Thursday, December 14, 2006

Big Bible Business

Tyler Cowen links to this New Yorker article:



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...

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...

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...

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.”

Update: Don't miss the slideshow! Via Metafilter.

The slideshow includes this gem:

“Jesus Loves Porn Stars” (NavPress; $8.99). Created by XXXchurch, which ministers to the pornography industry. Another publisher rejected the title as inappropriate, if theologically sound.


Baal Habos said...

>2005 Americans purchased some twenty-five million Bibles

Is that with or without Artscroll?

LT said...

Is that with or without Artscroll?

I'd bet with.

Juggling Mother said...

We own a bible - whatever you think of it, you can not deny that it has a massive impact on the world and is something we need to be conversant with to some degree - even if just to understand many literary quotes!

I've never bought one though;-)

Also, every hotel, community hall etc has hundreds of bibles - usually thanks to the Gideons, but they must buy them in the first place! Many get damaged/defaced/stolen/thrown away pretty often so will need to be replaced regularly. Ditto with churches, sunday schools etc. I believe all your courts still require a bible too? That's an awful lot of biblessold each year to "corporate" entities, rather than individuals. no other book has that kind of market.

littlefoxling said...

I think this opens a larger and broader discussion. Is commercial interest a significant factor in influencing religious leadership? No one is going to become a Rabbi for the money. But, my friends in the Rabbinite tell me that once someone has made the decision and is in that profession, commercial pressure can be a huge influence in their decision making, just like in any profession. You’ve got to attract the most students, the big donors. A current example is the conservative movement’s discussion over gay Rabbis that had less to do with interpreting Leviticus and more to do with deciding which was the more important deflection to be concerned with, those moving to orthodoxy or Reform.