Celestial Sales for Boy’s Tale of Heaven
Just two months shy of his fourth birthday, Colton Burpo, the son of an evangelical pastor in Imperial, Neb., was rushed into emergency surgery with a burst appendix.
Fred Hunt for The New York Times
Colton Burpo, 11, who likes Transformers, has described a trip to heaven.
Excerpt: ‘Heaven Is for Real’ (Google Books)
The book’s cover shows Colton when he was younger.
Fred Hunt for The New York Times
Colton Burpo and his father Todd Burpo sign copies of “Heaven Is for Real” in their Imperial, Neb., home.
He woke up with an astonishing story: He had died and gone to heaven, where he met his great-grandfather; the biblical figure Samson; John the Baptist; and Jesus, who had eyes that “were just sort of a sea-blue and they seemed to sparkle,” Colton, now 11 years old, recalled.
Colton’s father, Todd, has turned the boy’s experience into a 163-page book, “Heaven Is for Real,” which has become a sleeper paperback hit of the winter, dominating best-seller lists and selling hundreds of thousands of copies.
Thomas Nelson, the book’s publisher, said it had broken company sales records. The publisher, based in Nashville, began with an initial print run of 40,000 copies. Since the book came out in November, it has gone back to press 22 times, with more than 1.5 million copies in print. On the New York Times best-seller list for paperback nonfiction last Sunday, “Heaven Is for Real” was No. 1. The book remains in the top spot this coming Sunday.
Much of the book’s success has been fueled by word of mouth, since it did not begin with the usual best-seller channels: there has been no elaborate book tour, big-name publisher or brand-name author. But it has gained traction with a few well-placed appearances on the morning show “Fox & Friends,” “The 700 Club” and CNN.
The book has sold just as strongly in national chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble as it has in Christian specialty shops, said Matt Baugher, the vice president and publisher of Thomas Nelson. Mass merchants like Wal-Mart have pushed the book heavily in their stores, and large orders from churches and ministry groups are growing steadily.
“We all are perhaps desperate to know what is on the other side of the veil after we die,” Mr. Baugher said, adding that his initial skepticism about the Burpo family’s story was short-lived. “This was a very down-to-earth, conservative, quote-unquote normal Midwestern family. We became fully convinced that this story was valid. And also that it was a great story that would just take off.”
The book was an instant hit in Barnes & Noble outlets and was near the top of the best-seller list on its bn.com. The chain’s religion buyer was an early advocate for the book, ordering copies for every store, said Patricia Bostelman, the vice president for marketing at Barnes & Noble.
“When you buy the religion subject, you are presented with many stories about heaven, personal experiences about near-death and the afterlife,” Ms. Bostelman said, noting that several other books with “heaven” in the title have sold well recently. “But what was unusual about this book was that it was the story of a little boy. It deactivated some of the cynicism that can go along with adults capitalizing on their experiences.”
Todd Burpo wrote the book with Lynn Vincent, who collaborated with Sarah Palin on “Going Rogue.” Mr. Burpo, the pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, a farming community in southwest Nebraska, said in an interview that he had shouldered some criticism over it.
“People say we just did this to make money, and it’s not the truth,” Mr. Burpo said, referring to anonymous online comments about the book. “We were expecting nothing. We were just hoping the publisher would break even.” (He said he planned to give away much of the royalty income and spend some of it on home improvements.)
At first, he and his wife, Sonja, were not sure if they could believe their son’s story, which came out slowly, months and years after his sudden illness and operation in 2003. The details persuaded them, Mr. Burpo said. Colton told his parents that he had met his younger sister in heaven, describing her as a dark-haired girl who resembled his older sister, Cassie. When the Burpos questioned him, he asked his mother, “You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?” While his wife had suffered a miscarriage years before, Mr. Burpo said, they had not told Colton about it. “There’s just no way he could have known,” Mr. Burpo said.
And the Burpos said that Colton painstakingly described images that he said he saw in heaven — like the bloody wounds on Jesus’ palms — that he had not been shown before.
Eventually the Burpos decided to tell their story beyond their town. Mr. Burpo, in his Sunday sermons, had already introduced some anecdotes to his congregation. Through a pastor friend, they met Joel Kneedler, an agent with Alive Communications, a Christian literary agency in Colorado Springs. Mr. Kneedler sold the book to Thomas Nelson, a publisher known for Christian titles like “40 Days With Jesus” by Sarah Young. The advance was in the low five figures.
The book’s list price is $16.99, but that is discounted to $9.34 on amazon.com.
At the outlets of Barbara’s Bookstore, an independent chain mostly in the Chicago area, the book is No. 1 on the store’s nonfiction best-seller list. Interest in it began to perk up around mid-February, said Greg Sato, a store manager.
“Of the nonfiction books lately that seems to be the one that people are asking about the most,” Mr. Sato said. “I have pegged it in the same vein as ‘The Five People You Meet in Heaven’ or ‘The Shack.’ Like an Oprah book, but a little more religious or spiritual.”
Colton, who appears as a blond, round-faced little boy on the cover of the book, now plays the piano and trumpet, is fascinated by Greek mythology, listens to Christian rock and loves Nebraska football.
Telling his story matter-of-factly, Colton said he was pleased that people were finding the story inspirational.
“People are getting blessed, and they’re going to have healing from their hurts,” he said. “I’m happy for that.”