It wasn't the first book that came off Johannes Gutenberg's printing press, but the Bible was easily the inventor-publisher's smartest acquisition. And so it remains. The Bible is good business for many religious publishers, an expensive investment that pays off over time and in tough times. That's true for retailers as well. “Bibles can be the dairy of your store,” says Wayne Hastings, senior v-p and group publisher, Bibles, reference and curriculum at Thomas Nelson.

For this year's market, newer translations are yielding study Bibles; older study Bibles are celebrating anniversaries. And the challenge of repackaging an old text is met by using hot new media to reach new readers, because despite the Bible's familiarity, a lot of people, according to Bible literacy surveys, aren't familiar with what it actually says. Perhaps the amount of money committed to marketing this year's Bibles will make a dent in that statistic.

New Treatments, New Readers: The Innovators

It took around four years from first conversation to the October debut of The Voice New Testament (Thomas Nelson). The new translation represents the work of 100 writers, scholars, artists and musicians who developed a dynamic translation intended to capture the variety of voices that wrote the original text. Authors and pastors on the project include Brian McLaren; Chris Seay, whose Ecclesia Bible Society founded the project; and Lauren Winner. The aim was to retell the story, harking back to the experience of early Christians hearing things for the first time. That describes many people today, especially a younger generation seeking authenticity. “People want to experience Christian community, but when they go to a church they feel really confined,” says Frank Couch, v-p of translation development, who masterminded the project at Nelson. “One of the reason we're doing this translation is we want people to have a primary experience with God.”

The evergreen sacred text gets green ink in The Green Bible (HarperOne, Oct.), an edition that underscores the Bible's message for and about the earth. Open the book's cotton-linen cover to find as epigraph a poem by farmer-conservationist Wendell Berry, a “Green Bible Trail Guide” with themes for further study, a covey of essays by green-thinking religious leaders and endorsements from the Sierra Club, the Humane Society of the United States and the National Wildlife Federation. The secular environmental groups were excited by the project, says Michael G. Maudlin, v-p and editorial director of the house. “People are so ready to hear this message,” he continues. “We can open up Christian eyes that creation care is part and parcel of our calling.”

Secular Sweden is the unlikely birthplace of Bible Illuminated: The Book: New Testament (Illuminated World, Oct.). The book is designed for coffee tables: oversize, glossy, with dozens of compelling art and documentary photographs. Bible Illuminated's backstory is also compelling. It's the brainchild of former advertising executive Dag Söderberg and fellow Swede Jan Carlzon, former chairman of SAS Scandinavian Airlines. Carlzon put together 40 investors to finance the project. In Sweden, the Old Testament and New Testament have each sold more than 30,000 copies in a market that sells 60,000 Bibles annually. The goal is simple: pick up, flip through and get to know one of the formative texts of the Western world. “The text is an old treasure,” says Söderberg. “It's important for everybody to get close to it.” Söderberg hopes to stage outdoor exhibits of photos from the book in the U.S. An exhibit in Stockholm drew 100,000 people.

For Readers Wanting More: The Modernists

The big battle is between dueling study Bibles based on two recent translations serving the evangelical Christian market. The ESV Study Bible (Crossway, Oct.) uses the English Standard Version translation that the company debuted in 2001. “The ESV really changed Crossway as a company,” says Justin Taylor, project director and associate publisher of the house. “We want to keep developing resources to help people understand the Bible in a deeper way.” To that end the study Bible is loaded with supplemental material: essays, maps, charts, illustrations. A team of almost 100 contributors includes an architectural illustration firm and an archeology consultant. “It's really like a one-stop shop for theological things,” Taylor says.

Just a few miles away in west suburban Chicago, Tyndale House launched the NLT Study Bible (Sept.), based on its 1996 New Living Translation. Mark Taylor, Tyndale president as well as executive editor and chief stylist, says study Bibles aren't redundant. He studied notes for the Book of Exodus in the popular NIV Study Bible and found only 30% overlap with the NLT Study Bible in topics covered. “People will use multiple study Bibles because you get a new perspective with every [one],” says Taylor, son of Tyndale founder Kenneth Taylor.

Both Tyndale and Crossway are planning intensive use of electronic media to market to and maintain an audience. Both offer online versions that come free with the print version. New media play a key role in marketing, featuring promotional Web sites with blogs, videos and even, in Crossway's case, a countdown to release widget for the acutely anticipatory. It's a new marketing frontier. “I have been surprised at how many people are out there blogging about different translations and study Bibles,” says Tyndale's Taylor.

