Over the past 25 years, religion publishing has undergone massive consolidation, as well as a revolution in retailing. With the rise of the internet came the demise of thousands of religion bookstores and entrance to the mainstream market. Social change and challenges have prompted religious presses’ attention to new voices among editors and writers, as well as the views of readers who are increasingly detached from traditional theology and church affiliation.

Amid these sea changes, the industry has reached a new peak: Religion publishing was valued at $1.2 billion in 2020, the most recent annual estimate in the StatShot Annual Report from the Association of American Publishers. It’s a tally combining sales from religion presses and religion books from other sources. Syreeta Swann, v-p for AAP’s programs and administration, told PW this reflects a revenue increase of 10.8% for religion presses between 2016 and 2020, and an increase of units by 7.4%, reaching 179 million units.

Such numbers were unimagined in earlier times when religion presses, often founded with Christian mission in mind, percolated along with titles selling 10,000 to 25,000 copies. But by the 1990s, PW reported, they were faced with greater reader demand for “big books” that could sell 50,000 copies or more, as secular publishers brought major marketing power to more religion titles and found higher profits casting their marketing nets beyond Christian retailers.

PW’s department of religion, established by the late editor Daisy Maryles in 1991 under the initial leadership of theologian and author Phyllis Tickle, bore witness to a surging—and changing—industry. By 1996, Tickle’s successor, Lynn Garrett, addressed the difficulties of those shifts. One of her earliest pieces as head of the department was headlined “Growing Pains as Christian Publishing Joins Mainstream,” noting the challenges and leadership changes prompted by consolidation and changes in where religion books were sold.

‘Off to the races’

Stan Gundry, senior v-p, group publisher of Zondervan Academic and Zondervan editor-in-chief, recalls the early 1980s era and the company’s failed attempts at bringing religion books to the ABA market. But when HarperCollins took over Zondervan, it rebranded the company’s sales rep as a HarperCollins rep, and “we got our foot in the door. That’s how we began getting our books into ABA stores with some success. Major New York houses took note of that and began either developing their own Christian publishing divisions or acquiring them.” Then, says Gundry, “It was off to the races.”

Religion books, once “the best kept secret in trade book publishing,” were a secret no more, says Byron Williamson. His decades of experience in religion publishing include executive roles at Thomas Nelson, Worthy Publishing, and more recently, Moberg|Williamson Consulting, launched in 2020 with longtime HarperCollins Christian Publishing executive David Moberg. “While I was president of Thomas Nelson, we merged Word (now the W Publishing Group) and Nelson adult trade lists, and began to take a material presence on bestseller lists and in Walmart, Target, Barnes & Noble, and Books-a-Million, which we convinced to set up freestanding Christian book departments in each store,” Williamson says. “We jumped up to something like the seventh largest trade book publisher in the U.S. That turned heads.” And soon after, Thomas Nelson belonged to HCCP.

Baker Publishing Group president Dwight Baker says he kept track as houses founded by the early 19th-century mission-driven publishers were swallowed up by “savvy” secular media, whom he only half-jokingly dubbed “corporate raiders for Jesus” in a 2014 presentation timed to the 75th anniversary of Baker’s founding.

HCCP acquired Zondervan in 1988 and added Thomas Nelson in 2012. Random House launched WaterBrook in 1996, folded in Harold Shaw Publishers’ 300-title backlist, including million-seller Bible studies and works by Madeleine L’Engle, in 2000, then acquired Multnomah in 2006. Hachette launched Faithwords in 2001. And Simon & Schuster acquired Howard in 2006, adding its 350 inspirational and Christian Living titles to S&S’s inventory, according to PW. Meanwhile, faith houses also linked arms. For example, NavPress came under Tyndale’s umbrella in 2013, and Regal became part of Baker in 2014.

Marketing muscle

Jeff Crosby, former publisher at IVP and now CEO of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, calls consolidation “the most significant change” in the last quarter century. “The consolidation of more than 50% of the publishing and sales of religion product—specifically Christian books under a single corporate entity,” he says, looking squarely at Amazon, “has reset the business. It’s moved from a ‘terms of sale’ paradigm, set by publishers, to a ‘terms of purchase’ paradigm, set by customers. There has always been some consolidation underway, but before HCCP expansion, no one agency could set the terms of purchase for everyone.”

