Sun, Dec 28, 2003 - Page 12 News List

The great Christian cash-in

Characters such as Jay Jay the Jet Plane are being packaged for both mainstream audiences and Christian youngsters, a lucrative strategy that is being repeated elsewhere

By Julie Salamon  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Michelle Rapkin, director of religious publishing at Doubleday, had made plans to publish Circle of Grace, a new novel by Penelope Stokes, next summer under two imprints: Doubleday and Waterbrook, the religious imprint of Random House. Until now Stokes' work has appeared almost entirely in the Christian market, and Doubleday was hoping to expand her audience without losing established readers.

But a few weeks ago Rapkin said Doubleday had decided to publish Circle of Grace alone.

"It has to do with the delicacy of the CBA market and the real delicacy of that line one has to walk," said Rapkin. "It's actually a tightrope."

There were two problems with publishing the novel under a Christian imprint, Rapkin said. One of the characters, a young woman, becomes an Episcopal priest, and that could offend those who rely on CBA retailers to filter out material that they consider objectionable, she said. Another character, a middle-aged woman who undergoes therapy and discovers she has submerged her personality her entire life, unleashes her fury in salty language.

"It probably wouldn't shock you or me or very many people, but there are those who don't want to see it on the page if it has the Christian stamp of approval," Rapkin said.

Two years ago Doubleday tried to capitalize on the success of Philip Yancy -- who has sold 5 million books in the Christian market -- by publishing Soul Survivor, his 15th book, as a mainstream title. While it was hardly a disaster (the book sold 110,000 copies), the publisher was disappointed. In paperback Soul Survivor will appear under both the Doubleday and Waterbrook imprints.

Many Christian books and music titles have become huge successes in the mainstream world, available not only through religious retailers but also at Barnes & Noble and Some classics, like Lord of the Rings, find a warm reception in the Christian market, and many writers and musicians, like the novelist Jan Karon or the singer Amy Grant, cross over to the secular side.

Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church, in Orange County, California, a megachurch on a 120-acre campus where about 19,000 people attend services every week, is author of The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? It has been on The New York Times' advice and how-to best-seller list for 11 months, having sold more than 11 million copies.

Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard, examined the Saddleback Church for Better Together: Restoring the American Community, a book he wrote with Lewis Feldstein. On a book tour, Putnam said, he was struck by the audience's reaction when he spoke about Saddleback.

"My audiences," he said, "are largely NPR-type audiences: intellectual, a little left of center and for the most part uneasy about the potential political influence of these groups."

He said he was "shocked at how allergic much of my audience was to the idea that there is something of interest in this religious group."

Despite the immense popularity of Christian authors, who are superstars in some parts of the country, they have been largely ignored by much of the mainstream news media, including The New York Times, further encouraging a dual marketing strategy.

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