Cover Story

Out of the ghetto

Christian publishers reach for a share of the secular market, mainstream publishers jostle for Christian market share-and readers win from the competition

Issue: "Summer Books 2005," July 2, 2005

Since Bruce Wilkinson's The Prayer of Jabez (Multnomah) was published in 2000, it has sold 9.3 million copies. The 12 Left Behind books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins (Tyndale House) have sold 62 million copies over the last decade. Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life (Zondervan) has sold a million copies a month since it was published in 2002, making it, according to Publishers Weekly, "the bestselling hardback in American history."

Such numbers have caught the attention of even secular publishers and booksellers. "Evangelical publishers have managed to turn out a steady stream of blockbusters in recent years," observes Business Week, "making religion the hottest category in books."

No longer are Christian bookstores the sole outlet for evangelical books. Now evangelical titles-from inspirational meditations to Christian fiction-can be found at Barnes & Nobles, airport bookstands, grocery stores, and Wal-Marts.

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Christian publishers are taking advantage of their newfound respectability in the publishing industry by opening new lines specifically designed to attract readers who are not necessarily Christians. And the reverse is also true: Secular publishers are opening new lines specifically designed to cross over into the evangelical market.

Not too many years ago, Christian titles were excluded from the mainstream publishing world. No matter how many copies a title from a Christian publisher might sell, it would never make the New York Times bestseller list. That influential cultural index only surveyed a carefully selected sampling of mainline bookstores, never deigning to include Christian bookstores, and the mainline stores seldom deigned to carry books from Christian publishers.

Now, Christian books enjoy a presence in the marketplace. But are they having an impact in the marketplace of ideas? Or does this commercial success come at the price of theological integrity?

"What we're seeing in the market is Christians moving toward buying books at their regular outlets," says Chip MacGregor, who oversees TimeWarner's efforts to reach this market, subdivisions called Warner Faith and Center Street Books. "Titles like Left Behind and Prayer of Jabez gave the folks in New York the nod that there is a group out there-an evangelical Christian demographic-that is buying this book," literary agent Don Pape told WORLD. "The commerce has indicated that these religious people are everywhere."

In other words, Christians make up a large part of the so-called secular marketplace. Christians, like most people, shop at grocery stores, go to Wal-Mart, and pick up books at megachains like Barnes & Noble or Borders. Mr. Pape pointed out that only 25 percent of Christians ever darken the door of a Christian bookstore. The other 75 percent buy books elsewhere. Much of the change in the Christian publishing industry is discovering ways to reach them. In this sense, reaching the secular marketplace does not necessarily mean reaching nonbelievers.

Some Christian publishers are trying to reach beyond the evangelical demographic by starting lines of books that are not explicitly religious. Moody has a division called Northfield Press, which publishes self-help, business, and family-relationship books. NavPress has Piñon Press, which publishes self-help, family and adoption, and even medical books on Attention Deficit Disorder and dealing with stress. "While NavPress titles assume that the reader is a believer," explains the website, "the goal of Piñon Press is to present a biblical worldview to those outside the kingdom of God."

Thomas Nelson is experimenting with tying in to another once-neglected but huge field: conservative politics. Nelson president and COO Mike Hyatt had long pushed for more sales in the broader market, a vision that bore fruit in the form of a partnership with WND Books, the book-publishing arm of WorldNetDaily, a conservative online news site. The imprint published edgy, politically conservative books that reflected, or at least didn't conflict with, a Christian worldview.

WorldNetDaily commentary editor Joel Miller signed on as senior editor. In September 2002, the alliance produced its first title, Center of the Storm by Katherine Harris, in which the former Florida secretary of state gives her account of the 2000 Bush-Gore vote-counting controversy. Bestsellers followed, including conservative talk-show host Michael Savage's debut, Savage Nation, which became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, spending 15 weeks on the list.

In summer 2004, the Nelson-WorldNetDaily alliance ended, and the religious publisher pulled the imprint under its own roof, renaming it Nelson Current. The imprint continues books that are "relevant, provocative, and timely," its tagline says.

Why provocative? "Because people don't think about nonprovocative books and nonprovocative books don't change the way people think," Mr. Miller said. "We want to have an impact."

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