If history repeats itself, then Dan Balow of Tyndale House Publishers is about to breathe a sigh of relief.
As marketing director for Tyndale, Balow has used $500,000 of his company's advertising budget to promote The Mark, the eighth installment in the apocalyptic Left Behind series, which hits the shelves this month.
If The Mark matches the success of its predecessor, The Indwelling, the new book could become number one on The New York Times bestsellers list in a matter of weeks.
For Balow, that would mean money well spent. His entire advertising campaign has been a monumental step for Tyndale, the evangelical publishing house based in Carol Stream, Illinois.
The $3.5 million that the company will spend this year for promotions includes advertisements with USA Today, ABC Radio Network, and The Rush Limbaugh Show.
Lynn Garrett, Publishers Weekly's religion books editor, predicts Tyndale's latest efforts will pay off. To date the company has sold over 23 million copies of Left Behind items, which include audio books and a children's series.
Sales for the Left Behind books have continued to climb since the series first appeared five years ago. What started with Left Behind, the original book about non-Christians left on earth after true believers are raptured to heaven, has evolved into a projected series of 12 novels written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
The Mark describes the resurrection of the Antichrist and features characters who must make a dramatic choice: either wear a bodily mark signifying loyalty to the resurrected leader or suffer persecution.
The attention these action-packed page-turners have garnered from general retailers has intensified Tyndale's momentum to keep the books coming.
Tyndale has changed the way it does business. Its advertisements are more aggressive and catchy, bearing dark colors and vivid illustrations of a world turned upside down in the Revelation-based tales.
"They've done a very savvy job promoting these books," says Garrett, who believes Tyndale has paved the way for other Christian books to enter the general market more easily.
Although Frank Peretti's spiritual-warfare novels and Janette Oke's spiritually-themed romance novels have sold millions in past years, Christian publishing still "used to be its own subculture," Garrett says. "That's not the case anymore."
Aside from transforming the world of Christian publishing, Tyndale has also changed as a company.
Last year the company added an extra 25,000 square feet of office space to its main building and constructed a new 60,000 square-foot storage warehouse especially for the Left Behind books. Plans to purchase 56 acres of nearby land for more warehouse space also are in the works.
Staff size has increased during the last two years (from 200 to now almost 350), and so have the bonus checks. Each full-time employee received a $2,000 midyear bonus last year, with another larger bonus at the year's end.
"The series has been successful far beyond our expectations," says Mark Taylor, Tyndale's president.
"It was historic," Balow adds. "We were thinking, 'This means more people will read it and come to Christ.'"
It has also meant taking a closer look at how the company should spend the new surplus income. Tyndale's annual earnings have tripled in the last three years, with a net revenue of $122 million in the last fiscal year.
Although Taylor would not reveal the company's net income, he said it was far above the profits of other large Christian publishing companies such as Thomas Nelson. Although the Nashville-based Nelson had a revenue exceeding $250 million last year, it brought in less than $10 million worth of net income. Since small margins like this are typical for publishers, Tyndale's success has been all the more impressive to industry leaders.
Balow says stewardship is key when it comes to managing Tyndale's growing budget. According to Taylor, the company yearly donates money to a long list of local and national organizations, including Wycliffe Bible Translators and Focus on the Family. In addition, Tyndale matches the tithe (up to $1,000 a year) that any employee gives to a local church.
Taylor says that after the 12th book, The Glorious Appearing, is published in 2003, the authors may consider writing a prequel to the series.
Garrett believes Tyndale has no plans to slow down. "If that last book makes it to number one, do you think they're not going to do a 13th book?" she says. "They'll find a way to ride on that success."
Movie producers have already found a way to capitalize on the books' popularity. A Canadian film company plans to release a movie based on the first book in February.
Amid the whirlwind of success, Balow finds himself trying to balance his excitement for Tyndale's growth with the question he often receives from outsiders: How did this happen?
"We have to be careful. If we say, 'God is blessing us right now,' does that mean he's not blessing other companies who are not as successful?" Balow says. "We don't know why God is choosing to do this. We're just trying to be good stewards."
The official site of the Left Behind series is available in nine different languages.
The September 22 issue of Entertainment Weekly noted the frustration of the Left Behind author, director, and star with plans to release Left Behind: The Movie on video before a theatrical release.
Canada's National Post newspaper visited the set in Toronto.
The Lalonde brothers, Peter and Paul, discuss why they make apocalyptic movie after apocalyptic movie in an interview on their promotional site.
Michael Maudlin, Online Executive Editor for Christianity Today International, reviewed the series for Beliefnet and discussed the books with religion professor Randall Balmer on Slate. Other major reviews include those by Feed and The Atlantic Monthly.
When the latest book in the series, The Indwelling entered The New York Times bestseller list at number one, the paper called it "an unparalleled achievement for an evangelical novel," noting that, at the time at the time the series had "sold some 17 million copies in the United States, about three million less than the Harry Potter series." (For an overseas perspective, see the U.K.'s Guardian and Times stories.)
Christianity Today's sister publications have been covering the trend as well. Christian Reader profiled the publishing craze, and Christianity Online interviewed author Jerry Jenkins about his Web surfing habits.
Previous Christianity Today articles on the Left Behind phenomenon include:
Christian Fiction Gets Real | New novels offer gritty plots and nuanced characters—but can they find a market? (May 11, 2000)
Christian Filmmakers Jump on End-times Bandwagon | Bestseller Left Behind is slated for the big screen (Oct. 25, 1999)
Apocalyptic Sales Out of This World (Mar. 1, 1999)
The Bible Study at the End of the World | Recent novels by evangelical leaders say more about popular American Christianity than about the end times (Sept. 1, 1997)
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