By Rick Christian, Founder and CEO of Alive Literary Agency
I am often asked how the Left Behind series became the phenomenon it did, with sales of nearly 70 million copies and earning co-authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins worldwide fame. These queries increased dramatically following Tim’s death of a stroke July 25, 2016, at age 90.
Like most things of import, nobody could have seen it coming. It began with introducing Tim relatively late in his life to Jerry who became his long-time writing partner on the multiple #1 New York Times bestselling novels that debuted simultaneously in the lead slot of USA Today, Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly. At their peak, they bumped John Grisham from being the top-selling novelist, and landed the authors on covers of leading national magazines and periodicals, from Time to Newsweek to the front page of the New York Times.
Back in the winter of 1991, I took Tim skiing at the Breckenridge resort in Colorado. He was 65 at the time and I was impressed he could keep up with me, and that we encountered and talked for some time on the slopes with his friend, Ross Perot, who was running as an independent in the 1992 Presidential election in which Bill Clinton would ultimately unseat incumbent George H.W. Bush. Perot was adjusting his helmet, and his catcher’s-mitt ears apparently got Tim’s attention from far away. He bee-lined it to him from the top of the mountain.
That evening after dinner as we sat around the lodge fire, I asked Tim how he wanted to expend the rest of his writing career and whether there was anything that sparked his imagination. “I want to tell people about Jesus,” he said. I asked how, and for the next half hour I listened as this lifelong prophecy expert, Air Force vet and private pilot talked about an idea for a novel he said had been roundly rejected by about a half dozen publishers in the early 80′s.
“In fact, close your eyes,” he instructed me.
“Like, right here, right now?” He was thirty years my senior and a new client. I didn’t know him that well.
He nodded. When he verified they were shut, he told me to picture myself flying over the Atlantic in a 747.
“OK, now what?” I said after an awkward pause.
“Open your eyes.”
“And . . . ?”
“It’s like you’ve been asleep on the plane and wake up suddenly to find a third of the plane’s passengers gone missing.”
“Where’d they go?”
“They were raptured!”
“You mean, like in the Bible. As in . . . poof? Ascended to heaven and all that?”
“What do you think?”
It was the thinnest of premises and Tim had never written a novel before. I didn’t know if he was joking, so I swallowed a smile before it appeared. I was relatively new to agenting, had taken all the equity out of my house to start the business, and I couldn’t afford to lose a prospective deal—especially after paying for dinner. He looked dead serious, so I played it straight and asked what else he had on the story, what happened next. But all he had in his mind was the question: What would happen if the Rapture occurred on a long-haul flight over the ocean? He also mentioned something about a married pilot he’d once seen flirting with a flight attendant in the galley, and how maybe they could be characters. He called his tiny mustard-seed premise of a novel Left Behind.
He indicated he was open to help with the manuscript, since he’d never tried his hand at fiction, and so I paired him with a writer who was willing to write the novel for a relatively modest amount. In the end, I determined the resulting work wasn’t saleable, and turned next to Jerry Jenkins. He had recently signed with Alive and was best known for his collaborations with Orel Hershiser and Nolan Ryan on their NY Times best-selling autobiographies, but he wanted to be doing more fiction. Jerry was aware the project had been pitched to no avail years earlier, that another writer had struck out with the idea, and so he asked my take on whether the book would work.
“In the hands of the right writer, it has potential,” I said, adding a caveat that if he wanted to be involved I needed him to write a proposal and single chapter on spec. I tried to sound like the voice of authority.
He agreed, and a couple of months later delivered a chapter with multiple cliff-hanging elements that I thought could do well with the right publisher. In 1992 I sent the proposal to a broad list of religious houses: Bethany, Cook, Crossway, Focus on the Family, Harper-San Francisco, Harvest House, Moody, Multnomah, Thomas Nelson, Questar, Tyndale, Word, Zondervan. I also sent it to Bantam and Doubleday in New York. I felt like I was on a fishing expedition, trolling the Pacific.
The thin reject envelopes came quickly. The letters said things like: We rejected the idea years ago . . . A novel where the ending is known would be a tough sell . . . Dr. LaHaye is untested with novels and sales of his recent books have been declining . . . Jenkins has never collaborated on fiction before. Others were less forthcoming: This novel is just not right for us. For another, the issue had more to do with an agent being involved–still pretty radical back then in the religious space: We feel we could do an adequate job, but not one that would match your expectations. So, we’ll have to pass on this opportunity. Thinking I was going to get skunked, I tried to turn some of the no’s into yeses–especially with Jerry’s previous publishers. But they were mostly entrenched, and the sound of closing doors reverberated in my aching head.
But in the end, two houses bit. Questar publisher Don Jacobson and Tyndale publisher Ron Beers had some interest, and ultimately their meager offers were identical. What made a difference was that Ron called and offered Jerry and me the opportunity to personally pitch Tyndale’s entire executive team. At our dog-and-pony show weeks later, the meeting went nowhere fast and I figured I’d wasted the flight from Colorado. The reps from sales and marketing quickly shot the idea full of holes, and even editorial seemed to backpedal in the face of their barrage. We were on the downside of disaster when somebody asked Mark Taylor, president of the company, what he thought. His comment stopped the meeting cold. He glanced around the room and then quite uncharacteristically blurted out, “I think we can sell a half million copies of this book.”
I smiled over at Jerry, but everybody else was staring at their shoes. The CFO of the company, Paul Mathews tried to break the silence with a touch of humor. “We should probably not use numbers like that in front of an agent.”
The Tyndale deal was inked Feb 8, 1993 with a manuscript delivery deadline of the following February. But there came an unexpected plot twist at the book industry’s summer trade show that year when Jerry handed me a slip of paper with a phone number and the name John Corts on it. “I told him he needs to talk to my agent. He’s with the Billy Graham Evangelical Association and they evidently want my help with Billy Graham’s autobiography, Just As I Am.”
I placed the call and negotiated the deal from a pay phone outside the men’s room at the convention center. It was a pretty big moment, but it was complicated by the fact that the work with Dr. Graham was to start immediately and finish about the time Left Behind was due. And Jerry couldn’t assist with both.
Several awkward meetings followed, and when Tim heard about the Graham opportunity he was pleased for Jerry. But he wanted me to find another collaborator because he’d already been through the first writer and was tired of burning daylight. The publisher was disappointed and not sure what to do because Tim was not shy about his opinions. I ultimately kept both at the table on the grounds that Jerry would have much more stature and exposure coming off of the Graham project. That tipped the scales and both parties agreed to hit the pause button for a year.
As it turned out, Just As I Am was delayed because of the complexity of the project and ultimately published in 1997. Left Behind was released in 1995—but not without other interesting complications.
Halfway through the writing of Left Behind, the authors determined they couldn’t tell the whole story in a single stand-alone. Tyndale agreed to add two more books. But partway through the second book, they determined it would take seven novels. We ultimately wrapped the primary series with a twelfth title, Glorious Appearing, which released in 2004. Prequels and sequels followed, along with a parallel series for young adults and several film adaptations.
Christianity Today included Left Behind in a ranking of the top 50 books that have shaped evangelicalism. “LaHaye and co-author Jerry B. Jenkins not only had readers rethinking the rapture, but also the potential popularity of Christian novels,” the magazine reported, noting the books birthed a publishing empire, a new set of rules for Christian fiction, and spent 300 weeks on the New York Times bestseller’s list—nearly as long as the Tribulation it dramatized.
The late Jerry Falwell, speaking of Left Behind, told Time in 2005, “In terms of its impact on Christianity, it’s probably greater than that of any other book in modern times, outside the Bible.”