Lessons from Bibliotheca, and More Thoughts on the ESV Reader’s Bible

The funding campaign is over and Bibliotheca has raised in excess of $1.4 million. While success on this scale always brings out detractors, I’ve been impressed how widely Adam Lewis Greene’s effort has been appreciated. While the idea of designing Bibles for reading rather than reference isn’t new, this is the first time in awhile that a Bible publishing project has connected with the wider world on the basis of its design choices first and foremost.

If you missed the Kickstarter, there’s still a window for ordering Bibliotheca. Check out the details on Adam’s new site, Bibliotheca.co.

There are lessons to be learned from the experience, and not just for publishers. Michael Hyatt has summed up four of the big ones, quoting some remarks of mine along the way: “What the Success of Bibliotheca Tells Us About the Future of Publishing.”

So what should you do while you’re waiting for Bibliotheca to ship? How about giving the ESV Reader’s Bible a try. Similar in concept to Bibliotheca, the ESV Reader’s Bible is available now, and for a very affordable price. You’ll experience the benefits of a reader-friendly format for yourself. Here are some links to my pieces on the ESV Reader’s Bible

The Original Review: The ESV Reader’s Bible

A Video Introduction to the ESV Reader’s Bible

ESV Reader’s Bible: Some Notes on Daily Use

My own experiences with the ESV Reader’s Bible have been echoed by many others, including this piece by John Sherrod, who shares his first impressions after he and his wife gave the new format a try: “The ESV Reader’s Bible: First Impressions.” If any of you have shared your own impressions online, feel free to post a link in the comments. 

Bibliotheca Reaches Its $1 Million Stretch Goal

“Finishing strong” turns out to be the understatement of the year. As of this morning, with two days left on the clock, the Bibliotheca funding campaign on Kickstarter has already reached its $1 million stretch goal, which means a fifth volume containing the English Revised Version Apocrypha will be added to every set, along with slipcases (see the details here). If you haven’t backed the project yet, there’s still time … and you’ll be in good company. More than 10,000 people have signed on, an incredible number that testifies to the appeal of this beautifully designed, reader-friendly Bible.

Congratulations to Adam Lewis Greene for the breakout success of this labor of love. I can’t wait to see how Bibliotheca turns out!

Bibliotheca’s Fundraising Campaign Is Finishing Strong

Bibliotheca could even break the $400,000 mark,” I said to the journalist on the other end of the line. “It already has,” she replied, clicking the keys. That was yesterday. This morning Adam Lewis Greene’s four-volume, reader-friendly edition of the Bible has passed the half million dollar mark and doesn’t show signs of slacking off. The project has gone viral, too, making a popular appearance at The Verge. The Bible Gateway blog has done a good in-depth interview with Adam, too. There’s no question now: the idea of an uncluttered, readable Bible resonates with a lot of people.

If you want to know more about Bibliotheca, here are my earlier posts on the topic:

My initial post about Bibliotheca

My interview with Adam Lewis Greene: Part 1

My interview with Adam Lewis Greene: Part 2

My thoughts on Bibliotheca, the ESV Reader’s Bible, and the future of printed Bibles.

Reader-friendly Bibles aren’t a new idea. Every so often a publisher makes the attempt (going back to the original release of the New English Bible and before), yet today the concept seems to be gaining momentum in a way it never has before. I’m not sure we can articulate a list of characteristics yet that make an edition a Reader’s Bible; the defining trait at this point seems to be removing verse numbers from the text. Bibliotheca does this, as does the ESV Reader’s Bible. So does The Books of the Bible, which I reviewed back in 2007.

Christopher Smith compares the features of Bibliotheca and the ESV Reader’s Bible to The Books of the Bible, which offers the NIV in a reader-friendly format (now available in a single volume or a four-volume set). The Books of the Bible goes farther than any other edition I’m aware of in rearranging the text to follow natural literary divisions rather than traditional chapter and verse, and Smith does a great job articulating the reasons behind these choices. He shares my optimism about the future of reader-friendly editions, too.

All the attention on reader-friendly Bibles has led to some interesting thoughts about what our experience with Scripture is meant to be. For example, I’m intrigued by Paul Sutton’s post about reading the Bible aloud. When I praise this emerging category of Bibles for offering a “less mediated” read, I’m not suggesting this marks a return to the original reading experience. Rather, I love reader-friendly Bibles because they improve the experience for today’s audience. I believe this is true whether we’re reading silently to ourselves or reading aloud to a group (or, as I’ve been known to do, reading aloud to ourselves). Whenever I design a text for out-loud reading in church, I format it the way a reader’s edition would be formatted: removing chapter and verse, presenting the text in a manner that is natural for reading. The importance of hearing Scripture read aloud can’t be stressed too much, and I believe the new generation of reader’s editions will make that practice smoother.

