Christian Retailing

Surprise sellers Print Email
Written by Eric Tiansay   
Thursday, 30 June 2011 10:42 AM America/New_York

With more than 2 million in sales, a children’s version due to release in November and a movie adaptation, Heaven is for Real (Thomas Nelson) has been one the surprise hits of the Christian publishing world, since its release last fall.

Like William P. Young’s best-seller The Shack, it is one of those titles that has been propelled more by word-of-mouth recommendation than advertising and promotion.

We talked with representatives of publishers of similar titles, which have racked up sales of more than a million without a major marketing push, about handling such unexpected successes and the role Christian retail stores have in their impact.

Taking part in the discussion were: 

  • Woodley Auguste, director of marketing and publicity for Charisma Media’s book division, Charisma House (23 Minutes in Hell by Bill Wiese, 2006) 
  • Don Gates, vice president of marketing for trade books at Zondervan (The Man in the Mirror by Patrick Morley, 2000) 
  • Laura Minchew, vice president & publisher, children and gift specialty books for Thomas Nelson (Jesus Calling by Sarah Young, 2004) 
  • LaRae Weikert, vice president of editorial for Harvest House (The Power of a Praying Parent by Stormie Omartian, 1995) 


Don Gates



CHRISTIAN RETAILING: How did your million-seller hits come about?

WOODLEY AUGUSTE: I think it was the popularity of books based on the afterlife and the supernatural. In light of current events, people are asking some questions about faith—most importantly and of course—the afterlife. Books like 23 Minutes in Hell that are in that genre meet that felt need. I think that as things seem to become more chaotic, people were intrigued by asking the question, “Is heaven or hell real?” A book by a realtor that was not a preacher—was just an “Average Joe,” if you will, recounting a vision—I think it really piqued people’s interest.

LaRAE WEIKERT: We can’t really talk about The Power of a Praying Parent’s success without mentioning The Power of a Praying WifeThe Power of a Praying Parent was Stormie’s second release with Harvest House, and The Power of a Praying Wife was the third release. When we released The Power of a Praying Wife, it just took off. That book hit a need that was out there, and it took The Power of a Praying Parent along with it. One of the things about the strength of The Power of a Praying Parent is it really helped parents understand how to pray for their children. It’s one of those books that you can apply the prayers to children of all ages. It wasn’t just specifically for preschool children or high-school-aged children. I think people were concerned about their relationships and continued to be, and they want practical ways to develop their spiritual lives. They also were worried about their kids, and Stormie’s prayers really helped millions develop their prayer life. It’s helping people put their faith into action.

 LAURA MINCHEW: I do think that there are books that God has His hand upon, and you do the very best you can to shepherd them, but you don’t take credit for sales of a book like this. The best thing I can do is just help shepherd it along the way and try to hang on. Jesus Calling had been out for a couple of years and it sold fairly modestly. Then it just really was grass-roots that started moving. The book, in one year, went from 40,000 copies to over 200,000. The next year it went to 500,000. We’re at about a million and a half now. More people, when they would get it in their hand, they would buy multiple copies of the book and give them out. When people find a book that they love, they really do want to share it.

DON GATES: As the head of marketing at Zondervan, I would love to say it was marketing and PR that made this book, but the reality is God moves in certain ways through certain messages. When it first came out in the late ’80s, The Man in the Mirror really was one of very few books that had been written by men for men. It really started a much bigger category within the Christian retail store. The explosion of growth happened when Zondervan put out a bunch of free copies through the ministry of Man in the Mirror. Patrick Morley—this was his heartfelt message and he wanted to see it happen, so it really became a ministry to us here at Zondervan to make that happen. We believe so strongly in the content—in the message—that we gave away quite a bit. When you’ve got something of great content, generating that word-of-mouth is so crucial. By giving away the book, in many different ways, we generated a lot of word-of-mouth, which ended up increasing the sales greatly in the retail stores.

CHRISTIAN RETAILING: When did you realize something special was happening and what did you to maximize that opportunity?

AUGUSTE: It was several months after the book had been published. Initially when the book was released in the trade, it did OK, but it wasn’t a blockbuster and people weren’t lining up for it. We started hearing little things. Word-of-mouth started to spread about the book. It took on almost a viral effect. When we started to see that it was resonating with people, we decided to step up some of our efforts in terms of marketing, to help augment that. One of the pivotal things that I think caused the shifts was when we started running commercials. We started radio spots in major markets—of all places, The Rush Limbaugh Show. It was a gamble to try and do something like this. We ran 30-second spots on Rush in several major markets and we started getting some press about it. We just kept adding more fuel to the fire. Of course, the ministries started getting involved with the television programs, and that took it to another level as well.

WEIKERT: The Power of a Praying Parent sold modestly well at first, and then when The Power of a Praying Wife released, the sales of Parent really started to escalate. I talked to our former sales vice president at Harvest House, and I asked him, “It’s been so many years ago. What did we do, sales and marketing wise, to really help this book?” He said, “We really didn’t do anything extraordinary, but it was just in demand.” I think that during that time, independent Christian bookstores were thriving. That was during the ’90s and they were really motivated to take both The Power of a Praying Parent and The Power of a Praying Wife. It just seemed like they just couldn’t keep the book in stock, so we just continued to build on that momentum as a house. History really tells a tale there.

MINCHEW: About two years ago, we started hearing so much feedback on the book. So many of us actually used the book as our own devotional each day and it started really impacting our lives. The same thing happened with some of the store owners in the Christian market, and they came to us and said, “Could we do a special edition of this book?” So we started working with some of the different retailers. ... When we got the book out into the market in a broad way and people started trying it, they would come back and buy a case at a time. Many bought multiple copies. At that point, the sales and the word-of-mouth really started catching up, and I think that catapulted it to the sales level that it is today.

