Alabaster is updating the centuries-old religious text for the Instagram age. Hundreds of other books are ready for their own hip makeovers.
5 Minute Read
What you need to know: Inspired by faith and minimalist design, a pair of Christian millennials launched Alabaster, a photography-focused Bible publishing company. Early investment capital came from Daniel Fong, founder of $70m furniture business Million Dollar Baby.
How to capitalize: Other religious texts are ripe for redesigns that blend ancient wisdom, modern aesthetics, and cultural relevance. And don’t sleep on secular classics with wide fan bases: 2019 saw a huge set of creative works enter the public domain for the first time in 20 years, including hits by heavyweights Willa Cather, Anton Chekov, and Rudyard Kipling. That means anyone can turn a profit on those creative properties with the right approach.
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The Bible is available in hundreds of world languages and English translations. But until recently, one tongue was missing: Millennial.
Buddies Brian Chung and Bryan Ye-Chung set out to change that in 2017 by printing single books (or chapters) of the Bible illustrated with photographs they hoped would appeal to their Gen Y peers.
Design was key to their vision. Alabaster’s beautiful-but-eerie, minimalist aesthetic is instantly recognizable from hipster magazines, such as Kinfolk, and the brands that borrow their vibe, like luggage-maker Away.
“Living in a more visually-centric generation, we judge a company by how their website looks,” Chung says. “We were interested in exploring that in a faith-based context.”
Alabaster’s minimalist aesthetic mirrors the style of Kinfolk magazine (photo via Brian Chung)
He and Ye-Chung got their project off the ground by raising $62k via Kickstarter. Then, they met an angel.
Ahem — angel investor.
At their Los Angeles launch party, Chung and Ye-Chung sold all the books they brought, not learning until later that “unapologetically Christian” venture capitalist Daniel Fong had purchased every copy. Fong started mentoring the pair, drawing on his experience as founder of crib company Million Dollar Baby, which was worth $70m in 2017, according to Inc. Magazine.
By the end of 2018, Fong offered to invest in Alabaster if Chung and Ye-Chung were willing to pursue the project full time. They agreed. That year, the company sold more than 10k books and made $318k.
Alabaster’s story is a parable about how modern design and creative rebranding can transform even a traditional text into a hip product. Let’s take a look at why the religious book market holds promise for entrepreneurial believers.
- Revenue from religious presses in rose 4.5% in 2018 over 2017, according to the Association of American Publishers, with revenue from religious hardback books and ebooks leading the way (sales from paperback books dropped).
Chart from the Association of American Publishers
- Revenue from religious presses was up nearly 21% in the first two months of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018. Sales growth in this segment far outpaced that of adult, young adult and children’s books.
Chart from the Association of American Publishers
- New Christian books are selling faster at mainstream retail outlets than at Christian stores, according to the Christian Retail 2018 Year in Review report by The Parable Group.
- At Christian outlets, Bibles account for 20% of market share by dollars and other books account for 38%.
Chart from the Christian Retail 2018 Year in Review report by The Parable Group
The Bible is not only the best-selling book of all time — The New Yorker reports it’s the best-selling book of the year, every year.
“At the heart of the modern Bible-publishing industry” is the idea “that Scripture can be repackaged to meet the demands of an increasingly segmented market,” according to the magazine’s 2006 analysis.
Indeed, Bibles are available for many niche audiences: kids, scholars, firefighters, recovering addicts, golfers. So who might buy Alabaster’s modern take on the illuminated manuscript? The company’s founders envision their volumes as coffee table conversation-starters for young Christians interested in design.
That’s a potential audience of more than 50 million people in the US alone, since 70% of Americans identify as Christian and 23% of Christians are miillennials, according to Pew Research Center.
Statistics also suggest there may be a significant appetite for texts that feed the soul: 45% of U.S. Christians report that they read scripture at least once a week.
Surveying the Competition
Alabaster is not the only company targeting a young, artsy crowd. For example, Zondervan sells a New International Version Artisan Collection Bible whose hand-painted cover and shimmery foil details look nearly indistinguishable from cards sold by popular secular brands Anthropologie and Minted.
Many complete Bibles run between $10 and $20 on Amazon. The Artisan Collection goes for $35 to $50. But Alabaster charges by the chapter, selling soft covers for up to $35 and hard covers for $70. The four gospels package will set you back a Benjamin.
The founders think the books’ quality justifies their cost. Traditional Bibles have delicate, translucent pages (called scritta paper), but Alabaster’s books are bound reams of thicker paper printed by the same Canadian company that prints Kinfolk.
“We wanted our Bibles to feel like art books,” Chung says.
Christian brands tend to be wholesome, earnest and, well, “cheesy,” Chung says. Alabaster strives for a different vibe. The company uses social media to market — evangelize? — books in posts that look and feel native to each platform. And they run an influencer program that provides books for reviews and giveaways to applicants who have a minimum number of followers.
The founders view their company’s social outreach as a form of customer service.
“In the Christian publishing space, there are not many direct-to-consumer brands that engage and talk to the actual customers,” Chung says.
Barriers to Entry
Alabaster’s founders were surprised to realize that not all Bible translations are in the public domain. Luckily, they found a willing partner in Tyndale Publishing, which holds the copyrights to their preferred New Living Translation.
“We wanted a modern translation because it felt more true to the type of product we’re making,” Ye-Chung says.
Not everyone is going to be a fan of a religious brand, of course. But that hasn’t dampened spirits too deeply at Alabaster.
“There are some people who have had a negative experience with Christianity, people who have been hurt by the church,” Chung says. “One of our main visions is to show a bigger picture of God who is good and beautiful. We’re really trying to bring healing to people who have been hurt, by what we produce and how we treat customers.”
From the Bhagavad Gita to the Talmud, there are plenty of religious books from other faith traditions ripe for redesigns, especially ones that reflect shifting societal sensibilities. Or, you know, simply look cooler.
“Every generation demands its own prayer book,” Rabbi Hara Person told Crain’s New York Business in 2018.
While Alabaster has mostly sold to individuals, it does offer wholesale pricing. Many congregations are in the market for bulk orders of updated books, according to the Crain’s report.
Endorsements from popular pastors can also lead to high demand for particular titles. For example, thousands of Christian congregations participated in a marketing campaign to drive sales of “The Purpose-Driven Life,” written by California megachurch pastor Rick Warren, The New York Times reported in 2004. It’s gone on to sell more than 34 million copies, according to publisher Zondervan, and it’s available in more than 70 languages.
For a more secular option, consider publishing a fresh, artsy version of one of the hundreds of thousands of creative works that entered the public domain in 2019 — the first batch to become available in two decades. Millennial bookworms may be interested in modern takes on classics written by the likes of Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, and Aldous Huxley. Check out this list of works newly available for public use created by Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain.
When producing a faith-based product, however, authenticity matters enormously, Alabaster’s founders say. Avoid thoughtlessly slapping an Instagram filter on a cherished spiritual guide.
“Tell a good story that really feels true to who you are,” Ye-Chung advises. “For us, it was always about creativity and faith. That hasn’t changed since day one.”
They also believe that religious products should adhere to the same high standards as secular counterparts.
Don’t use “your faith as an excuse to put out a subpar experience,” Chung says. “We want to be judged like any design product out there, Christian or not.”