Victoria Neumark talks to Lois Rock about her career in religious publishing
What links a self-proclaimed Essex girl, mother of three and keen kayaker with ancient documents and worldwide success? Answer: millions of book sales and Jesus. For Lois Rock is no ordinary educational publisher.
She has authored a formidable list of successes for Lion Hudson, the company where she has worked as senior commissioning editor for many years, but where she also writes many of their best-selling children's titles.
Lois prides herself on her scrupulous research but sees her runaway sales as the product of a whole team's work, bringing the stories of Christianity to a world that clearly thirsts for them. The Jesus Encyclopaedia has sold more than 100,000 copies in a year since publication; My Very First Bible 200,000 in the last two years. All in all, 150 titles by Lois are listed on the Lion Hudson website, aimed at a range of ages from three to 15; the latest: The Miracles of Jesus for key stage 1 and Tell Me About Jesus for KS2.
Growing up in a household that was "cheerfully non-conformist of its era", Lois became ever more committed to her faith as she matured; dragging her parents along to school assemblies where the Salvation Army and Quakers spoke; definitely describing herself as a Christian in her student days, studying French at Birmingham; exploring the beliefs of the Anabaptists when she was writing her doctorate in Canada; and ending up, as she says, "peace, justice, social-action-focused, probably nearer to the Mennonites than anyone: I'm rarely disappointed by the Mennonites."
It was as a young mother in Canada that Lois first worked in publishing.
There was a great demand for French-as-a-second-language textbooks which with her linguistic background she was well placed to satisfy. When her family returned to the UK, she worked first in English educational publishing and then approached Lion, which she had always admired. "As a student I bought Lion's Handbook to the Bible, then when the children were small I had Lion books sent for us to read together. It seemed to me that with a Christian background and knowledge of textbook publishing I could be useful."
It was a seamless move from writing teachers' notes to accompany Christian texts to writing the text itself. An early publication was The Lord's Prayer for Children, which Lois cites as both a great publishing opportunity and an example of how to serve the reading public. "We produce Christian books for the general reader as well as for the Christian market," she explains. "We do have the largest publishing list of prayer books, but we try to make them more accessible. Our readers are not expected to be believers nor pressured into that. So this simple book explained the vocabulary and helped people think about the Lord's Prayer."
Some of the more recent books have been substantially more taxing, she admits. "It was quite a squeeze, fitting in the research and writing for the Jesus Encyclopaedia with my day job," she says. Placing herself firmly in the tradition of Biblical scholars, she calls herself a "great enthusiast for the Bible." It is, she remarks, "not some kind of a magical mystery tour but a hugely exciting find of ancient documents that have been valued for a long time and have much to say to us."
She stresses the value of the "searchings" of the Biblical Hebrews for the modern-day. The market (booming particularly in the US, where blood in Biblical stories is frowned upon) can eat up any amount of Bible retelling, which she sees as positive. "I'm prepared to believe that the Bible stories are robust enough to stand up to all kinds of treatment, be it nativity play level or university, which is strong enough to convey their inner purpose. We try to give help to bring out the morally difficult issues for our readers." Hence her position, in the middle of the spectrum of Bible-readers, that the material is "authentic rather than true", and can be read "in an intelligent kind of way".
In the US, she says, Lion books are very popular with the Jewish community which is, she feels, as it should be: "I would like every one who reads one of these books to think about their own beliefs and values."