By Marcia Z. Nelson | Jan 18, 2013
Call them “nones”; call them “unaffiliated.” The “young and the secular” fits well, too. The terminology is perhaps imprecise, but the reality is measurable, big, and growing. This group has been in the public and media eye recently, following the release in October of a report by the Pew Research Center, which put the number of people in the U.S. population with no religious affiliation at 20%. The unaffiliated include a smaller group that describes itself as atheist or agnostic, and a larger portion that describes itself as “nothing in particular.” When the unaffiliated are broken into age groups, their numbers rise sharply among the young. A third of adults under 30 say they have no religious affiliation, whereas only one in10 people 65 and older fit into that category.
But a lack of religious affiliation does not necessarily indicate the absence of religious behavior or practices. When researchers asked about beliefs and practices, they found that more than two-thirds of the unaffiliated believe in God or a universal spirit, and more than 40% of them pray. In addition, more than half either described themselves as “religious” or “spiritual but not religious.” This phenomenon is, of course, especially significant for religion and spirituality publishers. Does the growth of the unaffiliated shrink their markets? Are they worried? A number of publishers weighed in on this question, with thoughts about how they see the nones, how they see their publishing programs in relation to the religiously unaffiliated, and whether it keeps them up at night wondering about their futures.
Among the Evangelicals
It would seem this trend might be especially worrisome for evangelical Christian publishers like Howard Books (located in Nashville, Tenn., but owned by Simon & Schuster). But no worries—publisher Jonathan Merkh and editor-in-chief Becky Nesbitt understand the nones to be people who object to institutional religion and hierarchy. “People feel like religions are too caught up with money or power,” says Merkh, who says he is Anglican and is comfortable with a describing himself as spiritual but not religious, a term that came into common usage back in the ’90s. Howard has published titles that resonate with this group. “We are hearing from them in response to books like Kisses from Katie” by Katie Davis, Nesbitt says. That kind of book shows “people making a difference but not being overtly Christian or beating you over the head” with proselytizing, Merkh adds. The elements of “making a difference” and having an authentic voice and commitment are particularly appealing to unaffiliated readers, who are also an educated audience. “Their tastes can be very broad and not constrained,” Merkh says. “I think the nones are just as likely to read Fifty Shades of Grey as [they are to read] Karen Kingsbury. They don’t have a voice in their head telling them it’s wrong.” Hitting that market is a challenge, but offers Howard the promise of new audiences. “We’re not publishing away from the evangelical market,” says Merkh. “We’re just casting a broader net.”
Chad Allen, editorial director at Baker Books, an evangelical house in Grand Rapids, Mich., is intrigued by just how much faith he sees apart from organized religion. Baker published You Lost Me by David Kinnaman in 2011; the book analyzes why young evangelical Christians are losing the faith they were raised in. For Allen, the problem is that many see the Christian church as irrelevant. “The old approaches won’t do, at least not in their traditional forms,” he says. Last year, Baker sent a survey to 15,000 of its readers; 13% of respondents selected the category “other” when asked to describe their faith tradition. Allen is struck by how nontraditional that choice is in the evangelical subculture, as is the spiritual-but-not-religious choice of 3%. This convinces Allen that religious forms are changing, “not the substance necessarily,” he says. So he wants to publish books that will help the Christian church see what it needs to look like, sometimes literally—Emergence Christianity by Phyllis Tickle (2012) includes a photo essay of new congregations and religious objects—in order to help people live faithfully. “What we’re very interested in pursuing is, how do we live as faithfully orthodox Christians in these intensely, deeply changing times?” Allen says. “It’s not just about adding a coffee shop to your church.”
