Bookstore browsers can vouch for the growth in recent years of the religion and spirituality categories of books. More shelf space is devoted to a spectrum of titles that includes teachings and writings of the Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, meditation guides, the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, the works of C.S. Lewis and such religion-flavored fiction as The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown or The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.
But what about the growing number of spiritually minded readers who are also audiophiles? Lucky for them, there's a solid selection of spoken-word audio titles under the ever-burgeoning religion and spirituality umbrellas. PW recently spoke with several audio publishers about some of the trends in this segment of the audio market and the titles that are doing particularly well.
Determining the size of a specific segment of the audio industry is less than an exact science, but the Audio Publishers Association estimates that religion and spirituality titles account for roughly 5%—10% of the $2 billion audio industry. (That $2 billion is estimated to be 8%—10% of the $26.9 billion book publishing industry as a whole.)
To draw another comparison, the January indicators from the Association of American Publishers show sales of religion books up 35.2% over January 2003 and sales of audiobooks improved 34.2% over January 2003, seemingly putting religion and spirituality audiobooks in a good position to make an upward shift.
The Audio Publishers Association, which bestows its annual Audie Awards for excellence in audiobooks, has long recognized the religion and spirituality fields by including Inspirational/Spiritual and Personal Development/Motivation award categories. Last year the group introduced the Faith-Based/Inspirational Fiction category as well. (Of course, some religion and spirituality titles cross genre lines and end up in other Audie categories like Audio Drama, as well.) Most of the major audio publishing houses can point to at least one workhorse backlist title in the religion/spirituality categories; numerous Christian publishers (Tyndale, Zondervan, Nelson among them) and niche producers (including Sounds True, New World Library and Hay House) count religion/spirituality as their audio bread and butter.
According to most of the publishers contacted for this article, trade bookstores belonging to the American Booksellers Association, as well as mainstream price clubs and discount stores, account for the bulk of audiobook sales in the religion and spirituality arena. "The religion/spirituality market is very solid and growing," said Paul Rush, marketing director for Oasis Audio, based in Carol Stream, Ill. "The majority of our product—70% of sales—is going to the ABA market as those retailers see the potential in the spirituality and Christian markets," he added. As a result, Rush notes that his company has seen "triple-digit growth over the last 18 months."
Tami Simon, publisher at Sounds True in Boulder, Colo., a producer of original audio programming, commented, "Religion/spirituality has been a strong, consistent market for us for nearly 20 years and represents the core of our audio title list. In addition to our trade sales focus, we mail more than two million catalogues each year directly to people who have told us they are specifically interested in religion/spirituality."
For David Moberg, senior v-p and publisher of W Publishing Group, "It seems to be as the whole religion/spirituality category grows, audiobooks have kept pace with this move. We create and distribute the top 10%—15% of our print list on audio. We also license a number of our other titles. In fact, the trend we are seeing, as well as the strategy we are adopting, is to license specialized distributors rather than develop the audio ourselves."
At Brilliance Audio, which began publishing a line of Christian fiction and nonfiction in 2002, v-p and associate publisher Eileen Hutton continues to see potential. "I see this category growing," she said. "The popularity of religion books is growing in both CBA [Christian Booksellers Association] and ABA stores."
Recorded Books has been expanding into the retail market only over the past couple of years, but boasts a sizable collection of works in the religion/spirituality area available to its library market customers. "In the non-retail market we do about 50 inspirational titles per year," said publisher Brian Downing. "It's a strong category for us and something that attracts a lot of people's attention."
For other publishers, the view is a bit different. At Tyndale House, v-p of sales Everett O'Bryan noted, "Other than the bestselling Left Behind audiobooks, this is a limited market. We produce audiobooks on the average of one for every 15—20 print books published. An abridged Left Behind audiocassette will sell between 40,000 and 60,000 units, while an audiobook on CD will sell from 20,000 to 30,000 units [in all markets combined]."
