Welcome to our new Tuesday segment, where we’ll be revisiting some of our most popular posts from the last few years.  What’s stayed the same?  And what’s changed?  We’ll be updating you on the facts, and taking a new (and hopefully refreshing) angle on a few timeless classics of Self Publishing Advisor.

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[ Originally posted: June 14th, 2009 ]

You can’t walk through WalMart or browse through an online bookstore without catching a glimpse of The Shack. This 256 page novel was written by William P. Young, a former salesman, and self-published with the help of two business associates. Once copied and bound at Kinko’s, The Shack is now a New York Times Bestseller.

Published under an imprint, Windblown Media, created by Young and two former pastors, The Shack had a $300 marketing budget. The three embarked on a viral marketing campaign (word-of-mouth, church-to-church, blog-to-blog) to get copies out.

The moral of the story: as a self-published author, you’ve got to know your readers, discover how to reach them and start spreading the word.

Not every self-published author aspires to be like Young, and for those who do, the chances may be one in a million. However, The Shack proves that traditional publishing is not the only path to success for authors.

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Back in 2009, when The Shack was still a relatively recent publication–and international phenomenon–we posted this tiny little blog as a kind of preface for a future blog series on viral marketing.  (See those posts here, here, and here.)  Little did we know just how big of a deal The Shack was going to become–after it was picked up by Hachette, it had sold more than 1 million copies as of June 2008, and 10 million copies as of January 2012.  Long before it was a commercial success in the hands of a big publishing company, however, The Shack was already doing splendidly.

We already know the story–how William Paul Young wrote an early version of The Shack and showed his wife, who told he needed to share it, so he made 15 photocopies that ended up circulating amongst their friends and their friends’ friends until Young felt compelled to ask the question: “Should I make a serious attempt at publication?”  And how he approached a pastor, Wayne Jacobson, for his advice–and then they ended up starting their own publishing house (Windblown Media) to print and distribute the book.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Only, that isn’t … quite … everything.  While The Shack certainly saw more bookshelves than it would have otherwise once it had the might and heft of Hachette behind it, that isn’t to say it wasn’t an enormous self-publishing success long before it became a commercial success.  Before Hachette took it on, The Shack had a marketing budget of only $300 dollars–an amount which paid for its website and little else.  Young, Jacobson, and fellow pastor Brad Cummings covered the initial printing costs and footed the bill to create Windblown Media by maxing out 12 personal credit cards.  Together, they sold the first 1,000 copies directly from that $300 website, and sold the initial print run of 11,000 copies in around 120 days.  Their second print run of 22,000 sold out in fewer than 60.  Their third print run of 33,000 was gone in 30 days.  All of these books were sold through simple word-of-mouth and the book’s website.  Donald Hughes of ChristianWritingToday.com writes that despite some legal disputes over the division of funds, “these men were present at a Christian self-publishing miracle, one that brings hope to many Christian authors.”

If we’re going to talk about the legacy of The Shack, the language of faith and miracles seems on point in more than one respect.  The book is deeply religious in content, yes, but its impact can provide inspiration for authors of all faiths and creeds (or lack thereof).  And even now, all these years later, The Shack is still moving copies.  It’s even being adapted into a movie with a big budget and a Hollywood cast headed up by A-listers Sam Worthington (of Avatar fame) and Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (of The Help … and many other films).  The Shack is what it is because it found its ideal audience, and because its author was unafraid to write the book he really wanted to write–not just the book that publishers and agents wanted him to write.

We wrote about Young and The Shack back in 2009, but in 2015 this truth remains the same: The Shack is lauded as “intriguing,” “thought-provoking,” and “compelling” because self-publishing gave it a platform that traditional publishing did not; in choosing not to eradicate what made his book different and counter-cultural, Young made a deliberate choice not to give in to the industrial forces that erase authors from their own publishing experience.  If you take anything away from Young’s story, it’s to create the book that you need to create, in your voice, and to deliver it to your readers the way that you want it to be read. 

KellyABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog, kellyschuknecht.com.

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