Atheist Authors make the Big Time

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 subcategory—the anti-religion books. The past two years have brought a striking number of impassioned critiques of religion—any religion, but Christianity in particular—and calls for a return to reason rather than faith as a guiding principle. Some of these books—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 authors—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

The End of Faith by Sam Harris: 250,000 copies sold (says this article)

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 up… But maybe if you bought a couple million copies, I wouldn’t have to do that.)

What I thought was interesting (and pretty dumb), is that Christopher Hitchens’s editor at Vintage says, “I’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.” Sam Harris’s editor doesn’t seem to be much brighter when he says, “It’s hard to imagine there’s a lot left to say.”

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?


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. Hmm, time to get cracking on Ghost of the Gaps. Now, where did I put my writing hat? (-;

    I often wonder why so many publications choose a religious person to review a book on atheism

    Not having seen the data, I toss out the following hypotheses:

    1) Null hypothesis — random chance. If most people, even intellectuals, profess some kind of religion, well, roll the dice and see what you get.

    2) Incompetence — "Oh, this book attacks Christianity, so we should get a Christian to review it to find out how Christians think about it." Not so bad, as far is it goes, but authors like Dawkins and Stenger write books based on scientific arguments which should be evaluated by people possessing a scientific background. Otherwise, you set yourself up for a Courtier's Reply.

    3) Malice — "Atheists all worship Satan and eat Christian babies." To which I reply, "No, no, we just drink the blood of babies born of Christian parents. There's no such thing as a 'Christian baby.' You see, according to Atheist Pope Richard I, labeling infant children with the religion of their parents is just, well, downright creepy."

  2. What we need is a series of Chicken Soup for the Atheist Soul. Nice heartwarming stories about overcoming the odds based on your own hard work… the chicken soup website says stories should be of "inspiration, hope, overcoming life’s challenges and realized dreams." I think the idea behind Chicken Soup is a good one, except that the stories are usually incredibly cheesy and dripping with religious undertones.

    Of course, we'd have to come up with some other phrase than "Atheist Soul" due to the general oxymoron there. Or else keep it in for irony's sake?

  3. Well, also Chicken Soup for the ____ Soul is also trademarked, so we couldn't use that anyway without permission. ;)

  4. in addition, in most borders/other chain book stores, there are gobs of utter bull shite astrology, crystal, and other crap in the science section, as well as creationist books.

    It makes me crazy, but at least I've learned to not bother asking for them to move the creationist books out of science and into faith.

  5. Joshua, what you'd do is pitch a Chicken Soup for the Atheist's Soul book to the publisher of the other Chicken Soup books.

    mollishka, see Douglas Hofstadter's newest book, "I am a Strange Loop" for an interesting use of the word "soul."

    And bug girl, you're so right about all of the other non-religious superstition and spirituality books that I dind't even count, I would say at least half of the self-help section would fit into this category as well, and you find them scattered around in travel, memoir, literature, etc.

    Don't ask them to move the creationist books, just move them. If anyone asks you what you're doing, just say, "I found these books in the wrong section, so I'm putting them back where they belong." :-)

  6. It makes me crazy, but at least I’ve learned to not bother asking for them to move the creationist books out of science and into faith.

    They should have a Science section and a "Science" section…

  7. Blake, The God Delusion and The End of Faith are two books that do not need to be reviewed by someone with a professional scientific background – those books are not heavy on scientific arguments. Ditto with Hitchens's style. (The others I haven't read.) I suspect, based on the reviews I read (in publications worth reading reviews), that like with other fields they get people who are knowledgeable in a related field, i.e. Religious Studies, theology, philosophy, etc., and more often than not, those scholars are not atheists. Lawrence Krauss reviewed Dawkins's book in Nature.

    However, it seems that most of the reviews I've read have primarily attacked the authors about their alleged lack of religion knowledge and epistemology, and especially with The God Delusion they don't appear to be taking the intended audience (which Dawkins spells out in the book) into consideration; their books would be twice as long if they got into so much philosophy of religion, and frankly most atheists don't need nor want to hear that much of it. The New Yorker Review points that out:

    For example, when Terry Eagleton, a British critic who has been a professor of English at Oxford, lambasted Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” in the London Review of Books, he wrote that “card-carrying rationalists” like Dawkins “invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.” That is unfair, because millions of the faithful around the world believe things that would make a first-year theology student wince. A large survey in 2001 found that more than half of American Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians believed that Jesus sinned—thus rejecting a central dogma of their own churches.

    The other night I was reading this article in The Nation about this very matter, which also referencesLazare's article criticizing Dawkins. And here's The New Yorker's review talking about all these books. Recalling a review I read many months ago in Harper's of The God Delusion, this is all sounding redundant…and frankly, boring.

