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On the peculiarity of CBA Bible best-seller lists

January 10, 2012

cba_member_logo_redA strange sort of mentality grips some people involved in biblio-blogging.  They have a fondness for a certain Bible translation, which develops in an identification with that translation, almost like supporting a sports team.  One wants to see one’s own favored translation “battle it out” with opposing translations and end up on top.  While there are any number of potential forums for this kind of battling, sales numbers provide one sort of convenient proxy. 

Of course, it must be said right at the outset that there is no necessary relationship between sales figures and the underlying merits of the books being evaluated.  (If there were, then the Da Vinci Code would be the best book of 2003.  And 2004.  And 2005.)

But besides the obvious illogic of comparing translations on the basis of sales figures (which might better reflect “excellence in marketing”), there is another problem as well.  There are no good statistics on Bible sales.  The statistics that are used are from an organization called CBA (that used to stand for the Christian Bookseller Association, although it now describes itself as “The Association for Christian Retail.”)  CBA produces lists of bestsellers – in two groups:  individual Bible titles (subdivided into Biblical Studies/Theology/Ministry, Children’s Bibles, and Study Bibles/Specialty Bibles) and Bible translations (subdivided into ranking by dollar sales and unit sales). 

lifewayBut these lists do not appear to be very accurate.  First, as we all know, Amazon and other large retailers now account for a huge fraction of sales.  Especially in the case of Bibles, which are often expensive and heavily discounted by Amazon, one would expect that purchasers are migrating their purchases to Amazon or other e-tailers.  (Indeed, one can find all sorts of anti-Amazon vitriol among the CBA web pages.) 

Other bestseller lists maintainers (such as the New York Times) have been careful to include Amazon sales in their calculations for book bestsellers.  Clearly, CBA has not.

The problem here is that Amazon buyers may represent a different demographic than CBA buyers.  For example, Amazon buyers have access to the Web and use it, so they may tend to be include a larger proportion of better educated and more affluent consumers than CBA purchasers.  For this reason CBA’s figures cannot necessarily be accurately extrapolated to give insight into broader purchase trends.

WCNVIJP9_Cokesbury_LogoSecond, CBA bookstores are not very representative even among those who patronize book stores.  Large bookstores (such as the Barnes and Noble chain) and independent secular bookstores (such as the famous Powell’s bookstore in Portland) are not represented in the list.  Indeed, CBA does not even represent religious bookstores very well.  Only a few Catholic bookstores are included among CBA members; and as far as I know, no Jewish bookstore is included.  CBA bookstores seem to be aimed at a particular type of (mostly) Evangelical buyer.

Third, CBA bookstores and disproportionately located relative to population centers.  They tend to have heavy concentration in the “Bible belt” – roughly corresponding to the Southeastern United States.  Now, it is said that more Bibles are sold in this area; but I am not at all certain that this is the case.  We don’t have statistics supporting that, do we?

Fourth, CBA is dominated by two large chains:  Lifeway (which also owns B&H Publishing Group) and Cokesbury (which is owned by Abingdon Press).  In other words, Christian retail has become vertically integrated.  The danger here is that these large chains are under tremendous pressure to goose up the sales numbers for their owner’s book series.  We can see strong evidence that this tends to happen – for example the current top four books (as well as #6) in the Biblical Studies area are all published by Abingdon Press or B&H. 

So, as much fun as it is to root for your favorite Bible translation on the CBA lists, they seem to be somewhat arbitrary and not particularly useful.  I think we would be better off discussing actual merits of individual translations, instead of playing popularity games with badly flawed statistics.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 10, 2012 3:17 pm

    Theo —

    OK let me offer the counter point as someone who sees the CBA figures as important. First off I agree with every single one of your qualifications of CBA figures and their impacts. For example I commented on another blog yesterday that it wouldn’t shock me if the Remnant Study Bible (NKJV) outsold MacArthur’s (NKJV) but you would never know that from CBA.

    I agree that you are absolutely right that CBA is sampling the SBA and United Methodists evangelicals is essentially telling you what bibles southern evangelicals buy. Bibles today in that group are divided mainly on a left / right axis:
    ESV vs. NRSV for formal
    HCSB vs. NIV2011 for mediating
    NAB vs. NJB for Catholics

    with the NLT vs. the NIV and ESV being the only real “translational” struggle that is affecting millions.

    The CBA is giving you an accurate indication of the what the 4/5ths of Republicans that are evangelicals believe on the key social issues of today. What they aspire to, what they consider the nature of the good. Had the NLT not benefited from the ESV / TNIV war, had the ESV actually won American Christianity would have undergone substantial changes.

    — Doctrinal reformed theology might have penetrated much deeper into Evangelical Christianity than it already has.

    — Egalitarians would have been purged from non mainline churches much as emerging church characters have been.

    — And you and I would have had to spend the next 20 years explaining countless times why Leland Ryken is an idiot.

    So, nope I appreciate the information that the CBA gives me. I wish we had a statistic that reflected the entire market better. But in the end the number I really would weight the most strongly are pew sales. It is very easy as a bible blogger to forget that the real battle for hearts and minds is happening in the “theological” notes in the NLT Life Application Bible. The CBA reminds of of that.

    That being said, book sales might tell us a lot about what the Christians in the pews actually think. We know there is far more theological diversity among laity than among pastorate for all American religions. Lots of people believe the theological ideas in Dan Brown’s novels, I don’t know of a single church that identifies as anything other than Gnostic Christian that does.

