A look at last year’s top-selling parenting titles provides a revealing glimpse of the continuities and the changes at the heart of the category. Most media-savvy parents would instantly connect the words “Tiger Mom” to Amy Chua’s controversial 2011 bestseller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother from Penguin Press—which according to Nielsen BookScan has sold more than 156,000 copies in hardcover and trade paperback. Penguin Press’s 2012 Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman played counterpoint, highlighting France’s joie de vivre parenting style and selling close to 86,000 hardcover copies to date. But another top seller last year was Bantam’s The Happiest Baby on the Block by Dr. Harvey Karp, which has moved 800,000 copies since originally published in 2003.

When parents tell each other a parenting book is an absolute ‘must read,’ a title can—as Dr. Karp’s success shows—enjoy near-frontlist sales for years and years,” says Ballantine/Bantam/Dell executive editor Marnie Cochran. She describes how Happiest Baby “resonated with sleep-deprived and concerned readers, met their needs right there in the nursery, and thus became the ‘category killer.’ ”

As much as any category out there, parenting and childcare depend on word of mouth—specifically, parents recommending books to other parents. Because backlist titles can enjoy robust sales for years, the competition to attract readers may be most similar to that in another category that is a favorite among parents (and grandparents, aunts, and uncles): the picture book.

Conventional wisdom says frontlist picture books don’t just have to compete with each other—they have to compete with every childhood favorite that remains in print. To hit big these days, a parenting book must likewise bring something to the table that will entice people to move past perennial category heavyweights like What to Expect When You’re Expecting and books from iconic authors, like Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose advice has spanned multiple generations of parents.

Today’s successful parenting book needs to get people talking—not just person to person in doctor’s waiting rooms and at baby showers, but also on major media outlets, social networking sites, and around the water cooler.

Talking Points

The fascination with parenting styles from other cultures continues, which is perhaps not surprising when mom considers the sales of the books that kicked off the trend. Publishers are hoping there are legs on the globe-trotting phenomenon, but acknowledge titles must add to the discussion to stand out.

For example, French Twist: An American Mom’s Experiment in Parisian Parenting by Catherine Crawford (Ballantine, Mar.) shifts the point of view toward the U.S., says Cochran. “What I found so genius about French Twist when we bought it was that [Crawford] was making ‘French parenting’ techniques available to American readers without [them] having to move to France to make changes. Her experience shows that you can benefit from the French style even without the French governmental subsidies and cultural support.”

And Christine Gross-Loh’s Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us (Avery, May) attempts to broaden the conversation beyond a specific country. Gotham/Avery senior editor Lucia Watson describes the book’s goal as “a big, sweeping tour of parenting wisdom all over the world, bringing science to the debate to help us navigate what really works best to raise responsible, successful, thriving kids. We think this is the parenting book everyone will be talking about this spring.”

Another heavily buzzed parenting title this year was written in part as a reaction against the category’s recent international trend and prescriptive tradition. Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families (Morrow, Feb.) debuted on PW’s Hardcover Nonfiction bestseller list last week with sales of 4,095 copies to date (see “Why I Write,” p. 22). Feiler’s sixth bestseller in a row grew out of the frustrations of him and his wife, both as parents and with parenting advice books. So he canvassed different fields—business, sports, the military, and IT (including Silicon Valley)—and identified 200 ideas for improving family life. And if early sales are any indication, it seems there are plenty of parents who also, as Feiler says of himself and his wife, “wanted new ideas.”

But it’s impossible to generalize about what parents are looking for when there are so many different concerns. In fact, another aspect of the category that stands out is how often editors describe their own experience as parents as informing the books they choose to publish. Rowman & Littlefield’s What to Feed Your Baby: Cost Conscious Nutrition for Your Infant by Dr. Stanley Cohen (June) and It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent: Stories of Evolving Child and Adult Development by Janis Clark Johnston (Apr.) are prime examples. Of Cohen’s book, executive editor Suzanne Staszak-Silva says, “This is the kind of book I would have bought when my little guys were babies, and [nutrition] is a subject of much confusion and concern for new moms in particular.” While Cohen discusses the benefits of breastfeeding, he provides guidance for those moms who—for whatever reason—choose not to, with a tight focus on cost and nutritional value. Staszak-Silva sees the more philosophical offering from Johnston as a book that can help parents look at the effect of their own childhood experiences on how they raise their kids, in both good and bad ways.

Or take editor-in-chief at Workman, Susan Bolotin, the mom of two 20-something children, who realized that she wanted direction for how to be the parent of new adults—which is why When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up? (Workman, May) by social psychologist Jeffrey Arnett and journalist Elizabeth Fishel appealed to her. “There have been a spate of books recently on millennials, but they’ve all been descriptive or hand-wringing,” says Bolotin. “We wanted to publish a book that was also prescriptive. If you were the kind of parent—like me—who read What to Expect or Spock or Brazelton, you simply can’t believe that there isn’t a book that tells you how to be a great parent to your 20-something kid.”

As to how Workman tries to reach audiences for its parenting books, account manager Randall Lotowycz cites good results from targeting Web sites like Zulily and Rue La La that segment out mothers and “showcase parenting and childcare books that may otherwise get lost on larger retail sites.” The approach has worked well, says Lotowycz, for titles like 2011’s The Miracle Ball Method for Pregnancy (8,000 copies sold) by Elaine Petrone.

Publicity and marketing director for Penguin/Tarcher Brianna Yamashita cautions that there’s no one path to sales success. “What makes a book succeed or fail really varies by book,” says Yamashita. She points to 2012’s If I Have to Tell You One More Time by Amy McCready, about positive discipline techniques, as an example. While McCready often appears on the Today show, Yamashita observes that she’s seen “online coverage on parenting Web sites and mommy blogs do more to move the needle than a TV appearance. That’s not to say TV doesn’t work. It’s just a matter of what will work for a particular book.”

Tarcher’s Carried in Our Hearts: The Gift of Adoption; Inspiring Stories of Families Created Across Continents (Apr.) is edited by Worldwide Orphans Foundation founder and adoption expert Dr. Jane Aronson. Aronson has helped bring together thousands of families, including those of such celebrities as Mary-Louise Parker, Kristin Davis, and Connie Britton. For the book, Yamashita wants to “ensure that we’re reaching the publications, Web sites, and social media that speak to that market.” That includes adoption organizations and Adoptive Families magazine.

Tarcher executive editor Sara Carder cites both McCready’s and Aronson’s titles as examples of the kind of in-depth takes on hot topics that she looks for. In today’s market, says Carder, “discoverability is essential for a parenting book to backlist well.” She explains, “That’s why I try to focus on acquiring books that address specific problems parents are searching the Internet to answer.”

Backlist to the Future

But while the parenting category has its undeniable trends—here today, gone tomorrow, or five years later—one thing publishers must always be mindful of is the potential of their new parenting titles to become perennial sellers. Parenting books can be a long game in a way few other categories foster.

Da Capo’s forthcoming Baby Steps: Having the Child I Always Wanted (Just Not As I Expected) by actress Elisabeth Röhm (May) features a prominent mom with an unusual but increasingly common story. As the number of women choosing to be mothers later in life increases, the publisher has seen an uptick in projects about topics from adoption to fertility and believes Röhm’s has breakout potential. Executive editor Renee Sedliar says, “We think Baby Steps will do for infertility what Brooke Shields did for postpartum depression in Down Came the Rain.”

Another of Da Capo’s top titles this season is a refreshed version of one of its popular backlist books, Your Pregnancy After 35, Third Edition by Dr. Glade Curtis and Judith Schuler (Mar.). Sedliar says that the publisher tries to update books that are heavy on medical information every few years, “not just to boost sales, but because it’s the responsible thing to do.”

The book is part of the publisher’s bestselling Your Pregnancy Week by Week series, which will add a Spanish-language edition of its primary title, also by Curtis and Schuler—Su Embarazo Semana a Semana, Tercera Edition (May). While the publisher remains selective about doing Spanish-language editions, it has already experienced strong sales for Dr. T. Berry Brazelton’s Touchpoints in its Su Hijo edition.

