Why should the big general-trade houses have all the fun—and profit? Thanks to the success of Regnery Publishing (Unfit for Command and Bias) on the right and Harper San Francisco (God's Politics) on the left, religion publishers could hardly miss the current near-obsession of the book-buying public for political reads. The past two years have seen the launch of Random House's Crown Forum imprint, Penguin Group's Sentinel Books and now a new Simon & Schuster imprint (Threshold Press) headed by Republican pundit Mary Matalin. The bestseller lists are so crowded with political titles, there's barely room for books by those other bastions of popular culture—sports heroes, musicians, TV and movie personalities.
Now it's becoming commonplace for nearly all religion publishers to have at least a few titles on their lists addressing the political climate and/or movies, music or other pop culture mainstays. Many are expanding those offerings beyond a few. And some, including the four profiled here, have gone so far as to dedicate a line, an imprint or even their entire operation to these timely topics.
Market Driven: Nelson Current
For Thomas Nelson, the move into political publishing was, on the one hand, primarily a business decision. On the other hand, it also fits nicely into Nelson's mission to encourage evangelical Christians to engage and work to change the culture.
"Christians go to the movies. They buy Tom Clancy and John Grisham," notes David Dunham, senior v-p of Thomas Nelson's General Trade Book Group and publisher for Nelson Current. "To us, there's no sacred/secular dichotomy."
This explains why Nelson has no qualms about publishing political books by Michael Savage as well as business books by Donald Trump and cookbooks by Oprah's chef. After deciding four years ago to enter the general book market, Nelson purchased Cold Springs Press and Rutledge Hill; the former does gardening titles and the latter publishes such authors as Jeff Foxworthy. "Although he is an evangelical Christian, there ain't nothing remotely Christian in his books," says Dunham.
After observing the rise of conservative talk radio, Fox News and Regnery, Nelson began to see the possibilities. "It's a flourishing market, so we see big opportunities there, especially around election time," says Dunham. "And we've proved we can compete."
Among its success stories so far are Michael Savage's Savage Nation (2003) and Katherine Harris's Center of the Storm (2002). Another major author is Andrew Napolitano of Fox News (Constitutional Chaos, 2004).
Nelson initially partnered with World Net Daily, the conservative news Web site, to form WND Books. But that partnership ended last year, and Nelson elected not to renew it, Dunham says. Thus, the Nelson Current imprint was born with the tagline: "Provocative. Relevant. Timely." Dunham estimates the imprint will do about 20 to 25 books a year, including some that might be more accurately described as historical rather then political.
Dunham notes the admittedly rightward slant to Nelson Current's line is also market driven. "If you look at talk radio, where hosts tilt more to the right, it's flourishing; those left-leaning are not," he says. "We're somewhat ideologically driven, but not exclusively so." He insists that the more libertarian-minded editorial staff isn't afraid to take on Republicans as well as Democrats, citing Paul Sperry's Crude Politics: How Bush's Oil Cronies Hijacked the War on Terrorism (2003).
"It is true that we tilt more to the right than we do to the left," Dunham says. "But we'll slap Republicans as hard and as quickly as Democrats."
Speaking Up: FrontLine Books
As CEO, president and publisher of Strang Communications and Charisma House Books for 30 years, Stephen Strang has plenty of experience in market analysis. But when it comes to his new current affairs imprint, he admits the market is only one motivation for expanding into this burgeoning segment of book publishing.
"We will respond to the market," says Strang, who estimates six to eight titles a year in the new FrontLine imprint. "If the market gobbles it up, we'll do more. But if the market doesn't, we'll still publish most of these books. I'm doing this more out of principle than out of profit margin. I believe there are things in life that are important for me to speak up about. And I speak up by publishing books."
FrontLine books will speak up about many of the hot-button issues in the so-called "culture wars." In its first offering, The Agenda: The Homosexual Plan to Change America (Aug.), Louis Sheldon claims a near-conspiracy by proponents of same-sex marriage. The Faith of George W. Bush (2003) and The Faith of the American Soldier (May 2005), both copublished with Tarcher, will also be repackaged under the FrontLine imprint.
