Religion

The Greatest Business Story Ever Told

How Bible publishers went forth and multiplied

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THE GREEN BIBLE misses an opportunity to extol Noah's embrace of mass transit over less environmentally friendly modes of disaster evacuation, but it does highlight the parts of the Good Book "that speak to God's care for creation" in a verdant shade of soy-based ink. In Bible Illuminated: The Book, the Holy Scriptures are paired with glossy photographs of Angelina Jolie, Al Gore, and Bono, among others, and supplemented with a section inspired by the United Nations Millennium Development Goals project, titled "Eight Ways to Change the World."

Naturally, such efforts to present the Bible in progressive contexts have not gone unnoticed by more right-leaning believers. Claiming that "liberal bias has become the single biggest distortion in modern Bible translations," Andrew Schlafly, the fourth begotten son of Phyllis, launched the Conservative Bible Project in August 2009. An online collaborative effort, the project aims to produce "a fully conservative translation of the Bible" that will avoid gender-inclusive language, favor conciseness over "liberal wordiness," use "conservative" terms like volunteer rather than comrade, and render "the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning." Whatever concise, narrowly gendered language Schlafly and his comrades, er, volunteers conjure to illuminate the free-market meaning of, say, the Parable of the Vineyard Consultants (Matthew 20:1–15), they'll be hard-pressed to match the pedagogic power of the story of the Bible publishing industry itself.

It wasn't always this way. In the 16th century, when William Tyndale translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into English, thereby unlocking the Word of God to the common man, he was rewarded for his efforts by being burned at the stake. So were most of the copies of his translation. In colonial times, it was illegal to print Bibles in North America; only certain printers in England and Scotland were authorized to publish the holy book. During the Revolution those imports stopped, creating, according to The Centennial History of the American Bible Society, a "famine of Bibles." So in 1782 the Philadelphia printer Roger Aitken printed 10,000 copies of America's first complete English Bible. The book came with a congressional endorsement, but when the war ended, cheap imports resumed, domestic competition exploded, and thousands of copies of the Aitken Bible failed to sell. In 1791, he wrote a letter to Pennsylvania's tax man stating that he'd lost $4,000 on the venture. Today America is characterized by Biblical obesity, not Biblical famine. A 2003 survey conducted by Zondervan, one of the nation's largest Christian book publishers, found that the average U.S. household contains 3.9 Bibles, and U.S. consumers purchase approximately 20 million new Bibles annually. "Business analysts describe Bible publishing as a mature industry with little prospect for strong growth," The Boston Globe reported in 1986, but year in and year out, the Bible remains the best-selling book in America.

The glut, in fact, is what creates the demand. Long before Web 2.0 billionaires decided that $0.00 was a price point consumers would find even more tempting than Eve's apple, Bible societies had started distributing millions of copies for free or at little cost to establish brand awareness, build a user base, and make the formerly expensive, scarce, and highly regulated item a ubiquitous presence in the culture. In 1907, Dr. Henry O. Dwight of the American Bible Society told The New York Times that "something like half a billion Bibles were published and distributed throughout the world during the nineteenth century." With so much product out there, it's only natural that publishers make an effort to distinguish their wares. While we tend to contrast today's scriptural abundance—where golfers, doctors, and members of the Coast Guard can find Bibles tailored especially for them—with a grim, Soviet-like yesteryear in which the only Bible available was a King James Version in a black leather cover with a tiny cross on it, our forefathers actually had a greater variety to choose from than that. "The old tradition of one family bible is passé," Edward S. Mills, president of the National Association of Book Publishers, told The New York Times in 1929. "A wide variety of editions and prices are now available, children's Bibles, reference Bibles, beautifully illustrated editions." But even the world's best-known, widest translated, most easily obtainable book needs a little professional sales push on occasion. In 1952, Thomas Nelson & Sons published the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Amongst evangelicals, it would prove to be a controversial work, with critics calling it "The Devil's Masterpiece" and "The New Communist Bible" and condemning its "modernistic scholarship" and textual emendations, especially in Isaiah 7:14, wherein it replaced the word "virgin" with "young woman" and thus appeared to undermine the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus. In its marketing, however, the Revised Standard Version was thoroughly infused with the spirit of capitalism. Thomas Nelson & Sons had started planning its advertising campaign at least three years earlier, and with the help of ad agency Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn,  spent $500,000 on radio spots, TV commercials, and newspaper ads to introduce the new version. It was, The New York Times reported, "probably the largest [budget] ever allocated to the promotion of a book before it has even been printed." The initial run of 1 million copies sold out in two days.

In 1984 Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network took Bible marketing to the next level, with an explicit mandate to peddle the Bible as a "consumer item." Focus groups were enlisted; mall shoppers were surveyed. The conclusion: People wanted a Bible that was as easy to read as a bestselling paperback novel. CBN took the text of a bestselling paraphrase, The Living Bible, made it even easier to read, and rebranded it as The Book. Celebrities such as Dick Butkus, Linda Evans, and Glen Campbell were recruited for TV commercials, and The Book was sold in supermarkets, truck stops, and even hardware stores. In 1999, Robertson resurrected The Book with a $7 million marketing campaign that included two prime-time TV specials, bus shelter ads, a music CD, and a song-and-dance-filled Broadway-style launch at Grand Central Station.

Today's publishers embrace The Book's consumerist approach so thoroughly that the resulting products often seem like parodies. The Sportsman's Bible features a camouflage cover and supplementary essays on "God the Hunter" and "Setting Up a Ground Blind." The Veritas Journey Bible combines a compact edition of the New Living Translation with a TuTone LeatherLike purse styled after "such upscale brands as Coach, Dooney & Bourke, and Brighton."
Traditionalists may scorn such commercialized offerings, but anyone with an interest in the Bible ultimately benefits from them. Every time a new permutation of the Good Book is added to the marketplace, the competition among publishers intensifies, which in turn inspires these publishers to find new niches to target and new ways to serve their customers. For every gender-inclusive translation, there's a translation that specifically markets itself as the historically accurate alternative to culturally biased revisionism. For every hipster coffee table Bible that preaches the gospel of the United Nations, there's an American Patriot's Bible that identifies its ideal customer as "the ordinary man or woman who loves this nation and believes it springs from godly roots." At this point, the only way to diminish the Bible's power would be if fundamentalists somehow ended all its questionable commercial permutations, comic book versions, audio interpretations, niche devotionals—everything but the King James version in plain black covers. In this light, the Conservative Bible Project is anything but conservative. Like all other versions of the Good Book, the narrow new interpretation broadens the Bible's overall appeal. 

Contributing Editor Greg Beato (gbeato@soundbitten.com) writes from San Francisco.