A small UK press has found itself in possession of a much hotter publishing property than it had imagined, after Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth shot to No 1 in Amazon's US bestseller list when its author Reza Aslan became the subject of an extraordinary interview on US news channel Fox News.
The Westbourne Press is now hoping that Zealot will repeat the trick in the UK, and is rushing out the book in August ahead of schedule, having snapped it up "instantly" on being approached by Aslan's agent back in May. "We felt fortunate to be offered it," editor Mitch Albert said.
Video footage of Aslan's appearance on Fox – which showed presenter Lauren Green repeatedly push him on how, as a Muslim, he felt qualified to write a book about Jesus, despite his patient explanations of the scholarly nature of his work – was watched by five million people after being posted on buzzfeed, under the headline Is This The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?
"The storm of attention has played out over here too, so we thought it best to bring it out," Albert said. "The book would appeal to those who care nothing for religion, but care for history and biography. It addresses not Jesus Christ but Jesus of Nazareth, a historical figure, asking who was this man and what were the dynamics of first-century Palestine that gave rise to the sort of zealotry from which he arose? It's also about how religion is inseparable from politics, and how the Church has made use of his life."
The Iranian-American author's two previous books were published in the UK by Random House, but following success with Guardian first book award-shortlisted No God But God, which sold nearly 13,000 copies, Aslan's follow-up title, How to Win a Cosmic War, sold only 707 copies in hardback and paperback, the official charts company Nielsen BookScan confirmed.
In the Fox News interview, which formed part of the US publicity tour for Zealot, interviewer Lauren Green asked: "You're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?"
Aslan replied: "To be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim." Later, interviewed by Piers Morgan, he said had been "embarrassed" by the question.
Albert said: "I was incredibly impressed at how poised Aslan was, he saw very quickly that they [Fox News] had a particular axe to grind and that the presenter hadn't read the book and was not prepared. It's his job as a professor of religion to write, he hasn't a faith-based agenda."
The Westbourne Press was set up in 2012 by Saqi Books, a publisher specialising in North Africa and the Middle East.
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is out on 15 August, and is available in the UK now in ebook form.