Cover Story

Out of the ghetto

"Out of the ghetto" Continued...

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

Buyers, so far, haven't looked askance at political and current-events books coming out of a Christian house. That, said Mr. Miller, is because though the books reflect a biblical worldview (or consciously undermine unbiblical ones), they don't make a pretense of being "Christian" per se. Instead, they are tailored for the general market. The fact that several have become bestsellers has enabled Nelson Current authors such as Jayna Davis (author of The Third Terrorist) and Barry Minkow (Cleaning Up) to "get into big media and have their voices taken seriously," Mr. Miller said.

But does this foray into hardball politics compromise Nelson's Christian ethos? For example, Mr. Savage is known for no-holds-barred commentary that sometimes includes name-calling, as in his most recent Nelson Current title Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder. How does that fit with Scripture's admonition for gentle, reasoned argument?

Because they often report controversial history and current events, Nelson Current books also sometimes include coarse language. "Because the books are intended for the mainstream market, we have a little more latitude there," Mr. Miller said. "We don't want the language to become gratuitous, but the story is the story." He added that Nelson Current uses salty or provocative language only when it's relevant and appropriate to the truth of the subject. "It's not in your face all the time," he said.

Just as Christian publishers are trying to reach the secular audience, secular publishers are trying to reach the Christian audience-sometimes simply by buying a Christian publisher. That is what happened to Zondervan. Acquired by HarperCollins, it became part of the even bigger media empire of the international media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, whose holdings range from Fox News to the Los Angeles Lakers. Secular publishers also form partnerships with Christian publishers, as Penguin/Putnam is doing with Strang Communications.

And secular presses start religious divisions of their own, as with TimeWarner's two new divisions. Random House, in another example, started WaterBrook. These ventures were not a case of a big company venturing into a market that it did not understand. Lee Hough, a Christian literary agent, said that these secular publishers brought in editors and staff with experience from Christian publishing companies. But the greater financial resources and industry clout from the parent companies give them an advantage.

TimeWarner in 2001 hired Rolf Zettersten, a senior executive at Thomas Nelson, to start Warner Faith. With his contacts, he signed best-selling Christian author Joyce Meyer, and with the TimeWarner distribution clout doubled her sales to 2 million. This success story attracted other big name authors, including Joel Osteen, whose Lakewood Church in Houston is America's largest.

But though some Christian publishers complain about the unfair advantages the big corporations hold, Mr. Hough says that the secular publishers have broadened the market for everyone. TimeWarner and Random House are trusted in the secular book industry, so when they introduced evangelical stars into that marketplace, it also opened the door for other evangelical authors and the Christian companies that published them.

But does going after secular markets mean watering down the Christian message? "We've never asked an author to water down or change their message," says Alan Arnold, head of Thomas Nelson's crossover fiction line, Westbow. But he points to another problem with conventional Christian fiction from the other side. "I feel very strongly that to water down-or bloat a novel with more water-can be equally harmful to the story."

According to the principles of free-market economics, competition improves quality. And when Christians had only to publish for each other, quality did slip. "There is reason for some Christian writers to be quarantined," said Mr. Lee. "You want Christian writers to be writing on the level as in the regular market." Mr. Arnold agrees: "Most traditional Christian fiction was less focused on the art of story and more focused on an agenda-driven approach," he said. "The goal of many authors was to 'teach' the reader a doctrine through an often one-dimensional story. Ironically, it often wasn't a prejudice against Christian content that caused most of these novels to be rejected in the general market-the stories simply did not pass the test of great fiction."

And if Christian bookstores are losing market share, it may be partly their fault. Many long ago stopped carrying many books beyond a few bestsellers, filling up their shelves instead with plaques, figurines, and knick-knacks. Though there are significant exceptions, many are no longer bookstores. "Let's face it, " said Mr. MacGregor. "They're Christian 'gift centers.'"

Brett Venable, who runs Mustard Seed bookstore in Milford, Del., defends Christian bookstores, pointing to the price advantages of the big chains and how many stores have been forced to depend on selling gifts to stay in business. But he notes a deeper problem throughout the Christian bookselling industry. "I am nowhere near as concerned about the effect of fewer Christian books being sold in Christian bookstores as I am about the poor theology being taught in the bestselling Christian books," he told WORLD. "It appears to me that the worst thing to happen is not the closing of Christian stores as a result of unfair business practices by publishers, but rather the propagation of loose theology making Christians more 'spiritual' but less godly."

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