Have you ever wondered where Christian publishing came from? I have. 

In the olden days, there were no explicitly Christian publishers. Publishing companies published Christian works and functioned as booksellers. 

So, where did the Christian publishers come from? Why did Christian bookstores start to emerge?

To find out, I asked Les Stobbe, who’s been working in the publishing industry for 65 years. He’s the author of God Moments in My Publishing Life, which is his story of 65 years in the Christian publishing industry at all levels. He’s written articles, Sunday school curriculum, and books. He’s managed a bookstore, worked as an editorial director at three different publishers, and served as a literary agent.

How did you get started in your publishing career?

Les: In 1953, I signed on for seven writing lessons while I was lying flat on my back in a hospital in northern British Columbia. I did the seven lessons while I was a dispatcher in the British Columbia Forest Service.Ten years later, I was the editor of Christian Bookseller magazine, and I had been running the Moody Bookstore for two years by that time.

Thomas: How many Christian publishers were there back then?

Les: Only five or six.

Thomas: An author could send their proposal to five or six publishers and would have reached the whole industry at that time.

Les: Yes. That was the case for a long time. Literary agents really weren’t accepted until the 1980s and 1990s. I became an agent in 1993, and it was a difficult time for agents because very few publishers wanted to deal with agents at that time.

Thomas: I have a theory about why agents became popular, and I attribute it to the word processor. When books had to be typed out on a typewriter, the effort required for writing a book was so substantial that only those who were truly dedicated would undertake writing a book. It was difficult to even submit a manuscript to publishers.  Consequently, agents weren’t needed to sift through piles of manuscripts because Publishers weren’t inundated with thousands of proposals like they are today. However, with computers allowing authors to type or dictate their manuscripts and easily email them to agents or publishers, the number of submissions has skyrocketed. Now, publishers are glad to have agents serving as filters.

Les: Another issue was that, before agents came into the picture, editorial departments needed someone to sift through all the unsolicited manuscripts, including those that would never be published. I recall working at Moody Press in the 1970s and even the early 1960s, evaluating manuscripts for Kenneth Taylor. As executives, we spent a lot of time reviewing manuscripts. That all changed when publishers decided that instead of paying a secretary to handle this task, they would rely on agents to evaluate submissions and only send them the worthwhile proposals.

Why do we now have Christian publishers? 

Thomas: At that time, there were only secular publishers. Why do we now have Christian publishers? 

Gutenberg was the first publisher. Besides publishing the Bible, he published indulgences, gossip, and news on the same printing press. When did Christian publishers and retailers emerge?

Les: Christian publishing began in the 1940s, though by the late 1950s, several Christian publishers were already well-established, including Moody Press. Moody Press traces its roots back to D.L. Moody’s Colportage Society, which was officially founded in 1941. Fleming H. Revell, another publisher, had ties to D.L. Moody as well. Revell, who was Moody’s brother-in-law, reached an agreement with him: Moody would publish the smaller paperbacks, sold for 15 or 20 cents, while Revell would secure the rights to publish the hardbacks. This arrangement lasted until the 1930s. Christian publishing struggled to integrate into the existing bookselling system, as the Christian Booksellers Association didn’t form until the 1950s.

Thomas: If I understand correctly, Christian publishers were being excluded from traditional bookstores. Christians didn’t leave because they wanted to; they left because they were pushed out. Instead of going home, Christians created their own separate economic structure. 

We’re experiencing this phenomenon again as we’re getting pushed out of various online marketplaces. The generations that came before us didn’t give up. Instead, they created their own publishers and bookstores. 

Les: Currently, the irreligious don’t want the Christian message to be broadly proclaimed. They don’t want secular general market publishers to take on religious books. 

But the general market publishers started buying up Christian publishers. So today, several of our major Christian publishers are owned by general market publishers.

Thomas: For instance, Harper Collins owns Thomas Nelson and Zondervan and Hachette owns FaithWords.

In the late 1950s, the Christian Booksellers Association was formed and grew throughout the 60s and then in the 70s we saw a big boom in Christian bookstores. 

My mom told me stories of feeling like the only Christian on her college campus, so she would go to the Christian bookstore just to be around other Christians. The Christian bookstore was an evangelical outpost in those days. 

What was it like running a Christian bookstore in those days?

Les: My first experience was in Winnipeg, Canada, where they had a German language bookstore for the German-speaking Mennonite population in Canada. When I joined as editor of the Mennonite Observer, I was tasked with buying the books in English. For four years, I bought English books and brought them into the bookstore. We sold them and did okay. When Bill Moyer came and wanted to talk to Christian booksellers, I was there, and that triggered an idea in my mind that maybe someday I could get into the business with Moody Press.

