It was a book many publishers rejected before one gave it a chance—then watched in amazement as a tiny trickle of sales grew into a steady stream and finally cascaded in a mighty torrent.
It was a book that made it okay for Christian men to read fiction, once mainly the province of women and sometimes condemned from the pulpit as evil or at least a distraction from more productive pursuits.
It was a book that proclaimed specific positions on a host of complex and often controversial theological issues concerning the ways of God, humanity, and invisible spiritual forces. But this book did so not by biblical exposition or logical argumentation, but by means of fictional characters that work out their linked destinies in an engrossing, fast-paced adventure story.
And it was that rare cultural phenomenon—a book that millions of people knew and talked about, whether or not they had read it, or its sequel, or the other books that followed in its wake.
The book was This Present Darkness, Frank Peretti's hair-raising 1986 novel about the struggle between Bible-believing Christians and New Age cultists who battle each other and assorted supernatural forces for control of their once quiet town.
That spine-tingling novel paved the way for a growth spurt in Christian fiction that continued with Left Behind, the end-times novel by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that appeared nine years later. Left Behind unleashed an unprecedented publishing tsunami of nine adult novels (thus far) with sales of 30 million copies. More than a dozen related titles have sold over 20 million copies.
At the same time Left Behind books claimed top spots on fiction bestseller lists, Bruce Wilkinson's breezy and inspirational The Prayer of Jabez has taken up a lengthy residence on the major nonfiction lists.
In fact, the trade magazine Publishers Weekly announced in its March 18 issue that Jabez and Desecration, the latest Left Behind novel, were the publishing industry's best-selling nonfiction and fiction books in 2001. "This is the first time that two Christian titles have headed our annual charts," said the magazine.
"Now Christian publishing is a force to be reckoned with by the world and by the media," says Carol Johnson, vice president of editorial at Bethany House Publishers. "We are no longer considered a small, insignificant ghetto."
"Left Behind and The Prayer of Jabez are to Christian publishing what Tiger Woods is to golf," says Bill Anderson, president of CBA (formerly the Christian Booksellers Association). "They have raised the profile and increased the word of mouth and 'buzz' for Christian books."
Profound changes during the last two decades have transformed the way books are conceived, published, and marketed. From large commercial enterprises to smaller houses specializing in academic or theological works, publishers have endured more plot twists and gut-wrenching moral dilemmas than readers encounter in a stack of Christian novels.
In the Twinkling of an Eye
Frank Peretti was an unpublished novelist and former associate pastor who worked in a ski factory when he sent an 850-page manuscript called The Heavenlies to Crossway Publishers. Today, many editors won't even consider books not represented by literary agents. (Peretti later hired a literary agent and left Crossway for a multimillion dollar, multibook deal with Word Publishing, now called W Publishing Group, a division of Thomas Nelson Inc.)
This Present Darkness sold 4,000 copies during its first six months, at the time quite a respectable figure for a first-time novelist. Today, most larger publishers won't work with authors who don't already have significant public platforms. Few publishers will sign projects unless convinced they will sell at least 5,000 copies in the crucial first few months of a book's release. In the early '80s, Christian fiction was still an upstart genre. Today it is the most popular genre in Christian retail stores.
In 1980, Christian companies produced just over $1 billion worth of books and other products a year. Today, annual sales of Christian books and products exceed $4 billion.
And until recently, religious publishing was largely a parochial, distant cousin of America's New York-based mainstream publishing industry. Today, many of the old barriers between religious and mainstream publishing have been obliterated by Internet sites like Amazon.com; superstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders; mass retailers like Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, and Costco; and bestsellers like the Left Behind series and The Prayer of Jabez.
"At the time when This Present Darkness came out, Christian publishers just didn't have the penetration into the wider market they have now," says Jan Dennis, the Crossway editor who acquired the novel. He now operates a literary agency in Colorado Springs.
Left Behind didn't cause all these changes, but it has certainly benefited from them all.
Jerry Jenkins has worked as a writer, editor, and publishing executive during the past three decades. Writing for both evangelical and mainstream publishers, he has witnessed the rapid evolution of Christian publishing—a transformation Publishers Weekly described as a "violent upheaval."
