Selling Bibles is big business

The market for the Bible is still strong:

No official sales projections are publicly available, but if history provides a guide, the “NIV Zondervan Study Bible” could easily sell 100,000 copies by the end of the year — probably a lot more. The new study Bible by Zondervan, a Christian publishing house in Grand Rapids, Mich., owned by HarperCollins, could follow earlier blockbuster sales. The last NIV study Bible, published by Zondervan in 1985, sold more than 9 million copies.

The Bible business is booming. There are annual sales of 40 million Bibles — from study Bibles to family Bibles to pocket Bibles. That’s not even counting foreign markets. As journalist Daniel Radosh observed, “The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: The Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year.”…

The “ESV Study Bible” is actually only one of 19 Bibles that have sold more 1 million copies in the past decade. The editors behind Zondervan’s new offering are undoubtedly looking for the same sort of sales, and there’s reason to believe they will get them…

The anxiety over kinds of Bibles — aggravated by the market — creates a demand for new, more authoritative works. Some of the most popular study Bibles are designed to reassure readers of the text’s accuracy and authority, while at the same time promising to be easy to read.

I worked for two summers in the warehouse of Tyndale House Publishers where we shipped a good number of Bibles (among other items, such as plenty of Left Behind books). We had all sorts of Bibles: different translations, ones for different people groups (teenagers, women, seekers, those with the education to make use of the original language and the translation side by side), and in all sorts of packaging from software to metal cases to real leather. I remember noting the two forces at work: the impulse to make the Bible available alongside the motivation to make money.

This is an area where Christianity and materialism come head to head and yet I’m not sure it gets discussed much. How useful are all those Bibles? How much do people need new and improved versions? Where does all that money go? Americans love to consume things…are the sales of Bible more of an indication of consumption than of religious fervor?

What kind of sociology book gets trade press attention before it is published

Books by sociologists don’t often become bestsellers or draw the attention of a broad range of presses, reviewers, and the public. But, here is some backstory on the soon-to-be published On the Run and why it is drawing attention:

As an author, Alice Goffman has a few things going for her. She’s the daughter of the late Erving Goffman, a giant in the field of sociology, and her surname alone has long made her of interest to those in academia. Then there is her young age (32) and the somewhat dramatic nature of her fieldwork: starting her research when she was a college freshman, Goffman spent six years following a small group of young black men in inner-city Philadelphia. All of this has put a spotlight on Goffman’s forthcoming book, On the Run, which the University of Chicago Press is releasing on May 13. The excitement around the title has led the scholarly publisher to break with a number of norms; it has gone back to press three times already, and has auctioned off the paperback and digital rights to a trade house…

The planned book was an ethnography examining the effect of the prison system beyond the reaches of confinement; it focused on the lives of a group of young, male African-American friends in a Philadelphia neighborhood. The proposal was brief, touching on the failings of the war on drugs—specifically, the havoc wreaked by the parole system—but it was impressive enough, Stahl said, that the press acquired it. (At the time, Goffman was a 20-year-old undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, and, according to Stahl, UCP had never before acquired a title by someone still in college.) When Goffman turned in her manuscript a decade later—the submission date was loose, given the lengthy nature of fieldwork—Stahl said UCP’s editors realized the book was not only a “great ethnography,” but also a “gripping read.”…

While Star said it’s “striking” that Goffman started her fieldwork when she was so young, and that there are elements of her own backstory that may draw media attention, he believes the book stands on its own. And, although On the Run is an academic text, Star thinks it touches on themes front and center in the public debate: namely, the inordinately high incarceration rate for black men in the U.S. In the wake of books like The New Jim Crow (Free Press, 2010), which Star felt began “raising questions about who goes to prison and why,” On the Run taps into a “very important set of issues involving the intersection of justice, crime, poverty, and race.” And, echoing Stahl’s feelings about the trade appeal of the book, Star said that On the Run is also, despite its academic nature, a book with “novelistic qualities.”

