Religious book sales show a miraculous rise

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 miraculous ascent.

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 religious traditions."

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. The major networks broadcast 303 stories on religion in the year ending March 1, compared with 121 in the same period last year.

But John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, a bimonthly magazine published by Christianity Today, says the AAP figures "just can't be right." However, he agrees that the trend is definitely up, contrary to earlier predictions about the direction of religion in America.

"In the '60s, everyone was saying that religion was fading away," he says. "I remember sitting in a sociology class and the professor calmly explaining that religion would continue to play less and less of a role in people's lives. That was wrong."

In fact, the current success of religious publishing is the continuation of a long story in America. In the 17th century, before there were bestseller lists or publicists to draw halos around the data, the bestselling books were collections of sermons, and editions of John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress."

In defense of the AAP's 50 percent figure, Ms. Blough emphasizes that her data on religion book sales for 2003 also includes whatever self-help books publishers decide to report.

That conflation of religion and self-improvement reflects a particularly American mind-set. Ben Franklin didn't invent the self-help category, but his "Autobiography" - with its industrious plan for reaching moral perfection - hasn't gone out of print since it was published in 1791. And his popular "Way to Wealth" is the founding father of the self-improvement books piled in glossy altars at Borders.

H.W. Brands, who wrote a Pulitzer-nominated biography of Franklin in 2000, isn't surprised by the rising popularity of religion and self-help books. "Americans tend to be optimistic by nature," he says. Like Franklin, they "tend to think that evil is something they can fix or that it's the result of bad arrangements."

Mr. Brands believes historians will look back at the current period as another Great Awakening, a repeat of the religious revivals of the 1740s and the 1830s.

Regardless of what the scribes conclude about the exact sales figures for religion books in 2003, Ms. Garrett at Publishers Weekly says, "I certainly don't see sales falling off anytime soon, given the confluence of cultural factors at work."

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