September 30, 2004
A controversial biblical series goes mainstream
A few years back, Irwyn Applebaum, the president of the Bantam Dell Publishing Group and a maestro of mass-market fiction, traveled to Rancho Mirage, for a meeting at the home of Tim LaHaye, the evangelical preacher and creator of the "Left Behind" series. The wildly best-selling apocalyptic adventure novels involve, among other things, vivid scenarios in which the Jews neatly fulfill their function in the Christian narrative by converting en masse as Armageddon nears.
So one could hardly imagine an odder couple than LaHaye and Applebaum, who happens to be Jewish (and therefore left behind). But there they were, mapping out LaHaye's largest deal yet with a major secular publisher: The four-book "Babylon Rising" series, featuring a swashbuckling, evangelical Indiana Jones-like archeologist who acts out biblical prophecies.
"He was taking a big leap of faith, and so was I," LaHaye, 78, said of Applebaum, 49. That leap entailed Bantam paying LaHaye about $40 million for a four-book series, the second of which came out last month. (LaHaye said that he and Bantam had since "readjusted" the sum downward.) Bantam is part of Random House, which in turn is owned by the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann, founded in the 19th century as a Bible publisher.
"So it's kind of coming full circle," LaHaye said.
The Rancho Mirage get-together was also a meeting of two Americas. At Bantam, the tall, imposing Applebaum is known for his affectless manner, his ability to create best-sellers and his clout with Peter Olson, the chairman and CEO of Random House. (Through a spokeswoman, Applebaum declined to comment for this story.) If Applebaum represents a certain kind of American bottom-line thinking combined with an airport-reading aesthetic, then LaHaye represents a similarly American strain of earnest religiosity. LaHaye, a co-founder of the Moral Majority, runs the Tim LaHaye ministries from his desert home in Rancho Mirage, known for its golf courses. The 12 books in LaHaye's "Left Behind" series, which takes its name from the ones who'll be left behind on Judgment Day -- who will burn in hell because they haven't accepted Jesus -- have sold more than 60 million copies since the Illinois-based religious publisher Tyndale House published the first one in the mid-1990's.
Bantam, it turns out, is just the beginning for LaHaye's mainstream deals. He is on the brink of signing multibook fiction deals with two other New York-based secular houses. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, his co-author for the "Left Behind" series, have a deal pending with Viking for a four-book series called "The Jesus Chronicles." Joel Gotler, LaHaye's literary agent, said that the Viking contract was "about to be signed," that the deal was in the "many millions of dollars," and that Leslie Gelman would edit it. (Gelman did not return requests for comment.)
LaHaye is also expected to sign a contract shortly with the pulpy Manhattan-based Kensington for at least two holiday-themed trade-paperback books focusing on Easter and Christmas. Hollywood is also starting to take an interest. Last year LaHaye turned down a movie proposal based on the "Babylon Rising" series, and he's currently in talks about another movie deal based on the series, Gotler said.
Even Esquire magazine is getting in on the action. Alongside essays by pop conservatives Tucker Carlson and Andrew Sullivan, last month it published a pro-Bush screed by LaHaye in which the minister makes outlandish claims that a Kerry victory might lead to Alan Dershowitz and Laurence Tribe winding up on the federal bench. According to Peter Griffin, Esquire's deputy editor, the magazine was looking for "conservative writers" and asked LaHaye to write the piece.
The New York publishing and media establishment hardly shares LaHaye's evangelical, pro-life, anti-Darwinian, anti-gay views. How it came to embrace him is part cosmic irony, part business as usual. Secular publishing houses stand to profit from tapping into LaHaye's wide evangelical fan base, while the author himself -- who has already made millions off his books -- sees secular publishing houses as a means to his evangelical ends.
"They bring to the environment their vast network of resources of marketing, and I bring the Christian community," LaHaye said. "I am driven with the concern to get my message into the largest number of people's minds that I can get into, and the book industry gives me a vital avenue in the secular market." His message, of course, is that everyone should accept Jesus: "I'm convinced that most people that are not Christians have really never been exposed to the truth about Jesus Christ."
LaHaye's growing coziness with the New York publishing world appears to be driven in large part by Gotler, a Los Angeles-based literary agent who specializes in turning books into movies and who has represented LaHaye for about four years.
"I'm instrumental in branding him, yes," Gotler said by phone. Never mind that Gotler, like Applebaum, happens to be Jewish.
It was Gotler, who said he's known Applebaum since the 1980s, who made the match with Bantam for the "Babylon Rising" series. Gotler also found LaHaye a co-author, another of his clients, Greg Dinallo.
