The God Factor in Publishing

Religious books are alive and well. In the United States, sales of religious nonfiction titles grew 5.8% in 2018, totaling almost 44 million units. And that is only retail sales reported through industry sources. With a background in religious publishing, I closely watch trends and developments in this space. An author asked me about the God factor in publishing the other day and that conversation led me to think about some the challenges of publishing religious titles.

Religious Publishing Is Very Personal

Authors who write books with religious themes, or specifically about religion, are picky about who they want to publish their books. Ideally, their publisher will resonate with their religious views, and at the least must be able to understand where they are coming from. They want a respected publisher with an unsullied reputation, who knows the markets for their brand of religion and how to sell books in those markets. This choice of publisher is very personal, because the author is personally invested in her or his religion, often on a deep level. An author whose book told the story of a profound personal encounter with God that changed his or her life would only entrust that manuscript to someone who resonates with the story.

Religious Publishing Is Very Diverse

Under the umbrella of “religious publishing” fall all types of religions and different sorts of publishing. Christianity may dominate the US market, but Christianity does not have an exclusive on the US. Authors write from the perspective of other world religions, as well—from east and west, people of the book and people of the spirit, private and public religion. Not only do authors publish books from many religious traditions, but the kinds of publishing they do is as varied as the industry itself. Sacred literature is the all-time best-selling type of book (e.g., the Bible) with a dizzying array of product types in every human language. But there are also religious devotional books, books on practicing each religion, books giving each religion’s slant on topics of general interest, as well as topics peculiar to the adherents of each religion, and of course serious scholarly and academic books and reference works. Standard hardcovers and trade paperbacks are common, but you also find board books, special leather editions, large print books, oversize books, audio books, e-books, content delivered online through browsers, streaming videos, DVDs, video games, and religious curriculum complete with all manner of ancillary products (e.g., toys, stickers, puzzles, games). There’s something for everyone, even those who consider themselves not religious at all.

Religious Publishing Isn’t Self-Help

Numbers of authors wrestle with deciding which category to use when classifying their religious book. This is always problematic, because booksellers and distributors can’t deal with a book unless it comes with a BISAC code, which is the industry’s way of putting books in a pigeon hole. Authors who write books for any recognized category, whose books contain religious themes, are faced with having their book shelved under “Religion” when it is really a business book, or a book about parenting, or some other topic. The default for such authors seems to be the “Self-Help” category. Self-Help is non-threatening and booksellers are okay with putting almost any title in with self-help. But self-help is not religious publishing. Self-help is about helping yourself, or self-improvement. Religious publishing is about seeking the help of God or a religious tradition. While religion may help the self, religious publishing is not self-help. Sales figures for self-help are a fraction of religious publishing: 16.5 million sales of self-help titles in 2018, compared to the almost 44 million in religious publishing.

If you have written, are writing, or may be thinking of writing a religious book, you are in good company. God matters to you and you shouldn’t shy away from making it part of your writing. But it is important to engage someone with whom you are comfortable, someone who knows the religious market, and can sell your book to your target audience. Your publisher should understand and value the God factor, otherwise it will be a bad fit.

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