Magazine article The Christian Century

Religion Sells

Magazine article The Christian Century

Religion Sells

Article excerpt

BY A NUMBER of measures, sales of religion books are booming. The Association of American Publishers reports that religious publishing grew by 37 percent in 2003. The Book Industry Study Group predicts that religious book publishing will expand by 6 percent this year; it calls this sector of publishing "a growth business." The trade magazine Publishers. Weekly reports that 18 percent of book buyers said in a survey that they had purchased a religious or spiritual book within the past 12 months.

These industry sources aren't working off the same data, the definitions of what makes a book a "religion" title aren't uniform, and religion publishing still makes up only 5 percent of the general market. Still, something's happening in this corner of the book world something that reflects religion's prominence in public life.

"Religion is very much in the public square," says Lynn Garrett, religion editor at Publishers Weekly. "We see that today in television and movies as well as publishing. Post 9/11, a lot of today's issues wrap themselves around religion."

The prominence of religious or spiritual themes constitutes a rebuttal of sorts of the secularization hypothesis--the notion that religion would fade as reason advanced and benighted souls saw the error of their superstitious ways.

"It's not that no one still thinks that, but it's lost a lot of its credibility," says John Wilson, founding editor of the journal Books and Culture. He calls it "the return of the repressed" after a time of institutional secularism that pushed religion out of public discourse, lie sees religion pervading both popular and serious culture, and finds signs in unlikely places. University press catalogs tout volumes of poetry that depend on religious language even if the authors have no religion or religious intent. Dan Brown's multimillion-selling thriller The DaVinci Code offers a highly unorthodox view of major Christian beliefs and institutions, and DaVinci fans and debunkers alike would agree that Brown is no theologian. But religion is central to the book.

"You're talking about people using the language of Christianity whether or not they accept it," Wilson says. "The extent to which it's penetrated people's imaginations shows it's something happening on a very large scale."

Within religion publishing, the most explosive growth is among distinctly evangelical sectors. Zondervan and Tyndale House can cite impressive growth in the past five years. Garrett says that PW's survey turned up a lot of book buyers who identified themselves as evangelicals--40 percent of the group the magazine surveyed, a figure that squares with researcher George Barna's estimate of what he calls the "born-again" population.

Evangelicals make up a sizable part of the population, evangelicals buy books, and evangelical publishers have been able to get their books into receptive hands. Their titles have penetrated the general market, and can be found in bookstores, price clubs, big-box retailers and discount stores. "Christian publishers are doing a pretty good job of marketing and selling," Garrett says. They have also gotten better at making sure that data from the evangelical Christian market are included in sales data from the general market.

At the supply end, evangelical publishers are cultivating authors who develop a loyal following--readers eager to buy the next volume. All publishers do this, of course--John Grisham and Stephen King always sell. Evangelical authors can reach their readers via a network of congregations, seminars mid conferences within the Christian subculture. These provide convenient platforms to promote authors and sell books.

Martin Marty suggests that evangelicals fill a "vacuum" left by mainliners and Catholics and the "'spiritual but not religious crowd," all of whom blend into secular culture and don't offer a distinctive portfolio of beliefs. While evangelicals may be theoretically hostile to contemporary culture, many are at home in popular culture. …

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