He has also been forced to adjust to his own newfound near-celebrity status. He was in an airport waiting room recently when he saw a man reading one of the Left Behind books. Jenkins walked up to him, asking what he was reading and whether he was enjoying it. When Jenkins finally said he had written it, the man looked up, eyed him, and said, "So you're Tim LaHaye?"
Jenkins' own modest childhood household mirrors that of the industry he has loved and served for so long. His father was a police chief, and his mother worked in a bank. "It was paycheck-to-paycheck back then," he says. "We were a part of the American drama."
His first book was Sammy Tippit: God's Love in Action, a 1974 title about a brassy street evangelist arrested for passing out evangelistic tracts in front of strip bars. "Broadman Press paid $1,250, and I gave Sammy 75 percent of that since it was his story," says Jenkins.
More than 100 books later, Jenkins has become a publishing sensation—which means he wrestles with guilt, experiences cognitive dissonance, and answers letters from angry readers who demand to know what he is doing with the millions he has made.
"You can get to resent a gigantic No. 1 bestseller unless you had something to do with it," he says at the Writing Stable, his newly built office in Black Forest, Colorado.
Jenkins has given away plenty of money, and he recently purchased the Christian Writers Guild from founder Norman Rohrer. He saw this as a chance to return thanks to the industry and develop its future talents.
The Left Behind series has also been a boon for Tyndale House Publishers. In 1998, before the series really took off, the company had sales of about $40 million. That figure more than quadrupled during the fiscal year that ended in April 2001.
Jenkins, Tyndale editors and executives, and just about everyone associated with the Left Behind phenomenon believe they could not have orchestrated such unprecedented success.
"In his own way, God has anointed these works for such a time as this," says CBA's Anderson. "We all sense we are a part of something God is doing, and we are delighted he is using these books."
Publishing veteran Victor Oliver goes even further, declaring the success of the Left Behind series a divine blessing on Ken Taylor. He founded Tyndale in 1962 to distribute portions of his Living Bible and has consistently channeled the company's profits into charitable causes.
"He has given away approximately $50 million in royalties from The Living Bible," Oliver says. "I believe God said, 'I am going to honor the prayers and faithfulness of my servant, Ken Taylor.' "
In the wake of the series' success, Jenkins says it's now past time for Christian writers and publishers to abandon their decades-long cultural inferiority complex. "I will admit that I have been less apologetic about my own faith," he says.
Jenkins is equally unapologetic about working with an agent, even though many editors resent it. "Agents are a way for nice-guy writers to stay nice guys and have someone advocating for them," Jenkins says. He wrote more than 90 books before signing an exclusive agreement with S. Rickly "Rick" Christian, founder and president of Alive Communications, the biggest and most influential literary agency in the religious publishing business.
"A good agent is more than just a dealmaker," Jenkins says. "Publishers might consider agents irritating, but if you talk to any writer, you will see that writers wouldn't mind someone irritating publishers on their behalf—asking about what is being done to promote and market their books." (I too have benefited from the advocacy of Christian agents, and I am currently represented by Alive Communications.)
It was Diarmuid Russell, the friend and literary representative of writer Eudora Welty, who called agents "benevolent parasites," in part because "authors as a rule make more when they have an agent than they do without one."
Christian was a writer before he was an agent, so he knows firsthand the kinds of raw deals writers face. In 1981 he received a small advance from a publisher to write a book called Alive: Daily Devotions for Young People. After the book sold more than 50,000 copies, the publisher requested a sequel, but offered Christian a lower royalty rate for Alive II.
"I was between jobs and I needed money," said Christian, "but when I asked for more, I was told I was being 'a difficult author' and warned not to 'shoot myself in the foot.' "
At that time, agents were virtually unknown in Christian publishing. Today, they are one of the industry's most powerful—if least visible—forces.
In 1989, Christian briefly worked with Sealy Yates, an attorney who had done legal work for the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) and Charles Swindoll's Insight for Living ministry. Yates represented Swindoll's Grace Awakening, telling Publishers Weekly, "It was the first time in the history of the CBA industry that a major author dared to go into the open market and ask for what he was worth."
