Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2023 Issue

Recent Trends & Issues in U.S. Christian Publishing

U.S. Christian publishing continues to grow and take on more hot button topics such as “Christian nationalism.”

In the United States Christian inflected movements are playing an increasingly important role in the world of books, whether it be what can be circulated in libraries, defining curriculum such as what will be taught and not taught in schools, and Christian nationalism as an ideology is increasingly a hot button issue in the political arena; it seems like a good time to take a look at current trends and issues in Christian publishing. The following material is excerpted from recently published material. Links to the full articles cited can be found at the end of this story.


Some Recent Statistics:

Recent estimates on the size and value of American Christian publishing through 2021 appeared in an article by Dimitrje Curcic on the website WordsRated.com in Feb. 2023. WordsRated is a Massachusetts based non-commercial research organization that takes a data-based look at books, literature, and the publishing industry.

 

According to the author as of 2021, religious book sales have reached a total revenue of $705.1 million. Sales revenue of religious books increased by 5.7% compared to 2020 and has increased for the second consecutive year.

  • 2021 marks the fourth year in a row that the sales of religious books have surpassed $600 million and, for the first time, went over $700 million.

  • Over the last 10 years, religious book sales have increased by over 22.3%.

  • Religious material is sold mainly in print formats, making up for 76% of the category’s sales.

  • 61.7% of total sales came from the hardcover format, accounting for over $435.7 million in revenue.

  • 12.5% of religious sales come from digital formats, with e-books accounting for 6.9% and audiobooks contributing 5.6% of the revenue.

A more historical approach came out in an April 2022 in a Publisher’s Weekly article titled How Religion Publishing Became a Billion-Dollar Industry.

Over the past 25 years," PW wrote, “religion publishing has undergone massive consolidation, as well as a revolution in retailing. With the rise of the internet came the demise of thousands of religion bookstores and entrance to the mainstream market. Social change and challenges have prompted religious presses’ attention to new voices among editors and writers, as well as the views of readers who are increasingly detached from traditional theology and church affiliation.”

PW reported a strong upward trend in units sold and dollar value. The article also mentions consolidation as smaller publishers are acquired by larger firms; similarly it notes the decline in Christian bookstores as the point of sale.

Religion books, once ‘the best kept secret in trade book publishing,’ were a secret no more, says Byron Williamson. His decades of experience in religion publishing include executive roles at Thomas Nelson, Worthy Publishing, and more recently, Moberg|Williamson Consulting, launched in 2020 with longtime HarperCollins Christian Publishing (HCCP) executive David Moberg.

While I was president of Thomas Nelson, we merged Word (now the W Publishing Group) and Nelson adult trade lists, and began to take a material presence on bestseller lists and in Walmart, Target, Barnes & Noble, and Books-a-Million, which we convinced to set up freestanding Christian book departments in each store,” Williamson says. “We jumped up to something like the seventh largest trade book publisher in the U.S. That turned heads.” And soon after, Thomas Nelson belonged to HCCP

Marketing Muscle

Jeff Crosby, former publisher at IVP and now CEO of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, calls consolidation “the most significant change” in the last quarter century. “The consolidation of more than 50% of the publishing and sales of religion product—specifically Christian books under a single corporate entity,” he says, looking squarely at Amazon, “has reset the business. It’s moved from a ‘terms of sale’ paradigm, set by publishers, to a ‘terms of purchase’ paradigm, set by customers. There has always been some consolidation underway, but before HCCP expansion, no one agency could set the terms of purchase for everyone.

But ‘selling everywhere’ had a downside. ….Competition from secular outlets, coupled with Amazon’s launch into online bookselling in 1995, led to the eventual collapse of the Christian Booksellers Association. The CBA had been flying high in the 1980s. In 1983, PW reported that 3,290 bookstores and 605 publishers and suppliers expected to do a billion dollars in business… By 2005 the organization was down to 2,256 members, and in 2016, membership was half that. The CBA finally shuttered in 2019.”

There are fewer than 1,000 Christian bookstores today, including Catholic and church bookshops nationwide, according to the Noble Group, which provides outside sales representation to vendors in Christian retail. Williamson points out, “At one time, as much as 80% of Christian books, which are a majority of all religion book sales, moved through Christian retailers. Today, no more than 20% of Christian books are sold by that channel.”

Reaching a changing audience

Christian books have a lot of company now in the religion marketplace. Interest has boomed in books about faith, as well as mind-body-spirit titles from all perspectives including Eastern religions, meditation, and magic.

All the while, the American religious landscape has been undergoing dramatic change. There is a “secularizing shift” that shows “no signs of slowing down,” says Greg Smith, associate director of research for Pew Research. A Pew survey released in December 2021 finds the number of self-identified Christians is now 63% of U.S. adults, down from 78% in 2007. Nearly a third of adults—29%—are people who claim no religious identity, up from 16% in Pew’s 2007 Religion Landscape Survey.

The new survey also finds 45% of Americans say they pray every day, down from 58% who said this in 2007. And in a different survey, released in October 2021, Pew found just 58% of adults say they believe in God “as described in the Bible,” while 32% believe there is some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe.

Religion publishing is already shifting with the tide. Says Crosby, “Publishers need to meet readers where they are, not where they might wish they are.” Christian houses have also been adding crossover books, particularly ones for children and teens, that omit any mention of God, Jesus, church, or prayer to reach book buyers who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with explicit theology.

 

Women, BIPOC in religion publishing

One thing that has expanded enormously in the religion publishing industry over the past 25 years is the sales strength of female authors. Christian living books, which are the bread and butter for many religion houses, have historically been bought and read primarily by women, and this remains truer than ever today.

