Something nice in the woodshed

by
12 November 2008

The Shack, a novel written by William Paul Young for his children, has become a publishing phenomenon. Brian Draper talks to the author

THE STORY of The Shack is remark­able. But it is not just the tale of Mack, the book’s protagonist, that has caught the public’s imagination, nor is it just the book’s two million readers who have been gripped.

This self-published work of “Chris­tian fiction” was written by William Paul Young while he was working as a janitor. It was launched by his friends, dispatched from a garage, and mar­keted with a budget of

$200. The book has been number one in the New York Times best-selling trade paperback list for the past 24 weeks.

At the time of writing, the book is also number one on the Amazon.com best-seller list for fiction; number 15 on Amazon.co.uk; and the number one best-seller in Brazil, where it has just been published in Portuguese.

Brad Cummings, co-founder with Wayne Jacobsen of Windblown Media, a company set up to bring The Shack to a wider audience, describes what happened. “We saw a beautiful story that was like a diamond in the rough. When my partner Wayne got the first manuscript, we knew something special was there.”

Originally, Mr Young had planned to produce only 15 copies. He is not a “real” author, he says, but an “acci­dental” one. “My wife, Kim, asked me to put in one place how I think about God, as a gift to our children — we have six, from 28 to 15. And it all came together for this story.”

Mr Young’s parents were mission­aries in Indonesia. Unknown to them, he was sexually abused as a child. Later, as a church leader, he had an affair with his wife’s best friend, and had 11 years of counselling.

“The Shack represents one human soul — mine,” he explains. “It’s the house we build on the inside. It’s where we store our secrets and hide our addictions and our broken dreams and lost hopes.

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“Religion says: ‘God doesn’t like shacks: you need to come up with something better.’ So we create a façade that we want people and God to believe in, and it’s all based on performance, and you’re constantly playing to the audience. At some point, the God who loves us will destroy the façade, in order for us to find out that he is in the middle of the shack, with a desire of relentless affection to heal us from the inside.”

The novel tells the story of Mack, a taciturn middle-aged man, who is angry with God because of the abduction of his young daughter. Mack meets God, whom he encounters in the form of a large black American woman, and is slowly encouraged to confront his anger and his guilt.

Mr Cummings and Mr Jacobsen are both former pastors who present a weekly Christian podcast on the internet, The God Journey (“For those who stand outside the religious institutions but who are still hungry for God”). They chose to help Mr Young despite their lack of publishing experience. They worked with the author on the story, then approached 26 publishers, about half of whom were religious. No one wanted to take it.

“The Christian publishing world is stuck in a bit of a rut,” Mr Young says. “There are pretty defined boundaries around what they’re willing to tackle, for fear of offending their audience. This was a little too edgy for them; we knew it would be.”

“The Christian publishing world is stuck in a bit of a rut,” Mr Young says. “There are pretty defined boundaries around what they’re willing to tackle, for fear of offending their audience. This was a little too edgy for them; we knew it would be.”

THE SHACK is attracting ire from churches in the United States such as the Evangelical Mars Hill, in Seattle, where Pastor Mark Driscoll has denounced it on YouTube for, among other things, encouraging goddess-worship. Chuck Colson, a Christian author and prison reformer, has criticised the book for its “low view of scripture” in an article on the internet, “Stay out of The Shack”.

Mr Young seems unfazed. “I have no desire to be divisive,” he says, “but I love the controversy, in the sense that it has become part of the conversation.” He suggests that “the angriest people haven’t read the book,” and that others “have done so with a very limited and limiting paradigm. You want to ask them: ‘What exactly are you afraid of?’”

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Other Christians, such as Eugene Peterson (author of The Message, a version of the Bible in contemporary language), have praised it.

Mr Young says: “It is what it is. It’s not a new book of the Bible. It’s flawed; I wrote it. Let it be a story.”

Mr Cummings was not surprised that it did not appeal to secular publishers: “We knew it would be too much about God and Jesus.” But how is it possible to market a book such as this? “No one has identified how they advertise to the people who are ‘spiritually hungry’”, he says, “outside of the usual channels.

“If you don’t know how to market to them, you can’t put that on a profit-and-loss sheet. We didn’t even have a profit-and-loss sheet. We didn’t know enough to be scared; we just thought: if no one else wants to do it, we’ll do it, and we’ll see what happens with it.”

