A Visit to R. L. Allan

When I discovered that my friend Alan Cornett would be in London this month, an idea came to me: why not ask him to drop in on the new headquarters of R. L. Allan with camera in hand? Alan and I share a lot of interests, and his blog Pinstripe Pulpit is not to be missed. He embraced the notion and took time out of his schedule to sit down with Ian Metcalfe, the new director of R. L. Allan. Below is his report. Thank you, Alan! — JMB

Ian Metcalfe

Ian Metcalfe, pictured in the R. L. Allan warehouse

Who would have imagined in the age of iPads and bonded leather a Bible publisher specializing in deluxe bindings would see growth that doubled its size over the past decade? But R.L. Allan Bibles cannot keep its ESV editions in stock because of intense demand. New owner Ian Metcalfe sees a bright future for the 150 year old company.

OriginalAllanDigs

The original R. L. Allan store in Glasgow, downstairs from the Cranston’s Tea Room.

AllanWarehouse

The warehouse today.

While the King James Longprimer is still Allan’s bread and butter, it is “the Internet and the ESV that have driven our growth,” Ian told me over coffee and M&S flapjack bites in his Tolworth warehouse. The space is neat and clean, freshly stocked with boxes shipped from the old Allan headquarters in Glasgow. Every Allan’s customer loves the trademark blue box. Being surrounded with stacks of them will make you downright giddy.

BlueBoxes

Longprimer_Inside

Inside the Longprimer

Longprimer_Brevier

The Longprimer (bottom) compared to the Brevier Blackface (top).

Ian Metcalfe is the nephew of former Allan’s owner Nicholas Gray, taking over the enterprise along with his wife Dominique on November 27, 2013. Gray still consults, and visits with Metcalfe monthly, but Ian brings extensive Bible publishing experience himself. Formerly at HarperCollins, and now Publishing Director at Hodder & Stoughton, he was instrumental in bringing a number of translations to the UK public. In his job with major Bible publishers, he has even sold unbound printed sheets to R.L. Allan over the years. Allan’s NIV Versa type edition actually was set by Ian in his day job.

The US is the biggest driver of Allan’s sales with 70% of its Bibles going to the States. Only 15% stay in the UK. Despite its wide popularity, NIV editions make up only a small portion of Allan’s sales. “NIV readers are not as interested in the physical book,” Ian observed.

NIVOutside

Allan Classic Reference NIV

NIVInside

Page spread from the Allan Classic Reference NIV

Ian explained that the large Bible publishers, many of them suppliers of unbound sheets to R.L. Allan, are happy about Allan’s existence. With Allan’s filling the high end Bible niche, the big boys don’t feel the pressure to offer fine editions in every color. At the same time, Allan’s has shown there is a real demand for quality Bibles, which has lead to a revived interest in producing for the high end market from some larger houses. Ian was complimentary of Cambridge’s work, and also of Crossway. Despite its short time as a Bible publisher, and its non-profit status, he admired Crossway’s aggressiveness in reacting to the market and producing quality Bibles.

The perennial production challenge for R.L. Allan is binding. Ian explained that meeting the printing demand is never a problem, but the handmade nature of their bindings means there are only so many Bibles that can be bound. Allan’s lovely art-gilt edges, for example, can only be done by two firms in the UK. He constantly is exploring additional options that meet the standards Allan’s has set.

ESVReaderOutside

Allan New Classic Readers ESV in tan, marine blue, brown, and black highland goatskin.

ESVReaderInside

Inside the New Readers Reference ESV.

Ian is well aware of the constant push for opaque paper, and we joked about the mythical thinline with completely opaque paper Bible. He also brought up the concern for proper text line matching, something he said he is “passionate” about, but also mentioned unique challenges like the possible distraction of line matching with verse.

During the course of our conversation Ian shared some thoughts about the gender inclusive language translation debate. “It’s not gender inclusivity,” Ian said, “but gender accuracy.” That is, translators are trying to capture the intent of the text, not bending to a social agenda. While the NIV 2011 has received most of the press over the issue, “the existence of the ESV opened the way for the NIV 2011. The ESV showed gender inclusive could be done.” The market would accept gender inclusive language after all.

In the future R.L. Allan wants to maintain its classic editions backlist while exploring new options. Ian indicated a particular desire to expand the Longprimer format into different translations, and showed me the newly restocked KJV Longprimer colors. The NLT edition is scheduled for release in February.

Crudens

Cruden’s Complete Concordance

HymnsOldNew

Hymns Old and New

I didn’t want to leave the warehouse empty handed, and hinted about buying one of Allan’s website password protected hymnals for my wife. Ian politely declined to sell me one. I did end up with a red Allan’s journal, which includes the challenge of finding something profound enough to write in such a gorgeous blank canvas.

R.L. Allan has survived for a century and a half. With Ian and Dominique at the helm, Allan’s seems to be in good hands for another generation.

25 Comments on “A Visit to R. L. Allan

  1. Great little article. Wish I could visit there myself! You know I was wondering about that as well. Why are the hymn books password protected?
    -from a puzzled capitalist. :)

    • They are published for a small group of people or a cult group in Ireland. Only those folks can buy the hymnbook and the Bibles that are made for them. I am not sure of the group’s name. I just know there has been some questions about their orthodoxy in the past.

