While the recent trajectory of the religion book market has been punctuated by periods of explosive growth, one small slice of the religion pie has been growing quietly and steadily to become one of its most dynamic segments today. The liturgical market -- that part of publishing and bookselling that caters to Catholic and traditional mainline Protestant constituencies whose public worship is based on collections of set prayers and cyclical Scripture readings and who emphasize the sacraments -- is poised to become a major force in the religion/spirituality category in the coming decade.

According to Clare Stober, director of marketing at Plough Publishing, the house's sales to the liturgical market have doubled every year for the last three years, although Plough comes from the nonliturgical, Anabaptist tradition. "There is a lot of ancient wisdom that has yet to be tapped and a lot of hungry people who are not afraid to look more deeply for answers," she noted.

However, trying to get a handle on the size of the liturgical market, according to Doubleday religious division publisher Eric Major, is "like trying to grasp a jellyfish." No one knows exactly how robust it is, but a survey of houses that publish books with liturgical appeal shows respectable growth across the board. Doubleday wrote more orders at the liturgically oriented Religious Booksellers Trade Exhibition (RBTE) this year than it has in its eight-history of attendance, and Ignatius Press wrote 20% more orders there than it did in 1998. Jewish Lights has seen its sales to liturgical bookstores climb from 5% to 15% of its sales in the last three years. In his 18 years with a string of Catholic publishers, "I have seen this market grow," said Stephen Hrycyniak, now publisher at Sheed & Ward, a Catholic house, "but whether it has doubled or tripled, that is hard to say. I know that in talking to my colleagues you don't hear anyone speaking of explosive growth -- it is steady."

Why Now?

Ask publishers and booksellers why this market is percolating now, and the answers are varied. Some credit the general spiritual awakening of the last 10 years and the maturing of the baby boomers. Others point to the heightened spirit of exploration, liberalism and ecumenism released by the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. "The impact of that pronouncement is still being felt," said Rob Stone, Bible marketing manager for Oxford University Press. "It's not like a light switch was thrown and everyone went out and bought a Bible, but I think it has encouraged Catholics to go out and buy religious books in general." As the Catholic Church has opened up, mainline Protestants have discovered pre-Reformation writers, which has driven up interest in the liturgical market at trade houses and opened the doors of secular bookstores to a string of modern liturgically based writers such as Kathleen Norris, Henri Nouwen, Joseph F. Girzone and Thomas Merton. "There was a real shift in focus for the chain stores and independents when the general trade houses joined in," noted Charles Roth, executive director of the Catholic Book Publishers Association (CBPA). "It also enabled Catholic publishers who had trouble getting into the chains to facilitate that," he added.

Now, hot books in the liturgical market are crossing denominational lines in theme and thought while remaining steeped in established Christian traditions. Doubleday, a longtime publisher of Catholic books, predicts sales across the liturgical market, in both religious and secular stores, for The Holy Longing by Ronald Rolheiser, a Catholic oblate, (July) and Tongues of Angels, Tongues of Men, a collection of sermons edited by John Thornton (Oct.). "These books are about a search for spirituality within the Christian church, within a sacramental, not specifically Catholic, context," Major noted. "They transcend the denominational fault lines." At Plough, top sellers with liturgical appeal are books "about real people's stories," said Stober, including a pair by Johann Christoph Arnold, Seventy Times Seven: The Power of Forgiveness (1997) and Seeking Peace (1998). Jewish Lights finds its books about sacred living, especially those by Lawrence Kushner, and children's books by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso do well in liturgical stores.

Oxford University Press's sales of liturgical books -- spearheaded by Catholic study Bibles and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer -- have been strong enough to produce two specialty mini-catalogues for those constituencies. A similar catalogue for the CBA market has been "a huge success" and made the other two "a natural," Stone told PW. This year, Oxford began supplying the new "minis" to Catholic and Episcopal booksellers, who stamp them with their store's ordering information and send them to their mailing lists. Stone estimates the catalogues have been distributed to 47,000 Episcopalian and 33,000 Catholic consumers through 28 bookstores so far. The catalogues have no direct response mechanism, so OUP is unable to quantify their success, but sales at the house are up 12% overall, and Stone gives much of the credit to the mini-catalogues.

New Trade Shows Thrive

Another sign of the liturgical market's vitality is the fact that it is now supported by two trade shows, both of which have grown in attendance and exhibitor numbers. The older RBTE, which serves a variety of liturgical booksellers, attracted 162 exhibitors and 180 buying stores to its most recent show, held last June. Though those numbers represent a slight decline from 1998 (attributed to the temporary relocation of BEA to L.A.), the show has grown significantly overall in its first eight years, from initial attendance figures of 75 publishers and 65 stores. The Catholic Marketing Network (CMN), which serves Roman Catholic specialty stores and has a heavy gift and sideline emphasis, saw exhibiting publishers rise at its 1999 June show, to 28 exhibitors compared to 22 in 1998; the number of buying stores rose from 256 to 279. CMN will add a second annual show next year, to be held January 25“28 in Baltimore, Md. This second show is a must, according to CMN president Alan Napleton, so that Roman Catholic stores are able to pump up their gift and book stock for the spring season of First Communions, weddings, Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults and, of course, Easter. Initial numbers of exhibitors point to success, Napleton noted. "Getting a trade show floor full of suppliers has not been a difficult task. We are already almost sold out for our Baltimore show."