Changing times lead to changing publishing programs. Jericho Books is a new Nashville-based imprint from Hachette, whose 11-year-old FaithWords imprint has an evangelical audience. Launched in fall 2102 and led by publisher Wendy Grisham, Jericho is gathering an audience that defies and resists religious labels. “You’ve got everything from nondispensational-premillennial-Anglican-follower-of-Jesus to it-takes-you-two-lines-to-tell-what-your-faith-is,” Grisham says. “A lot of people have rejected ‘Christian.’ ” Jericho’s launch list includes Brian McLaren, known for his work on emergent Christianity (a kind of postmodern version of Christianity that has come into vogue over the past several years), and Justin Lee, a gay author who wouldn’t be welcome in the most conservative Christian churches, or with most evangelical publishers. “One of the things I hope for when people look at the Jericho Books list is authenticity,” Grisham says. “Some of the 20- and 30-year-olds are just sick of going to church. People are not necessarily leaving their faith, but their religion.” Grisham has given a lot of thought to the important question of how to reach an audience that doesn’t hang out in churches. “So much of this community is online,” she said. Author Shane Hipps, for example, did a Google Hangout that included giveaways and attracted more than 200 people. Grisham says Jericho has invested in its Web site and social media and is working with a company to maximize online outreach and opportunities.
Another new imprint is gestating at Random House’s evangelical unit, WaterBrook/Multnomah, in Colorado Springs, Colo. Convergent Books will debut in fall 2013, publishing to a more progressive Christian audience. Steve Cobb, president and publisher, says the new imprint might appeal to some of the nones, though that’s not part of the publishing strategy and house identity, which he describes as unapologetically Christian. “We will still be Christian in our foundations within Convergent,” Cobb says. “We can extend our audience further into Christendom, and likely we’re going to touch people in this new imprint who may not be affiliated in a conventional sense.” Cobb says the new imprint will emphasize social justice and faith in action, and he hopes it will appeal to those under 30, where lack of affiliation is highest. “Publishing to that younger demographic, whether we would admit it or not, has been more challenging,” he says.
Spiritual and Wellness Imprints
For other kinds of publishers, creating books for the religiously unaffiliated is nothing new. White Cloud Press’s eclectic line of spirituality and wellness books comprises titles on Islam, including its attention-getting I Speak for Myself series of essay collections by young American Muslims, as well as poetry and nature books. Sales are up for the Ashland, Ore.–based house. “I come from this region that has been at the forefront of saying that institutional religion is not something that attracts people,” says publisher Steve Scholl. For Scholl, both publishing and personal history suggest that organized religion is playing itself out, and the rise of the nones is part of a trajectory of gradual change. “It will be a long-term process of people abandoning religion but not the spiritual quest,” Scholl says. “We’re meaning-seeking creatures.” Scholl is especially emphatic that spirituality is not an evasion of the discipline that proponents of organized religion say is lacking among the spiritual-but-not-religious cohort. “I see unaffiliated people every day who are very serious about their spiritual lives,” he says.
It’s also life as usual at Shambhala Publications, which specializes in books about Buddhism and other Eastern wisdom traditions that have taken hold in America over the past half-century. “We have always been publishing to people who are seeking,” says publisher Julie Saidenberg. “I think in general our books are not about affiliation; they’re about a practice you do on your own.” Shambhala knows the turf, but faces the challenge of renewing an older audience, since interest in Western Buddhism is primarily a baby boomer phenomenon. The Buddha Walks into a Bar by Lodro Rinzler (2012) has worked well for the publisher to reach a younger generation that shies away from religious belonging. The book’s message doesn’t urge the reader to sign up for anything; “You don’t have to say, ‘OK, I’m a Buddhist,’ ” Saidenberg notes. Another challenge for Shambhala has been finding the watering holes where seekers and the unaffiliated gather. The house sells books direct and does a lot of direct mail outreach to customers. “We haven’t been so great at finding out where the Buddhists are hanging out online,” Saidenberg says. “It’s frustrating.”
The 30-year-old Beyond Words imprint is happy to see the rest of the culture catch up with its readers. The house, which began as a small indie but is now in partnership with Atria Books, made its mark with The Secret by Rhonda Byrne (2006), which has sold more than 21 million copies. “The nones have, in essence, always been around, but now this group has been given a name with certain distinct characteristics,” says Cynthia Black, president and editor-in-chief. Those characteristics include a willingness to see connections among science, spirituality, religion, and health. “We have found that the readers in this movement look for tools and practices to follow their own personal spiritual quest, whether affiliated with a religious group or not,” Black says.
Call it secularization, personalized faith, meaning seeking, or “none” of the above. Publishers of religion and spirituality books probably need not worry—if fewer people look to institutional religions for guidance and inspiration, might not more of them seek it in books?