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The first English book printed in America was the Bay Psalm Book, published in the 1640’s by Harvard College’s Cambridge Press. Like other printers in the New World, Cambridge served the Church as a proselytizer for the faith. The Church soon lost its monopoly on printing presses, but Giving and Taking: Few Contribute to Public Forums.

According to figures recently released by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), sales of religious books showed the highest rate of growth of all segments, with net revenue increasing 5.6% to $2.4 billion dollars. Religious books also led all segments in unit sales, increasing 3.1% to 263 million net units.

BISG is projecting another healthy increase of 5% in net revenue and a 2.5% increase in net unit sales. According to Simba Information’s annual report, Business of Consumer Publishing, the top six revenue-generating publishers in the religion category last year were Thomas Nelson, HarperCollins (Zondervan), Tyndale House, Baker Publishing, Hachette Book Group, and Random House.

The annual output of new religious books also increased in 2006. According to Bowker, 17,921 new titles and editions classified as “Religion” were published in the U.S. last year, an increase of more than 6.8% over 2005. While output in 2006 was 46% higher than the total recorded in 2002, it was 17% less than the peak year of 2004, when a record 21,669 new religious books were published. Below is a graph charting the trend of new religious books since 2002:

 

The largest trade houses published 825 new religious books in 2005 (the last year that Bowker published separate output statistics for the trade), which was 3.58% of all books they published that year. The average suggested retail price for religious books published by the trade as hardcovers was $29.02, 50 cents less than the average SRP for all adult nonfiction hardcovers. For religious books published as adult nonfiction trade paperbacks, the average SRP in 2005 was $15.57, which was 69 cents less than the average for all adult nonfiction trade paperbacks.

A few years ago, when I was working at Bowker, I reviewed a list of the most-used (assigned) subject classifications in the Books In Print database arranged in descending order. Out of almost 100,000 subject headings, “Christian Life” was number one. It probably still is.

Christian and other inspirational works are everywhere, including the bestseller lists. Less well known in the mainstream sales channels – except for the rare crossover hit like the Left Behind series — is the religious fiction category. In 2006, 2,635 new titles classified by Bowker as religious or Christian fiction were published in the U.S. That is a 31% increase over 2005 and a 292% increase over 1997. We don’t know about most of them because relatively few (less than 100) are reviewed in the major metropolitan and national newspapers. Below is a graph representing output of new religious fiction for selected years since 1997:

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So what’s selling in the religion category? Ironically, the chart toppers are atheistic or anti-religious screeds like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great, and Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation.

More traditional category favorites are Beth Moore’s Get Out of that Pit: Straight Talk About God’s Deliverance and Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI. The title to watch here, though, is Joel Rosenberg’s Epicenter: Why the Current Rumblings in the Middle East Will Change Your Future, a look at the signs – foretold in Biblical scripture – that the second coming is upon us. This will likely draw from readers who liked or were intrigued by the Left Behind series and could piggyback the promotion of the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War.

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So far this year, publishers are making deals for the usual mix of the inspirational, instructional, miraculous, and profane. Impressed by the success of anti-religious tracts, they also seem to be betting on the coming of atheist-chic.

Some of the more interesting religious titles from Michael Cader’s deals database are:

  • The Overcomers: Christian Authors who Conquered Dyslexia
  • The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer
  • Small Miracles Of The Holocaust
  • Angry Conversations With God: Whining Through My Middle-Class White Girl’s Dark Night Of The Soul
  • The Ten Commandments: A Blueprint for the Redemptive Society
  • Prayers For Hard Times
  • The Irrational Atheist
  • The Journey Begins When You Stop: Eight Lessons on Spiritual Paradox in a Twelve-Step World
  • HarperCollins Bible Dictionary
  • Grand Theft Jesus
  • Slouching Towards Armageddon
  • The New Atheists’ Crusade And Their Unholy Grail

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