Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Profits From Christian Books Make Believers of Top Publishers

Profits From Christian Books Make Believers of Top Publishers

July 25 (Bloomberg) -- As the International Christian Retail Show wrapped up in Denver earlier this month, the hot topic was not the lackluster box office of ``The Da Vinci Code.'' Instead, it was the news that Multnomah Publishers, a modest-size Oregon- based evangelical Christian publishing house, had been put up for sale.

Multnomah is notable for being the publisher that started a renaissance in Christian publishing in 2001, when its book, Bruce Wilkinson's ``The Prayer of Jabez'' -- a self-help book that implies the promise of riches to those who daily repeat a prayer from the Book of Chronicles in the Old Testament -- sold more than 8 million copies and became the best-selling book that year.

Not the best-selling religious-themed book, but the best- selling book, period.

Trade magazine Publishers Weekly speculated that Random House, the U.S. subsidiary of Bertelsmann AG, is the most likely buyer for Multnomah's 600 titles.

``We've long been committed to the Christian book market and are interested in growing in this area,'' said Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House Inc. He would not otherwise lend credence to the rumor, but pointed out that the company already owns a Christian publishing subsidiary, WaterBrook Press, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The purchase of Multnomah would be the second high-profile deal this year: On June 8, shareholders of Thomas Nelson Publishers of Nashville, Tennessee, approved the sale of that company to private equity firm InterMedia Partners for $473 million, or $29.85 per share.

That's within shouting distance of the $537.5 million that Lagardere SCA paid in February for the far better-known Time Warner Book Group.

Healthy Sales

In fiscal 2005 ended March 31, Thomas Nelson reported sales of $253 million and earnings of $21 million. The company had eight books on the New York Times best-seller list in fiscal 2005 and reported that 49 trade titles (i.e., not Bibles) sold more than 100,000 copies.

``From a cultural standpoint, people are not as afraid of books of faith as they were before,'' said Michael Hyatt, president of Thomas Nelson. ``People don't mind reading a book of faith and taking what they want out of it.''

Clearly, investors have faith this is one area of the publishing business that will continue to grow, and rightly so. Part of Time Warner's appeal to Lagardere may have been the inclusion of Warner Faith (recently renamed FaithWords), publisher of the blockbuster ``Your Best Life Now,'' by Houston preacher Joel Osteen. That book has sold more than 3.8 million copies.

Gold Standard

The gold standard in Christian publishing remains Rick Warren's ``The Purpose Driven Life,'' which has sold 25 million copies since first appearing in October 2002. The book's publisher, Zondervan -- a subsidiary of HarperCollins, the book- publishing arm of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. -- is one of the largest Bible publishers in the U.S. Zondervan is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

These tremendous sales figures have not gone unnoticed by booksellers as well. Walk into any book retailer today, from Barnes & Noble to Wal-Mart, and you'll find a more generous selection of Christian books for sale than in years past.

That said, you'll still have to look carefully to distinguish them from other books vying for your attention. Christian publishers have become savvy about how to market their books to mass-market shoppers.

Implicitly Evangelical

The books are implicitly, rather than explicitly, evangelical. The titles don't sound religious, the colophon (the publisher's logo printed on a book's spine) has no obvious religious significance, and the only clues to the author's Christian bona-fides, such as an affiliation with a church, are likely to be buried in the jacket copy, if they appear at all.

``In the past, they could only find the sorts of books they wanted in Christian bookstores, some of which were small with limited stock,'' said Janet Grant, a literary agent who represents numerous Christian authors. ``But the buyers now enjoy a wealth of options, not only shopping at the local Christian bookstore but also going to Barnes & Noble, where they can pick up a book on home decorating and a book on exploring the spiritual side of their lives -- one-stop shopping at its best.''

Recent best-sellers such as ``America: The Last Best Hope,'' by William Bennett; ``Aruba: The Tragic Untold Story of Natalee Holloway and Corruption in Paradise,'' by Dave Holloway,'' and business guru John Maxwell's ``The 360 Degree Leader,'' aren't easily identifiable as Christian books, though all three are published by Thomas Nelson.

New-Look Bibles

These days, even some Bibles don't look like Bibles. One of Thomas Nelson's most successful products is called a ``BibleZine,'' which is a Bible published to look like a glossy magazine. Each is tailored to a specific niche, such as ``Real,'' which is directed at the hip-hop market, and ``Becoming,'' aimed at women in their 20s and early 30s.

One publisher changed its name to play down its provenance. On June 1, Broadman & Holman, the publishing wing of LifeWay Christian Resources and a subsidiary of the Southern Baptist Convention, changed its name to B&H Publishing Group. The original name is closely associated with the company's Bible- publishing business and harks back to the company's origin in 1743, when Christopher Saur began printing Bibles in Pennsylvania.

At the same time, one of the company's recent publishing strategies has been to convince bold-faced-names, such as Oliver North, model Jennifer O'Neill, and television and film personalities Chuck Norris and Stephen Baldwin, to publish books with the company and trumpet their faith.


Some of the burgeoning success of Christian publishing is simply a matter of numbers. Approximately 133 million Americans, or just under half the total U.S. population, are Christians, according to the most recent Statistical Abstract published by the U.S. Census Bureau.

``Three factors are contributing to the growth of the market,'' Hyatt said. ``The first is demographics: As baby boomers grow older and confront their mortality, they are returning to their faith. Next is globalization, which is bringing new religions to our shores and causing people to reconsider how they worship. The third is the mega-church trend.''

Rick Warren and Joel Osteen are the most obvious beneficiaries of this trend. Each weekend, approximately 35,000 people attend Osteen's ministry at Lakewood Church in Houston -- now housed in an arena formerly used by the Rockets, Houston's NBA franchise. Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, counts more than 20,000 in its ministry, while its outreach program has trained a further 200,000 people. These ministries provide a ready pool of consumers.

Women of Faith

Thomas Nelson has even invested in its own form of the mega- church. In 2000, the company bought the Women of Faith franchise. Based in Plano, Texas, this self-described ``spiritual spa'' offers music and a roster of speakers -- often Thomas Nelson authors -- over two days in an arena setting. Last year, an average of 15,000 people attended each event, and 422,000 people in all bought tickets.

Not unexpectedly, Thomas Nelson's books are sold in the concourses off the arena. Women of Faith now accounts for 12 percent of Nelson's revenue. In an understatement of near- biblical proportions, Hyatt said, ``Any typical bookstore signing we could do wouldn't get close to those kinds of numbers.''

(Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)