Keeping the Faith
It wasn’t too long ago—about three to four decades—that bookstore chains made no room on their shelves for religious publications. Out of necessity, religious bookstores were conceived, says Rolf Zettersten, publisher of Time Warner Faith, Nashville, Tenn.
Times are much different now. Religious books line the shelves of major outlets like Barnes & Noble and Borders, and can be ordered online with just one click. And some large publishers that previously saw religious publishing as a niche market have created religious imprints of their own. Texts representing everything from Judaism and Christianity to Muslim and Hindu are more accessible than ever and frequently top best-seller lists.
With that accessibility comes new challenges and new trends—some resembling those of secular publishing and some not. Here, both Judaic and Christian publishers reflect on the obstacles they face in the book business today, as well as the trends they observe and how they are handling it all.
A BOOK SALE BATTLE
Probably one of the most distinguishing challenges for religious publishing that has been lingering for some time would be price point, according to Zettersten, who was with Christian publisher Thomas Nelson when Time Warner pursued him to start Warner Faith five years ago. Zettersten says religious books are traditionally priced lower than secular books, with hardcovers still experiencing a $20 barrier.
“In fact, the very popular title ‘The Purpose Driven Life,’ by Rick Warren is sold for $20,” he says. “If this book had been published by general trade it would go for $24. It’s just always been this way. For many years, booksellers claimed religious books had to have those lower price points, and it’s never changed.”
What can make matters worse in the book-sale battle are returns and the wrestle for shelf space. For Stuart Matlins, publisher of Jewish Lights and Skylight Paths publishing, Woodstock, Vt., dealing with returns is a major hindrance.
“The average on returns is about 30 percent for us,” says Matlins. “That percentage is a little lower in religious bookstores and a little higher in major chains, but either way we must inspect each returned book, which is time-consuming and expensive. Finding a way to change this requires a great deal more attention and focus on getting more of our books sold.”
Jewish Lights produces books based on “Jewish wisdom traditions” for people of all faiths and backgrounds. Skylight Paths publishes books for seekers and believers of all spiritual traditions ‘who are walking together trying to find a way,’ the company’s motto.
Vying for shelf space—especially for back-listed books—is also difficult, adds Matlins. This could be a result of competition from larger publishing houses.
Zettersten concedes that being a part of the Warner Book Group warrants a fair share of space. “And our salespeople embrace our books and have the same passion as with other Warner imprints,” he says. “I can see where acquiring space might be more difficult for smaller publishing houses, though.”
Another dilemma in the bookstores is a significant shift in the channels of distribution. Mark Taylor, president, Tyndale House Publishers, Carol Stream, Ill., says independent bookstores—both Christian and general—are feeling intense pressure from the big national bookstore chains.
“One of the challenges of working with big-box stores is that the rate of returns tends to be very high,” he says. “Those accounts often order far more inventory than they will realistically need, and then they return the excess inventory. By that time, the publisher often has no choice but to shred the returned books. We are in the process of trying to fine-tune our sales efforts so that together we can anticipate more clearly the number of books they will need.”
Tyndale House publishes Bibles and both fiction and nonfiction Christian books. Its Bible line is built around the modern translation called the “New Living Translation.” Some of its best-selling trade books are “Heaven” by Randy Alcorn and the “Redemption” series of novels by Karen Kingsbury.
Content presents another frequent challenge. David E. Behrman, publisher of Behrman House Publishers, Springfield, N.J., says producing materials that make religious studies fun and engaging for young and middle-grade children presents some problems.
“Our materials must at all times equal or exceed the quality and engagement of the materials they encounter in secular school, and they must help children integrate religious learning within their day-to-day lives,” says Behrman. “But we are always working to improve. For instance, we focus considerable attention and resources on creative design, art and photography. These are key elements in making a book engaging for children.
“The text, art, photography and activities all must be carefully combined to create a work that is open and engaging, while delivering the educational content the school needs,” he adds.
Behrman House primarily publishes educational materials for Jewish religious schools. It also publishes some adult nonfiction Judaica titles that can be found at trade outlets such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Examples of these titles include “As a Driven Leaf,” by Milton Steinberg and “The Family Haggadah,” by Eli Gindi.
Zettersten agrees that content can cause dilemmas. “I’m not sure this is so different from other publishers except that in my experience fiction is most difficult in religious publishing,” he says. “It is an area where I see the greatest lack of quality. I think Christian-living books and devotionals do very well, but I don’t see the same standard or literary merit and skill that you see in general fiction.”
The reason, Zettersten believes, is because historically Christian fiction was created by those wanting to make a point or teach spiritual lessons, and not written by those who love the craft of writing.
“Christian fiction tends to be written by those who want to impart some kind of message,” he explains. “But the content is missing the basic elements of good fiction like plot, developed characters and conflict, and authors woefully fall short of technical or historical research on topic, times and era.”
BREATHING NEW LIFE
While business and editorial challenges present issues for religious publishers to contemplate, some trends bring new hope. For instance, Matlins believes one of the more significant changes occurring in religious publishing today is an increased interest in the subject matter.
“I think this is due in part to the maturing of the baby boomer generation. People are looking for books that relate the teachings of different religious traditions directly to their lives,” he says. “There is a practical aspect to their interest, not just a theological one.”
Matlins says people are interested in using the practices of religion and are not just looking for an intellectual exercise. “Baby boomers are coming to a point in their lives when they reflect on such things, and have the time and resources to do so,” he says.
Whereas the baby boomer generation has time to seek deeper spirituality, a different trend is occurring with the younger generation. According to Behrman, children’s time is at a premium.
“There is greater pressure on schools to do more with fewer class hours,” he says. “In terms of pedagogy, we also see an increasing reliance on electronic tools, such as Web sites, interactive CDs and electronic games for drill and review in language acquisition. This is something education publishers must catch up to.”
Save for a few exceptions, those in religious book publishing face the same ups and downs as all publishers. All publishers want better pricing, better shelf space, more readers and high-quality content. Religious publishing is a business, after all.
But Behrman reminds us that at least in the educational market there is one final challenge that religious publishers always work to uphold, and that is an adherence to higher standards. “The most important difference between religious educational publishing and secular educational publishing is that religious schools, and therefore religious educational publishers, are in the business of teaching ethics, values and morals in a way that secular schools are not.”
All those interviewed agreed that this statement would hold true for all segments of religious publishing.
Sharon Cole is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer serving the print industry.