Last 'Left Behind' Book Debuts

Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye became best-selling authors when their Book of Revelation, Left Behind, was published in 1995. It was so hugely successful, the series pulled Christian publishing into mainstream bookstores. The last book in the series, Kingdom Come, is being released this week.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And I'm Noah Adams.

It is Holy Week, and Christians around the world are observing the run-up to Easter.

CHADWICK: It's also the week of a different Christian phenomenon. The 16th and final volume of the "Left Behind" series is in bookstores. This series has sold more than 50 million books.

And as NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, it has changed publishing.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Before "Left Behind," if you wanted a novel with a Christian theme, the easiest place to find it would have been one of the thousands of Christian bookstores that dot the country - fiction that had religious faith as a central part of the storyline was usually hard to find in mainstream bookstores.

Then, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins published a novel called "Left Behind." It's a thriller based on the book of Revelations. Suddenly, Christian literature became very visible, very quickly.

Mr. LANCE FENSTERMAN (Director, "BookExpo America"): I think that probably, this "Left Behind" series brought into the fore and was accessible enough that someone who may be wasn't a very ardent Christian or wasn't a very evangelical Christian - it made it relevant to them as well as they were just kind of passive Christians, because that is a good story at the core. I mean, there's -you know, it's one of the greatest stories ever told.

GRIGSBY BATES: Lance Fensterman is the director of BookExpo America, the largest bookseller's convention in the U.S. He says that while there had been Christian books before "Left Behind," this novel with its modern day apocalyptic scenario caught the interest not only of Christian readers, but of secular readers as well - which, he says, caught publishers' attention.

Mr. FENSTERMAN: Money talks, and it forced publishers to - and bookstores, for that matter - to really look at the genre as legitimate. Not a boutique, per se, but as a legitimate mainstream seller.

BATES: Today's Christian bestsellers like, Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life" are direct beneficiaries of the "Left Behind" phenomenon. "Left Behind" is set in contemporary New York City. Its hero is an upright airline pilot. A former European diplomat is the anti-Christ. "Left Behind's" title refers to the rapture, the time when true believers ascend to heaven to join Jesus as the unbelievers are left behind on earth to face the impending battle between God and Satan.

To the astonishment of mainstream publishers, "Left Behind" stayed on national bestseller list for months and months. That's no surprise to Rebeca Seitz. She is president of Glass Road Public Relations, a powerful publicity house for faith-based literature, and she saw mainstreaming coming.

Ms. REBECA SEITZ (President, Glass Road Public Relations): There is now chick lit and mom lit and lad lit and cozy mysteries and suspense and romance. And…

BATES: So wait, wait, wait. There's Christian chick lit?

Ms. SEITZ: Oh, yes.

BATES: Women still agonize over boyfriend problems in Christian chick lit, Seitz says, but there's a critical difference.

Ms. SEITZ: The woman is not just a sexual being, so we don't have to show her in fiction - especially in chick lit - as just someone who's sleeping around all the time.

BATES: "Sex and the City" without the sex, which sells just fine, as publishing houses have discovered. Rebeca Seitz says there are other ways to reel in a reader, even a non-Christian one. But, she says, Christian writers can't rely on sex or violence to carry their books.

Ms. SEITZ: I think that when you're a Christian writing, that you have to have an extremely strong story because you can't fall back on the easy stuff.

BATES: BookExpo's Lance Fensterman says in the last few years, mainstream publishers have embraced the Christian market with a vengeance. That's reflected in their new space on BEA's exhibition floor. Before the interest spawned by "Left Behind," Christian-themed books and their publishers were often located in the Siberian reaches of the exposition space. Not anymore.

Mr. FENSTERMAN: So part of the reason you may see religious publishers becoming a little bit more mainstream physically on the BookExpo show floor, that's got a lot to do with it. Now they're a part of the Random House booth or a HarperCollins booth, where in the past they were not.

BATES: As the last "Left Behind" book, "Kingdom Come," is released this week, the series has ended. But the publishing miracle wrought by the series now has a life of its own.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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