Counting religion book sales is an exercise in balancing data and definition. No one source has all the numbers; the category "religion" can contain everything from fiction and history to memoir and self-help, and more. But because publishing is a numbers-driven game, everyone would love better data for these changing economic times, preferably with good news. A few signs point in a positive direction.

The most recent monthly sales report from the Association of American Publishers, which gathers sales data from publishers, showed a year-to-date increase in the religion category of 2.9%. "That's pleasant news," says Tina Jordan, AAP v-p. The AAP report, which includes figures through May, is one snapshot—a slice from a number pie baked from sales reported by 86 publishers. In the religion category, 18 publishers, including large New York houses that publish in religion such as Harper Collins as well as such major evangelical Christian publishers as Thomas Nelson and Tyndale, report to AAP.

It's not everybody, but it's good as far as it goes. For one thing, it's actual data, not projections or estimates. For another, it includes a mix of large and smaller publishers. Large publishers post significant numbers, but because small publishers are numerous, including that level of data also matters.

Also positive news is work on improving industry data. The Book Industry Study Group, which works to make sure small to midsize publishers get captured in industry data, issues annual reports on the industry using different calculations. The two industry groups' different methodologies have yielded some different results in the past, but that is changing. The groups are in the process of pooling resources to develop a new data model they plan to debut at BEA 2011. Scott Lubeck, appointed executive director of BISG this year, is "socializing" the data model, getting input and reaction from publishers. He finds willingness to provide data as long as its anonymity is assured. "There is a great willingness to share data," Lubeck tells PW. "[Publishers are] anxious to see what's happening in a volatile industry."

Lubeck is talking to religion publishers about what data would be meaningful to them. "Religious books is an ambiguous category," he says. Bibles aren't broken out, for example. Jordan at AAP says that may be considered.

A Corner of the Religion Corner: Measuring Christian Sales

Within publishing, there's religion publishing, and then there's evangelical Christian publishing, a subset of a subset. "We're a bit more drilled down than the religion category," says Michael Covington, who is information and education director at the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association and the group's stats guru. ECPA has historically been able to do a good job of capturing data from Christian retailers, but the success of Christian publishing and its expansion into the general market has brought growing pains to the industry. Covington estimates that two-thirds of Christian products are now sold outside Christian channels: in Wal-Mart, at, in general market bookstores.

Covington, who met with Lubeck and Jordan recently, says more information is always helpful. ECPA is now working on its own refinements of data collection for and from its member publishers. It is testing a new model that aggregates sales data from publishers into seven channels, so publishers can learn more about what is selling where. The seven channels: Christian retail; Internet sales; general trade; mass market; international export; wholesalers; direct to consumer; and all other. He says data grouped in this way will better show backlist strength and channel exclusives and near-exclusives, enabling publishers to gamble less, or smarter, with frontlist. "This isn't data anybody's seen before," Covington says.

Some Christian publishing veterans argue that their size in the market as a whole is underreported because industry statistical tallies are so fragmented and incomplete. "My frustration is there is no one place to get an accurate picture of sales," says Jonathan Merkh, v-p and publisher at Howard Books, a Christian imprint of S&S. Nielsen BookScan, which collects point of sales data that by its estimate includes 75% of retail sales, doesn't include sales from Wal-Mart, where Christian books do well, nor does it include some Christian retail chains. Religion numbers from Bowker are also partial; it counts published books in an annual tally, and its PubTrack service focuses on sales in the Christian market. "If they all were counted by one source, people would be surprised at how well this category is doing," Merkh argues.

In These Other Corners...

Things get differently fuzzy when the subcategory of spirituality is considered. Category imprecision—what's a religion book?—affects what is counted. "There really is no way to quantify those numbers," says Joel Fotinos, a publishing veteran who is now v-p/publisher at Penguin/Tarcher, a mind/body/spirit publisher whose authors include Julia Cameron and New Thought teacher Ernest Holmes. "I take what we have and work it the best we can, " Fotinos says. "We're all working with the same numbers."

Religious denominational publishers such as Westminster John Knox, the publishing arm of the Presbyterian Church USA, have their own niche and needs. "We rely a lot on our own internal reporting," says Gavin Stephens, director of sales. "[But] we could benefit from some better information." It would be helpful to WJK, for example, to know more about new and used textbook sales, since WJK books are used in seminaries and religious studies programs. Religion numbers that break out Bible studies would be useful.

Abingdon Press, which publishes for the United Methodist Church, has found that some of a title's early sales won't get captured in data. "The first major sales for a bestseller often come through the church, events, and denominational chains before then moving into the broader market," Susan Salley, executive director, Abingdon Press Marketing/Fast Track Publishing, tells PW in an e-mail. "These direct-to-church sales are often excluded."

If the big picture of religion sales isn't completely clear because of data limitations as well as ambiguity about the category, at least it's a bit brighter these days, given the modest uptick available figures show.