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EPISODE 30: Good Books

Books have always played a strategic role in discipleship. God chose to reveal himself in a book, the Bible. And reading has a powerful effect on how we grow spiritually. My conversation with Tim Thornborough of The Good Book Company explores what books people are reading and what reading-trends can tell us about God’s people in God’s world.

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Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and my conversation partner today is Tim Thornborough of The Good Book Company in the UK. Tim, welcome to Questions That Matter.

Hi, Randy. I love the questions you ask, and I will attempt to give my rather pathetic answers from this side of the pond.

Well, Tim, you and I have talked a bunch of times about the kinds of books that get published and the kinds of books that get read, and that's where I wanted to go. That's the question that matters to me today: What is it that people are reading? And in particular, what is it that Christians are reading? And what does that tell us about trends in the church or the outlook for the future? So what kind of books are people reading? From your vantage point, what do you see?

Well, I'm from a very specific vantage point, which is from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as its full title is. But there are places you can look to see trends. We regularly dive into Amazon to look at what's top of various categories. We get the Christian bestseller lists from ECPA—that's the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association—to see what's really selling. And we discuss virtually every month at our meeting what is selling for other people and why that is and whether it's the kind of stuff we would want to publish or whether we're looking at something kind of different. In some ways, I think bestseller lists are…. They're kind of beguiling for a publisher, because you look at the Christian Bestseller list for October 2021, and it's all a bit predictable, really.

Top is The Five Love Languages, which is by Gary Chapman. It's been in that spot for the last 15 or 20 years, so it’s a massively successful book that is really just helpful advice on people about all kinds of relationships that they're involved in. And it's not what I would call a strongly Christian book. Of course, there's a background to scripture, there's a background of Christian faith involved there. Gary Chapman's a Christian Believer. Moody, who publishes, are a Christian publisher. But it's the kind of book that people who aren't Christians can enjoy and get a lot from, even if they don't necessarily buy into the gospel. All the things that you would expect human beings, being human beings, to be interested in, to have struggles with, to want help with when they're in a moment of crisis, they are all there, just sort of crowding out the top ten. “I want to know how to be better at loving the people who are close to me, my wife, my family, my children, my neighbors, and so on.” Well, Gary's book is going to help you do that.

Forgiving what you can't forget. I mean, forgiveness is something that perennially we struggle with. There's a whole category of books that just inhabit the top ten, the top fifty, that are simply about, “Here I am. I’m a human being with a life and all the struggles that everybody else has. I'm not quite sure what my direction is. I can't work out where I'm heading in life. Please, can someone just help me get a handle on how I can be better at being a human being or have a better direction?”

The other one, actually, it's down at number nine and number ten: Practical stuff on just handling your money. A really big deal for people. Total Money Makeover, that's regularly up there. So in a sense, you ask the question of any pastor, “what are the things the people in your congregation are struggling with most?” And you'll find something that addresses that in that top fifty of Christian bestsellers.

So now I'm getting the idea, well maybe not from what you're saying now, but from other conversations, but The Good Book Company’s trying to go in some other directions than that, aren't you? I mean, I know you address those kinds of issues, but well, I'll tell you what, let's rewind the clock a little bit. The Good Book Company has been around for about 30 years. What was it that prompted you to start it? Was there a lack of a certain kind of book that you thought needed to be published? Or tell us a little bit of the backstory of the Good Book Company.

Thanks, Randy. Yeah, I had no intention of starting a Christian publishing company, although it became…. As you know, guidance is mostly stuff that you can see in the rear-view mirror, not out of the front of the car. And it's been so obvious in retrospect that the Lord was guiding me, directing me, training me, giving me all the equipment I needed to do this. But I had no intention of starting a Christian publishing company. But once it had started, through what was very clearly a God thing, it just became so clear that this is exactly what I was built for, and so it progressed from there. The three words that we regularly use around the office here are that we want our books to be biblical. And that is, not just quoting texts to back up what we say, but we want people to engage themselves with scripture through our books. I mean that's the primary conviction we have, that it’s the hearing, the understanding, the engagement with the word of God which is where all Christian growth comes from, which is, if you're not a Christian, it's hearing the word of the gospel. It's encountering the life of Jesus in the scriptures that is the key thing that will help you move towards salvation. And if you're a believer, it's what will help you grow and give you the equipment for discipleship. That's plain enough from scripture itself. All scriptures is God breathed and is useful for training, teaching, and so on, and so forth. What surprised me, thirty years ago, was how few Christian publishers actually do that. They want an author to give us your opinion about what this passage is saying. So you don't end up reading scripture, you end up reading the opinion of the author about what this passage of scripture says. So that’s the biblical part of what we talk about.

