For awhile now, I've wondered if it would be helpful for us all to collaborate on a set of suggestions for publishers hoping to meet the demand for better quality Bibles. I'm no insider, but in my brushes with those who fit the description, I sometimes get the impression that the industry's view of the consumer and what he or she wants doesn't come close to the real thing. WANT SOME HOLY WATER WITH THAT? Stephanie Simon's December 25 LA Times piece about Bible marketing reinforces the feeling. Here's a taste of a Zondervan marketing discussion of the upcoming anniversary edition of the NIV Study Bible:

To celebrate [the anniversary], the company is producing an update of the NIV Study Bible, with thousands of revised footnotes. Formatted with extra-wide margins for note-taking, bound in premium leather, the new edition has been tentatively priced at $119.99.

But Randy Bishop, vice president of production, has cold feet. The existing NIV Study Bible comes in a dozen sizes and bindings, priced from $25 to $80. He wonders if customers will pay so much more for the anniversary edition.

"If you put chocolate coating on an Oreo, it's a different cookie, and you ought to be able to charge more," Caminiti argues. "The packaging has to scream that this is something really new: First time! Fudge-dipped! Chocolate-coated!"

Todd Niemeyer, vice president of sales, chuckles and murmurs, "Smoke and mirrors."

The team kicks around inexpensive ways to make the new edition stand out.

"We could put in an extra ribbon marker. . . . Maybe special parchment paper at the beginning?" Bishop suggests.

"There you go!" says Brian Scharp, vice president of Bible marketing. "The list of premium features is growing and growing."

"Gold-plated bling?" Niemeyer asks mischievously.

"A vial of Holy Land soil attached to the back?" Bishop offers, as the room dissolves in laughter.

The Zondervan staff has turned down a few ideas -- a 3-D pop-up Bible, for instance -- that they found too gimmicky. "There is a line, because it's God's word," Scharp says.

Later, though, he admits: "It's hard to draw the line in any one place and say, 'We're never going to cross that.' "

Nothing against the folks at Zondervan. I've been in marketing meetings before, and if I'd been present for this one I would no doubt have had a few wry cracks to make. But we find ourselves at a point in history when we've never had so many choices, and yet the options are mostly arrayed along a horizontal spectrum -- a thousand different flavors of the same basic thing. I'd like to see more vertical choices, and that might require a shift in perspective. Instead of speaking to end-users as consumers, we might have to start thinking of them as readers.

ONE MAN'S MANIFESTO With that in mind, I'm going to offer what I think are essential starting points for any publisher hoping to satisfy our little segment of the market. I invite you to add your own and to take issue with mine, too. In time, I'd like this conversation to be a resource for people inside publishing organizations who need to back up their design and quality sense with anecdotal evidence from the market.

So here goes . . .

Starting Points for Marketing High-End Bible Editions

1. We want real quality, not the illusion of luxury. Don't approach the Bible as yet another luxury brand. At the moment, such brands are increasing prices while cutting corners on quality. The marketing exec's job is to "build the brand," making up for the decline in quality by selling cachet. This works, but it also creates a dissident market consisting of people who miss the old durable, well-made standard. The market for high end Bibles is such a dissident group. We're ready to spend more to get a quality product. Don't make us pay a premium for fancy packaging, though. We're looking for real, not perceived, value.

2. Treat us like readers. The Bible isn't a fashion statement. It isn't a reference work, either. First and foremost, it's a book meant to be read. Design and binding choices should proceed from that assumption. Right now, we often have to choose between the bland and the kitschy. We'd prefer tasteful contemporary approaches to the tradition. Modern typography and layout, quality materials and construction. Since most of us hope a high end Bible will last a lifetime, give us something we can live with. You wouldn't try and sell us a house with a cracked foundation, so don't sell us a Bible with a glued binding. And if you wanted to sell us that house, you wouldn't tart it up with glitter and faux painting, either, so don't go overboard chasing trends.

3. Give us features -- and quality control. First, we have expectations about what a quality edition should include. Sewn bindings and quality leather covers resulting in a limp, flexible Bible that will open flat out of the box. We want clean, thoughtfully-designed text printed on opaque paper. In other words, we're measuring today's editions against an older, quality-driven standard, and we expect them to compare favorably. How do you tell the difference between real features and gimmicks? Easy. Look at what readers really need. (Extra ribbon = essential; vial of holy water = not so much.) Second, at this price point, we expect excellent quality control. Most of us will be buying sight unseen, so we expect you to weed out inferior samples before they reach us. Uneven impressions, poor gilding, damaged pages -- all of these are unacceptable in a high end edition.

4. Let us look before we buy. The market for high end editions is increasingly online, but it still seems to be approached with a bricks and mortar mindset. When researching a purchase, we want to see what the layout and binding really look like. Instead, we tend to see photos of packaging, which tell us nothing. Make extensive photos of your editions available, and be open about specifications, binding styles, cover material, and so on. If the market for high end editions seems weak, it might be because readers who aren't fortunate enough to have a bookstore in the area that displays your line are reluctant to purchase blind. Help us out!

5. Give us choices. Give us a choice between goatskin and calfskin. Give us a choice between black, red or tan. Give a choice between single or double column, and whether we want a wide margin or not. Or if you can't, give us the option of buying an unbound text block we can customize to our preference. There are lots of choices in the marketplace, but most of them are at the bottom end. The more variety you give us, the better -- we tend to be repeat customers, after all.

That's my top five, for better or worse. How about you? If you could give some advice to your favorite publisher to help them zero in on your preferences better, what would it be? This is the place to share.