I was talking to a publishing friend recently and she claimed that in troubling economic times, religious book sales are still strong.
Well, yes and no. It depends on where the strength of sales rest at the moment.
According to the Association of American Publishers, sales of religious books dropped off 8.5 percent in October. Overall, despite the economy, book sales increased by 10.2 percent (sales of $725 billion).
(By the way, e-book sales rose for October, reflecting an increase of 180.7 percent for the year; as we’ve discussed in the past, this form of publishing is all the rage and will only grow stronger.)
This means something, as someone wise once said.
Thus I propose my latest publishing theory: religious book sales are dropping off in this economic climate and general malaise, because most of the offerings are not meeting people’s needs.
Because religious titles are dropping, through big-box retailing venues and perhaps online … that’s no reason to think they are falling off in what I call the “underground publishing world.” This place, metaphorically, reminds me of some of the cities in America that were built over earlier versions of the city; hurried passersby overhead are blissfully unaware of this underground community, such as it is.
But I talk quite a bit with these underground folks, and I think some of my research is relevant. Another friend of mine self-published his religious book five years ago and has sold 75,000 copies, just through personal appearances and sales to his modest mailing list. His personal website is atrocious, which means his title almost alone is the reason for the success.
An average of 15,000 books a year might not sound like much, but believe me, any publisher would be happy with it. Thrilled, actually.
To sell 75,000 is quite an accomplishment.
Which brings me to the key piece of my shiny new theory: I contend that religious book sales are off because they are not based on the Bible.
Titles like those by spiritual gurus such as Deepak Chopra ultimately don’t suffice for readers. Book buyers recognize after awhile that long-term, these earnest efforts at finding inner fulfillment – a thing built into humans, and there’s no denying it – fall short. They don’t satisfy the spiritual longing.
The Bible tells us that fulfillment is found in the Creator of the universe alone. It isn’t found in believing that we are divine, or in talking to inner spirit guides.
I once received a manuscript proposal from a guy (way down south in Dixie, as Oliver Hardy said in “Way Out West”) who said that his spirit guide was sand. Yes, you read correctly: beach pavement. Sand.
Boldly, he sent a small packet of sand along with the cover letter. I sort of half-looked for a small, robed fellow in a white beard; he wasn’t there.
I had a few conversations with this writer and realized he wasn’t very fulfilled at all, just like another aspiring writer who sent a proposal, also on his spiritual journey: This guy was an assistant attorney general in a large state. He told me that every day at noon, he walked home and reclined on his bed. While in a quiet state, he concentrated and eventually, that white-bearded spirit guide – first as a speck, then progressively larger – came to him and “told him things.”
After we discussed that on the phone, I asked him if these lunches with Yoda satisfied him. He admitted that they did not, that actually they disturbed him to a degree.
Such are the people, I’m convinced, that are turning away from New Age spiritual guides in book form. I would also hazard a guess that they are looking for fulfillment in other places now; I hope those searches take them toward biblical material.
I read the trades and talk to professionals who compete in the dog-eat-wolf world of high-pressure publishing. But I also talk to those underground people, who are humming along quite nicely in sales. I honestly believe the latter are where they are because they are producing God-honoring books. The proof of that is in these “shadow sales,” the ones that don’t show up in glossy, Fifth Avenue reports.
And in official Christian circles, even though all those Christian bestseller lists are choked with titles that appeal to self, at least we know quite a few folks are connecting with God.
As I watch publishers compete with one another for religious titles that resonate with spiritual seekers (again, who isn’t?), I often think it sad that they don’t publish something else – like, guides for making kites.
I often think of the sand-writer, and hope that he found the fulfillment he was looking for. As publishers look for the only kind of fulfillment many of them are interested in, sales revenue, I pray they will stop watching their sales slide through the narrow opening of the bookselling hourglass, and concentrate on books that are actually helpful to readers.