C.S. Lewis interview with HarperOne Publisher Mark Tauber

C.S. Lewis.

The name stands alone.

Even half a century after his death, no other Christian author—except St. Paul himself—has sold more books, decade after decade.

No one expected this in 1963. At that point, Lewis was a global figure with a huge output of inspirational books as well as works of serious literary scholarship, speculative science fiction, fanciful children’s novels—and countless radio broadcasts, as well.

But his death went almost unnoticed because he passed on November 22, 1963, the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the world-renowned author Aldous Huxley died. As you will read in our interview with HarperOne’s Mark Tauber, publishers never imagined that Lewis’s body of work would attract generation after generation of loyal fans.

Given his enormous audience—and unprecedented sales—Lewis’s many books remain tightly controlled by the Lewis estate. For a good many years after his death, the books fell into a tangle of publishing arrangements circling the globe. Slowly but surely, HarperOne has been consolidating that book list and, nearly every year, produces attractive new editions.

Just in time for Christmas 2013 …

and, for the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s passing …
and, as the UK honors Lewis with a special memorial at Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner  …
and, as a new Lewis-Narnia movie based on The Silver Chair is freshly in the news …
for all of those reasons—HarperOne is excited about its array of C.S. Lewis editions.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Senior Vice President and Publisher of HarperOne Mark Tauber about all of this news—and C.S. Lewis’s enduring popularity.


DAVID CRUMM: It’s absolutely stunning—in a world where the biggest stars are sexy singers or Hollywood heroes—to find a bespectacled Oxford professor with such a vast worldwide audience. He’s been dead half a century. He never even heard of YouTube.

MARK TAUBER: Yes, it is amazing.

DAVID: And, Lewis still is making news! To demonstrate this for our readers, let me list just a few of the magazines and newspapers with fresh Lewis stories on the day we’re doing this interview. On just one random day—there are headlines in: BBC News, Investor’s Business Daily, Tulsa World, Augusta Chronicle, National Review, Central Kentucky News and I’ll stop there but I could go on and on. The one that sticks out for me is Investor’s Business Daily. They’ve got a fresh profile of Lewis as a figure business people should know about.

MARK: (laughing) I’m laughing because, for a while, I had “C.S. Lewis” set up as a daily Google News alert—and I had to disable it because I was getting way too much stuff every day. And let’s leave the issue of the new movie aside for a moment. Even without the movie news, Lewis just keeps generating headlines.


MARK: There are many reasons, but here’s a very important one: He was a guy who avoided what we think of today as tribalism. We publish these books and we watch closely who is buying and reading them. There is no one else I can think of who is so widely read in mainline Protestant churches, Catholic parishes, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and of course the evangelical community. He cuts across the entire Christian spectrum.

And that’s not all. There are all these other audiences he reaches: There’s the whole fantasy fan crowd for the Chronicles series. There are science fiction fans of his work in that genre. And, there still are scholars who seek out Lewis for his scholarly work. It’s not surprising that some of the best-known, most-followed Christian leaders today—people like Rick Warren and so many others—keep pointing to C.S. Lewis. Because of who he was and how he approached his work—Lewis cuts across all these lines. He didn’t dive into the the type of culture war that is so common today. He unites people.

DAVID: What would Lewis think of his ongoing success 50 years after he left the planet? Any guess?

MARK: Well, I’m not sure what he would make of it. I’m not sure how he would feel about people from very different perspectives using his stuff and claiming him as theirs. But he still is probably the most influential Christian voice of the day, certainly one of the most influential. I don’t think anyone would debate that.

DAVID: He lived in an era of “big tent” Christianity, we might say. Today we’ve got all these civil-war-style trenches dug between various Christian groups. In Lewis’s heyday—in the heyday of all the Inklings we can say, I think—Christianity was more of a single voice against secularism and various dark forces. Both Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were deeply affected by World War I and World War II. Their voices were raised, not in political partisan causes within Christianity, but on behalf of what they saw as a planet-wide wrestling between faith and forces that would destroy faith.

MARK: Here’s a good example. Mere Christianity began as a series of BBC talks between 1942 and 1944. The question everyone was asking, then, was: How do we sort out this big mess we’re in—in the middle of World War II—so his series of talks fit right into mainstream news. He was on the cover of TIME Magazine right after the war. Yes, he was speaking and writing for a big tent.

DAVID: We could keep listing examples of this. Here’s another one: In 2008, the prestigious UK newspaper, The Times, ranked all of the greatest British writers since the end of WWII and Lewis—among all writers in all genres—ranked 11th. The special honors he will receive at Westminster aren’t given lightly. Many people to this day credit Lewis as a key figure in their conversion stories.

MARK: My own story begins with growing up as an evangelical. I went to a big southern California megachurch. Now, I see a lot of the old dividing lines falling away. But I can say that Lewis was—and is—a huge source for my faith.

