May 2, 2012

The beginnings of Tyndale House

The beginnings of Tyndale House were audacious -- even beyond audacious. The start of the publishing firm was so implausible, it's success springing from a kind of obviously crazy idea, and yet it has been so successful, it calls for some sort of explanation.

The Christian publishing house is, today,  the third largest Christian publisher in the United States, with nearly 10 percent of the Christian market. Tyndale published such pivotal and important evangelical books as Left Behind, and Tim LaHaye non-fiction, James Dobson's bestseller, Dare to Discipline, and Josh McDowell's More than a Carpenter, as well as more recent successes such as the best-selling memoir of Indianapolis Colts' coach Tony Dungy, and an account of missionaries held hostage in the Philippine jungle, In the Presence of My Enemies, which sold 200,000 copies in hardcover.

The company is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, with events starting May 3. 

Fifty years ago, this was a kitchen table operation, by one 45-year-old man, the author of a children's picture Bible who had a degree in zoology, a bit of experience on the distribution side of publishing, and a manuscript he couldn't get published.

Kenneth N. Taylor's initial idea -- rejected multiple times by established publishers -- was to rewrite the Bible into everyday American English. Not re-translate, rewrite. As Christianity Today noted in 1979, scholars were skeptical of the proposition. 

Kenneth N. Taylor, left, on a Christian TV talk show in the late '70s.
Protestants, at this time, could choose between the long-established King James Version of the Bible, with its beautiful but archaic language, or the American Standard Bible, published first in 1901, which also used Elizabethan English and was never widely popular but was academically respected, or the Revised Standard Version, published in 1952. The Revised Standard Version did away with the archaic pronouns and verbs ("thee" and "thou," "hast" and "didst," etc.), and achieved some popularity. It was widely in use in the 1960s, though some conservative Christians opposed it because of a controversy about the translation of Isaiah 7:14.

Taylor's proposal for a new version was crazy, then, for three reasons:

First, there already was a readable, contemporary English version of the Bible, and it was selling. A new version was published in 1962. Those who didn't like it weren't calling for a more contemporary, re-updated version, but a return to the KJV. There wasn't any apparent evidence that the market would bear another publication of the Bible.

Second, the controversies about the various versions of the Bible were all about translation and accuracy, and Taylor was proposing a new version that wasn't a translation at all. He wanted to paraphrase the Bible. This would mean that, when it came to controversial passages, his choices of wording and phrasing would be based in his theology and what his theology said the verses ought to say, with no defense, no argument about original languages, or manuscripts, or any of the things that would guide an actual translator.

Third, he proposed to do this on his own, and on his own authority. He'd have no supervising committee, no panel of scholars, no research team, no institutional affiliation that would act to authorize the project. Taylor wasn't, by anybody's standards, even his own, a Bible expert. He had some theological training, but no degree. He wasn't a specialist. This was something he did on the train during his morning commute. The publishers asked the obvious question, which was obviously also going to be the first question any pastor, any potential purchaser was going to ask: who are you?

But Taylor went ahead.

He rewrote the Bible, finishing the New Testament epistles after seven years in 1961. He used his savings, a loan, and a friendship with a printer to publish 2,000 copies of Living Letters in 1962.

That year, Taylor got his new publishing company a display booth at the Christian Booksellers Association convention, the decade-old trade association with offices at Moody Press, where Taylor had worked before quitting for this new venture. The CBA at that point represented more than 800 Christian retail stores. This was where he had to go if he was going to convince stores to carry his book, which was, really, the only conceivable way it would be sold.

But pretty much nothing happened, and one would expect the story to end at this point: a vanity project by an amateur who wouldn't listen when people told him this was a bad idea. Initial sales of Living Letters are described as "patchy," "a trickle," and "slow."

Then, in 1963, Taylor and Tyndale House got their break. Billy Graham was looking for something to send to people who called in, in response to his TV specials. Graham needed something that was simple enough to be suitable to those who had no religious background, which would be cheap to produce and easy to mail, and would serve, too, to establish a measurable result for the broadcasts. He contacted Taylor, and they agreed to print a special paperback edition of Living Letters, which Graham's organization paid for and distributed free of charge. More than a million copies were reportedly given away by Graham's organization.

Perhaps more importantly, Graham's connection with the paraphrase served to authorize it. His endorsement legitimated the need for a new, easy-to-read paraphrase of the scripture, served in the stead of scholarly or institutional approval, acted as guarantee of it's orthodoxy, and made it acceptable.