Christian left Yates later in 1989 to found Alive Communications. Today, the agency represents Philip Yancey, Cynthia Heald, Gary Smalley, Walter Wangerin Jr., Eugene H. Peterson, Bodie and Brock Thoene, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Ken Gire, Jan and Dave Dravecky, Stuart and Jill Briscoe, Calvin Miller, and Brennan Manning. Alive also represents a stable of experienced collaborators and ghostwriters. Over the years Alive has also brokered lucrative multibook deals for parachurch organizations like Promise Keepers, MOPS International (Mothers of Preschoolers), and Women of Faith.
It was Christian who teamed Jenkins with LaHaye on Left Behind. Numerous publishers had already rejected the first novel before Alive sold it to Tyndale. After sales took off, Alive negotiated for a trilogy, and then for a series of 12 books, the last of which is scheduled to be published in the summer of 2004.
The New York Times recently reported that LaHaye "has enlisted some more secular help." By signing with "the decidedly worldly Hollywood talent manager Michael Ovitz and his Artists Management Group," LaHaye has sold the worldwide rights to four novels for a $45 million advance from Bantam Dell Publishing Group at Random House.
In 2001, Alive's authors signed publishing contracts for 269 books, "a significant chunk of what is being published in the Christian realm," Christian says. Of books available in 2001, 70 written by Alive authors made a combined 270 appearances on religious and mainstream bestseller lists. Some received favorable coverage in publications like The New York Times and Rolling Stone and on TV shows like Larry King Live and Good Morning America.
"We are doing what we set out to do," says Christian, "which is to change this industry."
A Place at the Table
Agents strive to give their authors a place at the table where the deals are made. Sitting in on one of Alive's weekly business meetings offers a glimpse into what could be called the Brave New World of Christian Publishing.
Rick Christian presides at the head of a large table in Alive's conference room in northern Colorado Springs. Surrounding him are the five agents who report to him. All are publishing industry veterans who now use their expertise on behalf of the writers they represent.
Over the course of two fast-paced, coffee-enhanced hours, the six agents review the status of dozens of projects:
One author has broken her wrist. She has requested and received a deadline extension.
One publisher has run into unforeseen printing costs on a forthcoming project and now wants to give the author a lower royalty rate.
One editor has turned down a project after saying for the past six months that it was "a slam dunk" and "a sure thing."
Another house is showing little enthusiasm for an anniversary reissue of a book that has won a major literary award.
At times it is obvious that Alive's agents believe authors should steer clear of certain houses where "bean counters" prevail over "book lovers."
"He's not a book guy," one agent says of an editor who has a number of Alive proposals on his desk. "I don't even know that he can read."
Another house's half-hearted marketing pledge to support a book by doing little more than "putting a nice cover on it and including it in our catalog" draws incredulous laughs.
Alive has so much clout in the industry that editors get worried when it quits sending proposals their way. One editor at a major house has asked why he has been left out of the loop. "Because your contracts are archaic and unfair for the authors," comes the answer. The editor promises to improve his house's terms in the future.
The biggest buzz of the day concerns Lisa Beamer, whose husband, Todd, died on September 11 when United Airlines flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania.
On this wintry morning, Lisa Beamer is in the hospital preparing to give birth. (She has turned down a tabloid's lucrative offer to photograph the birth.) But Alive's agents, working with writer Ken Abraham, have put together a 35-page proposal that has generated calls from many eager publishers. (Within days, Tyndale House will make a preemptive offer. It includes plans to turn the project around quickly, publishing the Beamer book on or before the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks.)
After the meeting, Christian talks about how his agency has helped change the balance of power between authors and publishing houses. "Publishers work harder now, they work smarter, and they are more competitive," he says.
He also says agents "maximize the subsidiary and derivative possibilities of a project." In English, that means they help turn successful books like the Left Behind series into marketing franchises. In addition to the 12 adult novels, the agency has also licensed Left Behind children's novels, graphic novels, audio books, apparel, and a movie.
