It's been burned in bonfires and dug up in peat bogs; posted online and read on cellphones. You can get it free on street corners, pilfer it from a hotel nightstand or buy it at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And, yes, verses from it have helped sell everything from breath mints to wallpaper borders.
It's the Bible, an ancient manuscript that keeps getting makeovers for new audiences. Bible sales represent a whopping market—estimated between $425 million (by Harper San Francisco) and $609 million (by Zondervan), with relatively stable sales. Paul Caminiti, v-p and publisher for Bibles at Zondervan—which accounts for one out of every two Bibles sold—notes, "Although there was a significant spike in Bible sales following 9/11, the Bible market as a whole has remained relatively the same."
Wrapping your arms around this market is like hugging an 800-pound gorilla—it's huge, it's intimidating, and it can turn on you. For many Christians, the Bible is more than a book—it's a life manual divinely inspired by God. Even as reading in the U.S. declines (according to the now-infamous 2004 NEA study), Bible readership is rising. In 1988, research by the Barna Group showed Bible reading during a typical week was at about 36% of the population; in 2006, at 47%. And 96% of evangelical Christians have read the Bible in the past seven days.
But it's not just evangelicals who are reading. At Doubleday, which issued the first edition of the Jerusalem Bible for Catholics in 1966, religious division publisher Bill Barry says he is "encouraged by the continuing interest among the Catholic laity in the foundational text of Christianity—a trend that has been gathering momentum since Vatican II." A free national reading program, CatholicsRead, encourages Catholics to explore the Bible and has more than 3,000 unique visitors per month to CatholicsRead.org.
Not Like Other Books
Still, Bibles present some unique challenges for publishers. Wayne Hastings, senior v-p and group publisher for Bibles at Thomas Nelson (which claims 36.5% of the market), says the size of the book, fewer printers who handle thin-sheet printing and the time it takes to develop auxiliary study content are all daunting. Bibles are expensive to produce because of the page count, binding and edges. "Margins are shorter as customers demand value when they shop," Hastings says.
Tim Jordan, Broadman & Holman's Bible marketing manager, notes that Bibles are typically printed overseas, so production schedules get complicated. "You can't replenish inventory levels quite as fast," he says.
Another oddity of Bible publishing is that the "good book" is often given away free by mission organizations. Roy Lloyd, senior manager of media relations at the American Bible Society, estimates that his organization gave away more than 26 million Bibles and scripture portions in 2004. On the other hand, consumers often own multiple copies. Research done by Barna for Nelson showed that nearly 40% of people who purchased a Bible at retail in the past year already owned three to 10 copies. How do you benefit from this propensity of readers to buy something they already own?
These challenges haven't kept new players from entering the market or longtime publishers from ramping up their Bible programs. Putnam Praise (Penguin Group) jumps in this fall with Seek Find: The Bible for All People (Oct.). Publisher Joel Fotinos believes Putnam Praise "will have a large audience for the Contemporary English Version in the ABA market and a growing presence in the CBA market." At Harper San Francisco, v-p and deputy publisher Mark Tauber recently hired Oxford Bible veteran Hargis Thomas to help ramp up its Bible program. HSF brought the New Revised Standard Version and Revised Standard Version under its umbrella in March, which will allow HSF to promote the translations as a brand with "very extensive" marketing into the mainstream, church and academic markets, Tauber says.
Fast and Fashionable
The black leather Bible is a thing of the past. "Consumers want readable, portable, fashionable and usable Bibles," HSF's Tauber says. Zondervan reflects this desire for fashionable Bibles with its Italian Duotones (two-color leather-look covers with visible stitching), which have grabbed 5% of the Bible market, according to Caminiti.
Taking the idea of fashionable covers a step further, Tyndale just released Veritas, a leatherlike handbag with a special pocket on the outside for a coordinating compact New Living Translation Bible (included in the $59.95 price tag). And in November, Broadman & Holman will cater to the consumer's desire for choice with its "Build-A-Bible" system, which lets the buyer assemble a selection of three translations, several cover styles and colors (from distressed leather to hot pink) and accessories.
For some consumers, fashion isn't an issue, but time is. At Zondervan, Caminiti says he wants to promote unique ways of engaging the Bible. Zondervan's The Bible in 90 Days (2005), which divides the text into 12-page-a-day chunks, was different enough to get people's attention: "We had lots of media coverage and bloggers all over the world talking about their experience." If 90 days still seems like too long, harried readers can try The 100-Minute Bible (July). Its slim, compact size (64 pages) makes this collection of condensed passages highly portable, and director Len Budd at the 100-Minute Press notes it can be read in about the time it takes to watch a feature film.
Perhaps the utmost in portable, go-anywhere Bibles is Bardin & Marsee's The Outdoor Bible (New American Standard version), printed on waterproof material. Its folded size (5"×6.5"×1") and light weight (12.8 oz.) allow the scriptures to go along on a hike in the woods or an adventure atop Mt. Everest.
Engaging the Content
Not all Bibles are getting smaller and more portable. Formatting aside, Caminiti believes "people still want Bibles with notes that better help them understand and interact with the word of God itself." Zondervan recently launched The Archeological Study Bible (Mar.), which includes 500 color photographs of ancient texts, art and archeological sites from museums around the world. Advancements in technology allow four-color printing on Bible paper for the first time without bleeding, Caminiti says. The Holman Illustrated Study Bible (Oct.) in the Holman Christian Standard Bible version (150,000 first printing in three formats, marketing budget $250,000+) also exploits this technology. With more than 1,000 four-color maps, charts, photographs and supporting graphics, "It's a visual study Bible that every level of reader can use on a daily basis," Jordan says.
Experimenting with binding materials and colors and displaying information graphically instead of with words should continue, says Rob Stone, OUP Bible advertising and promotions manager. The challenge: "maintaining enough of a variety of formats, binding materials and colors that assure us a place in the market, while maintaining acceptable margins and controlling our inventory levels."
Another way to repackage the Bible is to build on an author's success, and on the success of devotionals. Max Lucado's Grace for the Momentbooks (volumes 1 and 2) have combined sales of more than 3.2 million, so it was a natural for Nelson to create the Grace for the Moment Devotional Bible (Oct.), with inspirational thoughts and guidance from the popular author. Tyndale's Sanctuary (Nov.) includes devotional contributions from Anne Graham Lotz, Rebecca St. James and Teresa of Avila. Zondervan launches a new line of devotional Bibles this fall, completely retrofitting its bestselling Men's and Women's Devotional Bibles with all-new devotions as well as exterior and interior designs; the Today's Devotional Bible and College Devotional Bible will be added in March.
And for Baby Boomers who want an "un-Bible," Nelson's new full-color Biblezine Redefine (Nov.) couldn't look less like a New Testament. Think magazine, complete with a couple on a motorcycle on the cover, q&as and feature pieces by prominent authors and Bonus! articles. You almost expect a cover line about thinner thighs.