Features

Going mainstream

National | Trends in the publishing industry are opening up new avenues for Christian writers, and some Christian books are selling millions of copies in mainstream bookstores. Does this mean that Christianity has become culturally influential again? Or does it merely signal that Christians have been swallowed up by the larger culture?

Issue: "Schundler's bliss," July 7, 2001

Christian books from evangelical publishers are becoming blockbusters, dominating the mainstream bestseller lists. The Left Behind books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have sold some 27 million copies. Throw in the spinoffs such as the children's series Left Behind: The Kids and audio products, and the number soars to 38 million. Numbers vary, but this is more than the Harry Potter books, a worldwide publishing sensation, which have sold a mere 23 million. The eight books of Left Behind, the fictionalized saga of premillennialist eschatology published by Tyndale House, have commanded the fiction charts since 1995. Each title has sold at least 2.5 million. The seventh book, The Indwelling, debuted as No. 1 on the bestseller lists of The New York Times, Publisher's Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Amazon.com, the best showing ever for a Christian novel. The next installment, The Desecration, featuring the abomination of desolation when the Antichrist enters the rebuilt Jewish Temple and declares himself god, is scheduled for release on Oct. 30, just in time for Halloween, with a first printing of 3 million, the biggest print run in the history of Christian fiction. (After that, three more novels are on the way, until Jesus comes back.) Possibly even bigger, for a single book, is the tiny, 96-page hardbound tract The Prayer of Jabez. The exposition of 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 by Bruce Wilkinson, published by Multnomah, shot up out of nowhere, selling over 6.6 million copies seemingly overnight. It weighed in at No. 1 on The New York Times' Advice & How-to list, the Publisher's Weekly hardcover nonfiction list, and the USA Today bestseller list, which counts all categories together. A spinoff, Secrets of the Vine, sits at No. 2 on the Times' list. Jabez plays to the attraction of the "prosperity gospel"-claiming that one need just pray this prayer and God will, in the words of Jabez, "enlarge your territory." But at the same time, as Melanie Cottle points out, writing in The New Republic, it is also the ultimate anti-self help book. "Yes, Wilkinson lifts themes and language from empowerment gurus and success coaches," she writes, "but his central point is that there is no inner power or strength that we must struggle to tap. The key to success in life-material as well as spiritual-is simply to give it all up to God. Talent doesn't matter. (God has always preferred the weak.) Confidence doesn't matter. (The Father loves dependence.) Setting goals is in fact a sin. (It's all about God's will.) .... Thus, it may be that the Jabez craze is driven not so much by our insatiable desire to be richer, thinner, more significant-but by our exhaustion in the effort." But when was the last time an evangelical title was discussed seriously in a liberal intellectual screed such as The New Republic? Or The New York Times, which has discussed both The Prayer of Jabez and Left Behind in major articles, as have much of the rest of the mainline secular media. So have evangelical Christians broken through? Is the success of these arguably light-weight titles evidence that Bible-believing Christians can be taken seriously in the marketplace of ideas? Probably not, at least not yet. Their success, though, is a symptom of far-reaching changes in the publishing industry, both for Christian and for secular booksellers, changes that may eventually give Christians more of a voice and an influence. The publishing game
It is not at all unusual for Christian books to rack up huge sales. Popular Christian writers such as Frank Peretti, Charles Swindoll, and Max Lucado have sold millions of books, as have theological heavyweights such as J.I. Packer and C.S. Lewis. Back in the 1970s, Francis Schaeffer's books were selling at a higher rate than many of the titles on The New York Times Bestseller List. Nevertheless, his books could never crack that prestigious list, no matter how many he sold. The way the Times compiled its bestseller list was to survey a small number of elite bookstores, most of which never bothered to stock Christian titles. The rankings were never based on actual numbers of books sold-information that was too difficult to gather back then-so that books from Christian publishers, sold exclusively in Christian bookstores, were artificially kept out. As a result, Christian books could never attain the recognition, the buzz, or the cultural influence of the books that made the bestseller list. They remained out of the mainstream, segregated in a Christian ghetto. Thanks to computers, analysts today can trace book sales more accurately. Big sellers can no longer be ignored. And with the advent of new economic models in the book industry, the mainstream book dealers do not want to ignore big sellers, even if they are Christian. The issue is not just counting sales figures. A few years ago, Christian books were just not in the retail pipeline. A book like The Prayer of Jabez would hardly be available outside Christian bookstores. It would never make it to the shelves of the mainline dealers, because their distributors just did not deal with small Christian publishers. Today, according to Doug Ross, president of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, new channels of distribution have opened up for Christian books. Chief among these-even more than all-inclusive Internet booksellers such as Amazon.com-is the advent of the super-bookstores. The proliferation of mega-chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, which are characterized by vast floor space, means more shelves that have to be filled. Smaller stores have to be selective with what they stock, but the super-bookstores have plenty of room and need a large, varied, all-encompassing inventory to attract the most customers. That shift cleared room for Christian titles. As the bookstores got bigger, the corporate publishing world got bigger, with mergers, acquisitions, and takeovers. Time-honored publishing houses were gobbled up by bigger publishers, who, like the classic picture of feeding fish, were themselves swallowed up by media giants or corporations that had nothing to do with books. Even some Christian publishers became morsels in the feeding frenzy: Zondervan, one of the biggest Christian