(Alive turned down offers to produce Left Behind candles, action figures, coffee mugs, Bible and book covers, and other products. And both Christian and Jenkins stress that it was not Alive but Cloud Ten Pictures, coproducer of the Left Behind movie, that authorized the Left Behind board game. "I've never seen it," says Jenkins, "we never would have approved it, and will never take a cent from it.")
While authors like Jenkins appreciate having someone to represent them, editors aren't as quick to sing the praises of agents. "Some agents don't seem to care about anything other than making the deal," says an acquisitions editor at one house. "Some can be condescending. And others truly interfere with an author's relationship with the editors who are concerned about the content of books."
Christian has heard such complaints before. Still, he remains convinced he has helped transform writers from lowly serfs to publishing partners. He says he has helped apply the kinds of pressure that encourage publishers to seek out additional sales channels in mainstream booksellers like Barnes & Noble or mass marketers like Wal-Mart and Kmart.
"I feel fortunate, and I feel honored," says Christian, who radiates love for books and publishing. But then he looks out a window and wonders aloud: "Does having a book in Wal-Mart really matter to God?"
The first lists of best-selling books appeared in 1895, according to Michael Korda, author of Making the List (which calls the tabulations "a mixed blessing").
In 1983, Christian commentator Cal Thomas decried the fact that serious and successful books by Christian authors like Francis Schaeffer (and even Hal Lindsey) never appeared on "secular" bestseller lists. Meanwhile, lightweight specialty fare like Here Comes Garfield and a Jane Fonda exercise book did.
For Thomas, the exclusion of Christian books from the lists was part of a more widespread cultural bias against evangelicals. "We should be outraged when people try to categorize us and dismiss us as an intellectually backward subculture," he wrote in "At the Back of the Bus in the New Negro League," a chapter in his Book Burning.
Rolf Zettersten heard arguments like these in the 1980s when he worked for Focus on the Family. There he helped develop a groundbreaking children's video series and wrote an award-winning biography of James Dobson.
During the 1990s, Zettersten worked for Thomas Nelson Publishers, where he bet big bucks on big-name, media-driven books about the McCaughey septuplets, the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey, and tie-in books for The Prince of Egypt.
In July 2000, Zettersten was named vice president and publisher of the new Christian division of Warner Books, part of the $40 billion aol Time Warner corporate colossus. With an initial list of titles by established CBA authors like Jerry Jenkins, Patsy Clairmont, and Orel Hershiser, and forthcoming titles by T. D. Jakes, John Maxwell, and Bill and Gloria Gaither, Warner symbolizes the rapidly vanishing barriers between Christian and mainstream publishing.
"It has always been my position that Hollywood and the New York media world were not anti-Christian, they were merely pro-profits," Zettersten says. "There may have been some misunderstanding about who evangelicals are, and there may have been some prejudices. But I can assure you that those prejudices do not overshadow media companies' desire to run profitable businesses. With sales of 50 million books, the Left Behind series got everyone's attention, and now the moguls have discovered that there's this great big population out there that's willing to spend money on Christian products."
Publications like Publishers Weekly, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today still base their main lists on general sales of major retailers, neglecting "specialty" stores—whether they are Christian outlets or New Age shops. (But Publishers Weekly does have separate lists for specialty markets, including religious ones.) If the main lists of these publications included CBA sales, books like Left Behind and The Prayer of Jabez would rank even higher.
What has changed, however, is the presence of evangelical books in mainstream stores. Doug Ross, executive director of the ECPA, says the growing interest in spirituality during the 1990s changed the entire industry.
"For years, the spiritual search in America has been strong, as the seeker generation has been looking for answers in life," he says. "For some, that spiritual search has ended up in the New Age movement, or sometimes in the occult, or sometimes in cults, but it has also been a remarkable opportunity for Christian publishing. It has opened the door to the general market, so that our sales have increased there."
Ross says another factor in the increasing mainstream success of Christian books was the emergence of megastores. "Barnes & Noble and other chains created enormous amounts of shelf space that stores had to fill, and they filled a lot of that space with Christian books, which appear both in the religion section and sprinkled throughout the entire store under subjects like parenting and business."
Today, publishers compete intensely for big-name books like the one forthcoming from Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, aid workers held prisoner by Afghanistan's former Taliban regime.
