Inspiration is really neither a topic nor a category in publishing. Instead, it is a descriptor broadly applied—in the religion/spirituality category, almost any book, from devotionals to biographies to prayer guides, can be called inspirational. And then there are the books outside that category—in self-help, business, psychology, and more—that also carry the label. Add to that the ineffable nature of the state of being inspired, and a definition becomes even more elusive.

So why and when do publishers decide to label books inspirational? Each publisher seems to have its own definition and rationale.

Brianna Yamashita, associate publisher and executive director of publicity and marketing at Penguin Random House’s TarcherPerigee imprint, says: “BISACs such as Motivation and Inspirational or Inspirational and Personal Growth generally apply to the books we would call lightly spiritual self-help. Readers of these books aren’t necessarily searching online or in stores for a spiritual work. Rather, they are looking for something that will uplift and motivate them—that will guide them through personal or, as some would call it, spiritual transformations.” For Yamashita, calling a book inspirational is part of a retail strategy: it affects where a book is shelved and is important to discoverability.

Michael Aulisio, v-p of marketing for Nelson Books, part of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, says Nelson chose the BISAC subjects Self-Help/Motivational and Inspirational for Love Heals, because author Becca Stevens’s story “has a broad reach, and we want as many people as possible to be touched by the message of this book.” He adds, “We want to cast as wide a net as possible.”

According to Helen Lee, acquisitions editor for evangelical Christian publisher InterVarsity Press, inspirational publishing for that company “means a book that not only engages readers’ minds but also touches the deepest parts of their hearts and souls.” She adds: “As a Christian publishing house, we want these books to serve as resources that help readers strengthen their faith journeys. They include a wide spectrum of topics, such as prayer, devotionals, Bible study, spiritual formation, and Christian living.”

Role Models

Despite the dizzying range of books under the big tent of inspirational, certain genres are especially popular. Seekers of inspiration often find it in the stories of those who have accomplished great things.

Readers might aspire to emulate physician Susan Vitalis, who has worked in poverty-stricken areas around the world and tells her story in Still Listening (Elevate, May). Inspired by her Christian faith, Vitalis has cared for patients and trained health care workers in 15 countries. She writes, “Throughout my life, I have had a variety of jobs; however, my vocation, calling, and passion is medicine, which for me, means taking care of people—mind, body, and spirit.”

In All Saints (Bethany House, Aug.), salesman-turned-pastor Michael Spurlock and coauthor Jeanette Windle tell the story behind the upcoming film of the same title (releasing Aug. 25): Spurlock was given the unenviable task of closing a struggling country church, All Saints Episcopal in Smyrna, Tenn., even though it provided a haven for a group of refugees from Burma. Instead of closing it, Spurlock and the congregation converted land surrounding the church to a farm, providing work for the refugees and the financial support for the church that kept it open.

In I Am Number 8: Overlooked and Undervalued, but Not Forgotten (FaithWords, Apr.), John Gray writes of growing up the eighth child of an impoverished family and going on to become an associate pastor at Joel Osteen’s massive Lakewood Church. Comparing his life to that of the biblical figure David, the overlooked eighth son of an obscure family who became the king of Israel, Gray tells readers that they too can overcome tough circumstances to do great things for God. Osteen contributes a foreword for the book.

Karen Wright Marsh discusses some favorite role models in Vintage Saints and Sinners: 25 Christians Who Transformed My Faith (Sept.). Though saints might be most closely associated with Catholicism, Christians of all stripes have looked to them for inspiration, and Marsh observes: “I’ve moved beyond seeing these people as inaccessible super-saints and have found them to be the perfect companions for a real-life pilgrimage. They are wise guides in the faith who have been this way before. Older brothers and sisters who urge me on, reassuring me with their own tales of travail and discovery... [They] cheer me on with profound yet approachable wisdom.”

Nun and activist Joan Chittister has also been inspired by the saints, and she draws on their ancient teachings in her new book, Radical Spirit: 12 Ways to Live A Free And Authentic Life (Convergent, Apr.). “Freedom from anxiety, worry, and tensions at home and work comes when we give ourselves to something greater,” she writes. Chittister offers practical guidance for readers to find their spiritual destiny and achieve inner peace.

There are also business books that come from a religious point of view. In Giving it All Away... And Getting it Back Again (Zondervan, Apr.), David Green, founder of the Hobby Lobby chain of crafts stores, writes about his faith, business, and philanthropic work. He says Hobby Lobby donates about half its profits to charity. The company also pays employees a minimum of $15 an hour, and Green himself has taken the same salary for the past 11 years.

Also mixing business with spirituality is Beyond the Castle (Zondervan, Sept.), Jody Jean Dreyer’s account of her 30-year career at Disney. Dreyer, who was a member of Disney’s senior corporate staff, draws from her work at the dream factory to offer insights about finding one’s “happily ever after.” She writes: “Even though much of my life was interwoven with Mickey Mouse and company, Disney didn’t define me. Jody was still Jody. This time taught me that my identity is not about performance, vocation, or fulfilling my dreams. True, life-giving identity is a gift from God—and a lifelong adventure.”

