartphones and consciously opt for more low-tech meditational material.”
At Image, Jansen says that while various apps now offer devotional experiences for cheaper than the cover price of a book—and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has begun sending out daily emails that include assigned scripture readings—the print experience remains important for many readers. “There’s something about the tactile experience of a physical book that connects the reader to the words and to their faith in a unique way,” Jansen says. “They’re like rosaries. People like to feel the beads in their hands; it grounds them. A physical book does the same thing.”
Whatever their format, the content of devotionals and prayer books has shown a definite trend toward niching—having a more personalized product based on a person’s gender, occupation, or stage of life. Barbour’s line is replete with niche-specific products for various markets: this spring, it has separate devotionals for “moms, dads, and grads,” says Mary Burns, v-p of marketing. Bryce Williamson, marketing director of Harvest House, expects that such niching is the wave of the future. “Consumers are expecting authentic and compelling experiences built especially to match their lifestyle. Focusing on products that put this consumer mind-set first will be key in 2016 and beyond,” he says.
Thomas Nelson’s Minchew says that books can combine “a favorite pastime or hobby and a spiritual message,” like Devotions from the Garden (Mar.), with 90 reflections for gardeners, and Seeing God in America (June), which appeals to those who like to travel. Viva Editions offers Earth Blessings: Prayers, Poems and Meditations (Apr.) for environmentally conscious readers who want a daily touchstone of writings about nature and ecological stewardship.
Sometimes niches come not from favorite hobbies or interests, but from challenging seasons of life, like Barbour’s Prayers for Difficult Times, which has sold a combined 115,000 copies since it came out in 2013. To that pastoral end, Eerdmans offers two books of meditations this year by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. A Faithful Farewell: Living Your Last Chapter with Love (May) and A Long Letting Go: Meditations for Those Who Mourn (July) help terminal patients and their caregivers find comfort in prayer.
Blending Old and New
Books on prayer remain a staple in the spirituality and religion market, but one emerging trend is to blend tradition with new ideas for spiritual practice. Paraclete Press, for example, sees a greater emphasis on whole-body prayer. Nearly a decade ago, its Active Prayer Series was launched with Sybil MacBeth’s now-classic guide Praying in Color, which encouraged practitioners to doodle their prayers. “Over the last decade, we’ve seen the books in this series used in thousands of workshops in and out of church settings as praying people seek ways to take prayer out of their heads and into some sort of action, appeal to the senses, and physical activity,” Sweeney says. This spring, the series will feature Pray Like a Gourmet: Creative Ways to Feed Your Soul (May), by David Brazzeal, who is a pastor in Paris. The book compares prayer life to culinary life: it can be the same fast food every day, which is neither nourishing nor interesting, or it can become a creative adventure, like a fine French meal.
Publishers note that another trend in prayer books is a swing toward communal reading and devotion, not just individual use. Westminster John Knox has had a hit book on the spiritual life for the last 20 years in Soul Feast by Marjorie Thompson, which introduces readers in a welcoming way to spiritual practices like Lectio Divina and contemplative prayer. In 2014, the press reissued Soul Feast in a large-format edition with hand-drawn illustrations and room for taking personal notes. “It has succeeded in large part because it has been used by groups,” Dobson says. “We see a lot of sales in 20-, 30-, or 40-at-a-time church study groups.” And at Eerdmans, communal prayer is one of the directions of With All Our Prayers: Walking with God Through the Christian Year (Feb.), which arose from worship experiences that the author, the retired pastor John B. Rogers Jr., had with his Presbyterian congregation during the liturgical year.
These books value tradition, but reinterpret it for a new era. In Loyola’s Reimagining the Ignatian Examen (Feb.), Mark E. Thibodeaux, guides readers through the 400-year-old spiritual practice of examen using 30 fresh, creative ways to pray. Ave Maria unveils a new daily prayer book series throughout 2015 called Sacred Space, with a large annual book complemented by smaller booklets for Advent and Lent. According to Karey Circosta, v-p and director of sales and marketing, the series “engages and inspires readers with the daily Scripture readings and introduces Catholics and other Christians to Lectio Divina, or sacred reading, in a new way.” And, at InterVarsity Press, Quaker authors J. Brent Bill and Jennie Isbell challenge readers to go deeper than traditional words in Finding God in the Verbs: Crafting a Fresh Language of Prayer (Mar.).