Thomas: You started as an editor and then went into retail. Did you ever get into Moody Press?

Les: The bookstore was owned by Moody Bible Institute, and six months after I took over as selling floor manager, I was handed an envelope. My manager said, “Kenneth Taylor would like you to evaluate this.” I took it home and found it was the book of First Timothy in a new translation. I thought, “Whoa! What’s going on here?”

I’d learned Greek in Bible college, so I was able to evaluate it both for English and Greek. Then, I was invited to present my findings to the editorial committee. I made my presentation and said, “It’s readable. It’s quite accurate. It needs a little help here and there,” and then I said, “Whose is it?” Ken Taylor looked down and said, “It is not known.”  That’s when I knew it was his work. That translation of First Timothy became part of what we know now as The Living Bible. 

That interaction caused him to bring me up to his floor at Moody Press, where he asked me to evaluate all incoming manuscripts. I was 32 years old at the time, and it was an incredible task. The Lord had some important lessons for me in the process as well. So that’s how we got into publishing.

Thomas: I’ve observed something about what I call the “old guard,” meaning your generation and the one that followed. Most of the old guard held seminary degrees; even many of the early literary agents and publishers’ editors had them. This created a rich environment of theological expertise. You could hand a random 32-year-old on the ground floor a translation of First Timothy and expect them to review it in Greek and English. 

In contrast, my generation tends to have business or marketing backgrounds, but we lack that theological depth. I took some Bible classes but didn’t major in it, and my university focus was elsewhere. I’d love to hear your perspective, but this is one change I’ve noticed in my ten years in the industry.

Les: From the outset, I aimed to train writers in what I called a more biblical approach, which included incorporating stories rather than just layering idea upon idea. This helped shift the landscape. Although my background was at an unaccredited Mennonite Bible college, it provided me with an incredible foundation in biblical knowledge, enabling me to write books and curriculum at all Sunday school levels. As a ghostwriter, I’ve written books for some of the leading figures in this country, and I could only do this because of my access to a theological library. They would give me a topic, and I’d head to the library, knowing where to find relevant resources and translate them into accessible content.

What was your experience the first time you presented to the pub board?

Thomas: At age 32, you were brought up to the seventh floor and given the slush pile. What was your experience the first time you presented to the pub board?

Les: They were all older men. I had taught high school, had been editor of a weekly Christian newspaper, and had done a fair bit of preaching, and I was not happy with these older men wanting the writing to conform to their idea of what people were reading. My secretary kept the minutes of the editorial board, and she’d come out of there so angry because she felt I was being badly treated by my associates. I didn’t feel that way. As a salesman on the side, I didn’t mind having to present material several times before they would accept it.

Thomas: You felt that they were out of touch with what people were wanting to read?

Les: Yes. I was in the bookstore at the same time I was doing those evaluations, and I met the people. Customers would walk into the bookstore with a question, and often, it was a question I had just read about over my lunch hour in a book. Those were God moments that you can’t explain.

Thomas: In those days, Christian bookstores functioned as discipleship centers. People would visit with theological questions or crises of faith and ask the bookstore owner for help. The owner would respond by recommending a book to guide them in that specific area. These bookstores were powerful places of influence and genuine ministry. However, much of this has changed, largely because most Christian bookstores have closed. Now, instead of seeking guidance at a Christian bookstore, people tend to turn to Google for answers to their theological questions.

Les: Many customers who came in were in deep emotional distress, facing significant theological issues or problems with their children, and they needed help. We were there to assist them. In 1960-62, I managed a team of seven full-time and three part-time staff at the Moody Bookstore. Some might say that there were too many employees, but each person was responsible for a specific area. When someone came in, I knew exactly which staff member to direct them to so they could receive the help they needed.

Thomas: Incredible. I wish we could bring that back. A bookstore served as a ministry hub, and in some ways, the role has evolved. Many churches now have built-in bookstores, so people often seek guidance from their pastor, who directs them to specific books in the church’s bookstore. This process, once managed outside the local church, now often happens internally. This can be advantageous since people can receive continuous support from the church, whether through small groups or discipleship programs.

How did you go from presenting to the pub board to running the pub board?

Les: For four years, I visited bookstores and interacted with publishers on the books they were publishing. At Christian Booksellers Magazine, we wrote evaluations of published books, and we’d publish the summaries. 

