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Step aside, Stephen King. Move over, John Grisham. Take a hike, Danielle Steele.

One of the fastest-growing categories in American publishing has no use for gruesome violence, salty language and tawdry sex elements usually considered crucial to creating a best seller.

Religious publishing, already a $2-billion-a-year business in the U.S., is rapidly expanding beyond its traditional specialty bookstores market to mainstream retailers.

"It's one of the hottest genres in publishing," said Phyllis Tickle, the Tennessee-based religion editor of New York trade publication Publishers Weekly. "It's a major element within the industry."

But as religious publishing grows, it's encountering many of the same challenges faced by secular publishers.

Some best-selling Christian authors now command seven-figure advances, prompting bidding wars as spirited as mainstream publishing. Consolidation is emerging as a concern as larger publishers swallow smaller operators.

And there's an undercurrent of controversy as some companies risk alienating conservative Christian booksellers by reaching too far to attract a secular audience.

More ominous, perhaps, is the fact that large mainstream publishers are discovering the religious market.

Ballantine Del Rey Fawcett Books in New York recently announced a new line, called Moorings, aimed at evangelical Christians.

Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. is already a player in Christian publishing through its ownership of Zondervan Corp. in Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan is the second-largest Christian publisher and also operates the Family Bookstore, the largest chain of Christian retail outlets in the U.S.

Some publishers in the religious market are cultivating a higher profile because it combines their religious and business aims.

"We're both ministry-driven and market-driven," said Mark O. Sweeney, corporate VP-publisher of Scripture Press Publications, Wheaton, Ill., with 1993 sales of $25 million.

"Those things come together very well in 1994," he said. "Many in the general marketplace know that the whole thing about family values isn't a joke. This is an opportunity for us to meet a need."

The buzz among religious publishers-particularly those serving evangelical Christians-is crossover to the mainstream market as the fall publishing season begins.

Scripture Press, for example, publishes Shaun Gayle's Sports Tales, a series of children's books written by the Chicago Bears' defensive star.

Harold Shaw Publishers, Wheaton, offers "When You Feel Like Screaming," by Grace Ketterman and Pat Holt. Aimed at frustrated mothers of preschool children, it offers common-sense advice filtered through a spiritual framework.

Tyndale House Publishers in nearby Carol Stream has a hit in "When God Doesn't Make Sense" by James Dobson, which wrestles with many of the same questions as the best-selling "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" by Harold S. Kushner.

Mr. Dobson's book has sold 600,000 copies in the past year-a mega best seller in Christian circles-and is stocked by Wal-Mart Stores and affiliated warehouse chain, Sam's Club.

"There are a lot of people who never get into a Christian bookstore, but do go into secular book shops," said Kenneth Taylor, who founded Tyndale House in 1964 to publish "The Living Bible," which has sold more than 39 million copies in the U.S. and Canada.

"We want to get these materials into the hands of those who might not otherwise get them."

Evangelical motives are also behind the increasing emphasis on fiction within a religious framework.

"So much of what Jesus Christ did was through stories, so we're not shying away from fiction," said Greg Thornton, VP-executive editor of Moody Press, a $15 million, for-profit unit of the Moody Bible Institute.

Mr. Borden is an associate editor at Crain's Chicago Business.

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