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.
In a sixth-floor conference room of an office building near Nashville International Airport, Rodney Hatfield’s BlackBerry buzzed with an incoming e-mail: “The Lord placed a vision on our hearts of a skaters’ Bible. We really love the N.K.J.V. and would love to use this version. 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, and the N.K.J.V. (the New King James Version) is its best-selling translation. Thomas Nelson has a history stretching back to 1798, and, in the American market, it is by some measures the largest Christian publisher, the second-largest publisher of Bibles, 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) and the idea less fanciful. 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 twenty-five million Bibles—twice as many as the most recent 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, forty-seven per cent of Americans read the Bible every week. But other research has found that ninety-one per cent of American households own at least one Bible—the average household owns four—which means that Bible publishers manage to sell twenty-five million copies a year of a book that almost everybody already has. Thomas Nelson’s Bible sales increased more than fifteen per cent last year, and such commercial possibilities have begun to attract mainstream publishers to an area dominated by a half-dozen Christian houses. Penguin published two new editions of the Bible this fall, and in July HarperSanFrancisco, part of HarperCollins, announced the creation of a Bible imprint. In June, Thomas Nelson, which last changed hands thirty-seven years ago, for $2.6 million, was purchased by a private investment firm for four hundred and seventy-three million dollars.
This is an intensely competitive business, and, despite the provenance of “The Family Foundations Study Bible,” publishers rarely rely on mere inspiration. Another new Nelson release, “The Grace for the Moment Daily Bible,” had a more typically strategic genesis: it is an extension of one of the publisher’s most popular brands, a series of devotional books by Max Lucado, a Texas minister whose many titles have sold nearly fifty million copies. Nelson has seventeen imprints in addition to the Nelson Bible Group, and when it has a popular writer like Lucado it will spin him off into as many different lines as possible. The “Daily Bible” features Scripture portions paired with short essays excerpted from other Lucado titles. In the absence of such ready-made material, Bible publishers formulate projects using classic market research. Every year, Nelson Bible executives analyze their product line for shortcomings, scrutinize the competition’s offerings, and talk with consumers, retailers, and pastors about their needs.
Nelson categorizes “Grace for the Moment” as an everyday-life Bible, whereas “Family Foundations” is a study Bible. The 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.” And there are 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 air-plane recently, I saw a woman reading a surfers’ Bible very similar to the proposed skaters’ one. The variety is seemingly limitless. Nelson Bible Group’s 2006 catalogue lists more than a hundred titles.
“I almost liken it to what happened in radio,” Wayne Hastings, the publisher of Nelson’s Bible division, said. “Look at satellite radio—what is that, a hundred and seventy-eight stations? And it’s all niched. We’re doing the same thing in Bibles.” In this process, style is nearly as important as content. Bible publishers depend heavily on focus groups, surveys, and trend-spotting firms. For cover designs, they subscribe to fashion-industry color reports. Tim Jordan, a Bible marketing manager at B. & H. Publishing Group, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said, “It doesn’t have to be ‘a King James Bible in black bonded leather, and we might offer it to you in burgundy.’ In years past, that might have been O.K., but the game has changed.”
Bible publishing in the twenty-first century involves an intersection of faith and consumerism that is typical of contemporary American evangelicalism. Peter Thuesen, a religious historian and the author of “In Discordance with the Scriptures,” a history of Bible translation controversies in America, sees in Bible publishing “a growing comfort with commercialization.” He explained, “Different kinds of packaging can always be seen by true believers as having an evangelical utility. If it helps reach people with the Word, then it’s not bad. You can consecrate the market.”
As with so much of American popular culture, the modern era of Bible publishing has its spiritual roots in the nineteen-sixties. Through the first half of the twentieth 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 for Modern Man” was a Bible for the young and disaffected. It resembled a mass-market illustrated paperback novel. A year later, five million copies were in print. Other publishers were quick to follow this lead, according to Paul Gutjahr, a professor of religious studies and English at Indiana University. 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.” The success of these accessible, culturally relevant Bibles alerted publishers to a new world of possibility. They introduced women’s Bibles in pastel colors, recruited celebrity pastors to write exegeses, and made room for breezy spiritual pep talks alongside, or instead of, the scholarly commentary.
