Religion and spirituality presses share problems that are common to all publishers, but they also wrestle with unique concerns. At the beginning of 2016, PW asked a range of publishers in the segment about ongoing issues, evolving points of view, and the big books they expect to affect the business this year. One topic for many is dealing with the rising number of Americans (especially young Americans) who have no religious affiliation and are wary of organized religion. Many publishers in the category have made reaching out to the disconnected and disenchanted a priority.

Stuart Matlins, publisher of Jewish Lights/SkyLight Paths, says, “In this 25th anniversary year of Jewish Lights, we’ll be continuing our focus on the relevance of religious traditions to everyday life and on reaching out to the growing number of ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ readers.” Thomas Moore’s Gospel: The Book of Matthew; A New Translation with Commentary, the first in a four-book series, “strips the Gospels of their theological agendas and reclaims them as a radically new way of imagining human life,” Matlins says.

Andrew Yankech, business development manager at Catholic publisher Loyola Press, calls finding new readers among the young the company’s #1 challenge. Greg Pierce, president and publisher of Catholic house ACTA Publications, also says reaching young adults who are wary of organized religion is an important part of ACTA’s mission. That’s reflected in its Literary Portals to Prayer series, which just launched with six titles. All the books feature passages from works by Louisa May Alcott, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Herman Melville, and William Shakespeare, combined with quotes from The Message: Catholic/Ecumenical Edition of the Bible.

Other new ventures debuting in 2016 include the TarcherPerigee imprint, created by the merger of Penguin and Random House. Joel Fotinos, formerly publisher of Tarcher, heads the new imprint and plans to continue publishing in the mind-body-spirit segment. Their new book from Julia Cameron, It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again, will be released in April. Next year marks the 25th anniversary of Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and TarcherPerigee will publish a special edition of the classic at the end of 2016 or in early 2017.

Mind-body-spirit publisher Red Wheel/Weiser will release Gentle Energy Touch by Barbara Savin in April, the first title in its partnership with New York Open Center, an adult-education organization, according to director of marketing and digital content Bonni Hamilton. Their lead title in 2016 is The Mastery of Self by Don Miguel Ruiz Jr. (May). “The Ruiz family has an enormous following throughout the world,” Hamilton says.

Worthy Publishing has struck an imprint deal with the new Museum of the Bible, under construction near the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., says Byron Williamson, president and publisher of the Evangelical Christian house. “We anticipate multiple titles being released each year under Museum of the Bible Books. We also are looking for other innovative content sources and distribution channels and don’t rule out an acquisition.” For 2016, Worthy has the New International Version edition of the Jeremiah Study Bible by David Jeremiah.

Follow the Reader

Publishers are responding to shifting interest in genres and topics. Joni Sussman, publisher of Kar-Ben, says, “We see growing interest in the portrayal of more diverse Jewish families in our Jewish-themed children’s books: intermarried, same-sex, and ethnically diverse families and individuals.” The Flower Girl Wore Celery by Meryl Gordon (Oct.) will be Kar-Ben’s second book on same-sex Jewish families. Also on tap is the press’s first graphic novel, Joseph the Dreamer by Becky Laff (Oct.), for ages 5–9, and the company’s first Jewish-themed adult coloring book, L’Dor Vador, by ketubah artist Judy Freeman, is set for release later in the year.

HarperCollins Christian Publishing’s Annette Bourland, senior v-p and publisher of the children’s division Zonderkidz and the Blink YA imprint, says, “We see a huge growth in fantasy novels—thanks to breakout works such as The Red Queen and Six of Crows—though realistic fiction will always be a strong category and a sweet spot for us. We’ve also noticed an uptick in historical fiction as well as multicultural contemporary in the last few months. On the other hand, dystopian and paranormal titles appear to continue trending down, due to saturation of those markets.” A number of long-time-favorite authors continue to sell well. HCCP v-p and publisher of fiction Daisy Hutton notes that Thomas Nelson has high expectations for the Newsmakers (Jan.), a new series by Lis Wiehl; Zondervan has a suspense series by Terri Blackstock (If I Run, Feb.).

And some topics just keep going strong. Loyola’s Yankech says, “Pope Francis’s visit to the U.S., the Synod on the Family, and his declaration of 2016 as the ‘Year of Mercy’ are contributing to ongoing interest in materials by and about the pope.” One title Loyola expects to do especially well this year is Dear Pope Francis: The Pope Answers Questions from Children Around the World (Mar.). “It is the first and only children’s book written by any pope of the modern era,” Yankech says. The book includes the pope’s responses to 30 handwritten letters and drawings from children across the globe.

“Like every Catholic publisher, we have been riding the Francis wave,” says Robert Ellsberg, Orbis Press publisher. “Our program—which has always focused on mission, voices from the margins, interreligious dialogue, and the connections between concern for the Earth and the poor—has a special resonance with his message.” Orbis’s spring 2016 releases include Our Common Home, the pope’s encyclical on the environment, with commentary by Fr. Sean McDonagh; and The Way Of Mercy, edited by Christine Bochen, in line with the pope’s Year of Mercy declaration.

Even mind-body-spirit publisher New World Library has caught the wave. Publisher Munro Magruder says, “Thank you, Pope Francis, for invoking Thomas Merton as one of the four people who shaped fundamental American values in his speech to Congress last summer”; the house’s The Way Of God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality by Matthew Fox will be released in May.

Wrestling the Business Bears

Pierce at ACTA says the biggest challenge in 2016 is “broadening our market while maintaining our customer base. Easier said than done, but we’re trying.” He thinks the solution is books that offer “less piety, more practicality.”

Fotinos says building recognition for the new imprint will be his main task. “Since we are establishing TarcherPerigee as a new imprint, we have to make the connection for the trade and readers between the TarcherPerigee name and the type of books we publish.”

Effective marketing strategies remain elusive. Mark Taylor, president of Tyndale House, says, “Social media plays a larger and larger role in how people make purchase decisions. The challenge is to figure out how to cut through the clutter to get a message through to the potential customer.” But Carey Newman, director of Baylor University Press, believes social media has little value and describes Baylor’s marketing strategy as “back to the future. Social media is bunk—lots of noise, no buyers. We avoid the temptation to buy in to the newest device-driven, app-driven, delivery-driven moment, staying the course of identifying the actual buyers of our books and then working like crazy to serve them.”

Jonathan Merkh, v-p, publisher for S&S imprint Howard Books, attributes a challenging retail environment to uncertainties about how Family Christian Stores will perform and LifeWay’s decision not carry books that include content they find objectionable. Despite the presidential election year, which will limit publicity opportunities, Merkh says, “Howard has to continue to reach our readers, regardless of where they shop.” Howard Books’ new novel by perpetual bestseller Karen Kingsbury (Brush of Wings, Mar.)—along with several celebrity memoirs, including Believing in Magic by Cookie Johnson (Nov.), wife of Earvin “Magic” Johnson—should draw attention.

Buddhist publisher Wisdom has a strong backlist, says Lydia Anderson, the company’s marketing and promotions manager, “but we understand that frontlist titles take precedence on store shelves.” To get more attention for Wisdom’s backlist titles, Anderson says that last year “we increased our social media presence, leading followers to our online catalogue.” Kindfulness by Ajahn Brahm tops their winter list.

Yankech says that “While the closings of Catholic, Christian, and independent stores has leveled off, the mini-renaissance that indies are reporting hasn’t dramatically impacted the religion market.” Retail is still essential, Yankech says, but for Loyola, growth is primarily coming from the parish market and from selling directly to consumers.