The second word we use is accessible. And for us, accessibility means accessible in terms of language, accessible in terms of length, accessible in terms of what you can expect an ordinary reader to read. We reckon that there are about 10%, typically, of a Christian congregation, evangelical congregation, that will read a Christian book once a year. There are maybe 3% or 4% in some congregations that will happily read five or six Christian books a year. But once you get beyond that 10% who have understood that Christian literature of various kinds can really help improve, educate, encourage, stimulate their faith, you get 90% of a congregation who just would never pick up a Christian book of their own volition-

And you're saying that with a fair amount of conviction that research backs that up. I know I've talked to you before. This isn't just your speculation. So 10% will read one book a year, 3% to 4% will read five or six books a year. I need to find right now where my bottle of Prozac is, because that's so discouraging to me. But I think you're right. Anyway, sorry.

So when we say accessible, we're saying to ourselves…. I mean it’s ridiculous for us to think that everybody could read a book. But if we could craft the books we are creating to reach the next 10% of the congregation. If the minister were to hold up a book and say, “Look, this brilliant book has just arrived.” The title is appealing. The cover’s appealing. They open it up and flick it through, and it's not long and dense, but they say to themselves, “Do you know what? I think I can manage that.” That is the biggest win of all for us, because actually that top 10% anyway, they really want resources like that, anyway. Early days, it was amazing to me. We used to get lots of reviews by Americans saying, “I can't believe how much they have said in so few pages.” “It's astonishing to me that they can cover this subject so well in barely 96 pages.” And I'm thinking, “Well, that's because you've got used to people saying in 300 pages what they could have said in 96 pages much better, and reach more people with it.

I will jump in here and say the very first book I read published by The Good Book Company was Sam Alberry's book, Is God anti-gay? and I ended up using it as a textbook in a course that I taught, and that was exactly my thought, of, “It is amazing how much he has packed into less than 100 pages,” or around 100 pages. And so I guess that's not to say that some books shouldn't be longer, but it certainly does say that a whole lot of books don't need to be more than 100 pages. Is that where your thinking is?

Yeah, that's absolutely right, Randy. I think the third word we use gives us the whole picture there, which is biblical, accessible, but relevant. In other words, speaking to the actual realities of the lived lives of ordinary church members today. And again, it's this sense that there is this…. The Christian media industry has partly been responsible for broadcasting this image of what a perfect Christian family should look like and a wonderful Christian church should look like. Of course, those are wonderful things to aim for and to have a vision of how life could be with people who are close to Christ and committed to His Word and his ways. But the reality, as you are aware, and we should all be aware, is often very different. So if you're publishing books, and particularly fiction, actually Christian fiction, where everything is joy and light and is a million miles from reality, you're not actually helping people. So interestingly, that book you talked about, Is God anti-gay? it came from reading one of these older books, of, you know, the ten questions that people ask Christians, and here's how to answer them, by someone called Paul Little?


How to Give Away Your Faith, and there were sort of ten questions in it. It's a very old book.

Right, right.

And I read through it and I thought, “Well, no one asks these questions anymore.” They might do, 18 months into a conversation with them. But the questions they're asking are about blockages to even thinking about faith, one of which is sex and sexuality, is God anti-gay? So I really wanted to address…. And that’s an example of relevance. This is what real people's lives actually are, and being honest about how messy people's lives are, even Christian's lives are.


I subscribe to a number of different newsletters, and I read about what God is doing around the world, and frequently, repeatedly, I see and hear pleas for the need for discipleship all around the world. That is the crying need of our time, and that is the specific focus that God has placed on the C.S. Lewis Institute. So we're so very grateful to be involved, and have been for decades, in something that could very well be the greatest need of our world today. So please consider becoming a financial partner with us. It would be at the very core and centrality of what God is doing in our world today.

Yeah. And those questions do change over time. And you're exactly right. Paul Little wrote that book, I think, back in the 1960s, and it was a great help to people then, tremendously. But you're right that people are not asking those questions anymore, or certainly…. I mean, there's some that are perennial, like: Why does a good God allow evil and suffering? That's always been asked. It always will be. Although the way we answer it today, biblically, will still be the same, but we'll talk about it in light of COVID-19, not September 11, 2001, because that's not in people's frame, right in front of them.

