Are electrons better than dead trees?

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african boy reading bible
What are some impediments to Bible and book distribution in the Majority World, including the Middle East?

  • Shortage of supply, possible import or government permission issues, and inadequate distribution channels.
  • Price: a Bible or NT, especially in a minority language, may well cost several weeks, even months, wages in poorer countries.
  • Even committed believers may well be unable to make the considerable financial sacrifice to source and own a Bible, especially one in their heart language. Not-yet-followers, who may be seekers or merely inquisitive, are highly unlikely to make such a commitment.

  • In some regions of the world (for which price may not be a major factor), expect considerable disapproval (or worse) if you are seen to own or read a paper Bible.
  • These factors also apply to study books and discipleship materials, as well as evangelistic and apologetic books written for outsiders. And if there is not a workable business plan to recoup development and printing costs, these discipleship materials may not even exist. In sheer economic terms, it may be impractical to publish a low print-run book in a niche area or language without considerable subsidy.

    Indeed, there is a shocking shortage of balanced culturally-appropriate discipleship materials in either accessible easy-English (for second-language speakers) or many other languages.

Let’s place these issues alongside the following facts:

  • Mobile phone use is growing exponentially in the Majority World. Even in the poorest African, Asian and S American countries, mobile penetration is high and growing. In the Middle East, China and richer Asian countries, smartphones are becoming the norm.
  • Smartphones (ie. those with touch-screens) and feature phones (cheaper button-operated phones with web access) have growing usage (in many countries outnumbering basic ‘dumb’ phones) and both are capable of downloading online Bibles and ebooks to be used on the phone in offline (ie. free zero-bandwidth) mode.
  • A feature phone may cost little more than a paper Bible, and smartphone prices will soon drop to approaching that cost. Even tablet prices are getting cheaper. Battery developments using the wonder-carbon graphene promise huge increases in battery life, very important for those who do not have mains electricity.
  • Reading a Bible or other Christian ebook on a mobile phone is a largely hidden activity, which can be done with considerable privacy if needed.
  • The marginal cost of distributing an electronic Bible or discipleship ebook is near to zero. Daily devotionals can also be distributed by email (or even Facebook group) at no cost.

    There is also the huge potential of audio Bibles and video teaching or evangelism, very helpful for non-literate people. There are already online audio Bibles available in over 600 languages, that can be streamed or downloaded to computers and mobiles.

  • There is no distribution chain and minimal ongoing administration.
  • In many cases, ebooks and Bibles, as well as audio and video downloads, can be passed ‘virally’ from phone to phone across existing relationships: example in India.

  • Mobile phones are already being used by some missions and training teams for distance learning, often integrated with other resources. One example is the mLearning Project in Africa.

  • There is a big need for portals to offer appropriate teaching and discipleship materials to pastors and leaders in the Majority World. Theology on the Web is one such library. And indeed a definitive portal for availability of online text and audio Bibles.

  • While it may be partially true that something given free is valued less than if it was paid for, price is a huge limitation to Bible and book distribution in the Majority World. You may not realise that even in the West, very few English-language Christian books achieve lifetime sales of more than 3000 copies, and that is right across the English-speaking world, where relatively rich Christians can order a book online in moments using a bank card. That is why I was so glad to be able to offer free ebooks during Digital Evangelism Month, because many were downloaded by people in countries where the books would have been virtually impossible to buy, and would in any case have been 10-30 times more expensive in real terms than for westerners.

The future is here

This is not the future, it is now. We must be ahead of the curve, not behind it. Again. The incredible free YouVersion online Bibles are already available in a growing range of languages. Their striking infographic below gives a sense of remarkable usage.

Please understand that I am not trying to ‘overclaim’ for digital media, or dismiss the role of paper Bibles and books – my own ministry also produces about 6 million copies a year of free evangelistic papers for Africa and Asia. I still love paper books and they will continue to have strategic value in the Majority World, especially in richer urban areas where there is easy availability, or in situations where subsidy is available for free or cheap distribution. But digital can leverage Kingdom distribution across the world in ways that are impossible for paper.

Note: Ebooks on mobile phones are just a small subset of the entire potential of mobiles, and in turn, mobiles are only a subset of the overall potential of digital media and the Web.

An urgent appeal

Missions, Bible agencies and translators, authors, book publishers, disciplers, please ask yourselves these questions:

  • Even if your paper-book strategy is more than covering costs, and without subsidy, do unit sales begin to meet the spiritual need in your country?

  • Can you consider a twin-track strategy, whereby digital distribution is free, while paper-book distribution continues where it is practical, for those who prefer it?

    Note that it is also technically easy to make free download offers on a website, which are only visible to selected countries. So, for example, theological books for pastors can remain pay-for in the West, but free for Africa and Asia, thereby becoming available to rural pastors who might never in their lifetimes be able to afford them. OK, there may be a bit of ‘leakage’ round the edges, but so what?

  • Will you actually lose anything by freeing up copyright so that, for example, YouVersion can distribute your Bible translation?
  • And for western readers, mission advocacy books are a very limited niche market segment. Lifetime paperback sales, whether self-published or publisher-distributed, can be in the range of 500-1000. Author royalties at this level are virtually zero. Which is better, continue with annual sales in double, maybe just treble figures, and boxes of unsold stock? Of give them free as PDF or ePub ebooks by the thousand? It is becoming easier to publish ebooks (learn more) and offer them free on your own website, or through a third party such as Lulu.com or even Amazon, perhaps with a print-on-demand option for people who prefer paper.
  • Do you fear a loss of control, a sense that you will not know how your materials are being used, or whether they are going? Sorry, that’s the digital world. We need to get used to it.

Please, these are urgent issues worthy of much research and group discussion. The world is changing as we speak. We must be like “…men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do…” (1 Chronicles 12:32) And please don’t feel threatened by these changes, but seize the opportunities God has given us.

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Photo credit: Celestial Photography/Flickr | Creative Commons Some Rights Reserved | Pictured: boy reading Bible during Bible study in Sierra Leone

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