When The Living Bible was published in '71, Taylor was able to convince Christian retailers to carry it, and also managed to get the book stocked in major retail stores, such as J.C. Penny and K-Mart. The book was a best-seller in 1972, '73, and '74, at which point Publisher's Weekly changed its rules, so Bibles no longer qualified for the bestseller list. The 28 millionth copy was presented to Ronald Reagan in 1983.

The connection with Graham established Tyndale House a player in Christian publishing, and Taylor quickly established contacts with other significant evangelical leaders, publishing their books and, in turn, establishing the company. The company published the Spanish-language version of David Wilkerson's The Cross and the Switchblade in 1965. It published LaHaye for the first time in 1966. In 1971, the same year The Living Bible came out, Tyndale published Dare to Discipline, which was a bestseller in '73, '74 and '75, and established Tyndale's relationship with Dobson and Dobson's very influential Focus on the Family.

By the end of the 20th century, the company, now run by Taylor's son Mark D. Taylor, was in a new building in Carol Stream, Ill., publishing more than 100 titles year, including the Left Behind mega-hits, with an estimated annual revenue in excess of $100 million.

This success is wild. It's implausible, and depends on connections and timing that could not have been predicted. There are apparent accidents -- Taylor, I'm sure, attributed them to God -- that change everything. It all seems to depend on such minor contingencies as to be difficult to account for with any more detail than that. Had Graham not been looking for something to give away via his televised crusades, or had come up with this idea several years earlier or later, Tyndale House would have most likely folded. If Graham hadn't had someone place Living Letters in his hands, he probably wouldn't have connected with Taylor. If Taylor hadn't had his savings, or had given up when publishers rejected his project, or hadn't known a printer who would print his book on credit, etc., etc., etc.

But, be it accident, or divine, or divine accident, there are some broader contexts to this success. They don't turn all the contingencies into necessities, but do go some way towards accounting for what happened.

The first was distribution. Taylor, having worked on this end of the publishing business for Moody, understood how the Christian publishing distribution system worked in the early '60s, and its limitations. He started trying to sell Living Letters at CBA, and did, later, sell lots of product through CBA-affiliated stores, but he always was open to and interested in alternative means. First with Graham, obviously, but also, importantly, by leveraging that success to get his book distributed by non-Christian, non-bookseller outlets. This became a major avenue for success for him and, later, for Christian publishers more generally. Paperback novels had been sold in American drug stores for decades and in and supermarkets since 1954, but Taylor saw that model could be adapted for religious publications as well. By the 1990s, everyone in Christian publishing would be trying to do this, and sales at stores like Wal-Mart resulted in the boom of Christian publishing, making it possible for The Prayer of Jabez, Purpose Driven Life, and Left Behind to saturate the American market and have the kind of cultural impact they did.

The second was the emergence of "neo-evangelicals," a group Tyndale House both served and helped to form. American Protestantism had been very viciously divided against itself in the 1920s and '30s, with the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies. By the mid-'50s, though, many who agreed with the doctrinal positions "The Fundamentals" were weary of the fighting, the aggression, and the emphasis on what appeared to be arcana irrelevant to the everyday. With the post-war expansion of the middle class, and evangelicals' long-standing anti-elitist, "common folk" tendencies, there was a real opening and real potential for a friendly, folksy, cooperative non-confrontational form of evangelicalism. Graham embodied this perfectly, as did Dobson at Focus on the Family. Tyndale House, like Christianity Today, began at exactly the right moment to capitalize on that opening, create it, in a sense, and shape it in to something.

For evangelicals in the 1970s, buying from Tyndale House was a way to align themselves with a conservative, traditionalist evangelicalism while distancing themselves from the less socially acceptable forms of the same. Buying The Living Bible meant you were a certain sort of person: you were concerned about cultural relevance, and being contemporary, but hadn't abandoned the gospel in a fit of cultural adaptation. This was the space Tyndale helped create with it's books. It was the hallmark of Christian consumer culture throughout the '70s and '80s and a lot of the '90s, and Tyndale House helped to make this kind of evangelicalism possible, which is part of the context of its success.

And it's been quite a success. Tyndale's a major institution of American evangelicalism, today, being celebrated in parades only 50 years after it was implausibly begun in the Taylor's dining room.