A gallup poll conducted in December found that nearly a quarter of Americans said they were likely to choose religion or spirituality titles when settling down to read. Even in this sluggish economy, booksellers we've interviewed over the past several months report satisfying sales from their religion sections, and such books regularly make their appearance on bestseller lists. The large general trade houses continue their incursion into the lucrative evangelical Christian market, and they and smaller independent houses also maintain strong programs in publishing on other faiths.
This spring, some reduction in title output is evident, and it would be surprising if it were otherwise, as publishers reorganize and streamline to meet the challenges of the day. Still, activity in the category remains surprisingly robust. Certain subcategories or topics have shrunk—mostly the ones that were over-published in recent seasons, such as devotionals and Jesus studies—but others just keep growing. The number of books being published on various aspects of Buddhism is all out of proportion to the number of Americans who claim to be Buddhist, a reflection of that non-deistic religious philosophy's appeal across faith lines and its ability to integrate with other religions rather than supplanting them. Based on recent media coverage of the physical, psychological and spiritual benefits of the key Buddhist practice of meditation, new books on that subject might draw increased attention.
Yoga, another Eastern practice that has become a health club craze in the past few years, produces the expected flood of fitness-oriented books each season, but this spring there are a few that focus on the discipline's religious roots and spiritual benefits. Two that might offer a corrective to the watering down that inevitably comes with popularity are Hohm Press's Yoga from the Inside Out and Snow Lion's Yantra Yoga: The Tibetan Yoga of Movement (both out in May).
This season also brings some long-awaited books from high-profile authors. After an eight-year hiatus, Princeton biblical scholar Elaine Pagels, author of the bestselling The Gnostic Gospels, is publishing again—her Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas releases in May. Peter Steinfels, New York Times "Beliefs" columnist and a respected commentator on American Catholicism, brings us A People Adrift: The Crisis in the Roman Catholic Church in America (S&S, Aug.). Another major title on that struggling church will be The Coming Catholic Church (Harper San Francisco, July) by David Gibson, an award-winning journalist who covered the Vatican in the late 1980s. There are a cluster of important new books on Judaism, including Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism (Crown, Apr.) and books from Routledge, Rutgers, Thames & Hudson, Columbia, Continuum and Hedrickson, among others. The flood of books on Islam has not yet abated, with a crop of new titles coming from a wide range of publishers, from university presses to evangelical houses and general trade publishers large and small, as well as Islamic publishers.
Two books from Harper San Francisco promise to be particularly controversial. One of the biggest religion stories of the past year was the discovery of an ossuary (burial box) purported to have once contained the bones of James, the brother of Jesus—a theory some scholars agree with and others dispute. Harper's book on the subject, The Brother of Jesus (Mar.), will be the first of many. Also sure to spark debate is If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (July), which caused one of the authors, Philip Gulley, to have his contract cancelled by an evangelical publisher and his ministerial credentials threatened over the issue of universal salvation.
Tough times force tough decisions, in publishing as in other businesses. Still, bookstore shelves this spring will not be barren of new choices for faithful readers.