On the peculiarity of CBA Bible best-seller lists
A 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).
But 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.
Second, 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.