“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. Walter Harrelson, a Bible scholar who served on the committee that produced the relatively formal New Revised Standard Version, in 1989, likes to say that formal equivalence carries the reader back to the world of the Bible, while functional equivalence transports the Bible into the world of the reader. Harrelson is a proponent of formal equivalence, and argues that preserving the linguistic qualities of the ancient text reminds readers that the Bible is “a document from another world that is luminous and transforming of our world.” Proponents of functional equivalence counter that, to the original audience, the Bible would have sounded contemporary and vernacular, and that translators should preserve these qualities.
The popularity of the “Good News” Bible proved that there was a following for functional equivalence, and 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 sixties 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.
The effect of the functional-equivalence approach on the message of the Scriptures is most striking when it comes to rendering metaphors. A literal translation of God’s words to straying Israelites in Amos 4:6 reads, “I gave you cleanness of teeth.” The New International Version eliminates the potential misreading that God was punishing the wicked with dental hygiene, and translates the phrase as “I gave you empty stomachs.” Functionally equivalent translations, at their most radical, often bypass the exotic metaphors of the Bible entirely. Matthew 3:8, in the N.R.S.V., reads, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” The Contemporary English Version (1991) reads, “Do something to show that you have really given up your sins.”
It is estimated that there have been more than five hundred English translations of the Bible, and there has never been a time in American history when so many translations have been in widespread use at once. A large Christian bookstore may carry as many as fifteen, although the top six account for ninety-five per cent of sales. Considering that the King James Version lacked a significant rival for three centuries, one could question the necessity of so many versions. Publishers can point to the fact that new archeological discoveries are constantly shedding light on the best way to reconstruct the piecemeal documents that make up Scripture. Language use evolves, too, of course, though it’s hard to argue that anything truly significant changed between the publication of the English Standard Version (2001), Today’s New International Version (2002), and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (2004). A more important factor, it seems, is market demand for more choices. Different denominations want translations tailored precisely to their needs, and the more translations that are available the greater readers’ desire for yet further variety.
There are also commercial incentives. The King James Version is in the public domain, but if a company wants to publish a study Bible or a devotional Bible using a modern translation, it will have to pay royalties to the owner of that translation. Commissioning a proprietary translation is often more cost effective in the long run, especially since it can be licensed out to other publishers. Kenneth Barker, a theologian who ran the committee that translated the N.I.V. and has worked on three other translations, told me that he doesn’t think a new version will be needed for at least twenty-five years, but he doubts there will be such a long break. “We like to think that the motivation is all holy and pure,” he told me, “but finances do enter the picture, and publishers and Bible societies like to have their slice of the pie.”
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 young editor, 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 sixteen 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 teen-agers, 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. You can quickly give deodorant spots the boot. Just grab a spare toothbrush, dampen with a little water and liquid soap, and gently scrub until the stain fades away. 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 teen-agers. “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; “Real,” for the “vibrant urban crowd” (it comes bundled with a CD of Christian rap); and “Divine Health,” which has notes by the author of the best-selling diet book “What Would Jesus Eat?” 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. This year’s annual trade show of the Christian Booksellers’ Association, in Denver, brought such innovations as “The Outdoor Bible,” printed on indestructible plastic sheets that fold up like maps, and “The Story,” which features selections from the Bible arranged in chronological order, like a novel. There is a “Men of Integrity” Bible and a “Woman, Thou Art Loosed!” Bible. For kids, there’s “The Super Heroes Bible: The Quest for Good Over Evil” and “Psalty’s Kids Bible,” featuring “Psalty, the famous singing songbook.” The “Soul Surfer Bible” has notes by Bethany Hamilton, who lost an arm to a shark in 2003. “2:52 Boys Bible: The Ultimate Manual” promises “gross and gory Bible stuff.” In the “Rainbow Study Bible,” each verse is color-coded by theme. “The Promise Bible” prints every one of God’s promises in boldface. And “The Personal Promise Bible” is custom-printed with the owner’s name (“The LORD is Daniel’s shepherd”), home town (“Woe to you, Brooklyn! Woe to you, New York!”), and spouse’s name (“Gina’s two breasts are like two fawns”).
