The religion publishing category is as strong as ever, interviews with several with literary agents found. Among the favorable trends they pointed to are a growing interest by publishers in the beliefs and behaviors of younger generations as well as an increase in the types of self-help books being released.
According to Kathryn Helmers, managing partner at Creative Trust Literary Group, readers are keen to move beyond books based on traditional thinking about the Christian faith—proper beliefs, a Bible-based worldview, and didactic teachings. Instead, readers are looking for “an ethos that values experience over knowledge, authenticity over authority,” she says.
The trend can be traced to female empowerment and other social justice movements of today, Helmers adds. “[There is a] growing awareness that teachings emerged largely from a patriarchal, white-privileged, dominant culture that turned a blind eye to the realities of marginalized people mired in systemic oppression.”
A demand for more diverse voices continues to grow in the Christian publishing industry, says Adria Goetz, literary manager at Martin Literary Management.
“Today’s readers prioritize diverse representation more, especially on the children’s side,” Goetz tells PW. “I had one Christian picture book editor share with me, ‘We can’t sell a picture book if the illustrations don’t show a diverse range of people.’ It feels like there a big tree full of stories that the publishing industry is just starting to embrace and prioritize.”
Goetz forecasts Untamed by Glennon Doyle (The Dial Press, Mar. 10) and Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire: The Guide to Being Glorious You by Jen Hatmaker (Thomas Nelson, Apr. 21) becoming bestsellers “in large part because of huge platforms and loyal readers, but also because the ideas are going to resonate with millennial Christians looking for progressive thought leaders.”
Memoirs on personal growth and spiritual formation are on the rise, as well as books on ancient roots of modern practices, such as the Enneagram, says Helmers. She also highlights a rapidly growing number of self- and home-improvement books with a Christian bent, which is reflective of regular PW Religion Nonfiction bestsellers, such as Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis and Magnolia Table by Joanna Gaines.
“Belonging is the new belief, so readers are looking for ways to belong in their own home, neighborhood, church,” says Helmers.
Offering a different perspective of the self-help trend, Goetz says: “Millennials are the generation that has normalized going to therapy and working to become emotionally healthy, but a lot of millennials can’t afford therapy, so they are turning to self-improvement books.”
Bryan Norman, president of Alive Literary Agency, sees changes not so much in the topics of books as in the buying habits of readers. “Prayer, parenting, finance, and other topics will always be of interest to Christian readers,” he says. “It is where they find this content that will be the lifeblood of our industry moving forward” as publishers work to mitigate the loss of physical stores and embrace online retail.
A strong social media presence continues to drive which books are acquired, with debut and midlist authors still finding it hard to nab contracts. “If anyone is landing an easy deal these days it’s because they have massive platforms, and the publishers believe they can aggregate book buyers,” says Norman.
Helmers notes: “Author platform has become a cliché, but it is grounded in the reality that publishers can no longer deliver audiences to authors—it is now the reverse. Publishers can leverage an author platform, but they can’t scale something that hasn’t already been built.”
Norman points to Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube as the most valuable portals, while Helmers maintains that email is king. Ultimately, she says, “traction, engagement, and loyalty are what matters to publishers.”
Looking ahead, literary agents remain upbeat and enthusiastic about the direction of the religion category. The market is especially favorable for up-and-coming authors who can combine good writing with a strong social media following, according to Norman. “Book people love good books, [and] there is a changing of the guard,” he says. “Staid voices from the last twenty years are ageing out, as are their readers and buyers.”