Answers In Action

Academic Books: Why and How to Sell Them

Copyright 1993 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino.
This article first appeared in the Academic Books newsletter
Bob had questions and didn't know where to find answers. An enthusiastic new Christian, he loved to share the gospel, and his delivery job brought him in contact with dozens of people. Mostly he shared a simple gospel message. But as nonbelievers on his delivery routes began to know him better, they gave him Bible questions for which he didn't have answers. He talked with a Jehovah's Witness who insisted that Jesus was not God. An engineer gave him a complicated argument in favor of evolution. Another client was convinced humans were a giant laboratory experiment by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization. He didn't know what to say to the client who said she couldn't believe in a God who allowed her young son to die from leukemia. Bob cared too much to ignore the questioners, especially because he had been a questioner before he became a Christian. He had to find good answers that directly addressed people's deepest concerns. During his delivery day, he stoped at any Christian bookstore he passed. He searched the shelves for books to answer his clients' questions. In some stores he was frustrated because the shelves seemed jammed with personal testimonies and inspirational stories, but bereft of books with answers and information. Sometimes he was able to find reference books almost hidden among the lighter reading, but the sales clerks were unable to help him choose which books addressed the issues he needed. In one bookstore he found a wealth of good reference and study material, but he needed help finding which books could give him a good introduction without overwhelming him.

And then he found Gretchen. She worked at a Christian bookstore to earn her way through literature studies at a major university. A voracious reader used to reading dense textbooks, she also had read most of the reference books in the little bookstore. When Bob brought his stack of thick hardcovers to the counter, she was surprised someone else liked to study. Bob was surprised she had read the books he was buying. As quickly as he began firing questions at her about which books were best for answering which questions, she was firing back answers, shuffling his stack of books and reaching for more as she answered his questions.

She found a fellow bookworm and he found a way to find the best answers to his clients' questions! It was not a match made in heaven, but it was a match made in a Christian bookstore. That was 1972 and today in 1992 we still love books, still read voraciously, and still spend our time answering people's questions about Christian faith.

Of course, not every new Christian is struck with bibliomania, but every new Christian thinks about his or her faith, shares it with others, and has good questions that need solid answers from God's Word. A Chuck Swindoll book gives readers principles for Christian living, but doesn't answer questions about reason and faith. Dave Dravecky's When You Can't Come Back shows how Christian faith brings triumph out of personal tragedy, but doesn't deal philosophically with the problem of how God can permit human suffering.

Good Christian publishers recognize this need, and successful Christian bookstores know how to stock the right mix of academic books and, equally important, how to get those books off the store shelf and into customers' hands.

We surveyed publishers and bookstores to find out how Christian bookstores successfully stock and sell academic books. We learned some mistakes to avoid, and good principles for changing a store's academic liability into a strong asset.

Here's what not to do. First, don't shortchange your customers by excluding academic books. The largest percentage of sales will be non-academic, but when a new Christian has been nurtured on the milk of the Word for enough time, you need to be there with junior food, toddler food, and even some good meat- and-potatoes food to promote healthy spiritual growth. One Illinois bookstore manager told us, "I dropped most of my academic books because they weren't selling quickly, but later I added many back when I realized my customers' needs. I don't feel it's much of a risk, since the profit on one hardcover reference is about what it is for two paperbacks."

Second, don't shove your academic books into one jumble of "study aids." Your customers have specific questions and need to know where to find specific answers. A customer with questions on evolution should find a "Science and Faith" shelf, and questions about Islam can be answered in a "World Religions" section. One successful Southern California bookstore, The Pink Lady in Orange, significantly improved academic sales simply by breaking the academic books into clearly labeled topical sections.

Third, don't exclude academic books from your in-store or other advertising. You can feature some of your academic books in ways that will get the message to your customers with questions. A bright poster listing the most common questions answered by Gleason Archer's Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan) will pique customer curiosity.

What are some positive steps to developing your academic books sales? First, educate yourself about the kinds of books most helpful to your customers. Listen to the questions your customers ask and then repeat them to publishers' representatives. Ask them to explain how the academic books you are considering can help Christians with questions. Important sources of information are the promotional materials, book reviews, and back cover copy on academic books. Terry Poe, a salesman with Regal Books, notes, "Frequently the covers of our academic books sell themselves. We try to design the covers to be eye-catching, but at the same time to give enough information that the clerk or customer will know how to use the book." Note which academic books are recommended by Christian leaders you trust. Ask a local pastor or Bible school teacher to recommend his favorite introductory reference books, and perhaps also ask him to review new academic books for you and recommend how they can help Christians with questions.

