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

readersbibleinuse

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.

33 Comments on “Bibliotheca, the ESV Reader’s Bible, and the Future of Printed Bibles

  1. I can’t wait to see where this trend goes. I am not a huge hardback book fan though, partly because I hardly ever grew up reading them. 95% of my reading has been done in the standard paperback format. As such, both my brain and my hands crave the feel of a quality paperback. That may sound like any oxymoron, but I think that during the actual reading experience, a popular format paperback (say, something like this http://www.ebay.com/itm/GONE-GIRL-by-Gillian-Flynn-2014-Paperback-/121376821955?pt=US_Fiction_Books&hash=item1c429f52c3), is much easier to hold/read than a hardback. I tend to abuse them by bending the spine, so maybe this format wouldn’t last a lifetime, but that doesn’t matter to me. Picture having a decent paperback Luke/Acts that is bent/broken/dog-eared from a summer of studying it, taking it to the beach, taking it on the subway, leaving it at work for a few days, etc. Some of my fondest reading memories (Moby Dick, Count of Monte Cristo) include a vidid recollection of how the book looked and felt after months of use.

    Bibliotheca lists a paperback, so I’m excited to see where that side of the project ends up.

  2. I agree with everything Mark said but when I see the success of this Kickstarter project one of my conclusions (and it is somewhat cynical) is: PEOPLE LIKE TO BUY STUFF. The Bible Design Blog has documented, and helped to create, this fairly new hobby of expensive Bible collecting. I have purchased a half dozen expensive Bibles over the past couple years so I understand what it’s like to be bitten by this bug. But I’m starting to wonder how much of this new interest of ours actually adds to our experience with scripture. Does the Bibliotheca set really make a big difference in your reading experience compared to the ESV Reader’s Bible? Does the chapter numbers in the readers ESV take you out of the narrative?

    I’m not criticizing any of these things. I fantasize about my ideal Bible also. And there is nothing wrong with spending the extra money we have earned on something like like this. The true test will be – after we have possession of the Bible that we have wanted so badly – do we spend more time actually reading it.

    • I think projects like the ESV Readers Bible and Bibliotheca are indeed catering to a niche audience when compared to the greater Bible reading population. If you are even aware that the ESV Readers or this project exist, and they appeal to you, there is a good chance that you already have a Bible and are reading it. So will the person with 8 different ESVs read the Bible ‘more’ because of this, probably not. But I think the effect will be twofold.

      1) For the person that already has 8 Bibles, the quality, not quantity, of Bible time may be improved.

      2) More importantly, as publishers realize that people are willing to buy these types of formats, a trickle-down effect will occur. There is a scene in The Devil Wears Prada, of all things, that illustrates this. One character that claims she doesn’t care about fashion. The editors of Vogue then reply that the reason she is wearing a cheap green sweater is that someone in that room decided that green was in several seasons ago and it finally had made its way into the ‘common’ clothes that people on the street wear. I think a similar change may happen in Bible publishing. These ‘high-end’ Bibles will never be what the average person uses, but my hope is that good design at the top will flow down into overall better design at the bottom. Someday the $15 gift bible that gets handed to a kid at confirmation might actually be something that looks readable and inviting, something they would want to sit down and actually read. Or, if multi-volume becomes more popular, rather than handing a friend a cheap Gospel of John outreach paperback, you could give them a nice hardback collection of the Gospels.

    • In response to the question of whether these new books add much to the scriptural experience for the expensive Bible hobbiest, there are two different components of design that we’re talking about here: there are the physical materials (leather covers, high quality paper, sewn bindings, etc.) and there are the design features such as number of columns and whether chapter and verse numbers are included. The components that add to the cost may not have a huge impact on how we interact with the text, but the page design features do. One set of choices encourages the reading of short chunks, with lots of disjointed flipping around to other places in the book while constantly interrupting to check with the experts in the footnotes. The other format encourages long, deep reading and thought.

      The page design choices do not correlate with the cost of the Bible. I wish I could get a luxury copy of Biblica’s Books of the Bible, but it’s only available in an inexpensive version. The ESV Reader’s Bible, likewise, is only moderately priced. I think this is intentional: they don’t want these Bibles to appeal only to a niche market of collectors. So I think these sorts of Bibles will really change people’s experience with scripture, and not just for the small fraction of us who are already quite familiar with Bible.

      That reader’s editions are still a relatively niche market speaks, I think, only to their relative newness and the fact that the default Bibles everyone is familiar with all look like reference books. The average shopper doesn’t know there are better options. But I think (hope) that will change. The benefits of a readable design are clear and hard to dispute, so if publishers get them into people’s hands, I think people will quickly adopt. Much like how Steve Jobs is said to have not trusted market research because people don’t really know what they want, but when you give them something great they will recognize that and then they don’t want to go back to what they settled for before.

    • I am really excited that Bibliotecha is returning the Old Testament to its original (Jewish) division – the Law, the Prophets, the Writings. I would love to see this trend take off in the future.

  3. I actually have considerable optimism about the future of Bible publishing generally. A couple days ago, I spent some time talking to the manager of the Bible department of the Mardel in north Houston. For those who don’t know Mardel, they stock a greater variety of Bibles than any other brick-and-mortar store that I’m aware of (1750 different trims and editions at this particular location). The manager told me that so far in 2014, paper-Bible sales had increased by 48 percent year-over-year. Even if most books are going digital, that may well not happen with Bibles, because of the unique way that people interact with Bibles.

    • Is Mardel a single location? I have been thinking for some time that there needs to be a dedicated brick-and-mortar Bible seller with luxury / high-end options. I think, if done right, this could be a profitable niche. Probably somewhere in the Bible belt and/or close to some major seminaries. Such a store can also offer rebinding services – a one-stop Bible boutique!