 

By comparison to the past 25 years, the religion book industry also has made strides to diversify its workforce as well as author pools through a wide variety of programs, though publishers and agents agree: there is still work to be done. Religion publishers are not alone in the book industry in being predominantly white—PW’s most recent salary survey found whites made up 84% of industry employees, while Lee & Low’s diversity survey found 76% were white.

 

Shaping the Future

In another PW article published in Dec. 2022 titled Religion Publishers Aim to Shape the Future PW asked: “What do climate change, Christian nationalism, and spiritual wellness all have in common?” And answered saying: “They are the most prevalent topics among new religion and spirituality books publishing throughout 2023. Explorations of each subject are part of greater efforts to start conversations and even answer some of today’s hardest questions, according to publishers in the category.

Discussing a general attitude of the current moment, Jenn Gott, v-p and publisher of HarperCollins Christian Publishing’s gift books division, says, “We are coming out of a time of rampant anxiety and fear.” Noting that titles on the publisher’s frontlist are specifically designed to be evergreen, she adds, “Our books acknowledge the stress that the world holds—and provide meaningful inspiration, and often practical guidance, to living in an unpredictable world.”

Religion has also long played a role in politics, and Ethan McCarthy, associate editor at IVP, expects a need to publish titles to reflect contemporary issues. “The coming election cycle is going to keep political questions of various kinds in the front of people’s minds, and the ongoing Christian nationalism discussions are in need of careful engagement,” McCarthy says. “At the same time, we want to avoid being too reactionary, or letting the market drive our publishing program. We want to try to set the conversation in thoughtful ways, not just follow trends or try to catch waves.”

Hot Button Topics: Christianity with a political edge

Christian publishers are also taking on subjects like climate change as well as this year’s hot button topic: Christian nationalism. Among several upcoming books on politics and religion, a number focus specifically into the past, present, and future of Christian nationalism……At Broadleaf, Weaver-Zercher notes, “White Christian nationalism will remain a force to be reckoned with in our politics and common life for the foreseeable future, and understanding its logics and longings will help us figure out how to respond to it.”

 

Christian Nationalism:

A long article by Musa al-Gharbi, appearing on his own website in January of 2023 zeros in on Christian Nationalism and White Evangelicals. Al-Gharbi is a widely published author and a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University.

 

Looking at the pattern over time on Google Trends, the public conversation really took off roughly two years from the present date. The events of Jan. 6, 2021, led to a huge spike in searches about Christian nationalism, as many were eager to find some easy narrative or master framework to explain that was wrong with “those peoplewho engaged in the riot and/or embraced the “big liethat the 2020 election was stolen. Christian nationalism became one of the more prominent frameworks for understanding “the problem.”

Search interest reached unprecedented highs from April – July 2022, corresponding with the publication of timely and highly-influential books by sociologists Andrew Whitehead, Samuel Perry and Philip Gorski: “Taking Back America for Godand “The Flag and the Cross(both published by Oxford University Press).

With respect to media discussion, Boolean Query data from “LexisNexis Newsdesk shows that over the last year there have been roughly 2,100 print and online news media articles published mentioning Christian nationalism – on average roughly six published each day over the last year — with the coverage skewing decisively negative (according to sentiment analysis).

The term “Christian nationalism” is on many people’s lips. What, specifically, people are referring to, however, is often a little unclear.

Indeed, as discussion of Christian nationalism has increased in recent years, the phrase has become something of a catch-all term to describe virtually everything that contemporary liberals don’t like about American society and culture —the source of all America’s perceived shortcomings, from racism, to misogyny, to authoritarianism, and beyond. Many social scientists and media folks have taken to basically branding anything that seems morally, politically, aesthetically unsavory that happens to be done by Christians as examples of Christian nationalism in action – prompting one sociologist to ask in a recent journal article, ‘What isn’t Christian Nationalism?’

These tendencies are especially pronounced in contemporary discussions of white evangelicals, widely portrayed as the core drivers of contemporary Christian nationalism. The connection between evangelicalism and Christian nationalism is longstanding and deep. However, as Jean Baudrillard observed, “Behind every image, something has disappeared.”

All said, then, there is a sense in which the term ‘Christian Nationalism’ has come to be used too broadly – referring in many circles to almost anything the contemporary left doesn’t like that Christians happen to do. At the same time, the term seems too narrow: A tight focus on Christian nationalism, and especially white Christian nationalism cannot well-account for the growing religious nationalist movements among contemporary U.S. Jews, Muslims, Hindus and other believers (and even some non-believers who nonetheless advocate for religious nationalism).

To get around this latter problem, historian Sam Haselby has argued that the more inclusive term “religious right” is perhaps a better framework for understanding contemporary trends than Christian nationalism. To get around the former problem, journalists and scholars should stop using Christian nationalism as a shorthand for any right-aligned politics we find unpleasant or threatening, and discuss the Christian nationalism, its historical legacy and contemporary influence in more precise and nuanced ways.”

Links: These are  links to the full text of articles quoted in this piece:

 

Religious Book Sales Statistics, WordsRated.com, Feb. 2023

https://wordsrated.com/religious-books-sales-statistics/

How Religion Publishing Became a Billion Dollar Industry, PW, April 2022

https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/religion/article/89000-how-religion-publishing-became-a-billion-dollar-industry.html

 

Religion Publishers Aim to Shape the Future, Dec. 2022 PW

https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/religion/article/91146-religion-publishers-aim-to-shape-the-future.html

 

Christian Nationalism and White Evangelicals, January 5, 2023 https://musaalgharbi.com/2023/01/05/christian-nationalism-white-evangelicals/

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