The digital difference Print
Written by Staff   
Thursday, 30 June 2011 11:04 AM America/New_York

Bibles may be immune to the e-publishing challenge to print

Abingdon PressDanteck GroupThomas NelsonZondervan

While talk about digital products generally makes brick-and-mortar Christian retailers quite nervous, they should be encouraged when it comes to non-print formats available in their Bible department.

For many have experienced success with sales beyond the printed page in recent years, and though the growth of e-books is viewed as a threat to other categories, when it comes to God’s Word, some see the trend as less troubling and even potentially positive.

Long before e-readers, Christian stores were selling the Bible in non-print formats, from audio editions on multiple cassettes to early software. Listen-to versions got a major boost in the last few years when the two leading Bible publishers each brought out their own, award-winning digital audio editions with all-star casts.

Thomas Nelson’s The Word of Promise New Testament, released in 2007 and its complete audio Bible, which followed two years later, were the top two sellers at Christian retail in the first quarter of 2011, according to sales data from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA). The production has done so well that Nelson is to re-release a recording in September of late country great Johnny Cash reading the entire New Testament, originally published in 1990.

 Zondervan’s Inspired By... The Bible Experience, the New  Testament edition of which came out in 2008, ranked third in the ECPA listing for sales January-March. Between them, the two publishers accounted for 62% of the audio Bible market, equally split, followed by Hendrickson Publishers (16%) and AMG Publishers (6%). Released last fall, the Truth and Life Dramatized Audio Bible New Testament, a Catholic-text audio Bible from Falcon Picture Group, ranked sixth in the ECPA listing.

Though audio Bibles were the largest single digital format, along with electronic Bibles, video Bibles and software, they accounted for 6% of all Bible category sales. Biblesoft led the software market with 23% of sales, just ahead of WORDsearch (22%). Next were Thomas Nelson (21%) and Immersion Digital (Glo Bible), each with 21%. 


As e-book publishing has grown, publishers have made their translations available that way, too. Both B&H Publishing Group and Zondervan made their new releases—the Holman Standard Christian Bible (HCSB) and the updated New International Version—available in digital formats ahead of the printed editions.

But they and other publishers who are also making the Bible available in e-format believe that the Scriptures may be uniquely positioned to avoid the cannibalization of print purchasing that trend watchers suggest will be seen in other book categories.

“Bibles are tangible, iconic artifacts and will co-exist as print and digital products,” said Paul Franklyn, associate publisher of the new Common English Bible (CEB) translation, due out electronically last month ahead of the July-August print debut from Abingdon Press. “Retail stores are the setting where an artifact can be touched and held.”

Darcy Cohan, director of publicity for HarperOne, agreed. Although e-Bibles were an important and growing part of revenues for the company, “people who buy digital Bibles will likely also buy a print edition,” she said. Print sales go up, as a result. “The Bible as object matters a great deal to the people who buy them.”

At Crossway, Marketing Manager Andrew Tebbe attributed continued growth for the English Standard Version (ESV)—available online and in CD-ROM from its print arrival in 2001—in part to increased brand recognition boosted by a Web site allowing free digital downloads of the translation.

“Stores need to realize that while digital use of the Bible is growing, digital-only users of the Bible are still a relative minority, with many Christians using a combination of print and digital resources,” he said. “Bible readers will figure out ways in which print and digital Bibles can serve different purposes in their life, or complement one another.”


Bob Sanford, Thomas Nelson’s vice president and associate publisher of the Bible, reference and curriculum group, said that digital Bibles and reference products can complement print sales. “We continue to hear of someone wanting a print edition after they’ve seen a digital edition.”

In addition, Franklyn noted that, with technical limitations, some e-readers are “not yet suited for satisfying use of the Bible—or any reference book.” Printed Bibles and reference software remain “the best options for in-depth study or easy/quick searches,” he said.

Consumers’ lack of familiarity with the capabilities and options in the e-book world provide stores with an opportunity, said Len Williams, vice president of sales and marketing for the Danteck Group. The company’s NowBible, first released five years ago, now carries 10 translations and secured 19% of the first-quarter electronic Bible market tracked by ECPA, behind Franklin Electronics (81%).

 “Not all digital products will hurt their business or discourage customers from returning to their stores for future purchases,” said Williams, noting a record first quarter of sales despite the e-book and smartphone boom. “On the contrary, if a customer purchases a digital product and has a great user experience, they are much more likely to recommend the store they purchased from and to perceive that store as an even more valuable resource.  

“Retailers also need to realize that many consumers are just as unfamiliar with digital and e-book-type products as they are,” he added. “For this reason, many CBA consumers will turn to their local stores and be even more open to purchasing a more innovative-type product from a place where they have familiarity and pre-established trust.”


Stores need to be up-to-date and knowledgeable about existing products, “as well as creative in seeing how resources can work in tandem,” suggested Tebbe. Providing Wi-Fi access is one way that stores can make themselves more “digitally friendly,” Sanford said.

Some retailers have begun displaying empty NowBible packaging boxes on the shelves, keeping the actual units locked up until purchase, said Williams. His company is even offering empty display boxes to stores so that the full line can be displayed even if certain items are not available. “Many customers are willing to wait a day or two for stock on higher-priced items, allowing virtually any U.S. retailer time to  receive an order from our distributors.” 

Another option is in-store video demos that show shoppers the features of the product “without ever taking it out of the box,” Williams said.

Sanford underscored the importance of face-out display to make an impact, and added that it was important to provide a way for customers to sample audio product, such as a listening station. Franklyn advised cross-merchandising audio editions with the print version. “They should also be line-listed as ‘also available’ in catalogs whenever possible,” he added.

Williams dismissed the idea that high-end gadgets will take over the digital field market. “We have found that there is still a large market of consumers who want something high-tech, digital and ‘similar’ to a smartphone or iPad, but rather on a dedicated device that is centered around the Bible,” he said. “Regardless of what some consumers can do with their iPhone, Droid or iPad, simple digital products with attractive features and a fair price will still sell.”