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Jazzy new Bibles alter form, not word

Publishers want to reach nontraditional audiences. One magazine-style version features Angelina Jolie.

October 09, 2008|Sarah Skidmore | The Associated Press

PORTLAND, ORE. — Martin Luther King Jr. graces one page, Angelina Jolie the next. A photo of a man on fire opens the book of Revelation. And laid across a two-page image of gasoline spilling from a pump is the quote that begins, "The whole earth was amazed and followed the beast."

It's not the Good Book some may remember.

Although the Bible has been re-created and repackaged innumerable times, publishers of the newest editions are using some unique formats to capture the attention of readers.

"In general, Bible publishers have always been creative, but now they are scrambling to meet a culture where people are moving away from print reading," said Paul Gutjahr, an associate professor of English and adjunct associate professor in religious studies at Indiana University.

Secular as well as traditional religious Bible publishers are getting in on the act. Dozens of versions of the Bible come out each year for various niches: the outdoorsman, the married couple, business leaders. There are electronic Bibles available for the Kindle, iPods and other hand-held devices. There are graphic novel and comic book interpretations. There's even a new chronological version of the Bible coming out this fall.

The Book Industry Study Group estimates that Bibles, testaments, hymnals and prayer books were a $795.2-million market in 2007.

Experts say Bible sales tend to rise in times of war and economic crisis. And the industry group says a Bible publishing boom is underway. The market size has grown steadily over the last several years and is expected to jump in the coming years. The group estimates that the market will reach $823.5 million this year -- growth other publishing categories might covet.

The Bible is reinvented often. Updates in the last two decades were largely focused on new translations, Gutjahr said. There are also versions that come out each year that are essentially the same book, with different covers and sizes based on people's wants. But Gutjahr sees the next trend as one toward textual translation and visual translation.

"In a visually literate, advertising-skeptical age, how do you grab people's attention?" Gutjahr asked. "Mixing the biblical text with Angelina Jolie doesn't surprise me."

First published in Sweden last year, "Bible Illuminated: The Book" is the glossy fashion magazine-style publication that features Jolie. It looks more at home on a coffee table or a nightstand in the latest hipster hotel than in a church.

The creation of former advertising executives, it pairs intense photo essays -- including images such as a child with a gun or beatings in the Belgian Congo under King Leopold II's regime -- with the scripture of the New Testament. It is aimed at people who might not otherwise ever read the Bible.

"There is a large part of the population that considers themselves smart, educated, conscientious, connected people who are not particularly religious and have not regularly read the Bible," said Larry Norton, a former publishing executive and president of Illuminated World, the company that is putting out "Bible Illuminated."

"That group of people probably know it would be smarter, more sensitive to their surroundings if they read the Bible if they were religious or not," Norton said.

Illuminated World is quick to point out that it is not affiliated with any church or religion. The Swedish version of its Bible was sold first in boutiques and design stores, and mainstream bookstores were hesitant to carry it initially. But as it gained popularity, the book was sold more widely and even found a strong secondary market in secular sales.

Norton said sales of "Bible Illuminated" in Sweden, where an estimated 60,000 Bibles are sold each year, reached 30,000 in its first year. Company executives are hoping for similar success in the U.S. and plan to release the New Testament in October and potentially the Old Testament in March. In the U.S., the New Testament is already pre-selling on Amazon, and Illuminated World has contracts with most major bookstores.

Illuminated World uses the Good News translation of the Bible, which it licensed from the American Bible Society.

"We are living in the age of increased secularization and distance from traditional religion," said Robert Hodgson, dean emeritus at the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship, which handles translation and quality control for the society.

"It's about new points of entry in a modern world that is not ready to open its doors and windows to the traditional word," he said.

These "gateway Bibles," intended for the secular crowd, seem to be the latest frontier in Bible publishing.

"Contrary to popular belief, I think most Bibles are published for people who are already in the club," Gutjahr said. "Publishing for people who are outside the club, I don't know how much luck there has been with that."

Publishing company Thomas Nelson, which is one of the largest Bible publishers, broke some ground with "Revolve," a Bible with a teen magazine style. Girls took well to the format, which publishers said made the buyers feel more comfortable accessing it and carrying it, and sales were strong.

The company is coming out with a chronological version of the Bible this fall that has built some buzz. Though it's not the first chronological version, this looks more like a social studies text, with informational and historical outakes.

The publisher also has an audio version of the Bible with stars such as Marisa Tomei and Richard Dreyfuss, which they hope will do well among the secular crowd.

"I think that is personally what drives me," said Wayne Hastings, a senior vice president at Thomas Nelson. "The inner circle [of traditional Bible readers] is a great customer, but that next circle is what we are after."

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