The Greatest Business Story Ever Told: How Bible Publishers Went Forth and Multiplied

By Beato, Greg | Reason, February 2010 | Go to article overview

The Greatest Business Story Ever Told: How Bible Publishers Went Forth and Multiplied


Beato, Greg, Reason


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. …

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