Rodale Books also has high hopes for its celebrity mom story of the season, actress Jessica Alba’s The Honest Life: Living Naturally and True to You (Mar.). The book came out of Alba’s struggle as a new mom to find information on making the safest, healthy environment at home—a struggle that led her to launch the Honest Company in 2012 with entrepreneur Brian Lee and environmental advocate Christopher Gavigan. In the book, she shares her findings and tips with other mothers.

Rodale’s senior director of communications Yelena Gitlin Nesbit sees the book as both timely and as an indication of the publisher’s strategy. “More and more busy parents are looking for advice on how to navigate the maze of what can be conflicting and confusing information on our children’s health, well-being, and nutrition,” she observes. “We’re looking to publish trusted experts whose works are destined to become go-to sources for raising healthy children on a healthy planet.”

Prospective category staples often take a straightforward approach, looking to become that “go-to source.” Sometimes it’s as simple as providing an attractive proposition that will appeal to today’s overloaded parents. Perigee editor-in-chief Marian Lizzi says, “One trend we’re seeing is an interest in books that encourage readers to slow down and enjoy the basics together as a family—getting outside, making crafts, telling stories, and so on.”

Perigee has two new titles along these lines: Slow Family Living: 75 Simple Ways to Slow Down, Connect, and Create More Joy by Bernadette Noll (Mar.) and Let Them Be Eaten by Bears: A Fearless Guide to Taking Our Kids into the Great Outdoors by Peter Brown Hoffmeister (May). Lizzi notes that both books are receiving positive early response from mommy blogs and syndicated “mom radio” shows, as well as traditional print and TV outlets.

Despite the shift toward personal narratives in recent years, this season’s slate shows that expert opinions are still a major part of the category. Next month, Norton has two offerings: scientists Aaron M. White and Scott Swartzwelder’s What Are They Thinking!? The Straight Facts About the Risk-Taking, Social-Networking, Still-Developing Teen Brain and Dr. Lloyd Sederer’s The Family Guide to Mental Health Care. And from Yale professor and author Alan E. Kazdin, whose work on parenting and child-rearing has been widely featured in national media, comes The Everyday Parenting Toolkit (HMH, June). Lastly, Ballantine has renowned disability activist and inventor Ben Foss’s The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan: Why Strengths Matter More than Weaknesses—and How to Harness Them for Your Child’s Renewed Confidence and Love of Learning (Aug.).

Also new to the market are several titles dealing with the evergreen subject of nutrition. Out next month from Wiley is Steven Pratt’s SuperFoodsRx for Pregnancy: The Right Choices for a Healthy, Smart, Super Baby and, from its Jossey-Bass imprint, Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobsen’s Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School in April.

Two other intriguing books on the way highlight very different issues around raising boys. Viva Editions will publish YA novelist Pam Withers and her teacher sister Cynthia Gill’s Jump-Starting Boys: Help Your Reluctant Learner Find Success in School and Life in July. The title grew out of conversations Withers had with teachers and librarians, and builds on the site the two created for parents and mentors called keenreaders.com. Spiegel & Grau expects major attention for American Promise: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and Life by Dr. Joe Brewster and Michelle Stephenson (Oct.). The authors’ documentary of the same name will debut on PBS, timed to the book’s release, as part of a major national campaign to close the “achievement gap” for black men.

The Importance of Not Being Too Earnest

The parenting category recently came in for some pointed ribbing from TV’s Portlandia. In a segment that has also made the rounds online, two of the show’s characters crib advice from various parenting titles (including some mentioned here) and employ it in questionable ways—such as speaking only in French to their child and refusing to make eye contact with him. Those who have browsed the parenting shelves or desperately hoped a manual will solve their crying baby’s problems will get a laugh out of the skit, but it’s worth noting that the category isn’t without humor.