"Before I went to meet with Tim, I read the first book in the ['Left Behind'] series -- or most of it, anyway -- on the plane going to Palm Springs," said Dinallo, a former television writer who lives in New York City's East Village and writes global thrillers. He said he was up front with LaHaye about his own religious beliefs. "I'm not a specifically religious person. I'm certainly not born again -- it's just not me. But I knew what to do with this. I wrote 'The Six-Million Dollar Man,' but I've never been bionic."
Dinallo said that he wrote "Babylon Rising" in five months during 2003. For the first draft, he said, he thought it made sense for some of the bad guys to say "damn" and "hell" -- "meaning let's not make the bad guys sound like fundamentalist Christians," Dinallo added. "Tim called me up and he said, 'We just can't do this.' I said, 'I didn't mean to offend you.' He said, 'Greg, you didn't offend me -- I spent four years in the Army.' He said, 'We just don't want to turn the readers off, and I know my people will just not read on.'"
Small wonder that for the rest of the Bantam series, LaHaye picked as a co-author his old friend Bob Phillips, an evangelical psychologist who runs a string of Christian camps in California and has written 80 books, including "The Best of the Good, Clean Jokes" (Harvest House, 1989) and "Phillips' Book of Great Thoughts, Funny Sayings: A Stupendous Collection of Quotes, Quips, Epigrams, Witticisms and Humorous Comments for Personal Enjoyment and Ready Reference" (Tyndale House, 1993). (Among them: "It is not good to wake a sleeping lion," "Even a stopped clock is right twice a day," etc.) Although Dinallo was dropped from the Bantam series, he said he had a "really lovely" rapport with LaHaye and is writing the books in the Kensington series.
Bantam in Action
Gotler said a secular house could offer LaHaye one thing that a religious one couldn't: "Advertising!" Indeed, Bantam is going all out for "The Secret on Ararat," which came out on Aug. 31. The marketing entails "national network and spot radio advertising, national print and electronic advertising, Web promotion at www.babylonrisingbook.com and in-store displays," said Susan Corcoran, a spokeswoman for Bantam.
"I've been impressed with what I've seen so far," LaHaye said of working with Bantam. "They did a good job on the first one, as far as the secular market. They much improved their marketing strategy for the second -- which is why it was No. 12 on the New York Times best-seller list," he added, referring to the Sept. 19 issue.
Bantam is also involved in shaping the books themselves. LaHaye's co-authors described an extremely tight publication schedule and a writing process that relied heavily on editorial directives from the powers-that-be at Bantam, chief among them editor Bill Massey and Applebaum.
"Between Tim LaHaye and Bantam Books and myself, that's where the story comes from," said Phillips, the co-author of "The Secret on Ararat." Because Bantam was in such a rush, Phillips said, he wrote the book in 51 days.
"It was scary," he said, adding that Bantam had just asked him to write the third book in the series.
If it's anything like "The Secret on Ararat," then it will most likely offer a preachy blend of flat characters tackling extreme situations. In one scene in "The Secret on Ararat," the character, Shari, confesses to the book's hero, archeologist Michael Murphy, her concerns that her boyfriend, Paul -- whom she'd been seeing ever since "she'd nursed him back to health after the bomb explosion in the church" -- was getting mixed up with the wrong kind of ideas.
"He had a copy of Darwin's 'The Origin of the Species' and wanted to show me these passages he'd underlined," Shari says. "Things about fossils and how they prove different kinds of animals evolved from one another and weren't all created at the same time the way it says in the Bible."
LaHaye's forays into the Darwinian world of New York publishing reflect the smash success of other religious titles, which in turn owes something to the ability of publishers to sell such books in bulk through chain stores like Costco and Wal-Mart, as well as through major book retailers like Barnes & Noble and Borders.
In November, Doubleday, another division of Random House, will become the first trade house to publish The Book of Mormon, which has generally been available only through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Doubleday approached the church and "they were extremely responsive to the idea," said Michelle Rapkin, the vice president and director of Doubleday's religious publishing division. The hardback will retail for $24.95; the church was paid an advance, and it and the publisher will share royalties.
"The Purpose-Driven Life" by the Rev. Robert Warren, a guide to using Christian teachings in one's daily life, has sold more than 19 million English-language copies and 1 million Spanish-language copies since its release in the fall of 2002. It's published by Zondervan, a division of HarperCollins, which in turn is owned by News Corp. To celebrate the book's success -- and profits -- Rupert Murdoch, the chairman and chief executive of News Corp., threw a lavish party for the good pastor at New York's Rainbow Room.
"When one of our authors sells a million books, we think he's a genius," Murdoch said at the event, according to Publishers' Lunch, an industry newsletter. "When a book sells 20 million copies, we think we're geniuses."
If LaHaye's productivity is any indication, New York publishers won't have any trouble feeling good about themselves and their Christian successes. As LaHaye said of his "Babylon Rising" series: "There's no limit to the number of prophecies."