If religion books for children are on your shopping list, one of the best places to go is a CBA bookstore. According to a recent study by CBA—the association of evangelical Christian retailers—sales of children's products in a typical store have doubled (from 2.1% to 4.4%) between 1999 and 2005. But Christian shoppers certainly open their wallets in other retail channels too. Kids' religion titles can also be found in the major discount stores and mass-market outlets. However, those same titles often are not carried at all in general-market (ABA) stores or they score only a tiny bit of shelf space, a situation that proves frustrating for some evangelical Christian publishers. When it comes to cross-market selling of religion titles, it appears children's books are a very different story than adult titles.

One of the challenges these publishers face beyond their CBA turf is connecting with buyers who are open to their product. The problem is twofold: not only do ABA buyers often judge the quality of the illustrations and production of these books as inferior, but many are uncomfortable with the doctrinal narrowness and preachy tone of the content. "The key to getting larger sales outside the CBA market is the buyers taking a chance on Christian-themed titles," says Dan Lynch, senior v-p and publisher for the Tommy Nelson division of Thomas Nelson. "Some of the buyers tend to judge Christian titles with a bias which keeps them off the shelf."

Good Books, Good Fit

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers is one Christian house that has earned a reputation with critics and retailers for producing books that work in the ABA. "In general, our books are received better in the ABA market than in the CBA market, and our sales to the ABA are definitely better than to the CBA," says Eerdmans BFYR editor Judy Zylstra.

The shift has not come without some concentrated effort. "We have worked hard to create books with literary and artistic integrity, books that deal with universal issues and experiences while appreciating diversity and individuality," says Zylstra. "That means publishing stories that may ask more questions than they answer, that stimulate imagination and wonder or offer hope and comfort without being 'message driven,' "

Achieving the right balance may be tricky. Christian houses may feel themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place when publishing books for children. On the one hand, they want more market share in the ABA. On the other, they are loathe to alienate their core CBA customers by doing books that are viewed as overly broad or theologically soft.

Children's book buyers in the ABA market maintain that no matter the category, they are always on the lookout for books that are a good fit for their customers, as space for stock is always at a premium. "We have a very small religion section, mainly introductions to world religions and books about various celebrations and holidays," says Alison Morris, children's book buyer at Wellesley Booksmith in Wellesley, Mass. "Our customers only ask for these titles at special times like first communion or confirmation. I don't think they would look here for religious books in general."

"We try to respond to the market as we are aware of it," says Carol Chittenden, owner of Eight Cousins children's bookstore in Falmouth, Mass. "We have a pretty good selection in our store, but not too many of those books come from Christian publishers." Chittenden notes that in her case the Christian publishers don't have the same sales rep outreach that other publishers do, and that like Morris, she does not have a lot of customer demand for Christian titles (or for Judaica or other religion titles, for that matter). And "when people are looking for a gift, I'm hesitant to recommend something with explicit theology," she says. "How do I guess what the views of the family are?"

Alicia Mey, senior marketing director for the Zonderkidz division of Zondervan, appreciates such sensitivities, and adds, "Book buyers in the general trade are most interested in the bestselling titles. If it sells well in the Christian bookstores, they know it will sell well for them."

Looking at a chain environment, Borders stores typically have a small Children's Religion section shelved within a larger category called Child Development. "While we try to represent titles in all religions, our greatest number of titles comes from the Christian segment," says Ami Hassler, a children's book buyer at Borders. "Regardless of the religion, though, titles for kids age eight and younger perform best in our stores." Titles include stand-alone Bible stories (such as different versions of the Noah's Ark tale), some of the popular children's Bibles, some parable-like picture books ("The Tale of Three Trees") and prayer collections.

"It's not so much about what types of books we would like to see from religious publishers," Hassler says. "It's more about making sure that a book's content and illustrations are in keeping with current trends in the book market."

Quality Counts

Traditionally, Christian publishers have been criticized for creating materials that were not up to trade book standards. "The artwork, especially, is generally so inferior," says Chittenden. That situation is changing, with more Christian publishers investing in higher caliber titles. "We believe our books hold up against any produced in the market," says Lynch. As examples he points to this fall's The Way Home, A Princess Story by bestselling author Max Lucado and Gertie the Goldfish and the Christmas Surprise, first in a series by country music star Naomi Judd.

Now a handful of trade publishers are making a foray into the CBA market. In an unusual twist, the long-standing issue of quality (in addition to the burgeoning mainstream popularity of Christian materials over the past several years and a general blurring of distribution lines in the publishing industry) may have opened a door for this competition to come in and fill a niche. Simon & Schuster has launched its Little Simon Inspirations line of Christian-themed novelty titles endorsed by Max Lucado; Golden Books has entered the CBA market with Golden Inspirational, a series of reissued classics and new titles including those by Rachel Field, and most recently, Scholastic is joining the fray with Read and Learn Bible, to be published this October in conjunction with the American Bible Society.

Mary Manz Simon, an experienced children's book consultant in the CBA market, say, "Personally, I welcome them. I think they will raise the bar in terms of packaging, production and content. As long as they are biblically accurate and meet other Christian criteria, I think they'll be accepted in the CBA market."

Still, just because a book has the imprimatur of a large trade house doesn't mean it automatically winds up on the shelf in an ABA store. "Many of the books, especially the mass-market titles, simply don't fit with our collection," says Chittenden. "Each bookstore has a unique market. I think we actually get more religious skeptics as book customers. There seems to be a real divide between those who read widely and question widely and those who don't."

In addition to beefing up standards of quality, Christian publishers are adopting such typical ABA practices as creating better advance F&Gs (folded and gathered sheets) for picture books and bound galleys for novels. "We're taking great strides to provide our sales reps with sample materials of our books to review during product selection meetings. And we continue to work with ABA stores to address their merchandising needs and secure product placements," says Mey of Zonderkidz.

Despite some lingering challenges, Christian publishers believe the road is wide open. Says Mey: "Our business with the dominant [ABA] players is very healthy. This last year our business had strong double-digit increases."

Lynch at Tommy Nelson believes, "The walls are definitely starting to come down. We have seen some improvement, and we've added staff in both our ABA and mass-market sales teams to work our titles to their fullest potential."

No matter the market, it will ultimately be customer preference and buying patterns that determine where religion books for children sell best. For now, publishers and booksellers alike will keep trying to find just the right recipe for success.