If the Soul Is Your Subject 

Your Time Has Come

Published Freelance Success, January 1996


by Jennifer Harrison

A significant uptick in the amount of religious and spiritual publishing is under way in America. "Sales began to heat up in 1992, and in 1993 they really took off," explains Phyllis Tickle, religion editor of Publishers Weekly and author of RE-DISCOVERING THE SACRED. Barnes & Noble now stocks 35 percent more religious titles than it did in 1993. And, whenever possible, secular retailers are switching religious and spiritual titles to general interest sections.

The trend is also evident among magazines, newspapers and broadcast networks. Newspapers and news magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report are running more stories on religion and spirituality. More recently, stories of spirituality in the workplace have surfaced. In 1994, The Dallas Morning News began a free-standing religion section that runs once a week and has received a very positive response from readers, says Sharon Grigsby, religion section editor. ABC World News added a religion correspondent, Peggy Wehmyer, to its staff in 1994 -- the first religion correspondent for a major TV network. Bill Moyers has been making PBS documentaries on spiritual topics for some time. Moyers recently said that defining spirituality is THE story of the next decade.

DIVINING THE TREND

Baby boomers are a big part of the picture, according to Tickle, because spiritual reflection commonly occurs about age 50 for many Americans. "The first of them hit 50 last year. And George Gallup said back in 1989 this would happen .... Fifty is the age in life when you start asking questions like: 'Who am I? Where am I going? What is life about? Is this all there is?' These are basic spiritual questions."

But boomers are not the only engine driving the trend. Also at work is increased interest in spirituality, both as part of an ongoing redefinition of traditional religion and as part of a rising interest in New Age philosophy. And who can ignore the millennium factor? "Every time a century ends religion gets a little blip on the screen. When you have a millennium, look for a big bleep. It's like a mushroom cloud, it's so significant," says Tickle, whose book looks at what she sees as a sweeping reformation of religion itself, plus provides considerable analysis of religious and spiritual publishing.

While there is no industry-wide standard for reporting sales of religious and spiritual books, the Christian Booksellers Association is often used to gauge activity. In 1980, CBA stores reported sales of $1 billion. It took well over a decade, until 1993, for those sales to double, to $2 billion. But by 1994, just one year later, sales at more than 2,500 CBA stores and other outlets had grown to $2.8 billion, says CBA's president, Bill Anderson. Of that total, approximately 42 percent is for print products, and the remainder is Christian music and what is referred to in the industry as holy hardware: clothing, gifts and novelties.

CBA stores are tightly connected to the product of the publishing houses of the Evangelical Christian Publishing Association, a trade organization. The books sold at CBA stores are ECPA product only. Although some ECPA houses distribute products through secular bookstores and other outlets, the Protestant Christian market has largely been separate from the secular market. Major ECPA publishers include Thomas Nelson, Word Publishing, and Zondervan (owned by Harper), the last of which is sold largely through Walmart stores. Abingdon Press, Tyndale House, Moody Press and Harvest House are also active in this market.

But the Christian market represented by CBA and ECPA are only part of the story. Roman Catholic materials have for years been integrated into mainstream bookstores and New Age outlets. Pope John Paul II was the first pope to make the best-seller list with CROSSING THE THRESHOLD OF HOPE.

And New Age publishing is another growing field, serving an elusive but swelling audience. A trade organization, New Alternatives for Publishing, Retailing and Advertising (NAPRA), has emerged to represent the interests of New Age businesses and publishers. But tracking this market seems almost impossible. The problem begins with how to define New Age material. And NAPRA doesn't track sales of its members as CBA does, according to NAPRA's Review editor, Matthew Gilbert.

The combined circulation of the largest New Age magazines is approximately one million. In July, 1995, The Los Angeles Times reported a 120 percent increase in books published on New Age topics over the last five years. THE CELESTINE PROPHECY has been on best-seller lists for more than a year and has sold more than 20 million copies. Betty Eadie's tale of a near-death experience, EMBRACED BY THE LIGHT, has been on the Washington Post's best-seller list since June, 1993. Currently, THE SEVEN SPIRITUAL LAWS OF SUCCESS, by Deepak Chopra is also a top seller.

HOT TOPICS

The evolving era increasingly separates morality and values from the institutions of religion. Yet public demand remains strong for a wide variety of spiritual and religious materials, especially publications that can cross over from a religious to general audience. Examples of cross-over books include: William Bennett's BOOK OF VIRTUES and Colin Powell's MY AMERICAN JOURNEY, Thomas Moore's CARE OF THE SOUL, or Marianne Williamson's ILLUMINATA.

So what does all this translate into for a writer with interests in spiritual, religious and moral matters? Four areas are particularly active from a publishing perspective, says Tickle:

1) Supernatural. Here you find books on near-death experiences and agents of the spiritual realm. This includes the many books on angels, channeling, other agents such as aliens and altered states of consciousness. This area has produced mega-sellers such as EMBRACED BY THE LIGHT.

2) Ancient Wisdom. There are more successful commercial titles in this area than any other, but it has few superstars, according to Tickle. Karen Armstrong's HISTORY OF GOD, published in 1993, has been a surprising success. GOD: A BIOGRAPHY, by Jack Miles is also selling well. Books in this area include historical searches for God and Jesus, sacred texts, Native American spirituality, mythology of primitive religions, feminist and eco-theology, as well as Buddhism and other Eastern religions.

3) Self-help. This area of publishing began to boom during the late '80s with public demand generated largely by Alcoholics Anonymous and related 12-step programs. This area peaked around 1993, according to Tickle, but it enjoys a secure position with the reading public. Both secular and religious book buyers help meet the demand for books on addictions, co-dependency and emotional healing.

4) Fiction. Religious and inspirational fiction has a large following. Best sellers include JOSHUA, by Joseph Girzone, and Frank Peretti's PRESENT DARKNESS, which has sold more than 2 million copies and has crossed over into the general market. Janet Oke's work sells well in the Christian market. Inspirational fiction is read primarily by women.

George Gallup said he expects the increased interest in spiritual matters to last until the year 2007, when the last of the boomers turn 50. This continued interest bodes well for the future of spiritual and religious publishing and authors with an interest in these subjects. #

Copyright 1996, Jennifer Harrison, all rights reserved.