Zondervan v-p and associate publisher of new media Mark Hunt believes that religion/spirituality "is a growing market." However, he echoes the laments of many audio publishers when he says, "Generally this category lacks the kind of merchandising that makes the consumer aware that audio titles exist. CBA stores don't tend to have the audio section offered in the ABA. The most effective means of selling audio is to have it placed with the book so the consumer is aware that both exist and can decide which version best meets their needs."
Merchandising issues aside, retailers have clearly recognized the strength of the religion/spirituality audiobook market. "It does well for us," said Borders category manager Clay Farr. "The trend in religious fiction, particularly with the Left Behind books, has kept the audiobooks in that area strong. We currently shelve those audiobooks along with titles on Eastern thought, teachings of the Dalai Lama and other spiritual/inspirational titles under Personal Development. Interest in the section has definitely grown in recent years."
Audiobook formats remain an issue in this category. Cassettes and abridgements continue to perform strongly in the CBA market. "There's still some price resistance," commented Hutton. "We sell mostly abridged in the CBA market as those retailers and customers want the price to be under $20, and cassettes still outperform CDs for us there."
The CD format has gained ground in the CBA market, however; many publishers estimate the cassette/CD split at about 50-50. In the ABA market, CDs have begun to dominate.
Where the Book Leads...
"On the whole, I would say that the audio follows the book," said Hunt at Zondervan. "The book needs to do well in the ABA market and the audio will follow suit." Zondervan has a case in point with The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren. As the print book amassed a huge following (more than 15 million books and 230,000 audiobooks sold as of April 1), so did the audiobook, earning various slots on the PW audio bestseller list and on Amazon.com's list of top audio sellers.
In keeping with this "follow the leader" philosophy, New World Library recently found success with the audiobook of The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, a title that regularly appears on the PW audio bestseller list. In the case of such titles as The Da Vinci Code, the genres become more blurred. That title still dominates fiction bestseller lists and currently has four different audio editions available from Random House Audio. Oasis Audio has high hopes for its forthcoming related title, Breaking the Da Vinci Code by Darrell L. Bock (April; simultaneous with Thomas Nelson hardcover). According to Rush, Oasis has already received its largest quantity of pre-orders ever for this title.
The phenomenally popular Left Behind book series has also begotten a successful line of audio titles. Tyndale publishes abridgements and dramatizations of all the titles, including the 12th and final volume, Glorious Appearing, which landed in stores March 30. Recorded Books has not been Left Behind, either, and is simultaneously releasing the retail unabridged CD and cassette editions of Glorious Appearing. Recorded Books had published the previous unabridged audio titles in the Left Behind series, but only in the library market.
Publishers of religion/spirituality audio are in step with the general audio industry trend of publishing audiobooks simultaneously with their print counterparts whenever possible. Combined publicity efforts and promotional opportunities can often be a boon to both the print and audio editions. A popular author and speaker in the genre like Wayne M. Dyer can sometimes hit a publicity trifecta, as he has this spring with the release of The Power of Intention (Hay House print book and audiobook, Feb.), which is likely to receive a boost from Dyer's PBS program focusing on the book. And in January Simon & Schuster released The Wayne M. Dyer Audio Collection, which contains three backlist titles.
Dyer has become the sort of brand-name author who can help audio publishers overcome marketing challenges. "It is difficult to get attention for individual titles unless the author is really well known," said Jacqui Clark, publicity director at Hay House. In addition to Dyer, Hay House has done well with Marianne Williamson and Caroline Myss.
The Christian or faith-based fiction and nonfiction categories feature a stable of prominent authors whose names and loyal followings can help sell audiobooks. Brilliance Audio notes solid numbers for Charles Swindoll and Juanita Bynum, among others. Jan Karon, whose Mitford novels are considered "crossovers" from Christian to general fiction, sells well for Penguin Audio. Oasis touts the performance of Wild at Heart and other titles by John Eldredge, as well as works by Ted Dekker (Black) and Andy Andrews (The Lost Choice). According to Moberg at W, "Max Lucado, Anne Graham Lotz, Ravi Zacharias, Hank Hanegraaff and Charles Swindoll are our bestselling audiobook authors." Moberg is also enthusiastic about The Man Called CASH: The Life, Love, and Faith of an American Legend, a biography of singer-musician Johnny Cash, due out in September. Proven series like the aforementioned Left Behind, and product lines like Tyndale's Focus on the Family Radio Theatre audio dramas also pull in strong sales, primarily in the CBA market.
