The Psalmist had it right: "The Lord gave the word: great was the
company of those that published it." Greater than anyone would have
guessed, according to data from the American Association of
Publishers. The AAP claims that last year saw a 50 percent rise in
the sale of religion books over the previous year. For an industry
that generated modest across-the-board increases in 2003, that's a
But in the world of publishing, statistics can be as
controversial as the Shroud of Turin. While a few dust jackets boast
openly about how many millions they've sold, publishers keep the
data on most titles in a secret place of the most high.
If the AAP figures are accurate, they demonstrate an increase
that heralds the end of time.
Kathryn Blough, vice president of AAP, says her organization
stands by the figures, but she points out that the religion category
is narrow, relying on numbers from just five large publishers who
decide for themselves which books are "religious."
Other industry watchers express deep skepticism about the AAP
figures, while acknowledging that the success of religion books
continues to outpace the industry as a whole, perhaps because Wal-
Mart has expanded its offerings in this category.
David Jastrow, a senior analyst at SIMBA Information, a
publishing research firm in Stamford, Conn., says his firm's data
indicate that religion book sales in 2003 increased by 4.6 percent
to $1.5 billion.
But even industry analysts who question the increase reported by
AAP note that including or excluding a few phenomenally popular
titles can change the landscape of the entire category.
Lynn Garrett, religion editor at Publishers Weekly, points to the
supreme example of the moment: Rick Warren's "The Purpose-Driven
Life," which has sold 16 million copies and inspired a host of
related titles since it was published in 2002. (Purpose-Driven gift
products have sold nearly 3 million units.)
"A book that big can skew the numbers," Ms. Garrett observes. But
she believes the success of religion publishing is also broader,
less tied to the rise of a single title or author. "Religion is just
so much a part of the cultural conversation these days," she says,
"because of global terrorism and radical Islam. People want to
understand those things. They're looking to go more deeply into the
Hunger for religious offerings seems to be permeating the
television industry as well. Over the past 10 years, TV coverage of
religious issues has been rising sharply, according to a study
released this week by the Media Research Center. …