Steeped in ancient cautionary tales, publishers of religious books are preparing for the great flood that is the digital revolution. They're building arks—lots of them—in the form of e-publishing investments. Leaders in the religion category agree on at least one thing: future growth depends on selling boatloads of e-books.

That's why Westminster John Knox Press will, for the first time this fall, simultaneously release most of its new titles as e-books and as print volumes. Others, such as Zondervan and Thomas Nelson, have been offering all their new releases as e-books for years and now sell the vast majority of their backlist titles in e-book form as well.

Such tactics aim to capitalize on what retailer Barnes & Noble sees as a book market poised to rapidly grow by $4 billion to $27 billion by 2013, as e-book sales more than make up for declining print sales. The Association of American Publishers reported e-book sales rose nearly 252% in the first quarter of 2010, to $91 million.

"We are keenly aware that we need to be investing now to pave the way for our future," Niko Pfund, v-p and publisher for trade and academic at Oxford University Press, tells PW in an e-mail.

E-publishing strategies, however, are hardly uniform in the religion sector. Ongoing experiments designed to boost sales of e-books vary as widely as Noah's cargo. But early indicators suggest religious publishers might enjoy a few unique advantages for exploiting opportunities in e-publishing, even as they face some distinct challenges.

Example: embedded content. Zondervan is working on projects to make audio, video, and other multimedia available in its e-books, according to Steve Sammons, executive v-p of consumer engagement. The key to keeping costs down, Sammons says, will be repackaging audio and video stored in Zondervan's substantial archives. A reader might tap a button to hear an author's sermon on the topic discussed in Chapter 3, for instance, or download a not-so-new small group study guide as a new iPhone application.

Howard, the religious imprint of Simon & Schuster, may begin rolling out embedded content next year after the parent company has tested the approach elsewhere, according to Mark Gompertz, who oversees Howard and serves as executive v-p for digital publishing at S&S. Despite this cautious approach, Gompertz expects that well-known preacher-authors—Howard just published John Hagee and will publish Charles F. Stanley—might turn out to be ideally suited to supplement text with audio/video material because they come out of an oral tradition. What's more, they usually own rights to a trove of audio/video content.

"So many of our authors are really terrific speakers that we could see [their embedded content] being very interesting to the market," Gompertz says.

Other religious publishers, mindful of how CD-ROM inserts went from being popular to virtually obsolete within just a few years, are taking more of a wait-and-see approach before diving into embedded content.

"We have not so far created an e-book with embedded audio or video," writes Sally Sampson Craft, director of digital publishing for InterVarsity Press, in an e-mail. "We are learning about the universe of possibilities, and we will choose carefully which enhancements really are worthwhile for our readers."

Wisdom Publications, a nonprofit publisher of Buddhist texts, is also proceeding deliberately. Like IVP, Wisdom is not currently developing embedded content. Wisdom also opted to wait for the release of Apple's iPad before diving into the e-book market. But in spring 2010, Wisdom began releasing all new titles in e-book form, along with 80 from its backlist.

Wisdom expects readers of classic Buddhist texts will value the ability to do digital word searches, and to carry a 1,500-page book without lugging print pages around. To develop e-content, Wisdom is using Constellation, a Perseus Books Group service that helps independent publishers reach multiple electronic platforms, from the iPad to Kindle and those preferred by libraries.

"It's harder for smaller publishers to maintain all these separate vendor relations, integrate all the sales data monthly, and chase after your payments," says publisher Tim McNeill. "We want to focus our efforts, with a relatively small staff, on creating content and not so much on the accounting and fulfillment end of things. So these services are valuable to us."

In terms of e-publishing, religion presses are still in the "caveman days," with much to learn about how to best exploit emerging opportunities, according to Mark Kuyper, president and CEO of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. But he sees a bright future as publishers go beyond reproducing print content in electronic formats and start designing new content—dynamic illustrations, for instance, or 15,000-word essays—particularly for digital platforms.

"In a topical area that's faith-based—where there's opportunity to learn from each other, where there's room for dialogue and debate—interactivity with the Internet is perfect," Kuyper says, as publishers learn new ways to help readers connect with one another.

E-book giveaways mark another area where experiments are breeding hope. IVP tiptoed into the freebie waters on Earth Day by making Julie Clawson's Everyday Justice (2009) available as a free download for 24 hours. After the giveaway, sales of the Everyday Justice Kindle edition were up tenfold for April and sixfold for May.

Executives at Baker Publishing Group have gone further. Since January, Baker has been offering monthlong giveaways of certain backlist books by established authors. The biggest impact came in February, when readers downloaded more than 100,000 copies of Julie Klassen's The Apothecary's Daughter (Bethany House, 2009). Last year, the title sold fewer than 25 copies per month as an e-book. But after this year's giveaway, Baker sold more than 7,000 copies of the e-book in April alone. Even more reassuring: chain bookstores have ordered more than 3,000 additional print copies since the giveaway.

"The idea here is to give away one book, get people trying that author and then coming back and buying more books by that same author," says David Lewis, Baker's executive v-p of sales and marketing. It's apparently working in Klassen's case, he says, since the giveaway has led to 15,000 new e-book sales of her three books. One caveat: this strategy works better in fiction, where readers constantly crave new content from reliable authors, than in nonfiction.

In terms of managing backlists, not every publisher is racing to make all content available electronically. Many of WJK's readers, for instance, are church leaders and academicians who prefer printed materials, hence many backlist titles aimed at these readers may not go digital anytime soon, according to Alicia Samuels, WJK's manager of digital product development. Instead, WJK will focus on producing in e-book format only backlist titles in certain categories with strong appeal to educated lay readers, such as spirituality and Christian living.

To date, some religious publishers think they're making progress after some early setbacks. Zondervan in June, for instance, said it would end its two-year-old Symtio program, which let consumers download e-books by buying access cards in brick-and-mortar bookstores. But going to brick-and-mortar stores for e-book access didn't catch on with the tech-savvy readers of e-books. Now Zondervan is consistently recouping costs involved in its new e-publishing ventures, Sammons said. IVP has learned from experience, too.

"We might have made, at an earlier date, some technology investments in our editorial and production processes that would now make converting backlist titles to e-book formats much easier and faster," Craft writes. "That's the main mistake that I think the whole industry has made. On the other hand, technology has also advanced rapidly in the past few years, so what was then unique and expensive is now ubiquitous and reasonable.... So it may not be a mistake after all."