For professional Bible thumpers - whose task it is to promote the world's longest-running, recession-proof best seller - this is a strangely sluggish season for marketing God's word.
The $200 million market for Bibles is as flat as a leather Bible cover and this trend, naturally, has resulted in much reflection.
Earlier last summer, the Family Bookstore chain shipped back to publishers more than $200,000 worth of rejected King James Bibles that were gathering dust motes on shelves. Three new Bible translations were introduced this year amid much hoopla but already some are being consigned to the discount remainder bins. Bibles sales also took a steep plunge in June - traditionally a time when hefty, embossed copies are given away as classic gifts to newlyweds and college graduates. Monthly sales fell to $3.7 million, an almost 48 percent drop from the comparable period a year earlier, according to the Association of American Publishers, which tracks primarily general trade publishers that produce Bibles rather than the traditional Christian publishers. Sales rebounded the following month, but remained down 9 percent for the year. "I've never seen a time in which well-positioned and well-financed and well-done translations have entered the market with such horrible results," said Hargis Thomas, director of sales and marketing for the Oxford University Press, one of the smaller publishers in the Bible market. "I think that we've reached saturation point. What we're really doing is redividing market share." Historically, Bible sales were considered immune to the vagaries of the economy because readers faithfully turned to its comforting passages in times of economic crisis. And unlike trade publishing - which for years has struggled with returns of rejected books - Bibles generally stayed on the shelves until they were sold. "What we used to say was bring on the recession," Thomas recalled. "Recession drove people to church and they realized that they were missing their Bible. But now it's now longer recession proof because it's a much larger business than it was 20 years ago. There's an explosion of product." It is the fifth deadly sin of marketing - a glut - that may account for the current flat market, according to many Bible publishers and Christian booksellers. There are now several hundred versions of the Bible that cater to ever conceivable niche of readers - from Bibles for runners and study books for teen-agers to devotionals for mothers and couples, boys and girls. The result is too many Bibles for too few Christians, according to analyst Michael A. Kupinski, of A.G. Edwards, who tracks Thomas Nelson Inc., the largest publicly held publisher of Bibles. "They broadened the distribution channels, but they didn't broaden the customer base." Like trade publishers of general fiction and nonfiction, Bible publishers rode a wave of growth with the advent of super bookstores like Barnes & Noble and discount warehouses that peddled books along with detergent. And like trade publishers, they also suffered when the Bibles languished on the shelves and the chains started returning books by truckload. Nelson reported losing almost $1. …