Feature

The last word: A publishing miracle

The Bible sells more copies each year than any other title. In a new book, The Week

 In a sixth-floor conference room of an office building near Nashville International Airport, Rodney Hatfield’s BlackBerry buzzes with an incoming e-mail: “The Lord placed a vision on our hearts of a skaters’ Bible. Who can I talk to regarding this? We hope to pack the study Bible with testimonies from pros, devotions, skating tips, etc.”

Hatfield is the vice president of marketing for the Bible division of Thomas Nelson Publishers, by some measures the largest Christian publisher in America, and the ninth largest publishing house of any kind. The e-mail was from a Florida skateboard ministry, and Hatfield read it impassively but not dismissively. After all, one of the company’s lead titles for the fall, The Family Foundations Study Bible, had its origins in a similarly unsolicited suggestion from an outsider. True, that source was more estimable (a major Christian retailer), but the general principle—that Scripture can be repackaged to meet the demands of an increasingly segmented market—is at the heart of the modern Bible-publishing industry.

The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: The Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year. Calculating how many Bibles are sold in the United States is a virtually impossible task, but a conservative estimate is that in 2005 Americans purchased some 25 million Bibles—twice as many as that year’s new Harry Potter book. The amount spent annually on Bibles has been put at more than half a billion dollars.

In some ways, this should not be surprising. According to the Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm, 47 percent of Americans read the Bible every week. But other research has found that 91 percent of American households own at least one Bible—the average household owns four—which means that Bible publishers survive by selling 25 million copies a year of a book that almost everybody already has. And not just survive, thrive. Bible sales were up 25 percent between 2003 and 2005.

Bible publishing is an intensely competitive business, though, and the half-dozen Christian houses that dominate it can hardly afford to rely solely on outsiders’ suggestions. One recent Nelson release, The Grace for the Moment Daily Bible, had a more typically strategic genesis: It was an extension of one of the publisher’s most popular brands, a series of devotional books by a Texas minister, Max Lucado, whose many titles have sold nearly 50 million copies. Nelson categorizes Grace for the Moment as an everyday-life Bible, whereas it classes Family Foundations as a study Bible. That distinction points to one way in which publishers sell multiple copies of the Bible to the same customers. “They each have a different purpose,” Hatfield told me. “It’s kind of like a tool chest. All the tools are tools, but they’re designed for doing different things.”

There are also distinctions within each category. There are study Bibles that focus on theology, on historical context, or on practical applications of biblical teachings. There are devotional Bibles for new believers, couples, brides, and cowboys. On an airplane one day, I saw a woman reading a surfers’ Bible very similar to the proposed skaters’ one. The variety is seemingly limitless. The 2006 catalogue for Nelson’s Bible imprint lists more than 100 titles.

“I almost liken it to what happened in radio,” says Wayne Hastings, the division’s publisher. “Look at satellite radio—what is that, 178 stations? And it’s all niched. We’re doing the same thing in Bibles.”

As with so much of American popular culture, the modern era of Bible publishing has its spiritual roots in the 1960s. Through the first half of the 20th century, the Bible, literally hidebound, had been synonymous with the establishment. Though there had been two major American translations—in 1901 and 1946—they were scholarly and dense, and the archaic King James Version, of 1611, remained dominant.

Into this world came Good News for Modern Man. Published by the American Bible Society in 1966, Good News was a Bible for the young and disaffected. It resembled a mass-market illustrated paperback novel. A year later, 5 million copies were in print. Other publishers were quick to follow this lead. Tyndale House published the Living Bible, a freewheeling paraphrase. The spirit of the era is best captured by an edition of the Living Bible put out under the title The Way, which features psychedelic lettering and photographs of shaggy-haired young people and describes Jesus as “the greatest spiritual Activist who ever lived.”

Good News for Modern Man was revolutionary not just in its packaging but also in its text. Until then, major Bible translations in English had taken an approach now known as “formal equivalence,” striving to maintain the sentence structure, phrasing, and idioms of the original Hebrew and Greek. The Good News Translation, as it’s usually known, followed the precepts of “functional equivalence”—translating not word for word but thought for thought, with the goal of capturing the meaning of the original text, even if that required massaging the words or reordering sentences.

Soon after Good News proved that there was a following for functionalequivalence, other publishers began tinkering with the formula. By far the most successful has been the New International Version, a moderately functional text published by Zondervan in 1973. Highly readable, it was more accurate than its ’60s predecessors and more theologically conservative than the 1946 Revised Standard Version. These qualities enabled it, by 1986, to supplant the King James Version as the best-selling translation in America. Since then, publishers have pushed functional equivalence to extremes. In 1996, Zondervan published the New International Reader’s Version, an adaptation of the NIV appropriate for 6-year-olds.

