Adam Ash

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Bookplanet: the best-seller of all time comes in more flavors than icecream

Bibles Are Booming
These days the Good Book comes in hundreds of varieties.
BY JOANNE KAUFMAN/Wall Street Journal

Several weeks ago, Christian book publisher Thomas Nelson Inc. received a curious submission, "sort of an alarmist Bible," recalled Wayne Hastings, a senior vice president of the Nashville, Tenn.-based company. "A lot of it had to do with what recently went on in Israel and Lebanon."

The offering featured headlines that had been snipped from the front pages of USA Today, then pasted below select New Testament verses. Also included was some newspaper boldface about the collapse of the Jessica Simpson-Nick Lachey marriage accompanied by relevant text from Scripture, presumably not Genesis' 2:24 dictum: "a man shall leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife."

Thomas Nelson, which produces 150 different editions of the Bible each year, arguably more than any other publisher in the world, "gets all sorts of interesting proposals," said Mr. Hastings. Some, like the alarmist Bible and a submission featuring 20 iterations of Scripture woven together--"It was confusing and overwhelming," he said--got a thanks but no thanks. The idea of tucking the New Testament between the boldly colored covers of what looked like a teen fashion magazine as a way of appealing to adolescents--Corinthians and Colossians for the Cosmo girl--and the notion of a water-resistant Bible, inspired by a leaf of paper sent to Thomas Nelson by a vendor--well, folks, start the presses.

Always a dependable seller, the Bible is in the midst of a boom. Christian bookstores had a 25% increase in sales of Scriptures from 2003 to 2005, according to statistics gathered by the Phoenix-based Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, a trade group. General-interest bookstores, while declining to give figures, have also seen increasingly strong sales. "Bibles are a growth area for us and we're giving them more space in our stores," said Jane Love, religion buyer for Barnes & Noble. "It's partly because of the way they've evolved over the last three or four years."

Indeed, publishers like Thomas Nelson; Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Zondervan; and Tyndale House in Carol Stream, Ill.--which together represent an estimated 80% of the Bible market--have gone far beyond offering the Scriptures between black, burgundy, navy or white covers.

"For a long time the Bible was just the Bible," noted Kevin O'Brien, director of Bibles at Tyndale House. "You put it out there and people bought it. They didn't ask about the options, because there weren't any options. But now, especially in evangelical circles, people are seeing their lives not just in color but high-definition color, and they want the Bible to fit in with that. This is not your mother's Bible."

Thus, following the gospel of Seventh Avenue, publishers are displaying their wares in the season's hot colors. "This year alone I've seen four shades of purple," said Ms. Love, whose stores have also done well with two-tone Bibles. The pink and brown model has been particularly popular. Bibles are also available in the colors of your college, with a fur cover, a flower-patterned cover, and to appeal to young adherents, with a camouflage cover, a metal cover and a duct-tape cover. Next spring Tyndale House will be bringing out a paperback Bible in a plastic case that looks like a flattened Nalgene bottle.

But Bibles are becoming as much personal statements as fashion statements. "What people are saying is 'I want to find a Bible that is really me ," noted Rodney Hatfield, a vice president of marketing at Thomas Nelson. "It's no different than with anything else in our culture."

Responding to such desires, publishers offer compact Old and New Testaments like Thomas Nelson's so-called checkbook Bible and Zondervan's Bible in a Bag, as well as myriad themed Bibles, among them archaeology, leadership and sports. "Sometimes what you have to work with seems quite inadequate," begins one section of the basketball edition. "Consider the plight of Rollie Massimino, the coach of the Villanova Wildcats . . . Villanova was ranked, well nowhere . . Several thousand years earlier there was another underdog group that didn't have much to work with. They were called the Israelites."

There are PDA Bibles; audio versions like James Earl Jones reading the New Testament and Zondervan's just released "Bible Experience" with the voices of such African-American stars as Angela Bassett, Denzel Washington and Cuba Gooding Jr. Coming soon from Thomas Nelson: Johnny Cash reading the New Testament. There are Bibles aimed at children and teens, Bibles aimed at women. There's that water-resistant version of the New Testament--"Immerse," from Thomas Nelson--for camping trips, days at the beach, and perhaps baptisms. "We had a customer test it by keeping it in a bucket overnight and it was fine," said Mr. Hastings. Prices range from $1 to almost $200 for a 2,400-page study Bible hand bound in calfskin.

Fortunately for Bible publishers, consumers seem to think that if one copy of the Good Book is good, two or more are even better. "Forty percent of my customers own three to 10 Bibles," said Mr. Hastings. "It's sort of like me and golf. I have Tiger Woods's book and Ernie Els's book. I want all those different approaches to how to play golf. It's the same with Bibles."

The expansion of outlets--Wal-Mart, Costco, Sam's Club--partly explains the uptick in Bible sales, believes Paul Caminiti, a vice president at Zondervan. "Our company has seen a 20% growth in the last 10 years because of that," he said. The large array of translations has also played a role, according to Mark Kuyper, president and CEO of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. "It means there's more opportunity for them to appeal to groups with different theological perspectives," he said.

In some instances, spiritual leaders are embracing myriad translations and their flocks are following suit. "You go back 20 years and the pastor would stand in the pulpit and say 'you need to have this Bible, this translation. Go to the store and buy it,'" said Thomas Nelson's Mr. Hatfield. "But now pastors are reaching out and grabbing the translation that best suits their point for a particular sermon."

The parlous times are also a big motivator for people to open their wallets. "Part of what we see," said Mr. Kuyper, "is that when there is incredible unrest people are asking themselves existential questions and they're drawn to search Scripture. We saw a huge jump in sales after 9/11. We're not in that environment today, but we're certainly in an unsettled environment."

However interested they are in broadening their customer base, publishers say there is a very distinct line between the sacred and the profane. And don't even get them started on the "Jesus Loves Porn Stars" Bible that was distributed this past summer at an erotica convention in Los Angeles. "We're not going to do anything that is overtly seductive," said Mr. Hastings. "And we are not going to get into centuries-old arguments about denominational preferences between Catholics and Protestants. We're not going to do something to stir the pot. We'd turn down anything offensive to either side, that was either heretical or controversial."

"The question is always how do we create Bibles that people will pick up and use but that will not be too gimmicky," said Tyndale House's Mr. O'Brien. "If you get too trendy you've turned the Bible into a widget."

(Ms. Kaufman writes about the arts and culture for The Wall Street Journal.)


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