So I really do appreciate that you go after those kinds of questions that people are asking. Or they're not asking them, but they're wondering them. They're not saying them out loud. But you're right, they're blockages. The conversation doesn't even start because people are thinking, “Why are Christians so hypocritical?” or, “Why are they so anti-science?” That's an area that you've gone after, with John Lennox and some others. So are there trends that you're seeing as far as age groups go? In other words, are younger readers reading less, reading more, only reading blog posts, only reading tweets? Do you see any of those kinds of trends?

I was just talking with our editorial team just before this podcast, actually, about what some people call comics, but in generic terms is adult illustrated books, which are the fastest growing segment, actually, of physical published books.

Is that what some call graphic novels?



Yeah. I mean, it's troublesome terminology for Christians because the word “comic” we associate with something that's just there to be silly and make you laugh. And the gospel is neither silly nor a laughing matter in that regard. Nor is a graphic novel Bible…. Well, that’s not a novel, is it? It’s true. It's what happened. It's how God revealed Himself in history. So I prefer the term adult illustrated.

Okay. And you're saying that's the fastest growing segment?

Yeah, I think so. There are way more comic books in America than there are Christian bookshops. And it's added, I think, in the general market, not necessarily in the Christian market, but we're all communicators, right? If you ask me what The Good Book Company is, of course we're a book publisher, but really what we are is a Christian communications organization. It just happens that most of the things we do are physical books at the moment. But the job is: How do you take this enriching, nurturing, important content and enable people to access it in a way which suits them and helps them? And we've given ourselves to making books that are more accessible, but they're still books. They're still tree books, as we call them. Made out of trees, as opposed to ebooks or earbooks. Audio is one of the fastest growing mediums for communication of what start life as a standard tree book.

But as a category of printed book, adult illustrated is up there. So the chief digital way that you access comic books is an app called ComiXology, which is part of the Amazon world. You go to Audible for your audiobooks, which is also Amazon. You go to ComiXology for illustrated books. Their throughput grew 33% last year.

Adult illustrated is very patchy worldwide. So it's not huge in the UK. It’s big in America and Canada. It’s huge in France and Belgium. So some of the partner organizations we work with in translation, in France, their biggest category of sales of all their Christian books is comic books, adult animated books.


And, of course, enormous in Japan and Korea and China and Singapore and other places around the world. The biggest selling children's Bible is? Give us a guess.

I was going to say the Jesus Storybook Bible, but maybe not.

No, that's words.

It’s got to be pictures.

Yeah. It’s the Action Bible, which is a comic book.

Wow. What other differences do you see between the UK and the US, as far as reading and books go?

Well, length is one thing. There is a subset of Americans, of whom I think you're probably one, Randy, who love to read long books. There's a tradition of publishing and people reading and thinking about and discussing and having, within the national discourse, through interviews and articles in newspapers and on the radio, of serious-minded books of all kinds: political, social, spiritual, theological, philosophical. That's much smaller in the UK. Actually, if I could… somebody may disagree with this hugely, in which case, please feel free to write in to Randy Newman.

That's right.

And tell him not to have such idiots on his podcast. I think that one of the things that has spoiled the Christian publishing industry in the US is the availability… is the size of having so many really well-educated ministers. So I think I'm right in saying that there are something like half a million employed Christian workers in the US.

Oh my! Huh.

In churches, that's not just pastors. Assistant pastors, youth workers, children's workers, and so on and so forth. Many of the people in pastoral ministry will automatically get a book grant as part of their remuneration package, and it's their job to sit and read heavyweight books. So if I'm a publisher sitting in the place where all those other Christian publishers are, Grand Rapids, I’m thinking that's my prime market. I've got half a million people to shoot for there who’ve got money to spend on books. If I craft a book for them that they're all going to be interested in reading because it's about pastoral ministry or dealing with some kind of pastoral problem, then that's me sorted as a publisher. I can publish academic-


… because that's their job, to sit and read books part of the time.

And you're saying that… but that's actually a small percentage of the total population. So the books get targeted for these highly trained, educated people, but they're actually a small percentage of Christians.


Is that right?