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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. In Denver, Zondervan showcased “The Bible Experience,” featuring just about every black actor in Hollywood, from Denzel Washington to Garrett Morris, and starring Blair Underwood as Jesus and Samuel L. Jackson as God. The publisher of Zondervan, Scott Bolinder, spoke with excitement about the possibilities for distributing the book on iTunes. “A person hears about it, says, ‘I don’t know, I’m not parting with thirty-four dollars. But I’ll try the Book of Revelation for a dollar-ninety-nine,’ ” he said. Thomas Nelson is already working on a rival version, in which Jim Caviezel reprises the title role in “The Passion of the Christ.” Jason Alexander, of “Seinfeld,” is signed on for an unspecified Old Testament character.
It is easy to ascribe a cynical motive to publishers’ embrace of commercial trends. Tim Jordan, of B. & H., concedes, “You do get some folks that say you shouldn’t treat the Bible as a fashion accessory or a throwaway.” Nonetheless, he feels that, from the point of view of a serious religious publisher, fashion can’t be ignored as a way of reaching new audiences. The point, he says, is “to expose as many people as you can, because we believe that it’s God’s word, we believe that it’s life-changing, and we don’t take that lightly.”
In the middle of the summer, Nelson Bible’s marketing team assembled at the company’s offices, in Nashville, for a fall strategy meeting. The staff members radiated the efficient good cheer of marketing professionals everywhere. Rodney Hatfield, his thick hair mostly gray, sat at a corner of the conference-room table while Scott Schwertly, the marketing director, got things rolling. “If we’re going to start with the ‘Family Foundations’ Bible, let’s go ahead and pull out the five-by-five matrix for that title,” Schwertly said. The matrix is a chart of twenty-five squares; an axis along the top identifies “Target Audiences/Needs,” such as “Churches/Pastors,” and an axis down the side shows “What you will do to reach them.”
An unusual challenge of Bible marketing is that there is no living author to do promotion. As a result, endorsements by well-known pastors become crucial. These are often the only names that will go on the cover. Hatfield asked about targeting the pastors David Jeremiah and Rick Warren: “Maybe there’s even a customized version of this that they can brand for their ministry.” The megachurch movement has created attractive possibilities for Bible marketers. A single recommendation from the pulpit of the right pastor can mean ten thousand potential sales.
With the book’s marketing budget set at sixty thousand dollars, ads in mainstream publications were out of the question, but Kelly Holt, a marketing specialist, presented ideas for a campaign to run in several Christian magazines, including SpiritLed Woman, MOMSense, and Rev!, a magazine for pastors. Holt said, “The imagery would be the tired family at Disney World who’s waiting in line all sweaty and nasty, and the tagline would be, like, ‘There’s a better way to spend quality time together.’ ” In addition to the Christian press, Nelson has the advantage of being able to place ads for its own products in its BibleZines. Ads for Christian horror novels and a reality show about missionaries ran in “Refuel.”
Next, the meeting proceeded to the “Grace for the Moment Daily Bible.” The marketing budget for this was only about half that of “Family Foundations,” because Nelson was counting on Max Lucado’s name to do most of the selling. The marketing group had explored giveaways on Christian radio stations and a collaboration with DaySpring, a Christian greeting-card company owned by Hallmark, for a line of Max Lucado cards. The group also discussed promoting the book when Lucado made appearances at Women of Faith, a travelling ministry that holds two-day “spiritual spas” attracting as many as twenty thousand paying worshippers. The largest chunk of the budget was going toward consumer ads, targeting both men and women, in Christian magazines. “I need some feedback,” another marketing specialist said. She held up a print ad—a white orchid on a satiny black background—that had been created to run in “Redefine,” a new BibleZine for baby boomers.
