When Ken Taylor started Tyndale House Publishers 50 years ago, he named it after the scholar William Tyndale, whose translation of the Bible into English in the 1500s helped lead to him being strangled and burned at stake.
Opposition to Taylor's paraphrase of the Bible into everyday English wasn't nearly so virulent, but it did have its critics. Scripture in the vernacular seemed less sacred, less authoritative than King James English and established publishers declined to touch it.
The Living Bible, of course, became a best-seller for several years running and since then Tyndale House has published numerous other best-sellers in both fiction and nonfiction. The company celebrates its golden anniversary this year as one of the largest independent Christian publishers in the world.
But no one knew the future back in 1962.
"We tend to have a short memory of how important and revolutionary The Living Bible was," said Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College. "He (Taylor) was taking a big chance, one that a lot of people criticized him for at that time."
Eskridge said that despite the initial hesitation to the new approach to Scripture in some religious circles, Tyndale led the way for a host of new Bible translations that soon followed and for the plethora of specialty Bibles published today that are geared to particular audiences, such as women or teens.
"The people in the pews and churches kind of voted with their purchases," he said. "That did open the floodgates for new versions that were closer to modern American English."
Ken Taylor passed away in 2005 at the age of 88, and his son, Mark, the company's president since 1984, still leads Tyndale today. Headquartered in Carol Stream, the company that started in an old farmhouse on the outskirts of Wheaton now employs 260 staff and publishes 80 new titles a year. Like all publishers, it is navigating the turmoil of technological change by branching out into eBooks and social media marketing.
The means of publishing may change, but Mark Taylor said the mission of Tyndale House remains the same: to minister to the spiritual needs of people through literature consistent with biblical principles.
"We're standing on the shoulders of those who went before us. That means those who come after us in the future will be standing on our shoulders," Mark Taylor tells employees. "It's important for us to be faithful stewards of these responsibilities we have."
Change and growth
It was Mark Taylor and his nine siblings who provided the initial inspiration for Taylor to begin the paraphrase of the Bible into modern English. Ken Taylor knew his 10 children did not understand the King James Version of the Bible they used during family devotions. So Taylor, then employed with Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, used his time during the commute back and forth to the city to write the Bible passage they would read that evening into English his children would understand.
His Living Letters, a paraphrase of the New Testament Epistles, was published in 1962. Interest in this new version of Scripture picked up when Billy Graham endorsed it on television and distributed it during his evangelistic crusades. Taylor left his full-time job with Moody and continued to publish paraphrases of other portions of Scripture. The Living Bible was published in its entirety in 1971 and has since sold more than 40 million copies.
Tyndale soon followed the publication of The Living Bible with a Bible for teens called The Way. One of the very first specialty Bibles, it combined the text of The Living Bible with contemporary photos and book introductions prepared by the staff of Campus Life magazine.
"Prior to that, there was no such thing as a teen-oriented Bible," Mark Taylor said.
One criticism of Bible paraphrases are they are not direct translations from the original languages in which Scripture was written. By the late 1980s, Tyndale addressed that concern by gathering a committee of scholars to do a translation.
The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, was published in 1996 and has sold 26 million copies.
Meanwhile, Tyndale had branched out into publishing other Christian literature. Tim LaHaye's "Spirit-Controlled Temperament," has sold about a million copies since 1996 and continues to sell well, according to information provided by Tyndale House. LaHaye later teamed up with Jerry Jenkins to write Tyndale's first hardcover novel, "Left Behind," in 1995. The Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels has sold more than 63 million copies with the first book being the company's best-selling individual title apart from the Bible, Mark Taylor said.
Tyndale made a deliberate decision to break from the past when it decided to publish Christian novels, Taylor said.
"Years ago Christian fiction was almost nonexistent," he said. "We decided we wanted to publish Christian fiction because fiction speaks to the heart of the reader, not to the head. Fiction, storytelling, is a great way to communicate truth and values."
Fiction sold by Tyndale and other Christian publishers includes inspirational romances, a genre that still raises eyebrows among some believers. The fiction creates sort of a fantasy world, Eskridge said.
"Some Christians would not consider that conductive to producing spiritual maturity," he said.
Taylor said publishing has its trends. Self-help books are no longer as big as they once were, but heaven has become a hot topic. "The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven," published by Tyndale in 2010, became a New York Times best-seller.
"Seventy-five percent of Americans believe that there is some kind of afterlife," Taylor said. "We all want to know what happens when grandma dies, what happens when I die."
