[This is the seventh article in the series of God Moments in My Publishing Life.]
When God brought me to Moody Press in 1970, the editorial department had been without an acquisitions editor/team leader for two years. Peter Gunther had worked hard to keep the ship afloat, and a reasonably strong backlist had kept sales going. The copy editing and proof reading team led by Gloria Most worked hard to maintain quality control. My assignment was to breathe new life into the acquisitions process. Fortunately my eighteen months as manuscript evaluations editor and member of the editorial committee under Ken Taylor gave me a running start.
Peter Gunther quickly introduced me to an acquisition that needed editorial work. Fellow Canadian Phillip Keller’s biography of an itinerant western Canadian evangelist/church planter called for extensive editorial work. The result pleased the author so much he brought us A Layman Looks at the Lord’s Prayer after Zondervan turned it down because “books on the Lord’s Prayer do not sell.” They did it despite the fact that A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 was starting to climb in sales at Zondervan. For us, A Layman Looks at the Lord’s Prayer became a God moment.
Billy Graham’s “Hour of Decision” had already demonstrated that book hungry listeners would become solid financial contributors if they could get a Billy Graham recommended book in return. The first major breakthrough came for the Graham team when they offered Kenneth N. Taylor’s Living Letters and a reported 500,000 copies entered homes across the nation. That resulted in significant sales through bookstores and prepared the way for the acceptance of The Living Bible.
A God-Initiated Opportunity
The Moody Press marketing team presented A Layman Looks at the Lord’s Prayer to the Graham team and they accepted it for a radio giveaway. It got an amazing reception, with several hundred thousand copies being sent to homes as a giveaway. Sales through the Graham office, coupled with Moody Press sales, totaled 70,000, a most acceptable result for a book turned down by a major publisher.
A side note: Marketing departments understandably go by what I call “conventional wisdom,” which represents their previous experience with booksellers. What it may not take into consideration is the uniqueness of an author’s second book. Even though an editorial department may love that second book, it rarely is able to overcome the conventional wisdom of marketing people that sales of the first book determine a second book’s future.
Take for example Max Lucado’s first book, published by Tyndale House when story-oriented Christian living books had not yet been introduced to the evangelical market, even though several “liberal” pastors had successfully written them for the secular market. When Lucado’s first book did not sell well, the team at Tyndale followed conventional wisdom and turned down his second book. John VanDiest at Multnomah Press took it on. Multnomah, or the author, titled it No Wonder They Call Him the Savior—and after several hundred thousand copies had been sold through Christian bookstores, a writer-star had been introduced. At one point there were at least four Max Lucado books among the top 10 bestsellers in the Christian market.
A Strategic Acquisition
Meanwhile a young Canadian pastor at Edgewater Baptist Church in Chicago had written a Master’s thesis on the new morality introduced by Bishop Robinson in England. The Rev. Erwin Lutzer brought a popularized version of it to me at Moody Press to see if we’d publish it. I knew we were on the downside of the bell curve in interest in the New Morality, so sales might fail to reach acceptable numbers, but I was more interested in the next books by the Rev. Erwin Lutzer. The editorial committee accepted my logic and we published it, achieving sales of about 5,000, for us quite acceptable for a first book author.
The Rev. Erwin Lutzer’s second book, How in This World Can I Be Holy sold much better. His third book, Failure: The Back Door to Success, a title I gave it, sold 20,000 the first year and became a solid backlist seller.
Along the way the Rev. Lutzer gained his doctorate and became a faculty member at Moody Bible Institute. In one of his classes five students came to him and admitted to homosexual desires and asked for help in dealing with them. His counseling with them resulted in a book on dealing with addictive desire/behavior as a Christian—and it became the last Lutzer manuscript I processed at Moody Press. While it was completed, it had not yet been put under contract when the Lord moved me to Christian Herald Association (Moody Press practice was not to put a book under contract until an acceptable manuscript was delivered). Dr. Lutzer took it to Victor Books at Scripture Press, who titled it How to Say No to a Stubborn Habit and reports were that Victor Books sold 100,000 the first year—and it kept on selling for decades. It illustrated the long-term effects of letting an acquisitions editor get away in an executive upheaval—an event referred to in an earlier chapter. In a later installment I’ll recount the obvious God Moments in my decision-making process in my moves from publishing house to another publishing house.
A Writer’s Dream Opportunity
Moody Memorial Church became Dr. Lutzer’s new opportunity when he became the successor to Dr. Warren Wiersbe as senior pastor. As pastor at Edgewater Baptist Church his practice had been to set aside four o’clock Sunday afternoon to rewrite his morning’s sermon as a chapter in his next book. His Moody Church responsibilities, which included morning and evening sermons and a radio program, eventually changed that pattern. He invited me to take a sermon series and transform it into book form. One of them became When a Good Man Falls and featured how God dealt with the fall into sin by well-known biblical personalities. Victor Books at Scripture Press released it almost a year before Jim Baker’s fall from grace.
A second God Moment came when as vice president of books and book clubs at Christian Herald Association I participated in a writers’ conference in Wheaton, IL. Invited by Dr. Lutzer for dinner on Saturday evening, I arrived at Moody Bible Institute and was standing at the elevator when a radio staff member, Dave McCallister, stepped off the elevator and said to me, “Have you heard about the plane crash at O’Hare Airport?” I had not—and when I learned what flight had crashed, I realized I had been scheduled to take that flight to Los Angeles and had canceled it in favor of dinner with the Lutzers.
A God Moment on a Train
We were hanging on to the straps in a full commuter train out to the Lutzer’s suburb when Dr. Lutzer asked me, “Stobbe, what theme should I preach on for our next book?’ Instantly the Lord gave me the topic, “Managing Your Emotions.” His quick response was, “I’ll do it.” That book became a perennial seller, partially because the local Christian television station had Dr. Lutzer deliver a series of messages on the topic.
On another occasion Dr. Lutzer had been invited as main speaker at the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference. We were sitting on a bench on the grounds when he turned to me and again asked, “What theme should I preach on?” Our discussion led to another book that had a message for believers struggling with issues like forgiveness. Illustrations came from his counseling ministry with Christians living in a new housing development near the church.
Dr. Lutzer has now been pastor of Moody Memorial Church for more than 30 years, longer than any previous pastor. God has used him in marvelous ways to revive the church, in a widespread revival movement, as a radio and conference speaker and as author of numerous important books.
The next installment will reveal how God connected me with two interesting Jewish converts to Christianity, authors who represented major God Moment opportunities.
Copyright, 2014, Les Stobbe