  2. January 10, 2012 3:31 pm

    As of this hour, the amazon.com “up to the hour” Best Sellers in Translations include in the top 10 the following (and some others in the top 20):

    1. KJV (Christian Miracle Foundation Press) 2. NIV 3. ASV 4. KJV (as part of the LDS quadruple combo) 5. KJV (SearchByVerseTM) 6. NKJV 7. NIV (Study Bible) 8. NLT2 (One Year Bible) 9. NIV (The Story) 10. NASB 16. The Catholic Bible (Church Authorized Douay-Rheims) 18. ESV 19. Amplified Bible 20. NABRE

    Each of these accounts for sales that happen to be all in the Kindle ebook format.

    And look here at what’s Most Wished For in Translations, the top 10:

    1. The Jewish Annotated New Testament (ed. by Amy-Jill Levine, Marc Z. Brettler, OXFORD, “Temporarily out of stock.”), 2. The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation (by N. T. Wright, HarperOne), 3. ESV Study Bible, 4. Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament (by Bart D. Ehrman, OXFORD), 5. NIV (The Story), 6. NASB, 7. ESV (Journaling Bible), 8. RSV – Ignatius [Press] Catholic Study Bible: New Testament (ed. by Curtis Mitch, Scott Hahn), 9. NKJV, 10. Amplified (Everyday Life Bible, ed. by Joyce Meyer)

    Each of these are presumably what amazon customers are indicating that they wish they could buy when they have the money. Potential sales, if you will. No format is specified necessarily.

    The difference between these lists and the CBA ones you link to is rather stark.

  3. January 10, 2012 3:46 pm

    Theophrastus and CD-Host,

    I think I also want to list the bottom 10 or 12 of the Top 20 or 22 of the amazon.com customers’ Most Wished For in Translations list:

    11. The Apologetics Study Bible: Understand Why You Believe (ed. by by Ted Cabal, Chuck Colson, Norm Geisler, Hank Hanegraaff, Josh McDowell, Albert Mohler, Ravi Zacharias, J.P. Moreland, Phil Johnson, Paul H Copan, HOLMAN), 12. NJPS, 13. The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-Greek-English (by Jay Patrick Green, Hendrickson P.), 14. NKJV (Chronological Study Bible), 15. NIV Archaeological Study Bible (ed. by Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Duane Garrett), 16. TNIV audio — Inspired by the Bible Experience: The Complete Bible, 17. NRSV – New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha (ed. by Michael D. Coogan, Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, Pheme Perkins), 18. KJV — The T.D. Jakes Relationship Bible: Life Lessons on Relationships from the Inspired Word of God, 19. Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (by Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, Charles A. Briggs), 20. NRSV – The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (ed. by Walter J. Harrelson), 21. NIV – The Daily Bible (ed. by F. LaGard Smith), 22. The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English (by Lancelot C. Brenton)

  4. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 10, 2012 7:00 pm

    This is all of it interesting information. I do happen to be concerned with the CBA stats, since a certain member of my former congregation was courted by the CBA and involved in attempting to shift people’s buying patterns.

  5. January 10, 2012 7:45 pm

    JK —

    That 10 most wanted is a fascinating list. Nice to see NISB made #20 in wished for. #11 got my review for worst study bible ever.

  6. January 10, 2012 7:48 pm

    Thanks for all your comments. I want to just clarify that there are multiple problems here:

    (1) sampling error;
    (2) fraud

    Now you may think that I am a little paranoid in speculating that direct fraud may be an issue here; surely Christian bookstores can be counted to report numbers fairly. But that has not been the case with bookstores in general. As you may know, there have been numerous examples of bookstores and publishers “cooking the numbers” that are reported to the New York Times bestseller list, which has resulted in the NYT developing anti-manipulation measures. My understanding is that it is still possible, for a fee, for publishers to get preferential placement at all Barnes and Noble stores, for example, virtually guaranteeing a spot on the best seller list. Most recently, there were a number of allegations that Sarah Palin “bought” her way onto the best seller list (I do not not if those allegations have substance or not.)

    And then, Suzanne’s remark, although I do not know the details about the incident she is mentioning, is consistent with my concerns.

    It is very difficult to get good statistics on the most popular Bible.

    (Other factors: normal people don’t need to buy a new Bible every year, so we hardly know which translations have the most readership or “mind share.”)

  7. January 11, 2012 12:57 pm

    Theo —

    I wouldn’t consider either of those to be fraud, though it is an example of sales figures not giving people the information they thought it was. Preferential placement means the books are selling they are just carrying an extra advertising cost. That’s no different than any other sort of advertising campaign or a discount to sell books.

    As far as SarahPac buying copies … well SarahPac bought copies. Those copies were created, sold at good profits for the publisher (and writer) and likely SarahPac gave them away to conservatives (donors) as a prize, so they were read by genuine people… SarahPac’s business dealing are slimy but I don’t see any reason to not count those as book sales.

    To a certain extent, like with most statistics what people are measuring and what they think they are measuring may not be the same.

  8. January 11, 2012 1:31 pm

    Well, the fraud problem is serious enough for regular bookstores and publishers that the New York Times felt that it had to put elaborate safeguards into place. (Among other problems: large “purchases” and “returns” a moment later of books.)

    The problem with an organization buying copies of books is that they don’t reflect consumer desires (which is what a bestseller list is supposed to do.) In fact, it is just weird: usually large book sales are directly from a publisher (not through retail outlets) and not counted in the bestseller numbers.

    Let me draw a contrast. The DaVinci Code was tops on the bestseller lists because people really wanted to buy it and read it. Sarah Palin’s book was on the bestseller lists because, essentially, she wanted to buy it.

    I did not find a statement of methodology for CBA’s statistical collection. Maybe they use a sophisticated system to avoid gaming. They should use a sophisticated system since the CBA is dominated by two publisher/booksellers. I doubt it, though.

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