MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

Storing up treasure: the big new payoff in Bible-selling

JANICE TYRWHITT July 28 1962
MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

Storing up treasure: the big new payoff in Bible-selling

JANICE TYRWHITT July 28 1962

Storing up treasure: the big new payoff in Bible-selling

MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

FOR THE LAST TEN YEARS Thomas Nelson and Sons have held exclusive world rights to one of the world's hottest publishing properties: the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. When it appeared in 1952 the RSV sold 1,600,000 copies in eight weeks; since then its total sale has gone over 12 million. On October 1, when Nelson's exclusive franchise to sell the RSV expires, five other publishers will jump quickly into the field with their own editions. Their Bibles are already printed and stacked in warehouses, awaiting the legal selling date. Nelson plans to meet its new competition by offering the RSV in no less than 122 different styles.

The rush to make money out of the RSV illustrates the fact that the Bible, in any version. is so profitable that it makes religion the most ferocious battleground in the publishing business. Like soap companies, the firms that sell Bibles compensate for the fact that all products are very much alike by selling an attractive price and package or by selling an idea —not cleanliness but godliness.

l.ike Nelson's, most publishers concentrate on providing a handsome package in the shape of fine leather bindings, extras such as maps, notes and concordances, and editions customtailored for children, brides. Masons, Youth for Christ and other Bible-buying groups. They produce everything from genuinely beautiful Bibles, magnificent in design and workmanship, to pink, yellow, mauve and blue Bibles for bridesmaids and zippered Bibles whose pulltab is a grain of mustard seed in lucite.

Whether they emphasize package or price, these general publishers retail their Bibles through department stores, religious book-

rooms, church supply jobbers and Bible societies. They are scarcely aware that they’re overshadowed by a completely separate trade: a handful of U. S. companies that sell not a book but an idea of righteousness, a talisman against obscure ill fortune. This is the family Bible sold door to door, a big $40 job that the trade calls a “kitchen-sink Bible” because it's crammed with family records, appendices and gaudy illustrations.

In the United States direct-sales companies outgross the bookstore-Bible firms by five to one. In Canada their most candid spokesman says they’re just getting under way. He's Harold Shneer, a forceful twenty-seven-year-old who runs Good Book Distributors, a subsidiary' of Good Will Publishers of Gastonia, N.C. Good Book hit Canada in 1959 and already claims half the direct-sales market, or $500,000 worth of Bibles a year. Shneer reckons that the Canadian pastures, properly harvested, should yield $10 million a year in direct sales, and he expects his own company to be grossing $4 to $5 million annually in another five years.

“Six or seven years ago,” Shneer says, “this Bible business in Canada was difficult, but it’s not so today. Conditions here are right. Unemployment is going to increase when the postwar babies hit the labor market.” Door-to-door Bible companies are among the few who can look forward to depressions with pleasure: in bad times people spend more time reading the Bible, and buy more copies of it; and Bible salesmen are easier to find.

“If I'd been here seven years ago,” Shneer says, pounding the table for emphasis, “I'd have a business. You've never seen a more aggressive group than we are, because we're aware of the mercenary value and the religious value. Like a minister or a priest, we like to look not at the means but at the end. As Christ said, judge not that ye be not judged.”

The door-to-door salesmen eliminate the middleman and introduce the Good Lord. They begin their pitch by asking, “Have you two minutes for God?” (it takes a tough-minded housewife to say no) and follow up with, “What price peace of mind?” ($39.95. $5 down and $5 a month). They like to call the Bible a Letter from God (“if you hadn't heard from a dear Friend for years, wouldn't you w'ant a letter from Him?”). Though ex-ministers make the poorest hucksters (at the end of a day they may have ten conversions and no sales) the Bible peddler must be prepared to discuss doctrine and convey a soothing impression of sanctity.

Even the more conservative general publishers handle religious bookstores circumspectly. When they hire a hotel sample room to entertain buyers they hide the liquor (available for other clients) and even tuck the ashtrays away. A trade journal photograph of a Canadian Bible salesman with a glass in his hand once cost his firm several fundamentalist accounts. Publishers' traveling salesmen become old hands at fencing off questions like, “What are you doing in the crusade to put down Roman Catholic aggression?” and “If Jesus Christ walked into your house, would you offer Him a glass of beer?”

The general publishers, like Nelson and Oxford, find their best markets in Ontario and the prairies, while the direct sales companies make a killing in periodic forays on the Maritimes and isolated fishing, logging and farming communities across the country. Pieman Dove, a Nova Scotian father of seventeen, set a Good Book Distributors record of fifteen sales in one day when he hit a Newfoundland outport. Salesmen for Good Book clear $15 for each Bible they sell and most of Shneer’s men make between $125 and $150 a week.

Instead of cutting into sales of traditional

editions, new translations seem to stimulate them. Most recent is the NewEnglish Bible New Testament, an entirely new translation published jointly by the two university presses of Oxford and Cambridge in March, 1961. For its first two months it was the fastest selling book in the English language; within a year it sold 4.000,000 copies, 127,000 of them in Canada. Roman Catholic Bibles, notably the approved Douay-Rheims and Confraternity versions and Msgr. Ronald Knox's translation, have sold well since the Vatican began encouraging Bible study about two decades ago.

While the general firms express discreet satisfaction. Shneer of Good Book is more expansive. “Anyone can make money in the Bible business because it’s impossible to saturate the market.” he says. “People who already have a Bible are good prospects for another. In the past three years we've worked Sault Ste. Marie with ten or twelve people for three weeks or a month at a time and it’s still a good market. The day I w'orry about our business will be the day they close the churches. The best business on God’s green earth is one where you can make a good living and help people at the same time. We like to think that God has His watchful eye upon us.” JANICE TYRWHITT