The Good Book still sells best Bible: When it comes to perennial best sellers, the Bible -- in its many versions -- can't be beat.

Sun Journal

December 25, 1997|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

For a best seller, it's a surprisingly tough read. The language is often obtuse, and some of the characters are difficult to relate to. Even its authorship is in dispute.

But the Bible is the most published book of all time, and its hundreds of translations and manifestations still top the sales charts, year in and year out.

"There is nothing at all out there that compares. The Bible is the best seller of all time," says Michael Maus, communications director for the New York-based American Bible Society, which last year gave away or sold 3.6 million complete Bibles and 7.1 million New Testaments in the United States. Worldwide, affiliated organizations distributed another 20 million whole books or New Testaments.

"In the United States, there are more Bibles than there are people, more Bibles than radios," Maus says.

Precise comparison with other books is impossible because the Bible is like no other text. It is actually a collection of more than 40 books -- the recognized number varies by faith -- written over several centuries, beginning with elements of the Old Testament written hundreds of years before the birth of Christ.

Most of its readers have never experienced its original language. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek. "Bible" is derived from the Greek "biblos," the word for the inner lining of papyrus bark from which early paper was made. The book has been translated in whole or part into more than 2,000 languages and dialects.

Polls show that readership of the Bible ranks well below ownership, at least in modern times in the United States. And viewed as a literary category, the Bible may be outsold by cookbooks and mystery novels.

A study by the American Booksellers Association, based on a poll of consumers, estimates that religious books as a group represented only 7 percent of books sold nationwide last year. Popular fiction was the best-selling category, with slightly more than half of all books sold, followed by cooking and crafts books at 10 percent, general nonfiction at 9 percent, and then religious titles.

But as a single title, the Bible has no peer.

"The Bible is the best-selling book for the press worldwide," says Hargus Thomas Jr., director of Bible sales and marketing for the Oxford University Press in New York.

Estimating Bible sales is tricky. For one thing, sections of the book, such as the Old and New Testaments, are sold by themselves. The book is also distributed in unconventional ways, often free, confounding tracking. Gideons International has been leaving Bibles in hotel rooms across the country for nearly 100 years.

And the Bible, according to one local bookstore owner, is also the most frequently shoplifted book.

Bibles are sold through Christian bookstores, over the Internet, through discount retailers and Bible-buying clubs. Customized translations are also sold via specific churches and congregations. The Promise Keepers Men's Study Bible is going strong now.

L All of which makes a precise accounting of sales impossible.

Robert Sanford, vice president of Bible-Editorial for Thomas Nelson Publishers of Nashville, Tenn., the nation's largest commercial publisher of Bibles, estimates that Bibles and partial Bibles represent about $200 million a year in sales, equal to roughly 30 million books (the figures don't include Bibles given away).

Those are numbers no mortal book can touch, even when gushed over by Oprah Winfrey. By comparison, best-selling authors such as John Grisham will introduce a new work with a press run of 2 million or so.

Much of the Bible's staying power is related to publishers' finding new ways to package the ancient text. This is a recent phenomenon in publishing, and one that is apparently losing its effectiveness after propelling several decades of strong Bible sales.

Until early in this century, the most widely recognized English translations of the Bible were the Roman Catholic Douay, published at Douai and Reims, France, in 1582 and 1610, and the Protestant King James Version, published in 1611 at the behest of England's King James I, then head of the Church of England.

Later attempts to modernize the Bible's language led to many translations, including the Revised version in 1885, the American Standard in 1901, and the Revised Standard of 1946 and 1952. Then, in the 1960s, the Oxford Press came out with its New English translation, which leaped onto the best-seller list and sparked a cottage industry of Bible translations, says Oxford Press' Thomas.

There followed in short order the Jerusalem Bible, the New International, the Living Bible, the Good News Bible, the New Living Translation and others, all geared toward making the sometimes archaic work comprehensible to a modern readership.

"In the last half of the century, language was addressed," Thomas says. "It was the biggest thing that happened. You start to see the growth and development of Bible publishers mirroring the growth of translations."

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