For those of you not involved in the publishing industry, let me say that what you are about to read is a big deal.
Over the past few weeks Publisher’s Weekly (the primary book industry trade news magazine in the US) and Book Expo America (the largest publishing industry trade show in the US) have both featured discussions on the recent popularity books about atheism.
Book Expo, held in New York earlier this month, featured a panel of atheist authors, along with an editor, to discuss “Atheism: The Rise of a New Subcategory in Religion.” Here’s a description of the even from the BEA website:
The dominant role of religion in politics and culture in recent years has produced a backlash, evidenced by the rise of a new subcategoryâ€”the anti-religion books. The past two years have brought a striking number of impassioned critiques of religionâ€”any religion, but Christianity in particularâ€”and calls for a return to reason rather than faith as a guiding principle. Some of these booksâ€”by Dawkins, Dennett and Harris–have earned lasting tenure on the bestseller lists. This spring brings a new crop, and this panel features a range of atheist authorsâ€”including firebrand journalist Christopher Hitchens and scientist Victor Stenger–who take a gloves-off approach to what they see as the sins of religion.
I didn’t get to go to Book Expo, but I’ve asked Nica Lalli, BEA panelist and author of Nothing: Something to Believe In, to write a guest post for us next week, telling us about her experiences on this panel.
The panel was sponsored by Pubilsher’s Weekly. Last month, Brian Flemming (The God Who Wasn’t There) suggested that PW has a prejudice against atheists, and provided excerpts of their reviews of books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Hement Mehta to back up his statements. A PW review is the holy grail of book reviews for many authors and publishers, and the influence of PW shouldn’t be underestimated. So it’s a shame if they are overwhelmingly (and perhaps unfairly) critical of atheist books. It seems like Flemming was on to something to me. Read the piece yourself and see what you think.
I guess PW read Flemming’s critique, or perhaps they just picked the wrong people to review books about atheism (I often wonder why so many publications choose a religious person to review a book on atheism), because they ended up sponsoring the Book Expo panel, and publishing an article called Believe It or Not that discusses how atheist books have been outselling religious books lately. Amusingly, they called Hement Mehta’s book, I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith through an Atheist’s Eyes, a Christian book.
I’ve stolen this handy list of sales figures from The Friendly Atheist:
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins: 282,000 copies sold
Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris: 123,000 copies sold
God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens: 58,000 copies sold
Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett: 52,000 copies sold
God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger: 60,000 copies shipped
I Sold My Soul on eBay by Hemant Mehta: 99,213,912 copies sold. (Ok, I made that upâ€¦ But maybe if you bought a couple million copies, I wouldnâ€™t have to do that.)
What I thought was interesting (and pretty dumb), is that Christopher Hitchens’s editor at Vintage says, â€œI’m not doing any more. I’m done. I think Christopher Hitchens has made the point. We’re very happy to continue selling his book. But I don’t intend to become the atheist press here.â€ Sam Harris’s editor doesn’t seem to be much brighter when he says, â€œIt’s hard to imagine there’s a lot left to say.â€
I mean, come on, let’s get real for a moment. At my local Borders there is exactly 1 (o-n-e) shelf of atheist books. There are five shelves of books about Judiasm, and an entire section with hundreds of shelves about Chrsitianity. I think there are about the same number of atheists as Jews in the US, depending on which poll you read, so we have at least four more shelves of books due to us. And with sales figures like those listed above, can these publishers really afford to ignore atheist authors?