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Archive for Friday, May 25, 2001

Writing a new chapter

Self-help books marry Scripture, personal discovery

May 25, 2001

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— Michelle McKinney Hammond knows how to look irresistible to men, and it has nothing to do with lipstick or good lighting.

Hammond thinks a woman's glow should come from faith in Jesus, and says so in an advice book that has sold 60,000 copies.

Michelle McKinney Hammond thinks a woman's glow should come from
faith in Jesus, and says so in an advice book, "Secrets of An
Irresistible Woman," that has sold 60,000 copies.

Michelle McKinney Hammond thinks a woman's glow should come from faith in Jesus, and says so in an advice book, "Secrets of An Irresistible Woman," that has sold 60,000 copies.

Her "Secrets of An Irresistible Woman," is part of a major segment of the Christian publishing industry self-help books that marry Scripture with the marketing pitch of the recovery movement. The goal: sell the Bible as the original self-help book.

"I take biblical applications and make them practical. I think you need to have God as a partner," said Hammond, a 43-year-old, born-again Christian from Chicago, whose other works include "If Men Are Like Buses Then How Do I Catch One?"

Such books have gained visibility as big chains including Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble have expanded their selection of Christian publications, once sold only in religious stores.

Roman Catholic publishers, with books that typically appeal to scholars, have recently entered the self-help field. The Jesuit publisher Loyola Press is planning a September release for "My Monastery is a Minivan," about the spiritual life of a mother of four.

"Americans are very practical in their approach to spirituality, that's why 'Jabez' is so popular," said Lynn Garrett, religion editor of Publishers Weekly, referring to "Prayer of Jabez," a best seller about a prayer based on a little-known Biblical figure. "It's just like perfecting their golf swing. It's a how-to, entrepreneurial way of thinking."

Smiling couples, pastel hearts

Christian publishers have long offered books about incorporating lessons from the Bible into everyday life. But in recent years, they have used a more sophisticated marketing approach to match their secular competitors, who have sold millions promising remedies for everything from depression to loveless marriages.

"The Christian publishing market probably was ahead of the self-help movement, but it kind of gave us a notion that there was a bigger market than the core church audience," said Scott Bolinder, executive vice president of Zondervan Publishing House in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Among the religious how-to books are "God Said It, Don't Sweat It: How to Keep Life's Petty Hassles from Overwhelming You," "Half Time: Changing Your Game Plan from Success to Significance," and "The Lady, Her Lover, And Her Lord."

Many of the books are indistinguishable from secular self-help titles, with cover photos of smiling couples and pastel-colored drawings of hearts. Some reference God in the title, but others reveal their religious approach in small print or in the text.

There is no way to know how many Christian advice books are sold, because no centralized means of tracking religious publishing exists, Garrett said.

But Bolinder said the genre is a "fairly significant part of the portfolio" at Zondervan, which also sells Bibles and religious instructional materials. One of the company's top-selling books is "The Act of Marriage," billed as a sex manual for Christian couples, which has sold 2.5 million copies since it was published in 1976.

Zondervan also will challenge New Age health care titles with a book to be published next month called "Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook."

Chicago-based Loyola Press decided to start publishing self-help titles after its book "The Gift of Peace," Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's reflections on facing cancer, sold about 350,000 copies within nine weeks, Loyola senior vice president Terry Locke said.

"It became apparent there was a hunger out there from average ordinary folks," Locke said. "We've refocused our entire trade publishing line to addressing the very practical life concerns surrounding spirituality in the Catholic tradition."

Locke, Bolinder and others reject the idea that religious advice books water down the Bible's lessons. "We put solid content out there where people are," Locke said.

Hammond said she wrote "Secrets" after seeing the success of "The Rules," the books that teach women to snag men by playing hard to get. Hammond believes the rules should be about personal development guided by Christ, so women are prepared when Mr. Right comes along.

"The Bible is the greatest self-help book of all," Hammond said. "That's God's concept. He saw people with needs and a way to help ourselves."

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