Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Christian publisher Howard Books moves to Brentwood

As sales of religious books sag, one of the nation's largest publishers hopes to reinvigorate Christian book sales by moving its religious imprint to the Nashville area.
Howard Books, the religious division of Simon & Schuster, recently moved out of its headquarters in West Monroe, La., to Brentwood. Literary agents say the company may gain better publishing opportunities by moving to the Nashville area, home to religious publishing giants Thomas Nelson and LifeWay.

"There are a lot of opportunities to publish really good books that are Christian books," said Jonathan M. Merkh, 46, the vice president and publisher of Howard Books. "Some of the best-selling books over the last five years are Christian books. We believe there are still authors who have voices that should be heard."

Despite Simon & Schuster's heft, the Howard Books imprint is small, with a staff of 10 employees. Analysts say, however, that being small has allowed the division to nimbly adapt to the recession and give more personal attention to authors. The challenge ahead will be to promote its titles at the nation's biggest bookstores in competition with other religious publishers.

The corporate change of address comes as sales of religious books are declining as a result of cutbacks by consumers and churches, the closure of independent Christian bookstores and publishers' inability to find books that become huge best-sellers, analysts said.

Religious book sales dropped about 7.6 percent in 2008 to $724 million, according to the Association of American Publishers, and national bookstores have cut their inventories of titles in that niche. Last year, only 16,847 new religious titles were published, down 14 percent from 2007, according to Albert Greco, a marketing professor at Fordham University.

"It's a really difficult economy," Greco said. "I don't think the recession is over. People have become far more cautious."

Howard Books plans to publish 40 titles in 2010, Merkh said, compared with about 70 in 2008. "We are cutting back the overall title count in order to adjust to the retail environment," he said.

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