In January Doubleday beat out other bidders, reportedly offering agent Wes Yoder of Nashville between $500,000 and $1 million for the book. (Yoder says the bulk of the money will pay for new missionary ventures in Afghanistan.)
Zettersten says such big bids are required of any house that wants to be part of the publishing mainstream. "You get up to the plate, you make your best guess, and you take your swing," he says. "You go big or you go home."
Increasingly, CBA publishers are trying to hit home runs, too. At a March meeting of ECPA editors in Nashville, two Zondervan employees presented a workshop on "Editors and Marketers Working Together in Peace and Harmony to Create Blockbuster Hits."
Goodbye Mom and Pop
Publishers welcome the opportunity to sell their wares in mainstream bookstores and other retail outlets. But what are Christian bookstore owners to do when customers can go down the street and buy The Prayer of Jabez at Sam's Club at huge discounts?
For one thing, they can focus more on selling ancillary products like Prayer of Jabez candles, key chains, bookmarks, Bible covers, neckties, Christmas ornaments, and computer screen savers. (Unlike Left Behind, which is a copyright property, the prayer of Jabez is part of the Bible. Hence Jabez products may expand as much as the market will bear.)
Books still account for about 25 percent of sales in CBA stores, a figure that has varied by about 3 percent during the last two decades. But in terms of profits, ancillary products account for as much as 70 percent in many stores.
"It is clear that for many retailers, the better margin on gifts is what helps ensure their ability to carry the broader selection of books," says Anderson, who presided over the 1996 name change from Christian Booksellers Association to CBA to indicate that members no longer just sell books. The next year, the trade association's flagship magazine changed its name from Bookstore Journal to Marketplace.
In the early 1980s, the average Christian retail store was a mom-and-pop outlet in a remote location. CBA's own research found that many consumers saw secular bookstores as upscale and sophisticated but considered Christian stores cluttered and behind the times. More than one focus-group participant said a visit to a Christian store was "like visiting mom—comfortable but not very exciting."
There are still hundreds of such stores. But many of them are struggling to survive. Retailers are responding to the new realities in a variety of ways. Some have aligned themselves with growing retail chains like Family Christian Stores, which has 350 attractive stores in high-traffic areas. Others have joined multistore marketing alliances like the 300-member Parable Group. This alliance uses its members' combined buying power to negotiate group discounts on books and other products.
These new chains and groups are an added source of pressure on publishers.
"We're now getting squeezed from both ends," says Michael Hyatt, an industry veteran who serves as publisher for the Nelson Book Division of Thomas Nelson Publishers. "Retailers have more clout and can demand deeper discounts. Meanwhile, most authors have agents who are competitively shopping the authors to various houses and demanding bigger advances and higher royalty rates. What this all means is higher prices for consumers."
Thomas Nelson is now the largest evangelical publisher with 2001 sales of nearly $300 million. Like many CBA publishers, it is responding to the new pressures by cutting back on titles. Two years ago, Hyatt's Nelson Book Division released 120 books. During the fiscal year that ended in March, the same division was scheduled to publish only 54 titles.
Other companies are following similar strategies. "Publishers are saying they're going to publish fewer books and put more effort into the ones they do publish," says ECPA's Ross.
Hyatt says book-buyers want fewer choices.
"Consumers are overwhelmed with options, but they have less time for exploring those options," he says. "That's why we are seeing the branding of America. Stores like Wal-Mart, rather than expanding the number of offerings, go deeper into brands people know and recognize."
Hyatt and other publishers are increasingly applying the principle of branding to Christian publishing. "If there are people who can write, and who have something important to say, we're going to invest in them. But we're not just selling a book, we're building a brand."
Among the major "brands" promoted in Nelson's Summer 2001 catalog are John Maxwell, Thomas Kinkade, Max Lucado, and the Extreme for Jesus line of youth products.
Mark Sweeney, the new publisher of W Publishing Group, recently told CBA's Marketplace that "the stand-alone book will become very rare for us. Our focus is on investing more in building communicators and taking them to the next level. This will include the development of products not only from w, but from our sister divisions, Tommy Nelson and J. Countryman, as well as other divisions of Thomas Nelson."
