THE BLOG

Why Evangelicals Have All the Bestsellers

02/19/2013 06:23 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2013
  • Mickey Maudlin Senior Vice President and Executive Editor at HarperOne

HarperOne just released The NRSV Daily Bible, a wonderful project that divides the Scriptures into 365 readings with prayers and meditations that deepen and amplify your daily practice. But chances are you will not have heard of it or seen it. Why is that? The answer has a lot to do with why evangelicals have all the Christian bestsellers and why there are so few (if any) mainline Protestant leaders who have a national profile. I thought it would be interesting for you to hear about our publishing challenge and to ask you for advice or counsel on how to solve the problem.

Many years ago when I worked at Christianity Today magazine, I used to think that a clear sign that God favored evangelicals was our numerical strength and our growth rate. Surely that is why the mainline was dwindling and the conservative church was growing: We were right and they were ... well, let's say, "less right."

But then I noticed the Mormons. If God is discerned through demographics, then God must love the Mormons even more, since they were growing the fastest. That led to another realization: What was most successful in evangelical circles often failed to correspond to what I felt was the best of the movement. Were "The Prayer of Jabez" and the "Left Behind" series the most God-blessed products because of their miraculous sales numbers? Eventually the scales fell off and I had to confront the uncomfortable truth that perhaps evangelical churches, books, personalities and programs were the most popular because the movement was the most accommodated to consumer culture. Seeing evangelicalism as a populist movement, subject to fads and personality cults, fit with many of the dynamics I witnessed. I certainly don't want to imply that is all evangelicalism is (one must leave room for the Holy Spirit), but this goes a long way to explain why evangelicals seem to have all the Christian bestsellers.

Because the most important agent in this world is the individual consumer, and because of the sheer size of this demographic, books, music and programs are marketed to these individuals, which has allowed for the rise of mega-churches (guaranteed quality programming), a network of Christian bookstores and a panoply of media offerings (TV, radio, websites, DVDs, etc.) targeted to these believers. So when an unknown author catches on in some circles -- such as happened with Sarah Young's devotional "Jesus Calling" -- there is a system in place to respond (Young's book has sold more than 2 million copies). There are a variety of ways to market effectively to their audience. Yes, those bestsellers break out into the general market, rising in rankings on Amazon and sold in stacks at Barnes & Noble, but often half the sales of these blockbusters are from specifically evangelical distribution channels. This is a huge advantage.

Now imagine the Catholic consumer, who typically does not see himself or herself as the deciding agent. Spend time with Catholic customers and you will hear questions like, "Which one is approved by the church?" -- or by "my bishop" or by "my priest." This is why there are so few Catholic bookstores despite there being more Catholics (about 75 million) than any other one church group. The biggest players in this world are those Catholic publishers who sell directly to Catholic institutions -- such as schools and parishes -- not to individual Catholic consumers. And even if a Catholic author catches on with consumers, there is no real distribution system directly to Catholics except for mainstream bookstores.

That leaves mainline Protestants, a still sizable group (around 53 million), characterized by their diversity, tolerance and commitment to social justice but also by their weakening institutional ties. Everyone recognizes the significant weakening of denominations' ability to impose an agenda on its constituency, but these affiliations retain a significant pull in shaping their clergy's and their churches' time and energy. At the same time, the denominations have almost no direct relationship with their lay members. This is why so many denominational publishers have struggled financially and shrunk their lists. The largest mainline denomination, the United Methodists, has often done the best job of reaching out to consumers through its Cokesbury bookstores and website, but even they have announced the closing of their remaining 50-plus stores after April of this year. Because of the split, diverse interests of these churches, there is no one place online or physically where these Christians come together. Few leaders rise up and are known outside their denomination; no website or magazine can claim to draw significant numbers (though The Christian Century comes closest). If a publisher wants to reach out to this constituency, there is no direct way to reach the masses in the same way evangelicals can to their constituencies.

Which brings us to The NRSV Daily Bible. An evangelical publisher could buy co-op marketing in the evangelical bookstores and distribute a significant number of copies through these proprietary channels. Because the New Revised Standard Version appeals more to mainline and Catholic churches (despite its academic reputation as the best translation in English), we are left with Amazon and Barnes & Noble as our main distribution channels and only a handful of stores dedicated to mainline and Catholic markets. If we want to market and advertise this wonderful new resource, we must purchase small ads in dozens of small vehicles and rely on Facebook and Google to help us target our audience. It is an expensive and inefficient system.

So that is my frustration and here is my plea. I feel deeply that the wisdom, depth and maturity of the Christian vision embodied in mainline churches is vital to the health and future of the church. We need the best of these voices to be part of the conversation of what it means to be Christians today. Which means we need new ways to reach this audience. If it makes sense, we can help build a new system or support someone else's efforts.

So I would like to hear from you about how you hear about books, authors and Bibles. Where do you go to discover or purchase resources? What ideas do you have for a new vehicle for reaching people like you? With this feedback, together we can strengthen the voice of the mainline church.