The popularization of the Bible entered a new phase in 2003, when Thomas Nelson created the BibleZine. Wayne Hastings described a meeting in which a brand manager, who had conducted numerous focus groups and online surveys, presented the idea. “She brought in a variety of teen-girl magazines and threw them out on the table,” he recalled. “And then she threw a black bonded-leather Bible on the table and said, ‘Which would you rather read if you were 16 years old?’” The result was Revolve, a New Testament that looked indistinguishable from a glossy girls’ magazine. The 2007 edition features cover lines like “Guys Speak Their Minds” and “Do U Rush to Crush?” Inside, the Gospels are surrounded by quizzes, photos of beaming teenagers, and sidebars offering Bible-themed beauty secrets:

Have you ever had a white stain appear underneath the arms of your favorite dark blouse? Don’t freak out. Just grab a spare toothbrush, dampen with a little water and liquid soap, and gently scrub…. As you wash away the stain, praise God for cleansing us from all the wrong things we have done. (1 John 1:9)

Revolve was immediately popular with teenagers. “They weren’t embarrassed anymore,” Hastings said. “They could carry it around school, and nobody was going to ask them what in the world it is.” Nelson quickly followed up with other titles, including Refuel, for boys; Blossom, for tweens; and Real, for the “vibrant urban crowd” (it comes bundled with a CD of Christian rap). To date, Nelson has sold well over a million BibleZines.

The success of the BibleZine was all the more notable for occurring in a commercial field already crowded with products and with savvy marketing ideas. A recent trade show of the Christian Booksellers’ Association featured such innovations as The Outdoor Bible, printed on indestructible plastic sheets, and The Story, which includes selections from the Bible arranged in chronological order, like a novel. There are now Bibles covered in duct tape, faux fur, and simulated diamond plate. The Battlezone Bible has a scarred metal cover. TruGlo glows in the dark. For kids, there’s The Super Heroes Bible: The Quest for Good Over Evil.

There is also a renaissance in the field of audio Bibles. This category has long been dominated by stentorian readings by prominent ministers, and by such famous believers as Charlton Heston, Johnny Cash, and James Earl Jones. The latest audio versions, by contrast, are sophisticated dramatizations that feature sound effects, original music, and large professional casts. Zondervan’s The Bible Experience showcases just about every black actor in Hollywood, from Denzel Washington to Garrett Morris, with Blair Underwood as Jesus and Samuel L. Jackson as God.

There is some concern in the industry that Bible publishers, for all their marketing ingenuity, have outsmarted themselves. Tim Jordan, a Bible marketing manager at B&H Publishing Group, said, “There’s been research that has shown that half the people who come into a Christian bookstore intending to buy a Bible, with money in their pocket, leave without one, because they get overwhelmed.”

At the Christian Booksellers’ Association 2006 show in Denver, Nelson’s Wayne Hastings led a seminar on this issue. For half an hour, he laid out his company’s new research into customers’ “felt needs.” According to Nelson’s findings, people don’t come into a store looking for a specific translation—the criterion by which most retailers arrange their Bible shelves—but, rather, to meet a need. More than 60 percent of Bibles are purchased as gifts. Others are bought by people with scenarios in mind: I’ll study it before breakfast; I’ll read it on the bus. Hastings’ message was that booksellers need to orient their displays to this need. “Are you willing to break some paradigms?” he asked. Behind a curtain, his company had set up a prototype for the Bible department of tomorrow. It consisted of color-coded shelves and packaging, organized not by translation but according to Nelson’s six felt needs. Nelson says that 95 percent of retailers have responded positively, but the reaction from other publishers has been lukewarm. Zondervan wants to stick with a translation-based system. Tyndale and B&H accept the felt-need premise but are quibbling over the specific categories.

The most obvious solution would be fewer choices, but, given the enthusiasm that consumers have shown for a diversified market and the investment that publishers have made in satisfying this demand, that’s out of the question.

The situation worries some people. Phyllis Tickle, a former religion editor of Publishers Weekly and the author of popular prayer books, told me, “There’s a certain scandal to what’s happened to Bible publishing over the last 15 years.” Tickle contributed to a new Bible paraphrase for Nelson called The Voice, which is intended for the progressive emergent church, so she is not entirely opposed to modern repackaging. The problem, as she sees it, is that readers are not being challenged to enter the sacred world of the Bible. “We’re saying, ‘You stay in the culture and we’ll come to you,’” she said. “How are we going to separate out the culturally transient and trashy from the eternal?”

From the book Rapture Ready! by Daniel Radosh, published by Scribner. ©2008 by Daniel Radosh

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