      • Mardel is a chain. They’re primarily in Texas, but they have stores in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, etc., too. Most of their stock is mass-market editions, but they do have some higher-end Bibles from mass-market publishers (think premium-leather Zondervan NIV’s, etc.) and even a couple of Cambridges. The only bookstore that I know of that does better on higher-end editions is the RSC bookstore in Louisville, which has a goodly number of Cambridge Clarions, Wide-Margins, and so forth in stock.

  4. I have a paperback copy of the ASV and have always had a hangup about its use of Jehovah. I notice that Bibliotheca is going with YHWH in its place, which means I will probably get a copy.

    • I am a proponent of Bible versions using Yahweh instead of LORD (for every instance, unlike the current HCSB). But YHWH might make even more sense, if create a slightly harder reading experience. However, would using I AM be even more accurate? I’m not sure…

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  6. I fully agree with you Mark. I can also say that I am every bit as excited about the translation choice as I am the entirety of the project. I am no expert in critically analyzing manuscripts and pieces of manuscripts enabling me to assemble a flawless text for translation. Similarly, I am no student of Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, or even Latin. In short, all of my “translation” opinions are based upon preferences I have adopted from the selected scholars I have read on the topic (and I am really not smart enough to fully appreciate those books!). Wescott and Hort were true visionaries and pioneers (not to mention braniacs) — and their text was used by the finest translators in creating the English Revised Version — and that’s pretty exciting to me. Thanks again to Adam for this choice, and to you for making me aware of the project.

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      • Mark – how is the Nanami paper compared with Moleskine? And is the line spacing larger? I’m thinking the A5 is about the same size as the Moleskine that I normally use.

        • Moleskine paper doesn’t play well with wet ink — lots of bleed through for me — whereas the Nanami uses Tomoe River, a thin Japanese paper fountain pen lovers appreciate for the way it takes ink. It’s like Bible paper, though, so more show through than an Allan journal or Smythson.

  8. I have been following your posts about the ESV Reader’s Bible and the Bibliotheca project. I love it. I just got my own copy of the ESV Reader’s Bible today. It is beautiful. Thank you for being a voice out there that echoes the thoughts and desires of many of us out here. I will also be getting the four volume Bibliotheca set. I would not have know about either were it not for your blog.

    Keep up the good work. It has been riveting.

  9. 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.

  10. Does anyone know how much it would cost to license the ESV translation for a project like this? I tried emailing Crossway once to inquire about this and they don’t seem to have a chart or anything like that for determining the costs. It all depends on the project. Does anyone have a better idea?

  11. I love what the Lord is doing with this conversation. I just picked up the ESV Readers Bible per your recommendation and I love it.

    Cheers.

  12. I think there are three challenges that need to be met in order to produce “Bibles that make the scriptures accessible to us first and foremost as readers”:

    1. Get rid of the clutter. (Chapter and verse numbers, headings, notes, etc.)

    2. Stop trying to put the whole contents of the canon in a single small volume. I think this is the point that Bibliotheca makes most compellingly. “This is a lot of material,” the Kickstarter video says. Four volumes, opaque paper, wide margins–I think that’s the future of the sit-down-and-read Bible. The take-the-whole-canon-everywhere Bible has become the electronic version on your smart phone or tablet.

    3. Present the natural divisions of the biblical material as its basic components, not traditional chapters. Bibliotheca and the ESV Readers Bible still present chapters visually as the basic units of the Bible, using line spaces and drop caps. Instead highlight the natural units visually: four oracles in Haggai, not two chapters; six court tales and four visions in Daniel, not twelve chapters. Often these natural divisions are signaled by the authors by repeated phrases or formulas. This is how the material is presented in The Books of the Bible from Biblica. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the team that produced that edition.)

    When these three challenges are met all in the same volume(s), we will have the definitive 21st-century Bible.

    This is a very exciting time for Bible publishing!

    • I agree with most of what you said, but I disagree that “The take-the-whole-canon-everywhere Bible has become the electronic version on your smart phone or tablet.” I don’t have or want such devices, so I will always want a portable printed Bible. It’s ironic that as much as I like Bibliotheca, the ESV Reader’s Bible, and the whole concept of clutter free reader friendly Bibles, one of my favorite Bibles is still the Pitt Minion.

      • All right, whether a person prefers an electronic or a printed version of the portable, compact, take-the-whole-canon-everywhere Bible, perhaps we can agree that larger, heavier, even multi-volume publications can serve an important role as great stay-at-home, sit-down-and-read Bibles. However, I also suspect that such publications will soon be put to “off-label” uses in Bible studies, etc. I recently led an academic-year-long campus small group Bible study using Biblica’s Covenant History volume (Genesis through Kings) in The Books of the Bible format as the only available Scripture. (We got a copy for each participant.) Even with no chapters and verses, and no opportunity to go roaming through the canon, the study was superb; one participant said it was the best one he’d ever been in. So I think we’re in for a change not just in what Bibles look like, but in how they are used, and ultimately in what people understand them to be. As has been said repeatedly in the comments on this post, these are exciting times and it will be great to see where this all leads.

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  15. As intrigued as I was initially, I’ll pass. My budget is finite and so I will pay for translation choices that are not anachronistic and smacking of faddishness. I don’t know what possessed him to use the ASV! I will go so far as to purchase the ESV Reader’s bible in cloth when it comes in in Nov. Multi-volume approaches, to my mind, will fill a very small niche and when the initial interest fades away, we will see copies appearing on Ebay. Meh, not for me.

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