What’s next for devotionals, prayer books, and daily guides to faith? Publishers are generally optimistic about this bread-and-butter category, which has continued to grow despite new competition from online resources and prayer apps. But, in the years to come, the strong preference for print may erode as today’s older readers give way to a new generation of digital natives. “Many customers—especially younger customers—are not drawn to the excerpt-created daily devotionals from well-known, well-established, and often boomer writers of faith,” says Jeff Crosby, InterVarsity’s associate publisher and director of sales and marketing. “I believe that as the boomer population ages and the millennials become even more the focus of a publisher’s readership, that type of devotional product will not fare well.”
Mindfulness and Meditation Go Mainstream
During the 2014 holiday season, celebrity chef Giada de Laurentis’s weekly digital magazine featured a photo of her in a meditative pose, with a copy of Lodro Rinzler’s Sit Like a Buddha: A Pocket Guide to Meditation (Shambhala, Dec.) carefully situated within arm’s reach. Steven Pomije, Shambhala’s marketing communications manager, says this unlikely product placement is “a testament to mindfulness’s being embraced fully by mainstream America.” Shambhala, which has been publishing books on mindfulness and meditation for 46 years, has been a major part of that mainstreaming, staking a name for itself in this category with its very first book, Tibetan Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa’s Meditation in Action (1969). This spring that history comes full circle as Shambhala publishes a posthumous work by Trungpa, who died in 1987. Mindfulness in Action: Making Friends with Yourself Through Meditation and Everyday Awareness will be released in April.
A pioneering publisher in mindfulness books is Wisdom Publications; its Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Gunaratana, has sold more than a quarter of a million copies since its original release 24 years ago. New and forthcoming books this season include Buddhism for Dudes: A Jarhead’s Field Guide to Mindfulness (Wisdom, Aug.), by former Marine Gerry Stribling, who breaks down Buddhist concepts and practices like mindfulness for ordinary dudes (and others); Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise (HarperOne, Jan.), from seminal mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh; Make Me One with Everything: Buddhist Meditations to Awaken from the Illusion of Separation (Sounds True, May), by Lama Surya Das; and Looking at Mindfulness: Twenty-Five Ways to Live in the Moment Through Art (Blue Rider Press, Mar.), by Christophe André, who explores practicing mindfulness using all of our senses.
At Llewellyn, their entire health and healing category is on the rise, with a 12% sales increase last year. Senior publicist Kat Sanborn says books on meditation and mindfulness have become more mainstream. “Five years ago, mindfulness was really looked upon more as a Buddhist term,” she says. “Now a lot of people see mindfulness as something they can use to slow down in their own lives without thinking of it as only for Buddhists.” The Mindfulness Habit: Six Weeks to Creating the Habit of Being Present, released in January, aims to help beginners integrate mindfulness into their existing lifestyles, without needing to embrace Buddhism all out. And Guy Finley, one of the company’s bestselling authors, draws from several traditions in self-realization books like The Secret of Letting Go, a 2007 title that has sold about a quarter of a million copies, according to Llewellyn. Finley’s newest book, The Secret of Your Immortal Self (Jan.), has already sold out its first printing of 15,000 copies, and Sanborn thinks it might eventually outsell The Secret of Letting Go.
What’s next for mindfulness books? Pomije says a major trend in the category is the application of mindfulness techniques to everyday problems, with, for example, Parenting in the Age of Attention Snatchers: A Step-by-Step Guide to Balancing Your Child’s Use of Technology (Apr.). Shambhala is also actively exploring digital complements to its meditation books. “The online courses we launched in 2014 have proven wildly successful, and we continue to ramp up our roster with our most well-known and well-loved teachers, including a rare opportunity to learn online with Pema Chödrön in early summer,” he says.
A Category Name Change
With more Americans than ever identifying themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and the category that we refer to as “religion” comprising a broader range of books, many publishers, booksellers, librarians, and authors find the religion label limiting or imprecise. In response to these cultural and industry changes, and to better express what the category is about, PW is renaming its religion coverage “Spirituality and Religion.” You’ll see this from now on in our editorial about this segment of the publishing industry.