On one hand, the news looked bad for religion publishers. Last year, after six straight years of growth, religion book sales fell 3.3%, to $1.26 billion, as reported in Book Industry Trends 2003, the statistical roundup issued annually by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG).

On the other hand, there was good news. The BISG number was an estimate. And this year presents a dramatically different story, according to the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which supplies to the BISG the numbers it uses in arriving at its annual totals. AAP figures show a year-to-date monthly increase in religion sales of 30.8% for the first eight months of the year. "Every month consistently in 2003 we have seen growth in this segment of the market," said Kathryn Blough, AAP v-p. "We don't have an estimate for 2003, but we would anticipate an increase."

Is it double-digit growth in a volatile marketplace, or a matter of inspecting the measuring stick? Calculating totals for religion publishing uses objective math—everyone can agree that two million plus two million equals four million—but it also uses estimates and selected data that not everybody agrees produces a satisfyingly representative picture, for a variety of reasons. These are authoritative numbers generally in use, and it's instructive to understand how they're derived.

As would be true of any multibillion-dollar industry, religion publishing is complex. Its content crosses a lot of lines. Big houses do it as one part of their overall publishing program; tiny independents do it. Points of sale can include online, the bookshop downtown and the house of worship down the street. The content—"religion"—is in the publisher's eye when a category is picked to position the book: Is "personal growth" psychological and definitely not religious? Or is it possibly spiritual, but still not religious? The decision "Is it religion?" is subsequently in the reader's eye—or motivation—when she buys a book: Is the Armageddon of the Left Behind novels a religious subject, or is it the plot of an ongoing series of fiction thrillers?

Additionally, the history of measures for and in this category affects the interpretation of any given number at any given time. Evangelical Christian publishing houses have developed a broadly based sales reporting system that doesn't neatly intersect with other standardized aggregate reporting in the industry, and that segment has been selling lots of books in the past decade.

Bestseller lists are the generally accepted gauges of what's selling in the biggest quantities, yet the lists, compiled from and by a variety of sources, can be so divergent as to generate questions and frustration. There are reasons for a certain veil of secrecy over exactly where things are counted. It's argued that it protects the integrity of the process of computing bestsellers. Unsurprisingly, proprietary interests in a competitive industry also affect information disclosure. Few publishers or booksellers want their competitors knowing too much about how they're doing and how they're doing it. Nobody wants to be too detailed, but sometimes that's just where the devil may be found.

All data may have footnotes, but those that accompany religion numbers are required reading in order to understand what is, and isn't, included and how the numbers were calculated.

Who's Included?

The AAP monthly sales figures reporting double-digit increases, for example, are representative. They are based on actual sales reported to the association by five large houses: Random House, Oxford University Press, Harvest House, HarperCollins and Time Warner Book Group. Blough said the value of this measure is that it's based on actual sales reported by publishers, not estimates, and provides a benchmark.

By contrast to the monthly actual sales data, AAP's annual industry data, which showed a decline of 3.3% for religion in 2002, presents numbers developed from monthly sales data and other industry information. The association doesn't collect annual totals from publishers, just monthly reports. "These [annual figures] are estimates of the whole market, and we're collecting actual sales [monthly], and I want to make sure that difference is emphasized," Blough said.

The AAP supplies numbers each year to the Book Industry Study Group for its comprehensive Book Industry Trends survey, which reported the decline of 3.3% in 2002 but, on the other hand, forecasts an increase for 2003. The BISG figures are based on census numbers collected from manufacturers by the U.S. Department of Commerce. That census is done every five years. The current base of the BISG survey is 1992 and 1997 census figures that are updated with industry association data.

Jeff Abraham, BISG executive director, said the soundness of these comprehensive industry numbers comes from always measuring the same thing—the universe of companies making books, what statisticians call "populations." Said Abraham, "We're consistently defining a universe of what we're measuring. There may be holes in those populations, but the BISG survey measures populations and you can extrapolate using the (industry) trends."

