The Book Industry Guild of New York (BIGNY) held a panel discussion on the growth and challenges of publishing in the religion category at Penguin Random House’s Broadway offices in New York City on Tuesday.
The panel featured Tina Constable, senior v-p and publisher at Waterbrook & Multnomah, a Christian imprint of the Crown Publishing Group; Melissa Endlich, senior editor at Harlequin/Love Inspired; and Altie Karper, editorial director at Schocken Books, a Random House imprint committed to publishing Judaica. PW’s religion reviews editor Seth Satterlee served as moderator. Despite the differences between the books they publish, the three panelists reported facing similar challenges in the religion space, such as the changing consumer market and targeting specific faith-based audiences.
Overall, BIGNY’s panel demonstrated that the religion publishing space has a lively, evolving marketplace with loyal but diverse readers, and the tone of the evening was upbeat and confident. Highlights from the discussion included insights on highly specialized publishing imprints, various sales channels, and marketing trends.
Answering a question about the appeal of today’s bestselling authors such as Nadia Bolz-Weber, Rachel Held Evans, and Jen Hatmaker, Constable pointed to the growing number of communities for Christian mothers. She went on to describe the communities as having “different levels of Christianity,” ranging from conservative/evangelical Christians to progressive Christians. Recognizing these groups and their distinctions, publishers are able to reach audiences through specialized imprints. “Each of our imprints targets those sectors—we are publishing very specifically to them with [imprints] WaterBrook, Multnomah, and Convergent,” said Constable.
Karper echoed Constable, explaining that Schocken’s audience also has various levels of spirituality—some readers identify as culturally Jewish but not religious, and among the religious, there are Orthodox Jews, conservative Jews, and reformed Jews. “My challenge is to publish books that reach all these different demographics,” she said, using Jonathan Sacks’ 2015 Not In God’s Name as a successful example. The book was reviewed not only by nonreligious, Orthodox, conservative, and reformed Jews, but by Christian and Muslim publications as well. It has sold over 20,000 copies to date, according to Karper.
All three panelists reported varying degrees of dependence on Amazon as a sales channel, with Karper revealing that 70% of Schocken’s sales of Not in God’s Name came from the online retail giant. Harlequin titles, which are sold at big box stores such as Walmart, also sell well on Harlequin.com’s direct consumer channel. “We still send flyers and mailers and we have a very successful loyalty program,” said Endlich. As with the rest of the publishing industry, print sales outweigh e-book sales at each of the panelist’s publishing houses.
A difference between fiction and nonfiction publishing is apparent through book cover trends. Both Karper and Constable focus on “beautiful and attention-getting” cover-art that showcase authors’ names, while Endlich reported using “cowboys and babies,” and more recently, dogs on book covers. “All of a sudden we have in our suspense line covers with dogs; readers love seeing dogs,” she said.
Finally, the panelists discussed the continuing importance of an author’s platform— such as a popular blog or a strong social media following. “We tend not to acquire someone with no presence,” said Constable. “It’s so hard to start from scratch.”
Additionally, the panelists agreed that an author’s social media presence is essential for sales. Each reported departments at their publishing houses dedicated to developing and strengthening authors’ online activity. “It’s so effective to know your readers and interact with them, we find it [leads to increased] sales,” said Endlich.
While each panelist represented a different segment of the religion market, the consensus was that many of the same trends that are happening in the secular publishing industry are also happening in the religion space. These include heightened print vs. e-book sales, reliable sales channels such as Amazon, and the continued significance of an author’s visibility online. Further, publishers are showing no signs of slowing down, according to the discussion.