Second, train your sales clerks to respond specifically to customer's questions and study needs. Ron Arnold, manager of Southern California's Christian Discount Books, one of the most successful bookstores in the nation, trains his clerks through role playing. He teaches them to ask basic questions to identify (1) the kind of question the customer has, (2) the customer's previous familiarity with reference books, and (3) the depth of answer that will meet the customer's need. "I won't recommend a complicated Greek manual to someone who has no familiarity with the language and who simply wants a clear understanding of a particular passage," explains Arnold. "My basic principle is that I will recommend a book that can help the customer at his level of ability and interest, and yet will also stimulate him to learn more."

Third, think of your academic books as problem-solvers rather than textbooks. Ask a Christian if he wants to spend hours plowing through a textbook, and his response will be "No way!" Ask him if he would like to have the ability to answer his own most troublesome Bible question fully and thoroughly, and he'll jump at the chance. Frank Lagerborg, a salesman with Moody Books, explains, "The best references are the ones Christians have learned to trust for sound, understandable, and accurate answers to their fundamental questions. More experienced Christians recommend the books to their younger Christian friends that were the most help to them." Frank gives an example, "Norman Geisler and William Nix's General Introduction to the Bible keeps on selling because pastors, Bible study leaders, sales clerks, and others know it contains solid, clear information about the basic issues concerning how we know the Bible is God's Word."

Fourth, develop your customers' appreciation for academic books. In-store displays, posters, and special interest sections are one way to help. For example, Christian Discount Books developed a "Best in Section" card, which lists the most recommended books in each section of the store. They also developed a basic reference library, a collection of reference books that give the customer a well-rounded introduction and yet are relatively inexpensive. The set includes a basic Bible handbook, a concordance, a Bible dictionary, a Bible atlas, an introduction to doctrine or theology, a Bible discrepancy answer book, and a good study Bible.

For under $100, the customer is prepared to answer most of his own questions. Bookstores can successfully sell academic books, and the success is spiritual as well as financial. Ron Arnold enthusiastically explains, "The Word of God is like a mountain full of rich ore and precious jewels. Most Christians spend their lives trying to scramble up the side, looking for gold and jewels with nothing more than their bare hands. When you learn how to use good references, it's like you've added ropes, spikes, hammers, and shovels to your mountain climbing gear. The more you work, and the more tools you have, the more the riches of God's Word will be yours."

Nurturing the Christian Mind: How Academic Books Provide the "Meat" of Christian Growth

By Bob and Gretchen Passantino

Copyright 1993 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino. Reproduction or publication of the content in any manner, without express permission of the author is prohibited.
This article first appeared in the Academic Books newsletter
A Christian college student, fresh from philosophy, asks for books to answer his professor's charges that Christianity is wish-fulfillment, an emotional crutch for people who need to believe in a "Super-Daddy" controlling the world. A women's Bible study leader asks for books to understand how Paul's epistles go together -- in what order they were written, to what kinds of churches and individuals, and so on. A middle aged man, almost ashamed, asks for books to reconcile his faith with the doubts and discouragement he's experienced since he was laid off.

Each is looking for answers of a depth and biblical complexity most best-selling personal experience books aren't designed to provide. Academic books provide the "meat" of biblical truth for a wide variety of customers. Academic books are not just for scholars, pastors, and graduate students. The retailer who recognizes their potential value and is prepared to meet customers' complex needs, finds that academic book sales vitalize profit margins and broaden markets.

Academic Assets for Retailers

Solid academic sales provide a variety of benefits for retailers. First, and for the Christian retailer, most importantly, academic sales help fulfill their ministry. If the Christian retail outlet is supposed to be a smorgasbord of spiritual nutrition, academic books are the entrees, the "meat" of Christian books. The Christian retailer equips Christians for successful Christian living, and spiritual protein is essential.

Second, academic sales increase retail profit margins. The typically larger and therefore higher priced academic books can be sold successfully by a motivated sales person, and the profit on each academic sale is generally much higher. A sale of a paperback bestseller retailing for $9.95 produces a much smaller profit than the sale of the popular Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (five volumes), retailing at around $149.95. Customers can be persuaded to purchase the "big ticket" books and sets when the sales person demonstrates the wide variety of questions, problems, and concerns such a set meets.

Third, academic sales broaden the market base. Younger customers frequently aren't interested in reading a whole book but eagerly look up particular questions in reference books, reading the entry dealing with their questions, but not the entire book. Some Christian men are not interested in reading fiction, but are concerned about Bible study, and are therefore drawn to Bible study tools. Another market-widening advantage to academic books is that multiple customers can be directed to the same books. For example, the Zondervan Encyclopedia answers questions about marriage in Bible times, women in church leadership, biblical prophetic symbolism, Old Testament ethics, and a host of others.

