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Word! The Good Book finds new niches: specialty editions of the bible for African Americans and youth are reaping rewards for publishers.

Even publishers of the Good Book wrestle with this age old question: "How do we get more readers?"

The current answer appears to be, "Find a niche," So publishers in the past several years have debuted Bibles that target specialized audiences, ranging from teenagers to athletes. Not surprisingly, the biblical choices have also broadened for African Americans. After all, we are the Good Book's biggest fans. Not only do we own more Bibles per capita than any other racial group in this country, we actually read them more frequently, according to Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Zondervan Publishing Company, the world's leading Bible publisher and a division of HarperCollins.

African Americans owned 4.5 Bibles per household, compared to the national average of 3.9 in 2003, according to the latest survey from Zondervan. About 65 percent of African Americans report that they read their Bibles frequently, compared to the national average of 40 percent. The results are based on a mail survey that is sent to a nationally representative sample of 10,000 people. Zondervan conducts the survey every four years.

A spokesperson at Zondervan says that its prices for Bibles, in general, range from less than $5 for a softcover New Testament to more than $100 for a limited, high-end, leather-bound edition.

Modernizing the Message

At one time, the biggest decision lacing Bible purchasers used to be: Which translation? The more formal King James Version or the New King James Version, or the more contemporary New International Version or the New American Standard Bible, among others.

For African Americans, the answer overwhelmingly remains the sonorous King James but with many permutations. The hottest niche biblical texts right now are the Women of Color Study Bible, the Women of Color Devotional Bible, and for counterparts, the Men of Color Study Bible, all by Urban Spirit (formerly Nia Publishing) in Atlanta, in partnership with World Bible Publishers. The women's study Bible--the most popular of them all--has sold 200,000 copies so far, according to Mel Banks II, Urban Spirit's founder and owner. The prices range from $12.99 to $56 for leather-bound volumes.

What's driving the niche? People increasingly opt for the more personalized Bibles to search for answers in a world that has become less secure, especially since 9/11. Still, others look to the specialized books for help in navigating their busy lives.

"A lot of people want a thought for the day or they want some direction as part of Scripture reading," says Gwenevere Richardson, cofounder of, which bills itself as the largest online purveyor of Afrocentric products.

All the African American specialized Bibles, including the study books, typically include inserts that chronicle the black heritage of well-known biblical characters. Some offer summaries of the various biblical books and include essays or devotionals written by a variety of black authors on how to apply the Good Book's principles to the problems of modern life. Devotionals generally include a Scripture companion, an analysis of the Scripture and a suggested daily prayer.

Without a doubt, sales of the most popular African American Bibles are a blip in the Holy Book universe. In 2003, Christian retail outlets alone sold between 12 million to 13 million Bibles, up from 11 million to 13 million in 2002, according to the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, in Tempe, Arizona.

As Bible sales, however, have remained steady but not spectacular for the past few years--except tot the spike after 9/11--the stakes have risen among publishers and retailers for the "next new thing."

"We are seeing growth in certain segments," says Mark Rice, Zondervan's senior director of communications and branding. The youth market has been the largest growth area, he says. Zondervan's offerings for that category include True Images for teen girls and Revolution for boys.

Those Bibles "directly and honestly address the hard-core, real-world issues teens face today with a voice they can relate to," he says.

In 2003, Nia Publishing, which changed it's name to Urban Spirit in July 2004, also published two Bibles aimed at young people ages 12 to 17: Wisdom and Grace for Young Women of Color and The Strength and Honor Bible for Young Men of Color. Banks's titles have become such a success that Zondervan has been in talks with Urban Spirit to develop specialized Bibles, inspirational books and gifts for African Americans.

At, Richardson says that children's Bibles are her company's most popular. She believes parents want a Bible that is culturally relevant for their kids.

"They don't want all their reading and play and game activities to have white characters," Richardson says. "They are very excited about having options for the Bible."

