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Bible publishers get innovative to repackage an old favorite

Friday, January 18, 2008 | 1:00 p.m. CST; updated 2:56 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Bible publishers are looking for new ways to market the Scripture to the masses. More than 91 percent of U.S. households already own at least one copy of the Bible.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The original scribes of the Bible might have been inspired by God. Their modern-day successors? They find inspiration in vacuum cleaners, polka-dot bedsprads and a slick, hot-pink Juicy Couture purse.

This might sound a bit irreverent. But consider it from the Bible publisher’s point of view: How do you sell a really old book that 91 percent of households already have?

You can’t update the content, or get the author on “Oprah.”

But you can make the look sizzle. If pink and shiny sells a purse, why not a psalm?

In the conference room they call the Bible Bunker, executives of Bible publisher Zondervan pore over fabric swatches. They watch PowerPoints on the latest in appliances and accessories, noting color trends. They caress bold new patterns in embossed faux leather.

“People ask, ’How do you get excited working on one darn book?”’ says Scott Bolinder, an executive vice president. “Yet there’s probably no place you can be more imaginative — and more strategic.”

It’s still possible to purchase, for as little as $7, a traditional Bible with a stiff, dark, fake-leather cover, of the sort that used to be tucked into pews all across America. But if the industry had stuck to those, it wouldn’t be selling $770 million worth of Bibles a year in the U.S. alone.

Figuring an average price of about $30, which might be conservative, that adds up to 25 million Bibles a year. By comparison, Scholastic has shipped 14 million copies of the latest Harry Potter book in the U.S. The second-hottest book of 2007, “The Secret,” has sold about 3 million copies.

In that context, the Bible’s success is phenomenal. Zondervan plans to keep stoking demand by making sure God’s word looks hip, sounds relevant and is advertised all over, including in Rolling Stone magazine and Modern Bride, on MySpace — even on a Jumbotron in New York’s Times Square.

“A lot of people read the Bible because it’s obligatory, something to keep God off their backs,” says Paul J. Caminiti, a vice president. “We’re looking to turn them into Bible lovers ... so it becomes part of the warp and woof of their being.”

The first wave of innovation came in the 1980s, when Zondervan, Thomas Nelson Inc., Tyndale House and other publishers began to create Bibles aimed at specific groups, such as teens or newlyweds. These editions contained the whole Scripture, but with added commentary, prayers and tips for spiritual growth.

Five years ago, a supplier came to Zondervan headquarters here in western Michigan with a new imitation leather. Soft and supple, it could hold fancy stitching and vibrant colors.

“I remember (the chief financial officer) saying, ’Let’s not go too crazy. Let’s start with two-tone, tan-and-brown and tan-and-black,’” Caminiti says. “Then we ventured out into red and yellow and they just took off. Everybody wanted them.”

The splashy look snagged prime display space not just in Christian retailers, but in secular bookstores, Wal-Marts and Costcos.

Zondervan began churning out limited-edition, one-season-only Scripture: a thin checkbook-shaped Bible with jazzy blue and silver stripes for $30, a square Bible in meadow green for $35, a pocket-size edition in soft browns and oranges for $20. At least one-third of Bibles are purchased as gifts, and Zondervan made sure there was one for every occasion — even sorority rush. (The light-pink and apple-green colors of Alpha Kappa Alpha have been a big hit.)

On a gloomy Monday last month, Zondervan executives reviewed a palette of mahogany hues for a Father’s Day edition. In the Bible Bunker they turned next to a marketing dilemma.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the best-selling New International Version of the Bible, a highly readable translation that has vaulted Zondervan (a division of HarperCollins) to the top of the Bible publishing world, with a 40 percent market share.

To celebrate, the company is producing an update of the NIV Study Bible, with thousands of revised footnotes. Formatted with extra-wide margins for note-taking, bound in premium leather, the new edition has been priced tentatively at $119.99.

But Randy Bishop, vice president of production, has cold feet. The existing NIV Study Bible comes in a dozen sizes and bindings, priced from $25 to $80. He wonders if customers will pay so much more for the anniversary edition.