When retailers think of academic books as sales assets rather than inventory deadweights, they reap the benefits of a well-rounded, well-promoted academic book section.

Academic "Meat" and Christian Readers

Just as a well-rounded, balanced diet with a wide variety of foods is necessary for physical health, so should the Christian's "spiritual" diet reflect such diversity. A diet rich in completely lacking in protein can be deadly. While personal experience, self-help, biography, and relationship books provide spiritual vitamins, minerals, fiber, and energy, the well-balanced Christian reading diet should include biblical depth and complexity, foundational "protein" for healthy spiritual growth. Academic books fit the bill in a variety of ways.

First, academic books enable readers to see the depth and beauty of God's Word. A good example is The New Testament: An Introduction to Its Literature and History by J. Gresham Machen (Banner of Truth), which provides readers with the historical background of Christianity, the early history of Christianity, and fascinating introductions to each of the books and topics of concern in the New Testament.

Second, academic books answer readers questions concerning evidence for faith, reasons for faith, and scripture interpretation. Josh McDowell's A Ready Defense (Here's Life) combines the best of this popular apologists' standard works defending the Christian faith, including many familiar evidences from Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Here's Life). When a customer looks for reasons for faith, such as concerning the existence of God or the possibility of miracles, an outstanding book is philosophy professor and popular speaker Norman Geisler's When Skeptics Ask (coauthored with Thomas A. Howe and published by Victor Books). Any Christian who reads the Bible often encounters Bible questions, and alleged Bible "contradictions" are favorite weapons of hostile agnostics. John Haley's classic century-old Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible (Whitaker House and others) is still one of the best in this area, as is Gleason Archer's up-to-date Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan).

Third, academic books help readers fulfill the command of 2 Timothy 2:15 to "present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth." Many academic books enahance one's understand of biblical truth, and good doctrinal introductions are a great place to start. One of the best new basic doctrine books is Alan F. Johnson and Robert E. Webber's What Christians Believe (Zondervan), which provides a biblical and historical survey of basic Christian doctrine.

Fourth, academic books help readers help others. Frequently Christian customers look for answers for a friend, a coworker, or a relative, and academic books often provide the most biblical and succinct answers. Lynn Anderson's If I Really Believe, Why Do I Have These Doubts? (Bethany House), is an example of a people-helping book that disguises solid biblical "meat" in a conversational style attractive to a reader who doesn't want an "academic" book.

Fifth, academic books, while initially usually more expensive than other books, are actually retail bargains because they are used again and again. A customer with an immediate question about how the four gospel stories fit together may spend $24.95 for D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris' An Introduction to the New Testament (Zondervan), but that book answers later questions such as who wrote the book of Hebrews, how the New Testament canon was formed, and how history and archaeology affirm the reliability of Luke-Acts.

Sixth, academic books provide readers with necessary information and knowledge to understand and appreciate the richness of God's Word. There is no substitute for an intimate knowledge of the Bible, and academic books introduce readers to biblical interpretation, history, archaeology, literature, doctrine, theology, ethics, Bible characters, languages, and themes. Books such as the New 20th-Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, edited by J. D. Douglas (Baker) open a world of biblical richness and spiritual depth to readers.

How to Pick the Right Academic Books

To convince a customer an academic book is the best choice, retailers need to suggest the best book for the customer's particular need. There are five main categories of academic books: Bible help, doctrinal and theological, interpretational, informational, and idea-oriented.

Bible helps are key books for those who want to find something in the Bible, or who want to understand a particular Bible passage. Bible helps include concordances, such as Strong's Exhaustive Concordance (various publishers) or the NIV Exhaustive Concordance (Zondervan); dictionaries, such as The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (Zondervan) by Merrill Tenney; topical Bibles, such as Nave's Topical Bible (Hendrickson and Zondervan); atlases, such as the Moody Atlas of the Bible (Moody) by Barry Beitzel; commentaries, such as The Eerdmans Bible Commentary (Eerdmans) edited by Donald Guthrie or the Evangelical Commentary on the Bible (Baker) edited by Walter A. Elwell; Bible study guides, such as Baker's Bible Study Guide (Baker) by Derek Prime; and study Bibles, such as The Comparaitve Study Bible (Zondervan), The Open Bible (Nelson), or The Concordia Self-Study Bible (Concordia); and language helps for Greek and Hebrew, some, such as lexicons and grammars, difficult; but some as simple as Learn New Testament Greek (Baker) by John H. Dobson and the Dictionary of Old Testament Words for English Readers (Kregel) by Aaron Pick.