Yet when RBTE attempted a second annual show in November 1998, it fell flat. Pete Dwyer, RBTE cofounder and co-organizer, told PW the group is again planning a second annual show, to be held perhaps in early fall 2000 or in January 2001. "On balance, we are leaning toward January, but we want to study that a bit further before we try it again," he said. Dwyer believes the market can handle two shows because of the very distinct portions of the liturgical market served by each.

Though RBTE was begun by members of the Catholic Book Publishers Association, it is an ecumenically flavored show, with publishers from Episcopal, mainline Protestant, Catholic and even a few evangelical houses, as well as some non-Christian publishers such as Jewish Lights. CMN, on the other hand, is almost exclusively Roman Catholic. It was launched in 1995 when a number of more conservative Catholic publishers, disturbed by the mixture of different faiths they found at RBTE, broke away and started their own show. CMN exhibitors must sign a document stating they uphold the tenets of the Church and subject themselves to the Pope. Publishers with experience at both shows say they are distinct enough in philosophy to serve the different segments of the liturgical market.

Still, some publishers are unhappy with the division along what they see as conservative-liberal lines. Such divisions only weaken the market, they contend, and blemish the face of religion publishing. "I wish we could all share our toys a little better and collaborate for the mutual benefit of the entire market, instead of dividing into what I perceive as political camps," Sheed & Ward's Hrycyniak remarked. "This is an awkward situation." Major said he believes the market can support both shows -- but probably shouldn't. "It is expensive for the publisher and confusing for the marketplace," he explained. "I know there are theological differences between the two, but they must be solved." Because two shows stretch a publisher's personnel and budget, some will be forced to choose between them. "That may eventually happen with us," Major noted.

Banding Together to Grow

Still, all liturgical publishers agree that one of the healthiest signs within this market is the number of trade organizations and associations it has fostered. Members of CBPA, the oldest of these, founded RBTE, and it puts out a joint catalogue and compiles a monthly Catholic bestsellers list. Its members helped foster the new Episcopal Booksellers Association (EBA), a band of 73 Episcopal bookstores across the country that made a very strong showing at last June's RBTE. EBA was the result of a chance meeting between a handful of Episcopal bookstore owners at RBTE three years ago. Said Jane Baird, manager of the Cathedral Bookstore at the Cathedral of St. Philip's in Atlanta and secretary of the nascent group, "I think the best thing we have done so far is contacting these publishers and making them realize we are a market that needs more attention."

And they are getting it. Publishers have welcomed EBA with open arms, noting that the organization helps them get a better handle on the growing Episcopal market through direct communication with Episcopal booksellers. A meeting at RBTE between EBA members and Oxford University Press kept the publisher from "making some very big mistakes," Hargis Thomas, director of OUP's Bible sales and marketing, told PW. OUP had plans for a large-type edition of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, the staple of that market. But when EBA members got a look at it, they said their customers -- who have long requested such a large-type edition -- would not find it large enough. "We were able to stop the packaging, literally that morning, to reflect the concerns we heard," Thomas recalled. "And they responded by buying a significant number of the resource."

EBA already has been such a boon to the industry that discussions began this year at RBTE about organizing a similar affiliation for the Catholic bookstores that attend that show. Nearly 100 Catholic booksellers met with representatives of RBTE, CBPA, Spring Arbor and Christian Retailing magazine to examine the possibilities. About 20 attending booksellers agreed to continue the discussion and appointed a leader, Stephen Allen, manager at Graymoor Book & Gift Center in Garrison, N.Y. "We hope to be recruiting members by RBTE next year," said RBTE's Dwyer.

Also inspired by EBA, a small group of Episcopal book publishers started meeting to discuss common trends, needs and problems. Much smaller than EBA -- there are only four Episcopal-specific publishers -- Episcopal Publishing Ministries (EPM) has tried some joint marketing and a joint catalogue, with mixed results. "Mostly we are a support group for each other," noted Linda Grenz, publisher of Leader Resources. Currently, one of EPM's most fruitful activities is coordinating with EBA. "They are at the front lines and are finding out what people are asking for," Grenz said. "They are helping us direct where our group g s next."

Back to the Future

The liturgical market seems vital now, but what d s the future hold? Most publishers look back at the centuries-old strength of the liturgical faith traditions and anticipate continued growth in the coming years. They point to the size of the potential Catholic market -- almost 39% of the U.S. church-affiliated public, according to the 1998 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches -- and the Episcopal market, with 2.5 million members in the U.S. alone. Doubleday's Major said growth could be huge if the liturgical market would use the Christian Booksellers Association as a model. "One thing the business lacks is what CBA has and we don't -- a major national chain of traditional bookstores," he explained. Such a chain could boost the liturgical market's visibility and profitability through central purchasing, marketing and promotion -- all of the things such chains as Family Bookstores do for CBA. According to Major, at least one group of stores has potential to fill this role -- the Catholic-based Pauline Books and Media. "They have a lot of branches across America, and they have the makings for an embryonic change. I think they could do an enormous amount of good."

Hrycyniak of Sheed & Ward sounded one soft note of caution: "There is a saying that God has no grandchildren. The Church is only as good as its current generation, and if we are not sensitive to the spiritual needs of those coming up, we are going to lose them."