“If you don’t know how to market to them, you can’t put that on a profit-and-loss sheet. We didn’t even have a profit-and-loss sheet. We didn’t know enough to be scared; we just thought: if no one else wants to do it, we’ll do it, and we’ll see what happens with it.”

Mr Cummings and Mr Jacobsen wrote about the book on their podcasts, and, by the time it was ready to be published, they already had 1000 orders.

 “People connected, and started passing it along,” Mr Cummings recalls. “Within the first three months, we’d sold the first 10,000 copies. I didn’t know what a big deal that was at the time.” Windblown Media suggests to readers, at the end of the book, that they should blog about it, email friends, and buy several copies. Word spread.

“It took one year to the day to sell our first million. We released it in May 2007, and then by May 2008, just before we signed a co-publishing deal with Hachette [owners of the London Hodder Headline group], we sold our millionth copy. It made it on to the New York Times best-seller list, and by the next week we were into our partnership.”

Mr Cummings has been informed that, apparently, no self-published book has appeared on the New York Times best-seller list before, let alone stayed at number one for several months.

Both he and Mr Young see the book as part of a wider spiritual awakening. “I don’t want to claim divine inspiration,” Mr Cummings says, “because that feels a little goofy. I don’t even think it’s the greatest novel out there. But it’s showing that there’s a deep, deep hunger.”

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THERE has been feedback from around the world. In Brazil, the book went to number one in four weeks; in Oman, Mr Young says a publisher is “begging to get the book”; in China, “it’s being passed around university students”; and in the UK, it will appear in Tesco.

“Things are happening,” Mr Young says, “and there is this sense of the wind changing. People are talking about the father-heart of God. I think The Shack is part of something bigger, and I say that with great thankfulness and humility.

“This is all over the map. It’s reaching every age group, every social and economic group, every background, religious or non-religious, atheists. . . I receive 200 emails a day.”

In the UK, Wendy Grisham, publishing director of Hodder & Stoughton (and an American), says: “I was at the London Book Fair. All the Yanks were talking about this book, and I hate it when they know something that I don’t. So I ran out to get it as quick as I could, and read it, and wept, and said that I have got to be part of this project.”

Hodder negotiated a partnership — “not a traditional deal”, she says — to work with Windblown Media in the UK. “We’ve sold 130,000 in four months, which is incredible. One of my great dreams has been to get Christian books into the mainstream high street — not in a back corner of a back room, but in the window. The Shack has done that.”

The Shack’s success, Ms Grisham says, may herald changes in the publishing world. “The book is definitely inspired. But I think there’s an aspect of its success that’s viral — creating hype without making it too flashy.”

In the US, she says, few will admit having turned it down. “Nobody in America you speak to these days voted for George Bush,” she reflects, “and now nobody turned down The Shack.”

Mr Cummings believes that the book will help those Christian pub­lishers who feel trapped by the fear of conservatism. “I think it’s providing renewed courage. Most of the conversa­tions I’ve had with editors or pub­lishing heads is that they’ve all been encouraged by The Shack.”

It may also open the way for self-publishing authors. “You’ve seen this happen in the music industry. The gates and the gate-keepers are being dismantled. Bands launch themselves on YouTube and Facebook. What we’ve done will have scared some of the big publishers, because it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, how could these guys have pulled this off without us?’”

Attention is now turned to the silver screen. “The Shack is all the buzz in Hollywood,” Mr Cummings says. “Everyone would like us to sign a deal.” Windblown Media is in negotiations.

Mr Young, meanwhile, is keeping his feet on the ground. “The Shack has not added anything to me in terms of significance, value, or worth, because those things are all derived from our relationship with God, and the rela­tion­ship that already exists inside of God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” That is, after all, the message of the book.

It took me 50 years to become a child,” he says. “That was a lot of work, and too much pain. Why would I want to go back to being an adult any time soon?”

The Shack by Wm Paul Young is published by Hodder (£7.99 (£7.20); 978-0-340-97949-5).

See review

The Shack by Wm Paul Young is published by Hodder (£7.99 (£7.20); 978-0-340-97949-5).

See review

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