To be sure, "bestseller" is not an altogether accurate term for books which were generally given away, and a pedant might point out that the most widely distributed title of all time is the Sears Roebuck Catalogue (circa 7 billion copies). When it comes to publishing, Mammon has thrashed both God and Mao.
Still, The Bible clearly has legs as a chart-topper, so it is quite surprising that it has taken so long for a publisher to wonder whether there might not be some innovative way of presenting it to the book-buying public, Christian or otherwise. Some way, that is, which by-passes the two most obvious obstacles that stand between the average late-20th-century reader and The Bible: (a) it is dauntingly long, and (b) if you read it on the bus, people will assume you are a fundamentalist or a nutter.
Solution to (a): chop it into its constituent books, most of which can be browsed in an hour or two. Solution to (b): strip away every last lingering intimation of happy-clappy, socks-and-sandals, acoustic-guitar-and-tambourine gaucheness; make it cool (but serious), sober (but chic).
You'd think one of the big publishing houses would have done it years ago. But they didn't, which left an enticing void in the market for an enterprising small publisher. That publisher is Canongate, an independent house based on Edinburgh's Royal Mile and run, for the past four years, by the eminently enterprising Jamie Byng. Next week sees the publication of the first 12 Pocket Canons: neat, portable, suave slices from the King James version.
"It started in December 1996," Byng explains, "with a phone call from a friend who has nothing to do with publishing, and had been looking around bookshops for one of the books of the Bible, and noticed that no general trade publisher seemed ever to have done them as individual books, and he was curious. Was there any reason why not? Was it too expensive? What did I think of it as an idea? And I said: `I think it's a great idea ....' And I immediately thought, what we have to do is commission introductions, get interesting writers of all kinds to offer ways into those particular books."
Byng duly contacted a dozen appropriate writers - mostly non-believers - and brought in a hot young designer, Angus Hyland. From next week, you will be able to walk into a bookshop, hand over a quid and receive an elegant, black-jacketed 144x108mm edition of Genesis (introduced by the biologist Steven Rose), or Revelations (Will Self), or Matthew (AN Wilson), Mark (Nick Cave), Luke (Richard Holloway, Bishop of Edinburgh), John (Blake Morrison), Job (Louis de Bernieres), Ecclesiastes (Doris Lessing)....
The response has already been far greater than even Byng anticipated. The Sunday Times in Scotland has bought 100,000 copies of Job to give away; the Spanish newspaper El Pais ran two full pages about the venture, and printed a translation of Nick Cave's essay on its review front; WH Smith and other chains are gearing up for a major pre-Christmas sales campaign, and Byng has sold the rights to the series to Germany, Spain, Greece, Italy, Australia and the United States, though some of the introductions in those countries will be written by local authors.
It's by far the biggest enterprise Canongate have ever taken on, and only a few years ago it would have been unthinkable. Founded in 1973, the company had specialised mainly in books on Scottish themes. It was well-respected, and achieved a couple of coups - Alasdair Gray's Lanark, Charles Palliser's The Quincunx - but had a rough time of it financially, and went into receivership in 1994. A management buy-out led to Byng's appointment as director. This was exceptionally rapid promotion: two years earlier, a graduate in English from Edinburgh University, Byng had been an unpaid dogsbody, helping with photocopying and mail-shots.
But he'd already shown a flair for marketing; it was a publicity stunt which won him a job at Canongate in the first place. "My wife and I were running a club called Chocolate City, and we'd advertise it by buying hundreds of mini-munchies from the Cash and Carry, then sit in the pub unwrapping them and re-wrapping them with our flier. I sent one of these off to Stephanie Scott Murray, who was running Canongate at the time, and she was particularly hungry that morning, so she called me in and we hit it off."
Before long, Byng had proved that he knew about books as well as advertising. He could talk persuasively to literary editors, and began to bring titles into the company. Put in charge of the ailing concern, he turned it around. Since October 1994, when Byng took over, the company has quadrupled its turnover, which this year is forecast at around pounds 2 million. More dramatically, Byng has transformed it into a house with an international profile, courted at the Frankfurt Book Fair, recognised from New York to Tokyo. For one of the forthcoming titles on the Autumn list, Dreamer, by the noted black novelist and academic Charles Johnson, Byng out-bid the likes of Faber and Picador.
Financial incentives aside, one of the reasons Johnson opted to be published by Canongate is that he looked at the company's back list and saw that it had reprinted books by the likes of Langston Hughes, Chester Himes, Gil Scott-Heron, Iceberg Slim and other black American authors - all published under one of the two subsidiary imprints Byng introduced. Payback. Byng had originally been inspired by these writers at university - "I did my dissertation on `The Development of the Black Oral Tradition and the Hip Hop Lyric'."
Byng's second innovation came in 1996, when he recruited Kevin Williamson, the co-editor of the underground magazine Rebel Inc (which had published early work by Irvine Welsh) to set up a Rebel Inc. imprint, to encourage new fiction and reprint "counter-cultural classics" - Richard Brautigan, Nelson Algren, Alexander Trocchi, Knut Hamsun et al. Byng's other great publishing coup of 1998 - a limited edition of Snowblind, Robert Sabbag's Rebel Inc classic about the cocaine trade, designed by Damien Hirst.
Copies aren't ready yet, but Byng gleefully shows me some of the component parts: a cover made of reinforced glass mirror; stainless steel mock-American Express cards, which will be fixed to a ribbon and used as a bookmark; the rolled hundred dollar bills that will be inserted into a die-cut hole in each text. They haven't even advertised it yet, but the orders are rolling in. If you fancy one, it will set you back the price of 1,000 Pocket Canons.
Projects like the Hirst Snowblind, Byng says, are the reason he loves Canongate and can never imagine leaving it for one of the big publishing houses, no matter the inducements. "I think editors at bigger publishing houses would have a really hard time making something like that happen, they just couldn't push it through because it's too off-the-wall and potentially too controversial, but that's not a problem for us. It's a real privilege to have that much freedom."
Byng's now busy commissioning the second set of Pocket Canons, due out for Easter 1999: "introducers" include Ruth Rendell on Romans, Alasdair Gray on Jonah, Marina Warner on Tobit ... and possibly A.N. Other rock star ("please don't publish his name") on Psalms. The series has called down the ire of one fundamentalist, who has tried, unsuccessfully, to have Canongate prosecuted for blasphemy, but Byng suspects that, unlike some of the Rebel Inc projects, there will be little condemnation or commination. "I imagine most Christians will welcome the series."
To which sentiments, amen.