The ESV vs. HCSB debate continues

Posted: 27th November 2007 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

I’ve just come across a series of posts by Will at a blog titled Anwoth that echo comments I’ve made regarding the ESV and HCSB translations. Be sure to read the comments of each one for additional insight and discussion.

You might think from some of those post titles that Will is an ESV fan, but he’s not. Quite the opposite, actually. However, he’s correctly (in my opinion) identified three key issues that will factor in which translation will likely emerge as the new modern functional translation standard: 1. endorsements, 2. marketing and 3. market lead time.

esvlogosmall.gifThe ESV had a three-year head start on the HCSB in the marketplace and was able to garner the endorsements from most major conservative evangelical figureheads. The ESV’s publisher, Crossway Bibles, has been extremely savvy in marketing these endorsements and positioning the ESV as the new standard to be carried by the evangelical flock. Be sure to read Will’s “Three Reasons…” post for a fuller discussion of the endorsements.

In contrast, the HCSB’s publisher, Lifeway/B&H, has struggled to market the HCSB beyond the reach of the Southern Baptist Convention, which owns Lifeway. Certainly here in Minnesota, the HCSB is rarely seen. There are a few copies of the Illustrated Study Bible and the new Apologetics Study Bible in Christian bookstores, but everyday HCSBs are rarely seen, even in secular bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble. Then again, outside of Utah, Minnesota reportedly has the lowest per capita population of Baptists…

hcsb.jpgRegarding HCSB marketing, my first suggestion would be to drop the “H”. Holman does not own the Bible. It’s presumptive to attach their name to God’s holy word. Certainly we don’t see the Crossway Standard Version (ESV) or the Zondervan International Version (NIV) or the Lockman Standard Bible (NASB). Even the King James Version was known as the “Authorized Version” in its heyday, though we rarely use this designation anymore, perhaps because “King James” is a complete abstraction to us in the 21st century (unless we’re talking about NBA basketball).

When you’re late to the market, it can be tough to carve out a niche. The ESV was timed perfectly to take advantage of the conservative backlash against the TNIV and has been acclaimed as providing “unquestionable accuracy” and “the majesty of language with the clarity of thought”, while the HCSB is frequently referred to “yet another translation”. In the consumer retail world, “me too” products survive on knock-off features, lower price points or innovating themselves around the competition (and thus ceasing to be “me too” products). I don’t know if any of these are really a viable option in the world of publishing.

The realistic conclusion is that the ESV will be a significant force in the conservative evangelical market, along with the venerable NIV. Despite recent evidence of increased sales, I think that the HCSB will be accepted, along with the TNIV, as a notable translation, but ultimately marginalized and not accepted beyond a core audience.

  1. mguthrie says:

    El Shaddai,
    I would have to say I completely agree with your assessment as that is the one I have come to as well. I spent a lot of time bouncing between translations (still doing so actually) trying to find the “perfect” one for me and I kept going back to the HCSB for quite awhile.

    But there were a few things that continued to nag at me with the HCSB:

    1. The name… it’s ridiculous.
    2. The marketing in the introduction of the Bible comes across as extremely arrogant to me. Stating that your bible translation is going to be a standard for years to come seems a little over the top to me. Standards are recognized, not invented.
    3. No marketing outside of SBC. I find this one the most frustrating as I really do enjoy the HCSB and I am not a Baptist. Unless somebody does a little research or is in SBC circles they are not going to pick the HCSB right off the bat.
    4. The B&H website on the HCSB has broken links and is not very easy to navigate. It looks like its been abandoned. Furthermore, emails sent to B&H regarding the HCSB don’t always get a reply. Crossway on the other hand seems to be amazingly fast when I’ve contacted them.

    I really wanted to see the HCSB make it but based off of what I’ve noticed so far B&H is just going to sit by and be content to keep it the Baptist Bible. I don’t really get why a company would spend $10 million dollars to create a translation then sit on it until it dies. Reminds me of Novell in that sense… good product. Horrible marketing.

    I don’t feel the ESV is the greatest translation in the world, it’s hardly innovative but what it does have going for it makes me keep it on my desk… Crossway and others are really behind it. Many of the teachers I follow are using it from the pulpit… it’s in every piece of free bible study software … it’s the most technologically available and it’s familiar (from it’s KJV roots). Even though it’s not my favorite translation I would be willing to use the ESV as my main Bible because at least I know it’s going to be around in another 10 years.

    Anyways, that is my two cents. I understand your frustrations.


  2. Thanks for the thoughts, Mitch. I wish I could say that I’m shocked more Bible publishers haven’t embraced the Web as a forum for product information and online community/discussion, but I’m not. Crossway’s use of blogs and viral marketing is outstanding – it seems every other blog I visit has an ESV badge or scripture search tool on it. You’re right – Crossway’s full support of the ESV is/will be a huge factor in its success.

  3. R. Mansfield says:

    Actually, now that I think about it, #3 is a bit flawed. For the first two years of its existence, the HCSB hovered right around #5, due in part to a big push among Southern Baptist to read through the new translation in a year soon after it was released. That led to a wave of purchases for regular editions which maintained sales for a while. Then overnight, the HCSB dropped off the CBA list for quite a while, although it’s back now. In the meantime, the ESV didn’t show up on the list until late 2005 or early 2006, well after the HCSB was already established on the list. But my hunch is that the ESV is growing while the HCSB is plateaued.

  4. In the meantime, the ESV didn’t show up on the list until late 2005 or early 2006, well after the HCSB was already established on the list. But my hunch is that the ESV is growing while the HCSB is plateaued.

    Thanks for the clarification, Rick. It would be interesting to chart the ESV numbers against endorsement activity – it does seem that there’s been an explosion of ESV online activity in the last year and I don’t know what to attribute that to since I don’t regularly listen to or read evangelical media.

  5. Matt Steele in the Hour of Chaos says:

    Realize why the SBC came up with the HCSB in the first place: they were paying out a ton of money to Zondervan to use the NIV in their Sunday school materials. Coming up with their own translation allowed them to own it and stop paying for the NIV for Sunday school quarterlies. It is immaterial if the ESV outsells the HCSB. The SBC has already accomplished what they wanted to do.

  6. Alex says:

    #3 is a too flawed I think.

  7. […] done as it freed me to consider other translations.  It was through blogging that I came across ElShaddai Edwards’s, and Rick Mansfield’s blog and a few others that they actually had some great things to say […]