If it is accurate to compare The New Jim Crow to On the Run, FSG and UCP have a hit on their hands; the former book, by Michelle Alexander, has sold over 200,000 copies in paperback and hardcover combined at outlets that report to Nielsen BookScan. Star certainly feels the topicality of On the Run will help it in the trade market; he pointed to another book he recently acquired, tentatively titled Locking Up Our Own, by Yale Law School professor James Forman Jr., which also delves into the subject of black men and prison. Locking Up examines the correlation between the rising number of African-American elected officials and the incarceration of African-Americans in cities like Washington, D.C.

It will be interesting see how much attention this gets after its release as well as the book-sale figures. Several things seem to make this stand out from other academic books: the backstory of the author from her young age at the beginning to a well-known father; a topic that lines up with a lot of recent conversations (inequality, race, the prison system, the plight of cities); and “novelistic qualities” that help it move beyond a dry academic texts with more elements of story. I wonder if a parallel to this work isn’t the work of Sudhir Venkatesh which shares some similar traits: interesting story of how he started the project (held by a gang while trying to do survey research in a housing project); describing the business-like qualities of gangs even as urban crime and economies were becoming prominent conversation topics; and Venkatesh has plenty of interesting stories (which lately seem to have drawn some criticism for being “thin”). So, based on On the Run and Gang Leader for a Day, sociology bestsellers need to be ethnographic works that focus on race, cities, and crime?

Another question: is this the sort of book that is the left’s answer to all of the right-wing best-sellers of recent years? I wonder who exactly will purchase this book.

The first Apple sociology app?

I didn’t see this coming:

Wiley-Blackwell, the scientific, medical and scholarly publishing business of John Wiley & Sons, Inc., is launching its first mobile application in Sociology, accessible via iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.

Wiley-Blackwell Sociology Spotlight is a must-have app for all Sociologists. It shines a powerful spotlight on Sociology, enabling you to instantly read all of the latest news and developments in the field. Whether you want to keep track of broad trends across the discipline or focus in on a subfield, Sociology Spotlight is an essential tool for your research and teaching.

A few questions:

1. Is there a market for this? It does appear to be free…

2. Might this set off an arms race among publishers to make their content available through apps?

3. The iTunes preview app page suggests certain articles have “video abstracts.” Is this the new wave of the future?

From controversial opinion piece to full length book

I was unaware that this was a common phenomenon: write a controversial op-ed in a major newspaper, receive a book deal, and then produce a book that is much too long and that doesn’t argue much. David Bell describes this process:

The syndrome has become all too common. A provocative op-ed piece appears in a major newspaper (for preference, The New York Times). Its logic is fragile and its evidence is thin, but the writing is crisp and the examples are pungent, and the assault on sacred cows arouses a storm of discussion (much of it sharply critical, but no matter). It goes viral. And almost immediately, publishers comes calling. “This should be a book,” they coo, and the author, entranced by a bit of sudden fame (not to mention, perhaps, a decent advance), eagerly agrees. He or she sets to work, and soon enough the original 800 words expand to 50,000. But far from reinforcing the original logic and evidence, the new accretions of text only strain them further, while smothering the original provocations under thick layers of padded anecdote, pop sociology and oracular pronouncement. Call the syndrome Friedmanitis, after a prominent early victim, the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.

I wonder if I have been a victim of this process. I have read a number of non-fiction books where I thought the argument was thin and the argument could have been effectively made in just a few pages. One problem may be a lack of data – opinion books are difficult to sustain as they often jump from one opinion to another without providing sufficient evidence for the claims being made.

From the book publishers perspective, this process makes some sense. Perhaps the hope is that the op-ed author has more to offer; that if given more space, they can develop a much more substantive argument. Since it is difficult to predict which books will succeed once published, an op-ed that generates attention may look like a sure thing.

At the same time, these op-eds can quickly invoke many criticisms within hours of being published online. By the time a book is released that is built around the same topic, it may be too late to make the argument again (particularly if it is badly argued in the book).