Bibles with a contemporary feel make Christianity more accessible, says Susan D. Johnson Cook, the pastor of the Bronx Christian Fellowship Church in New York City (the Bronx). "The point of a Bible and the point of Bible reading is to make it applicable to your life," says Johnson Cook. She is the author of Balancing Your Life: God's Plan for Hope and a Future (God's Leading Ladies Workbook Series, Nelson Reference, 2003) and A New Dating Attitude (Zondervan, 2001).

Evelyn Curtiss, who with her husband owns the Word of Life Christian Bookstore in Los Angeles, credits a "nice variety" of niche Bibles, especially the study books, with boosting her store's sales five percent in 2003 from the year before.

According to the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, Christian retail stores sold 14,000 to 16,000 copies of the men- and women of-color Bibles and the African American Jubilee Bible in 2003 for a total of $540,000 to $650,000.

The African American study Bibles are, in fact, riding a wave of general interest in the study Bible category. The big entry in the category, the New International Version Study Bible (Zondervan fully revised an edition in October 2002) has sold more than six million copies since its debut in 1985.

Sins of Omission

Niche publishing has its pitfalls. Curtiss says some offerings from mainstream publishers didn't do well because they flunked the culturally relevant test, because they often fail to highlight the black heritage of certain biblical characters, such as the Ethiopian eunuch, whom Peter baptized (Acts 8:38). "It just wasn't pulled out in other books," she says. She also says some publishers are so uninspired that they will simply stick a cover on a Bible they think appeals to African Americans, while keeping white images within the book. "We've actually had customers who returned them," says Curtiss, who was among the writers who penned devotionals for the Women of Color Devotional Bible.

The market still has room for success stories. For one thing, African Americans and Latinos--the country's two largest minority groups--continue to be underserved, says Hargis V. Thomas Jr., the director of sales and marketing of Bibles, at Oxford University Press in Manhattan.

"The communities have sales potential," Thomas says. "However," he added, "the majority of publishers have failed to develop the unique marketing and sales channels needed to reach deep into each of these communities."

Selling It

The major trade show for sellers of Bibles and other Christian books is the Christian Booksellers Association. The international convention will be held July 9-14, 2005, at the Colorado Convention Center, Denver. For more information log on to


A Selection of Bibles for African Americans

African-American Family Bible

by Stephanie Perry Moore, editor

World Bible Publishing, October 2003

$29.99, ISBN 0-529-11795-9

KJV Holy Bible: The African American Jubilee Edition

American Bible Society, December 1999

$20.95, ISBN 1-585-16018-0

Holy Bible: African American Catholic Jubilee Edition

American Bible Society, March 2002

$12.95, ISBN 1-585-16181-0

Women of Color Devotional Bible

World Bible Publishing, February 2003

$24.99, ISBN 0-529-11583-2

Women of Color Study Bible

Nia Publishing Co. Inc, January 2001

$49.99, ISBN 0-529-11280-9

Holy Bible: African American Jubilee Edition: Contemporary English Version

American Bible Society, December 1999

$24.95, paper, $49.95, leather bound, ISBN: 1585160199

Holy Bible: Illustrated Especially for Children of Color

New International Version, World Bible Publishing, September 1998

$16.99, ISBN 0-529-10965-4

KJV African-American Devotional Bible

Hardcover, Zondervan, May 1997

$19.99, ISBN 0-310-91826-X

(Also available in the New International Version)

The Original African Heritage Study Bible

by Dr. Cain Hope Felder, editor, James W. Peebles (Preface)

World Bible Publishing, October 1993, $44.99, ISBN 0-529-10068-1

Family Heirloom Bible: King James Version African American Edition

Thomas Nelson Inc., April 1997, $25, ISBN 0-840-71371-1

Men of Color Study Bible

World Bible Publishing, January 2002

$46.99, ISBN 0-529-114951-X

Carrie Mason-Draffen is a reporter and columnist for Newsday, a Long Island-based newspaper.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Cox, Matthews & Associates
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Title Annotation:faith
Author:Mason-Draffen, Carrie
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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