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Sept. 11 Revives Buyer Interest in Religious Books

Literature: Christian publishers meeting in Anaheim say attacks have boosted sales and presence in chains.

July 17, 2002|MIKE ANTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kregel Publications has been a small Christian publisher for 50 years, but it wasn't until this spring that the Michigan company had a bestseller--for three months straight.

What made the difference was Sept. 11 and a controversial book on Islam.

"It's done a whale of a lot to get us on the radar screens of the big retailers like Barnes & Noble and Borders," said N. David Hill, the company's executive director of sales and marketing. "Now they know that we're a publisher with a significant work."

That work is "Unveiling Islam: An Insider's Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs," written by two Muslim-raised brothers who converted to Christianity and teach theology at Baptist colleges.

The book, described as fair and balanced by Hill but criticized as bigoted by some Islamic scholars, was published in March. It is in its fifth printing.

As 12,000 members of CBA--formerly the Christian Booksellers Assn.--meet at the Anaheim Convention Center this week, there is wide agreement that the terrorist attacks have led to a big increase in sales and heavier buying of religious titles by mainstream bookstores.

"This is not a niche market anymore," said Bill Anderson, president and chief executive of the Colorado-based organization.

Bible sales surged after Sept. 11 and still are going strong, up 20% or more from a year ago.

"Any time there are world events that shake our faith, people turn to the Bible for answers," said Mark Rice of Zondervan, a subsidiary of book publisher Harper Collins.

"It's ... the magnitude of sales--that's what has been surprising."

In the last year, Zondervan sold more than 2 million Bibles; $1 million worth of stock was shipped out shortly after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Within weeks, the company was temporarily out of copies of the best-selling book of all time.

"An event like Sept. 11 is an opportunity," Rice said. "As a publisher with a mission like ours, you have to take advantage of that opportunity. If we can get Bibles in the hands of people who need them, we have to take advantage of that."

When Hill attended a similar Christian bookseller's convention in January, he counted 15 new titles on Islam in a marketplace that had supported only a few such books before.

"I have two [mainstream retailers] coming to see me here that I couldn't have gotten appointments with before," he saiddeclining to identify them for competitive reasons.

A collection of articles by Muslim women is expected from Hill's company next year.

To Christian publishers, the surge in sales is reflective of the increasing crossover appeal of books with a religious message in the secular market.

"Sam's [Club], Wal-Mart, Target are all buying more" since Sept. 11, said Everett O'Bryan, a vice president with Tyndale House Publishers, the Illinois company whose "Left Behind" series of Christian novels has sold millions worldwide.

"Where it used to be they were 35% to 40% of our market, now [general booksellers] are 55% of our market. It's been a big switch."

After Sept. 11, Anderson said many of the association's 2,443 member retailers displayed religious products with American flags and patriotic paraphernalia, a combination that did wonders for sales.

"Effective marketing is meeting people at their point of need," he said.

With the anniversary of the attacks coming up, some retailers expect another sales surge.

Christian Publications Inc. put out a collection of interviews with Sept. 11 survivors and rescue workers in January. It has sold 9,000 copies.

Drew Park, the company's trade manager, said commercials on mainstream cable-TV stations promoting the book will be broadcast in September in New York, Washington, Pittsburgh and in New Jersey.

"It's done fair," Park said of the book's sales.

But it's not in the same league with another of his titles: "Harry Potter and the Bible," which warns of children's fascination with the occult.

"It sold 75,000 copies last year alone," Park said. "It's a hot topic."

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