“If you put chocolate coating on an Oreo, it’s a different cookie, and you ought to be able to charge more,” Caminiti argues. “The packaging has to scream that this is something really new: First time! Fudge-dipped! Chocolate-coated!”

Todd Niemeyer, vice president of sales, chuckles and murmurs, “Smoke and mirrors.”

The team kicks around inexpensive ways to make the new edition stand out.

“We could put in an extra ribbon marker. ... Maybe special parchment paper at the beginning?” Bishop suggests.

“There you go!” says Brian Scharp, vice president of Bible marketing. “The list of premium features is growing and growing.”

“Gold-plated bling?” Niemeyer asks mischievously.

“A vial of Holy Land soil attached to the back?” Bishop offers, as the room dissolves in laughter.

The Zondervan staff has turned down a few ideas — a 3-D pop-up Bible, for instance — that they found too gimmicky. “There is a line, because it’s God’s word,” Scharp says.

Later, though, he admits: “It’s hard to draw the line in any one place and say, ’We’re never going to cross that.”’

Zondervan recently published a Celebrate Recovery Bible for alcoholics. (The commentary notes that Adam showed an addict’s skill at denial when God scolded him for eating the forbidden fruit.) For kids, there’s a comic-book Bible in Japanese manga style. (One panel shows elderly Isaac and Rebekah praying for a child. In the next panel, Rebekah’s stomach pops out — to a “WHAM! BIFF! POW!”)

Holman Christian Standard offers the Golfer’s Bible, a compact hardcover that intersperses the Gospel with advice on proper grip. Thomas Nelson puts out BibleZines — including the New Testament packaged as a glossy teen magazine, complete with beauty tips and quizzes. There’s even a waterproof Bible with pages that fold out, map-style.

All this has raised predictable concerns.

“Where the fine line between accessibility and desecration is, is not real clear sometimes,” says Phyllis Tickle, a noted Christian author. “I find it really, really distressing to think that young people may have their first impression of Christian Scripture presented to them in an almost pandering way.”

Shopping in a Christian store in Grand Rapids, Kurt Forrest looks almost dizzy at the selection. He’s trying to find a Bible for his 7-year-old son among more than 300 titles, including some that break up the Scripture with science projects or descriptions of gory battles.

“I want the full-blown Bible,” Forrest says, frustrated, “something he can carry with him all the way out into his teen years.”

Nearly 20 minutes later, he’s still browsing.

Which points up a flaw in the Bible-for-every-interest strategy: Half of all customers who walk into a store intending to buy a Bible leave empty-handed, according to Brenda Lugannani, a vice president of Family Christian Stores, the nation’s largest Christian chain.

“When they look at what’s available,” she says, “it begins to confuse them.”

But modern Christians have come to expect a personalized faith.

The culture has moved away from the biblical concept that believers must be “in the world, but not of it.” Instead of stepping into a distinct Christian culture, they stay where they are, and Christian culture comes to them. There are Bible studies just for Harley owners, evangelists who target only wrestling fans, ministries for skateboarders and rappers and porn stars.

So why not a glittery pink, totally tubular Soul Surfer Bible?

“We’re serious about taking the Bible to the masses in a way the public can understand and engage,” Caminiti says. “We’ve always said we publish for every age and every stage, and we do that unapologetically.”

That’s good by Melinda Skarli, who’s searching a Family Christian Store in Grand Rapids for a Bible that her teenage daughter can give a troubled friend. “I want one that’s going to be cute enough for her friend to be attracted to,” she explains, leafing through a compact edition bound in hot pink and orange.

In a way — an admittedly commercial way — theologian Kurt Fredrickson sees modern publishers as following the hallowed footsteps of Christian heroes such as Jan Hus, William Tyndale and Martin Luther, who risked their lives to bring God’s word to the masses.

“For centuries, there’s been a desire to make the Bible more accessible,” says Fredrickson, who directs the doctor of ministry program at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Yes, the concept of a trendy Gospel might sound tacky.

“But we’re Americans,” Fredrickson says. “We’re always trying to find a niche.”


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