The word on Bible sales

Marketplace Staff Dec 18, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: People probably pick up their Bibles more during the holidays than usual. Maybe they’re spending more time in church. Or they just want to get back to the comfort and joy this time of year’s really supposed to be about. But the Bible as business is a year ’round endeavor. Daniel Radosh writes on the good book publishing industry in the latest New Yorker magazine. Daniel, good to have you with us.


RYSSDAL: Whatever happened to the King James version? Doesn’t anybody read that anymore?

RADOSH: Oh, the King James is still very popular. But it’s no longer just about a King James Bible in black leather — and maybe you get it in burgundy, as one publisher put it to me. The Bible is now an entertainment product and a fashion accessory, and a lifestyle icon. You can get Bibles in almost any color of the rainbow now. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear women saying that they’ve got a new dress for church and they want a Bible with a purple cover to match it. There are Bibles with matching handbags. Or, if you’re, you know, a teenager and you want to look cool you can get a Bible with a weathered metal cover or one made out of duct tape, or that glows in the dark. Basically, the Bible has become, like the pair of shoes that you wear — a way of expressing your individuality.

RYSSDAL: I’m almost at a loss. Isn’t this sort of sacrilegious in a way?

RADOSH: Well, you know, there are people who say that. Who say that the message of the Bible is antithetical to this kind of consumerism. But the people who are putting out these Bibles are not just doing it to make a fast buck. They really do believe in spreading the word and the idea is that anything that you can do to help somebody pick up a Bible for the first time or to spend more time with it once they have it, that that’s inherently good. They also want to make sure that they are reaching everybody who wants a Bible. That’s why you’ll see Bibles for soldiers, for brides, for surfers, for cowboys.

RYSSDAL: Don’t most people, though — most households, anyway — don’t they already have a Bible?

RADOSH: Everybody has heard that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time. But, what you don’t often think about is that it’s the best-selling book of the year, every year. The Bible sells something like 25 million copies a year, at least twice as many as the official best-seller. And it’s true that 91 percent of Americans own at least one Bible. The average household owns four. So publishers are selling 25 million copies a year of a book that everybody already has.

RYSSDAL: How are they doing it? Is it by breaking it down into these niches that you talked about?

RADOSH: That is one way. But also, publishers are very savvy and they use market research the same as any other company does. And what they’ve discovered is that people really have different ways in which they use the Bible. And they want different Bibles for different purposes. The other thing that I should mention is that it’s not simply a matter of style. There are differences in these Bibles that people appreciate. That, if you read three translations and five different editions with a different set of notes, you understand the Bible better than if you only read one translation and one set of commentary.

RYSSDAL: Is it only Christian publishing houses that are trying to capitalize on this desire for more Bibles. Or are we going to see Random House and Scribners getting into the market?

RADOSH: Well, the industry has long been dominated by a half dozen Christian publishing houses. As they have been successful with it, we have seen secular, mainstream publishers trying to move into this market. Thomas Nelson, which is the second-largest publisher of Bibles was recently purchased by a private investment firm for $473 million. Penguin is putting out new editions of the Bible. And this is, yeah, a recognition that there’s a market out there that can still be tapped.

RYSSDAL: The article by Daniel Radosh is in the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine. It’s called, “The Good Book Business.” Mr. Radosh, thanks a lot for your time.

RADOSH: You’re welcome.

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