In the niche market of religion publishing for children, Bibles, and kid-friendly adaptations of Bible stories account for a lot of sales. After that, this small world is, like the rest of American culture, becoming multi-religious. Alongside board books about Noah's Ark and the Nativity you can find books about the Buddha and meditation, Muhammad and ablutions. Add apps and licensed products, and the choices to educate and entertain abound. One strategy counters that: going with proven winners. Mercer Mayer's Little Critter, for example, is coming to the world of faith publishing starting this fall, in a line from Thomas Nelson. Publishers small and large are finding their way in a highly competitive market.

Small Publishers Aim for Niches

With more religions part of the American cultural landscape, publishers can go beyond stories about Moses and Jesus. A number of publishers have their eyes on religious niches, or the audience of those receptive to religious and cultural diversity. Wisdom Tales, the children’s imprint of World Wisdom in Bloomington, Ind., will publish its fourth list this fall.

“It’s actually shocking how few books from different cultures there are,” says Mary-Kathryne Steele, president of Wisdom Tales. She cited a 2012 study from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center that put in single digits the percentage of children’s books portraying, or written by, African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian/Pacific ethnic groups.

Wisdom Tales has built on a backlist of titles about Native-Americans by Caldecott winner Paul Goble and author Michael Fitzgerald, who specializes in Native-American spirituality. Those titles appeal to librarians; the publisher is reaching that market through the blogosphere and the Independent Book Publishers Association. Author-illustrator Demi has done a number of books for Wisdom, including one coming in July 2014 about Mahavira, a central figure in the Jain religion. Response to Wisdom Tales books has been very positive, Steele says.

Buddhist specialist Wisdom Publications in Boston started publishing for children a few years back with Moody Cow Meditates by Kerry Lee MacLean (2009). American Buddhism took root in the 1960s and 1970s, and what had once been an interest of adults is now the province of families. “There’s now this new generation in America of more and more children being born into Buddhism,” says Lydia Anderson, marketing and promotions manager for the house. “They need books too. And children’s books can be a great kind of gateway into libraries.”

Another Buddhist publisher, Tharpa Publications, has just begun a children’s line. Tharpa specializes in the teachings of Tibetan guru Geshe Kelsang Gyatso; its first four books for children introduce the Buddha and meditation, targeting different age groups. Publication in the U.S. follows publication in England, where the books “sold very well,” says Kelsang Kunden, sales and production manager at Tharpa’s U.S. office in Glen Spey, N.Y. “So far they’ve done fairly well here.”

Jewish children’s publisher Kar-Ben, a division of Lerner Publishing, has been publishing since 1974, and is well established in its niche. This year Jewish holidays come extra early because of intercalary adjustment of the Jewish calendar; Hanukkah begins before Thanksgiving, and “it’s a marketing challenge to get everything out on time,” says publisher Joni Sussman.

The house is also working on developing its e-book capabilities, and has partnered with Open Road Integrated Media on e-publishing. Starting with this fall’s titles, Kar-Ben is building in to its e-books read-along narration, done by professional voice talent. But it’s holding the line on apps or interactive features.

“We’re trying to keep the book experience a book experience,” Sussman says. Kar-Ben’s digital development helps it keep up with the evolution of its market. “We do a lot with schools and libraries, and they’re very digital,” Sussman says.

The Newbies

Publisher Graham Blanchard debuts its first line of board books this fall. Callie Grant, publisher of the Austin, Tex.–based small Christian house, had worked for a children’s publisher and knew the market already had plenty of Bibles and Bible storybooks. She decided to develop content to help grow children’s interior spiritual life. “How do you explain to children something they can’t see?” Grant asks rhetorically. “Parents need all the resources they can get to teach their children about this unseen world.” Years of research and development spent consulting educators, parents, and clergy have produced a series of books designed to help preschool children and kindergarteners learn about, absorb, and praise God.

Grant is the author of the first lists, though she intends to transition out of that; she worked with a children’s illustration agent to find illustrators for the books. Changes in publishing have made it possible for a start-up publisher to try her hand in a competitive marketplace.