Hatfield made a suggestion: “I guess what it doesn’t say enough of is ‘Max Lucado.’ ”
“That should be huge,” Jennifer Willingham, a publicist, said dryly. “Drop out your image: white sheet of paper and ‘Max Lucado Bible.’ ”
Although Bible sales in America have been robust for the past decade, the business is still fraught with anxieties. For one thing, Bibles are expensive to produce—two to four times the cost of a typical hardcover book—and retail at prices that often leave a very small profit margin. (“The Family Foundations Study Bible” lists at $39.99 for the hardcover and $59.99 for the bonded-leather edition.) The expense begins with the page count: most Bibles are nearly two thousand pages long. Publishers must often commission custom fonts that are thin enough to keep the Bible compact and dark enough to read, but not so dark that they bleed through the thin (and expensive) paper. Internal design is complicated, too, with footnotes, study notes, center-column references, charts, maps, and illustrations. Leather covers add to the outlay. Gilding, a labor-intensive process, can be simulated with a spray stain, but costs remain high. Thomas Nelson stitches most of its bindings, though other publishers have moved toward glue. Red-letter Bibles require two-color printing. Tabs, ribbons, and boxes add to the cost.
There is also concern that Bible publishers, for all their marketing ingenuity, have outsmarted themselves. Tim Jordan 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.”
In an auditorium at the Christian Booksellers’ Association show this summer, Nelson’s Wayne Hastings, a dapper man, nearly bald with a trim mustache, took the stage for 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 sixty per cent 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’s 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 ninety-five per cent of retailers have responded positively, but the reaction from other publishers has been lukewarm. Zondervan wants to stick with a translation-based system, which, perhaps not coincidentally, benefits its popular New International Version. Tyndale and B. & H. accept the felt-need premise but are quibbling over the specific categories, and are skeptical about the feasibility of industry-wide color-coding. Tim Jordan said, “You’re not going to go to all the potato-chip companies and tell these people, ‘You’ve got to change your packaging to reflect some common color for the potato-chip aisle.’ I don’t think Frito-Lay is going to go for that.”
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 fifteen years.” Tickle is contributing 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 “instead of demanding that the believer, the reader, the seeker step out from the culture and become more Christian, more enclosed within ecclesial definition, we’re saying, ‘You stay in the culture and we’ll come to you.’ And, therefore, how are we going to separate out the culturally transient and trashy from the eternal?” The consumerist culture in which BibleZines and the like participate is, to Tickle, “entirely antithetical to the traditional Christian understanding of meekness and self-denial and love and compassion.” In Tickle’s view, reimagining the Bible according to the latest trends is not merely a question of surmounting a language barrier. It involves violating “something close to moral or spiritual barriers.”
Of course, Tickle is questioning an industry trend, not publishers’ sincerity. “I have yet to meet the first head of house that wasn’t in it with some sense of calling as surely as a clergyman is,” she said. Sitting in the Zondervan suite during the Christian Booksellers’ Association show, Paul Caminiti, the head of the company’s Bible division, cited an appropriately Biblical parallel, a story from the Book of Acts about Philip the Evangelist and a man known as the Ethiopian eunuch. The Ethiopian eunuch “was really the chief financial officer for the Persian empire,” he said. “He was a brilliant man. He was probably the Alan Greenspan of his day. But he has a text Bible—and he has been to Jerusalem, so he is one of these people who is spiritually intrigued—but he can’t make head or tail of it. And it’s not because he isn’t smart. So God sends Philip alongside.” According to the Bible story, Philip ran up to the Ethiopian’s chariot and, in the King James Version, asked, “Understandest thou what thou readest?” The Ethiopian answered, “How can I, except some man should guide me?” Philip, Caminiti explained, “provides just a little bit of color commentary, and the light comes on.” After listening to Philip’s explication of the passage, the Ethiopian orders his chariot to stop by some water so that Philip can baptize him. “And that’s what we’re doing,” Caminiti concluded. “We’re coming alongside the text and providing some color commentary. And some color covers.”