Other best-sellers published by Tyndale House have included Lisa Beamer's "Let's Roll" published after her husband, Todd Beamer, led other passengers in bringing down the terrorist-hijacked airliner bound for Washington, D.C., during the Sept. 11 attacks. Football coach Tony Dungy published his memoir, "Quiet Strength," with Tyndale after leading the Indianapolis Colts to win the Super Bowl over the Chicago Bears.
Keys to success
Tyndale House Publishers, a for-profit company owned by the nonprofit Tyndale House Foundation, unabashedly looks for books that will sell, Taylor said. The publishing company accepts only submissions recommended by literary agents and selects titles carefully. The likelihood of a book's success determines the size of an author's advance, Taylor said.
"Advances can range from a low of $10,000 to a high of $400 million," Taylor said. "If an author already has sold successfully a book with a half-million copies, every publisher wants to publish that author's next book."
Tyndale House reinvests as many profits as it needs back in the company, Taylor said. Additional profits are paid in dividends to the nonprofit Tyndale House Foundation. Over the years, the foundation has donated more than $147 million to Christian missions and charities, particularly those focused on Christian literature. The company also has sponsored mission trips to Costa Rica and to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In yet another outreach, Tyndale employees help in building homes for Habitat for Humanity.
"We're not asking employees to take vacation time to do a mission trip. We see that as part of our contribution to the larger community," Taylor said.
Taylor, who began working at Tyndale as a sixth-grader packing books, said his father believed that hiring the right people and treating them well was instrumental to the company's success. The only one of his 10 siblings to work in the company as an adult, Mark Taylor edited his first book as a senior in high school and, after college, went full-time in 1973 intending to stay only a couple of years. The couple years has stretched out to more than 30, he noted.
"I'm here because I enjoy it and it's fulfilling to me," he said.
Apparently, many employees feel the same. Tyndale regularly gives recognition to employees celebrating 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 years and milestones beyond with the company. Taylor recalled what one employee had written prior to a recent service award presentation.
"I truly look forward to Monday mornings," the employee said.
Employees are rewarded for staying, and given opportunities for advancement, Taylor said.
"We move people around quite a bit from position to position in the company," he said. "As the company is constantly changing, the needs are changing. We're always asking ourselves who on staff has the right set of skills for this position."
Tyndale also is willing to keep employees in positions in which they excel, said Timothy Botts, senior art director at Tyndale and a world-known calligrapher. Botts said he started with Tyndale 40 years ago shortly after college and still designs books. Normally a person of his seniority might wear a title like creative director, but no longer actually be involved with design, he said.
"I'm not a manager or administrator because that's not what I'm good at," he said. "I've appreciated the way they help people in positions that are best for them and best for the company."
An openly Christian company that holds weekly chapel meetings, Tyndale is careful to explain its values to potential employees so they may determine whether they would fit in, Botts said. Helping people come to a relationship with Christ and strengthening families is central to the company, he said.
"It really helps to believe in the work you're doing and have a mission you can buy into," Botts said. "When you come to work each day, it's great because you know you're contributing to those causes."
Gwen Elliott, who began 23 years ago as a typesetter with no experience and now works in design composition, said Tyndale also has enabled her to balance her life as mother and now a grandmother.
"They are flexible," she said.
Looking to future
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Tyndale built its first float in Glen Ellyn's July 4 parade; developed an anniversary page where readers can share greetings, a picture or video; and is compiling a commemorative gift book, "The Tyndale House 50th Anniversary Reader," as a limited edition for distribution to employees, key retailers and industry leaders.
But in this ever-changing world of publishing, what does the future hold?
"I wish I knew the answer to that," Taylor said.
Once bookstores were a key partner, but with their numbers drastically reduced, online sales are becoming a greater part of the company's business. Last year, 12 percent of Tyndale House's sales were in eBooks and Taylor said he expects that percentage to be higher this year. Alan Huizenga, Tyndale's director of marketing services, said Amazon made eBook sales simple.
"Fiction titles do really well as eBooks," he said. "We're just starting to do Bibles."
Tyndale also is experimenting with Facebook campaigns, working with authors on their Facebook pages and using Twitter, Huizenga said. But Tyndale doesn't want to get too far ahead of its customer base, he said.
"Cutting edge, not bleeding edge," he said. "The challenge is that the industry is still maturing. … As soon as you think you understand how it's done, the technology side becomes obsolete."
All that makes it difficult to predict what the next five years holds, let alone the next 50, Taylor said.
"My best answer to that," he said, "is we will continue to make our products available to people wherever and however they want to buy them."