- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 24, 2002

ANAHEIM, Calif. The lines formed early last Thursday morning for Oral Roberts as faithful followers queued up for a few moments with the noted faith healer and evangelist. . But it was not for healing prayer that each person passed a table at which Mr. Roberts, now 84, and his wife, Evelyn, posed for pictures and engaged in small talk.

It was so each supplicant could get a free signed copy of "Still Doing The Impossible," Mr. Roberts' latest book, featured at the annual convention of the Christian Booksellers Association.

The CBA is a trade group largely comprised of thousands of mom-and-pop Christian bookstore owners, many of whom are now looking over their shoulders at megastores such as Borders Books & Music.

Even though religious books are selling better than ever, attendance at the Anaheim event was just over 13,000, about 5 percent less than last year, perhaps reflective of the economy or post-September 11 jitters.

At the show, the CBA announced the results of a survey which a spokeswoman said was a first for the group showing sales of Christian products by CBA member suppliers through all distribution channels to be just more than $4 billion for the year 2000. The survey also revealed that $2.5 billion of the $4 billion total is sold through Christian retail and another $500 million through direct-to-consumer and "ministry sales" channels, such as televangelists' offers.

But one quarter of Christian products purchased in 2000 some $1 billion worth were sold at "general retail," the CBA said, meaning stores like Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble and Costco, the latter of which had at least two book buyers prowling the conference in search of titles. These figures point to the growing trend of secular outlets snatching territory from Christian booksellers.

Many writers, such as Mike Yorkey, who's written or co-written 30 titles, including his latest, "Real Solutions for Getting Out of Debt," are happy to be in the stacks with the likes of New Ager Deepak Chopra.

"I think it's great that the Starbucks buyer can walk around Barnes & Noble and see Christian books," Mr. Yorkey said. "I love impacting the culture."

Jerry B. Jenkins, a mega-star Christian writer whose "Left Behind" series has topped general best seller lists several times, said: "We've talked for years about preaching to the choir. Everyone has always wanted to cross over" into the general market. His earlier sports biographies, such as one co-written with former Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser, he said, were an early entree into mainstream bookstores.

There's no reason religious books cannot compete with secular books, said Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic known for her books on suffering and her paintings done by holding a brush in her teeth.

"People are the same," Mrs. Tada said. "They have the same hurts, the same loneliness. I want to help people see the answer to those challenges."

And the Rev. John MacArthur, whose church, college and seminary in the San Fernando Valley have generated a large following, believes the era of specialized Christian bookstores may be approaching an end.

"The generation of people who grew up going to Christian bookstores is dying," he said. "There are a lot of people in the 'CBA market' now working with Barnes & Noble."

The crossover of Christian books to the general market was predictable, said researcher George Barna of Ventura, Calif.

"When you look at the rapid growth of sales of Christian music," he said, "it ain't happening in CBA stores. We're seeing more [New York] publishers with a Christian line. Lots of players are jumping in."

Even so, authors must have a hook in order to sell. Pat Williams , senior executive vice president of the NBA's Orlando Magic, aims for the business reader with "The Paradox of Power: A Transforming View of Leadership."

"Our job is to present that message in a convincing, impactful way," he said in an interview. "In this book on leadership, the lessons reinforce what Jesus taught."

Smaller retailers, such as Bonnie Whitaker of New Life Christian Bookstore in Lynchburg, Va., are trying to stay optimistic despite efforts by large outlets to outsell stores like hers.

"We can't compete with the big chains on discounts," Mrs. Whitaker said, "so we'll do better on service."

She added that stores such as hers can offer a more thorough selection of Christian books than just the top-selling titles that can be found at Sam's Club.

"I feel like books are calling people back to their roots," she said. "They're realizing their need for God and family."

U.S. Rep. Jim Ryun, Kansas Republican, deliberately chose a smaller publisher, the Pennsylvania-based Treasure House, to publish his "Heroes Among Us," co-written with sons Ned and Drew. The book details lesser-known heroes in history, such as C.T. Studd, an English cricketer who gained greater fame as a Protestant missionary to China.

Though he could have published with a larger New York house, Mr. Ryan chose the CBA market because, he said, his book would resonate there.

Even "name" authors have to work hard to market books in a society where fewer and fewer people take time to read. Publishers such as David Moberg, chief operating officer of W Publishing, formerly known as Word Books, said Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of evangelist Billy Graham, committed to a sustained 18-month publicity campaign to get her book, "Just Give Me Jesus," wide exposure. As a result, he said, Mrs. Lotz's book sold more than 225,000 copies.

Christian author Max Lucado is in an enviable position. The San Antonio pastor's books, such as "Traveling Light" and "A Love Worth Giving," are breaking into mainstream bookstores where sellers happily feature them.

"I try to write for people who don't read books," Mr. Lucado said, adding that after the September 11 attacks, his sales increased markedly.

His golden touch extends even to "You Are Special," an allegorical children's book he published through Crossway Books, a evangelical publisher. The book, which conveys spiritual concepts without religious lingo, has sold 1.3 million copies, said Marvin Padgett, editorial vice president for Crossway.

"You Are Special" keeps the biblical message intact, if undercover, he said, adding that while he would like to see more of Crossway's titles on shelves in general bookstores, "I promise you that this is a company that will not compromise its message to do so."

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