    Vintage may have a point in that at the moment there is probably enough out there on atheism on an academic level, but that's a tactless way to say it. Honestly, as a book-buying atheist I'm not inclined to read the same arguments over and over, and oversaturation is an issue with any publisher. It's a business decision. In a few years there may be another surge unless someone comes out with a brilliant book that hits on something new above and beyond what all those above authors have written. Advances in neuroscience, biology, polical events, etc. will give rise to new arguments, I'm sure.

    But those sales are very respectable, and looking at Amazon and books such as Atheist Universe being ranked at #652 after nearly two years from the first issue is great. I wish I had access to Bookscan.

    Perhaps the next immediate surge of atheist books should be along the lines of personal, less academic books; the fact that that Atheist Universe has done so well, and from a lesser-known publisher, shows there's a market for that kind of book. Maybe compendiums of atheist thinkers throughout the ages would be something I would buy – good, juicy historical quotes and essays from a variety of thinkers. That would serve as Chicken Soup type book, but less kitschy. (Anyway, clam chowder is much better.)

    I guess I'm wondering what all you atheists out there would continue buying at this point (if you've read all the above books). I want to read Hitchens book, because I find his literary snarkiness too entertaining, not because he's going to shed new light on the matter. ;-)

  8. Joshua, with the sales of the atheist books lately, you might be surprised. Remember, publishers are in business to make money.

    Melusine, I would love to read an anthology of stories by skepchicks about how and why they became skeptics (or atheists or humanists or whatever), and how their unbelief comes into play in their day to day lives — how they celebrate holidays, interaction with peers and family, what they talk about with their kids, if they ever talk about religion with coworkers, and so forth. (Actually, I'd like to edit such a book but I wouldn't be able to work on it until at least the middle of 2008.)

    I like memoirs, too, about people who fall away from religion (a kind of reverse of Augustine's classic conversion format). I have some really interesting and funny ones:

    Devil in the Details – about a woman who had scrupulosity (religious OCD) when she was a teenager

    Running from the Devil – about a boy who had epilepsy but thought he was demon posessed

    My Fundamentalist Education – about a girl who went to a fundamentalist private school even though her parents were liberal

    And (of course, the classic in this genre),

    Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood in which the author is orphaned and then gets stuck in a dark corner of her Catholic family.

    I actually have more, but I don't want to type any more.

    They're not atheist books, per se, but they aren't mainstream religion either (although Mary McCarthy does really slam religion but with great literary panache). They show the darker side of what happens when religion goes wrong. Not the horrible side, I'm not really into reading about abuse and violence, but I am interested in how people have been emotionally harmed by religion. These are powerful stories, because most people aren't visibly abused or physically harmed by religion but there are quite a lot of kids who are emotionally and psychologically marred by what their parents think is good religious training.

    I think less academic and more literary and personal books are called for. Maybe some self-help books, too, about how to get the superstitious monkey off your back?

  9. Melusine & Blake, one more thing about the reviews of Dawkins's and Haris's books, etc. They are being critiqued regarding formal, sophisticated, theological concepts and that's not at all what they are about.

    Go down any street in the US and knock on someone's door and ask them a few questions about religion and theology. The will not know anything about the latter. In fact, most evangelical Christians think theology (as well as any academic or literary study of the Bible) is completely besides the point, it has nothing to do with "having a personal relationship with Jesus" and it is considered to be false religion and, in many cases, even a tool of Satan.

    The general public in America is very unsophisticated in their beliefs, even if they do claim to be quite pious and devoted to God and/or religion.

  10. Wow, I hadn't heard of scrupulosity before. I think I might have had a really mild version of it way back when I was a kid and still in my Baptist church. (Think Asperger's versus full-blown autism, here… I definitely wasn't as bad as the description on Wikipedia sounds.)

    I got "saved" multiple times, in fact. I kept going through that particular ritual because I wasn't sure it stuck, or because I got paranoid that I was somehow canceling it out (ironically) by doing it multiple times. And I still remember doing this weird Bible-shuffling thing with my desk in first grade (Baptist elementary school, of course), where I had to move my Bible's place in my stack of books because I couldn't decide whether it should have been on the bottom to serve as the foundation for all the other books or on the top to occupy the highest place in the stack, so I just rotated it around at regular intervals.

    Religion makes you do some really weird crap.

  11. They pick religion writers largely because they think atheism is a religion. This is likely the biggest myth surrounding atheism. But as the quip goes, "Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby."

  12. Us atheists need a new label or rather need a new non-label. Isn't atheist the label given to us by christians? Isn't that like GP's calling themselves allopaths because thats what the homeopathiquacks call them?

