U.S. religious publishers reap rewards with Justin Bieber and the Bible

September 16, 2011

(A woman reads her Bible during a weekly bible study meeting at the West Unity Methodist Church in Unity, New Hampshire July 5, 2011/Brian Snyder)

Religious publishers in the United States are busy these days, releasing such new books as a biography of pop music phenom and devout Christian Justin Bieber — entitled “Belieber!: Fame, Faith and The Heart of Justin Bieber.” Other tomes mix spirituality with memoir and self-help topics. New editions of the Bible have also been released recently,  as well as e-books and audio book downloads by popular religious authors.

“Both in dollars and units sold, the industry is back in line with its historical growth of the last decade,” since the recession, said Byron Williamson, head of Worthy Publishing in Nashville, a center  for religious publishing in the United States that some say is second only to New York City for book publishing.

Worthy Publishing ships “Belieber!” to stores on Sept. 27. The book describes Bieber’s incredible popularity and Williamson said it is suited for teenage fans and for mystified parents of children who idolize the star, many of whom memorize his song lyrics.

The religion book niche appears to be doing a little better than the rest of the industry so far this year, publishing sources say, though specific data is not available. From 2008 to 2010, books in the religion category — bibles, spiritual titles, hymnals, prayer books, religious fiction and nonfiction – performed in step with the overall recovery in the book business.

In 2010, U.S. publishers sold $1.35 billion worth of religion-themed books, up half a percent since 2008, the Association of American Publishers said in a report last month. Overall , U.S. book publishers generated $28 billion in net revenues in 2010, up 5.6 percent in the past three years.

There’s been an explosion of e-books this year and the industry has also experienced strong growth in downloaded audio books. Publishers say that is because more people have smart phones and some of them want their books read aloud.

Williamson would not project sales of “Belieber!” but said there is a lot of buzz surrounding the book — the public relations campaign will include a promotion on the Times Square electronic Jumbotron and banner ads on popular online religous blogs.

Also garnering a lot of notice is Worthy’s forthcoming book about Christina Taylor Green, the 9-year-old girl born on 9/11 who was killed in the Tucson, Arizona, shooting that wounded U.S. congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Green’s mother wrote “As Good As She Imagined,” which Williamson described as a book with a spiritual core that focuses on perseverance. Television networks have vied for interviews to prepare for the Jan. 8 year anniversary of the shooting.

The explosion of e-readers have also helped lift sales.

“The book industry is trying to work it through so that the author and the publisher don’t care how you buy the book, as long as you buy and read,” Williamson said.

The impact of digital downloads of books has not harmed the book industry as it did the music industry, where consumers might download a 99-cent song instead of a $10 to $15 album. Piracy has also been less of an issue for the book industry, Williamson said.

“Fiction is big. Biography is big. One of the big books out right now is by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which has been a bestseller. You’ve got humor, devotional titles, self-help titles, marriage relationship books. The religion category spans every conceivable category,” he said.

“Belieber!” is already available from Amazon.com, Williamson said. Bieber helped the book’s prospects by talking up his strong faith at a recent awards ceremony.

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