As the Bibliotheca campaign draws to a close this Sunday, I’ll be rooting for it not only as an early backer but as someone who sees the success of Adam’s project as a new chapter in the long journey to make reader’s Bibles a viable alternative to sit side-by-side with the ubiquitous reference editions. This project has introduced a host of people to the design problems of the Bible who’ve never thought about the subject before, and more importantly, should result in a beautiful edition of the Bible which will serve as a lifelong companion to many people, and an inspiration for future publishing endeavors.

Are reader-friendly Bibles just marketing hype?

I’d like to highlight a comment from earlier today, because Steve Atherton’s experience with the ESV Reader’s Bible echoes my own:

“I have had a few days now to read my copy of the ESV Reader’s Bible and it has been an amazing experience. I was hesitant at first since the ESV isn’t my preferred translation but I’ve been surprised how the format somehow lends itself to an appreciation of the translation. Due to the format, I find myself reading longer than my reading plan calls for in a given day. I appreciate the lack of distractions such as verse numbers, references and footnotes. I have the cloth over board edition and it is crafted very well given the price. This edition has given me a new appreciation for hard back Bibles.”

Someone on the Bible Design Blog fan page on Facebook suggested a couple of days ago that the idea of a “reader-friendly” Bible is just marketing hype, because he’d never had any difficulty personally reading the traditional reference layouts. Though well intended this view — which is certainly not unique to one individual — ignores the fact that, well, readability is a thing. The fact that you can manage just fine doesn’t mean the experience is optimal. Reader-friendly design attempts to create an optimal, not passible, reading experience, like the one Steve describes above.

Most of us understand the impact of design choices on readability when it comes to type size. No one would seriously argue that 6-point type is just as easy to read as 12-point type. Personally, I can read 6-point type. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t prefer the print to be larger. Unfortunately, until you experience the difference, most of us are unaware of the other ways design influences reading habits. Even those of us who are can be surprised by the difference good design makes.

Take me, for instance. If you’d told me before I left home in early June with only the ESV Reader’s Bible (supplemented by the Pocket NT and the Psalms) that I would find myself reading much more, and much longer passages than I had with either my Clarion or my Legacy, I would have been skeptical. In the Legacy’s case, the paper is better, the type larger … the only difference is that the ESV Reader’s Bible is smaller in size and doesn’t have verse numbers. Yet, like Steve, I’ve found myself getting sucked into the reader, coming up for air much later than expected. Is that solely the result of design? I don’t really know. But the design certainly plays a role.

Think of it this way. If you were the designer and someone gave you the task of formatting the Bible’s text for reading, what intentional choices would you make? Would you end up with something closer to the “traditional formatting,” or would you model your choices on other texts intended for deep reading? The odds are, even if the apparatus doesn’t distract you anymore, if you were starting from scratch with the goal of readability, you’d design something similar to a Reader’s Bible.

Bibliotheca, the ESV Reader’s Bible, and the Future of Printed Bibles


The release of the ESV Reader’s Bible and the launch of Bibliotheca have made the past couple of weeks rather exciting for those of us eager for well-designed, reader-friendly Bibles. Since I posted my review of the ESV Reader’s Bible and subsequent thoughts on its use, and my original notice about Bibliotheca followed by a two-part interview with designer Adam Lewis Greene (Part 1, Part 2), I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what these developments signal for Bible publishing in general. This will take a few paragraphs to develop, with my conclusions toward the end. — JMB

The runaway success of the Bibliotheca funding campaign raises some interesting questions, given that the concept—a four-volume edition of the Bible designed for reading—flies in the face of Bible publishing’s received wisdom. Comparisons to Crossway’s recently-released hardcover ESV Reader’s Bible are apt, though Bibliotheca represents a more extreme (perhaps the right word is pure) interpretation of the idea. While the ESV Reader’s Bible, by dispensing with verse numbers and other textual intrusions, provides a more immersive reading experience than the ubiquitous reference layouts, the fact that it’s available in a popular translation and presents the text in its traditional order in a single volume makes the Reader’s Bible practical, once the initial learning curve is past, for use in group settings, for teaching, and so on. Bibliotheca’s four-volume division and the re-ordering of books suggests it won’t be as versatile, focusing instead on the individual reader’s experience of the text. The appeal of the edition is this: you find a secluded nook and find yourself drawn into the biblical narrative, page after page, in a way you’ve never experienced before.

Frankly, choosing the American Standard Version reinforces this goal. I don’t think very many churches or Bible studies use the ASV, and while it certainly has its fans, they don’t quite rise to the level of a following. The ASV isn’t a translation to hitch your wagon to. Using it doesn’t guarantee a loyal fan base like, say, the ESV would. Adam makes a compelling case for his choice, and the fact that he’s sticking by it despite having raised enough money to license whichever version he might prefer suggests the decision is down to much more than the fact that the ASV is in the public domain. He sees the translation contributing to Bibliotheca’s literary experience. For those of us who haven’t read the ASV before, this will contribute to the feeling of discovery when you curl up on the couch with a Bibliotheca volume.

