Religious publishers tap into children's crusade

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"Boogers are Blessings. Let's count them, each one. Boogers are blessing `cause well they're just fun!" So begins a hot new title from religious publisher Thomas Nelson, which suggests the following activities to young readers: Eating them as food when there's nothing else to cook, using them as bookmarks and scaring your little sister.

The Sermon on the Mount it ain't. But "Boogers are Blessings," penned by 9-year-old Michael McDermott, is emblematic of how publishers are tapping children's trends, such as gross-out books, in a mission to build the market for Christian children's titles.

Major Evangelical Christian publishing houses such as Thomas Nelson and Zondervan are stepping up marketing efforts and sprucing up their pages with contemporary artwork and allusions to deepen their presence in mainstream bookstores, particularly as hundreds of Christian book stores have closed in recent years. Meanwhile, secular publisher Simon & Schuster, coveting category growth, is going after new business with a new book line called Little Simon Inspirationals.

The religious children's book market, consisting predominantly of Evangelical Christian titles, represents about $70 million in sales, according to Albert Greco, a business professor at Fordham University and statistician for the Book Industry Study Group. That's a drop in the bucket of the $1.1 billion children's book market, according to figures from Publishers Weekly. But according to observers, the Christian children's book market is growing at a double-digit clip-an attractive prospect in an industry growing in the low single digits.

Historically, Christian publishers have had trouble cracking the big chain stores because the books' art wasn't as high quality as mainstream publishers. That's been changing in recent years--witness the success of the "Veggie Tales" series published by Zondervan, a unit of HarperCollins-and it's an area of continued focus. "The distribution channels are opening up," said Shannon Maughan, children's religious editor of Publishers Weekly.

WEB EFFORTS

And as the books go more mainstream, so does their marketing. For example, Thomas Nelson, which has enjoyed a hit with Max Lucado's "Hermie and Friends" series, is stepping up Web initiatives. "Our major brands have Web sites and we are building e-blasts and newsletters for the future," said Dee Ann Grand, VP-associate publisher for Thomas Nelson. "We see Internet sales in its infancy and we expect continued double digit growth from this channel."

Zondervan's children's imprint, Zonderkidz, meanwhile, has rolled out a new series aimed at grade-school females called "FaithGirlz" It follows the everyday adventures of a group of friends who have to contend with a snotty bunch of popular girls. The stories wouldn't be out of place on an episode of, say, "Lizzie McGuire"-except the protagonist, during hard times, thinks of Jesus to feel better. Zondervan backs the books with a "FaithGirlz" Web site where readers can post on message boards, order merchandise and learn more about the characters.

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