A Love Dimmed
Tensions between mission and margins have been a perennial challenge for Christian publishers since 1870, when Fleming H. Revell, a brother-in-law of Dwight L. Moody, founded a company to produce Sunday school papers.
Many CBA publishers started out as family-run businesses (David C. Cook, William B. Eerdmans, Baker Books, Tyndale, and Zondervan), while others were divisions of denominations or parachurch ministries (Moody Press, Warner Press, InterVarsity Press, Multnomah, and NavPress).
Today, Zondervan is a division of Rupert Murdoch's multinational News Corp. Nelson is a publicly traded company that, like AOL Time Warner, answers primarily to its stockholders. But publishers like Bethany House still struggle to serve two masters—their ministry and the marketplace.
Carol Johnson is a daughter of missionaries. She developed a deep and abiding love for books while her family lived in Indonesia and Borneo. In 1959, she began taking classes at Bethany Fellowship's College of Missions. While there, she met Gary Johnson, whose parents were among the five Evangelical Lutheran couples who founded Bethany Fellowship in 1945. Gary worked in the print shop, which produced materials for the college and published a few books, like Leonard Ravenhill's Why Revival Tarries.
By the 1970s, that print shop had evolved into Bethany House Publishers, which had a string of successes with books like Larry Christensen's The Christian Family and Walter Martin's The Kingdom of the Cults. Some profits were channeled back into the publishing house, while others were used to support the fellowship and its missionaries around the world.
In 1979, Carol Johnson was named Bethany's editorial director. One of the first things she did was sign an unknown writer named Janette Oke, whose debut novel, Love Comes Softly, appeared later that year. Oke has since written another five dozen books, racking up sales of more than 20 million copies. Before the Left Behind phenomenon, no one argued when Bethany proclaimed itself "The leader in inspirational fiction."
Today, if Johnson were to write a novel about the current state of the industry, she might call it A Love Dimmed. "I have always published books for the love of it," she says, "but now it is much more difficult to do that. We live in a much more complex world."
In the early years, Carol made decisions quickly and easily with her husband, Gary, who is Bethany House's president, and others in the house. "We would often say, 'This book is nice, we like it, we're going to publish it and give it a chance,'" she says. "Now the process is much less informal. Now there is a whole new level of soul-searching and sometimes agony that we must go through to get to a yes."
Today, marketing and editorial people join the Johnsons as they debate what to publish. But there are also invisible parties around the table—or least it feels that way. These include authors' agents, as well as buyers at the major retail chains and marketing groups. Their decisions play an increasingly important role in what gets published.
"They aren't literally sitting there, but they might as well be," Johnson says. "Decisions about what stores will carry used to be made by several thousand independent stores. Today, one or two people make those decisions for hundreds of stores, and that carries tremendous weight.
"We think about those buyers during the whole decision-making process. Every time we make a decision to publish something, we wonder if we will be able to get the buyers' attention, or if they will be in a 'good mood' when we present our line."
Another key player in Christian publishing is Michele Rapkin, editor in chief of Crossings Book Club, which has about a million members and sells millions of books every year. Crossings is a part of Bookspan, which is owned by AOL Time Warner and Bertelsmann AG. The latter is a German company that began selling Christian books and music in the 1830s and is now the dominant force in American publishing. Bookspan's 45 clubs, which include the Book of the Month Club and the History Book Club, have more than 10 million members.
About 17 times a year, Rapkin and fellow editors at Crossings review dozens of new books to select the 15 titles that will be offered to club members. The mailing that went out in late March featured The Prayer of Jabez for Women and new books by Shirley Dobson, Thomas and Nanette Kinkade, and Bodie and Brock Thoene. Even before the club sells a single one of these titles, its decisions reverberate throughout the industry. The club influences how many copies of these titles publishers will print and how many retail stores will order.
"The endorsement and exposure that goes along with being a book club's main selection is part of a groundswell of momentum that starts things rolling," says Rapkin, an industry veteran who has worked for mainstream publishers like Bantam, Macmillan, and Ballantine Epiphany, as well as the American Bible Society.
