Talk to someone in their twenties about what they look for in spirituality, and three words will likely surface: authenticity, depth and community. The problem for too long has been that religion publishers either misunderstood what this reading audience craved, talked down to it or ignored it altogether. Worse, they often labeled the group Gen X or Gen Y, lumping these 20-something readers into a neat little compartment that defies everything real 20-somethings are about.
The good news is that publishers seem to be waking up. "The biggest trend I see with this market is that it's actually getting noticed," said Janyre Tromp, marketing manager of Kregel. Kregel's upcoming titles aimed at this burgeoning readership, Ignite the Fire by Natalie Moe and Getting It Right: Dating His Way from the First Hello by Tim Baker, illustrate these changing attitudes. Moe, a former international model, uses her experiences to inspire a jaded reading audience to have a "passionate faith in an awesome God," according to the book's subtitle.
That, perhaps more than any other approach, is the hallmark of contemporary spirituality—"show me, don't tell me"—and publishers are finally getting it right. "The small grid of faith we were given as kids doesn't work anymore, and we want to know what's real and true and how to make this Jesus thing our own," said Margaret Feinberg, author of W Publishing's twentysomething. She thinks the biggest single factor that impacts her generation today is that young adults are getting married later in life or not getting married at all. "It affects everything from career choices to relationships to practical stuff like buying a house. We have all these books talking about things that related to our parents but don't affect us." Feinberg said she wrote twentysomething to address these nitty-gritty issues from a real-world, real-faith perspective for readers who are not fulfilling prescribed roles handed down from the generations before them.
A Forgotten Generation?
One might hope to find spiritual guidance in a church community, but the Christian church has largely failed this generation. Said Feinberg, "It's designed to minister to families. Teenagers get absorbed into vibrant youth groups, but if you're a 29-year-old single they stick you in a singles group, and that's a ghetto."
A similar situation existed in spirituality titles for the 20-something market—especially in the Christian category—until one key player emerged: Relevant Media. "Our focus is what we call God-hungry, mainstream-savvy 20-somethings," said Cameron Strang, Relevant's 27-year-old president. "When we started three years ago, there was no marketing platform to reach them."
The tagline for Relevant's print and online magazines is "God. Life. Progressive Culture." And it could be argued that all three are equally important to many spiritually minded 20-somethings. The latter category is the topic of Relevant's two biggest books: Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 by Steve Stockman, with more than 34,000 copies sold, and The Gospel According to Tony Soprano by Chris Seay, with 36,000. Relevant partnered with Penguin for Sopranos and realized most of its sales in the general market. Relevant's fall list includes three more pop-culture—saturated titles: How Movies Helped Shape My Soul by Gareth Higgins, Spiritual Journeys: How Faith Has Influenced Twelve Music Icons by various authors and The Rock Cries Out: Discovering Eternal Truth in Unlikely Music by Steve Stockman.
Because 20-somethings are so wired into the Internet, it comes as no surprise that that's how Relevant "discovered" its audience. The Web site gets updated daily and includes news and interactive components—and it has grown to include 400,000 unique readers per month.
With the launch of the print edition of Relevant magazine in March, suddenly religion publishers had a marketing vehicle through which to reach the 20-something readership. No doubt they also noticed the number of readers flocking to the online edition. Currently the magazine is carried by Barnes & Noble, Hastings, Davis-Kidd Booksellers, Mardel (a midsize Christian chain) and Family Christian Stores. As a result of all the marketing buzz, Strang said, more and more publishers are emerging with books and ads for this market.
At the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) convention in July, nearly every large publisher—and quite a few smaller houses—aggressively touted new titles aimed at this emerging market. A few have even created brands or lines, with catchy names like TH1NK (NavPress), thirsty? (Tyndale), Transit (Nelson)2 and TruthQuest (Broadman & Holman). Brand marketing guru Hayley Morgan, formerly of Nelson's Extreme for Jesus teen line, has teamed with drug prevention speaker Justin Lookadoo to create a new young adult brand for Baker Book House called Dateable, also the title of the first book in the series of eight planned titles. Coming in February is The Dateable Guide to the Sexes.
Noticing the dearth of quality products for this market, Morgan and Lookadoo formed Hungry Planet, a teen think tank and consulting firm, in May 2002. Their mission is to help the entire industry get a clue about how to reach young adults through authentic content and edgy packaging. "We talked to kids and found out they weren't going into CBA stores," Morgan said. "We asked why and they said the product sucks."
The risk of losing a generation of readers—and purchasers—seems to be on quite a few minds. Don Pape, v-p and publisher of Random House's WaterBrook Press and Shaw Books divisions, told PW his staff is doing everything it can not to ostracize this generation. "In the CBA, we tend to publish to the 55-plus market," he admitted.
