Christian Publishers Count Their Blessings

Three years ago, Roger L. Riether, a burned-out minister looking for a new career, and his father-in-law, Larry E. Anderson, an insurance agent with a zeal for the gospel, bought a religious bookstore in a onetime parish hall in Greeley, Colo. They quickly discovered that old-fashioned Christian bookselling was a money-losing venture.

Then a year ago, the two shut the store and resurrected it as Hidden Manna, a hip Christian boutique in Greeley's new mall. It's a hit. The shop stocks everything from nativity snow-globes to cassettes by the heavy-metal band Barren Cross and T-shirts of a beefy Jesus shouldering a cross with "Bench Press This!" emblazoned on it. But the big lure still is books. "I want to give something that tells people about the kingdom," says housewife Billie Lou Gaiser, who bought an armful for gifts.

Christian books a hot market? Well, if you think religious publishing still just means Bibles and treacly Sunday-school tracts, guess again. Some 100 Christian publishers issued 4,500 new titles last year, up 33% in five years. And the nation's 5,000 Christian bookstores had sales of $2.7 billion, up from $1 billion in 1980. "The ministry is reaching people with the message of Jesus Christ," says Riether. "Our method is retailing."

TOUCHY-FEELY. The books sell well largely because they now tackle once-taboo subjects such as divorce, homosexuality, incest, AIDS, and wife abuse. Evangelical books these days are frank. In Zondervan Publishing House's Turning Fear to Hope, a man even calls his wife a "whore" and a "bitch." And they offer practical advice rather than just counsel prayer. Women are told to leave their husbands if they feel they're in danger, for instance.

There's plenty of fiction, too, following the success of Janette Oke, the Laura Ingalls Wilder of the Bible set. Oke's sweet novels of pioneer life, published by Minneapolis' Bethany House Publishers, have sold 8 million copies since 1979. They're now issued in runs of 250,000, vs. 5,000 to 25,000 for most novels.

All this activity hasn't escaped mainstream publishers. Secular houses have long printed scholarly religious books, of course. But evangelical books are touchy-feely: They tell you that Jesus loves you, not that God is dead. To get such books on its list, HarperCollins Publishers Inc. paid $60 million in 1988 for Zondervan in Grand Rapids, a major evangelical imprint. Now, Zondervan and HarperCollins' trade division cooperate to tap each others' markets.

The religious publishers, meanwhile, are broadening their audience with "crossover" books. An example is Why America Doesn't Work, from Word Publishing in Irving, Tex. A treatment of the work ethic by Charles W. Colson, of Watergate-scandal fame, and Jack Eckerd, the drugstore magnate, it is expected to sell more to the trade than to Christian bookstores. Another sign of crossover: In February, Publishers Weekly began a best-sellers list for religious books sold in trade bookstores.

SUPERMARKET EVANGELISM. Baby boomers, who now fill many evangelical church pews, are a major reason for this transformation. They demand sophisticated self-help guides and books that explain events beyond their control. For instance, Zondervan's Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis, which applies Old Testament prophecy to the Middle East, has sold a million copies since January. The Thoughtful Christian's Guide to Investing is doing well, too.

Publishers now are working on reaching the 75% of the U. S.'s 40 to 50 million evangelicals who never go into religious bookstores. Zondervan uses direct mail and is testing spinner racks in California supermarkets. And Word just sold Wal-Mart Stores Inc. a record 125,000 copies of A Mother's Manual for Summer Survival, a guide to keeping kids busy. "More Christians go into Wal-Mart on a weekly basis than into Christian bookstores," says Word Executive Vice-President Byron D. Williamson. He's also teaming with Sony Corp. on wholesome videos for kids.

Despite their new savvy, most Christian publishers still approach their business with missionary zeal. Word Publishing plays hymns and prayers for telephone callers on hold. And evangelical publishers try to sign only those with conservative religious convictions. The Christian Booksellers Assn. journal even ran an article on how to check out authors by talking with pastors and relatives and verifying college records.

The publishers may have to move more into the mainstream, however, if they want to keep increasing sales to self-indulgent baby boomers. Devotionals and missionary biographies gather dust on the shelves. So do books encouraging self-sacrifice. Baby boomers may have found religion, but they're not about to don sackcloth and ashes.

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