Rough Times for Bible Salesmen

November 9, 2006 | 5

Three months ago, after HarperCollins parent News Corp reported fiscal fourth quarter earnings, I noted comments from HarperCollins’ CEO Jane Friedman regarding sales of religious books. “Religious publishing is in a lot of trouble” was the pull quote. More recently, I pointed to the latest hot publishing trend, books about atheism, signalling something of a backlash against the religiosity that has pervaded our culture in recent years.

News Corp reported its fiscal first quarter numbers this week, and once again the Publishers Lunch newsletter went back to Friedman to get her thoughts on HarperCollins’ performance (no link since it’s only available by email). This time her language seemed even stronger on this topic:

As she noted last quarter, Friedman observes, “I’ve got big softness in Zondervan [HarperCollins’ Christian imprint] — and that is something we’re going to have to be watching all year… It’s not getting better.” She reports that spiritual books are “going steadily upward,” like the books published by Harper San Francisco, but “there’s a softness in the bible business” and “this is the most disturbing news, since that’s our staple.”

With the Republicans so recently trounced in the elections, one has to wonder if the cultural enthusiasm for the type of Christianity that yields these sorts of books is waning (and indeed if earlier sales softness was a predictor of what would happen with the elections.)

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


  1. I think the Republicans losing the House and the Senate is the best thing that could happen to the religious book market. People are more likely to be fired up about religion when they're worried it's losing its influence.

  2. I think that with the Christian right and their extreme values having so much influence over the last few years, people have finally gotten fed up with it. Americans don't like extremes; the election and lagging sales in religious publishing proves that. Like the Republicans being thoroughly humiliated at the polls, I think the extreme right should take this as a wake-up call.

  3. I have almost no knowledge of this book category, but I wonder how much of the decline is in books with a political orientation and how much is the broadly spritual/philosophical category. I guess I question whether you can say there is a tie between "th e type of Christianity that yields these sort of books" (by which I assume you mean the hard right evangelicals) and the sales of the religous category. From what I have seen the religious world is more heterogenous than not.

    I would imagine that the decline in sales would reflect more on the internal discussions in the various religous communities, rather than an indication of the overall influence of religion.

  4. Tripp, in my experience, in the religion category by and large the only books that sell enough to be worth mentioning in this context in the first place are conservative Christian books and "new age" or Eastern religion books, i.e. the ones that Friedman calls "spiritual." Zondervan, meanwhile, is decidedly conservative Christian.

    Perhaps I'm overstating things here, but I do find this trend interesting, and the singling out of Bible sales as being weak is particularly fascinating.

    Basically, I'm very interested in the idea that book sales are pointing to a broader cultural trend that hasn't really been acknowledged yet by the media (assuming it is indeed happening.) Usually, the media is all over these sorts of trends but not this one yet. (Although the atheism book thing is somewhat related.)

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