Now, as a publisher, I find it just crazy that Lewis’s sales have not dropped after so many years. Of course, I know that his sales always rise in a movie year. And, there’s news of a movie that’s coming—The Silver Chair—but Lewis’s sales do well with or without a movie.

Here’s a smaller example—a new one. Bible Gateway has millions of unique visitors each month and they do a series of free newsletters people can sign up to receive. We proposed a C.S. Lewis quote of the day—and they announced it in August in a blog post. In two weeks, they got 26,000 people to sign up for a daily quote from Lewis.

DAVID: Yeah. That doesn’t surprise me at all. The Twitter feed of C.S. Lewis Daily is heading toward 1 million followers.

MARK: It shows the hunger out there for Lewis. Look at the Facebook pages on Lewis. We’re seeing a big number of Likes—and the actual sharing in Facebook is in the thousands every day.


DAVID: Let’s talk about some of the individual books. And let’s start with one of my all-time favorites: The Great Divorce. And I’m not alone. We keep seeing news items pop up about people trying to produce stage or film productions.

The book is short. There are a number of editions floating around, these days, including a nice-looking paperback edition in that big boxed set (see top image today). But I prefer the lovely hardback edition you’re selling. I like the soft feel of the dust cover and the little bus that’s just creeping onto the front cover—understated, I would call it.

Of course, fans of this book know that’s the bus to heaven on the cover. The question in the book is: Do we even want to get on that bus? It’s a dark, fictional-fanciful book in which a lot of people who are living in this very gray world simply aren’t interested in getting on that bus. The bus is right there, available to them, but they have all these excuses for remaining in their dreary homes.

This is another end-of-WWII book for Lewis. He published it first as a series in The Guardian starting in 1944. Then, it became this book.

MARK: I think of The Great Divorce as the quintessential post-war Lewis book. The world is so dark and gray, still half in rubble, still rationing in Europe.

This may surprise you, but The Great Divorce is the third-best-selling book of all the Lewis books. The first is Mere Christianity and that is closely following by Screwtape and, then, a little further away—but better than The Four Loves and often better than The Lion, the Witch in some years—is The Great Divorce.


DAVID: Let’s talk about Aslan and The Chronicles of Narnia. I want to point out a book that I’ve enjoyed myself: A Year with Aslan, which is 365 short daily readings from The Chronicles.

I’m guessing that 2014 will be a very good year for you with Narnia books—now that a new Silver Chair movie is in the news. On the day we’re talking, I checked Google News and there are 73 current news stories about that film production getting underway.

Here’s a bit of what the LA Times said about the film news: The beloved Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis sat on bookshelves for more than half a century before it found a home on the big screen. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, its famous first installment, came out in 2005, followed in 2008 by Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 2010. And then—nothing. Now, it has been announced that a fourth Narnia film is on the way. The deal between C.S. Lewis Co. and Mark Gordon Co. will make the next film in the series, The Silver Chair.

MARK: They’ve been working on The Silver Chair project for a long time and they’ve finally landed that. The one that I keep hearing about is a Screwtape film. Three times over the last 10 years, we thought we were going to have a Screwtape movie—then, we keep hearing that it’s all about the scripts. I’ve heard that they just can’t settle on the right script.

DAVID: I imagine there will be some new Narnia editions coming in 2014—or whenever the movie is finished, right?

MARK: I’m sure our children’s group will be extremely involved when the film does open. Every time a new movie comes out, they do a new wave. The movies do lift all boats.

DAVID: We’ll stay tuned in 2014. For now, we’ll be recommending A Year with Aslan to readers for this holiday-shopping season.


DAVID: OK, finally, let’s talk about The Screwtape Letters and this annotated edition that you released about a year ago. I think it’s a terrific holiday gift for that Lewis fan on readers’ lists. We’ve already discussed the popularity of the basic Screwtape book, year after year. I’ve still got my own father’s well-worn copy from the late 1950s, when the added section, Screwtape Proposes a Toast, was first bound into a single volume with the original text. I treasure that little book with Dad’s name jotted in the front and 1959, the year he bought it, in ball-point pen.

Since then, I can’t imagine how many copies I’ve bought, owned, given away—must be a couple dozen overall. So, why get a new Screwtape Letters? My argument is this: I love the feel and look of this annotated edition. Yes, I’ve got every kind of e-reader you can imagine and I read books, all the time, on everything from Kindle and iPad to my iPhone. But, there’s something about a well-made book.

I love the addition of red ink inside this book for the notes. There are a couple of hundred helpful annotations that first-time and veteran readers will find intriguing. I just think it would be a great gift to open on Christmas morning.