Doctrinal and theological books are especially helpful to learn or understand what Christianity stands for, what beliefs all Christians hold in common, and how to understand and express those beliefs. Systematic theologies, such as Charles Hodge: Systematic Theology (Abridged Edition) (Baker), edited by Edward N. Gross, provide in depth discussion of all the major areas of belief, including theism, the knowledge of God, the nature and attributes of God, the trinity, the deity of Christ, the Holy Spirit, miracles, angels, the nature, fall, and redemption of man, sin, salvation, faith, justification, sanctification, end times, the church, and heaven. Less intimidating and much less complex introductions to doctrine, such as Alister E. McGrath's Understanding Doctrine (Zondervan) are good for beginners who want to learn about what they believe or for mature Christians attempting to express their beliefs to non-believers. Doctrinal and theological surveys provide detail and information in easy-to-understand form, like Charts of Christian Theology and Doctrine (Zondervan) by H. Wayne House. Some theology books focus on one teaching, and readers get a good understanding of different doctrinal perspectives by reviewing several specialized books. For example, the doctrine of hell is debated in evangelical circles today and Christians unsure of biblical teaching can choose from a number of books devoted to the subject, including The Other Side of the Good News (Victor Books) by Larry Dixon, A Wideness in God's Mercy (Zondervan) by Clark Pinnock, Through No Fault of Their Own (Baker) edited by William V. Crockett and James G. Sigountos, and Four Views on Hell (Zondervan) edited by William Crockett.

Interpretational books aid the reader in understanding particular biblical passages. Rather than commenting directly on a particular passage, an interpretational book gives the reader tools to do his own interpretation. General introductions to understanding biblical passages illuminate the literary and cultural themes of scripture. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan) by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart develops readers' awareness of biblical context, language, history, and culture. Two books specifically focused on the literature of the Bible, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible (Baker) and Words of Life: A Literary Introduction to the New Testament (Baker), both by Leland Ryken, provide excellent help in understanding parables, prophecy, allegory, figures of speech, and Greek and Hebrew idioms. Interpretational books include complex studies for advanced readers like Biblical Apocalyptics: A Study of the Most Notable Revelations of God and of Christ (Baker) by Milton S. Terry and New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Tranforming Biblical Reading (Zondervan) by Anthony C. Thiselton.

Informational books go beyond lists of biblical topics such as messianic prophecies fulfilled by Jesus or plants and animals in the Bible. Informational books include historical, archaeological, scientific, and environmental information. For example, Jesus and the Forgotten City (Baker) by Richard A. Batey provides a fascinating look (complete with beautiful National Geographic photography) at the urban world of Jesus through contemporary archaeological work at Sepphoris in Galilee. Darwin's Enigma (Master Book) by Luther D. Sunderland and Darwin on Trial (InterVarsity Press) by Phillip E. Johnson provide insightful, scientifically rigorous criticisms of darwinian evolution. Not all books on science and the Bible are complex, some are even entertaining for older children, such as Astronomy and the Bible (Baker) and Weather and the Bible (Baker), both by Donald B. DeYoung. History, especially as it relates to the Bible and Christianity, often is distorted or revised by secularists, but Christians can find good books correcting these biases, including Worldy Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Zondervan) by Leland Ryken and Columbus & Cortez, Conquerors for Christ (New Leaf) by John Eidsmoe.

Books about thinking are often referred to as philosophical books, but that long term (which means "the love of wisdom") shouldn't scare readers from a engrossing exploration of ideas and ethics. Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe's When Critics Ask (Victor) helps Christians answer non-believers' objections to biblical truth; Geisler and Winfried Corduan's Philosophy of Religion (Baker) sorts out the confusing religious options facing world citizens today; and Classical Apologetics (Zondervan) by R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley provides Christians with sound arguments for the defense of the Christian faith. Ethics are covered by many thoughtful Christian writers, some in books that are more foundational, like Evangelical Ethics (Prebyterian & Reformed) by John Jefferson Davis; and others with a cultural immediacy as close as your television set, like Hollywood Vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values (Zondervan) by Michael Medved.

Equipping the Saints

There's a book for every reader, question, problem, doubt, and intellect. Academic books aren't found on bestseller lists, but should form a solid core in every Christian retail outlet that is serious about equipping Christians for Christian maturity. The wealth of resources is ready for the discerning retailer to plunder and distribute to his customers.


The Lord's Servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will give them a change of heart leading to a knowledge of the truth
II Timothy 2:24-26


Answers In Action