Occasionally a book about Jesus or the Christian faith pops up on general market bestseller lists. Occasionally. The Purpose-Driven Life and Your Best Life Now are two recent examples.
The latter, published by Warner Faith, has sold a reported 3.8 million copies; earlier this month its author, pastor Joel Osteen, landed what is believed to be an eight-figure deal for a book with Simon & Schuster. Indeed, the Book Industry Study Group and major retailers continue to identify the religion category as one of the fastest growing in the industry.
Yet, with the exception of the examples mentioned above, few religious books actually appear on the general market bestseller lists. This is one of the most frustrating issues I, as a publisher, face. I believe that if we were honest about book sales, Christian titles would dominate—yes, dominate—the lists.
I study bestseller lists obsessively. Often I find that some Christian books that don't make the general market lists are outselling the books that do by two to one, and sometimes more. In recent years, for instance, our house has had books land among the top 10 of the New York Times hardcover nonfiction lists that were consistently outsold during the same period by other in-house authors such as Max Lucado and John Eldredge—yet neither of these authors ever made the list. The reason? Over half the sales of Lucado's and Eldredge's books were through Christian retailers, whose sales are not reported to Bookscan or counted by the New York Times or USA Today, and are only counted for PW's religion bestseller list.
If bestseller lists counted sales in Christian bookstores, the list keepers would be surprised to learn how big the religion category really is. When I point this out, I'm told, "We count Christian book sales because we count Ingram, and they own Spring Arbor [a division focused on the Christian market]." Yet Ingram numbers represent only a fraction of Christian market sales for frontlist titles. There's close to, if not more than, $1 billion in retail sales of Christian books unaccounted for by these lists.
Why is it so hard to come up with a way to count all book sales? Typical answers range from "sales must be from sources that sell all books" to "if we counted Christian bookstore sales, we'd have to count book sales in gift stores and other nonbookstore outlets." My response: "So what? Count them all." A book sale is a book sale, no matter if it occurs in a Christian bookstore, a gay and lesbian bookstore, online, in a grocery store or at a warehouse club.
Apparently, neither Christian retailers nor the general market bestseller lists want Christian retail sales to be counted. The general market lists don't want to count Christian retail sales for many reasons. One I've heard is that it would be too much work to try to count the estimate from the different markets and then weigh them in comparison to each other. And Christian retailers say they don't want their books to be counted because they fear the "pagans" (as I've heard them called) will use the information to cherry-pick their sales. But if general market retailers want to cherry-pick, all they have to do is look at the Christian bestseller lists. Does it really matter where the books are sold, so long as they are reaching customers?
Developing a way to count all book sales would benefit the entire industry. It would provide more accurate information to the reading public. It would give publishers of all types a better understanding of what the readers are really reading and shape future publishing decisions. Christian stores would profit, because more Christian books on the bestseller lists could mean an increased public awareness of (and interest in) their stores. General market stores could improve their sales if they saw how well Christian books sold, because they'd be able to make more informed decisions about what to buy and perhaps improve their sales by dedicating more space to the category.
From my lips to, well, you know the rest.