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Published: 5/29/2004

Book industry puts faith in sales appeal of religious titles

BLADE RELIGION EDITOR

One of the nation's largest book-industry trade shows, the Book Expo America, will be spotlighting religion for the first time when it convenes next week in Chicago.

"Religion is just central to cultural conversation these days," said Lynn Garrett, one of the organizers of Religion & Spirituality Day at the expo, which runs from Thursday through June 6.

The religion-themed events, all slated for Friday, will include various programs and discussions on topics such as "Understanding Islam," "Sacred Texts and Classic Titles," and a panel titled "With the Authors" featuring such heavyweight writers as Andrew Greeley, Jerry B. Jenkins (of the Left Behind series), Oriah Mountain Dreamer, and Jonathan Kirsch.

Giving the keynote address at Book Expo America will be former President Bill Clinton, whose memoir My Life will be published at the end of June by Alfred A. Knopf.

Ms. Garrett, the religion editor at Publishers Weekly, said holding a Religion & Spirituality Day was "a natural progression" for the trade show, which will draw up to 45,000 industry insiders to Chicago's McCormick Place Convention Center.

"The religion category has been a bit of a surprise success story to the industry," she said. "Fifteen years ago, the New York publishers would have said it's not important to us, the religion publishers exist in their own little world."

But their focus has shifted since then, primarily because the public's growing hunger for spiritual

knowledge has caused a marked increase in sales of religion titles.

"This is a more serious time. People are looking for depth," Ms. Garrett said. "Just look at the headlines. This is not the '90s anymore."

One proof of the public's fascination with spiritual issues is the phenomenal success of the Left Behind novels, which are set in modern times against an apocalpytic backdrop.

Since 1995, the writing team of Mr. LaHaye and Mr. Jenkins - featured on the May 24 cover of Newsweek magazine - has produced a dozen Left Behind thrillers that depict end-of-the-world scenarios combining fictional characters and the authors' interpretation of the biblical book of Revelation.

The 12-volume series, concluding with the latest release Glorious Appearing, has sold more than 62 million copies, making Mr. LaHaye and Mr. Jenkins "the most successful literary partnership of all time," as Newsweek stated.

While the Left Behind phenomenon was "a big factor" in getting the secular book industry's attention, it wasn't the only one.

"By the time Left Behind came along, religion was already a strong and vigorous category," Ms. Garrett said. "There were signs by the late '80s and throughout the '90s that religion and spirituality, broadly defined, had racked up some important sales."

But those sales were almost all in Christian bookstores. Christian romance novels, for example, were brisk sellers as far back as the late 1980s, Ms. Garrett said, but their sales were "under the radar" for the general publishing industry.

The staggering success of Left Behind prompted many mainstream book sellers to begin carrying religious titles.

A perpetually strong genre in religion is self-help books, Ms. Garrett said, citing Rick Warren's best-selling The Purpose-Driven Life as a prime example.

Bibles are another perennial favorite, although their sales are nearly impossible to chart. Many are sold in bulk to Christian organizations, and the sales figures at Christian bookstores are elusive because there is no industry standard for keeping track of sales at those outlets.

Ms. Garrett said genres that are gaining popularity include titles about the intersection of religion and hot-button issues such as bioethics and homosexuality; religious audio books, and religion and pop culture.

While the Book Expo America is spotlighting religion, the event is basically for the secular industry.

Religious publishers tend to feature their products that have a broad, crossover appeal, such as business or gardening books with religious foundations but which are not overtly spiritual.

"Our program speaks to a broad audience," said Greg Topalian, vice president and show manager of BEA, "and we hope it bridges the gap between serving a popular inspirational base on the one hand, and various theological as well as spiritual communities on the other."

- DAVID YONKE



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