I was challenged by a friend of mine in Canada to come back and capture Canadian media for Christ. I spent four years doing business magazines in Western Canada, but God had another plan for me. 

Moody called again and said, “Would you come and be editorial director now?” I was dealing with a larger committee, younger men, but they had all their history of what was selling in the market. They would fight me on book titles and content and argue about what would and wouldn’t sell. I’d say, “But if you go into the bookstore and meet the people, you’ll know what is selling and not selling.” God was gracious. We published some really fine missionary biographies and theological books that nobody else was publishing because we were in touch with the customers.

My associate and I would visit seminaries and Bible colleges to talk with the professors, and we’d carry that information back to the editorial committee. 

The 1970s was a halcyon time. It was also the start of the fiction books.

Thomas: There was a big move of God at that time through the Jesus people revival and the charismatic awakening. Many churches and church movements were planted in that time. In the 1960s, there was nearly a counter-revolution to the sexual revolution, and as the 1970s approached, young people flocked to God in large numbers with intense devotion. It wasn’t just about checking a box of belief but living a very active and vibrant faith. 

I grew up hearing stories of the miracles my parents witnessed during that time when they shared the gospel on a secular college campus that was quite hostile to it. It was a fascinating time to be a bookseller because of the excitement and fervor among the youth.

Les: Many people were excited about what was happening. First, evangelists and new pastors were enthusiastic, and new denominations were springing up to minister to the “Jesus people.” They weren’t just reading The Living Bible; they were also diving into Halley’s Bible Handbook and Unger’s Bible Dictionary. Our sales of reference books surged as these new Christians sought them out. Seminaries were booming because many young people were enrolling. It was an extraordinary period. In the 1960s, we had the hippies, and in the 1970s, the Christian community saw the rise of the “Jesus people.”

Thomas: In my town, many of the vibrant churches were either planted in the 70s or planted by churches that started in the 70s. 

In many ways, this period marked the emergence of what later became known as evangelicals. Previously, Catholics and Protestants were the two primary groups. However, in the 1970s, a new form of Protestantism developed that was more active, evangelistic, and eager to share the gospel. This more radical movement eventually became known as evangelicals. While the term has since taken on political connotations, what you were witnessing was the birth of modern evangelicalism. Although its roots go back further, since D.L. Moody could be considered evangelical in the early 1900s, the first significant harvest didn’t occur until the 1970s.

Les: Many evangelists traveled across the country, setting the stage for what occurred in the 1970s. We also saw the birth of institutions like Los Angeles Bible College, which eventually became Biola. All of this was part of God’s plan, moving people to faith in Christ, deeper commitment, and missionary work. When I oversaw the missionary column in Christian Life magazine for four years, I witnessed an extraordinary period of missionary outreach.

Thomas: YWAM, one of the biggest mission organizations in Protestant Christianity, was founded in 1960, but it started to gain traction in the 70s. Around the same time, you saw a big boom of missions and missionary books. Many famous missionary books were written around this time and even into the 80s. 

Les: Moody became the publisher for one of the mission boards, and we did a whole series of books.

What is Christian fiction, and where did it come from?

Thomas: Christians used to write fiction for secular publishers. For example, C.S. Lewis, was published by a general market publisher. Why did the shift happen? Were Christian books pushed out of secular publishers, or were writers encouraged to reduce the Christian elements in their stories?

Les: In the 1940s and 1950s, we didn’t have many high-quality fiction writers. We did have Sally Bell and Grace Livingston Hill, both of whom were popular, as well as a few other fiction authors. I recall one of them, whose novel sold 8,000 copies at Moody, which we considered a huge success. However, when the Jesus Revolution occurred, that same novel sold 40,000 copies per year. That marked a significant surge in interest in fiction.

In the 1970s, Moody Press realized that sophisticated and complex fiction wasn’t yet selling well. Readers, who were mostly women, were seeking simpler material because few Christian women were attending universities or Bible colleges at the time. Although they loved reading, they weren’t ready for the advanced fiction produced by some of today’s writers.

Thomas: There’s been a significant shift in society over time. In the 1940s, when my grandmother attended the University of Texas, it was much less common for women to go to college, and fewer people overall pursued higher education. Her tuition was only $25 per semester, which amazed me because I initially thought that was per class. But no, that was the cost for an entire semester. Even when adjusted for inflation, that’s still not much. 

The demand for college education has since increased dramatically. As a result, in 2021, more readers are college-educated and expect different types of books than they did in the 1960s, when fewer people had a college education.

Les: I went to the University of British Columbia in 1951, and it cost me $450 for the whole year.

