HarperCollins Chief Says Religious Books Selling Poorly

August 9, 2006 | 1 book mentioned 7 2 min read

I was looking at today’s installment of the Publishers Lunch newsletter (which I highly recommend for those interested in the book business, even if you only get the free version like I do), and something jumped out at me. News Corp reported fiscal fourth quarter earnings this week, including the regular update on HarperCollins, which is owned by Murdoch and company. Publishers Lunch got some additional color on the news from HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman. It’s not linkable because it’s an email newsletter, but here’s the quote:

Segment by segment, Friedman says the general books group continued to grow sales and profits significantly in the US, as did the children’s group. “There’s one area where we are having a lot of problems–religious publishing is in a lot of trouble.” Though religious books “have had a fantastic run for the entire 9 years I’ve been at this company,” Friedman observed, “it is starting to see hard times. Right now we are seeing heavy returns–product that just didn’t work, but more significantly, we’re seeing a contraction in the CBA, which is what we went through with the ABA.” Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life still sells more “than almost any other book” on the religious list, but Friedman has “concerns about the whole religious sector.”

Emphasis mine. I was surprised to read this because, as Friedman indicates and as book industry-watchers know, religious books have been a huge seller in recent years, growing much faster than most other types of books.

As I read this, though, it occurred to me that peoples’ reading tastes, taken broadly, might be a good indicator of the philosophical mood of the country. It may be that HarperCollins’ religious titles were duds this year, but it’s also possible that the fervent hold of religion — and when we talk about “religious books” we’re talking primarily about born-again Christian themes — on this country is loosening. I don’t want to read to much into this, but is it possible that, among the broader public, conservative Christianity was a cultural fad, with its own attendant movies, music, and books, and that people who don’t have too much invested in it will move onto the next thing that promises to help them with their lives? I’d be curious to see if there’s any other evidence out there that lends itself to this idea.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. Well, it's an interesting theory, but don't underestimate how much HarperCollins might have thrown into print runs, advertising, tours, the like. Is it possible that HarperCollins adopted the wrong strategy in trying to sell the book and get the word out?

  2. Good point by Ed. My guess is that publishing companies grew complacent about putting much or any money into marketing their religious books since they seemed to "sell themselves" to a ready-made market going to and from church. And remember, publishers are often happy (actually, wildly happy) with sales of 10,000 copies of one book, as long as 10 or 20 of their other books are selling 10,000 copies each, too. (Happy editors. Unhappy authors.)

    Lynne AKA The Wicked Witch of Publishing

  3. As fae as selling of Religious books is concerned,the books which are useful for general readers are still selling in good nos.,particularly the books related to Hinduism,buddhism and other eastern religions are popular.The publishers has to consider both the markets in mind,while accepting a MSS.

    naresh gupta.sri satguru publications.delhi.india

  4. Wouldn't that be wonderful if it was a fad! It's always sad when the things you agree with and think show the human race to be progressing turn out to be, sure would be nice if this sorry business was. Balance the scales a little. How to tell for sure? Wait, watch Madonna and keep our fingers crossed, I suppose!

  5. I wonder if evangelical readers are just not buying as many books from HarperCollins or other mainstream publishers, because they are getting them in other ways? Some of the "megachurches" and other large evangelical organizations probably have their own presses and they may sell through catalogs, the internet and word of mouth rather than in physical stores. If the CBA this guy mentions is the Christian Booksellers Association, and there really is a "contraction" in the amount of sales it's reporting, though, I guess that's evidence.

  6. I think part of the problem is the same problem that the movie business has been seeing — they aren't producing any good books!

    Most books these days fall into one of these categories:

    * Let's rewrite Christianity (either from a liberal perspective or also from a conservative perspective)
    * Here's how to feel better about yourself in a Christian way

    At this point, everybody pretty much has a handle on what they think Christianity should look like. Also, there's only so much you can say about how to feel good, and people have figured out that reading books isn't going to do it.

    There are some books that are really engaging the culture, but the problem with those is that the Church doesn't realize what is happening in the culture, so they get skipped over.

    So what kind of books would sell?

    I think that a good series of books that brought together the lay and the scholarly ideas in the Church in a serious study of scripture. Now, there have been several books like that (N.T. Wright's The Last Word comes to mind), but they are never promoted to a general audience. The lay people are hungry, and they are just being pushed dog crap. Also, they need to be non-polemical. We've got so many fights in this country, I think some of us are wanting a break. Let's stop fighting and just have a serious talk about scripture, theology, and life. Let's include some real scholars. And then lets promote it to _real_ people, rather than just let it die on the shelves.

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