Early in the life of Bible Design Blog, I made the decision not to engage in translation discussions, not because I don’t find them interesting, but because they tend to grow a little fiery and overshadow other points. There’s no question, though, that translation loyalty plays a major role in Bible publishing. Every time an interesting new edition comes out, there’s a wistful chorus asking, “Why can’t we have something like this for Translation X?” There are practical reasons for these preferences, and while my advice has always been, echoing St Augustine, to compare translations rather than relying wholly on any one, I sympathize with (and have occasionally led) said chorus.

If you’d told me a month ago that today I would be anxiously awaiting a new edition of the American Standard Version, I would have been doubtful. But here I am, doing precisely that, and unlike some people I’m not backing Bibliotheca in the hope that its success will lead to a future edition in the translation of my choice. I’m actually looking forward to the entire project as Adam envisioned it.

And I am delighted by the fact that this overnight success is being enjoyed by a Bible publishing project featuring a translation very few of us are stumping for. Let me explain why ….

At the time I’m writing this, Bibliotheca has exceeded its original $37,000 goal by over $100,000. There’s plenty of time left on the clock, too, so Adam could raise a good bit more. This has happened despite the fact that Bibliotheca is a four-volume edition (which anyone could have told you was a losing proposition before the evidence proved otherwise) and despite the fact that the American Standard Version doesn’t have a huge underground following that’s been waiting for a chance to support a comeback. To me, that suggests that Bibliotheca’s remarkable success is due to the narrative of design-for-readability that undergirds the project. Once the vision for a reader-friendly Bible was cast, it resonated with people, including many who may never have given much thought before to the physical form of the Bible.

I have a feeling that Bibliotheca’s publication, from start to finish, will provide a treasure-trove of lessons for those of us interested in what the next chapter in Bible design and production will look like. Here are a few thoughts I’m ready to put forward:

1. IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT THE TRANSLATION. As important as translations are, our ready access to many different ones has dulled the edge of old-fashioned translation loyalty—and if the story behind the edition is compelling, we can set aside those preferences.

2. COMMUNICATING THE VISION IS ALMOST AS IMPORTANT AS PUBLISHING THE EDITION. Compare the Bibliotheca video to the clip Crossway uploaded to Vimeo promoting the ESV Reader’s Bible. The Crossway video is good, but the Bibliotheca video is great. It’s a much more detailed and compelling presentation of the reader-friendly design ethic. You come away from the Bibliotheca video a convert to the idea of a readable, novel-like Bible, and new converts love to share. Imagine how differently we’d be talking about Bibliotheca if a publisher had bankrolled the publication, then added the SKU to a dozen others in the catalog, promoted by a paragraph or two of bland copy and a snapshot of the packaging. The success of Bibliotheca is the result of a strong, realized concept that is compellingly presented. Now imagine a Bibliotheca-style video for the ESV Reader’s Bible being screened at every conference Crossway attends. That’s the future of physical Bibles.

3. LISTEN TO THE VISIONARIES. Publishing is like any other business: the people with the best ideas aren’t always the ones with the most pull. Designers know design best, but they’re often near the bottom of the totem pole, which means their vision is tempered by layers of conservatizing influences. Bibliotheca proves that you can find success by leading with good design. The only reason we know that, however, is that Kickstarter allowed the designer with a vision to go straight to the public. The lesson for publishers should be obvious: “We’ve got to start listening to our visionaries.” When you’re trying to connect in an aesthetic age where the language of design has gone mainstream, not listening to your designers is a habit you cling to at your peril.

This is just the beginning. The ESV Reader’s Bible and Bibliotheca, though, are two strikes of a bell that’s going to ring more insistently over the next few years. It’s time for Bibles that make the scriptures accessible to us first and foremost as readers.

The Perfect Format

Are reader-friendly Bibles just marketing hype?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

I’d like to highlight a comment from earlier today, because Steve Atherton’s experience with the ESV Reader’s Bible echoes my own: “I have had a few days now…

Bibliotheca, the ESV Reader’s Bible, and the Future of Printed Bibles

Monday, July 7, 2014

The release of the ESV Reader’s Bible and the launch of Bibliotheca have made the past couple of weeks rather exciting for those of us eager for well-designed,…

Interview with Bibliotheca’s Adam Lewis Greene: Part 2

Saturday, July 5, 2014

This is the second part of my interview with Bibliotheca’s Adam Lewis Greene. If you haven’t read Part 1, start here. Last time we talked about the origins…

Interview with Bibliotheca’s Adam Lewis Greene: Part 1

Friday, July 4, 2014

Bibliotheca is taking Kickstarter by storm. Adam Lewis Greene’s four volume edition of the Bible hit its $37,000 funding goal in just over twenty-four hours, and has now…