Although I spent the last several days compiling a final edit on my young adult novel, Divided Loyalties, scheduled for an August 2004 release by Awe-Struck, it’s clear the recent media hype of The Passion of the Christ managed to seep into my grey matter. This morning I thought it time to play catch up with the backlog of sundry reading that has piled up. As some of you know, nonfiction has been occupying more and more of my writer-brain space the last couple of years, particularly in the realm of narrative nonfiction, a genre that has become more and more prevalent. If you doubt its popularity, take a stroll down the center aisle of any Barnes and Noble or Borders and chart the number of new books that detail great scientific moments, this plague or that fever, or any number of natural and man-made disasters–or at least the publisher’s have identified them as having some popular interest or they wouldn’t pepper so many tables and endcaps.
Most folks, writers included, think of the latest John Grisham or the NY Times list topper as the end-all, be-all in writer-achievement. I would certainly not turn my nose up at such an opportunity; however, there are any number of books, some more well known than others, that develop high sales and/or a long run of steady, mounting numbers without ever reaching those illustrious heights.
Some come out of nowhere and capture an untapped pool of readers, such as Dava Sobel did with Longitude or Tom Clancy with his high tech bestsellers. Others like The Da Vinci Code, which somehow manages to mix it up with religion and fine art, seem to come out of nowhere but are, in effect, capitalizing on an emerging trend. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a huge and growing interest in religion and the spiritual life. The most obvious and most recent player is this week’s latest entrée into the popular culture, Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ.
But this is not a new thing, this emerging trend. Yes, it can easily be traced back to the events of 9-11, but the taproots are much stronger and longer. 9-11 is the most recent and most powerful catalyst that may have done more to unearth this force that had managed to remain undetected by most industry watchers and players. When it comes to sales and popularity, I doubt there were many in or out of the book world who didn’t have some intersection with Wilkerson’s small but powerful The Prayer of Jabez offering. That simple book spawned an entire industry. Newsweek and Time now produce annual state-of-faith editions. The Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) and the religion arm of the book industry are no longer considered to be the publishing industry’s step child or charity arm.
Today’s Publisher’s Lunch mentions the huge sales garnered by The Purpose-Driven Life and notes the Washington Post is finally providing “crossover press.” As PL notes, the book’s author, Rick Warren, “did not do a book tour, all the things you normally do to promote a book.” He says he claims a new distribution channel: pastors and their church membership. With all due respect to Warren, clearly he did not discover or create this network of sales. Many Christian writers have taken this route and they are perhaps the first line of discoverers. They are the ones who have laid down the lines that culminated into this fascinating and vast network that Warren has tapped into. What Warren has done is capitalize on this phenomena and at the same time utilize a couple of other new point of sales tools that together have managed to land him with a mere 4 million copies in sales to churches online through their websites.
First, Warren wrote a book that is definitely in answer to the question many have asked since 9-11: how do we live in this post-9-11 world? He tapped into a deep current flowing in the American public. Second, he used the age-old and always successful self-help mechanism to structure his answer. Self-help books have been the backbone of publishing sales for decades. If you don’t believe me, check the sales records for diet books alone. Third, his book is a natural fit for the growing Christian market and, that of course, leads him straight to Internet sales and direct selling. Christian authors, many self-published, know the value of both. When you add the automatic press and sales that will come when a book reaches a certain mass, you have a book that achieves lift-off. By the end of this year, Warren expects more than 30,000 churches will have completed the 40 days of purpose and “the book will actually sell more copies this year than last year.” If you doubt him, take a look at the current religion section of the paper and note how many churches have included the book as part of this year’s Lenten program. And did you notice? The book fits perfectly into the 40-day Lenten “Passion” period. Whether by chance or by choice, it’s a marketing maven’s dream.