publishing houses, was bought by the secular publishing giant HarperCollins, which in turn became part of the corporate empire-along with Fox TV, cable companies, British tabloids, and countless other businesses-of Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch. But what this did, according to Mr. Ross, was open the mainstream distribution networks even more to Christian publishers. Now that HarperCollins owned Zondervan, it saw to it that Zondervan's books would be distributed, giving the Christian publisher access to its own general market. Ironically, the growth of bookstores and the corporate book industry did not drive out the little Christian publisher. The consolidation of the industry made it easier for Christian publishers to become integrated with the book market as a whole. This was a plus for Christian authors and publishers, but it was tough on the small Christian bookstores, which-like other independents-now had to compete with the Barnes & Nobles, with their vast selections and latté bars. Instead of patronizing Christian bookstores, millions of Christians are doing their shopping at the super-bookstores. This has its effect on the bestseller charts, but leaves Christian stores struggling, even as the Christian publishing houses are doing better than ever. Christian music sales, for example, declined 6 percent in 2000, but, according to an article on the Christian Bookseller's Association website, most of this decline was in sales from Christian stores, which dropped 25 percent. Christian music sales in mainstream stores rose 9.2 percent. Now, general market stores sell more Christian music (50.4 percent) than Christian stores sell (47.2 percent). Turf battles
If Christian publishers have successfully invaded the mainstream marketplace, secular publishers-scenting the big profits-are invading the Christian publishers' turf. Penguin/Putnam is now publishing Christian titles. Its religion catalog-amidst books on past lives, psychic healing, Eastern religions, and New Age syncretism-features a new translation of Augustine's Confessions, a defense of the Shroud of Turin, and new books by the best-selling evangelical author T.D. Jakes. Penguin/Putnam also published Jan Karon's Mitford novels about the small-town life of a pastor, one of which, A New Song, won a Golden Medallion award, the highest honor from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. Other mainstream publishers are starting whole new subdivisions devoted to publishing evangelical Christian books. Most notable of the new players is Warner, a subsidiary of the AOL Time Warner media and technology empire. Last summer the Christian bookselling industry was shaken to learn that Warner had lured away Rolf Zettersten, who held the key position of publisher at Thomas Nelson, the biggest Christian publishing company, to head up Warner's new evangelical line. Recently, according to Publisher's Weekly, Thomas Nelson filed suit against Mr. Zettersten for violating a "noncompete" agreement he had allegedly agreed to before leaving the company. The suit accuses Mr. Zettersten of recruiting Thomas Nelson authors to write for his new employer. Warner's authors include former Nelson best-selling author John Maxwell and Left Behind co-author Jerry Jenkins. Will smaller Christian publishers be able to compete against the bottomless pockets and the business clout of the corporate giants that have discovered the lucrative potential of the Christian market? They may learn how the small Christian bookstore owners feel. The marketplace of ideas
Christian publishers have, over the last 15 years, made a concerted effort to broaden their market, according to Mr. Ross. They have developed relationships with trade organizations and publications such as Publisher's Weekly. They have improved the quality of their products, so that the printing, binding, and design of their books measure up to the standards of the profession, something that was not always the case a few years ago. The public's spiritual hunger is also shaping the market. Modernists thought that religion would go away, banished by the sureties of science, rationalism, and social engineering. Now that modernism is over and the 20th century a bygone era, people's spiritual needs are palpable, even desperate. However, as Mr. Ross points out, people are not necessarily turning to Christianity to satisfy these needs. The bestseller lists bear this out. The Publisher's Weekly list of bestselling religious books includes works by the Dalai Lama, a new book on Buddhism, and Developing Your Psychic Powers intermixed with evangelical titles. "General trade stores," said Mr. Ross, "will sell a book that sells." They don't care what it says, or whether it is Christian or not. The economic imperatives drive the business. At least Christianity is now in a position to compete in this marketplace of ideas. But it's worth remembering that, according to Scripture, the "world," in its fallen condition, is in opposition to God, and "worldliness" is a temptation Christians must always resist. Success in the marketplace means giving people what they want, but in matters of faith, catering to consumer desires can be deadly. "For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine," warned the Apostle Paul in the book of 2 Timothy. "Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." Christians can hardly expect secular corporate boards oriented to the bottom line to understand the need for doctrinal integrity on the part of their Christian product lines. This is evident in HarperCollins' handling of the profitable C. S. Lewis franchise, seeking to churn out new Narnia books stripped of their theological content in an attempt to reach a broader market (see WORLD, June 16). Even evangelical publishing companies have been tempted to scratch the itching ears of the religious consumer, marketing a watered-down pop Christianity. Christians must be on guard lest their cultural success comes from being indistinguishable from their culture. It is not clear whether the blockbuster sales of a handful of evangelical titles is a result of nonbelievers' exposure to Christian books, or Christians buying their books from secular dealers. The answer is probably mostly the latter, though undoubtedly some nonbelievers are reading them as well, perhaps being exposed to God's Word in a way that may help bring them to faith. The challenge for Christian books, as for Christian people, is to be in the world, but not of the world (John 17:14-18). The good news is that Christian books are increasingly getting in the world.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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