What the Success of Bibliotheca Tells Us About the Future of Publishing

I’m not sure if you noticed, but something amazing just happened in the world of publishing. And I think it’s a sign we all could benefit from noticing.

When book designer Adam Lewis Greene decided to create a better Bible, he didn’t do it the way most publishers do. He didn’t commission a new translation. He didn’t cram a new volume with more maps, study tools, sidebars, footnotes, or anything like it.

Instead, he took a public domain translation, tweaked it for modern readers, and removed practically everything but the text itself. No notes, no chapter numbers, no scripture verses. Just the text.

But Greene didn’t want to reduce. He wanted to refine. He started by questioning our received wisdom about including all the Bible’s text in one volume. Instead, he divided it in four volumes for greater readability. He also created a brand-new typeface, so the words could be presented simply and read easily.

These moves were focused on the reader. What would they get from the experience? Could it be improved over what’s available now? Greene answered yes—and it turns out that people agree.

He launched his project, Bibliotheca, on Kickstarter, hoping to raise enough money to cover several hundred sets of his new Bible, but instead of the minimum $37,000, he raised over $1.4 million. The campaign closed yesterday.

Stop and think about that. An offbeat Bible project became the No. 3 most popular project across all of Kickstarter.

Greene didn’t do it on his own. Media noticed the novelty of it and rushed to cover the story. I read about it in the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post. The Independent, the Verge, World, and others also covered it.

In all, more than 14,000 people backed his project—including me. Why?

As the former head of a major publishing company, a company famous for its Bibles, I think Greene’s Bibliotheca project communicates four vital truths about succeeding in the business of ideas, and anyone looking to create compelling products cannot afford to miss them:

  1. User experience is foundational. The Internet has changed the way we use reference and study materials. There is no way a print product can compete with the utility provided by the best in digital resources. So instead Greene competed where he could—creating an engaging reading experience.

    From the new typeface to the layout and materials, no digital product can beat Greene’s product. It’s hands down a superior reading experience.

  2. Felt needs drive success. What’s genius about Bibliotheca is it addresses the unstated felt need of countless people: I want to read the Bible, but I find it boring and difficult.

    Bibliotheca essentially tells readers, “It’s okay. The problem isn’t you. It’s the way the Bible is presented. If you really want to read the Bible, we can make it easy.” If entrepreneurs can address the real underlying need like Greene, they can win. If not, they’ll just create products without customers.

  3. Elegance is always right. When Steve Jobs gave us the the iPod, he was answering the felt need. Like Greene it’s not one most consumers could have voiced, but when they saw it, they knew. It’s the way he did it that matters here. The iPod was beautiful.

    The reality is that consumers crave more than utility. They crave elegance—even beauty. Virginia Postrel calls this the substance of style. Greene’s Bibliotheca has that substance. It’s designed for enjoyment, for delight. And people who care about the Bible want to enjoy it, not just study it.

  4. Visionaries can (and should) lead. What Greene did is unthinkable in the corporate publishing world. It’s obvious now that he’s done it, but with cash on the line, publishers would be very hesitant to back a public-domain Bible, broken into multiple volumes, with none of the value-adds they’ve decided are essential.

    I’m not taking a swipe at the trade. I just know how it works. But it needs to change if it’s going to survive, especially in the ongoing wake of the digital revolution.

    Greene knew the first three things I’ve listed. Sometimes publishers forget them. As J. Mark Bertrand says, publishers need to be willing to follow those in their organizations who see it and know how to move forward based on these considerations. If they don’t, they’ll shrink to insignificance as others figure out how to replace them.

This one event won’t change the industry. But it does tell us what’s wrong with many industries.

Conservative gatekeepers keep creative visionaries from producing products consumers want. The only solution in many cases is for those visionaries to go directly to the consumers, just like Adam Lewis Greene did.

Thankfully, technology has made that possible. But it would be better for major organizations if they could tap the talents of people like Greene rather than lose ground to them.

Question: Is there a product that you think should become a reality you can’t get past the gatekeepers in your industry? What could you do today to get closer to releasing it on your own?

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