Pelican Book Group in Aztec, N.Mex., has been around since 2009, publishing inspirational and Christian fiction, much of it e-book only, and adds the YA imprint Watershed Books this fall. Editor-in-chief Nicola Martinez had worked for another romance publisher. “We’re careful about what we publish,” she says. “I run the company as a ministry first.” Being small, Pelican uses social media “a lot” in marketing. “I know I couldn’t have done this ten years ago,” says Martinez. “It makes the competition that much larger, (but) at the same time people who use the Internet are so savvy about finding information.”

Bibles and Brands from the Bigger Houses

Children’s books are doing well for Christian publisher Kregel, which focuses on illustrated titles. “Children’s books remain a bright spot in our sales,” says Noelle Pedersen, who manages children’s titles at the mid-sized house, based in Grand Rapids, Mich. YA is a tough category for Kregel, Pedersen says, but the house will release Defy the Night by Heather and Lydia Munn next February. The previous title by the mother and daughter writing duo, How Huge the Night, won critical acclaim.

B&H chose to ramp up its children’s publishing last year, and this fall marks the first full release cycle of titles. It is focusing on ages 4–8 and 8–12, but is open to other opportunities. The Big Picture Interactive Bible Storybook (Oct.) is a key fall title for B&H Kids; it includes an augmented reality app that enhances images within the book and provides audio files.

Thomas Nelson is a big enough publisher to have a variety of strategies for the children’s market. Their children’s Bible line will be beefed up in January by The King of Everything, which will feature a lenticular cover, the International Children’s Bible translation, and photos of animals done by National Geographic. Bibles are “still a big piece of the market,” says Laura Minchew, senior v-p and publisher, who oversees children’s books. Nelson can also extend a number of established trade authors into the children’s market. Max Lucado and Sheila Walsh are two successful brands: Lucado has a new Christmas book about two mice, Itsy Bitsy Christmas, and a forthcoming devotional from Walsh combines devotional readings, princesses, and bedtime. Novelist Colleen Coble has adapted her Rock Harbor series for a middle-grade audience. Sarah Young’s successful Jesus Calling books have also translated well to the children’s market.

Minchew is also always looking for fresh ways to tell familiar stories. She’s excited about Bible story themes found in God’s Love for You Bible Storybook by Richard and Reneé Stearns (Oct.). Rich Stearns is president of the relief agency World Vision, and the book includes stories about real children the Stearnses have met while working in the developing world.

Katara Patton, acquisitions director for children and family at Tyndale House, says the Christian children’s market is particularly difficult because parents who are potential buyers are sensitive to prices. “We know parents want tools and information to pass on the faith,” she says. “It’s just the economics of the situation. We’re competing with licensed products, and they have books for 99 cents that kids love.”

The home school market is attractive for Tyndale, but Patton says fragmentation makes marketing tough. Similarly libraries: Tyndale has enhanced its presence at American Library Association gatherings and added online study guides for its juvenile fiction. Like Nelson, they’re working with known authors such as Dandi Daley Mackall to extend their brands. Bible teacher Beth Moore’s popular adult women’s title So Long, Insecurity has just come out in a teen edition.

Like its corporate cousin Thomas Nelson, Zondervan has backlist, Bibles, and a range of possibilities. “We have a strong backlist that has been evergreen in Bibles and storybook Bibles,” says Annette Bourland, senior v-p and group publisher for trade and children’s at Zondervan. The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones has sold more than 500,000 copies. Bibles and storybook Bibles make up half of the house’s children’s business, according to Bourland. One opportunity on the horizon, both she and Minchew at Thomas Nelson say, is custom publishing—big accounts are asking for specific editions that use, for example, special bindings. The advent of new Common Core educational standards that will apply to books in classroom use is beginning to affect acquisitions for Zondervan. “We’re taking on more nonfiction,” Bourland says.

Against possibilities are pressures. Right now, Zondervan is feeling pressure in the children’s market on its price points, especially with hardcover books, and the whole YA market has shrunk dramatically in 2013, with the decline of sales for The Hunger Games series. For Zondervan, shrinkage of the Christian market also has had an effect. Children’s books need to appeal in mass, CBA, and ABA markets to get print runs up, Bourland notes. The future for faith-based publishing for children and YA? Jeff Gerke, publisher at Marcher Lord, which specializes in Christian speculative fiction, including some YA, teaches young writers at conferences. “Guess what they’re all writing?” he tells PW. “Fantasy and dystopian sci-fi.”