      I believe they are the traveling preachers or the so called two by twos.

      • Hey Brad,

        Thanks for this. I guess your comment peaks my interest. Not only hymnals but certain bibles as well? Interesting. Is “two by twos” their actual name?

        • The group started in Ireland but has expanded to English speaking countries around the world. They believe in meeting in homes instead of church buildings and indeed have traveling preachers called “workers”.

          They are non-trinitarian, do not believe in naming their church, are KJV-Onlyists and believe that works are necessary for salvation, among other things.

          I learned about the group by marrying a former member; she converted away after I met her. Her whole family are adherents on both her mother’s and father’s side, including her siblings. We still have her copy of “Hymns Old and New”.

          The Wikipedia article about them is rather informative.
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_by_Twos

  2. Great to see a Bible publisher in good health.

    I’d love to see Allan expand with a range of Bible protectors. At church I see a lot of people with the trademark blue box, but it only lasts for a few months. When it inevitably falls apart many people let their Bibles slosh around in massive cases which put a lot of strain on the spine and damages the page edges. The way that most cases encourage Bibles to be carried around is just nuts (http://adam4d.com/handles/).

    We manage to protect other valuable things like iPads and phones with really neat, thin, sleeves. Why on earth can we not get them for our Bibles? I tried making one but it’s a bit bulky (http://biblesnippets.com/sleeve-mk-1/). I’m working on a version 2, but I really wish I could just buy a quality one recommended by the Bible manufacturer!

  3. This was a fun post to read. It’s always good to get an inside look at small, family run companies.

    I want to comment one thing mentioned in the article. “NIV readers are not as interested in the physical book,” Ian observed.

    That comment is obviously a generalization, but it’s also probably an accurate one. I wonder if we could generalize about who uses what translation based on the Bibles that Allan offers.

    NIV – “NIV readers are not as interested in the physical book” because they prefer what is modern and up-to-date. Therefore, Allan only offers (currently) two editions of the NIV, and they are similar, basically different sizes of the same format.

    KJV – KJV readers like to retain the old, and they are particular. This is why Allan (currently) offers a wider range of Bibles in KJV than any other translation, and they are reprints of older formats.

    ESV – ESV readers like the best of the old and the new. So Allan’s newest ESV is a beautiful double column. But there is also a study Bible. And there have been a few single column editions as well.

    NASB – These readers are utilitarian, so Allan’s only current NASB offering is a verse-by-verse double column format.

  4. It breaks my heart that there are not more NIV readers interested in typography, binding, paper, etc. I have searched for a really nice NIV Bible and all I find is lots of ESV’s. I’ve thought about switching since it is important to me, but I feel like the NIV is more of my heart language which is more important in the long run. Any help? Thank you!

    • Laura, Cambridge this year has the Pitt Minion and later Clarion. With leather options that 6 choices. Allan has its two styles in several color choices. That is a lot of options for a NIV11 person (compact, single column, standard sized, and larger size/print).

  5. @Laura Have you thought about the Allan offerings? They actually look like they’ve added three additional offerings of it to the evangelicalbible site. It’s the 2011 version though if you are using that one.

  6. Pingback: My Visit With Ian Metcalfe of R.L. Allan Bibles | Pinstripe Pulpit

  7. Is there any chance of getting a KJV Longprimer 53 without HOLY BIBLE imprint … anytime in the future?

  8. First glimpse of the blue ESV Allen, very nice. I’m hoping Allen comes out with a compact ESV in with single column setting…. who knows maybe the new readers bible on an Allen cover! Anybody know if a art gilt black under copper exists? I just imagine that would look awesome.

  9. They look lovely, especially the colored ones.

    I wish Allan would do a RSV, NRSV, or even a Revised English Bible. So far they have only catered to evangelical translations. Why not an NRSV with Apocrypha or a Catholic translation?

    Also, this is possibly the only time I have ever seen the ESV described as gender-inclusive!

  10. Hello,

    Thought some of you might find this useful. I emailed Allan’s asking them details about the upcoming NLT text block and actually got a response from Iain himself:
    ——————–
    Thank you for your enquiry. I haven’t actually seen the sheets myself – my wife and I took over only last month from my uncle Nicholas Gray, who has been running Allan’s for the past 25 years (the company was my grandfather’s before that, so it runs in the family!) – but I believe it is the NLT Slimline Large Print Centre Column Reference Bible, with 10pt text.

    I hope that helps and look forward to serving you in the future.
    ——————–

    I thought it was nice that he was actually responding to customer emails himself. Does anyone have experience with this book block?

    Nathan

  11. I think Ian’s comment about “NIV readers not as interested in the physical book” interesting. If 75% of their sales are in the US, and the NIV is the most popular bible translation in the US they might want to think about publishing a non anglicized version. I made the decision today to order the Pitt Minion over the Allan because of the anglicized Allan text. I would have much rather preferred the Allan, but I just couldn’t spend the money on an anglicized text.

    • I don’t have one to review, but should I get one I will. I have a backlog of reviews to post … hopefully you won’t have to wait much longer.

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