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Just How Big Is It, Really?
Marcia Z. Nelson -- 3/13/00
Determining the size of the religion book industry remains an elusive goal for all publishers

When customers walk into their local bookstores, chances are good they'll find copies of The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama, The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav and any of several of the hot apocalyptic novels from the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins--all right up front, in the choicest locations. Rack up those sales in the religion category, right?

Count again. The Dalai Lama's hardcover is categorized as religion and also as nonfiction; Zukav's bestselling trade paperback is categorized as New Age/psychology; the Left Behind books get counted as inspirational fiction. Welcome to the religion-publishing shell game. Now it's religion, now it's not. Wait a minute: maybe it's spirituality? Or is that inspirational? Self-help? Heck, let's just call it nonfiction.

However such books are labeled, the malleability of the category makes gathering sales data a challenging task. Publishers call these books whatever they want. Titles that defy or stretch conventional categories, mixing in a little religious faith here and a little generic soul there, obviously appeal to a wide audience interested in matters of the spirit--their bestseller status is testament to that. So why the hesitance to wear the religion label?

Today, a significant part of the audience for these books insists on calling itself spiritual but not religious (see "Religion vs. Spirituality," Religion Update, Aug. 30, 1999). In the current culture, "religion" appears to carry connotations that are at best limiting in the marketplace, and at worst negative. Readers, and therefore publishers, get stopped by the term. For example, the books of bestselling author Iyanla Vanzant (One Day My Soul Just Opened Up, In the Meantime, Yesterday I Cried) "are not religious in the God sense; they're spiritual, they cross all denominational lines," according to Sue Fleming, v-p and director of publicity for trade paperbacks at Simon & Schuster. "We put them in self-help/inspiration because they fit that category." Fleming added, "She made the PW religion bestseller list, and we never thought of it as religion."

Many evangelical Christians and clergy of all faiths are among the 50-million-plus readers of the 29 books in the Chicken Soup series, noted Kim Weiss, director of communications for Health Communications. Though they may feed the soul, these books are also not called religion. "The readership encompasses a religion audience, but also an audience much broader than that," Weiss told PW. "Self-help, we feel, is a pretty broad category."

More Questions Behind the Question

The question "What's a religion book?" is at the foundation of a larger question: "Just how big is the religion book industry?" The answer to the second question is of avid interest to many, following a decade in which--everyone agrees, more or less--there had been a boom in sales of religion and spirituality books. But "more or less" is an important qualifier: in an industry with standards and measures for sales, numbers for this particular category are notably imprecise. Until perhaps the mid-1990s, recalled Phyllis Tickle--an author, former publisher and veteran industry observer who is now a PW contributing editor--it didn't make much marketing sense to categorize a book as religion when it could be called adult nonfiction, thus sparing it ghettoization in what was then extremely limited bookstore real estate that was dominated by Bibles. "Everything got called adult nonfiction, unless it was clearly about the Bible," Tickle explained.

The industry standard as spelled out by the Book Industry Study Group, the nonprofit membership organization that specializes in statistics and standards for the U.S. book industry, indeed defines the religion category to include Bibles, hymnals and other devotional books. But that leaves out a lot--such as religious fiction, which happens to be going apocalyptic gangbusters right now and is counted as fiction, or any books about religion described by publishers as adult nonfiction, which are legion. Working originally from figures reported to the U.S. Census Bureau twice a decade by businesses, and using the same independent statistician, both BISG and the Association of American Publishers report annual sales that extrapolate government figures, using data reported from the book industry. Both AAP and BISG industry statistics for the religion category require a look at the fine print.

In its annual statistical report, the AAP reports sales of Bibles, prayer books and hymnals separately from sales in a category called "other religious." The latter category encompasses whatever is not a sacred text that a publisher would categorize as "religion." HarperCollins, for example, with its broad line of Harper San Francisco religion books, reports religion numbers as well as numbers in other categories. Some general trade books sold in the evangelical Christian market show up here. But not all evangelical publishing houses, which look to the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) for trade support, report figures to AAP. The census database also d s not include university press books or books published by nonprofits. "Not everyone who publishes is called a publisher," noted Sandra K. Paul, president of BISG, who acknowledged that the figures generated from data collected by the Census Bureau are questionable.

As the industry's "other religious" sales total is arrived at from some reported sales and some adjustments to accommodate unreported data, the "official" religion sales figure is actually a product of tweaking, albeit theoretically expert tweaking. On February 10, the AAP released its preliminary estimated sales figures for 1999, showing a total of $1.22 billion for religion sales, an increase of 3.3 % over 1998. AAP is right now studying the prospect of improving its reporting of religion sales figures. "The AAP is moving forward and looking at working with the ECPA on these statistics to make them more comprehensive," said AAP v-p Kathryn Blough, who is involved in the effort.

The last concerted endeavor to generate reliable numbers to more accurately measure the religion category--including sacred texts, nonfiction books about religion, scholarly works and religious fiction--began in 1995, shortly after the surge in religion sales was noticeable enough to invite widespread attention. Spearheaded by ECPA in cooperation with Cahners Research and PW's religion department, the project involved both AAP and ECPA. Cahners surveyed publishers in the religion book business, but based on insufficient survey returns, especially from the larger houses, researchers were unable to generate statistically reliable projections for the whole industry. That effort took three years and left some participants frustrated. "Somebody with some expertise has got to get committed to this," said Doug Ross, president of ECPA, in recalling the study in which he and his group participated. "It's going to take effort and some work."

Inside the Big Tent

If accepted numbers are soft because they are not inclusive, they also stand--or fall--on theologically diverse and shifting terrain. Part of the answer to the question "What's a religion book?" depends on one's definition of religion. Some answer the question denominationally; many answer it in more personal terms. Within the publishing industry, the religion category is a capacious tent.

"What is included in religion?" asked Stuart Matlins, publisher at Jewish Lights Publishing, a growing nine-year-old house that specializes in works about the Jewish wisdom tradition. "It's not just books about religion. It's that and books that help us understand the meaning of the mystery of our lives and how we play that out, maybe in organized religion or maybe in more broadly spiritual areas."

Michael Weaver, managing editor of NAPRA ReView, a publication of the trade association for the New Age/alternative spirituality sector of publishing and retailing, told PW, "I think it's certainly true that there's a blurring of categories, a trend toward integrating books that have been categorized as spiritual in the past with those that have been considered health-oriented and self-help. No category is precisely definable--you get used to that in the book business--but 'spirituality' is more difficult to hold on to than most," he added. "Its increasing insinuation into virtually every other category is an expansion trend that feels genuine, though it might never be measured."

So the leakage across category lines continues, and it has eroded boundaries between the traditional evangelical Christian market and the general trade market. "In the last few years, there's been a tremendous increase in spiritual search, people looking for values, for answers," noted ECPA's Ross. "All of a sudden, Christian books that would have never sold in the general trade before are selling there. People are not near as afraid of talking about God as they were before." Ross's association, which includes 85 U.S. firms that together make up the trade-oriented segment of the evangelical Christian publishing industry, is itself looking for better ways of quantifying its sales. It is developing and testing a data reporting system dubbed STATS, designed to track sales and help trade association members know where their products are being bought, as those products begin to turn up in outlets far beyond the traditional evangelical Christian marketplace, chain bookstores, discounters and the like. STATS will report units sold, not their dollar value, Ross said. He'll venture a hunch about the value of the evangelical Christian market, however--even though, he concedes, he can't back it up with supporting data: "If you look at sales of Christian publishing through all channels, it's at $2.5 billion." That stands in stark contrast to AAP's estimate of $1.22 billion for the entire religion publishing industry, across all faiths. (It should also be noted that the STATS effort may add to the confusion in the end, since sales figures will be tallied by house of origin rather than by content.)

Asked about the value of the Catholic book publishing market, Charles A. Roth, former executive director of the Catholic Book Publishers Association, told PW, "We don't collect data." He also said that CBPA membership, which just hit 80, is at an all-time high and includes Random House's Doubleday religion division, non-Catholic denominational publishers such as Abingdon and Augsburg Fortress and even the American Bible Society. The Catholic trade association relies on a monthly demand report it receives from distributor Spring Arbor, which maintains a category called "Catholic interest," to quantitatively track its market. Based on numbers generated through the distributor, Roth estimated that trade sales to the Catholic market represent 15% of the total in trade sales.

Stuart Matlins at Jewish Lights d s quiet math in his head, ticking off what he knows about other Jewish specialty publishers and guessing at relevant sales from the major trade houses, in order to arrive at his estimate of sales within the Jewish market: "in the range of $100-$150 million." He emphasized that this estimation is based on "defining religion very broadly," broadly enough to include books used in colleges that have Jewish studies departments as well as other academic and scholarly books. Like others in the industry, he raises the question of what counts as religion. "I think the category is mislabeled," Matlins, who began his professional life as a management consultant, told PW. "At this point, it should be called religion and spirituality." And, while what the category should include is arguable and variable, some things clearly won't fit. As Matlins noted, "It ain't automotive repair."
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