Are the population holes especially big in religion? Not any more than any other category. "Unfortunately, the categories don't cover everything and don't go into as much detail as some would like," Abraham said. "The traditional difficulties we have had in terms of generating consistently reliable and comprehensive and detailed information—that same difficulty applies in religious publishing and any of the other categories."

A Return Factor?

Both industry leaders said that the issue of returns, a headache that goes with any publishing territory, doesn't affect the significance of what is reported at any one time and over time. The AAP collects reports of returns on a monthly basis, so over time and in total, that information affects what is reported. BISG Trends sales figures are net of returns, probably of earlier sales, which could produce "minor distortion [that] should be relatively constant over the long term," according to the 2003 report.

What's a ripple in the pond of the whole, however, can certainly in any one year—or the year after—be a wave that washes over an individual publisher and subsequently affects its piece of the collective data. Returns in 2002 to Multnomah—which published the multimillion-selling The Prayer of Jabez in 2001, as well as other titles that sold more than 100,000 copies—made for a bad year that included a 25% staff reduction and a 40% reduction in planned titles. "The returns killed us," company president and publisher Don Jacobson told PW earlier this year.

Multnomah's experience spotlights a segment of the industry where much dramatic sales activity has been occurring in the past few years: evangelical Christian publishing, which produced not only Jabez but Tyndale's Left Behind series of fiction thrillers by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins (58 million total unit sales for the 11-volume series, which began in 1995) and The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren (Zondervan), which has sold eight million copies since its publication in October 2002.

Measuring a Surging Segment

The relationship between the 280-member Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, which provides support to member publishers, and the AAP is one that is evolving as the marketplace changes. Not all members of ECPA—founded in 1974 to support publishers who saw themselves as serving church needs—belong to the AAP. ECPA has developed its own tracking system for retail sales, STATS, that tallies retail sales in about 970 independent and chain bookstores, out of the approximately 3,000 retail bookstores in the Christian Booksellers Association market.

"We're capturing a third of the stores in the industry, and of the most viable, we're capturing more than half," said Kelly Gallagher, ECPA v-p of marketing and technology. Developed for its own market, STATS doesn't report to companies that track point-of-sale transactions in the general trade market. "We're coming to a point where we have to have some discussion about it," said Gallagher. STATS data is used to compile the CBA/ECPA bestsellers lists, which are published in CBA Marketplace and in Publishers Weekly.

From ECPA's point of view, its books are already sprung from the "Christian bookstore" cloister and available at general retailers, so its marketplace power can be more accurately measured by coordinating Christian Booksellers Association sales with general trade sales. Industry executives say there are things to be gained by the entire industry from better mainstreaming of the evangelical Christian market. There are authors little known to the general trade who sell in Christian stores, such as Joyce Meyer, who appeals to the niche audience of charismatic Christian readers who have book-buying money they readily spend. "The Christian reading audience is one of the best book-buying audiences in the country," noted Gallagher. Its needs can be met by retailers who know what these readers are looking for.

The two publishing associations say (and they have also said this in the past) that they have been talking about better coordinating their efforts. "We're at a point of discussing how to integrate," said Gallagher. "We made some good headway at Frankfurt."

On the general trade side, others acknowledge what is happening in the evangelical market. "I'm always talking to [ECPA president] Doug Ross," said Blough at AAP. "We try to work closely with them because the segment is important to us," agreed Abraham at BISG.

Tracking the Lists

Bestseller lists are developed by measuring what is selling, and different compilers select different outlets to sample. These outlets are never specifically identified, and the generally accepted argument is that knowing exactly which outlets are being polled would allow the process to be manipulated. The New York Times list reflects weekly sales at almost 4,000 bookstores, plus wholesalers serving 50,000 other retailers including gift and department stores, newsstands and supermarkets. These numbers are then statistically weighted to represent a nationwide total. John Wright, assistant to bestseller editor Deborah Hofmann, defined bookstores more specifically as including all sizes, Web and big-box outlets and traditional general bookstores as well as some specialty stores, with an emphasis on general-interest stores. "We generally go after general bookstores. We do have a few mystery and Christian bookshops, but I can't get into the number," Wright explained. The newspaper is satisfied that the list has a sufficiently inclusive base. "We think ours is as broad-based, or more so, than anyone else's," Wright said. "A lot of other lists are chain lists."