The large publishers brought big marketing muscle to the trade press even in the early ’90s with such bestsellers as Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages, and Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s Boundaries. Religion presses also benefited from the move toward the mainstream. Tyndale’s fiction juggernaut, the apocalyptic thriller Left Behind series, launched in 1995 and sold well beyond Christian bookstores.

Then, in 2002, California megachurch founder and pastor Rick Warren blew the doors off the bestseller lists with Zondervan’s publication of The Purpose Driven Life (more than 35 million copies sold, and still counting). Warren was already successful with a 1995 title for Zondervan, The Purpose Driven Church, which was initially marketed to a network of 300,000 pastors he had advised and coached for years on using the tools of popular culture to draw in the unchurched. But The Purpose Driven Life—written in 40 read-in-15-minute chapters for the general reader, Christian or not, who wondered “What on Earth am I here for?”—became a worldwide phenomenon. People who might never have shopped at Christian bookstores, who saw Warren’s face on the cover of secular media such as USA Today, could find stacks of PDL in big-box retailers.

‘Selling everywhere’

Warren says PW’s then-editor Daisy Maryles and Garrett “were the two earliest reporters who noticed almost immediately that something unusual was happening with PDL sales.” He was referring to PW’s weekly email newsletter” (precursor to today’s PW Religion BookLine e-newsletter). In 2004, HarperCollins’s then president and CEO Jane Friedman attributed much of HC’s 9.4% operating profit for the first half of the year to Warren’s book, telling PW’s Jim Milliot it was “selling everywhere. It’s moved well beyond just the Christian marketplace.”

But “selling everywhere” had a downside. Baker cites the “integration of Christian titles among general interest books in retail bookstores is the most significant change in the past 25 years.” Competition from secular outlets, coupled with Amazon’s launch into online bookselling in 1995, led to the eventual collapse of the Christian Booksellers Association. The CBA had been flying high in the 1980s. In 1983, PW reported that 3,290 bookstores and 605 publishers and suppliers expected to do a billion dollars in business at a 9,000-person CBA show that year. By 2005 the organization was down to 2,256 members, and in 2016, membership was half that. The CBA finally shuttered in 2019 following longtime president Curtis Riskey’s departure and an entrepreneur’s takeover the year before.

There are fewer than 1,000 Christian bookstores today, including Catholic and church bookshops nationwide, according to the Noble Group, which provides outside sales representation to vendors in Christian retail. Williamson points out, “At one time, as much as 80% of Christian books, which are a majority of all religion book sales, moved through Christian retailers. Today, no more than 20% of Christian books are sold by that channel.”

Reaching a changing audience

Christian books have a lot of company now in the religion marketplace. Interest has boomed in books about faith, as well as mind-body-spirit titles from all perspectives including Eastern religions, meditation, and magic. All the while, the American religious landscape has been undergoing dramatic change. There is a “secularizing shift” that shows “no signs of slowing down,” says Greg Smith, associate director of research for Pew Research. A Pew survey released in December 2021 finds the number of self-identified Christians is now 63% of U.S. adults, down from 78% in 2007. Nearly a third of adults—29%—are “Nones,” people who claim no religious identity, up from 16% in Pew’s 2007 Religion Landscape Survey. The new survey also finds 45% of Americans say they pray every day, down from 58% who said this in 2007. And in a different survey, released in October 2021, Pew found just 58% of adults say they believe in God “as described in the Bible,” while 32% believe there is some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe.

Religion publishing is already shifting with the tide. Says Crosby, “Publishers need to meet readers where they are, not where they might wish they are.” Christian houses have also been adding crossover books, particularly ones for children and teens, that omit any mention of God, Jesus, church, or prayer to reach book buyers who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with explicit theology.

