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
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
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
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. …