Evangelical publishers are predicting little impact on sales and plans for future books as the furor begins to wane after the admission by 16-year-old Alex Malarkey that the story he told in The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven (Tyndale, 2010) is false.
Malarkey wrote an open letter on January 13 to LifeWay and other Christian retailers confessing that his account of dying, going to the gates of heaven, and then returning to life was untrue. The letter was published on the website Pulpitandpen.org, and republished on other sites. PW, the Huffington Post, the Washington Post, and other media outlets covered the story, and the following week the Internet blazed as sources from ChristianityToday.com to TheGuardian.com ran stories on the controversy. TheGuardian.com’s Michelle Dean hinted that “a push for sales can obscure the truth when it’s easier not to listen,”
Tyndale House, Malarkey’s publisher, immediately pulled the book and ancillary products off the market and issued statements on January 16 and 21 that offered explanations for their actions both before and after Malarkey recanted. On January 16 Tyndale stated it was “taking the book out of print,” and that Tyndale knew Beth Malarkey was unhappy with the book “and believed it contained inaccuracies.” A fuller statement on January 21 expanded those points: “On several occasions in 2012, Tyndale reached out to Beth Malarkey to schedule a meeting to respond to a list of alleged inaccuracies in the book....Mrs. Malarkey sent us an email on May 22, 2012, saying that....she no longer wished to meet.”
Statements by Beth Malarkey had been public for some time. In his blog, Grace to You, Philip Johnson recounts Beth Malarkey contacting him two years ago to write of her son's book, as well as others claiming the authors had gone to heaven and returned, “These modern testimonies----are simply untrue.” Johnson wrote that “[S]he and Alex had already been doing everything they could to get the word out that The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven told a largely imaginary story, and that most of the details had been greatly embellished and exaggerated in the writing.”
The Washington Post story described an email exchange--following the January 13 letter and Tyndale’s response--between Johnson and Beth Malarkey, in which she stated, “The idea that Alex suddenly recanted is just not true….He’s been trying to make his voice heard as well as a teenage paraplegic boy can. There was proof everywhere that he did not stand behind the content of this book. But it was a bestselling book. Nobody in the industry wanted to kill it.”
Despite the dust-up, Tyndale told PW it does not plan to stop publishing books on the topic and that it has several currently in the pipeline. Todd Starowitz, senior public relations manager at Tyndale, pointed to Visits to Heaven and Back: Are They Real? (Mar.) by Bible teacher Mark Hitchcock. “The book chronicles the recent phenomenon of ‘heaven’ books, comparing and contrasting the ideas presented in these books and revealing the discrepancies and contradictions,” Starowitz said. “Mark’s book will take a critical look at a number of heaven-related books, including several published by Tyndale.”
One of the most popular books on the topic is 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life (Baker/Revell, 2004), which has sold some 7 million copies, according to David Lewis, executive v-p for sales and marketing at Baker. The book has been adapted for a movie, currently in production, with a planned fall 2015 release. Baker Publishing Group has a dozen heaven-related titles on its backlist that have sold more than 50,000 copies each, some significantly more, said Lewis. “This is a good category for us, and we’re going to continue to publish credible stories,” said Lewis. “As unfortunate as this event is for Tyndale, it has had no effect on sales of heaven books that we can see, nor on our decisions to publish them.”
HarperCollins Christian Publishing, with its bestseller Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (2010) by Todd Burpo, had only this to say: “We continue to stand behind Heaven is For Real and the Burpos.” Colton Burpo issued a statement on the Heaven is for Real Ministries website on January 16: “I stand by my story found in my book Heaven is for Real. People may have their doubts about my story, but the thing is, I wasn’t coaxed into doing this. I wanted to tell people about my experience. I hope that my story continues to point people to Jesus.”