The religious book industry — 98 percent of which is made of Christian titles, according to the Association for Christian Retail — has seen a transformation over the past decade from large obscurity to mainstream prevalence.
Ultimately, I always say, as long as people are reading their Bible, and reading good Christian material … I couldn't really care where they got it, in a way.

SAN FRANCISCO — There's one thing that keeps Margaret Lee going when times at the Harvest Christian Bookstore get tough: The look in her customers' eyes when they buy their first Bible.

It's an intimate moment when they find just the right one — for a loved one, maybe, or someone looking for God — and they hold it in their hands. After nearly 30 years, it still gives her chills. It gives her the will to keep business as usual as the only full-service Christian book shop in San Francisco.

"Almost never a day goes by that a person doesn't say, 'Please stay, please stay,' " Lee says about her shop on Noriega Street. "I say I'm doing my darnedest, but it's hard. It's a hard industry."

The religious book industry — 98 percent of which is made of Christian titles, according to the Association for Christian Retail — has seen a transformation over the past decade from large obscurity to mainstream prevalence. Christian books once available only at independent-niche Christian bookshops like Lee's are now sold online and in mainstream stores everywhere. As recognition of the popularity of Christian books has grown, with some titles holding a steady spot on the nation's best-seller lists, Christian publishing companies and their audience have grown, too, expanding globally and into the electronic marketplace. Now the formerly fringe products have a home in mainstream popularity and at stores like Lee's.

Sure, Lee knows that means she's got more competition, but in the end, it's the big picture that matters to her.

"Ultimately, I always say, as long as people are reading their Bible, and reading good Christian material … I couldn't really care where they got it, in a way," Lee says. "I don't wish ill for people who don't shop here, but if you see a validity to this ministry … please, come and support us."

Rise of the religious book

Years ago, the best place to find a Christian book was at a church or nonprofit organization. Then in 1950, Christian booksellers from 219 charter stores organized the Christian Booksellers Association in Illinois with a plan to network and strengthen each other. Today the organization includes 1,700 stores and is recognized by leading Christian publishers as one reason Christian books have been slowly integrated into mainstream culture.

"Authors and publishers alike want to find readers wherever they are," says Don Gates, vice president of marketing for trade books for Zondervan, the world's leading Bible publisher. "You've seen, over the last 15 years, an expansion of the Christian bookselling section of a mainstream bookstore. It's not just the chains, but the independent booksellers have expanded their section for Christian book titles because more and more demand has been out there. They might have once said they wouldn't sell it. Now they will, responding to consumer purchases."

Christian books sell well because they teach people how to live their beliefs on a day-to-day basis, says Beverly Rykerd, publicity manager for Random House Inc. Christian publishing company WaterBrook Multnomah.

"There's a tremendous interest in topics of faith and belief," Rykerd says. "It's the hunger of the consumer who really has some very big and deep questions they are wanting to explore about the issues of faith."

A 2005 Baylor University study shows 11 percent of Americans spend $50 or more a month on religious products, including non-book items. And the popularity of Christian books like "The Purpose Driven Life," a book published by Zondervan that has sold more than 30 million copies since 2002, has helped open the door to mainstream booksellers.

Zondervan's parent company, HarperCollins, a Rupert Murdoch News Corp. subsidiary, has plans to buy top Christian book publisher Thomas Nelson by the end of the year and go after the growing numbers of consumers making online and ereader purchases. If the deal goes through, HarperCollins will control 49.5 percent of the Christian publishing market, with no single other publishing company controlling more than 10 percent.

Tracking the ascension

Ten years ago, a popular book like "The Purpose Driven Life," by Pastor Rick Warren, would have never been included in the main section of a best-seller list, says Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Today, things have changed, which could be a breakdown in the divide between a largely religious population in America and a "largely secular media elite."

"I'm not saying there is a secular bias, but it's a different world," Cromartie says. "The (religious population and) media are living in two different worlds. And it has taken the selling of millions and millions of books for those cultural elitists to say, wow, I didn't know you all even existed, and now you've got best-selling books."

Although some best-seller lists separate books by genre, lists like USA Today's keep all of their titles on one list — so consumers can know exactly how well books sell relative to each other, regardless of subject matter.

"I think best-seller lists inform readers — they help them to know what other people are reading," says Anthony DeBarros, senior database editor for USA Today. "I think, in turn, that may inspire them to try out a title or explore reading something different that is of interest to them."

Nielsen BookScan, which provides information for the Wall Street Journal's best-seller list, tracks 75 percent of book sales in America from traditional retailers, independent bookstores and — but the company only tracks 50 percent of sales from Christian bookstores, specifically. That should change with the addition of key Christian retailers and Walmart in 2012, says Jonathan Stolper, vice president and general manager of Nielsen BookScan.

"It's certainly conceivable that those Wall Street Journal charts will change dramatically," Stolper says. "I think the Wall Street Journal will see some Christian books pop up on there when we complete the panel."

Watching from below

Best-seller lists may be a boon in some parts of the industry, but for store owners like Lee, the lists don't have much influence on what customers buy. Her customers pick books by perusing, thumbing through pages and looking at the bookshelves.

In her shop, they can find Bibles, books and other gifts like mugs and T-shirts. Lee monitors her shelves and every book she sells to make sure they have a positive Christian message — it's part of her calling in life, she says.

"I wouldn't be running this bookstore if I didn't feel that God had called me to do it," Lee says. "I go to Christian bookseller shows, and every person I talk to, they're not in it for the money. If you were, you wouldn't be in it. It's all a labor of love."

A best-seller comparison

The same book can have different rankings on different best-seller lists. Here's how The Association for Christian Retail's top-rated books compare with other best-seller lists as of Tuesday:

No. 1: "The Resolution for Men," by Stephen Kendrick and Alex Kendrick

not included on other lists

No. 2: "Heaven is For Real," by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent

USA Today: No. 13

New York Times: No. 20 hardcover nonfiction, No. 1 paperback non fiction, No. 3 combined print & ebook nonfiction

Publishers weekly: #3 top trade paper

No. 3: "Jesus Calling," by Sarah Young

USA Today: No. 128

New York Times: not listed

Publishers weekly: not listed

No. 4: "The Resolution for Women," by Priscilla Shirer

not included on other lists

No. 5: "Nearing Home," by Billy Graham

USA Today: No. 79

New York Times: No. 2 hardcover advice and miscellaneous

Publishers Weekly: No. 4 hardcover non fiction