When the Evangelical Publishers Association introduced the Kenneth N. Taylor Lifetime Achievement Award at its spring 2016 Seminar, they had no idea that at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference one of Dr. Taylor’s early associates, Les Stobbe, would also receive a Lifetime Achievement Award in Publishing. For both awards to be featured in the same ECPA Rush to Press calls for a snapshot of their publishing life together.
At the 1954 Intervarsity Urbana Missionary Conference Les interviewed Dr. Taylor, then director of Moody Press, in an attempt to discover life direction. Six years later, after being founding editor of a denominational weekly, Mennonite Observer, and buyer for the publisher’s bookstore, he wrote Moody Bible Institute about opportunities in publishing. With no openings at the time Dr. Taylor tucked the letter into a personnel resource file, pulling it out nine months later and giving it to MBI’s personnel office and asking them to contact Les in light of staff openings. After flying in from western Canada for four interviews, Les was landing in Seattle on his return when he gained inner assurance he would get the open position as Moody Bookstore’s selling floor supervisor, arriving in September 1960. Dr. Taylor made numerous visits to the bookstore, interacting with Les on display and marketing initiatives.
An unusual assignment
Six months later Mr. Bixby, manager of four MBI bookstores, brought Les a brown envelope with the news that Dr. Taylor wanted him to evaluate what was in it and report on it at Moody Press’s editorial committee meeting. Les opened it when he got home and pulled out a new translation of First Timothy—with no name on it. Les had studied Greek in Bible College, so he checked out the translation and read it for language/grammar. He took into account the new translations he had been selling in the bookstore.
The day of the editorial board meeting Les took the elevator to the seventh floor of Crowell Hall and walked into Dr. Taylor’s office to take a chair near the door as guest of the Editorial Committee. Around the large desk were Dr. Taylor, his boss, Harold Shaw, the marketing director, advertising director, production manager, the manager of the four Moody bookstores, and Miss Thompson, who had done editorial work long enough to have known Mr. Moody personally.
Les’s time came to give his report and he explained his assignment, that he had compared the translation with the Greek and found it satisfactory, but that it needed some help with active verbs and punctuation. Then he asked, “By the way, whose is it?” Dr. Taylor looked down and said, “It is not known.” And Les instantly knew it was Dr. Taylor’s and got all red. He believed his future at Moody was now imperiled.
A surprising opportunity
A couple of weeks later Dr. Taylor called Les into his office and said, “I’m going on vacation. I’m giving you an office and having all incoming book projects come to your desk for evaluation. Reject those unsuitable for us and put those acceptable for further evaluation on my desk.” Over the next 18 months Les made life or death decisions on all book proposals arriving at Moody Press. Later Dr. Taylor asked him to edit the manuscript for what became The Living Epistles. Les effectively became halftime manuscript evaluation editor while also halftime manager of the selling floor of Moody Bookstore.
Some of the projects acquired during that period included:
- A beautifully illustrated children’s book series. Dr. Taylor asked Les to do extensive market research in secular bookstores like Kroch and Brentano’s in downtown Chicago. That series was still in print eight years later when Les became editorial director of Moody Press. It proved to be a forerunner of a lavishly illustrated series by Dr. V. Gilbert Beers introduced by Les as editorial director of Moody Press in the early 1970s. Entitled the Minnie and Maxi series, the six-book series launched Dr. Beer’s career as children’s book author and sold hundreds of thousands of copies through a door-to-door sales company.
- I Live By Faith, an autobiography by Mike Martin of Seattle that deeply challenged Les’s approach to prayer and received enthusiastic endorsement by Dr.Taylor. It became the forerunner of other books on God’s willingness to answer specific prayer requests.
- An Hour to the Stone Age,by Shirley Horne, a story of pioneer missionary activity among the Dani in Papua, New Guinea that set the stage for Moody Press eventually becoming the publisher of biographies of Wycliffe Bible Translator missionaries.
- Splendor from the Sea, the remarkable story of a Shantyman missionary to Canada’s West Coast fishermen, loggers, miners by W. Philip Keller, later author of A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, a Zondervan book, and Moody’s A Layman Looks at the Lord’s Prayer, turned down by Zondervan editors because “books on the Lord’s Prayer don’t sell.” Moody’s marketing team introduced it to Billy Graham’s buyer for “The House of Decision,” where as a giveaway it was requested by more than 250,000 listeners—and sold 70,000 copies into bookstores.
- One of Les’s assignments from Dr. Taylor was to update a fold-out presentation of the belief systems of seven cultic movements. This required researching the most recent publications of these movements and accurately presenting current positions on God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and the Bible, along with the latest biblical scholarship on those topics.
- A truly remarkable facet of Dr. Taylor’s ministry at that time involved he and Peter Gunther, director of Moody Literature Mission and Dr. Taylor’s associate, each year traveling overseas for six weeks encouraging and resourcing publishers and Christian bookstores. On the last of those visits to Africa Dr. Taylor returned with his vocal chords damaged, apparently by a virus. This affliction reminded us of the apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” that God never healed.
- Peter Gunther’s first compilation of stories featuring mission work in Europe, with later books on mission work in Africa and Asia. Peter Gunther became director of Moody Press upon Dr. Taylor starting Tyndale House.