Ken Taylor: Pioneer Christian Indie Publisher
Self-publishing is not new in the Christian world. A person with a book published it, and then often began publishing books for other Christian authors. They progressed from self-publisher to Indie publisher. On some occasions, Indie publishers grew into large companies with worldwide influence. This pattern is seen in the life and work of Kenneth N. Taylor.
Starting in the late 1950s, Kenneth N. Taylor was dealing with a problem. He was trying to teach the Bible to his ever-growing brood of children. He and his wife Margaret eventually had ten children. It was a personal concern, but a spiritual and professional one too.
Taylor studied at Dallas Theological Seminary and earned a degree at Northern Baptist Seminary where he transferred after getting a job at HIS, a Christian magazine published by InterVarsity Press in Chicago. By the time his family began to grow, he was Director of Moody Press in Chicago.
Taylor’s first solution to his family worship time dilemma was to write Bible story books geared to children of various ages. Stories for the Children’s Hour (1954) and The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes (1956), were published by Moody Press, and are still in print in various editions. The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes has sold an estimated 1.7 million copies.
Meeting a Real Need
As his children grew older, he saw the need to wean them off Bible story books and get them involved in the Bible itself. The problem was that the only translation widely available was the King James Version (KJV), and in the 20th century that was a barrier to children understanding Bible content. The vocabulary and syntax of the KJV diminished the power of the message.
So Taylor started the daunting task of translating the Bible into contemporary English. He didn’t have a theological ax to grind, he just wanted his kids to be able to grasp the meaning of Bible teachings and apply them to their own lives.
While he had training in biblical languages to do translation work, he decided to do a paraphrase based on the American Standard Version (ASV, 1901). A paraphrase is a rewording of existing material, but Taylor approached the task with an expert knowledge and intelligence that enabled him to dig deep for the meaning behind the words.
There are two types of Bible translations. Formal equivalency is a word-for-word translation from the Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic languages of the Bible. Today, there are many formal equivalency translations such as the KJV, New American Standard Version (NABS) New International Version (NIV), and English Standard Version (ESV). The other kind is called dynamic equivalency and it is translating the thoughts in a particular passage while remaining true to the language found there. Taylor’s paraphrase pioneered the dynamic equivalency method and captured the essence of it.
Taylor lived in Wheaton, Illinois, a 30-minute commuter train ride to his Chicago office. He used the travel time to paraphrase Bible passages. He shared his work with his children during family devotions each evening and was able to measure the effectiveness of his work.
After years of work, Taylor completed his paraphrase of the epistles of the Apostle Paul and felt it was ready for the public. Some board members of Moody Bible Institute (MBI), the parent of Moody Press, did not want Moody Press to publish it for fear of backlash from their constituency. Taylor found other Christian publishing companies didn’t want it either. Like the leadership at MBI, they felt his paraphrase was too controversial for the King James Version Christian world of the time.
The Self-Publishing Adventure Begins
Taylor decided to take a leap of faith and publish his paraphrase himself, which he called Living Letters. He started with a 2,000 copy print order. He and his wife, with help from the older children, packaged and shipped them from the dining room table in their home.
Evangelist Billy Graham got a copy of Living Letters in 1962 and thought it was wonderful. Not only did he use his influence in the Evangelical community to promote it, but he also distributed 600,000 copies the next year as a premium to TV viewers who watched his evangelistic broadcasts. Graham expected to pay for the printing and mailing of the books, and he asked Taylor how much he wanted in payment for the rights to do that. Taylor was happy to give him the rights free, but Graham insisted Taylor get a royalty. They decided on five cents per copy. That was $30,000 in 1962 dollars, with a value of nearly $250,000 today.
Sales of Living Letters began to skyrocket. That was counter-intuitive since it seemed the Graham exposure would saturate the market. However, the Graham edition was a cheaply produced paperback, and Taylor discovered there was a demand for editions with better bindings because people were buying them as gifts for their friends. Bookstore orders increased over the years.
Tyndale House Publishers is Born
Sales of Living Letters fueled the founding of Tyndale House Publishers, which is a major Christian publishing company today. Once Taylor finished his paraphrase of the entire Bible, he released it as The Living Bible (LB) in 1971. The LB had a different look too; most Bibles of the time had black leather covers, but the LB had a padded green cover. Over 40 million copies were sold.
In a 1979 interview with Christianity Today magazine, Taylor told editor Harold Myra:
“The children were one of the chief inspirations for producing the Living Bible. Our family devotions were tough going because of the difficulty we had understanding the King James Version, which we were then using, or the Revised Standard Version, which we used later. All too often I would ask questions to be sure the children understood, and they would shrug their shoulders—they didn’t know what the passage was talking about. So I would explain it. I would paraphrase it for them and give them the thought.
It suddenly occurred to me one afternoon that I should write out the reading for that evening thought by thought, rather than doing it on the spot during our devotional time. So I did, and read the chapter to the family that evening with exciting results—they knew the answers to all the questions I asked!”
While the Living Bible was the cornerstone of Tyndale House Publishers, his company published many other important books. His first big success was the Spanish language edition of David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade which was available in English from Fleming H. Revell, an early giant in the Christian publishing world. Taylor sold 100,000 copies of the Spanish language edition.
Later, Tyndale House published authors such as James Dobson, Charles Colson, Karen Kingsbury, Tony Dungy and Drew Brees. The company specializes in books that offer practical help for Christian living. Tyndale also revived Christian fiction when they published the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. They sold over 60 million copies of those books and have published other fiction genres.
In 1989, Taylor began a ten-year odyssey to reshape the Living Bible. He hired ninety Bible translators from a wide variety of denominations to do a detailed dynamic equivalency translation. It was published in 1996 as the New Living Translation (NLT). According to sales figures compiled by the Christian Booksellers Association in 2014, the NLT is the second most popular English version of the Bible.
Ken Taylor successfully made the leap from self-publisher, to Indie Publisher, to one of the most respected mainline Christian publishers.
Is it possible to grow from a self-publisher to an Indie or mainline Christian publisher today? Market conditions have changed, and competition is high, but it is still possible. Ken Taylor reminds us that being a God-directed writer is essential, but it is also important to understand the book market and have visibility in it.
Taylor revealed his struggles and victories in an autobiography, My Life: A Guided Tour, published in 1991. It is required reading for anyone who aspires to serve the Lord as a Christian writer or publisher.