Catholic readers might particularly seek inspiration in the histories of heroes of the faith. Slaves in Paradise: A Priest Stands Up for Exploited Sugarcane Workers by Jesus Garcia (Ignatius, Apr.), is the story of missionary priest Christopher Hartley, who since 1997 has worked to change the living and working conditions of those who harvest sugarcane in the Dominican Republic, as well as to eradicate human trafficking that supplies them to the plantations as slaves. Also from Ignatius, The Priest Barracks: Dachau 1938-1945 by Guillaume Zeller (May) tells the story of the three barracks at Dachau where 2,579 Catholic priests and monks were held from 1938 to 1945, revealing the tragedies and triumphs of their time at the infamous concentration camp. A modern church leader, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, recalls his life in I Have Learned from the Least: My Life, My Hopes (Orbis, Aug.), translated by Dinah Livingstone. The archbishop of Manila recounts his impoverished upbringing, early vocation to the priesthood, and rise in the church hierarchy of the Philippines. He also writes about issues that concern him—religious pluralism, social justice, ecology—and emphasizes his commitment to the poor.

Companions in Life’s Trials

Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest in Tennessee, in the 1990s founded Magdalene, a residence for women escaping addiction, prostitution, and domestic violence, and Thistle Farms, a social enterprise that provides them with meaningful work. In her new book, Love Heals (Nelson, Sept.), Stevens tells stories of survival and triumph by the women of Thistle Farms. The book includes full-color photographs, scripture passages, poems, and other ponderings. Stevens writes: “Love Heals is the principle that has shaped the way I have tried to live my life. I have tried to make room for that healing through gratitude, awareness, and acceptance.... The women of Thistle Farms have taught me countless things about how we all need healing—all the time. The healing we have found at Thistle Farms is not a miracle cure; it’s about finding our way to wholeness.”

Ryan Buresh, acquisitions editor at mind-body-spirit press New Harbinger, defines an inspirational book as one “that comes from an author who overcomes tough circumstances or who has always sought exploration and risk.” He says, “The reader witnesses the ‘feats’ of someone undergoing these experiences. These authors help us to understand the many ways in which we hold ourselves back.”

For those struggling with addiction, New Harbinger offers guidance and support in Natural Rest for Addiction: A Radical Approach to Recovery Through Mindfulness and Awareness (May). Author Scott Kiloby has developed the Natural Rest for Addiction program, the core of which is a mindful practice called resting presence. His worldwide community of facilitators works with people in more than 12 countries using the Natural Rest and Living Inquiries methods.

The Twelve Steps Meet the Gospel: Reflections on Scripture and Stories of Hope for Those in Recovery (June), from Catholic Press Twenty-Third Publications, takes a traditionally religious approach to the problem. Authors Trish Vanni and Dick Rice, both in recovery themselves, interpret the Bible through the 12-step lens—each reflection begins with a quote from scripture along with one from Alcoholics Anonymous (“the big book”), Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, or other 12-step literature.

Inspirational books provide encouragement through other rough passages, including facing what might be the most frightening prospect. In Embracing the End of Life: A Journey into Dying & Awakening (Llewellyn, Sept.), author Patt Lind-Kyle urges readers to change how they think about death and offers exercises, guided visualizations, checklists, and advice on how to talk to loved ones about what is coming.

The struggle with widowhood is told in Good Night, I Love You: A Widow’s Awakening from Pain to Purpose by Jené Ray Barranco (Center Street, Sept.). Her husband’s sudden death threw her life into chaos; she dealt with her own grief while trying to raise three grieving teenagers alone. Barranco—a motivational speaker and founder of a ministry to single mothers—writes about grief, marriage and parenting, faith, living with purpose, and learning to rely on God.

7 Lessons from Heaven: How Dying Taught Me To Live A Joy-Filled Life by Mary C. Neal (Convergent, Sept.) follows Neal’s bestselling To Heaven and Back, her account of dying in a kayaking accident and coming back to life. In 7 Lessons from Heaven, Neal tells of encountering Jesus after she died and what she learned from the experience—to trust God absolutely and live joyfully. Others also have had inexplicable experiences, and Life-Changing Miracles by James Stuart Bell (Bethany House, Aug.) tells the stories of people for whom they have been transformative.

In the memoir Strange Beauty: A Portrait of My Son (Parallax, Aug.), Eliza Factor writes of raising her nonverbal son Felix, who was born with multiple disabilities, including cerebral palsy and autism, and her two daughters. Felix and his sisters inspired Factor to found Extreme Kids, a nonprofit community center that connects with children with disabilities through the arts and play. (She was named New Yorker of the Week by NY1 in 2012 for creating the city’s first drop-in sensory play space for disabled children.)

