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Selling the Good Book by its cover

Publishers have found a big niche for Bibles inspired by pop culture. The variety is sometimes overwhelming.

December 25, 2007|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. — The original scribes of the Bible may have been inspired by God. Their modern-day successors? They find inspiration in vacuum cleaners, polka-dot bedspreads and a slick, hot-pink Juicy Couture purse.

This all may sound a bit irreverent. But consider it from the Bible publisher's point of view: How do you sell a really old book that 91% of households already have?

You can't update the content, or get the author on Oprah.

But you can make the look sizzle. If pink and shiny sells a purse, why not a psalm?

In the conference room they call the Bible Bunker, executives of Bible publisher Zondervan pore over fabric swatches. They watch PowerPoints on the latest in appliances and accessories, noting color trends. They caress bold new patterns in embossed faux leather.

"People ask, 'How do you get excited working on one darn book?' " says Scott Bolinder, an executive vice president. "Yet there's probably no place you can be more imaginative -- and more strategic."

It's still possible to purchase, for as little as $7, a traditional Bible with a stiff, dark, fake-leather cover, of the sort that used to be tucked into pews all across America. But if the industry had stuck to those, it wouldn't be selling $770 million worth of Bibles a year in the U.S. alone.

Figuring an average price of about $30, which may well be conservative, that adds up to 25 million Bibles a year. By comparison, Scholastic has shipped 14 million copies of the latest Harry Potter book in the U.S. The second-hottest book this year, "The Secret," has sold about 3 million copies.

In that context, the Bible's success is phenomenal. Zondervan plans to keep stoking demand by making sure God's word looks hip, sounds relevant and is advertised all over, including in Rolling Stone magazine and Modern Bride, on MySpace -- even on a jumbotron in New York City's Times Square.

"A lot of people read the Bible because it's obligatory, something to keep God off their backs," says Paul J. Caminiti, a vice president. "We're looking to turn them into Bible lovers . . . so it becomes part of the warp and woof of their being."

The first wave of innovation came in the 1980s, when Zondervan, Thomas Nelson Inc., Tyndale House and other publishers began to create Bibles aimed at specific groups, such as teens or newlyweds. These editions contained the whole Scripture, but with added commentary, prayers and tips for spiritual growth.

Five years ago, a supplier came to Zondervan headquarters here in western Michigan with a new imitation leather. Soft and supple, it could hold fancy stitching and vibrant colors.

"I remember [the chief financial officer] saying, 'Let's not go too crazy. Let's start with two-tone, tan-and-brown and tan-and-black,' " Caminiti says. "Then we ventured out into red and yellow and they just took off. Everybody wanted them."

The splashy look snagged prime display space not just in Christian retailers, but in secular bookstores, Wal-Marts and Costcos.

Zondervan began churning out limited-edition, one-season-only Scripture: a thin checkbook-shaped Bible with jazzy blue and silver stripes for $30, a square Bible in meadow green for $35, a pocket-size edition in soft browns and oranges for $20. At least a third of Bibles are purchased as gifts, and Zondervan made sure there was one for every occasion -- even sorority rush. (The light-pink and apple-green colors of Alpha Kappa Alpha have been a big hit.)

On a gloomy Monday in mid-December, Zondervan executives review a palette of mahogany hues for a Father's Day edition. In the Bible Bunker -- amply stocked with huge, buttery cookies -- they turn next to a marketing dilemma.

This coming year marks the 30th anniversary of the best-selling New International Version of the Bible, a highly readable translation that has vaulted Zondervan (a division of HarperCollins) to the top of the Bible publishing world, with a 40% market share.

To celebrate, the company is producing an update of the NIV Study Bible, with thousands of revised footnotes. Formatted with extra-wide margins for note-taking, bound in premium leather, the new edition has been tentatively priced at $119.99.

But Randy Bishop, vice president of production, has cold feet. The existing NIV Study Bible comes in a dozen sizes and bindings, priced from $25 to $80. He wonders if customers will pay so much more for the anniversary edition.

"If you put chocolate coating on an Oreo, it's a different cookie, and you ought to be able to charge more," Caminiti argues. "The packaging has to scream that this is something really new: First time! Fudge-dipped! Chocolate-coated!"

Todd Niemeyer, vice president of sales, chuckles and murmurs, "Smoke and mirrors."

The team kicks around inexpensive ways to make the new edition stand out.

"We could put in an extra ribbon marker. . . . Maybe special parchment paper at the beginning?" Bishop suggests.

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