Publishers Weekly collects sales data for its four weekly charts only from general stores—independents, chains and on-line retailers. The magazine compiles monthly religion bestseller lists and collects data for these lists from independent and chain bestsellers as well as bookstores that carry books across all faiths. The religion bestsellers page also reprints CBA's monthly chart of the top Christian bestsellers. Each year, PW compiles an annual bestseller list based on that calendar year's trade sales from general and specialty publishers. Over the last five years, religion books have increasingly shown up on these year-end lists.

Jonathan Merkh, senior v-p at Nelson Books, a division of the evangelical Christian house Thomas Nelson, said the assessment by the Times that its sampling adequately includes the CBA marketplace is "a cop-out. I am frustrated, as the publisher of one of the major Christian publishing companies, that there is yet to be a comprehensive bestsellers list that incorporates reporting numbers from Christian and general bookstores."

His argument is that the Times list—"the Holy Grail of bookselling," Merkh called it—doesn't sufficiently take into account CBA store sales. Authors published by evangelical Christian houses are certainly on this list—Rick Warren's The Purpose- Driven Life (Zondervan, 2002) as well as Nelson authors Andy Andrews (The Traveler's Gift), Charles Stanley (Finding Peace: God's Promise of a Life Free from Regret, Anxiety and Fear) and Dave Ramsey (The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness). But Nelson's own total sales data for September show that John Eldredge's Wild at Heart sold even more that month, and has consistently sold well, yet the title has never made this or other general trade lists. "Its distribution is heavier in the Christian marketplace, and it didn't make any general market lists, while a book that sold less made the New York Times advice list," he said.

Merkh said the magnitude of CBA trade is underreported for two reasons: general market lists may underrepresent these books out of a bias against Christians, and CBA retailers for their part may shroud their data out of fear of losing market share to larger general trade competitors who would make those same key popular titles available. "Everybody sees it, but nobody admits it," said Merkh. "It's the elephant in the living room. Let's report the numbers as they are and let the market determine how it goes."

Religion, Spirituality or Fiction?

If not enough outlets are counted within the tent of religion booksellers, categorical imprecision also dogs the effort of measuring interest in religion books. The category in which a book is placed is up to the publisher who labels and markets it. One reader's spirituality is another reader's personal growth, and the categories for the million-seller The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle (New World, 1999) reflect that labeling capriciousness. Fiction is just that, even while the number of titles that involve religion, whether as subject or as an essential part of an author's message, grows. Many publishers lump sales into whatever column they determine as appropriate: religion or fiction or nonfiction. "We ask the publishers to make that decision," said the AAP's Blough. "I hate those gray areas, but that's just way it is."

Categorical roominess and quantitative comprehensiveness aside, some executives say that industry measuring is "a quantum leap" better than it was 10 years ago. "The industry does a nice job of estimating," said Cris Doornbos, executive v-p of sales at Zondervan, the evangelical Christian publisher owned by HarperCollins. "We all have to understand that, and then if you really want to measure your piece of it, go to those pieces you can really measure." Internal market data, including any proprietary information a publisher or retailer may develop, can be combined with official numbers to give publishers and retailers sufficient information to make sound decisions. "If you're looking at a part you want to grow in, whether revenues or market share, I believe you can use the data available to improve your position," said Doornbos.

Religion numbers may not add up to a neat total picture that everybody agrees on. But it's certain that they measure divergent and invested views within a diverse and dynamic marketplace where the topic of religion can be found inside popular novels as well as sacred texts. The consensus most needed for success comes from readers, who are the ultimate determiners of bestsellers.

So how big is religion? Taking the available data into account, it looks like the market might be bigger than the AAP estimate, but who knows how much bigger? That question likely will remain unanswered until more comprehensive measurements are in place.