Everbloom: Stories of Deeply Rooted and Transformed Lives (Paraclete, May), edited by Shayne Moore and Margaret Ann Philbrick, collects stories by the women of Redbud Writers Guild, a community of Christian authors. Their inspiring writings affirm that struggle and suffering are part of the human condition and provide opportunities to grow.

Inspiration can come from writers who have experiences in common with their readers. Getting old is not for sissies, the saying goes, but in Aging Starts in Your Mind (Paraclete, July), Notker Wolf, a monk in his 70s who plays rock guitar, writes: “The older I get, the more difficult I find it to take the world seriously. At close quarters it can appear merciless, almost threatening, but with increasing distance it looks more and more comical.” Wolf offers anecdotes and stories that will resonate especially with anyone depressed by what they see in the mirror, reminding readers that the soul never grows old.

And mothers who need to transcend the quotidian can turn to Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving (Abingdon, Apr.) by Barbara Mahany, a former reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune, who explores the mysteries and spirituality of motherhood. She writes: “To learn to mother—to learn from mothering—is to learn to love in the ways of Jesus and Gandhi and Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr., and even Louisa May Alcott’s Marmee. It is to love as instructed in the Gospel, the Torah, the Qur’an, and every holy book ever inscribed: love as you would be loved.” Mahany will speak at the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago in June.

Another book from Abingdon, Hope Sings: Risk More. Dream Bigger. Fear Less. by Susanna Foth Aughtmon (Apr.), encourages readers to lean on hope through life’s difficulties. Aughtmon is also the author of My Bangs Look Good & Other Lies I Tell Myself and One Dress. One Year. Jon Bernie leads readers in confronting negative beliefs about themselves and embracing, rather than resisting, their struggles in The Unbelievable Happiness of What Is: Beyond Belief to Love, Fulfillment, and Spiritual Awakening (New Harbinger, May; foreword by Adyashanti). By accepting all of their feelings and experiences—even the most trying—readers can find freedom, happiness, and peace, Bernie writes.

DIY Inspiration

Some books are meant to inspire readers to engage with spiritual practices for a better life. In Holy Desperation: Praying as If Your Life Depends on It (Loyola, Apr.), Heather King urges seekers to pray as a way of growing into themselves and living for the good of others. Greg Willits’s Tied in Knots: Finding Peace in Today’s World (Our Sunday Visitor, Sept.) urges readers to discover the “knots” in their lives that prevent them from being close to God; he offers ideas for untying those knots through such practices as making more time for family and prayer. With anecdotes—often humorous—about illness, unemployment, and loneliness, Willits addresses the most common kinds of obstacles in people’s lives.

Travel can be broadening; it can also be inspiring. 101 Places to Pray Before You Die: A Roamin’ Catholic’s Guide by Thomas J. Craughwell (Franciscan Media, June) offers shrines, retreat houses, missions, and other holy sites as places to learn about God, the achievements of Catholics, and oneself. Organized by state, 101 Places to Pray Before You Die contains practical information about each site’s significance to American Catholics, along with addresses, contact information, and hours of operation.

Bicycling as a spiritual practice? For a nudge to finally get on that bike—and to grow spiritually—there’s Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels by Laura Everett (Eerdmans, Apr.). When her car broke down, Everett, a pastor, became an all-seasons bicycle commuter in Boston. She found community with fellow cyclists and learned to love her city and its people at ground level.

Roman Krznaric wants readers to take hold of their lives, and Carpe Diem: Seizing the Day in a Distracted World (TarcherPerigee, May) is his call to action for those who want to improve themselves and the world. Krznaric, the founder of the world’s first Empathy Museum and the digital Empathy Library, analyzes what “seizing the day” means and describes how to do it.

Finally, collections of essays, poems, prayers, and other writings that offer bite-sized inspiration are a staple. Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way), who has long inspired writers, artists, and other creatives, does it again with her collected Life Lessons: 125 Prayers and Meditations (TarcherPerigee, June), in which she offers her takes on God and spirituality.

In the same vein, Buddhist publisher Wisdom Publications has Inspiring Courage (April) by Barbara Bonner, who has spent her career in nonprofit management, fund-raising, and philanthropy, serving on the boards of three New York City museums and a number of other nonprofit organizations. Bonner collects quotations, poems, and true-life stories designed to inspire readers and motivate them to work for change.

Another anthology designed for uplift is The Way of Gratitude: Readings for a Joyful Life (Orbis, June), edited by Michael Leach, James Keane, and Doris Goodnough. The book includes stories, essays, poems, meditations, and testimonies from 50 authors, such as New York Times columnist David Brooks, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, and writer Mary Oliver.

And in Everyday Wisdom: Extraordinary Inspiration from Friends, Family, and Neighbors (Skyhorse, July), Diana Francis collects interviews she conducted with older Americans for her thesis in gerontology at California State University of Fullerton, asking them about their goals and missions in life, how they define happiness and success, and what advice they would offer others. Francis expanded the thesis into a book, adding more interviews with people from a wide range of cultures and religions and gleaning inspiration from their words of wisdom.