Around 40% of Thomas Nelson's customers already own anywhere from three to 10 Bibles. If they buy The Chronological Study Bible (Oct.), they'll get lessons in both world and Bible history. A chronological Bible rearranges text in the order in which things occurred historically, so that, for example, Psalm 51 dealing with repentance is placed immediately after the story of David's adultery with Bathsheba, told in 2 Samuel. “I think that what this offers the customer is the opportunity to understand the context of scripture,” says Nelson v-p Wayne Hastings. Hastings won't give a number for the initial print run, but says it's the “strongest study Bible release we've seen in a number of years,” to be supported by a “robust” marketing budget. While the year hasn't been good overall, he adds, the Bible portion of Nelson's publishing business—upwards of 40%—is solid. “I continue to be optimistic about my year,” he says.

For Christians who seek a deeper understanding of the Bible's application to social justice, Westminster John Knox Press has produced a Discipleship Study Bible (June), the first study Bible in more than five years based on the New Revised Standard Version translation favored by mainline Protestants. Jon Berquist, executive editor for biblical studies at the house, says the Bible is intended to hit a middle ground between academic study Bibles and life application Bibles that provide spiritual formation. “We wanted something that would have a lot of historical background, but would help readers think through issues of faith, whether personal devotion or social justice,” he says. Initial orders have been strong, Berquist says. It has proved to be of interest to some Catholics, and some Christian colleges are ordering it for introductory Bible classes. “Our readers want to read through the text, think about it, struggle with it a bit and make their own applications,” he says.

Brush Up Your Tried and True: The Traditionalists

Next year marks the centennial of the modern study Bible, and Oxford University Press celebrates that event with a limited edition of The Scofield Study Bible III (Nov.), with anniversary stamping on the binding. Cyrus I. Scofield was a lawyer who became interested in developing a tool for Bible study and managed to find an interested investor. He also met the then-head of Oxford University Press. The American branch of the press produced the Scofield Reference Bible, which by the early 1940s had sold two million copies. Press marketing manager Brian Hughes says the broad audience includes people who express deep personal attachment to their Scofield Bibles, highlighting how commonly Bibles are purchased as gifts. “People talk about their Scofields passed down from generation to generation,” he says. “Others have a new Scofield for every decade of their life.”

More than two million copies have been sold of the Ryrie Study Bible since it was first published three decades ago. The updated Ryrie (Moody, Sept.) comes in three translations and includes free Bible software that Ryrie could not have conceived of in 1978. Moody is testing an animated video for marketing use.

One significant feature never leads a publisher's list of what distinguishes a Bible. In this arena, size does matter. Brian Malley, a University of Michigan psychology lecturer who did his dissertation about how people think about and use Bibles, says people know their most important criterion for choosing one. “How much does it weigh?” he asks. “They're going to have to lug it around.”

