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.