How did publishing change in the 1980s?

Les: In the 1980s, in the early part of the decade, book clubs were rapidly growing. We would sell 20,000 to 25,000 copies of a book every month, sometimes featuring two books each month. This was a subscription program where people would sign up and pay ahead of time, and we’d have 40,000 subscribers who wanted to order the book we chose. That way, we knew we’d sell 40,000 copies of that book. 

Thomas: So you knew you were going to move 40,000 copies of that book.

Les: Yes, but the customer had the right of refusal when the book arrived, so we had to make sure we gave them a good description. I hired women to write the copy because most of our members were women. Guideposts and a few others started a book club, which gave a big boost to the fiction field.

Thomas: The majority of Christian fiction readers are women. When you’re writing Christian fiction, you’re writing for women. That’s also true with general fiction because women are more likely to read fiction than men. But it’s especially true in the Christian genres.

Les: Women started dominating the nonfiction field in the 90s and into this century. The male writers are typically pastors, but in the 90s female leaders like Beth Moore and Lysa TerKerust came on the scene. They had their own followings, and they sell a ton of books.

Thomas: We’ve seen a shift from the early days when mainly men were reading and writing books. In the 70s we saw a spike in young people reading, especially women, and then in the 90s, books written by females started to have strong sales. The gender make-up of the industry has shifted a lot during your career. 

Les: It’s been a a changing field. At one point, it was restricted to people who had really developed as writers. Today, we have a bunch of very small publishers who publish a few books each year, but they represent a developing industry, that has provided an opportunity for many people who wouldn’t have had opportunities before.

Are large Christian publishers out of touch with today’s Christian readers?

Thomas: Do you feel like the bigger Christian publishers, especially those owned by secular publishers, are out of touch with today’s Christian reader? 

Les: I think they go for established writers to get a quick sale. You have to be a promoter before they will take you on.

Thomas: So, they’re prioritizing authors who’ve already demonstrated they have a big platform. 

Les: Yes, most of the time. Occasionally, you’ll get a breakthrough author such as Sara Young of Jesus Calling fame. That book was originally published by a small publisher and had small sales. Thomas Nelson took it over, and the gift book editor saw its value and promoted it. Suddenly, it was selling like you wouldn’t believe and has now sold 10 million copies.

Tell us about your time as a literary agent.

Les: While I was at Here’s Life publishers, it was sold to Thomas Nelson in 1992, so I was looking for another opportunity. I was able to get on with Scripture Press as managing editor of the curriculum division and editor of the adult division, but they sold themselves to David C. Cook, and again, I was at loose ends, but God had another opportunity. These are my God moments where God opened one opportunity after another. 

I ended up working with the Evangelistic Association of New England and spent five and a half years promoting the ministries that were under the wings of the Evangelistic Association of New England. I still had my literary agency on the side, so I stayed in touch with the industry. I went to the Christian Booksellers Association convention every year to stay in touch. Then God gave me the opportunity to be the journalist in residence at Gordon College. I kept on doing my agenting on the side, so I stayed in touch until very recently.

What caused the fall of Christian bookstores?

Thomas: As somebody who was there during the rise and fall of Christian bookstores, what do you think caused the fall?

Les: It’s very tough to say. I wrote an article for Christian Bookseller pointing out reasons the bookstore wasn’t servicing at the level they used to. But what really happened was that the distributors became the major booksellers. As a result, the small bookstores died because their market was taken by their distributors like Christian Book Distributors.

Les: There were about three agencies at one point that were discounting their books like Amazon does, and they killed bookstore after bookstore because they just couldn’t compete at that discounted level.

Thomas: I would say Walmart contributed to that. I think what really killed off the Christian bookstores was the Left Behind books. The Left Behind books were so popular that Walmart knew they could sell a lot of those books, and they could sell them for much less than a Christian bookstore could. 

In the late 90s, Walmart had end caps displaying the Left Behind books, and they sold zillions of copies. It happened again with The Prayer of Jabez. Those popular books originally drew people into Christian bookstores, and while they were there, they’d talk to the bookstore personnel, get book recommendations, and buy other books, too.

Once those bestselling books were available in Walmart, they were cheaper, and people stopped going to Christian bookstores.

Les: You’re really onto something there because Costco would have piles of Left Behind, The Shack, and Jesus Calling. I don’t know what happened, but Christian books aren’t offered at Costco anymore. 

Is there a place in the new market for Christian bookstores again?

Thomas: Do you think that there’s room for Christian retailers to start coming back?

