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Where’s the ker-ching?

10 October 2014

Why are so few of our top ten stacked by the till, wonders Paul Handley


SO, THERE you have it: our judges' complete list (100 Best Christian Books). Now that it can be seen as a whole, readers can appreciate the fine balancing that placed one work just there, and an-other work two places above it.

The top ten is, perhaps, the least surprising part of the list, now that it is out in the open. The church Fathers share it with the flowers of medieval spirituality, and participants in the turbulence of the 17th century. John Bunyan, born in 1628, is the nearest in the top ten to the present time.

The reason is that, in the judges' eyes, these works have proved to be firm building-blocks for the Church through the centuries. There have been periods of neglect, but the works emerge unscathed. And, although many of them serve as theological textbooks, they have, in the main, shown a breadth of appeal, so that several are studied today on philosophy or literature courses.

The question arises, though: if these are, indeed, the top ten, what steps are being taken to ensure that their importance is conveyed to the next generation of readers? For that matter, what of the whole top 100?

It's time for another word about C. S. Lewis. For many non-academic readers, his five titles in the list have boosted their score of books in the top 100 which they have actually read - perhaps to five. His works might not be as important as others on the list, but they are more widely read.

I have at my elbow a list of the 2014 sales of the top 100, produced by Nielsen. Or, rather, the top 92, since eight titles have recorded no sales this year at all. From our list, you will have seen that several are out of print. (though when we had compiled the list, we contacted publishers to urge them to provide at least a print-on-demand edition).

A further 21 works are in single figures. The figures cover trade sales of new books, and therefore do not log the active secondhand market that thrives online - or books that have been borrowed, obviously. Also, they log the top-selling edition of a work, which might not reflect actual sales of some of those out of copyright.

The results are, none the less, sobering. In all, only 37 of the top 100 have sold more than 100 copies this year.

And, of course, sales figures put the books in a different order. The top ten in order of sales are: 

 1 . Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis

 2 . The Screwtape Letters C. S Lewis

 3 . A Grief Observed C. S. Lewis

 4 . Gilead Marilynne Robinson

 5 . Four Quartets T. S. Eliot

 6 . Paradise Lost John Milton

 7 . The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky

 8 . Surprised by Joy C. S. Lewis

 9 . The Divine Comedy Dante Alighieri

10. The Power and the Glory Graham Greene

THUS Dante is the only author to justify his place in our top ten by dint of sales. St Augustine came 17th and 33rd on the sales list, St Benedict 41st, and St Thomas Aquinas 85th (registering only three copies). Julian of Norwich did better, at number 14.

Before you get too depressed, it is worth noting that the whole of the religious-books category has generated sales of £15.7 million to date in 2014. The category is wide, however, and, once you have stripped out mind, body and spirit; astrology and fortune-telling; the occult; and a few other sub-categories, the total for recognisably Christian books is nearer £9.2 million.

Still, this compares favourably with categories such as sport (£11 million) and computing (£12.2 million), if not food and drink (£42 million).

The number of religious books sold so far this year, in our refined category, is 458,157.

All this shows how our books trade is shaped always to the next thing - good news for authors, not so good for their predecessors. Occasionally, publishers do something fancy with their back catalogue. One reason for C. S. Lewis's strong showing was the re-editioning of his works last year for the 50th anniversary of his death.

But the question remains: what mechanisms can be employed to encourage the next generation to open the books on this list? It is not just a matter of wishing to share forgotten gems with them, though many of these works are, indeed, gems.

The contention of our judges is that these works are seminal, containing valuable ideas and expressions for the continued health of the Church.

This list, a little frivolous though it might seem, is our contribution. The website will remain active. (I am particularly pleased by the opportunity it gives us to read original reviews from the Church Times of books published in the past 150 years.) We encourage readers to consult it, and share it, and continue spreading the good news of such good books.

Sales data © 2014 Nielsen Book Services Limited (trading as Nielsen BookScan). For further information about Nielsen BookScan TCM Panel, email: info.bookscan@nielsen.com.


100 Best Christian Books

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