But Strang insists that the subject matter will be broad, including books on the environment, racism and poverty. "The topics will be issues I feel strongly about," he says. "As Christians, we have a responsibility to speak up about these issues. Although historically there's been a rift between [those who subscribe to] the social gospel and evangelicals, I think it's coming back around full circle."
Books on cultural issues are nothing new for Strang and Charisma House, as evidenced by the many titles already on its list that will be repackaged as FrontLine books. The house is also adding two more imprints next fall—Realms for fiction and CharismaKid for children's books. It already has a line of health-related titles called Siloam.
"This is really a decision to categorize and package our books differently. It helps us focus internally and may help buyers to understand what the books are about," says Strang. "It's not like we sat in a brainstorming meeting one day and decided to do these books. We were already doing them."
Been There, Done That: Relevant Books
When Relevant published its first book, Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 in 2001, it raised more than a few conservative Christian eyebrows. Then Relevant had the audacity to follow it with a book on TheSopranos. Now that the house has examined spiritual connections with the likes of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and other icons of popular culture, Relevant is altering its publishing focus to be a bit more, well, relevant to its target audience—young, edgy evangelicals.
Founder and CEO Cameron Strang (son of Steven Strang, who owns a minority stake in Relevant) worries the market on spiritual explorations of popular culture might be getting a bit saturated. "I mean, how many books were there on The Matrix and now on Narnia? We didn't want to get lost in the noise," he says. "My fear is there's going to be a backlash, and we don't want to be part of that."
Relevant magazine will continue to profile music, film and TV artists, but "for books, it has to be more substantial," Cameron says. "We don't want to water it down."
Relevant Media Group's editorial director, Cara Davis, agrees there are "fresher, more original ways to talk about faith and culture" than merely churning out book after book purporting to find religious undertones in nearly every piece of pop culture. One new avenue for Relevant is a series of fun novelty books that reflect life for 20-somethings, such as The Christian Culture Survival Guide (2005) and The Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse: The Official Field Manual for the End of the World (Mar., 2005). There are also more serious looks at young adult life, such as With or Without You (Oct., 2005), a memoir of divorce.
But that doesn't mean Relevant won't ever do spiritual biographies of pop culture stars again—since most of its readers are almost permanently tethered to their MP3 players. "It's what informs their lives and grabs their attention," says Davis, who, at 27, should know. "We just want stuff with substance and depth."
Could books on politics or other cultural critiques be next? "We would have loved to publish [Jim Wallis's] God's Politics," says Cameron. "We've got about 10 to 15 books on politics and social justice issues that we're talking about. We're just waiting for the right authors."
Ready for the Revolution: BarnaBooks
For decades, pollster George Barna has been the go-to guy for data on the trends shaping Christian America. Now the directing leader of the Barna Group and author of more than 35 books is partnering with Tyndale House to launch a new line of books to respond to his latest research discovery about Christian culture—one he believes is nothing less than revolutionary.
Simply put, many Christians are not regularly going to church anymore and are instead finding ways to live their faith outside of traditional church membership. While some might panic at this news, Barna sees possibility. "We are calling this tidal wave of spiritual experience and expression 'The Revolution,' " he says. "Already, more than 20 million Americans are involved in this revolution of faith, and the numbers are growing."
Barna details the phenomenon in the imprint's first book, not surprisingly titled The Revolution (Oct.). Subsequent books—by Barna and other authors—will aim to provide resources and direction for those who define themselves as "revolutionaries."
Several authors are already working on manuscripts, with books expected to be released in 2006. Barna says he chose Tyndale because the publisher grasped the enormity of the demographic shift. "We needed a publisher who not only 'gets it' theologically, but who would also be willing to back it with marketing dollars and expertise. Tyndale stepped up to the plate," he says.
"We felt like he has an authentic message and something new to say," says Tyndale's Nancy Claussen, director of marketing and development. "It could raise some controversy, but we feel it's a debate that needs to be discussed. He comes at it from a very biblical perspective, and, after all, he's got the numbers."