For instance, Harlequin has Amber Dusick’s Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures (Apr.), which grew out of her wildly popular blog complete with the illustrations that yielded its name, www

.crappypictures.com. Senior nonfiction editor Sarah Pelz says the book fits in with a trend toward “edgier, humorous parenting books. I can’t keep copies of this book on my shelf, because everyone wants one for themselves or to give friends and family.”

Gallery Books has tapped the popular blogger behind ScaryMommy.com, Jill Smokler, for an April title, Motherhood Comes Naturally (And Other Vicious Lies). Smokler debunks myths like “It Gets Easier” with the trademark wit that’s earned the comic a dedicated following. Gallery executive editor Karen Kosztolnyik says, “Jill holds back no punches, but always manages to bring in the heart.”

Simon & Schuster offers two April memoirs designed to tickle the funny bone. If It’s Not One Thing It’s Your Mother by SNL alum Julia Sweeney serves up the comedienne’s take on modern parenthood, and the not-parenting book I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids by actress and stand-up veteran Jen Kirkman is targeted to every woman who’s been pressured to have kids and decided not to.

But the folks at St. Martin’s believe they have the antidote for the type of books lampooned by Portlandia in Nicholas Day’s Baby Meets World (Apr.). Day wanted to write something that would speak to parents like him, who are seeking answers to the most basic questions about how babies experience the world and explanations for mysterious parenting wisdom. “Parents are tired of parenting books that make us anxious when we read them—Early Algebra at Home a Must for Harvard Success!—or books that require us to be anxious in order to read [them]—How to Potty Train Your Late Talker,” says St. Martin’s editor Nichole Argyres. “Baby Meets World is a break from all of that—an engaging narrative for curious parents, about the wonder of children.”

Father Knows Best

As memoirs by and books about momhood abound, dads are also telling their stories in several notable new books.

One of the most interesting examples of this burgeoning trend comes from acclaimed novelist Clyde Edgerton, whose books include The Night Train, The Bible Salesman¸Walking Across Egypt, and others. Edgerton is now, at age 68, using his storytelling mojo to share the wisdom gleaned from raising four kids—ranging in age from five to 30—with other dads. In May, Little, Brown, the publisher of the author’s recent novels, will release Papadaddy’s Book for New Fathers: Advice to Dads of All Ages. Edgerton’s book also features line drawings from fellow Southern novelist Daniel Wallace.

“In the past five years, both Michael Chabon and Michael Lewis have published narrative books focused on their being fathers,” says Little, Brown senior editor Pat Strachan. “There are still many more mother-directed books and Web sites, of course, but that’s beginning to change. It’s great to be publishing another book that helps to even out the playing field.” Just in time for Father’s Day, Lyons Press will release Captain Dad: The Manly Art of Stay-at-Home Parenting by Pat Byrnes. Byrnes volunteered to be a “stay-at-home dad” when his first child was born because his job as a humorist and contributing New Yorker cartoonist is more flexible than his wife’s (she’s the Illinois Attorney General). His stories and insights will likely resonate with many families.

Also on the way are two memoirs of note from fathers of children with specific challenges. In The Shape of the Eye: A Memoir by George Estreich (Tarcher, Apr.), a father tells of raising a son with Down syndrome. The publisher plans to reach out to special needs organizations as part of its marketing efforts. Coming from Crown this month is Raising Cubby: A Father and Son’s Adventures with Asperger’s, Trains, Tractors, and High Explosives by bestselling author John Elder Robison. This unique story centers on a father diagnosed at 40 with Asperger’s syndrome and his son, who also has Asperger’s.

“I see John’s book appealing to readers of funny, disarmingly honest memoirs of parenthood—from Anne Lamott’s classic Operating Instructions to Michael Lewis’s Home Game—but with some weird twists and turns you don’t often find in this category,” says Crown executive editor Rachel Klayman “Ultimately, it’s about the triumph of two misfits, and I think many of us secretly root for misfits.” There’s more to come from Lamott, in the form of a generational jump: her collaboration with her son Sam about his becoming a father, Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son, will be released next month as a Riverhead paperback.