In the six months since the attacks on America, a demand for knowledge has stimulated publishing and sales of books dealing with the world's second largest religion. Spring brings a new shelf full of books exploring many aspects of and viewpoints on Islam, even as sobe booksellers are now reporting a slowing of sales. PW talked to booksellers and editors and surveyed spring lists to see what sold and how, and what's next in this niche.
Signs of Softening Sales
It should come as no surprise that booksellers report softening sales. Shifts in interest and short attention spans, combined with the seasonal post-holiday slowdown, has brought receding sales of titles on Islam from their post-September 11 crests. Gary Cremeans, assistant manager of Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington--part of the six-store Joseph-Beth/Davis-Kidd chain in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee--noticed a pattern in what went out the door and when. Immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, religion titles, particularly the Koran, sold well. Then interest shifted to books about New York, the WTC towers and other tribute and keepsake titles--a red, white and blue boost. Post-holiday, sales headed downward, especially in religion, but the new level is still higher than pre-September 11. To increase visibility, Islamic religion titles were pulled out and placed on an endcap, where they remain. "There still are no plans to move them back in," Cremeans says. Sales have also improved for titles in comparative religions and "books on religion in general," he adds, citing--as do many others--books by British comparative religions authority and ex-nun Karen Armstrong (see "Bridging Faith Divides" in this issue).
Sales to a church book group of Armstrong's Islam: A Short History (Modern Library, 2000) helped that bestselling title peak recently at Lee Booksellers, a two-store indie in Lincoln, Neb., which also saw good sales for religion encyclopedias and other comparative religion books. But in general, sales of Islam titles have slowed down there. Right after September 11, "everybody was coming in looking for something, and there hasn't been as much of that recently," says Miki Wigley, a store manager. "The initial reaction was more mass interest, and now it's more from people whose interest already leaned that way."
In Washington, D.C., where policy gets made, lobbied and changed, the branch of the nine-store Olsson's Books and Records in Georgetown--one brain-trust neighborhood in the capital--sold lots of the Koran and political books. "Bernard Lewis is an easy name to recommend," says Fran Connor, store manager, referring to the eminent and much-published Mideast historian, an emeritus professor at Princeton (and currently a bestselling author). Even now sales remain steady, though a separate display for books with September 11 interest was taken down after Christmas. They are now shelved in the Middle East section of the bookstore, "whether religious or cultural--it's one easy place," says Connor.
In another demographically interesting town--Dearborn, Mich., which has one of the country's largest and oldest communities of Muslims--one chain-bookstore manager, who declined to be identified because of corporate policy, says the Koran sold consistently through the year's end, at times selling out, but into the new year, "sales are sliding down a little bit."
And down in Texas, where policy might get made when the president is away from the White House and in residence at his ranch, sales of September 11-related titles have "gone down a little bit, but not much," says Peggy Hailey, head buyer for Book People, the largest independent in university town and capital city Austin. "I'm kind of surprised it stayed as steady as it did through Christmas." Price point affected readers' choice of Koran translation, and as backlist was seen and purchased, a wide variety of titles shelved in different sections in the store moved, Hailey says.
Amazon.com's overall market experience is consistent with regional reports. Sales are softer but remain higher than pre-September 11. "Karen Armstrong's Islam: AShort History remains the top seller and is way out ahead of any other title for the last six months," Katherine Koberg, religion and spirituality editor at Amazon, tells PW. "Nothing else comes close." And while the widely available Penguin Classics version of the Koran remains the most popular translation, Koberg notes that other versions from smaller presses, among them a translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali that is favored by Muslims, are now beginning to sell. Two other titles drawing reader attention now are Lewis's Islam and the West (Oxford, 1994) and a recent work, The World of Islam (Dec. 2001), compiled from a century's reporting and photography by National Geographic.
For Future Reference
The downturn of the uptick seems as inevitable as gravity. "People are feeling that if they wanted to know something about Islam they've already bought a book," says Paul Golob, executive editor of Public Affairs, which was able by November to bring out a quick book, How Did This Happen? Terrorism and the New War, a compilation of essays by experts that was easy to commission and fast-track edit and print. "The key to publishing a book in response to events is to be able to get it out extremely quickly. There's a huge difference between two months and eight months after an event," notes Golob.
Sales also suggest elements of success other than speed: marquee names with a solid track record have sold and likely will continue to sell. "There are few new authors writing, and their books sell even less," says Laleh Bakhtiar, production manager at Chicago-based Kazi Publications, the oldest and largest independent Muslim publisher and distributor of books on Islam in North America.
Bakhtiar and Golob both suggest that books going beyond the basics about Islam in distinctive ways will find a receptive American market, though in some instances the market may be small, depending on how specialized the advanced exploration is. Bakhtiar says people are now ready for more information about traditional Islam that delves more deeply into the 1,500-year history of this monotheistic religion. Kazi's spring list includes two new translations of works by classical thinkers and mystics Ibn al-Arabi and al-Ghazali, as well as A History of the Prophets of Islam Derived from the Quran, Hadith and Commentaries (Mar.) by Suzanne Haneef (see InProfile in this issue), an American Muslim whose previous work What Everyone Should Know About Islam and Muslims did well post-September 11. Traditional Islam, Bakhtiar suggests, "is kind of a 'new category' " for non-Muslim, nonspecialist readers seeking to understand Islamic theology and history in greater depth.
Golob offers this prescription for the near term: "It's not enough to just be a primer and say, 'Let me explain what went on and clarify the background you didn't know before,' " he says. "A new book has to say something that advances our knowledge in a way that is surprising and interesting."