The InnovatorsThe Green Bible (HarperOne, Oct.)Features:NRSV translationIntroductory material by such religious thinkers as N.T. Wright, Desmond Tutu and J. Matthew SleethEnvironmentally friendly cotton-linen cover, soy-based ink, recycled paperMore than 1,000 verses in green ink highlight God's care for creationPartnered with Sierra Club and Humane Society of the United StatesMarketing:National advertising in the New Yorker, Relevant magazine and Treehugger.comNPR sponsorship campaign32,000-copy first printingNew includes video, e-card feature, countdown-to-release widgetQuote:“All big events in the Bible take place by a tree, stick, or bush.”—J. Matthew Sleeth, former emergency medicine doctor and author of Serve God, Save the Planet, who wrote The Green Bible's introductionBible Illuminated: The Book: New Testament (Illuminated World; Midpoint Trade, dist., Oct. 28)Features:Good News translationMarketing:Oversized, magazine format with full-color contemporary photographsSet in running text without chapter and verse indicationsCreated by businessmen in Sweden, where the book increased Bible sales by 50%Afterword by American Bible Society$500,000 marketing planPlanned outdoor exhibitions of photos used in the text, as was done in Stockholm200,000-copy first printingNew will offer multimedia and social networking featuresQuote:“It is really a way to make the Bible available for the many.”—Dag Söderberg, project founder, former CEO of Euro RSCG Scandinavia, one of Europe's largest advertising firmsThe Voice New Testament (Thomas Nelson, Oct. 28)Features:The Voice translation, developed by a team of scholars, artists and writers, including Brian McLaren and Chris SeayScreenplay-like formatDevotional commentaryMarketing:Promotions targeting artist communities, including summer Christian music festivalsRadio promotionNew includes a blog, banners, public chat space, free download of the Gospel of pagePromotions with, through viral video and artist' blogsQuote:“My personal ambition is to enlarge the circle of people who enjoy reading the Bible.”—Wayne Hastings, senior v-p and group publisher, Bibles, reference and curriculumThe Modernists
ESV Study Bible (Crossway Books and Bibles, Oct. 15)
English Standard Version translation
More than 50 supplemental articles, 200 full-color maps, more than 40 full-color illustrations by architectural illustrators
93 contributors from nine countries and almost 20 denominations
An online version, free to print purchasers, will include a note-taking component and audio recordings
$1 million marketing campaign
100,000 copies already sold
New media: includes a blog, countdown-to-release widget, YouTube videos; Facebook group
“We want to be forward thinking and to work with the whole new media angle.”
—Justin Taylor, project director, managing editor
NLT Study Bible (Tyndale House, Sept. 15)
New Living translation
313 themed articles
262 visual aids include maps, illustrations and diagrams of genealogies
48 contributors
Purchasers of print Bible get lifetime access to an online version; three major electronic versions, 30-day free trial
Christian radio, print, point-of-sale, church leader, national publicity campaigns
65,000 already sold
New media: includes a blog; Internet banner advertising; Facebook group, targeted blogger campaign
“We see the NLT Study Bible as having a very, very long life.”
—Mark Taylor, executive editor and chief stylist, Tyndale House president
Chronological Study Bible (Thomas Nelson, Oct.)
New King James Version translation
Biblical events and writings rearranged in chronological order
Full-color illustrations (art, photos) throughout
Time panels and charts
Transition comments set up text that follows
Print and Internet advertising includes history-focused venues
Television, Christian radio campaign
E-mail campaign with media partners
New media: includes a video, browse feature, front matter “making of” essay
“The ability of somebody to see how God is working through history is fascinating.”
—Wayne Hastings, senior v-p and group publisher
Zondervan New International Version Study Bible, updated edition (Zondervan, Sept.)
25% revision of more than 20,000 study notes and features
130-page topical index
Icons highlight, categorize notes (archeology, personal application, etc.)
Wide margins for note taking
Radio, print campaigns Web site
“Bible Across America” cross-country RV tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the NIV translation
“The 'Bible Across America' is our unconventional, grassroots marketing.”
—Brian Scharp, v-p of Bible marketing
The Traditionalists
Scofield Study Bible III, limited edition (centennial) (Oxford Univ. Press, Nov.)
Limited edition binding features special commemorative stamping
Essay on the Scofield centennial
Available in five translations: King James, New King James, New International, New American Standard, Holman Christian Standard
Specially designed presentation section
Print and print advertising campaign
Online promotion via e-mail and at Bible study and megachurch sites
“This is the study Bible that started it all.”
—Brian Hughes, marketing manager
The Ryrie Study Bible (Moody Press, Sept. 1)
Available in three translations: King James, New International, New American Standard
Supplemental essays
Wide margins for note taking
Free Bible study software
Brochure on how to study and select a Bible mailed to 265,000 consumers and churches
Promotion through Moody Radio Network
New media: includes newsletter signup, study tools
Banner advertising at online Bible study sites
Animated video being tested
“The first month of the new release, we shipped out more than we shipped the entire last year.”
—Holly Kisly, marketing manager

Beyond the Christian Bible
A wide and deep U.S. religious landscape survey released earlier this year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed great diversity in Americans' religious affiliations. Slightly less than 80% identify as Christian, 5% belong to other faiths and the rest consider themselves unaffiliated. Beyond the Christian Bible are other choices of new sacred texts.

The Pew survey yielded interesting statistics about the small group of Buddhists in America. They tend to live in the West and are white, reflecting the American establishment of this ancient Asian religion. The sacred text of the Dhammapada, sayings of the Buddha, gets stunning visual treatment in The Way of the Buddha: The Illustrated Dhammapada (Abrams, Oct.). The gift book, with gilded pages and a ribbon marker, combines F. Max Müller's classic translation with illustrations from the Rubin Museum of Art, which showcases art of the Himalayas. Another formative Asian text that is sacred to Hindus, The Bhagavad Gita (North Point Press, Aug.), is newly translated by Vedic scholar George Thompson.

For Jews, Torah and Commentary: The Five Books of Moses by Sol Scharfstein (KTAV, Sept.) combines a new translation with rabbinic and contemporary commentary. Scharfstein worked on the project for 10 years.

A much younger sacred text joins the ranks of classics: The Book of Mormon translated by Joseph Smith Jr. (Penguin, Sept.), with an introduction by American religions historian Laurie Maffly-Kipp, gets the familiar penguin logo.