Success inspires the search for more success, and Christian publishers are always on the lookout for authors who can follow in the footsteps of their current stars to become mainstream bestsellers. Publishers say that the hunt for the next stars is not a primary motivation in acquisitions, but adding more top performers must be on their minds as they acquire and launch books.
This is especially true of the acquisitions of books by three types of Christian nonfiction authors: women giving other women advice and encouragement, scholars crossing over from the academy to write for general readers, and pastors writing books to expand their ministries. All three types bring solid platforms with them, and when publishers add their muscle to marketing and publicity, these writers have the ingredients to break out and become the next big thing.
A Lifestyle Leader for Women
Self-help/Christian lifestyle books that offer women emotional, spiritual, and practical guidance are a booming genre for evangelical publishers. Authors such as Shauna Niequist (Present Over Perfect), Lysa TerKeurst (Uninvited), and Ann Voskamp (One Thousand Gifts) have racked up seven-figure sales and enjoy long runs on the PW and New York Times bestseller lists. It’s not surprising that publishers are eager to find more like them.
Thomas Nelson publishes TerKeurst; Voskamp and Niequist are published by Zondervan. Both are units of HarperCollins Christian Publishing that have deep pockets and sophisticated marketing and promotional resources. Now Nelson is betting on first-time author Emily Ley, whose Grace Not Perfection: Embracing Simplicity, Celebrating Joy was released in October. A successful entrepreneur and powerhouse promoter, Ley is the creator of the Simplified Planner, a day planner for women, and has grown her business to include baby books, address books, prints, and more. She had already built a thriving online platform and attracted thousands of followers before she came to the attention of MacKenzie Howard, Nelson’s editorial director for children’s and gift books.
“As we read more about Emily, her blog, and her successful business, we knew we wanted to work with her,” Howard says. “Her message—that it’s okay to hold ourselves to a standard of grace, not perfection—seems to resonate with today’s busy women.” Howard calls Grace Not Perfection “a combination of inspirational self-help and motivational Christian living.” Nelson has designed Grace Not Perfection as a gift book, with four-color art and photography. The publisher has an option for future books by Ley and plans for her to develop the kind of franchise top authors in the genre have, with line extensions and a broad market reach.
Ley has been a skillful promoter for her business, drawing extensive coverage from mainstream media outlets such as Family Circle, Forbes, and Southern Lady magazines, as well as the websites of Fox News and Today. And when it comes to marketing her book, the question isn’t “what is she doing?” It’s “what isn’t she doing?” In addition to being active on social media, Ley features the book in her catalogues and on her website, packs postcard inserts in shipments of Simplified Planner products, and sends email blasts out to her 35,000-plus subscribers. Ley also partners with gift companies to cross-promote products and contributes content to sites such as Realtors.com, where she writes about topics such as home organization and planning a move. In addition, Ley has formed partnerships with brands such as Gerber and retailers including Anthropologie, Banana Republic, and Kate Spade. Nelson has added resources to Ley’s own efforts, mobilizing its marketing team and hiring an outside publicity firm. “We’re expecting to see 75,000 units in the marketplace by the end of the year, which is amazing for a first-time author,” Howard says.
Scholarship for the People
Some religion academics have successfully bridged the gulf between the academy and the trade market, writing books with a solid foundation in scholarship that are still accessible to the intelligent general reader. Some of these religion academics have become bestsellers: a prime example is Bart Ehrman, who teaches religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. With his iconoclastic approach to the Bible, Ehrman (Misquoting Jesus) has attracted plenty of media attention, making appearances on the Daily Show and other mainstream television and radio outlets.
Brazos Press, an imprint of Baker Publishing Group, hopes James K.A. Smith, who teaches philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., can follow Ehrman’s lead. In April, Brazos published Smith’s You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, which argues that whatever Christians love—whether God or anything else—shapes who they are and how they in turn shape the culture.
