This was written by Jordan E. Rosenfeld and originally published on Writer’s Digest.
It’s the ultimate self-publishing dream: William P. Young’s novel went from photo-copied Christmas gift to chart-topping bestseller. Here’s how he pulled it off.
In the early 1990s, James Redfield’s self-published spiritual adventure, The Celestine Prophecy, shocked the book world by selling millions of copies through word- of-mouth marketing. Now, another book exploring the big questions about God and love has done it again. In just over a year, William “Paul” Young’s novel The Shack has sold more than 3.8 million copies.
In 2005, the Oregon-based father of six took The Shack—a spiritual parable about the tragic loss of a family’s young daughter—to Office Depot to make copies for Christmas presents. He made 15, passed them out to family and friends, and thought little more about it.
“I’m an accidental writer,” Young says. “I’ve always written, but the creative stuff has been for gifts. I have no formal writing education. It never crossed my mind to be published.”
That is, until Young began receiving e-mails from people he didn’t know, telling him they loved his book. His friends had given their copies to their friends, spreading the story in an ever-widening circle.
“The response was remarkable in terms of the impact the manuscript was having in people’s lives,” Young says.
Intrigued and surprised, he sent the book to the only writer he knew, author and former pastor Wayne Jacobsen, for an informed outside opinion.
“I still wasn’t thinking about publishing,” Young says. “I just wondered if he would take a look at it.” When Jacobsen called only three days later to rave about the manuscript, Young was shocked. “He told me he rarely encountered a book that he wanted to pass on to friends, but mine was one,” Young says. Jacobsen wanted to share it with two friends, Bobby Downes and Brad Cummings. From there the enthusiasm mounted. The three men were so enamored by Young’s story that they urged him to consider doing something with it in the hopes that they could adapt it into a screenplay.
With no publishing experience, Young followed Jacobsen’s suggestion to shape the text into a novel and try to get it published.
“It was a highly collaborative experience,” Young says. “We were all working regular jobs, but in between we were sending the manuscript to our friends and rewriting it.”
Once they felt the book was ready, they submitted it to 26 faith-based and mainstream publishers. “The faith-based publishers said that although they liked it, they didn’t have a niche for it; it was too edgy and would upset their constituents,” Young says. “The non-faith-based publishers said basically the same thing, except it was ‘too much Jesus.’ ”
Jacobsen and Cummings, however, had such a firm conviction that the book was saleable that they made Young a wild proposition: to publish the book themselves. Together they pooled their money and created a publishing house called Windblown Media with a single title—The Shack. They printed 11,000 copies that were delivered to Cummings’ California garage, threw up a quick website and hoped for the best. Their goal was to sell those copies in two years, and build momentum for a screenplay version of the book by selling 100,000 in five years.
They pre-sold 1,000 copies within 10 days, mostly from subscribers to Jacobsen and Cummings’ popular podcast “The God Journey.” In four months they sold the entire 11,000-book print run. They sold 22,000 more in 60 days and 33,000 more in 30 days, all through viral means. Since that initial print run the book has sold more than 3.8 million copies, with only $300 in original marketing funds. To top that, The Shack appeared at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for weeks.
Hachette Book Group acquired Windblown shortly thereafter, and now seeks to publish titles that follow the imprint’s mission: “to provide creative and intellectually honest literature for those seeking a renewal of love and faith.”
“Nobody who’s been on the inside of this isn’t surprised,” Young says. “We’d sit and laugh because it’s so far outside the range of any expectations. I feel like I’m on The Truman Show. I’m talking to thousands of people these days, and a year ago nobody cared what I had to say.”
A SHACK FULL OF DEMONS
The Shack draws deeply on Young’s religious experiences as the son of missionary parents. His childhood was full of confusion and pain, not the least of which was the death of his older brother in a motorcycle accident. Each of his siblings had a different location on their birth certificate, and Young attended numerous institutions by the time he graduated high school. The first 10 years of his life were spent in a tribal village in New Guinea.
“My background is in a highly religious context, but there’s a lot of devastation in my history,” Young says. “I had a very angry father and was disconnected from my family. Sexual abuse was a part of that as well. I was raised in a tribal situation, among cannibal people.”
Just before his 10th birthday, Young was “yanked out” of New Guinea and dropped into Canada after his parents finished their missionary service on the island.
The Shack, Young says, is a metaphor for the place behind a religious façade “where you hide all your secrets—a house of shame.” He adds that he wrote the fictional account to try to explain his relationship with God to his kids.
Though he’s deeply spiritual, Young says he’s at odds with religious systems, but in a “much more graceful way” because a crisis forced him to confront and re-evaluate his own religious and personal choices more than a decade ago. In 1994, Young’s self-proclaimed religious façade imploded.
“I had a three-month affair with my wife’s best friend. It was either kill myself or face my wife,” he says. “I went through her fury. She was the perfect person for me because her anger and betrayal were so deep that she just pounded on me until I saw how screwed up I was in my heart.”
As a result, Young’s relationships with God and his wife of 29 years, Kim, have since been transformed. The Shack, he says, is the expression of his healing.
“Last year Kim said to me, ‘I never thought I would say this, but it’s all been worth it.’ To me that’s a huge grace. She’s not saying the crap has been justified, but redeemed.”
A NEW CONVERSATION
So what made a little parable such a runaway success? The protagonist of The Shack, Mack, finds himself on a journey to revisit the site of his daughter’s tragedy, which is, appropriately, a shack. There he encounters God—or rather, Christianity’s holy trinity.
In Young’s story, Jesus is a dark-skinned Middle Eastern Jewish man who thwarts Mack’s expectation of a hunky blonde Jesus. God isn’t a white-haired wizard figure, but rather a matronly black woman who calls herself “Papa” in an attempt to challenge Mack’s preconceived notions. The Holy Spirit is a transparent creature named Sarayu who can’t be seen directly.
Young feels that it’s precisely his unorthodox imagery that is speaking to such a wide audience and—he admits—bringing him criticism, not that he pays much attention to it. He believes the book is encouraging readers to have honest conversations about off-limit topics that they’ve been putting off for years or keeping in their hearts.
Some of the responses Young has received include e-mails from estranged family members who reconciled with one another after reading the book, and from chronically ill patients who say The Shack has helped them in important ways.
Young also says his audience comes from all manners of tradition, inside and outside Christianity.
“I think people are tired of religion and how it divides and damages people,” he says. “You can name it whatever you want, Islam or Christianity, but if you have a system in which God is distant and angry all the time, and you’re trying to please him through the right disciplines, it isn’t going to work for everyone. People have a real need to be authentic and to not hide anymore.”
THE SIMPLE LIFE
Now that The Shack has sold millions of copies, one might imagine that Young’s life has taken a dramatic turn for the luxurious. That’s not the case, although his family did relocate to a new town.
“We moved from Boring, Ore., to Happy Valley,” he says, chuckling. “Nothing that matters has changed for me. I’m not shipping out soldering tips and cleaning toilets, but if all this went away tomorrow, I would be fine.”
While he’s not currently under contract to pen another book, Young does want to keep writing. “I’ve always written and so I’ll continue to write, but I don’t feel any pressure,” he says. “Whatever I write will be an expression of a gift, not something that’s my identity.” [WD]