What's that hot new category for kids? Religious books

Despite struggle in other genres, religious books aimed at children have seen an impressive and steady increase in sales over the past decade.

Beth J. Harpaz/AP/File
This April photo shows the children's area of the new Books Are Magic bookstore in Brooklyn, New York, on the day it opened.

With fierce competition from the bright colors and colorful imagery of electronic media, publishers have their work cut out for them when it comes to selling their tomes to younger readers. Anyone who interacts with younger readers on a regular basis knows that short attention spans and restless wandering are simply part of the package – and entertaining children often means turning away from reading material and towards more immediately distracting video or music-based diversions.

That's why it may come as a surprise that at least one genre of children's books has been trending upward over the past few years: religious titles aimed at kids. Sales of religiously-themed board books, storybook Bibles, and devotionals for children, have all been doing remarkably well over the last few years, especially considering some of the struggles of other genres of traditional print media aimed at young readers.

A study from NPD BookScan (formerly Nielsen Book, until it was sold by Nielson earlier this year) found that children's religion book sales jumped 22 percent between 2013 and 2016.  And it doesn't seem to be a short-term fluke, either: The study also found that the genre's book sales had a compound annual growth rate of 4 percent in the children's market for over a decade, based on data collected between 2004 and 2015.

The trend has not gone unnoticed by publishers. Since the new research hit the market, many religious printing companies have begun taking steps to meet the new demand with ads, new children's titles, and other programs to serve the growing market.

"Kids today are being bombarded with so many negative and narcissistic messages," children's publisher Linda Howard told Publishers Weekly. "We feel an increasing responsibility to push back against the noise and provide families with resources that have wholesome, biblical values."

The religious book market seems to be full of paradoxes. Another study from Nielsen BookScan in 2015 found that religious book sales (especially religious books related to Christianity) had done well the previous year, rising by 10.5 percent. Overall book sales, by contrast, only saw 2.4 percent overall growth over the same period of time, suggesting a large base of loyal customers for religious books. Yet despite these positive numbers in terms of book sales, the number of Americans who say religion is very important in their lives has seen an overall downward trend since 2004, according to Gallup. 

"We're looking at the long-term impacts of the continuing decline in mainline church membership – fewer clergy, fewer seminarians, fewer people in adult study groups," David Dobson, vice president of publishing at Westminster John Knox, a Presbyterian book publishing company, told Publishers Weekly. "We need to find other markets, and children's products seemed like a natural fit."

But it's not just religious families that are buying religious books for their children. Some parents and educators also worry that – given the reluctance of many public schools to allow religion in the classroom – children aren't learning anything about world's major religions. That's why groups like ReligiousTolerance.org  and mommymystic have compiled reading lists, recommending books aimed at children that teach comparative religion. The non-denominational religious website Patheos also offers a list of "secularism-friendly religious picture books" recommended for non-religious families.

The NPD BookScan report was initially presented at the 2016 Children's Book summit in October, which presented statistics and relevant information about children's book sales to publishers and gave an in-depth review of technology's impact on the industry. Children's books today face tough competition cell in the form of phones, internet, and online video in particular, especially from platforms like YouTube.

To survive in such a market publishers will have to strategize accordingly – and that won't exactly be child's play. Even in the relatively booming field of religious children's titles, many will have to take advantage of new data-driven marketing strategies to keep book sales from going stagnant. 

"We are roaring into the fall with eleven children's books releasing where we usually have six to eight," Barb Sherrill, publisher at Harvest Kids, told Publishers Weekly. "Marketing our children's products starts with adults – whether it's parents, grandparents, church leaders, [or] librarians."

"We're poised to see new, creative books come to market in the months and years ahead," she added.

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