Baker says it’s a smart business move to include general interest books that don’t compromise an evangelical mission. One of Baker’s biggest books is Laugh Out Loud Jokes for Kids, a “stocking stuffer” $5 book that Baker says has brought in more than $10 million in sales since it was published in 2010. If your mission is to publish Christian books, he says, “You have to stay alive to do it.” He points out, “Crossover works both ways. Corporations seek religious books as a growth category in a flat marketplace. Meanwhile, Christian publishers readily explore general interest topics. Retail channels are no longer divided by ideology, so why not?”

Linda Howard, associate publisher for kids and youth at very mission-minded Tyndale House, says the press is comfortable with books that can cross over to secular audiences so long as they offer an “underlying Christian worldview” with values such as forgiveness, compassion, and gratitude. “We are who we are at Tyndale, and we want to be able to reach a broader audience without compromising,” she added.

Women, BIPOC in religion publishing

One thing that has expanded enormously in the religion publishing industry over the past 25 years is the sales strength of female authors. Christian living books, which are the bread and butter for many religion houses, have historically been bought and read primarily by women, and this remains truer than ever today.

“As Christian book content has evolved in the past 25 years, female authors have benefited enormously,” says Williamson. He cites such mega authors as Joyce Meyer, Beth Moore, and Sheila Walsh, who started hitting New York Times and PW bestseller lists in the 1990s as paving the way for a new generation of women, including authors Lysa TerKeurst, Jennie Allen, and Rachel Hollis, who rely heavily on social media fan bases. Moore’s Bible studies alone have sold more than 17.5 million copies, according to her team. It was front-section news in secular as well as religion media when she jumped ship from the Southern Baptist Convention’s affiliated Lifeway Christian Resources in 2021, where she had been Lifeway’s lead author for decades, to publish curricula under the publishing arm of her own ministry, while Hollis’s 2018 hit Girl, Wash Your Face surpassed 800,000 copies in print within a year of publishing.

By comparison to the past 25 years, the religion book industry also has made strides to diversify its workforce as well as author pools through a wide variety of programs, though publishers and agents agree: there is still work to be done. Religion publishers are not alone in the book industry in being predominantly white—PW’s most recent salary survey found whites made up 84% of industry employees, while Lee & Low’s diversity survey found 76% were white. Notable efforts toward diversity and inclusion include IVP’s Every Voice Now initiative co-led by Terumi Echols (named IVP president and publisher in August 2021); events and resources from the ECPA such as its emerging leader mentorship program; and the launch of the Publishing in Color conference in 2018.

Bearing witness

Through it all, PW’s religion coverage reflected the reach and impact of the category. For Williamson, PW’s “serious attention” to the religion category has signaled a wider acceptance in an industry that he says still sometimes ignores religion titles. “Although there are small religion book sections in most independent ABA stores, for the most part, they are thin on Christian titles,” he says. “PW has played such an important role, at least since the early ’90s, in legitimizing religion books.”

Garrett, who became PW’s religion editor in 1996, cites the impact of the magazine’s expanded reviews of religion titles, the coverage of academic presses, and outreach to publishers large and small to bring the spotlight to emerging authors. “When we began covering the industry in an aggressive way, we played an important role in mainstreaming their books, in bringing attention to non-Western religions, mind-body-spirit topics, and scholarly books that were presented at the American Academy of Religion meetings,” says Garrett, who handed the reins to current religion editor Emma Wenner in 2015.

“When the big chain bookstores were only interested in celebrity authors, and indies didn’t want to take on religion titles, PW paid attention to evangelical voices and new authors, and amplified them,” Garrett recalls. “Mainstream secular media looked to PW, saw us covering Bart Ehrman, Dominic Crossan, and Bishop John Shelby Spong, tracking trends in BookLine, and got ideas.”

The bimonthly Religion BookLine continues to highlight industry issues and trends, and to profile news-making executives, editors, and authors. ECPA’s Crosby says that over the decades, he turned to PW as a vital resource for not only titles and trends but also for “a deeper understanding of the winds of religion in North America and beyond, and to glean guidance for how I as a bookseller might need to respond.” He adds: “PW has both reported on but also elevated the religion publishing and bookselling landscape.”

Cathy Lynn Grossman is a veteran religion and ethics writer living in Washington, D.C.

Jeff Crosby's reference to consolidation has been clarified to reflect retailer Amazon.