Yeah. And a smaller percentage of the population as a whole. Finding, crafting a book that non-Christians can engage with and will feel accessible and relevant to them, it’s the big thing I'm always searching for and asking the question about: How can I make that connection and an evangelistic book that I, as a Christian, could not just give away to someone who isn't a believer but give to a believer, and they'd be, “Do you know what? That's really interesting. I'd love to read that.”


It's what I call pull marketing, rather than push marketing.

Oh. Oh, good.

You know, they want it once you've explained what it is to them. It’s not, “Oh, golly! Randy's given me another book. I better read him, otherwise he'll look critically at me next time I meet him in the park.”

Right. And it's a tremendous challenge. I mean, I hope to someday write a book like that, that I could give to non believers, and they wouldn't feel like, “Oh, I better read it because Randy is my friend, and I don't want to jeopardize the friendship.” It's that they would look at the title or the description, and they would say, “Oh, these are actually the kinds of questions I've been wondering about.” And that is a tremendous challenge, because there are these books… I'll try to be careful not to mention the titles, but there are books that they look like the kind of book that you would give to a non-Christian because they’re an evangelistic book, and they sell really well, but I think they're selling to Christians, and I'm not so sure that non-Christians are actually reading them. But here, I just went this morning. Before we started recording, I went online and I thought, “I wonder what kind of books are on The New York Times bestseller list?” And I'm looking at nonfiction books, and they're all rather large, 500 pages, 400 pages, 512 pages. A lot of them are political ones or historical ones, but I'm guessing that, okay, those are The New York Times best sellers, but that's still a pretty small percentage of the whole population. Is that right?

Yeah, tiny by comparison.

Right. So they're the New York Times bestsellers, but 98% of the people that I know are not reading any of them. Yeah. I find this interesting. I'm hoping our listeners will as well, because I know that the people who connect with the C.S. Lewis Institute are readers. We like to read. Say a little bit about the series of books you've done that are commentaries that are trying to be accessible to the average Christian. Because they're very accessible. They're short. They're all under the title, if I remember correctly, Luke for You, James for You. Is that correct?

Yes, that's right. We call it the God's Word for You series.

Yes, God’s Word for You, as opposed to the thick monster commentaries that I love to read. I love them, but I know… I'm not going to recommend them to anybody.

Yeah. You're a freak, Randy. You didn’t know that, did you?

Okay. You didn't have to say that while we were recording, and I will work diligently to have that line removed and edited. I'm a freak. Well, this conversation has come to an abrupt end. Thanks so very much. Well, wait, before you go, Tim, say a word about your commentary series that's so thin.

Yeah. Again, this was the accessibility thing. And we have a phrase that we use on the front that we crafted on the front that Carl Laferton, our amazing editorial director, and I came up with in this very room. We wanted it to be useful in a whole…. Who reads commentaries? Basically, students who are trying to get a piece of paper, ministers who are wanting to prep a sermon. Is that about it? People like you who really want some kind of in-depth understanding of the scriptures. And then we thought, look, there are two other categories that are often missed out. The vast majority of teaching and Bible engagement in a church happens in home groups, home Bible study groups.


So what is there around that can really help someone who has just come in from a day's work, they're pushing hours at work, they're busy with their family, they're busy with church stuff, and then they sit down, and they've got to prep a Bible study for their own group. What is there that we can really help people get the big picture of a Bible book. And by the same token, is it possible to produce a commentary that people could just kind of read for their own quiet time or devotionals if they have one of those? Or if they were just interested in getting to grips with what Galatians is all about, able to read it through as a book, without stumbling over languages that they don't know anything about, Greek and Hebrew, Latin and so on, and having some of the clutter that commentaries feel they have to engage with because they are questions in academic circles that need dealing with.

So we came up with this phrase that these books were for leading, for reading, for teaching. And the idea is, here's a book that a minister… you've prepped a sermon, you've used the big commentaries on Galatians, so you've really got to grips with what's going on. But here's a book by a preacher that you can also read that's got illustrations in, that’s got the big picture that will help you just fashion a sermon and give you a sense of how this passage hangs together as a whole. Having done a deep dive into the trees, this will show you the wood in a clear way, but it's also a book a home group leader can use and someone who's interested can sit and read. So that was the aim of the series.

