Publishers Find Religion Sells Christian Fiction More Sophisticated

Article excerpt

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- An airline pilot who is feeling estranged from a wife he finds too religious suddenly has more than 100 passengers disappear from his plane, leaving behind their clothes, glasses and jewelry. Rayford Steele learns later that millions of people around the world have disappeared.

Had his wife been right when she warned him Judgment Day was coming?

So begins Left Behind, the first in a series of apocalyptic novels about what happens to those bypassed by the Rapture, when true Christians ascend to heaven and those left behind must find salvation before Armageddon.

Combined sales of the six books by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye have topped 7.4 million. Apollyon, the latest in the series, has been on The New York Times fiction best-seller list for months. It is the first Christian fiction book to crack a secular best-seller list.

The success of the series is indicative of the booming market for romance, mystery, historical fiction, juvenile novels and even science fiction books with a spiritual bent.

Lee Gessner, chief executive officer of Word Publishing, said the phenomenon is similar to what has occurred with Christian music.

"Years ago, Christian music meant gospel music. Today's Christian market is very different. You can get country, rap, R&B. For every kind of music found in the general culture, there is now a parallel in Christian music," Gessner said.

While there are no figures on sales of Christian fiction, Phyllis Tickle, a contributing religion editor at Publishers Weekly, said book distributors have posted huge increases in sales of religious books.

Ingram Book Group, the largest book distributor in the country, has seen a 500 percent increase in such sales since 1994, Tickle said.

"Since they're the largest, it's a bellwether," she said.

As sales have increased, publishers have devoted more time and money to Christian fiction. Word plans to spend $500,000 marketing The Visitation, a thriller by Frank Peretti released in May. The initial printing is 600,000 copies.

The book is about Travis Jordan, a burned-out former pastor struggling with doubts and disillusionment about his faith, his life and the death of his wife when a Messianic figure arrives in town to preach and heal.

Peretti, a former Pentecostal minister, said the marketing support for his new book is a far cry from that in 1986 for his first book, This Present Darkness.

"I felt like a leper," he said.

Eventually, editors at Good News Crossways decided to take a chance and published it with almost no promotion. It went on to sell more than 2 million copies and is regarded by many as the book that proved there was a market for Christian fiction.

This Present Darkness is the story of a small-town newspaper editor who, with the help of a fundamentalist minister and invisible angels, battles an occult conspiracy led by a psychology professor and a legion of demons. …