For Sounds True, publisher Simon said her primary marketing challenge "continues to be the very thing that makes us unique: we publish original material developed for audio, not books on tape. Our top criteria for authors are authenticity and scholarship rather than whether they have a bestselling book or great media exposure. Our task is to guide buyers in understanding that each program is a deep, personal connection to a substantial author who is teaching—not reading—his or her own work."
Top performing titles at Sounds True include Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield, From Fear to Fearlessness by Pema Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, and The Art of Mindful Living by Thich Nhat Hanh. Though it wasn't planned, Sounds True is at present benefiting from a pop-culture phenomenon. The publisher has been experiencing increased interest in Neil Douglas-Klotz's translations of the Gospels from Aramaic, including Healing Breath: Body-Based Meditations on the Aramaic Beatitudes, ever since the media blitz for Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ took hold.
But for the most part, audio publishers, like their colleagues in the print world, continually seek out properties that have a compelling sales hook and hope to find the next hot thing whether it be a particular ministry, prayer practice, feature film or even a weight-loss plan. Recorded Books hopes to have hits with The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ by Anne Catherine Emmerich (a title cited by Mel Gibson as a source of inspiration for his film), as well as with the audio version of The Maker's Diet by Jordan Rubin, which is currently in production. The print edition of The Maker's Diet arrived in stores this month, and Recorded Books plans to deliver the audio edition as close on its heels as possible.
And at Oasis, High Calling: The Courageous Life and Faith of Space Shuttle Commander Rick Husband by Evelyn Husband (Jan.) has been the company's bestselling non-Bible title so far this year. Oasis also has high expectations for A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush by David Aikman. Brilliance Audio has just released the memoir Ten Minutes from Normal by Karen Hughes, the president's former communications director, who speaks openly about her Presbyterian faith.
High hopes, however, are sometimes not enough to give an audio title wings. "There's not always a direct link between good book sales and good audio sales for a title," said Farr of Borders. "But I believe the quality of audio publishing has improved in this area and our selection of titles has improved as well."
One audio title that has certainly stood the test of time and perennially sells well is, fittingly, the Bible. The various translations from myriad publishers continue to be stalwarts in the CBA market, though some versions have found more mainstream success. Zondervan's NIV Bible "has done extremely well in the ABA stores," according to Hunt. Recorded Books released a new retail edition of The New Testament by the American Bible Society in January and is currently recording the Old Testament. "Bibles are an evergreen market," said Downing.
Looking ahead, publishers and retailers appear to be working together to see that more shoppers see what's available to them. "We believe the CBA market is evolving, and have spearheaded a category development strategy in cooperation with key CBA publishers for the CBA outlets," said Rush of Oasis. "We have developed a DVD training tool on how to market and merchandise audiobooks specifically for the CBA market."
Chuck Wallington, president of Christian Supply, Inc., is one retailer open to trying new things with audio. "This past Christmas the demand for audio went up a bit, so we're trying to fuel that," he said. "We'll be doing a promotion with Brilliance this summer to raise the profile of audio." Additionally, Wallington said, "We've just made a decision in the Covenant Group [a network of 60 Christian retail outlets] to tag all the books that also have an audio, so that customers will know it's available."
The large chain of Family Christian Stores has expanded its commitment to audio recently as well. Senior book buyer Tim Way said, "We did quite well with audio last year, especially with The Purpose-Driven Life and Wild at Heart. We've increased our number of titles over the last couple of years, and we're carrying a bigger assortment." And that's the kind of news that audio publishers and audiobook fans love to hear.