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Belieber appears to have all the elements of a soon-to-be best-seller!

The Tennessean ::
August 28, 2011

It may seem like end times for some book-sellers, but religious book publishers are all smiles

Veteran religion writer Cathleen Falsani didn’t know much about Justin Bieber when her 11-year-old son, recently adopted from Malawi, came home from school asking questions about the young superstar.

Interpreting pop culture was part of her parenting routine. But the questions ultimately led Falsani into an unexpected exploration of the 17-year-old singer’s evangelical Christian faith — and a new book. Belieber!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber appears to have all the elements of a soon-to-be best-seller, with global press mentions and partnerships with Bieber fan clubs around the world, which come with a built-in potential base of 10 million devoted fans.

The book, to be released Sept. 27, is among the latest fall offerings by Nashville-based Christian publishing houses and among the inaugural releases by Worthy Publishing, a newly launched Brentwood publishing house.

The book, and Worthy, are making their debuts in the midst of good times for the $2 billion religious publishing industry, which is predominantly made up of Christian fiction, non-fiction, devotionals, religious instruction materials and Bibles. Much of it is based out of the Nashville area, although many larger publishing houses on the East and West coasts have established religious imprints of their own in recent years.

In the past 12-18 months, the religious publishing category has seen its sales jump faster than those of almost every other category of books. The book publishing industry overall has remained relatively healthy during the recession, with a nearly 6 percent annual growth rate from 2008 to 2010, according to the Association of American Publishers.

Local publishers report strong sales
Nashville-based Thomas Nelson, whose Heaven Is for Real (by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent) occupies the No. 1 spot on The New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list, also has three of the top 10 best-selling religious books in the country this week. The company reported that sales are up 43 percent over last year.

Nashville-based Abingdon Press, the publishing arm of the United Methodist Church, reports “strong” sales for physical books in the first half of 2011 and “skyrocketing” sales of digital books. The company does not release specific figures.

“It’s a great time to be a Christian publisher,” said Byron Williamson, a 20-plus-year veteran of the Nashville Christian publishing industry who has published best-sellers by Newt Gingrich and Max Lucado and launched Worthy last year.

Piracy not big issue
Nashville publishers say they have a few things going for them that other industries — particularly the music industry, to which they are often compared — do not.

Nashville publishers say they have a few things going for them that other industries — particularly the music industry, to which they are often compared — do not.

The transition to digital versions of the product has been slower, and90 percent of all book sales continue to be in physical form. That’s not to say digital book sales aren’t growing fast. They’ve grown threefold in the past year, according to the Association of American Publishers.

But without the illegal file-sharing and song-swapping problems that bleed revenues from the music industry, the economics of e-books are working in favor of both publishers and authors, Williamson said.

“It surprises people,” Williamson said. “The reaction I get a lot is ‘OK, you’re in publishing. Those e-books. I’m so sorry.’ They think it’s having the same effect as mp3s and piracy. But it’s not.”

The closure of mainstream retail stores such as Borders and Davis-Kidd, while an undeniable blow to local book-lovers and book-sellers, appears to be a temporary loss, with two new independent bookstores planned for Nashville next year.

And independent Christian retail stores, although feeling some pressures from big chains such as Walmart selling religious products, remain a “pretty vibrant” outlet for sales, with 1,500 stores currently selling 30 percent of all Christian retail products, including music and books, said Greg Bays, senior vice president of sales and marketing for EMI CMG Distribution, a division of EMI Christian Group, a recording company that is now teaming up with Worthy Publishing to distribute books.

The recession may actually have benefited the religious publishing industry, publishers say.

“Our books address such basic, human-felt needs, and we find that in hard times readers are drawn to devotionals and to books that attempt to answer the really tough questions of faith and a faithful God,” said Audrey Kidd, executive vice president, revenue and operations, for The United Methodist Publishing House.

Worthy, un by industry veterans from other publishing houses, is poised to release three dozen new titles written by some of the best-selling Christian authors: Chuck Colson, Billy Graham, Michael W. Smith, Jerry Jenkins and Charles Swindoll.

Its partnership with EMI CMG will distribute those books directly to Christian retail stores, while separate distribution channels will also market and release books to mainstream bookstores and superstores such as Walmart and Target.

Publishers say they are cautiously optimistic about the fall and holiday book season, but expect the gradual shift to digital books to speed up.

“We believe this will be another big Christmas for e-reading devices to be given as gifts,” said Mark Schoenwald, president and CEO of Thomas Nelson.

If those holiday e-reader sales go as expected, Schoenwald said, the company expects an uptick in digital sales the following spring. Thomas Nelson’s e-book sales grew 12 percent over last year. The previous year, it experienced a 3 percent growth in e-book products.

To be sure, the industry hasn’t gone completely unscathed by the recession. Publishers believe the industry would have grown faster without it.

Some areas are performing better than others. Demand for church curriculum products, academic and reference books are down, while Bibles and fiction do well, publishers said.

“Thoughtful” reading time is shrinking with the proliferation of online blogs, tweets and other social media, where access is free and instant, challenging book publishers to think more broadly about their role.

“Our company is no longer just in the book business,” Schoenwald said of Thomas Nelson, which is developing apps and experimenting with buy-by-the-chapter digital books and other products.

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