The Decline of Denominational Publishing -- Sightings

Martin Marty reports that the recent Christian Book Expo in Dallas, expecting about 15000 customers drew in only 1500 -- and this was designed to attract conservative Christian/evangelical customers. I can say this -- regarding Christian books/bookstore situations. Most Christian bookstores (now Christian stores) are more about Jesus junk than books.

Anyway, he uses this report to draw our attention to a larger issue -- the decline of denominational publishers -- etc. My own denominational press, once published largely denominationally affiliated materials, but no more. Instead, to survive, it has sought partnerships that have saved it, for now, but things are changing, and who knows what this portends.

So, with these questions swirling in our minds, see what Marty has to say:


Sightings 3/30/09

The Decline of Denominational Publishing

-- Martin E. Marty

"Christian Book Expo Attracts Few Customers," headlines Marcia Z. Nelson in the March 23rd Publishers Weekly. This is overlookable news to most Americans who have little interest in Evangelicalism and its books, but it has portents for all kinds of citizens. One could call this the canary in the mines which chirps signals of danger before others sense it, except that in this case much of what was in the mine has exploded, and in many places the mine’s roof has already caved in. Consider this one more sign.

What is "this"? As Nelson tells it, the Christian Book Expo in the Dallas Convention Center, planned to attract fifteen thousand to twenty thousand attendees, drew only fifteen hundred in this "buckle of the Bible belt." Would there have been even fifteen Expo-goers in Boston or Seattle? As Nelson tells it, glum publishers stood around for three days, shadowed by mountains of unsold books. "We can’t afford these kinds of risks," grumbled one publisher. "These kinds" refer to what was a pioneering effort to link publishers and potential buyers.

While the risk-takers here were members of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, any number of similar signs of down-turns are evident. The Christian Bookseller Association has experienced more "downs" at conventions, and Catholic and mainline Protestant publishers don’t even try to attract as they used to. With few exceptions, denominations are closing their stores around the country, including even some in those last-bastions-of-books, seminary campuses. Wal-Mart may still display EPCA-linked books, but try to find them at Borders, if you can still find a Borders, or Barnes and Noble or other big-box places, which never did much with such books.

But cheer up: There still is still the on-line selling of books, and the internet market which also helped kill off bookstores has compensated by making books easily available to people who did not live near book stores, whether Catholic, Mainline, Evangelical, Jewish, or whatever. "Kindle" can or some day will have such books ready for your pocket-sized electronic "book." At the same time, something is lost with the dwindling and dying of expos, conventions, and denominational publishing houses and stores.

With self-imposed discipline, I am not allowed to be a Luddite (who rues technological change), a Whiner (who whines), or a Yearner for Good Old Days. But those of us who love books have to be allowed to be Lamenters, in the mood and mode of the biblical Book of Lamentations. A confession: I had no use for ninety-nine percent of the materials in these expos and book stores. Some reflected alien world views, or were strident Far Right blasts; and, while there were some valid devotional materials and self-improvement manuals, much of what sold was, to me and others who don’t like to think of ourselves as snobs, pious pap. For decades I was book-review editor of The Christian Century, across whose desk a new religious book landed every hour. Yet when I read the lists of "Christian Best-Sellers," almost all authors looked alien to me.

Give credit to the publishers and sellers, however, for having carved out a large niche in the publishing world that had otherwise generally slighted religious books. They at least aspired to remind publics, including religiously affiliated people, that churches had and still have, in the age of the internet and all things electronic, something at stake in the world of print and bound books. Maybe these will invent more compensatory mechanisms for getting the word out and building community. The Luddites and the Whiners have often been wrong. The Book of Lamentations does not have to be gospel.


Read Nelson's Publishers Weekly article online at

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at


In conjunction with the upcoming conference, “Culturing Theologies, Theologizing Cultures: Exploring the Worlds of Religion,” April 22 and 23 at the Divinity School, this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum features conference participant Alain Epp Weaver’s exploration of “how the arboreal imagination animates Israeli and Palestinian mappings of space and landscapes of return.” Trees are at once contested political and religious symbols and concrete means of claiming the land. Via a close reading of Palestinian theologian Elias Chacour’s writings, Weaver examines the rhetorical role and weight of trees in Israeli and Palestinian thought. “Is the arboreal imagination necessarily bound up with exclusivist mappings of erasure only, mappings which encode given spaces as either Palestinian or Israeli Jewish?” Weaver asks, or, “might the arboreal imagination animating the imagined landscapes of Palestinian refugees also produce cartographies of mutuality which accept, even embrace, the complex character of shared space?”

Visit the Religion and Culture Web Forum:


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Randy Furco said…
I think part of it may actually be a good thing depending on your view.

God is turning His peoples hearts back to the local church. It would be a good thing for the local churches across this nation to be strengthened and grow in The WORD and The Spirit
under the leadership of a Pastor.

For so long christians saw the televangelist or the latest preacher on the cover of Charisma as thier pastor.
They treated TV shows,conferances,books,tapes, a replacement for dedicated service to the local church.

So possibly the decline is a good thing?
Just a thought
Unfortunately, the good is going down with the bad. We still need publishers to produce materials for our churches. Finding that will be more difficult in the future.

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