Can you judge a Good Book by its cover?

According to an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required), Bible sales have been booming the last few years, driven in no small part by an interest in aesthetics as much as ethics. The basic black Bible, austere as a Quaker, is emerging like a butterfly from its conservative cocoon.

Always a dependable seller, the Bible is in the midst of a boom. Christian bookstores had a 25% increase in sales of Scriptures from 2003 to 2005, according to statistics gathered by the Phoenix, Ariz.-based Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, a trade group. General-interest bookstores, while declining to give figures, have also seen increasingly strong sales. “Bibles are a growth area for us and we’re giving them more space in our stores,” said Jane Love, religion buyer for Barnes & Noble. “It’s partly because of the way they’ve evolved over the last three or four years.”

Indeed, publishers like Thomas Nelson; Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Zondervan; and Tyndale House in Carol Stream, Ill. — which together represent an estimated 80% of the Bible market — have gone far beyond offering the Scriptures between black, burgundy, navy or white covers.

“For a long time the Bible was just the Bible,” noted Kevin O’Brien, director of Bibles at Tyndale House. “You put it out there and people bought it. They didn’t ask about the options, because there weren’t any options. But now, especially in evangelical circles, people are seeing their lives not just in color but high-definition color, and they want the Bible to fit in with that. This is not your mother’s Bible.”

Actually, I use my grandmother’s Bible. It’s big, black and weighs about two pounds, but it has really large type that allows me to read a scripture reference in church without putting on my reading glasses. It also has reproductions of great, classic religious paintings. Oh, and it’s the King James version, which, of course, is the Bible officially used by Jesus. How I doth love it!

Thus, following the gospel of Seventh Avenue, publishers are displaying their wares in the season’s hot colors. “This year alone I’ve seen four shades of purple,” said Ms. Love, whose stores have also done well with two-tone Bibles. The pink and brown model has been particularly popular. Bibles are also available in the colors of your college, with a fur cover, a flower-patterned cover, and to appeal to young adherents, with a camouflage cover, a metal cover and a duct-tape cover. Next spring Tyndale House will be bringing out a paperback Bible in a plastic case that looks like a flattened Nalgene bottle.

But Bibles are becoming as much personal statements as fashion statements. “What people are saying is ‘I want to find a Bible that is really me,” noted Rodney Hatfield, a vice president of marketing at Thomas Nelson. “It’s no different than with anything else in our culture.”

It used to be just carrying a Bible said enough about you; now we need one that is “really me”? Oh well, whatever rubs your Buddha, I mean, whatever floats your boat, as long as people care as much about what is inside the covers as they do about the covers themselves. Besides Grandma’s Good Book, over the years I’ve owned and got a lot out of the New King James Version, the NIV and The Living Bible, and I do like to pick up my JB Phillips New Testament in Modern English from time to time. The most useful for me now, however, is the on-line Blue Letter Bible with its Search tools and multiple translations at the click of a mouse.

Using the Blue Letter Bible I can quickly search and compare 2 Timothy 3:16-17 in both the King James:

All scripture [is] given by inspiration of God, and [is] profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.

And the New Living Translation:

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It straightens us out and teaches us to do what is right. It is God’s way of preparing us in every way, fully equipped for every good thing God wants us to do.

Good stuff, that. Wish I had written it.

One thought on “Can you judge a Good Book by its cover?

  1. The rise in popularity of Christian schools is probably driving some of this. My son’s school requires an NIV bible. You couldn’t just use whatever you had at home.

    After seeing how slick my son’s Bible was, I put a new Bible with a concordance on my Christmas list a couple of years back (I previously just had a basic King James). My folks gave me a wonderful version from the Billy Graham ministry.

Leave a Reply