The lights are coming up on a few new titles from marquee names. Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (Oxford, Jan.) has already established a berth on bestseller lists. The resurgence of this American dean of Middle Eastern history also produced, or reproduced, his Islam in History: Ideas, People and Events in the Middle East (Open Court, Nov. 2001), an updated edition of an earlier work.
Still another authority, John Esposito, offers Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (Oxford, May). The much-published, and quoted, Esposito is director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and his Islam: The Straight Path (Oxford, 1990) is frequently cited as an essential work on the religion. Oxford's extensive Islamic studies publishing program also adds Islam (May) by Matthew Gordon, an illustrated overview of the faith from a history professor at Miami University-Ohio.
Cynthia Read, executive editor at Oxford and also Esposito's editor, says that while demand by the general public may fade, those who write and publish books authoritative enough for the academic market will benefit for a while from the interest in Islam. "There has been a tremendous proliferation of college courses in this area post-September 11," she says. "I hope it is a permanent development, because for the future we need more people who are educated about Islam and the Islamic world." In the meantime, she adds, Esposito is busy developing a short FAQ-style book, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam, due out in fall and based on common questions he is encountering on the lecture circuit.
Academic publisher Columbia University Press launches the first title in an Islamic Surveys series with An Introduction to Islam by Gerhard Endress and Carole Hillenbrand (Aug.). This second edition revises and translates a 1983 German original from Endress, an Islamic studies professor at Ruhr University. Hillenbrand, who teaches at Edinburgh University, is series editor. Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination by John V. Tolan (June) homes in on Christian polemics in the Middle Ages. Harvard is already reaping solid sales from its study of a familiar figure common to Islam and Christianity, The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature, translated by scholar Tarif Khalidi (May 2001).
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, another highly regarded interpreter of Islam to the West, is readying The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity (Harper San Francisco, Sept.). The Iranian-born author of nearly 30 books about Islam and professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University will launch his newest book Sept. 11, 2002, at a conference at Drew University.
Other spring books offer overviews or reference. Inside Islam: Essential Writings About Muslims, Their Beliefs and Their Ancient and Modern Conflicts, edited by John Miller and Aaron Kenedi (Marlowe and Co., June), compiles essays by leading writers on Islam and comparative religions, including V.S. Naipaul, Huston Smith, Geraldine Brooks and others. The illustrated Concise Encyclopedia of Islam by Gordon Newby (Oneworld, Aug.) ranges from Adam to Zakariyah. Oxford, England-based Oneworld is also readying for September publication September 11: Historical, Theological and Social Perspectives, edited by Ian Markham and Ibrahim Abu-Rabi of Hartford Seminary; it will include Muslim, Christian and Jewish perspectives. Helen Coward, sales and marketing director, reports that Oneworld's list of 17 titles on Islam is participating in the backlist resurrection, especially for high-profile author Farid Esack, a South African Muslim (On Being a Muslim, 1999).
Through Other Lenses
Other titles offer a comparative religions take. Islam, Christianity and the West: A Troubled History by Rollin Armour Sr. (Orbis, Mar.) looks at the two faiths' historical misunderstandings of one another. Roman Catholics and Shi'i Muslims: Prayer, Passion and Politics by James A. Bill and John Alden Williams (Univ. of North Carolina, Mar.) explores similarities between Catholicism and the minority Muslim sect. God Is One: The Way of Islam by R. Marston Speight (Friendship Press, Feb.) is a revised edition from the publishing arm of the National Council of Churches of an earlier work for mainline Christians about Islam and Muslim-Christian relations.
Evangelical Christians also bring their perspective to Islamic beliefs. Thomas Nelson quickly put together Understanding Islam, a 96-page reference primer by James A. Beverley (Dec.), theology professor and world religions authority at Tyndale Seminary. For Kregel, Ergun Mehmet Caner and Emir Fethi Caner--two brothers and former Muslims who became Christian converts and theology teachers--wrote Unveiling Islam: An Insider's Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs (Feb.). An Arab Christian's point of view can be found in The Prophet and the Messiah: An Arab Christian's Perspective on Islam and Christianity (InterVarsity, Feb.) by Chawkat Moucarry, a Ph.D. in Islamic studies from the University of Sorbonne. Anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Miriam Adeney studies Islamic women in Daughters of Islam: Building Bridges with Islamic Women (InterVarsity, Feb.). Mark Gabriel, former professor at an Islamic university, analyzes Islam and Terrorism (Strang, Mar.). Former missionary to the Philippines Robert Day McAmis assesses the scope of Islam in Southeast Asia in Malay Muslims: The History and Challenges of Resurgent Islam in Southeast Asia (Eerdmans, Apr.). A title examining the intersection of Islam and terrorism is Sword of Islam: Muslim Extremism from the Arab Conquests to the Attack on America by John F. Murphy, a military historian, comes from Prometheus (Mar.).
Works on Islam offering other distinctive themes or approaches also come from publishers aiming at the new market for information about the religion. Understanding the Islamic Experience by John Renard (Paulist, Mar.) explores the journeys of the Prophet Muhammad as keys to a broader understanding of the faith. And the rich legacy of medieval Islamic arts and letters is newly presented in the illustrated and straightforwardly titled Islamic Art and Literature, edited by Oleg Grabar and Cynthia Robinson (Markus Wiener, Mar.).
From introduction to history to theology, books on Islam continue to come, as religion publishers begin to tap a centuries-deep vein of information. They can only hope that reader interest keeps pace with their efforts.