Greg Beato in Reason:
In the 16th century, when William Tyndale translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into English, thereby unlocking the Word of God to the common man, he was rewarded for his efforts by being burned at the stake. So were most of the copies of his translation. In colonial times, it was illegal to print Bibles in North America; only certain printers in England and Scotland were authorized to publish the holy book. During the Revolution those imports stopped, creating, according to The Centennial History of the American Bible Society, a “famine of Bibles.” So in 1782 the Philadelphia printer Roger Aitken printed 10,000 copies of America’s first complete English Bible. The book came with a congressional endorsement, but when the war ended, cheap imports resumed, domestic competition exploded, and thousands of copies of the Aitken Bible failed to sell. In 1791, he wrote a letter to Pennsylvania’s tax man stating that he’d lost $4,000 on the venture. Today America is characterized by Biblical obesity, not Biblical famine. A 2003 survey conducted by Zondervan, one of the nation’s largest Christian book publishers, found that the average U.S. household contains 3.9 Bibles, and U.S. consumers purchase approximately 20 million new Bibles annually. “Business analysts describe Bible publishing as a mature industry with little prospect for strong growth,” The Boston Globe reported in 1986, but year in and year out, the Bible remains the best-selling book in America.
The glut, in fact, is what creates the demand. Long before Web 2.0 billionaires decided that $0.00 was a price point consumers would find even more tempting than Eve’s apple, Bible societies had started distributing millions of copies for free or at little cost to establish brand awareness, build a user base, and make the formerly expensive, scarce, and highly regulated item a ubiquitous presence in the culture.