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The Secrets to Selling 5 Million Copies – Behind the Bestseller Heaven is for Real

Submitted by on October 20, 2011 – 8:52 amOne Comment

We had the privilege of speaking with the literary agent behind the Heaven is for Real sensation that has been a run a way bestseller.  Joel Kneedler and I crossed paths about a decade ago during his stint at Multnomah Publishers in Sisters, Oregon.  The title of the book we talked about the day we met was The Prayer of Jabez.  Joel now resides at Alive Communications out on Colorado Springs.  And by the way, he rode the bench on the high school basketball team and once made toilets for a living.

I wanted to pick Joel’s brain on what made that book and why they decided to take the project on.

1.)    What do you believe made Heaven is for Real so special?

When I first heard the story over lunch, I knew it had some special elements. The father, Todd Burpo, had suffered through a very rough time, breaking his leg among other things. I could also identify with the parents as they tried to understand what was going on with their sick child. But the greatest part of the story was clearly Colton’s experience with Jesus. That was a rare perspective. I also need to give credit to their writing partner, Lynn Vincent. She did a fabulous job telling their story.

2.)    What was the need it met in the marketplace?

The book 90 Minutes in Heaven was a recent bestseller and that told us readers enjoyed these kinds of stories. Our story is similar in that it tells of a heavenly experience, yet it is unique in that it is told from a child’s perspective. I think many Christians love these stories because they are faith affirming.

3.)    Why as an agent with a top agency did you finally decide to take this project on?

We have a process at Alive where we bring new projects to our weekly agent meeting. It can be tough trying to convince the others to take on a new client. Not all Christians believe in supernatural experiences, so I expected some push back. I brought the idea to the group and to my surprise it was a unanimous yes. I think the kid won them over.

4.)    What in your mind was the tipping point when you knew this book was going to take off?

I’d say the tipping point came in early 2011. The book was set to release in November 2010. So in the months preceding, I was busy telling Todd that it may take a while for his first book to catch on and to not become discouraged. Well, we soon threw that conversation out the door. By early October, we received reports from the publisher, Thomas Nelson, that they had gone back to press three times. They were doing their best to keep up with orders from bookstores. Even still, we weren’t sure this meant the book would take off. Well, we hit the New York Times list in December, and by early 2011, Heaven is for Real became a fixture on the paperback nonfiction list for most of the year.

5.)    What was the most exciting part of the journey that you might be able to share on a personal level?

The fact that Jesus really, really loves children. Colton could see it, the Bible verifies it, and many Christians are encouraged by that little bit of knowledge. It’s always fun to have a bestselling book from a business perspective, it’s just more fun when the book means so much to so many people.

6.)    What is next for Heaven is for Real and how will that effect brand extensions of the book?

We have tried to remain conservative with brand extensions, but there are several things coming. We just released a children’s picture book through Thomas Nelson, and the family signed off on a film deal with Sony. We are hopeful the message of Heaven continues to spread through these venues.

7.)    Have digital sales been just as strong as paperback sales? Or vice versa?

Yes, the e-book sales have been strong. In fact, Heaven is for Real has hit the number one slot for e-books sales on the New York Times list several times this year. But the e-book sales have not eclipsed the paperback sales.