The Gospel According To Stephen King?

The King James Bible, with celebrity intros, is getting hot press

The latest buzz in British book circles is an ancient text with all the trappings of a modern best-seller. Although copies have been in bookstores just one month, the publication has already garnered much press attention and the threat of a blasphemy charge. And it's coming to U.S. bookstores this spring.

The surprise hit? The Authorized King James Version of the Bible. Pocket-size editions of the Bible's individual books, introduced by celebrity writers, to be exact. Thanks to creative marketing that was masterminded by 29-year-old Jamie E. Byng, managing director of tiny Canongate Books Ltd., the "Pocket Canons" have gone back for a second print run in Britain, bringing the total copies in print to 900,000. The success of the series persuaded publishing heavyweights in 14 countries, including the U.S., Germany, and Japan, to snap up the rights quickly. "It's a remarkable project," says Morgan Entrekin, publisher of Grove/Atlantic Inc., the New York publishing company that will bring it out in the U.S. "I think it will get a tremendous amount of attention."

IMPULSE BUY. Not bad for a book that has been around for nearly 2,000 years--or for a 12-person Scottish publisher that was pulled out of bankruptcy four years ago. Canongate's flash of insight was to take the 400-year-old translation and package it in secular marketing garb--from snazzy promotional displays to arresting cover art and high-profile media events--usually reserved for novels. Canongate broke the Bible into its 66 books and produced 12 of them in slim paperbacks. In Britain, where they were launched on Oct. 1, they cost just one pound ($1.70) each--designed to draw impulse buyers. The publisher added striking black-and-white cover art and arranged the text in prose, modernizing the format of the verses.

But what really sets the Pocket Canons apart are the prefaces, penned by a wide range of thinkers and celebrities--Australian rock star Nick Cave on Mark, feminist writer Doris Lessing on Ecclesiastes, and atheist and evolutionist Steven Rose on Genesis. Revelation is introduced by British bad-boy author Will Self, whose exploits include getting caught snorting heroin on a campaign trip for former Prime Minister John Major last year. Self describes Revelation as a "sick text" that appeals to nut cases. It's the best-seller of the series. Even more controversial are novelist Louis de Bernieres' views on Job. The author of British best-seller Captain Corelli's Mandolin, a dark comedy, refers to God as a "sarcastic megalomaniac" and a "frivolous trickster."

Byng insists he didn't set out to generate controversy. But he knew he had to do something to bring in a general audience, not just those drawn to religious books. "We wanted to make people look at the Bible with fresh eyes," he says. And he admits the ruckus over the incendiary intros has been "totally welcome." Indeed, they have helped Canongate stretch a $3,500 advertising budget into a literary happening. Byng, the son of the Earl of Strafford and stepson of BBC Chairman Sir Christopher Bland, built a marketing campaign around the celebrity presenters. It included readings on the BBC, serializations in national newspapers, and a CD featuring several of the introducers reading from their works.

Just as important, the intros have set off a storm of protest from those who prefer their scripture traditional. Religious booksellers and activists have tried to block publication, and at least one threatened to sue for blasphemy. Paul J. Slennett, a wholesaler who owns three religious bookshops and heads the evangelical charity Jesus Is Alive! Ministries was so "horrified" by the introductions that he wrote protest letters to 18,500 clergymen, as well as to the Scottish Bible Board, which had licensed Canongate to reprint the King James version.

CANON FODDER. The campaign to suppress the Pocket Canons didn't work, but it did generate widespread press coverage. Mainstream booksellers say their customers began asking for the books months before publication. Prospects look bright for Christmas. Several big retailers are planning to feature the Pocket Canons in December. Others will place all 12 books near sales registers--as last-minute stocking-stuffers. "This level of interest in a religious book is extremely rare," says Martin A. Jenkins, until recently a buyer at Waterstones on London's Charing Cross Road, the heart of book country. The Pocket Canons "are broadening the market for Bible purchasing."

Will that happen worldwide? The U.S. will be the series' next proving ground. Grove/Atlantic, the publisher of last year's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Cold Mountain, bought the U.S. rights for an undisclosed amount. Sales reps will be pitching the Pocket Canons to bookstore chains this month. Grove is commissioning several new introductions by American writers--as yet undisclosed. About half of the British prefaces will stay. "It's going to be interesting to see how the Religious Right reacts," Entrekin says. "I hope they appreciate it as a celebration of this glorious text."

Given the fracas so far, that's unlikely. But as in Britain, publishing experts in the U.S. think a little heat will draw general readers--particularly given the interest in spiritual texts such as The Celestine Prophesy. "They'll be getting the market that is curious but at the same time wants to thumb its nose at the Establishment," says Constance Sayre, director of Market Partners International Inc., New York publishing consultants.

Meanwhile, tiny Canongate is pressing ahead. Twelve more books are scheduled for release next year. So far, the biggest name among the preface writers is Bono, lead singer of musical group U2. The Irish rock star, better known for packing stadiums than pondering the nature of God, will give his interpretation of The Book of Psalms. Can Oprah on Lamentations be far behind?