GATES: The book was first published in 1988 by another publishing house, and Zondervan acquired it in the mid-90s. It was really in 2000 when we really broke through by giving away all those copies and flooding the marketplace with some great copy in conjunction with Man in the Mirror ministry.  

CHRISTIAN RETAILING: What part did stores have in the success?

AUGUSTE: For us, it would probably be a little bit of a 50/50 split in terms of the retailers. One of the key players, of course, is the ministries. For 23 Minutes in Hell, several retailers got behind it—some of the chains such as Family, Berean and Mardel, as well as some of the big box retailers like Wal-Mart. The key component was the television ministries. When the author, Bill Wiese, would go on those programs and do interviews, they would offer the book as a premium. It would help spread word-of-mouth. 

WEIKERT: With these two books in particular and during the time period when they were released, I think the stores played a significant role in their success. They were willing to feature both books on endcaps and prominently in their stores. Also, we did a number of marketing bundles of the products. The stores were familiar with Stormie because of the albums that she produced with her husband, Michael, and because of the exercise videos and a couple of other books, so she wasn’t an unknown.

MINCHEW: I think what it shows is the power of this market channel—the power of stores who move product. It shows that print product is not dead, and that this channel can move tons of product. When people get behind it and they promote it and they feel strongly about it and tell it to people, then wonderful things happen with books. There’s just a wonderful opportunity for sales. 

GATES: Stores really got behind The Man in the Mirror. In the early days, the support that we got during two key holidays—Father’s Day, which obviously is a natural for this, as well as Christmas—were great. Still today, there are many CBA retailers out there who display The Man in the Mirror during those key timeframes. All folks know a primary purchaser in a CBA store is women, but merchandising for women—to purchase for their husband, their father, other significant men in their lives at Father’s Day as well as Christmas—have been great periods of time for us. 

CHRISTIAN RETAILING: What have you learned from this success?

AUGUSTE: We’ve learned that books in this genre are one of our core competencies. Obviously in book publishing, it’s an art form; it’s not really an exact science. You can make a concerted effort in terms of marketing placement, getting retailers involved—all those sorts of things—but it doesn’t guarantee that a book will be a success. That’s where the God factor really comes in, where you have to stand back and realize, it’s not by might nor by power, but it’s really by His spirit. When God puts His stamp on it, if you will, it takes on a life of its own.

WEIKERT: Definitely something that we’ve learned was be open to God’s leading. We weren’t sure about The Power of a Praying Parent. During that time, the market was saturated with parenting books. But Stormie was so passionate about this book, and this one stood out. I think it’s pretty difficult to try to make a best-seller. You just have to be open to where God wants to take the book. Another thing we learned was to develop and nurture long-term relationships with our authors, and to make sure that we do that. It’s not always the first book that’s a blockbuster. In our experience, it’s oftentimes been the second or third book that is the one that stands out.

MINCHEW: Several of the other publishers have touched on the gratitude for being handed a book to shepherd to success. Another thing we might add is to focus. We started having meetings a couple of times a month just focusing on what can we do to make sure that we have plenty of Jesus Calling in inventory. What are the special opportunities we have? How can we partner with retailers to make Jesus Calling work in their stores? What kind of promotion do we need to do? We brought in our whole team and focused on making this book accessible and easy and promotable to every person that we could. I think that has really helped us be able to get the book in so many people’s hands. 

GATES: We’ve learned at least three things from The Man in the Mirror. First, to believe in the content, second, to expand the message and third, to imagine what God can do. First, believe in the content. When we recognize outstanding God-ordained content, we are now much more free to get that to the right places, to give that content away to develop that word-of-mouth. Number two, expand the message. We’ve had several spin-off products from Man in the MirrorDad in the Mirror focused on dads, as well as Understanding Your Man in the Mirror, which is a women’s book. The third thing is just imagine what God can do. We want to believe every book could be that breakout book. Don’t limit what God can do in the equation.

CHRISTIAN RETAILING: Do you see any other “sleeper hits” on the horizon?

AUGUSTE: Yes, definitely. One would be John Eckhardt’s Prayers That Rout Demons. It’s a small book on prayers and it’s had phenomenal success. That particular one in the series sold over 250,000 copies in 2008. Mass appeal—it’s not just charismatic Christians that are reading it. We’ve heard from nuns that are reading the book for prayer. Very little publicity, but definitely word-of-mouth on that. A lot of people, when they go on different prayer lines, they’re taking that book and they’re reading directly from it. It’s just taken on a life of its own. 

GATES: We have a great sleeper hit in May, Not a Fan. The subtitle is “Becoming a completely committed follower of Jesus.”  The Not a Fan movement started about two years ago. It’s growing on Facebook with about 50,000 followers now. It’s people declaring, “I am not a fan of Jesus.” It’s by a young pastor by the name of Kyle Idleman at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky. This is his life message. It reminded us very much of David Platt’s Radical that came out and did so well last year, as well as Crazy Love before that—an unknown pastor with a great message.

MINCHEW: We have seen a huge movement with books for people that really care about our country. Dr. Richard Lee has a couple books coming out: God’s Promises for the American Patriot, In God We Still Trust devotional. Politics does not have to be something that is separated from the rest of your life. People are really interested in what’s going on and how our country was started as a Christian nation and what has happened. We’ve seen a lot of interest in that. I will tell you that every acquisitions editor wants every book to be a sleeper hit. That’s why they acquire them. It just shows you the importance of great content. You have a lot of books that have great content that unfortunately do not become huge hits, but very seldom do you have books that become huge hits in our industry that don’t have a very important message.