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SBL: What are some of the more striking trends at least in terms of sales in Bible and Bible-related categories this year?

PW: First just let me state that my answers to all of these questions are a combination of my own thoughts and the ideas of Phyllis Tickle, who is a contributing editor at PW, and Henry Carrigan, who is the editorial director for Trinity Press International. I consulted them because they both have a great deal of expertise in this area.

Last year, we saw a significant spike in Bible sales after 9/11. Zondervan, which is one of the leaders in Bible publishing, posted a 25% gain in Bible sales between 9/11 and Christmas, and sales have continued to be strong; they were up 20% for the first quarter of 2002 over the same period last year. Family Christian Stores, which is the nation's largest Christian retail chain with 340 stores, confirms the same trend; in the first week after 9/11, their Bible sales shot up 27%, and that increase fluctuated between 20-30% in the months leading up to Christmas. For the first quarter of this year they've seen a 17% increase over the first quarter last year.

In terms of biblical studies, which is a bit more difficult to track than Bible sales, we've seen a slight increase in prophecy-related books; this of course is also partly due to the impact of 9/11. And in an unrelated trend, I've seen quite a few "popular archaeology" books cross my desk in the last year. Probably the best of these is Excavating Jesus by Crossan and Reed.

SBL: If we disregard sales figures for the moment, which titles or subject areas to you seem more unusual, significant, or interesting this year?

PW: Well, last fall saw the publication of Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, which is a major event in the Conservative Jewish world. It has been selling a perfectly amazing number of copies, as synagogues purchase dozens or even hundreds at a time. But even more important than commercial success is the book's potential impact: it's kind of a quest-for-the-historical-Moses approach.

The challenge in Bible publishing is always going to be whether there is something new or original to say. Sadly, most of the books that come to us for review are either too derivative to be considered noteworthy, or else too scholarly for the hoi polloi to understand.

I also see a real turn toward the experiential in Bible-related publishing. Bruce Feiler's book Walking the Bible is an excellent example of this. It is based in scholarship, yes, but more importantly in the author's very visceral experiences as he revisits biblical sites. People really resonate with that.

SBL: What do you think will be the important areas for publishing in bible and related areas in the coming decade? Is there a particular discovery or issue in bible studies that we will be hashing out in the next 10 years, perhaps what the Jesus Seminar was to the 90s?

PW: Phyllis helped me put my finger on something I had noticed but not articulated before: that there seems to be a shift occurring as popular interest moves from the New Testament to the Hebrew Bible. I'm quite sure she's right about this. People are interested in origins, in primordial questions, and also in issues about the historical reliability of biblical accounts. This comes into even sharper resolution as people struggle to understand the ancient roots of contemporary conflicts in the Middle East.

For what it's worth, I've certainly seen a waning of popular interest in the findings of the Jesus Seminar. That does not mean that good books won't continue to be published on this topic, but that the popular interest has moved on.

SBL: What is your take on the emergence of "niche bibles"? Why is this happening and what does this say about the sophistication of bible readers or about the way books are marketed these days, from bibles to cookbooks?

PW: Good question. Publishers discovered a number of years ago that some key customers would identify more clearly with a Bible if it were marketed directly to them. The most obvious success story here is The Women's Bible, but there are countless others. On my shelves I even have a social justice-oriented Bible, which demonstrates that it's not just evangelical publishers who are getting into the niche business. At some point, it becomes ridiculous, as the niches become smaller and smaller.

I don't think it speaks to reader sophistication as much as it does to reader overload. There are more translations, study aids, and marketing schemes than the average reader knows what to do with. I also think it suggests the particular situation in which Bibles are purchased: most are bought for someone else, as a gift. If buyers can find a Bible for the left-handed college grad in their lives, they're going to do so, because it makes such a gift appear more personal.

SBL: Do you think there is a gap between what the "public" knows about the Bible and its world and what the bible scholar knows? What are some of the key publications that have served as cultural bridges between the tower and the street, if one can presume to use such broad brush terms?

It's not just a gap. It's more like a chasm. Naturally, the most important factor here is the facility with ancient languages; this is a knowledge that scholars assume but that very few lay readers possess. Also, few scholars are going to argue that Moses wrote the Torah/Pentateuch, which is what most folks in the pews have been taught. This shows how there are certain core commitments of biblical scholarship that are just alien to the average person who reads and loves the Bible. There are certainly some fine publications that aim to bridge this chasm; Henry points to Bible Review and Bible Archaeology Review, for example, and the Anchor Bible series.

The problem is that so often when biblical scholars think that they are writing accessibly, they are still really only writing for each other. They don't bother to explain what to them seems obvious. Even the Jesus Seminar does this, and part of its stated purpose is to bridge the gap. I attended a Seminar meeting in California a couple of years ago and there were some discussions I had a tough time following, and I have a doctorate in religion.

To some extent, this is beginning to change, as trade publishers seek academic authors who can write books for general audiences. There are some academic authors who can genuinely do this well, and it's heartening.

SBL: How do you explain the popularity of books like The Red Tent or The Prayer of Jabez that are based on a very minor text from the Bible and yet circulate in religious circles at an incredible pace?

PW: The Red Tent deserves to be successful because it's a heck of a good novel that very creatively re-imagines familiar stories. There's a subversive aspect to the book, because it takes stories that people think they know, and shows other ways of looking at the same drama.

As for Jabez, which has sold more than 8 million copies and is now considered the fastest-selling book of all time, I can only give you a couple of ideas. First of all, yes, it had clever marketing, a highly accessible gift-book format, and an author who was willing to tour tirelessly to promote it. And yes, some prosperity theology can be extrapolated from the book. But I think your question points to the more salient reason for the book's success; it is based on a very minor, obscure text in the Bible. Remember the best-selling book The Bible Code from a few years back? People are perennially intrigued by the "secrets" of the Bible, elements they may have passed over. And here's this little prayer, tucked quietly into a series of begats. People love it that there are still unexplored elements of the Bible. Both The Red Tent and Jabez speak to that, albeit very differently.

Citation: Moira Bucciarelli, " Q & A with Publishers' Weekly," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=83

 
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