When the first Left Behind apocalyptic novel proposal was submitted to Tyndale Publishing House in the early 1990s, v-p and publisher Ron Beers remembers skeptics asking, "Why would someone read this book when they already know how it ends?" Almost 39 million copies in books and related products later, sales of the Left Behind series show no signs of slowing, and titles regularly appear on national bestseller lists. Desecration, the ninth book in the series, set for release in October, will have a three-million-copy first print run, and the original book, Left Behind (1995), recently hit six million in copies sold.
It's a long way from 1962, when company founder Kenneth Taylor created the Living Bible translation for his 10 kids and sold it out of his Illinois home. The company gradually carved out a niche for itself, and in 1998 Tyndale House had sales of about $40 million. With the success of Left Behind, the company projects $175 million in sales for the fiscal year just ended April 30, 2001.
Penned by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, Left Behind has morphed from one book into a projected 12-book series, with a prequel and a sequel also under negotiation. Despite the in-your-face evangelistic message, the general market has embraced Left Behind wholeheartedly. "Some were uncomfortable with our product before," said Beers. "Christian publishers have been a well-kept secret in the general trade."
A well-kept secret indeed. The first four books in the series showed up on CBA bestseller lists, but didn't chart on national lists. In February of 1999, the general market—which knew Tyndale House mostly for its The Book campaign in the 1980s—got interested in Apollyon, according to Everett O'Bryan, v-p of sales. Tyndale wrote orders for big-box stores, including Sam's and Wal-Mart, and Apollyon and Assassins (1999) made brief appearances on national bestseller lists. In August 1999, Tyndale set a street date for Assassins, which "created an event that got attention," O'Bryan said. The Indwelling and The Mark, both released last year, have two million and 2.5 million hardcover copies in print, respectively, while the trade paperback edition of The Indwelling has 600,000 copies in print since its January release.
The phenomenon has fueled growth and reorganization at the publishing house. In two years, Tyndale has increased staff by nearly 50%, from 200 "full-time equivalent" employees to 295, and has 400 people on its payroll. Left Behind has a full-time public relations person, and soon current marketing director Dan Balow will focus exclusively on Left Behind products. After fulfillment problems last year, Tyndale added a new v-p of operations, John Seward, who is revamping the order picking and processing functions.
The need for space has increased as well. In the past 18 months, executive v-p and chief financial officer Paul Matthews said Tyndale has added 60,000 square feet of warehouse space and is renting an additional 80,000 square feet. The company has added 24,000 square feet of office space, and construction begins soon on a 100,000-square-foot warehouse to replace the rental space. "We've spent $12 million on fixed assets in the past 18 months, including land," Matthews said. Tyndale has also upped its production output from 200 in 1998 to a projected 300 for calendar 2001.
Tyndale's co-op expenditures have grown from $800,000 in fiscal year 1999 to $3 million in the last fiscal year, and marketing budgets have increased from $1.5 million five years ago to $6 million in fiscal '01. With the large budget, Balow can experiment with high-profile advertising, including ads in USA Today, PW covers and advertising on the ABC Radio Network. Half a million dollars will be funneled into the Left Behind Web site this year, and Balow said he'll spend $2 million on marketing Desecration. Left Behind has also pried open media doors for Tyndale, Beers said. "Before Left Behind, it was like pulling teeth to get significant publicity for our books," he said. "Now, the entire nation is a platform for us—Larry King, Good Morning America, The Rush Limbaugh Show," he said.
The success has also resulted in new markets for Tyndale products. O'Bryan sells to Avon, Books Are Fun, QVC and Hallmark, and Tyndale's romance novels, Life Application Bibles and kids products have gained an entrée into the big-box venues as well, he said. Left Behind has also caused the general market to buy Tyndale's new titles and backlist in deeper quantities. "It's dramatically increased our new titles' chances for success," Beers said.
Big-name authors who once passed Tyndale over for more lucrative opportunities are now drawn to the company, and Tyndale is in a position to handle them. "It used to be that an advance royalty commitment of $100,000 was a major corporate decision," said president Mark Taylor. "Now, it's not quite routine, but it's not that big of an issue—a million-dollar advance royalty is the major decision," he said.
Left Behind has affected Tyndale's sales channels, which have shifted from 80/20 traditional/big-box market, to 55/45 traditional/big—box market, O'Bryan said, noting that even though the percentage has shifted, the total volume of dollars generated by the traditional market has increased. Sales may be at their apex. In its new fiscal year, which began May 1, Tyndale will begin releasing one Left Behind title per year instead of two, and Matthews said, "We'll never match last year's numbers." But the company has high hopes, and large orders, for such titles as Gary Smalley's Food and Love, Safely Home by Randy Alcorn, and Robin Lee Hatcher's Ribbon of Years.
The effect of the Left Behind series goes beyond money, O'Bryan said. "The general excitement and electricity is just unbelievable among the employees here." Although Left Behind has altered some things about the company, "the success of the Left Behind series is just part of our ability to carry out our mission—it doesn't change it," Taylor said, adding that a sizable portion of Tyndale's profits are earmarked for charities. Taylor knows that no phenomenon lasts forever, and added, "When we look at the future after Left Behind has become ho-hum business, we want to be sure we have organized the company and invested our resources in such a way that has optimized our opportunities."