By Andy Butcher
We all pretty much remember where we were and what we were doing on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But the date also has enduring significance for those involved in Christian publishing and bookselling, marking the death of beloved British writer C.S. Lewis.
While his passing was eclipsed by news of the shooting in Dallas that day, 50 years later Lewis is a figure of enormous influence, whose works continue to appear in best-seller lists and is a staple for many retailers.
Indeed Logos Bookstore—in Dallas, oddly enough—has a permanent section dedicated to Lewis, with classics Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters often on the store’s Top 20 list. Owners Rick and Susan Lewis—no relation, but enthusiastic promoters—maintain the featured area because the books are “a prime example of strong backlist titles—books that have enduring value.”
Also, Rick says, “they reflect part of our identity as a bookstore; a store that carries books that help us on the journey. Books that in a way become spiritual friends for the road.”
Many other stores have organized Lewis-related displays and promotions in recent years to tie in with the release of movie versions of his “Narnia” children’s series: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2005, Prince Caspian in 2008, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 2010.
In addition, retailers have seen success with audio editions of the adventures, including the series produced as part of Focus on the Family’s Radio Theatre and distributed by Tyndale House Publishers (360,000 units sold). The two also partnered for an audio adaptation of Screwtape, featuring actor Andy Serkis, who portrayed Golum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies (63,000 sales). Coming this month is C.S. Lewis at War, dramatizing the story behind the writing of Mere Christianity.
The audio adaptations were fashioned by Focus’ Creative Director Paul McCusker, who was also responsible for The Screwtape Letters: Annotated Edition, published by HarperOne in October.
Lewis has enduring appeal “because he tackled subjects that people care or wonder about, with great thought and insight and humility,” MuCusker said. “That’s part of what makes his work timeless. It’s astonishing how we now take for granted concepts he originally championed: the ‘Liar, Lunatic, or Lord’ argument about Jesus, the explanation about God being outside of time.”
That view was echoed by Jeff Crosby, associate publisher at InterVarsity Press, one of many publishers that doesn’t carry Lewis’ own works but any number about him. “He had an uncanny ability to distill very complex thoughts or narratives into prose that was powerful, digestible, understandable, and practical,” said Crosby.
HarperOne has sold more than 10 million copies of Lewis’ adult works since taking over their stewardship in 2001—some 200,000 in the last year alone. The C.S Lewis Bible has sold 30,000 copies in hardcover since it released in 2010 and 8,000 in a special leather edition retailing for $60.
Senior vice president and publisher Mark Tauber noted that Lewis is embraced across the church spectrum, from evangelicals to Orthodox and Catholics. Mormon curriculum references Lewis too, though “the Buddhists haven’t called yet,” Tauber added. Lewis “wasn’t tribal. He wasn’t engaged in the type of debates we sometimes get into now. As the title says, he was about ‘mere Christianity.’”
Lewis was “very Catholic in his thinking, in his beliefs, and the way he combined faith and reason,” commented Anthony Evan, Marketing Director for Ignatius Press, which publishes more than a dozen titles related to Lewis.
His influence continues
His 40-plus books—including A Grief Observed, The Great Divorce, Surprised by Joy, and the “Space Trilogy” novels—are “becoming more and more well known, and not just among Christians but other groups,” said Steven Elmore, director of communications at The C.S. Lewis Foundation, which hosts an annual conference for scholars, academics, and lay people interested in learning more about the man and his work.
New Lewis releases continue. Tyndale House saw so much interest in Alistair McGrath’s biography, C.S. Lewis—A Life, released earlier this year, that it is following up with the author’s If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis. Due out next April, the book is “a personal invitation for readers to sit down and explore the ideas Lewis had about the persistent questions and dilemmas every person faces in this life,” said Jon Farrar, Tyndale’s senior acquisitions director.
HarperOne plans a couple of Lewis projects a year, while Zondervan is developing a study group DVD on Mere Christianity that will include contributions from N.T. Wright and other scholars, and is slated for release in 2015. That will bring Zondervan back into the Lewis circle, as it were—it used to distribute his books to the CBA market until the Harper Collins reorganization following the acquisition of Thomas Nelson, when distribution switched to HarperOne.
To mark the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death—which will also be commemorated by the unveiling of a plaque in the famed Poets Corner’ at Westminster Abbey, London—HarperOne is rolling out a new, integrated website, www.cslewis.com, that brings together information about all his works, and contributions by academics and scholars, for the first time.
The site will help retailers because “it is going to be a very clear guide to everything that is available,” said Tauber. “You are going to be able to say, ‘These are the titles that are out there, and we can get them for you.’ Until now, it’s been a bit of a mess.” Lewis titles also are being promoted through a daily devotional launched by Biblegateway.com earlier this year.
At Logos, the Lewises have been planning some kind of special promotion for November. One of the related titles likely to be featured: Between Heaven and Hell by Peter Kreeft, a fictional conversation between President Kennedy, Lewis, and a third influential figure who died on the same day, Aldous Huxley.