Les: I think there is. However, Amazon is the other killer of small bookstores. Amazon is booming, and they’ve really taken over the bookselling market. They’re not just selling bestsellers; they’re selling almost any book you want.

Thomas: For independent authors, Amazon is the whole game. Independent authors can’t get their books placed on shelves in Walmart, Costco, or Barnes and Noble, so Amazon is their best option. 

What words of warning do you have for Christian authors and Christian publishers?

Les: My biggest concern is that we have the presentation of the gospel and the basic message of the scriptures in forms that are acceptable to the young people, ages 18-25. We are losing a generation of young people because they have not been prepared. 

What books are written for them? I’m really concerned about that now. We have books for children and early teens, but the bookstores say that books for that young adult age range just don’t sell. As a result, the authors had to go to another level. That movement really distressed me.

Thomas: My college years were transformed by one book I read, One Thing You Can’t Do in Heaven by Mark Cahill, and it totally radicalized me for Jesus. Mark’s book was independently published, and when he spoke, he gave away copies. You could just reach out to him, and he would send you a copy for free. He moved hundreds of thousands of copies of that book totally off the radar. It was never in any of the bookstores, but it was super influential in my life. 

If I hadn’t had a book really pointing me to Jesus, my college years would have been a different experience. After reading his book, I saw college as a time to share the gospel and to be a thermostat and not a thermometer. I wanted to be an agent of change in that context. 

Maybe young people are still reading that book.

I also think it’s important to be with young people enough so you can know what will resonate with them.

Les: Exactly. When I was in University of British Columbia, I found C.S. Lewis through the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. C.S. Lewis changed my perspective on life. Through his work, I had my eyes opened to how the Lord works in different ways than I expected. I read all his books. It was an amazing experience to discover an author that that was exactly where you were as a young person.

Thomas: Lewis was very much in touch with the questions and challenges people were facing. He spent several hours each day writing correspondence. He received stacks of letters from people around the world with theological and emotional questions. He would dictate responses to his brother, who was at a typewriter. He understood the challenges people were facing in the 1940s and 1950s when he did Mere Christianity on the radio during the blitz of World War Two. 

Les: In 1951, I was listening to Canadian radio, and C.S. Lewis was on there. I listened to his radio address every evening, and it was very influential.

Thomas: Mere Christianity started off as a radio address to encourage the residents of London who were being bombed. Later those recordings were played in Canada. 

Interacting with readers at the bookstore, listening to their questions, and discovering their pain is the key to writing marketable books. Those practices have not gone out of style. The conversations might not be happening in the bookstore anymore, but you can interact with readers by hosting a small group, doing discipleship, or teaching a class. Get to know people and learn to understand their pains, hopes, and longings. That will inform your writing so you can write the kind of book they need right now; not the kind of book you needed when you were their age, but the kind of book they need right now.

Les: I recently told a writer, “You’re not writing for the young people you think you’re writing for; you’re writing for people your own age. Until you sit down and interact with a small group of young people, you are not going to reach those young people.”

Tell us about your book, God Moments in My Publishing Life: The Making of a Writer and Publisher.

Les: The book is the result of me being alerted by the Lord. 

One day, I was doing my morning devotions, and the line came to my mind: God moments in my publishing life. I had not been thinking about writing a book, but I went to my computer and I wrote down the titles of 21 chapters. Then, I got my granddaughter, who was my webmaster, to put a chapter on my website each week. That stayed there for five years until readers demanded I put it into book form. So, I spent the money and got it done. I don’t think it’ll sell a million, but it’ll satisfy the friends who really want to know what’s going on in my life.

Thomas: I hope you make an audiobook version for all of us audiobook listeners. Christian publishing pioneered audiobooks. The Bible was available on cassette tapes, and you could listen to sermons on cassette. Audiobooks have a long tradition in Christian publishing. 

Do you have any final tips or encouragement?

Les: God is still at work. You can depend on him. My book is merely a series of illustrations from my life that God, through Jesus Christ, can enter your life and transform it and keep you going toward the final goal, which is our time in heaven together.

Thomas: Well said. God is just as powerful now as he was in the 50s and 70s when he created the Earth. 

Every generation faces its own challenges and often believes that its difficulties are the greatest in history. But nothing is entirely new. Today, we face pandemics, but our ancestors endured the Black Death, which killed half the population. While it is true that people are suffering and dying, our situation is not unique or unprecedented. 

Historically, humanity has persevered through crises, and we will continue to do so, both as individuals and as a community.


Christian Writers Institute

God Moments Blog Articles

Purchase Les’s book on Amazon (affiliate link)