The price of Bibles

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Bibles and the trade war between the United States and China.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: President Trump recently proposed a 25 percent tariff on most Chinese-made consumer goods. That affects about $200 billion dollars of products, everything from electronics to leather handbags. It also covers many paper products, including those printed on very thin paper, like Bibles. Publishers estimate 75 percent of the cost of producing a Bible originates in China.

WORLD correspondent Katie Gaultney joins us now to talk about it.

Katie, this makes me think of that scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where there’s a run on the bank. Should we expect to see a “run on Christian bookstores” as people worry Bibles will get more expensive?

KATIE GAULTNEY, GUEST: [Laughs] I don’t know if we need to go that far, but then again I guess if we’re going to run out and buy something, better a Bible than one of those leather purses you mentioned!

REICHARD: So, just making sure I’ve got this straight—You’re telling me a lot of Bibles are printed in a country where the distribution of Bibles is restricted?

GAULTNEY: It’s a sad irony, yes. In fact, well over half of the world’s Bibles are printed in China.

REICHARD: Why is that?

GAULTNEY: Well, the process of printing on Bible paper is highly specialized and requires different equipment than what’s used in the printing of most books. Years ago—I’m talking many decades ago—those operations were moved primarily to China, where the cost of materials, equipment and labor is lower. Now there are a small handful of Bible printing companies outside of China—in South Korea, Eastern Europe.

REICHARD: But what about the United States.? Aren’t there any printhouses here that could capitalize on this opportunity? With this talk of a potential shortage of Bibles, maybe that’ll be a chance to buy American-made Bibles instead, even if it costs a little more?

GAULTNEY: Unfortunately, that’s unlikely. None of the major domestic digital print houses have the capability to print on thin Bible paper. Think about it this way: Just the text of the average Bible adds up to more than 800,000 words. That’s 10 times more than most books. If you have a study Bible, it’s probably well over 2 million words. Bible paper is especially thin, but its thinness means it can’t handle traditional printing techniques. And there are maps and complex illustrations, too. The inserts and covers also get a different treatment than other books. Unless U.S.-based print shops decide to start printing the Bible in multi-volume sets, on “normal” paper—and I’m not suggesting they should—it’s just not really feasible to print Bibles here.

REICHARD: Not to belabor the point, but do you anticipate that they could bring that kind of equipment back to the States though, to print normal Bibles in the U.S.?

GAULTNEY: Well, I wondered that, too, so I contacted HarperCollins Christian Publishing. That’s the parent company of two leading Bible sellers, Zondervan and Thomas Nelson. They sent me a copy of a letter their CEO sent to U.S. Trade Ambassador Robert Lighthizer about this issue. In it, he wrote that it just doesn’t make sense to print Bibles domestically. He said—and I’m quoting here—“the imposition of the proposed tariffs will not foster the development of such facilities in the U.S. because the costs and risks are too great.” He said it would take many years of employee training to be able to print using those specialized processes—not to mention the cost of the equipment. And even then, he said costs in the U.S. would still be substantially higher than they are right now in China.

REICHARD: So, what then? The cost of Bibles just goes up if the tariffs are implemented? Or do all Bibles suddenly become collector’s items?

GAULTNEY: Well in the Gaultney household, we’ve got a total of about two-dozen Bibles, so I have a hunch we’ll be okay. [Laughs] Not to mention, I notice so many people seem to read their Bibles on their phones now. To your point though, yes, publishers may have to charge higher prices for the Bibles they import. HarperCollins Christian Publishing said imposing tariffs on books and Bibles would—quoting again here from that letter—“seriously and disproportionately damage our business and our customers.” The CEO said he doesn’t believe the administration intended to impose a “Bible Tax” on consumers and religious organizations, but that’s effectively what would happen if the tariffs go into effect. The company has asked the president to exempt books and related materials from trade restrictions. From a policy standpoint, the U.S. has long done just that.

REICHARD: I assume Bibles aren’t the only type of book affected by the trade war?

GAULTNEY: Right. Another category that has moved almost entirely to China is four-color children’s books. They’d take a huge hit too. So secular publishing industry execs have joined that effort to exempt a few categories of China-printed texts from this proposed tariff. Things like religious texts, encyclopedias, dictionaries, children’s books, and coloring books. U.S. Trade officials convened a hearing in mid-June to talk about the proposed paper tariffs. One publishing industry executive testified that this would force a lot of independent booksellers to close up shop, since they already operate on the thinnest of margins. No word yet on the administration’s response to the testimony at the hearing.

REICHARD: Katie Gaultney is a WORLD correspondent based in Dallas. Katie, thanks for this report.

GAULTNEY: You’re welcome, Mary.

REICHARD: Hey, you know what, Katie? Let’s let George Bailey have the last word here:

BAILEY: Now, just remember that this thing isn’t as black as it appears…

(AP Photo/Marta Lavandier) In this July 5, 2019 Bibles are displayed in Miami.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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