MARK: I agree with you that this book looks good and feels good. We chose special paper for this; and we carefully chose the red ink for the annotations in the margins. We’re also discussing an annotated Mere Christianity, so that may come down the pike later. But I am nervous about this edition. Some years ago, we published a classic-art edition of Narnia and it just didn’t work well. It sold fine, but our other editions way outsold it. I’m hoping that this annotated book does catch on.

DAVID: Well, we’re pushing it today and I agree with you: I hope it does catch some holiday-shopping buzz. I know people who already own the book and, still, I’d put this on a holiday shopping list for them.

So, before we close, what else should we say about Lewis?

MARK: I would add that we just don’t have very many public intellectuals like Lewis, anymore, and certainly not many Christian public intellectuals.

DAVID: To put that conclusion into someone else’s mouth, there’s evangelical scholar Mark Noll’s line: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there’s not much of an evangelical mind.” For years now, Noll and others have been campaigning to change that.

MARK: There are some authors out there today who claim to be public intellectuals, but Lewis filled that role in a way we just don’t see today. He was able to speak in public ways—and in public places—in clear and thought-through ways. And, he found large audiences willing to listen and to buy his books. One of the projects we’ve just approved—and it’ll come out in the next couple of years—is a book that we’ll call How to Read by C.S. Lewis. This book will pull material from the whole corpus of his work, including his letters. He was a giant, not just as a  Christian writer, but as a teacher. He had a lot to say that helps people read and write English. We see this upcoming book as a bold move to emphasize Lewis’s ongoing place in the shaping of modern media.

DAVID: Well, we wish you well with all of that. And—to our readers—stay tuned to ReadTheSpirit for more on Lewis in 2014.


Buy the books! Click on any of the covers with today’s column to jump to the Amazon pages for those books. They include:

C. S. Lewis Signature Classics: Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, A Grief Observed, The Problem of Pain, Miracles, and The Great Divorce (Boxed Set)

The Great Divorce (Hardback Edition)

A Year with Aslan: Daily Reflections from The Chronicles of Narnia

Screwtape Letters: The Annotated Edition


If you’re holiday shopping: Please, be sure to check out our ReadTheSpirit bookstore as well!

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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  1. 2EZ says

    “Even half a century after his death, no other Christian author—except St. Paul himself—has sold more books, decade after decade.”

    Any idea what the numbers are? I think Tolkien might have him beat.

    • Matheus Faustino says

      Tolkien was catholic, wich is not pretty much a religion about Christ himself but his mom and fellows, and most of all, he didn’t write about it AS LONG AS I KNOW.

    • David says

      You can’t beat Pilgrims Progress for consistent sales since publication. Still doing better than Mere Christianity in Kindle paid sales despite free version.

  2. David Crumm says

    As the interviewer in this column, let me clarify this claim a bit. And, no, I did not intend any pejorative comment about Catholics. The claim, as stated at the top of this interview, reflects that Lewis ranks among the world’s all-time best selling authors. His Chronicles of Narnia series, alone, is estimated to have sold between 50 and 100 million copies in its overall lifetime.

    Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is estimated to have sold more than 100 million copies, but there are several other issues we took into account:

    Lewis has far more titles in print and, overall, it is likely that his total book sales have surpassed Tolkien. In this realm of estimate, we’re admittedly in the realm of “educated guess with research.” Still, this is one factor in the claim.

    The other factor is the use of the term “Christian” and the comparison with St. Paul. Even in the Narnia series, Lewis was far more pointedly “Christian” than Tolkien’s overall Christian undergirding in the Lord of the Rings series. I think we’d all agree on that point.

    If we simply ranked anyone with a Christian affirmation or Christian themes in their work, then we might debate whether Charles Dickens could claim the title. While Dickens’ Christian affiliation is debatable, he clearly saw himself as Christian and even wrote a whole book that was a life of Jesus for young readers.

    So, that’s more of the background about the claim. Thanks for the commentary.

  3. William O'Flaherty says

    I wanted to check…your story says that the the top selling books for Lewis is:
    1.) Mere Christianity
    2.) The Screwtape Letters

    And after this it varies, but the 3rd is often The Great Divorce, but sometimes LWW is 3rd, but after this it is The Four Loves?

  4. David says

    Amazon UK show for Kindle LWW and MN as more popular than Screwtape. The remarkable thing is that Screwtape, Mere Christianity and A Grief Observed are listed higher than the last Narnia book, The Silver Chair.

  5. Pat Ramsey Beckman says

    From the fifties era, and a graduate of a prestigious Catholic girls’ college, I had forgotten more than I had read. Thanks to your data on this e-mail my interest in a favorite writer, C. S. Lewis, is revived. I can’t wait to reestablish my love for this great writer and to pass it on to my Grands, and Great Grands.
    Where do I begin!!!!!!!
    Thank you,
    Pat Ramsey Beckman, Writer of Children’s Literature