The two imprints have a handful of fall titles aimed right at the 20-something reader: from WaterBrook, Twentysomeone by Craig Dunham and Doug Serven, Define the Relationship by Jeramy and Jerusha Clark and Generation Ex, a book by adult child of divorce Jen Abbas that deals with issues of abandonment, betrayal and marriage failure. Shaw Books and Random House will release the trade paper edition of Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner, targeting the CBA and ABA markets, respectively.
Not Just for Christians
Christian presses are not the only ones preparing raw-edged titles for the 20-something market. Harper San Francisco's Dharma Punx: A Memoir by Noah Levine (May) tells the story of a young man and a generation of angry youths who rebelled against their parents and the unfulfilled promise of the '60s. The son of bestselling author Stephen Levine, Noah Levine ultimately finds his way to a place of compassion and "natural wisdom" through punk rock and the practice of Buddhism.
Similarly, Wisdom Publications, which had success with its 2001 title Blue Jean Buddha, is releasing Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies & the Truth About Reality by Brad Warner in September. A graphic novel of Buddhist ideas also is in the works, slated for late 2004 or early 2005. "In the Buddhist market, we find that a lot of young people have a strong interest but feel that the material that's available is geared toward the baby boom generation," said Frank Allen, director of sales and marketing. Hardcore Zen, he said, presents Zen in an original, humorous and even irreverent way.
Inner Traditions created a line in 2001 exclusively for the teen and 20-something market, called Bindu Books. Now with six titles under its belt, Bindu released Teen Feng Shui by Susan Levitt in February and Teen Dream Power by M. J. Abadie in July. This fall will add Teen Psychic: Exploring Your Intuitive Spiritual Powers by Julie Tallard Johnson to the list. "We've had a pretty good response to the line overall," said Rob Meadows, v-p of sales and marketing. SkyLight Paths' fall title The Sacred Art of Bowing, by Andi Young, is the first in a series on spiritual practices that especially appeal to the 20-something age group. Forthcoming volumes include The Sacred Art of Chant, ...Illumination, ...Mantra, ...Drawing and ...Prayer Tools.
For those who don't know where they fall on the spirituality continuum, Jossey-Bass offers guidance with What Would I Believe If I Didn't Believe Anything? A Handbook for Spiritual Orphans, by Kent I. Groff (Dec.). The book is targeted to a wider audience that spans from the mid-20s on up, but Julianna Gustafson, editor of J-B's Religion in Practice line, said it's a good fit for the postmodern angst experienced by her generation. A Gen-Xer herself (who despises the term), Gustafson said 20-somethings "want intense conversations but not pre-packaged answers. Dissatisfied with the church, they're sitting around coffee shops and bars talking about spirituality."
Forward to the Past
Often, that God-talk takes the form of digging into the past to find answers for the present. Again and again editors told PW that classic forms of religion—replete with orthodox rituals in sometimes contemporary settings—appeal especially to the 20-something seeker. A smattering of fall titles target that trend head-on, including Mudhouse Sabbath: Twelve Spiritual Practices I Learned from Judaism by Lauren Winner (Paraclete), The Anglican Young People's Dictionary by June English (Morehouse), Crossing the Faith: Sermons on the Journey from Youth to Adulthood , edited by David L. Bartlett et al. (Chalice Press) and Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices by Daniel Wolpert (Upper Room). This past spring, Loyola Press published In All Things, a compilation of prayers written by Jesuit high school students. Trade marketing manager Melissa Crane said that within the Catholic market she sees a definite trend toward traditional beliefs and orthodox—even high church—rituals among 20-somethings.
Loyola's publishing plans call for several titles aimed at the 20-something Catholic reader next spring: A Spiritual Workout for Today's Adults, based on St. Ignatius's spiritual exercises, by Timothy Muldoon, and the first four titles in its Six Weeks With the Bible series of Bible studies for young adults.
Trolling for Teens
Transit, a teen/young adult line that debuts this fall from Thomas Nelson, will get off the ground with a re-release of Frank Peretti's Veritas Project series, including the titles Nightmare Academy and Hangman's Curse, which will likely gain sales momentum from a motion picture of the same name that premieres in six markets this fall.
Other titles in the Transit line offer the same nitty-gritty approach that Nelson found so successful with its Extreme for Jesus (Xt4J) line, which has sold more than $12 million worth of product: Mission Africa, a socially conscious collection of essays by popular Christian music artists; It's Time to Be Bold, an updated version of Michael W. Smith's 1997 book; and Revolve, the first Transit Bible (New Testament text). According to Kate Etue, senior editor and brand manager for Transit, the Bible looks like a fashion magazine—about the size and thickness of InStyle—and presents the Scripture text among features like "Blab," a q&a column, quizzes, calendars, and other non-linear content. Etue said Revolve had a first printing of 40,000 copies.