Are you a fisher of men? Do you want to be a fisher of men? Do you struggle with this call that Jesus places on us to be fishers of men? Discipling others is also a significant part of that whole enterprise, and it's a way to abide in Christ. It's a way for us to know Christ more fully, become more like Him, and participate in His work of building His kingdom. So as we disciple, we become coworkers with Jesus. As He helps us mature, He allows us to help Him mature others and nurture them towards reproduction and expanding of His kingdom. And so we have many free small group resources on our website, many different things to help you in this discipleship process, both to grow as a disciple and to disciple others. So please check out

Well, I think you've accomplished those goals. I really love them. I think Tim Keller's commentary on Galatians in that series, it really does exactly what you just said. Someone who's a community group leader could read it and lead a discussion of the Book of Galatians. Someone can just read it as part of their quiet time and part of their personal study, and it works really, really well that way. And I think you were right in that…. I mean, I'm very grateful for those scholarly commentaries and I want pastors to be reading those, but they're not what the people in my community group need to be reading. They don't need to be reading those, and they're not going to. And even if you made a strong argument about why they should, they're still not going to read them. So those are tremendously helpful for a whole group of people who have not been served well, I think, by those kind of things. So I'm so grateful for those commentaries “for you.” Well, I do want to wrap this up.

So what are some trends? What are some things you think that are coming that encourage you? What are you encouraged about as far as God's people reading?

There's a continuing interest in books on doctrine. People really want to work out what church is and how we should fit into it and how the building blocks of Christian understanding are there. Doctrine is a different view on scripture. I often describe it like books of doctrine are those heavyweight horticultural books, where you can look up what a flower is and how to grow it, whereas the Bible is more like a walk in a garden, a beautiful sort of wild garden. And books on doctrine help you spot, in scripture, themes that are there but might be hidden within the narrative of what's going on.

Another big trend, I think, is creative fiction. Best-selling category of fiction in general is: Do you know what it is, Randy? It's romance. Romance is the biggest.

Oh, oh.

So if you really want to make money, drop all this sort of C.S. Lewis and how to share your faith sort of stuff and write a good, solid “here's how I met my beloved” kind of story. But there are some really good people working in Christian fiction. There are different kinds of Christian fiction. There's some that are very on the surface and, you know, a bit pedestrian. I personally think they're pedestrian. That feed this desire. So you'll find, you know, with Christian publishers, a huge number of Amish love stories, which are very…. You should write an Amish love story, Randy.

It was next on my list.

Well, there are some really smart, creative people doing some really interesting things in young adult fiction, where the Christian worldview is embedded, but it's done with subtlety and style, which I think is a good thing. If you're wanting kids to read literature, you want them to read great literature first and foremost, that stimulates their imagination. You've talked about this in your book, actually, haven't you, on C.S. Lewis?

Right. Yes. Yes. Yeah, Lewis had that phrase where he said we want more books, and he actually even said, more little books. More little books where the Christianity is latent. And I realized just saying that is opening up twelve cans of worms. So I'll have to save that for another podcast.

If you'd like me to give you something that will have the Twitterati up in arms-

I don't know if I do, but sure, let's give it a try.

You can always crop it out, Randy. You see, I think the Harry Potter series, they're Christian novels. The whole worldview is Christian. The whole story line is about redemption. J.K. Rowling is Christian herself. I don't know what her personal faith is, but it's built on a Christian worldview, and the whole story is the Jesus story, actually, isn't it? It's redemption painted within this imaginative, magical world, which is only the same thing that C.S. Lewis did, but in a slightly more allegorical way in the first book in particular, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Right. Maybe more closely to what Tolkien was doing, a little more subtle, but woven and beautifully written. Well, we need to wrap this up, and yes, who knows what kind of response people will give. But I'm encouraged, and I hope you are. I think there's plenty of things to discourage us about trends in what people are reading or not reading. But then, at the same time, there's tremendous things that are coming. And like you just said, the books on doctrine. And I loved your image there of a book on a stroll through a garden, as opposed to a technical, “Well, let's dig in and look at this particular flower.” Those are very encouraging to me that they're selling as well as they are.

So this has been great, but we're going to bring it to a close. For those of you who are listening, we hope that you'll check out our website,, and check out the articles and books that we recommend there. I hope you'll also visit The Good Book Company’s website. They're producing lots and lots of really, really great things, and they can help you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Thanks for listening.

Brought to you by the C.S. Lewis Institute and the Questions That Matter Podcast with Randy Newman.

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