Book Buyers Turn Over New Leaf


JAN KOK describes a cartoon he posted on the wall of his office: A pastor is shown in a church, preaching to a congregation of only two or three - but at the bookstore next door, people are lining up to get in to buy books on spirituality and religious topics.

''The churches are getting empty, but people go for spiritual books,'' says Mr. Kok, director of the publishing arm of the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

Europe is, to a certain extent, following a trend that has been evident in the United States for some time: seeking spirituality in a bookstore.

The spirituality trend was only part of the buzz at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the word's largest, earlier this month.

This year's gathering focused on hot new markets, such as Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Asia, and Latin America. New electronic formats - CD-ROM, interactive video, books on-line - attracted plenty of attention.

Yet some publishing experts are looking for spirituality to become an even hotter topic soon.

Europe adds a twist

The spirituality trend, or trend in the making, is playing out differently in Europe than in the United States. Europe hasn't experienced the same enthusiasm for books on angels, for instance, as the US, or for books that might be described as ''spiritual self-help.''

A Scandinavian religious publisher says that some Christian writers, like best-selling American author Frank Peretti, have not done well in his part of the world.

But as Kok notes, ''When I visit friends who don't go to church, I see religious books on their coffee tables.'' He adds however that he sees ''less interest in Christian spirituality, more in New Age.''

Some of those books may be there for social rather than theological reasons. Kok points out that in places like his native Netherlands, it is the custom to bring flowers or a small gift when one is invited to the home of friends for dinner. For such an occasion, a small picture book featuring one of the Psalms, for instance, could be just right.

Still, ''Europe is a place where serious theological books can get onto the bestseller list,'' according to Kok. He cites the works of Eugen Drewermann in Germany, a controversial Roman Catholic priest who has been, in Kok's term, ''corrected'' by the Vatican. One of Drewermann's latest projects is a speaking tour on the life of the 16th-century Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake.

And the new Catholic catechism turned out to be a surprise bestseller in France last year - along with Pope John Paul II's book, which was a bestseller in many countries.

The Boston-based Christian Science Church, which owns this newspaper, is having the highest sales in 20 years of its textbook, ''Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures,'' by Mary Baker Eddy.

''We have been seeing over the past three or four years an increased steady growth in interest in 'Science and Health,' and an interest in spiritual guidance,'' says Carol Hohle, managing publisher for the writings of Mary Baker Eddy at the Christian Science Publishing Society, which has launched a program to make the book more available in bookstores internationally.

Meanwhile, the market for religious publishing in Eastern Europe is more intense, according to Linda Crone of New Life Publications in San Bernardino, Calif.

Her group, which works with Campus Crusade for Christ, has been selling religious publications in Eastern Europe for 10 years. Mrs. Crone estimates that within the last four years, New Life has sold more than 16 million books - largely guides for individual moral and spiritual development - in Russian and other languages of the former Soviet Union. Poland has been the No. 2 market. Hungary and the Czech Republic have been strong, too, she says.

Marlin Van Elderen, executive editor at the World Council of Churches, says individual reading of religious books has much less of a place within the religious traditions of these countries than it does in Protestantism. The influx of religious publishing to which New Life and others are contributing is part of a general opening to the West.

''These countries have been going through a period where everything from the West is good,'' he says.

Meanwhile, some of the religious leaders in Eastern Europe, he adds, who kept practicing their faith even during the dark days of communism, do not take kindly to being ''overwhelmed with Protestant literature.''

Crone is less sanguine about the market for her wares in Western Europe - she finds ''a general coldness toward spiritual things.''

'Times of difficulty'

But Keith Danby, chief executive of STL, a Christian publisher in Carlisle, Britain, whose publications include works by C.S. Lewis, sees it a little differently.

''We have seen an upsurge in sales of Christian-value books - on family, employment, self-esteem,'' he says. ''Europe has been through a very difficult economic and political time, and in times of difficulty, people start to look to other values.''

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