Nelson used the services of renowned design firm Four5One in Dublin, whose clients include U2, World Cup Soccer and Harley Davidson, to come up with its design for the Bible project. "They bring us a fresh perspective—nothing churchy or riddled with Christianese," Etue said. "Teens demand high quality. You can't get away with cranking something out and slapping the word 'teen' on the cover."
At NavPress, the TH1NK line departs from the fray by focusing on deeper spirituality titles, as the name implies. The house took some of its own backlist classics by authors such as Brennan Manning and Eugene Peterson, then reformatted and sometimes rewrote them for a new, younger audience. The result? Manning's classic Abba's Child is now Posers, Fakers and Wannabes, co-authored with youth speaker Jim Hancock. Drawing on the strength of Peterson's The Message Bible, NavPress has released The Message Remix, which includes verse-number paragraphs, unlike its adult-version predecessor. In September, the first four comic books in the !Hero series will debut, in time for the national premiere of the Christian rock opera of the same name; a companion graphic novel will follow in October.
Tyndale's thirsty? line, aimed at 15- to 19-year-olds, officially gets under way with a Degrees of Guilt fiction trilogy this fall, with titles by Dandi Mackall, Melody Carlson and Sigmund Brouwer. Each book in the trilogy tells the same shocking story from the perspective of three different characters, and the stories intertwine so that readers must complete the trilogy to find out "whodunit." On the nonfiction side, Walking with Frodo, a devotional by first-time author Sarah Arthur based on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, will hit shelves in October.
At Broadman & Holman, the TruthQuest line of teen books was inspired by the TruthQuest Inductive Student Bible by youth minister Steve Keels (1999). Am I the One? by James R. Lucas follows in the TruthQuest Bible's tradition of probing deep questions but letting teens arrive at the answers themselves. Meanwhile, the publisher's Moody Press division is up to four titles in its African-American Payton Skky fiction series by Stephanie Perry Moore. Health Communications' new Christian division, Faith Communications, also is publishing titles for the teen/young adult market. Author Bettie B. Youngs, best known for her Taste Berries for Teens series, has three books under the imprint: A Teen's Guide to Christian Living ; 12 Months of Faith: A Devotional Journal for Teens; and, for March 2004, Living the Ten Commandments.
Multnomah Publishers plans to release Be Intolerant by Ryan Dobson with Jefferson Scott in October; it argues for a return to absolute truths in the youth culture. Northstone Publishing presents Gen X-Y Faith: Getting Real with God by Ross Lockhart (Sept.); God's Words of Life for Teens debuts from Running Press in September; Integrity Publishers plans to release Hungry and Thirsty teen devotionals in October; and Bonus Books offers the topical titles Greed! by Mykel and Sheeri Mitchell (Aug.) and Sex by Jason Perry (Jan.).
Zondervan focuses on the teenage body image crisis in two new titles: Mirror, Mirror: Reflections on Who You Are and Who You'll Become by Kara Power and Kendall Payne, and Secret Power for Girls: Identity, Security, and Self-Respect in Troubling Times by Susie Shellenberger. Along with four other titles aimed at the teen/young adult market, Zondervan has also re-released Philip Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace? in a "visual edition" gift format volume of excerpts with cool graphics. The publisher plans to distribute copies of the book to stores that have cafes so they can scatter them around the tables—and hopefully draw the attention of young readers, "who are so much more visually oriented," said marketing v-p John Topliff.
The move by Zondervan comes at a timely juncture in Christian publishing—and retailing. Ironically, the very bookstores that should draw in young Christians have lost this generation to their secular counterparts, especially the successful books-and-café formula of Barnes & Noble and Borders. Family Christian Stores, the largest evangelical chain, has struck a deal with Relevant to publish a Family-exclusive compilation book titled A Deeper Walk, including excerpts from 12 Relevant titles, which will be displayed prominently in-store.
"We're spreading the word through all our channels that if readers walk into a Family store, they'll see our titles there," said Strang, who asserts that 20-somethings now shop for books in only two ways: online or at chain [general-market] bookstores. "If they go into a Christian store, they go right to the music section and then leave. The Christian retailer may have one of our books, but it's on aisle seven, spine out, and the right customers never see it." Instead, Strang encourages retailers to stock his books near the music section.
"It's like the light went on at CBA this year," Strang said. "If you don't target this buying group, when that 60-year-old customer dies off, your store will die off. This younger audience exists. I'm talking to half a million of them every month."