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Ask McArdle: What's the best-selling version of the Bible?

Some newer editions may sell more, but the good old King James version is still the one to beat

Bible being held in the air

(Eric Thayer/Getty)

If the Bible is the bestselling book of all time, what’s the most popular version?

Ask McArdle badgeDuring my teenage years, the educational institution I inhabited compelled students to spend half an hour each day in silent holiness. Fortunately, my cumbersome family-edition New International Version (NIV) Bible was large enough to conceal a succession of magazines, the contents of which would have made a preacher blush.

It turns out I was in good company. The NIV tops the rankings on YouVersion, a Bible e-book app for digital denizens. It has been downloaded some 170 million times, according to Doug Lockhart, senior vice-president of bible marketing and outreach at HarperCollins Christian Publishing. Lockhart should know: His company’s two major trade imprints, Zondervan and Thomas Nelson, produce more than half the Bibles sold in North America each year. While it’s true that the Bible and the Qur’an are among the bestselling books of all time, centuries of revisions and publishers make it difficult to accurately track sales figures, so they are regularly left off bestseller lists. One estimate puts the number of Bibles printed at more than six billion.

But here’s a funny twist: When it comes to actually reading the Good Book, sacrosancticity seekers ignore the newfangled NIV (first issued in 1978) in favour of the King James Version (né 1611). While the NIV is the genre’s sales champion, 55% of Americans peruse the King James variant against just 19% for the newer translation, according to the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. These days, I prefer my scripture to get to the point a little quicker. I’ve been enjoying The Word on the Street, a 2003 translation that casts the Big Guy as a Hollywood auteur with a taste for sweeping gestures. And it starts with a bang: “First off, nothing. No substance, no matter. Second off, God starts it all up and WHAP! Stuff everywhere!”

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