Onward, Christian Publishers

In her steamy heyday, Francine Rivers penned Rebel in His Arms and 11 other romance novels that sold a total of 3.5 million copies. But after finding God in 1986, she lost the will to churn out tales of heaving breasts and forbidden passion. Instead of stories about men, women, and sex, the born-again Christian now writes of "men, women, and God," as she says.

It turns out to be a formula with more than a prayer of success. In June, Rivers' fourth inspirational romance, As Sure as the Dawn, sold 29,000 copies, a record first-month fiction sale for Tyndale House Publishers. Rivers won't reveal her take from the title, but says her market is "very lucrative."

No kidding. Evangelical publishing, the domain of churchgoing heroes and ultratame plot lines, is more than hot. The nation's 2,500 Christian bookstores expect sales of $3 billion this year, up from $1 billion in 1980. Sales to those stores by distributor Ingram Book Co. were up 28% last year alone. At Thomas Nelson Publishers, net income for the fiscal year ended Mar. 31 rose 29%, to $11.7 million.

BABY BOOMERS. Credit the surge to the rise of the religious right--or to the "approaching millennium, which creates a spiritual crisis," says Phyllis Tickle, Publishers Weekly religion editor. Most of all, though, the market has been driven by baby boomers discovering--or rediscovering--religion. "It's Christianity Lite. They want books with family values that are fast, funny, and not too preachy," says David R. DeBusk, a Littlefield (Tex.) book dealer, one of 12,000 people who attended the Christian Booksellers Assn. convention in Denver in mid-July.

Such readers have devoured historical novels by Brock and Bodie Thoene, a husband-and-wife team that signed an 11-book contract with Thomas Nelson in 1993 for about $11 million. They've bought 5.2 million copies of thrillers by Frank E. Peretti, whose 11-book contract with Word Publishing also is worth millions. And they shop at Barnes & Noble Inc., which has boosted the number of evangelical titles it stocks by 35% in two years. Starting in August, readers in Birmingham, Ala. can head to the first Christian superstore, the 250,000 square-foot Disciples.

Christian publishing has been around since Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But only in the past decade has the industry mushroomed to "children's books, anthologies, historical novels, self-help, parenting, and even business books, all God-centered," says agent Jane Jordan Browne, who represents Rivers. And secular publishers haven't missed the trend. At the booksellers' convention, Simon & Schuster, Harcourt Brace, and Little Brown were among the 140 publishers with booths. "Every publisher is taking a crack at it," says Thomas R. Grady, vice-president of HarperSanFrancisco, a religious imprint of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

REASSURANCE. HarperCollins also owns the Christian-oriented Zondervan Publishing House, publisher of Dan Quayle's Standing Firm. And in September, Patricia Klein, Waldenbooks Co.'s buyer of religious works, will start as a senior editor for Christian books at HarperSanFrancisco. Last fall, Ballantine Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc., started Moorings, which expects to issue 25 Christian fiction and nonfiction books each year.

Secular publishers could face some resistance from readers. "Evangelical readers want to make sure the book will be all right for them," says Thomas Cahill, director of religious publishing at Doubleday & Co. "They want an imprimatur, a [reassurance that] the work is free from doctrinal error."

But big booksellers will push hard to win such readers' lucrative confidence. For the next several decades, after all, most publishers prophesy the evangelical market will keep swelling. How to manage that growth? They can look to Hyperion Press Inc.'s Jesus CEO for advice. It's No.8 on BUSINESS WEEK's best-seller list.

Untamed Passion

An excerpt from The Bluebird and the Sparrow, the top-selling Christian fiction title in July:

There was silence. His grip on her hand tightened. He said, "So--if you now know Berta--as I have always known Berta--you must know that she is a pretty special person." His voice was soft.

She looked at him, and for the first time her eyes spoke a promise.

He seemed to hold his breath.

"Do you think the--the new Berta could find a place for me--in her life?" he asked softly.

Berta drew in her breath. That he could still care after all of her distance, all her rebuffs, amazed her. Her eyes filled with tears. She could only nod her head, her gaze still holding his.

For a long moment he looked at her, and then he drew her close.

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