Religious books booming

In 2005, the Book Industry Study Group predicted "robust growth in the religious books market, estimating that over the next five years total book industry revenues were expected to increase 18.3%, with revenues from religious books rising 50%.

Religious books have emerged as the most impressive growth category in the [US] book publishing industry over the past four years and according to the Group’s TRENDS 2005, the category – including hardcover and paperback Bibles, biblical studies, testaments, histories, spiritual titles, hymnals, and prayer books, along with other titles pertaining to religion, inspirational titles, and religious fiction – recorded the biggest gains in 2004; with an 11% increase reaching US$1.9 billion in sales.

"The growth of religious-book sales at mainstream retailers is the key factor behind the dollar growth of 11% in the sector in 2004 and behind BISG’s projections for steady growth over the next several years," stated Jim Milliot, Senior Editor for Business and News at Publishers Weekly and author of the TRENDS 2005 introductory essays. "While price increases played a part, units were up 8.5% in 2004, and BISG projects that they will increase at a better than 6% through 2007."

Now I need to be careful in what I say here, because I buy a lot of (fairly serious) religious⁄theological books myself. But I am reminded of an article by Michael G. Einstein, "The American dream? Capitalism, literalism, and their role in evangelical apocalypticism." ARC: the Journal of the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, 31:27-44, 2004. Einstein employs the ideas of French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to deconstruct the negative influence of capitalism upon contemporary evangelical Christianity. He asks why pre-millennialist apocalypticism, such as the "Left Behind", series of novels, is popular. Einstein argues that commodification of religion supports alienation of evangelicals into imitation of popular culture and equates spirituality with consumption of ‘Christian’ products. Capitalism encourages a desire for consumption of such products, supposedly to enhance knowledge of God, but creates a disjunction between transcendent meaning as value and profit as value. An apocalyptic response fails as a means of transcendence and serves only to further the boundaries of capitalism, he concludes.

So it would be really interesting to know just what kinds of religious books are being bought in such quantities. I have no idea whether other Western countries are following the U.S. trend here. (Certainly in Australia and elsewhere, contemporary Christian music, about which I know almost nothing, achieves huge sales.) It would be wonderful if all these books are enhancing the personal formation and spiritual formation of their readers, increasing their knowledge and wisdom in theology and Christian life. But I fear that all too often we buy more and more books that simply reinforce our existing opinions and biases – something I have to be careful of myself.