    Don't know about you but I'm no atheist (or even a philatelist for that matter). Ironically the only time god,christianity etc enter my sensory experiences is when I'm listening to a sckeptical podcast or reading a site like this. Probably different for you folks in the US, you seem to be beset by religious wackos from the Whitehouse down. You poor buggers have got my sympathy.

  13. No, the "allopathy" label, which is indeed given to REAL doctors by the homeopathy crowd, is an incorrect label. They give that label because it means the opposite of "homeo" or "the same" (I think), but that's incorrect. Real medicine is not the opposite of homeopathy. The two methods are completely incomparable because the underlying principles are worlds apart.

    a-theist however, IS a correct label. It essentially means "without god(s)". That also implies that quite a few oriental religions qualify for the term "atheist" because they have no deities (for example: buddhism).

    So as far as labels go, it is a good one, as it correctly describes the category it labels. However, some atheists might not like to categorise people based on religion, because for them, religion is of no importance. So what you need is not a new label, but a new category, like "rationalists" (vs. irrationalists) for example.

  14. However, some atheists might not like to categorise people based on religion, because for them, religion is of no importance.


    My lack of religion doesn't define me; instead, it is a consequence of character traits and experiences which do define my identity (or come closer to doing so).

  15. mollishka,

    Atheism is a religion just like health is a disease?

    Did you get that from Clark Adams or from me? (Or from some atheist Q document as yet unknown?)

    Chicken Soup for the Atheist Strange Loop?

    The rhyming of "soup" and "loop" is good, but it should be made more apparent. Hearty Soup for a Strange Loop might be a good, outside-of-trademark riff. (-:

  16. I didn't think about religion for a long time after I became an atheist. Then the religious right took over the US and I had to start thinking about it again. I am not mad at God, because he's make believe, but I am mad at the religious right and fundamentalists for making me have to think about this crap all the time.

    I am guessing that Hofstadter would love the Hearty Soup for a Strange Loop title idea.

  17. I guess my point was that a-theism can only exist in relationship to theism. No theism means no a-theism. I guess I'm imagining a world where god myths hadn't evolved.

  18. One minute. Do you really expect to see as many books on Let's Not Do Macrame as books on Let's Do Macrame? Sure, macrame has only a limited appeal, but exactly how much needs to be said about not doing macrame?

  19. Much should be said on not doing macrame. Macrame is on the slippery slope to new ageism and the evil world of homeopathy, forehead crystal wearing & sandals.

  20. I guess Kaleberg and mawgxxxxiv's points both hint toward the ideal world where nobody believes in invisible non-existent friends, and there's no need for anti-invisible-non-existent-friend books. That's how non-religious people see the world anyway.

    But the last point is a good reminder that there's sooo many people out there who are already stuck with an irrational belief, and the only thing we can do to prevent the insanity from taking hold of more people is explain WHY belief in invisible-non-existent-friends is such an insane idea in the first place.

    In a different world, the concept of god might never have emerged at all. But we don't live in that world, so now we're stuck having to deal with it. The next best thing we have is trying to make people realise where this irrational belief came from, why it's irrational, and perhaps hope we might some day be rid of it altogether. It might not make that much of a difference, but it would definitely simplify a few things.

  21. There are always gonna be more books on theism than on a-theism.

    Atheist position: there is no god.

    Theist position: my gods blue, well my gods yellow, no the one true god is purple, no your wrong there are four gods and they have incarnated as the Tele Tubbies, cease heathen the purple Tele Tubbie is a sodomite & therefore my god will smite you down you filthy pornographer, haha got you I achieve tantric unity with my god by banging that cute chick next door, oh no you eegit the only true path to god is to wrap your missus up in a sheet and stone your son to death for masturbating, no no your all wrong god lives in the bend of a river and therefore we must shift this new freeway 4 kilometers east, hang on a second give me $1000 & I will lead you directly to gilt gate of cosmic transcendence etc etc etc.

  22. I am in the book publishing industry (and I'm supposed to say "I don't speak on behalf of my company") and I can tell you that while we may not want to publish many more atheist polemics along the lines of Harris, Hitchens, et al, because of reader fatigue, there is an interest in publishing more books about the conflicting roles of science and religion in society. Popular science sells, if not huge numbers, and so do cultural studies, so there's room for more discussion of (atheist) science. And there's always room for smart memoirs that tell a bigger cultural story.

    I'd love to publish books with an atheistic point of view, but, as other folks have pointed out, they need to sell enough copies to make my bosses happy.

  23. Atheist science?

    Ok, so it's in parenthesis, but I just wanted to point out there's no such thing.

    You could scientifically research some of the claims made in the bible for example, but that doesn't really make it atheist science. Would it have been christian science if the results had not disproven the religious claims?

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