Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Best-Selling Bible and its Commodification

The Bible is the best-selling book of all time. In fact, it continues to be a best-seller year-in and year-out with an estimated 25 million copies sold yearly. Several people may realize this, but for those who have not been paying attention, the Bible now comes in all shapes and sizes. If you live in NY, just go down to the American Bible Society (just north of Columbus Circle), and you'll see Bibles as comic books, as survival kits, the green Bible, etc. The Bible has become adapted to all niche markets, or nearly so. As reported by the Wallstreet Journal:

It's an astonishing fact that year after year, the Bible is the best-selling book in America -- even though 90% of households already have at least one copy. The text doesn't vary, except in translation. The tremendous sales volume, an estimated 25 million copies sold each year, is largely driven by innovations in design, color, style and the ultimate niche marketing.

There's Scripture as accessory, wrapped in hot pink fake leather or glittery psychedelic swirls -- or sporting a ladybug on the cover for no particular reason other than it's cute. There's Scripture as political statement: A new Green Bible, printed in soy ink on recycled paper, highlights passages with an environmental theme.

There are gross-out Bibles for boys, which dwell on scenes of mayhem, and glossy teen-magazine-style Bibles for girls, complete with beauty tips. One of the latest entries, Bible Illuminated, offers an art-house take on the New Testament, juxtaposing the gospel with glossy photos of Angelina Jolie, Al Gore and anonymous victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Some people may be disturbed by the commodification of the Bible in this way, but it is nothing new--think of those illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. In a way, the comic book bible is just another illuminated manuscript for today:

The Bible "should be able to stand on its own" without adornment, said Mr. Frederickson. "It's a pretty amazing book."

But publishers across ages have recognized that the Bible can also be a profit center.

The monastic scribes who spent their lives copying religious texts in the Middle Ages threw themselves into their work as a measure of devotion -- but also to generate income for their monasteries.

By the 13th century, interest in the Bible had inspired a new industry of commercial publishing houses, which hired armies of scribes to crank out portable handwritten copies for university students. These publishers were the first to promote a sense of the Bible as a single book, with the chapters presented in fixed order.

"It was an essential text. Students would invest in it the way people today buy a computer or a car," said Father Columba Stewart, executive director of the manuscript library at the abbey of Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minn.

The Bible was the first book to roll off Johann Gutenberg's printing press in the mid-15th century. By the late 17th century, the ancient text was being printed in several languages and translations across Europe and the American colonies.

"Whether the Bible has got any transcendental truth in it or not, it is the most popular book, the most circulated text, of all time. It has never not been a No. 1 best-seller," said Christopher de Hamel, a British scholar of biblical manuscripts.

The difference may be the niche marketing. While earlier Bibles may have been unique in their hand drawn and written manner, or pumped out on a massive scale with the printing press, niche marketing is the product of more recent times. This marketing strategy has produced not a proliferation of Bibles, but a proliferation of types of Bibles:

The modern era of niche marketing began in the 1980s, when Bible publishers hit upon the idea of appending commentary aimed at particular audiences, such as women or teens. They highlighted the verses most likely to appeal to those groups and wrote volumes of supplemental material -- study notes, prayers, even advice-column-style questions and answers.

That format proved wildly popular; these days, you can buy Bibles tailored to alcoholics, archaeology buffs, fans of Japanese comics and any number of other interest groups. The Soul Surfer Bible, aimed at teen girls, sprinkles tips on catching a good wave, lists of surfer slang such as "tubular" (meaning, more or less, awesome) and life lessons about hope, faith and hard work into the traditional Biblical text. The Golfer's Bible draws on passages about steadfastness and contemplation to advise duffers on their swings. The Japanese Manga version retells biblical stories in comic-book form, complete with sound effects like "Biff!" and "Pow!"

I have been holding back. The article is really about providing context for a couple new hand created Bibles in Mobile, Alabama, which, although modern in style (one, though, is supposed to be "homespun"), remind me of the older days of scribes and illuminated manuscripts, works of art in themselves. So, do check out the website (linked above) and take a look at the pictures! The Manga Bible looks kind of cool.

No comments: