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.

32 Comments on “Are reader-friendly Bibles just marketing hype?

  1. I think it’s pretty clear that chapter and verse numbers, at least, are an aid for reference, not for reading. Otherwise, novels, etc., would have them too. As a result, the best a chapter-and-verse Bible can hope for is to be as good a reader as a Bible without them. Hypothetically, at least, they may not detract from the reading experience, but they can’t add to it. It’s also clear that line length, number of words per page, etc., in every one-volume Bible are driven by the need to cram 800,000 words between two covers. That too forces plenty of design choices that are suboptimal for reading.

  2. Pingback: Excellent Thoughts on the New Reader’s Bibles from John Mark Bertrand

  3. Well, I guess this article was directed at me, since it was my comment on the FB blog. To be fair to me, I didn’t claim that the “Reader’s Bible” is just “marketing hype”. After a brief introduction that in fact praised Bibliotheca’s new product, what I actually said was this:

    “I understand why this bare bones format is marketed in this manner, but it kind of implies that you can’t really enjoy reading the bible or easily follow the narrative unless you strip the design down to pure text.”

    I am not making an accusation of deliberate marketing deception, or “hype”, by publishing firms. My comment reflects my opinion that the term “Reader’s Bible” does, in fact, imply that the inclusion of verse numbers, paragraph breaks, chapter division, section headings, etc.–those traditional formats—are impediments to, you know, actually “reading” the Bible. I certainly did not “ignore the fact that…readability is a thing”. Of course it is! In fact, it’s the most important thing in terms of how we use our Bibles. I even gave praise later in my comment to any text format that encourages Scripture reading.

    “The fact that you can manage just fine doesn’t mean the experience is optimal.” Well, that certainly assumes that stripping the format of things like verses, footnotes, references, etc would make my reading experience optimal. Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t. For me, these added features actually enhance my reading enjoyment and biblical understanding. For someone else, perhaps they detract. To each his own. I just think the notion that a bible must be text only in order for it to be a “Reader’s Bible” is not at all accurate.

    I don’t mean to give Mark a hard time, but I did want to point out that a drive towards pure text design formatting doesn’t necessarily mean better design, nor the certainty of an enhanced reader’s experience with the text. Again, to each his own.

    • Mike, you said that things like verses, footnotes, references, etc. actually enhance your reading enjoyment. I was wondering if you could elaborate on how they do that? For me, I find that those things encourage me to spend less time actually reading, and more time thinking about the big picture, how a particular text integrates with other texts and with an overarching theology, and engaging with how other people are explaining the text. I don’t necessarily want to impugn those activities, but they are study, not reading. I find that for straightforward reading of a book of the Bible, getting rid of all that stuff helps me to shut off that part of my mind that wants to categorize everything and situate it within a learned tradition of Biblical interpretation, and focus, first and foremost, on what the Bible is actually saying.

  4. I was surprised to read that the type is larger in the Legacy. Crossway says both editions are 9 point.

    • Then I must be wrong, David. I don’t have anything with me at the moment but the Reader’s Bible. Let’s say I remember it being larger. :)

        • Mark and David, both the Reader’s Bible and the Single Column Legacy use 9-point Lexicon. One of the strengths of the Lexicon font is it’s actually quite readable in smaller font sizes. In fact, it’s comparable to 10-point or even 10.5-point type size in other fonts. You can read more about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lexicon_(typeface). Of course, there’s always room for larger type editions!

  5. What an exciting time we live in right now for Bible choices. I just got my Crossway Reader today due to the reviews on this site, which I was lead to after discovering Bibliotheca. Can’t stop reading it. It’s a whole new experience. Big themes and big relationships between God and man are much more clearer. Thanks John for the work you do.

    • Well, some of you are living in exciting times for Bible choices. We who use the NIV as our primary Bible are still limited pretty much to bonded leather niche products – literally hundreds of pastel glue-and-leather-dust bibles with puppies and ladybugs and narrowly-targeted notes.

      • Ken- if you haven’t already try the Books of the Bible. It’s an NIV and goes further than the ESV Reader’s in breaking with traditional design. Zondervan has a hardback and leatherette version. It not only removes verse markings but also chapters. Furthermore, it reorders the books and provides textual breaks based on content. Our church went through it within two years and it was transformative.

      • And Allan has at least two versions of the NIV 2011 out now in goatskin. For something smaller, there’s the Cambridge Pitt-Minion.

  6. I only have one issue with the Reader’s Bible. That is that I am now going to use it significantly more than any of my other expensive bibles, and this small hardcover cost me $20.00(wtsbooks.com, thanks Mark)! I can’t believe how much nicer it is without the added numbers and reference marks. It’s even making my Clarion take a back seat. And, I literally got an Allan ESV Readers edition a month ago!! Geez!!

  7. I’m not sure of whether or not the Crossway Readers is marketing hype, but the Readers is a repackaging of Crossway’s Heritage Bible.
    Mike Allen, You might want to be extra careful of what you write in the future, the IBP (Internet Bible Police) are keeping tabs on you, I mean this in humor of course.

    • Well, I hope that anyone can still voice a contrary opinion, (in my case, an offhand remark), on design preference and not have Tom Cruise swooping through the window to wrestle it to the ground.

      I have nothing personal against the reader-format Bible. This format is not novel (no pun intended)–I’ve browsed a few different reader friendly Bibles since I was a child. I just don’t believe that a pure text Bible format designed to mirror a novel is synonymous with readability. I can tell you I know lots of people in my life who have read the covers off their Bibles and none of them owned a Reader’s Bible. In my case, it’s not the ability to remove non-Scriptural text that enables me to read more Scripture; it is my understanding of what I have read that encourages me to read more—and I do read more chunks of Scripture when I have notes, references, and even my own annotation to guide me through the Bible. Could I breeze through the books of the Bible faster with a reader-friendly format? Probably. Would that mean my “readability” was improved? Well, in my case, absolutely not. What good is speed reading if you don’t reflect on the meaning of the text and how it interacts with other passages? But I digress into this teapot tempest.

      Bottom line: whatever gets you excited by reading God’s Word—stick with it.

  8. Readability is definitely an important factor in any book or document. Case in point; I had an NIV single column bible back in the day (maybe more than one), which was my favorite bible at the time. I am not even sure I realized why it had become my favorite. Another case in point; Although I am not a big fan of digital books to begin with, so this may not be a fair comparison, but I have had Teddy Roosevelt’s autobiography on my phone (android) for at least a year. I have struggled to get about half-way through it. Now some of that has to do with the book itself, but the medium is a big factor. Although I did breeze through Back on Murder in the meantime, (on my android) and I have read 10+ books, that is “real books” in the same period. Third case in point; When I first got my Clarion NASB, I sat down on a Sunday afternoon and read through the book of Genesis in one sitting. I am an avid Bible reader, but don’t remember ever doing that before. I credit the form of the Clarion to my ability to do that. Although I haven’t seen the ESV Reader, I agree that the form of “the book” is very important. I have always wondered why it’s ok to make young or inexperienced readers jump through man made hoops in what is already a somewhat complicated set of documents we treasure as the Holy Bible. I applaud all the efforts to make it more readable.

  9. Just got the Reader’s Bible last night. I like it. Given my life-long acquaintance with Bibles that include verse numbers, I find it a bit unsettling. But I remind myself: isn’t this the format the apostles, early Christians, and everybody before Stephanus and the Geneva Bible?

    Mark B, have you tried teaching from it? How did it go?

    • Yes, I have — I wrote about my initial experiences a few posts ago. It takes getting used to, and I still find it awkward not referencing aloud the verse numbers. But I actually like the Reader’s Bible in this role (though it wasn’t made for this, I suppose).

  10. I must say, your comment on the readability of the Reader’s Bible as compared to the Clarion has me absolutely staggered! I have been overwhelmed by the gains in reading switching from my Pit Minion to the Clarion. It is beautiful. If the ESV Reader’s Bible is greater by an=other factor yet, I tingle with excitement.

    The Bible certainly can be read when laid out according to the traditional form factors. I did a brief survey of the congregation at which I preach last Sunday as I discussed with them the importance of the form of the written word and how it affects readability. Men who have been reading the Bible more than twice as long as I’ve been alive confessed that; while devouring a novel is a non-event for them, they have always struggled with any long term reading of their Bibles.

    I hope that the traditional, reference-style Bibles never disappear. I believe they are quite nearly indispensable in the service they offer to various forms of study and discussion. But I pray that the reading format grows and grows. I truly believe every Bible student would be well served by owning a good translation (or more) in each format.

    What an exciting time in Bible design!

      • That’s absolutely my point, Mr. Bertrand. Though, looking back through my post, several key phrases that made it into my mind last night, but failed to make it into my comment. The overarching point I’ve taken from experience and talking to others with vastly more experience is how wide spread and well noted the difficulty of reading a reference formatted Bible is. Equally interesting is how rarely it has been put together that the cause of reading difficulty is not lack of spirituality or devotion on the part of the reader, or even the depth of the material (many are intimately acquainted with the material they are reading) but that the problem ties ultimately back to the poor typographical sense of the layout itself.

        (Oh and lest I forget, thanks for the blog, it’s been a true joy since a friend turned me on to it.)

  11. For anything to make it into production, there has to be demand. Companies are either creating demand through crafty marketing or responding to demand that already exists, right? It seems pretty clear, having read this blog extensively, that the latter is the case when it comes to single-column / reading-optimized Bible production. Bibliotheca is a case-in-point, as it is clearly uncovering the extensiveness of demand for “reader’s Bibles”– $176,000 with over 2 weeks to go!

  12. It was nice to find this blog again. It was thanks to this site’s review of the ESV Reader’s Bible that I took the plunge. One of thing that saddened me is that I have been a Christian for about 20 years and I have never read all of the books in the Bible completely. I can speed through Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion quite quickly but not God’s word. All of my life I was used to reading the Bible with all the numbers and footnotes yet it all seemed fragmented. Using the ESV Reader’s Bible changes the experience I am caught up in the narrative quickly and I feel immersed in it. I managed to map out Paul’s missionary journeys in my mind just by following the story. Chapter numbers, verses and footnotes are helpful but lately they have been distracting. The Reader’s Bible may not be for everyone but for me so far it has been a huge blessing I cannot put it down.

  13. I too look forward to trying out a true “Readers Bible”.
    The closest I have is the new Psalms by Crossway and really like how well the poetry stands out. It doesn’t feel at all like reading an encyclopedia which is what the traditional bibles tend to feel like for me. I too get more engrossed in the text this way.
    I also have a Schonfield translation which leaves out verse numbers and chapters and find it very readable.

    I suspect I will default to the Readers versions like Mark has suggested. In the old days, one would pull out a Vines, a Strongs, a few translations, and study on a big desk (or kitchen table).
    But today, I have all of that on my Blue Letter Bible App on my iPad and can actually sit and read for the sake of reading and when I want to look up some references, I open my iPad and look it up. And that said, I LOVE good quality bibles, books, leather, all of it.

    I wonder, does the Readers Format “generally” appeal more to the younger crowd or is it appealing to the broad spectrum?

  14. We do live in exciting times where Bible publishing is concerned! Thank God for the many different options, and advances in thinking about form. I find I use different bibles for different purposes, and it’s great to have such choices. I agree with the comment regarding the NIV and several other translations that seem to have taken a cue from the Yugo when it comes to producing them. ;-)

  15. This post in in response to your question of, “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?”

    I was thinking that I’d like to see conversations in the scriptures formatted more like what we see in a novel. For example, in 2 Samuel 3:6-11, Abner and Ish-bosheth were arguing because Ish-bosheth insulted Abner over a woman. They take turns speaking to each other, but there is no paragraph break till verse 12.

    I’d like to see that addressed by a bible designer one day.

    • I’m with you. I suspect it’s a change that would have to take place at the translation level, since the dialogue tags (the “he said,” “she said” stuff) would need modification. Doesn’t the HCSB format dialogue this way? Maybe my memory is playing tricks, bit I seem to recall that.

      • You are correct; the HCSB does do that. I had not realized it. So when you pointed it out, I went and checked my one copy, and there it was. What a nice surprise.

        I would love to see that level of language detail come to the ESV, and other translations.

    • I wonder if translators are influenced by the challenges of binding the entire Bible into one book when they make choices about how to format dialogue? Formatting according to modern English conventions would probably take up more space. All the more reason reader’s Bibles should be split into multiple volumes….

  16. The ESV Reader hardback and the Clarion are now my “go to” Bibles. (It’s just a small part the ongoing 7 year Bertrand Effect that has me collecting all sorts of single columns.) I also purchased a Trutone ESV Readers and do not like it as much as the hardback. I think the Reader’s size and design lends itself well to hardback especially to hold it comfortably in one hand. The Trutone seems a little too bulky and floppy to be a one-handed readable Bible. I might see if Leonard’s would rebind it into a hardback with that nice English calfskin! (Again, part of the Bertrand Effect.)

  17. A week ago I bought a used copy of the 1932 edition of “The Story of the Bible” by Jesse Hurlbut. This book is a collection of BIble stories edited and somewhat expanded, without chapters or verse numbers, single column text, (it does have photos and paintings). The font is easy to read. Each story has its own chapter. In one week I read all the Old Testament stories, up to page 500. Although not a reader’s bible, and not a text bible, it shows how quickly one can read this kind of book. The only time I ever got through a text bible that quickly was when I was sick for a week in bed and listened to a King James audio bible.
    I own several “reader’s bibles”. I own the Moulton Modern Reader’s BIble, based on the Revised version. Moulton’s concern was to display the text in its literary form. Each story is separated from the rest of the text, each poem, etc. The print is a little small. I rarely read from this, but use it for comparison.
    I own “The Bible:Designed to be Read as Living Literature” but rarely read out of it.
    I recently bought the Reader’s Digest Large Print bible, published in 3 volumes of text. The print is truly large – as large as a large print novel. Very easy to read, although I have not read it yet.
    I own the Washburn bible. The font is 14, each phrase has its own line, two column, as big as a pulpit bible.

    The ESV reader’s bible font is too small for my 58-year eyes to read for an extended period of time. The NIV books of the bible is somewhat better.

    There is no perfect Bible, at least not yet. The Bibliotheca Bible – I too have concerns about the ASV revised by an individual using YLT. I think it would be preferable just to publish the ASV text as is.

    If the purpose is to try to read through the whole BIble quickly, then chapters and verses and double columns and references, which is great for study, slow the reader down.

  18. I’ve read a lot on this website about the text having either verse numbers or no verse numbers. One other possibility that I have not seen discussed much is to have verse numbers, but to have them set off to the side, so that they are there if you need them, but you still have the clean Bible text without the verse numbers. Awhile back, at a used bookstore, I came across and purchased a beat-up New Jerusalem Bible for $15. Single column text with no verse numbers. Cross references off to the side down the outer side of the page. Verse numbers off to the side, down the inner side of the page. It was only $15 because the cover (kind of a flimsy thin cardboard-ish material) was ripped and taped up, the text block itself was coming apart from the binding, and there were coffee spots littered over the page edges. But the pages themselves were surprisingly clean, no highlighting/writing etc, minimal ghosting, and I liked the page layout (obviously), so I bought it and had it rebound from Ace Bookbinding in Oklahoma (great folks – Nathan is very helpful). I had it rebound in black calfskin, with red gilt page edges to cover up the coffee stains. It is a Catholic translation, tending more towards the “dynamic equivalence” end of the translation spectrum, and even though I am not Catholic, for me it is a nice “change of pace” from my usual ESV/NIV reading. It has the Apocrypha, too, which I hope to read someday just to have a better idea of what other branches of Christendom consider canonical Scripture. I like the fact that the actual Bible text has no verse numbers in it, but that the verse numbers are in a column off to the side if I want to refer to them.

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