Sales are up across the Christian publishing— sales at religious presses increased 11.2% in 2021 over 2020—and literary agents believe sales should remain strong in the coming year.
PW talked to a half a dozen agents in the Christian publishing space to get a feel for changes, progress, and needs within the industry. Several spoke of increased interest in dealing with trauma, mental health, and wellness.
“Trauma will be part of the conversation—collective trauma, mental health, and self-care as we try to unpack these last couple of years,” says Mike Salisbury of Yates & Yates. “It’s like hiking at altitude. Everything in life takes a little bit more effort and there is collective exhaustion and burnout.”
Jevon Bolden of Embolden Media Group is seeing “books with undertones of wellness, helping people balance their emotions and get back into the swing of life.” She adds: “Publishers are looking for books that help people conquer their fears and live bravely.”
To Bolden, the pandemic and the national dialog around racial justice have led to a ripe opportunity for religion publishers to serve the needs of readers who are searching for purpose and meaning. “We’ve been staring death in the face and asking big questions about life,” she tells PW. “People are starting to make decisions about the unhappiness and dissatisfaction they’ve been feeling for so long. They’re asking, ‘What was I put here to do?’”
Tom Dean of A Drop of Ink, who recently sold three books about grief, predicts that the topic “will expand into grief recovery and the afterlife” as people start to move past what he calls the Covid season.
For Janet Kobobel Grant, founder of Books & Such Literary, books on depression and stress are currently on the rise, but she agrees with Dean that change can be expected. “The long-term effects of this Great Disruption are the topics to think about, as well as what kinds of books we want to read when we return to some semblance of normalcy,” she says.
Lifestyle books are here to stay, Grant adds. “We continue to long for books with lovely photos and that take our minds to sunnier places,” she says. “Plus, readers have rediscovered the joys of home hobbies, baking, and redecorating. Those interests seem to have a long tail, causing publishers to continue to seek out lifestyle writers.”
Diversity efforts grow
Professionals across the Christian publishing industry are also looking to deepen a commitment to both recognizing and engaging authors and readers of color, as well as diversifying staff. Christian publishers are “eager to see diverse people writing about every topic,” according to Bolden, but specific topics of great interest include BIPOC perspectives of leadership, culture, and the church.
Bolden says that more agents of color are needed, though. “Publishing needs to keep reflecting the direction that life is moving. It’s sometimes behind in diversifying staff, which is important because of what agents are bringing them. If publishing isn’t going to adjust to how content is being shared, it will miss those opportunities from authors who aren’t from the majority culture who aren’t saying the same things in the same way as everybody else.”
Rachelle Gardner of Gardner Literary Agency says publishers are actively seeking authors of color and are willing to address questions about racial justice and beyond. Yet, she acknowledges there is still work to do. “It’s a little more difficult when it comes to diversity on the publishing staff. They’re working on it, but I still find it awkward when I have a BIPOC author on a Zoom call with a handful of people in editorial and marketing, none of whom are BIPOC.”
New changes and challenges
As Christian publishers, like all publishers, struggle with supply chain issues, Steve Laube of his eponymous agency says in-house editorial and production schedules have been adjusted to accommodate longer lead times, and the problem could lead to additional headaches. “We may see an increase in initial print inventories since the just-in-time inventory system is no longer ‘just in time,’” says Laube, a sentiment seconded by Dean, who has seen more aggressive first printings.
Yates & Yates’ Salisbury points to the rising cost of paper as an issue that he thinks will impact not only initial print runs, but the amount of four-color books printed in China, marketing plans, and the kind of paper being used. “Publishers will have to be nimble,” he says. “There is the potential to miss an opportunity if a book breaks out. Publishers are vulnerable to the supply chain.”
Grant notes even more struggles the industry faces today, including authors unable to focus sufficiently to write and some publishing staffers who became “non-communicative and unproductive” while working remotely, she says. While those were few in number, “they definitely clogged up the publishing process.”
Growth across the industry
Despite various challenges, Salisbury sees “tons of room for growth” in an industry that needs “great editors, great marketers, and people who bring energy to a project,” he says. “We need young and veteran talent. There is hunger [for excellent content] out there, so let’s give those audiences what they need.”
Gardner also points to more interest in books that publishers can sell in both Christian and general markets. “There’s more interest in commercial mainstream voices without overt faith content—people of faith but not necessarily preaching a Christian message. And there’s a little more willingness to push the boundaries of what spirituality can look like,” she says.
Citing IVP’s new children’s imprint, WaterBrook’s hiring of two editors to acquire children’s book, and Lexham’s new Fat Cat imprint, Grant notes great strides in religion children’s publishing. “That’s a lot of growth in an area that hasn’t seen much expansion in recent years,” she says.
Grant also points to increased online sales at independent bookstores. “The loyalty to independent stores and commitment to their survival was astounding and wonderful.”
The world of Christian literary agenting itself is also experiencing expansion. Two firms added new agents since the start of the New Year: Kristy Cambron joined Gardner Literary; and Debbie Alsdorf joined Books & Such.
Laube, who had a strong 2021, securing deals for over 200 books, including half a dozen for first-time authors, predicts a bright future for religion publishing. “Book sales continue to be robust and our industry is striving to find the topics and voices that connect with the needs of today’s readers,” he says. “I’m grateful our agency has the opportunity to be part of that.”
Dean of A Drop of Ink expects 2022 “to be a growth year in revenue and in book deals.” Grant’s agency will continue bi-monthly webinar series for clients on topics such as revamping newsletters and handling disappointment. Gardner says she’s “happy to say that publishers seem to be acquiring at a regular pace.”
Finally, Dean and Bolden are urging publishers to redefine notions about author success while taking a realistic perspective of star authors whose books sell millions of copies. “The sooner publishers recognize that their legacy voices aren’t going to be around forever, the better that publishing will be in general,” says Dean.
Bolden notes there is a trend being overlooked by publishers. “People are asking for more variety, more diverse voices, more types of expressions of faith,” she says. “My desire is that we respect the idea of many stories—that publishers adjust expectations from one author selling 100,000 books to four authors selling 25,000 books. I’m anticipating that is the direction Christian publishing is going.”