Focusing on Faith
The large New York publishing firms might have been forgiven, in early 2000, for taking little or no notice of a slim volume of Bible commentary put out by Multnomah Publishers, a small religious publishing house based in Colorado Springs. The book, which analyzed an obscure Old Testament passage as a sort of self-help guide to releasing “God’s favor, power and protection” through prayer, was bought up by large evangelical churches and began to be talked about online and in so-called “small group ministry” sessions around the country.
One year and 4 million copies later, everyone in the publishing world had heard of “The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life.” The book, which reached the top of The New York Times and USA Today best-seller lists in 2001, has since gone on to sell more than 9 million copies.
“The thing just took off,” recalls Joel Kneedler, publicity manager at Waterbrook Press, the religious publishing arm of Random House Inc. founded in 1996. “One woman bought 500 copies to give out at her wedding. This was pre-Rick Warren, but the ‘Left Behind’ series was already going.”
Over the past decade, the impact of such blockbusters, including Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life” and the “Left Behind” series—which over the course of its 12 volumes enjoyed a reign at the top of best-seller lists rivaled only by the exploits of boy wizard “Harry Potter”—has caused a seismic shift in the religious publishing world. The biggest players, both on the publishing and retail ends, are now, without a doubt, fully awake to the revenue power and potential of religious titles.
“I believe the two events that did the most to change the perception … were releases of ‘The Passion of the Christ’ [movie] and ‘The Purpose Driven Life,’” says Carol Johnson, vice president of editorial at Bethany House, an imprint of Baker Publishing Group. “Both got the attention of decision-makers about a very large, mostly quiet and underserved audience in the film world and the book world.”
A clear indication of this sea change came in the ripple effect caused by “The Prayer of Jabez.” Last year, in the wake of the book’s success, Multnomah was bought by Random House. The publishing giant now owns two imprints dedicated solely to the burgeoning religious-book market.
“A lot of the major houses have Christian lines now,” notes Mark Kuyper, president and CEO of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. “All of a sudden, we have New York houses competing with each other.”
The impact on the market
The effect, on all levels, has been profound.
“It used to be the case that a lot of presses weren’t all that interested in religion, and we had the field largely to ourselves,” points out Brian Hughes, humanities marketing manager at Oxford University Press. “But now that religion is a ‘hot’ topic, more publishers are getting in on the action, and some of our competitors have very deep pockets.”
That’s almost an understatement. The Random House-Multnomah deal is only one of a spate of purchases, mergers and new imprints focused on religion to have emerged within the publishing world in recent years. The trend got off the ground in 1988 with HarperCollins’ purchase of Zondervan and accelerated with Random House’s creation of Waterbrook Press, Time-Warner’s launching of Warner Faith (now FaithWords, an imprint of Hachette Book Group USA), Simon and Schuster’s purchase of Howard Books in 2006 and the launch later this year of the Penguin Praise line, not to mention Baker Publishing Group’s purchase of rival Bethany House in 2002, and other recent consolidations among traditional religious publishers.
The result for Publisher’s Weekly Religion Book Review Editor Jana Reiss has been upwards of 3,000 books on religion and spirituality crossing her desk each year.
“It’s kind of amazing to me how it continues to grow,” she says. From self-help to evangelical fiction, New Age, religion and science, books for children and teens, cultural studies on Islam or the cottage industry that built up around “The Da Vinci Code,” the growth, Reiss notes, has been “astonishing.”
According to Johnson, all this has lead to increased competition for shelf space and “mind space,” making the market far more complex than it was just a few years ago.
Analysts say recent purchases and restructurings, coupled with the lack of a blockbuster religious title last year, actually contributed to a decline in the number of titles released in 2006. Preliminary reports from the Bowker Books in Print database, provided by Bowker’s Simba Information Inc., indicate the number of new religious titles dropped to 12,598 in 2006 from 15,671 the previous year—a 19.6-percent decline.
“You can interpret that figure one of two ways,” says Simba Senior Analyst Michael Norris. Religious publishers, like other publishers, generally “need that major category to drive the industry,” he says. Also, title output may be dropping in some categories as publishers find ways to draw more sales out of a fewer number of titles, Norris adds.
“I think that’s actually a healthy thing for religious publishers. They’re paying attention to editorial content and quality, not just throwing out titles,” he says. “They’re always in the process of learning what works.”
Trevor Overcash, operations manager at AMG Publishers in Chattanooga, Tenn., agrees. Since 2005, AMG—which specializes in evangelical trade books and Bibles—has “backed off a little” on the number of titles released in order to focus more on quality and sales quantity. The effort, he says, has been driven by a biannual analysis of what’s selling.
“We’re being more aggressive with the way we market those titles. The key word that we’re using in the last couple of years is ‘focus,’” says Overcash.
The same holds true at Waterbrook. “If anything, we’ve drawn back in the last couple of years,” says Kneedler. “We want to produce and publish books that backlist well. It gives you a good foundation and longevity in the marketplace.”
According to Book Industry Study Group numbers provided by Kuyper, religious-book publishing began its sales surge in 2003, with an 8-percent increase. In 2004, the increase jumped to 11.4 percent, and then slowed a bit in 2005, but still posted an 8.5-percent gain.
