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When Cecil Murphey first started teaching at writers conferences in the mid-'70s, he didn't know there was any such thing as a "Christian" writers conference. So Murphey, who had by then published several books with Christian publishers, taught at general-market conferences, where he heard the same comment over and over again: "People would come up to me and say, 'I think most Christian books are so badly written . . . but, of course, I like yours.'"
Clearly, a lot of people like 90 Minutes in Heaven, the megawatt best-seller Murphey co-authored with Don Piper, a pastor who describes in the book his experience while clinically dead. Since 2006, 90 Minutes has ridden The New York Times best-seller list, having risen as high as No. 2.
Only a little over a decade ago, such a performance by a book with an overtly Christian message was unheard of. But this spring, The New York Times list-easily the world's most influential list, and, among many publishing insiders, the only one that counts-has featured a bumper crop of at least arguably evangelical titles.
Remarking on the number of Christian titles on the April 20 list, Thomas Nelson publishers president and CEO Michael Hyatt wrote on his blog, "I can't remember there ever being more." That week, there were 11 such books. On June 15, there were 14, spread across every major category, including fiction, nonfiction, advice, and business, in both hardcover and paperback.
Publishing industry professionals pinpoint several reasons for the trend, not the least of which is what Blaise Pascal called the "God-shaped vacuum" in the human heart.
"The growth of religious books, Christian and in general, are more indication that people continue to seek answers, whether they lead to Christ or to other places," said DeWayne Hamby, books section editor for Christian Retailing magazine. "The trend underscores the importance of our emphasis on providing the right answers, on providing better content that will connect with seekers."
In 2007 the sale of religious books grew 5.6 percent after growing 6.3 percent in 2006, according to Book Industry Trends 2008, a report on U.S. publishing sales. The category includes books relating to all faiths, including atheism. At least two books on belief in unbelief have enjoyed respectable stays on the NYT list in 2007 and 2008-Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. (Hitchens' book hit No. 1.) Several New Age titles, including the No. 1-selling The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, have attracted enormous audiences. But Hyatt speculates that book buyers are propelling a higher proportion of Christian titles into best-sellerdom because counterfeits fail to nourish the soul.
"You can read a New Age book, or a book like The Secret, and there is a certain appeal, just as when you visit the county fair and have some cotton candy. It's momentarily satisfying, but not nourishing," said Hyatt. "But there's something deeply satisfying about historic Christianity. It corresponds with reality as God created it. It aligns with the way things really are."
Still, prior to the late 1990s, secular bookstores mainly ignored Christian publishers. Occasionally, a breakout best-seller slipped through, such as Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth, a dispensationalist take on end-times prophecy. But writers producing works grounded in the Bible were left preaching mainly to the choir from the shelves of Christian stores.
Then came Left Behind.
In 1995, Tyndale House published the end-times novel by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. The book languished at first but then caught fire, waking secular bookstores and big-box retailers to the idea that Christians buy books, and their money is just as green.
"Ultimately, it is the reader that drives the market," said Michael Covington, information and education director for the Evangelical Christian Publishing Association. "Retailers have to respond to consumer demand."
Left Behind demolished doors that had previously been closed to Christian publishers and opened the way for other Christian titles, such as The Prayer of Jabez and The Purpose-Driven Life, to nab shelf space in non-Christian stores-a prerequisite for landing on the NYT list. Now, books by evangelical publishers are consistently making their way to the list, said Lee Hough, a literary agent with Alive Communications in Colorado Springs: "But they often have to work twice as hard to get there, because The New York Times doesn't count sales in Christian bookstores."
For example, two books on the June 15 list, 90 Minutes in Heaven and Same Kind of Different as Me (co-authored by WORLD features editor Lynn Vincent), had each been out for two years and sold more than 100,000 copies through word-of-mouth before cracking the Times tally.
Other Christian titles, though, through timeliness, celebrity, marketing clout, or some combination of the three, have in 2007 and 2008 taken the bullet train to the top. For example, Tyndale House executives knew that Quiet Strength, the memoir by Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy, had a large potential audience. But both Tyndale and Dungy were blown away when the book hit No. 1 on the list within its first few weeks of release.
In the wake of the Left Behind phenomenon, several major secular houses either acquired Christian publishers or launched Christian imprints of their own, putting new marketing muscle behind books carrying an evangelical message. For example, Simon & Schuster acquired Howard, a Louisiana-based Christian publisher, in 2006. This April, Howard Books scored its first No. 1 New York Times best-seller, Mistaken Identity, a nonfiction account of how two Christian families coped after daughters from each were involved in a car crash, and only one survived.
While some Christian publishers, such as Thomas Nelson and Zondervan, have recently trimmed staff and realigned operations in response to tough economic times, Nelson's Hyatt remains optimistic about the future of books bearing the gospel message: "I've heard complaints that this is the worst of times, that in this generation, the Christian faith has never been more watered down," he said. "I see it as the opposite: That God is at work in every generation. Our job is to see where He is at work and participate in that mission."
The June 15 New York Times bestseller list featured 14 books centered on Christianity
William P. Young
Windblown Media, May 2007
Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana
Knopf, March 2008
Bethany House, May 2008
Don and Susi Van Ryn; and Newell, Colleen, and Whitney Cerak with Mark Tabb
Howard Books, March 2008
The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism
Dutton Adult, February 2008
90 Minutes in Heaven
Don Piper with Cecil Murphey
Revell, September 2004
The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief
Francis S. Collins
Free Press, July 2007
Same Kind of Different as Me
Ron Hall and Denver Moore with Lynn Vincent
W Publishing, June 2006
Tony Dungy with Nathan Whitaker
Tyndale House, July 2007
Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day
Free Press, October 2007
Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential
FaithWords, October 2004
The Total Money Makeover
Thomas Nelson, 2nd Edition, Febuary 2007
The Five Love Languages
Northfield Publishing, March 2008
The Purpose Driven Life
Zondervan, October 2002