Robert Hosack, senior acquisitions editor for Baker Academic and Brazos Press, has published six previous books by Smith. Although one of those books was aimed at the trade (the others were academic), Hosack says that You Are What You Love is Smith’s first major trade book, and Hosack believes that Smith has what it takes to break out to a broader readership. “We are always on the hunt for thoughtful authors whose books can foster faithful cultural engagement, and Smith has great potential,” Hosack says.
Jeremy Wells, director of marketing for Baker Academic and Brazos Press, agrees. “We have targeted Smith as an academic with Ehrman-like potential,” Wells says, “and we’ve made the investments needed to take him to a wider audience and to take him to another level for his 2019 release [whose working title is On the Road with St. Augustine].” It will be “a much more mainstream book, and not focused only on a Christian audience,” Hosack says, adding that “it should make a major splash.”
The campaign for the launch of You Are What You Love has included advertising in Books & Culture, Christian Century, Christianity Today, Christian Retailing, First Things, and Publishers Weekly, among other publications. There was an extensive social media campaign with advertising on Facebook and Twitter, and Brazos created a new website and promotional videos for Smith and invested in a national media campaign by DeChant-Hughes, a religion-specialty PR firm. The press is now doing additional advertising and is developing a curriculum for churches and other organizations—including a study guide, more videos, and leader notes. The press is also reaching out to colleges, seminaries, and conferences to book speaking events. Brazos prominently featured the book at the annual American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature meeting in San Antonio, Tex. (November 19–22).
You Are What You Love received a starred review in PW and has been covered by both Christian and mainstream media. David Brooks cited it in a column in the New York Times in May, and an excerpt ran in the April issue of Christianity Today. Smith has done a number of interviews on Christian and Catholic radio stations and has drawn the attention of influential Christian bloggers and podcasters—essential for an author in this genre. Wells says that You Are What You Love has sold 35,000 copies in all formats, a respectable showing for such a book.
Pastoring Beyond the Church
Finally, while there are no sure things in publishing, one new Christian author stands on a pretty solid launching pad. John Gray is the associate pastor of Joel Osteen’s massive Lakewood Church in Houston, and his first book, I Am Number 8, will be published in April 2017 by Hachette imprint FaithWords, also Osteen’s publisher. Osteen is pitching in to support the book, writing the foreword and helping with promotion.
In I Am Number 8, Gray tells the story of the biblical figure David, who grew up the eighth child in an obscure family and was chosen by God to be the king of Israel. Gray parallels his own life with David’s; he also grew up humbly, the son of a single mother, yet went on to become a pastor of the largest church in America. Gray’s message is that God can redeem anyone who believes in God, no matter how modest their circumstances.
FaithWords publisher Rolf Zettersten, who acquired the book, says: “Our [marketing and promotional] efforts with John Gray are going to be coordinated with the support of the Lakewood Church media machine. In fact, it was Joel who introduced me to John, and Joel expressed his full support from the beginning.” Zettersten adds that FaithWords plans to “advertise aggressively and tour John,” as well as to produce a study guide that encourages adoption of the book by churches, which will further bolster sales.
Asked whether Gray—who is African-American—was added to the FaithWords list to broaden the publisher’s reach among African-American readers, Zettersten counters that the acquisition of I Am Number 8 represents instead “an extension of our long-standing commitment to that important audience.” FaithWords publishes a number of prominent African-American authors, including T.D. Jakes and Creflo Dollar. “We also publish authors whose ministries and books are popular in the African-American community—Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, David Jeremiah, and Wm. Paul Young,” Zettersten says.
“We believe the timing is right for Gray to have a national breakout book that will appeal not just to African-Americans but to all people of faith,” Zettersten notes. “John Gray is one of the most gifted preachers in our country, and he has a significant following at Lakewood Church.” Zettersten adds that attendance at midweek services has grown significantly since Gray began speaking regularly on Wednesday nights. “John often blends preaching with singing to deliver his message in a unique way,” Zettersten adds, “and we have seen him speak at Joyce Meyer’s annual women’s conference, where he had the audience on its feet.”