“These numbers are pretty significant when you consider that most of publishing is relatively flat or even down,” Kuyper notes.
He says the 2006 numbers, which have not yet been released, could show further slowing. Still, anecdotal evidence he’s picked up from retailers suggests that religious publishing continues to be the book industry’s bright star.
“The overall market is still robust,” agrees Don Stephenson, director of
publications for Baker Publishing
Group. “There aren’t quite as many blockbuster religious or inspirational titles out there in the general market
compared to a couple of years ago, yet certain titles, like Revell’s [an imprint of Baker] ‘90 Minutes in Heaven,’ are still selling very strongly, and in that book’s case, still continuing to post more than 20 weeks on The New York Times nonfiction paperback list more than two years after it was first published.”
Stephenson says Baker is publishing “about the same number of titles” as last year.
“The larger bookstores have really woken up to the power of evangelical publishing,” says Kneedler, “which is good for publishers, but not for the independents. I’d say a common theme in the past few years has been the sales going the way of larger stores and the Internet, and taking sales away from brick-and-mortar Christian bookstores.”
The increasing amount of space given to religious titles by Borders and Barnes & Noble has been “a blessing and a curse,” according to Stuart Matlins, publisher at the Brattleboro, Vt.-based Jewish Lights and Skylight Paths Publishing, which specializes in trade books based in the Jewish-wisdom tradition marketed to readers of all faiths and backgrounds.
“Without the superstores, our niche titles would be in many fewer places,” he notes, “but when the superstores skip a title, that’s really tough.”
Matlins—who says he has been in the position of pitching 30 titles in one 45-minute sales meeting with a bookstore-chain purchaser—says smaller publishers like his should nevertheless be grateful for the exposure.
“Internet sales are very important and are growing each year, but our experience is that the overwhelming majority of books are purchased because somebody was browsing the shelves, so if you’re not on the shelf, it’s going to hurt,” Matlins says.
Independent bookstores have traditionally carried a greater breadth of materials that provide support for a publisher’s whole line, Kuyper says. With quicker turnover and attention focused on new releases, the big stores do not fill this role—leaving the Internet as the new frontier for creative marketing of backlisted titles and lesser-known books related to popular releases.
“Publishers are pulling back from marketing that reaches retail and reallocating to reach the consumer,” he notes. “The Internet is going to be a big thing with viral marketing. Then the consumer decides where to purchase.”
In this targeted-marketing environment, customer relationship management tools such as e-newsletters are increasingly important.
“E-mail marketing is a big part of our online strategy,” notes Jerry Rogers, marketing manager at Llewellyn, a Woodbury, Minn.-based publisher best known for its New Age spirituality and occult titles. “It’s allowed us to cheaply segment book buyers by their interests, which is vital to a publisher that specializes in a variety of alternative beliefs.”
Llewellyn Journal, a weekly online publication that posts articles from authors, “provides a great way to hook a backlist title to a current trend, making it relevant again and stirring up new interest,” says Rogers.
According to Hughes, e-newsletters are also playing an increasingly important role at Oxford University Press, along with successful online partnerships with BeliefNet.com and the Islamic Society of America.
At Bethany House, Public Relations Director Brett Benson cites online reviews, excerpts and author blog tours, as well as e-newsletter subscriptions as important, new marketing tools.
Kneedler says Waterbrook sends new books to influential bloggers and gets material on YouTube.com in order to reach younger readers and other niche audiences.
For evangelical publishers especially, none of this has yet replaced such proven strategies as direct marketing to churches and maintaining a strong presence at trade shows and conventions. At Baker Publishing Group, “one of the biggest initiatives we’re undertaking currently is building our new direct-to-church initiative, Deeper Faith Resources,” says Stephenson.
Llewellyn has found success in reaching out to the U.S. Spanish-speaking demographic whose appetite for books will increase as education and income levels in the Hispanic population continue to rise, says Rogers.
“We’re trying more direct mail,” he reports. “We’ll also be starting up a Spanish e-newsletter this year to help drive more interest to our Spanish Web site.”
A dedicated market
Ultimately, the strength of the religious book market—and the aspect that some smaller publishers suggest the large, new players may be most likely to miss—is the companies’ commitment to the culture they seek to promulgate through the written word, be it evangelical Christian, Jewish, Islamic or New Age.
“Our strategy for building customer relations is based heavily on respect for the reader’s individual interests and showing our authentic dedication and support for the genre,” notes Rogers.
“We tend to be on the vanguard because our publishing reflects the life we’re trying to lead,” Matlins says. “It isn’t just about manufacturing books.” BB
James Sturdivant is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer based in Philadelphia.
- Amg Publishers
- Baker Publishing
- Bethany House Publishers
- Bowker Books
- Deeper Faith Resources
- Evangelical Christian Publishers Association
- Hachette Book Group
- Islamic Society of America
- Jewish Lights and Skylight Paths Publishing
- Multnomah Publishers
- Oxford University Press
- Random House Inc.
- Simba Information
- The Book Industry Study Group
- The New York Times
- Time Inc.
- USA Today
- Warner Faith
- Waterbrook Press