The club's choices don't always mirror her own. Rather, they reflect the reality that businesses marketing books to conservative Christians go to great pains to avoid offending them. Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies would offend many members (90 percent of whom are evangelical women in their early 40s, working part- or full-time jobs, with a child at home). Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk is too sympathetic to Catholicism. Anita Diamant's The Red Tent is too steamy.
But occasionally Rapkin recommends a book she really loves, like Jamie Langston Turner's novel, Some Wildflower in My Heart. "I went to a particular spot out of doors to sit down and read the last few chapters because I wanted to be someplace special to finish that book," Rapkin says.
But like many people involved in Christian publishing, Rapkin often has to draw a line between the things she does for the love of books and the things she does for business reasons. "There's still a passion about reading, whether on the part of the editor or the book buyer," she says. "There are books that really get you, and they can still be found. But it's getting a lot harder."
Of Making Many Books
Throughout the first two millennia of Christian History, words on paper have helped sustain the life of the church. From Irish monks copying manuscripts during the Dark Ages to evangelists and revivalists who used the printed word to further the Protestant Reformation and America's Great Awakenings, books have been crucial.
"Outside face-to-face communication in the church, the school, the workplace, and the home, no medium of communication is more important to the Christian faith than the book," says John P. FerrÉ, professor of communication at the University of Louisville and author of books and articles on religion and media.
But is the important role of books being eroded in an era when, as Time magazine's Stacy Perman once put it, "books are more like grocery products than works of literature"? The jury is divided.
CBA's Bill Anderson believes books still serve God's higher purposes. "The issues of ministry versus margin will always be with us," he says. "But for some reason, God has used the vehicle of commerce to get his word into the marketplace. And for those of us who are part of this process, this is our work of stewardship before him."
But Ferré cautions that as Christian authors become brands and Christian books become commodities, there is a risk that Christian readers will become jaded.
"The risk," Ferré says, "is that as Christian books penetrate the broader marketplace, they'll be seen as makers of money and celebrity rather than as means for reflection, enlightenment, challenge—even repentance."
Steve Rabey has written for Christianity Today since 1982, and his work has appeared in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. His latest book is Milestones: 50 Events that Shaped American Evangelicals in the 20th Century (June, Broadman & Holman).
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also appearing on our site today:
CT Book Awards 2002Here are the books our judges—200 pastors, scholars, and church leaders—considered the worthiest this year.
For on the Christian book industry, check out CBA's Web site or Christian Retailing magazine for the perspective of the book retailers, and the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association for the publishers' view.
To purchase any of the books mentioned in the article, visit Christianbook.com.
Related Christianity Today articles that have addressed the state of the Christian book industry include:
Looking for the Soul of CBANearly anything that can be said about Christian publishing is true to some extent, thanks to the industry's ever-enlarging territory. (July 16, 2001)
Dead Authors SocietyWe're no longer interested in tasting death but only little morsels of cheer. (Mar. 28, 2001)
Ten Books, Twenty Two OuncesWill the incredible lightness of reading make the e-book the format of choice? (Feb. 19, 2001)
Left Behind Has Been Very, Very Good to TyndaleSuccess leaves publisher wondering how to best steward the company's increase. (Nov. 13, 2000)
Books & Culture Corner: The Culture of EuphemismA dispatch from the Christian Booksellers Association convention. (July 17, 2000)
Behold the Power of CheeseA dispatch from the Christian Booksellers Association (July 12, 2000)
Christian Fiction Gets RealNew novels offer gritty plots and nuanced characters—but can they find a market? (May 11, 2000)
Don't Blame the Publishers!Publishers are not forcing shallow books on an unwilling community. (Feb. 9, 1998)
The Bible Study at the End of the WorldRecent novels by evangelical leaders say more about popular American Christianity than about the end times (Sept. 1, 1997)
In a 1997 cover story, World magazine argued that the "use of agents changes the relationship between author and publisher into a purely financial one, as opposed to the personal and collaborative relationships that sometimes occurred in the past." (Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture criticized the article, but that piece is no longer available online.)
For other coverage of the industry or for book reviews, see our Books archive or sister publication Books&Culture. See our earlier book awards for 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, and 1997, as well as our Books of the Twentieth Century.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more