The People of the Books: The Written Word Isn't Going Away Anytime Soon, and Religion's Effect on the Publishing Industry Is Part of the Reason

Article excerpt

Centuries ago, it was observed that "Of the making of many books there is no end'" (Ecclesiastes 12:12). That is still true today. In this country, not only have we been about the making of many, many books in recent years--more than 175,000 new titles and editions last year alone--but there also appears to be no surcease in sight.

Over the past decade, the number of new titles coming out from U.S. book publishers has increased 50.8 percent, an unheard of rate of growth for an industry notorious only a few years ago for its turtle-like deliberateness. In 2003 alone, the industry's output of new titles and editions grew by 19 percent over that of 2002, and every indicator points to another record year in 2004. For most of this decade-plus of record growth, religion ion has been the fastest-growing segment of trade publishing in the country, ceding place only once or twice to children's publishing.

Religion publishing's unprecedented growth was initially a reflection of circumstances having more to do with religion itself than with publishing. For a number of cultural, political, and social reasons that came up out of the 1960s and deeply affected the late "80s and the early '90s, Americans' inquiries about spiritual matters began to take place less and less frequently in pastors' studies and more and more often in the quiet back corners where most bookstores shelved their religion titles in those days. Conversations about God likewise slipped from being theology to being God-talk and, shortly thereafter, to god-talk, just as they drifted from being the purview of the seminary to being the stuff of earnest, water-cooler preoccupations.

America was rediscovering the sacred; yet ironically it was finding the accouterments of renewed faith not in formal religion, but in a kind of generic or nondoctrinal spirituality, especially in the kind a seeker could read about in books, investigate on the Internet, and discuss in small groups. As books, the Internet, and the small-group phenomenon began increasingly to cross-reference and excite each other, theology became democratized, and the book enjoyed pride of place as a means for pursuing the care and feeding of one's soul. That trend continues, though it has been tempered a bit and has taken on different and more varied modes, emphases, and purposes since.

PERHAPS THE MOST remarkable shift happened during the mid- to late-'90s, when god-talk gradually morphed from being primarily a subject for didactic or studied investigation to being one susceptible as well to an entertainment or fictional approach. Most industry observers cite Della Reese's Touched By An Angel, launched in 1995, as the first firm evidence that a shift to entertainment theology was in full swing. Reese's Angel established as well the commanding place of' prime-time commercial television in popular spirituality and general religion. That movement toward entertainment theology was, by decade's end, to extend into cinema, where movies such as The Truman Show, Dogma, Magnolia, and American Beauty led straight to The Matrix, perhaps the century's most compelling piece, at a popular level, of pure theology. No longer able to claim pride of place, the book became instead first l among equals in the country's religious conversations.

But book publishers are smart people, and their shift to accommodate a shifting public was so seamless as to be almost unremarked at first. In the mid-'90s, both religion and general trade houses quietly began to emphasize story-telling titles within their religion and spirituality programs. As a result, a category of religion publishing that has never had a completely adequate or comfortable name for itself mushroomed. Whether one calls it Inspirational Fiction, or Faith Fiction, or I Religious Fiction, or by its sectarian names of Jewish Fiction or New Age Fiction or Christian Fiction or any other of several possible titles, the operative fact is that the genre ran like the proverbial wildfire through prairie grass. …