(RNS) — As a San Diego high school student in the early 1970s, Rick Christian was frustrated when he heard radio commercials for best-sellers that ended with the words “available wherever books are sold.”
The books he wanted to read — Bibles, concordances and other Christian works — were hard to find in regular bookstores.
“I thought, ‘Someday I would love for Christian books to be available wherever books are sold,’” he said. In 1989, he set out to make that dream a reality as founder of Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Alive Literary Agency.
Thirty years and more than a quarter of a billion books later, Christian says his mission was accomplished.
Over the past three decades, according to Christian, Alive worked with authors and publishers to create books that have sold more than 250 million copies, including the apocalyptic Left Behind novel series (70 million copies sold), Eugene Peterson’s Message Bible (20 million), and “Heaven Is for Real,” a book about a boy’s visit to heaven that sold 13 million copies and inspired a Hollywood movie.
Along the way, Alive’s project hit the top spot on The New York Times best-seller list 15 times and transformed the ways Christian books are acquired and created.
Now, 65-year-old Christian is passing the baton to owner/agents Bryan Norman and Lisa Jackson, top editors he recruited from Christian publishers Thomas Nelson and Tyndale House.
Freed from needing to read and analyze dozens of manuscripts a month, he’s enjoying reading C.S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles for pleasure and is spending more time with his 12 grandkids.
“Instead of constantly swimming upstream against deadlines, finances and other pressures, I need some time to sit on the bank and watch the river flow,” he said in a recent interview at his Colorado Springs home.
After graduating from Stanford, Christian worked for small California newspapers, edited magazines (Saturday Evening Post, Campus Life) and authored books, including a best-selling youth devotional book called Alive.
When Alive sold well, its publisher asked Christian to write a sequel, but offered him even less money than for the first volume.
“I realized I could either be a broke author or a broker of authors,” he said.
Negotiating on behalf of his first major client, the former San Francisco Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky, Christian found he could fight harder for other writers than he had for himself.
“I got hosed as an author because Christian publishers had a virtual monopoly over the intellectual property created by their authors, without pushback from agents,” he says. “But when I negotiated for another author, something got lit inside me, and I negotiated with righteous indignation.”
Authors appreciated having someone fight for them. It saved them from the sometimes contentious negotiations involved in selling their works.
“Agents are a way for nice-guy writers to stay nice guys and have someone advocating for them,” author Jerry Jenkins told Christianity Today magazine in 2002.
Publishers were much less enthusiastic, accusing Alive of prioritizing money over ministry, but they adapted by competing with New York houses for top authors, and offering bigger upfront advances and more back-end revenue.
Christian, who moved to Colorado Springs in 1981, first contemplated retirement in 2011 after a series of personal crises. He fell backward while climbing rocks, breaking his back and pelvis. Then Lee Hough, the agent he hoped would succeed him in leading Alive, died from brain cancer. About the same time, Christian believed his wife, Debbie, was dying in his arms when she suffered a grand mal seizure — the first sign of a brain tumor that was later removed.
“It became clearer that there’s an expiration period on this life as we know it,” he said.
After witnessing many ministry and business leaders fail to prepare their successors for success, he determined to do a better job of passing the baton. He hired a retirement counselor to advise him and placed a backpack and walking stick in his office to symbolize his upcoming departure.
His departure comes as Christian publishing faces turbulence, more retail outlets fall to Amazon’s “devastating rogue wave” and digital publishing enables authors to self-publish books without publishers.
In 2017, Family Christian closed its remaining 240 stores. This January, Southern Baptist publisher LifeWay announced it would begin closing some of its 174 brick-and-mortar stores. The bloodletting has impacted CBA, the Colorado Springs-based trade association for Christian retail founded in 1950. CBA has cut staff and failed to meet some of its financial obligations, according to Publishers Weekly.
“Booksellers may disappear, but books will live as long as life exists, because storytelling is hard-wired into our DNA,” said Christian, who believes God cares less about best-sellers than about faithfulness.
“I don’t think the numbers or the bigness of the industry matter to God,” said Christian, whose office features 15 plaques celebrating his Times’ best-sellers.
“The most important thing is what did you do with the things you are entrusted with. Alive was God’s gift. I worked really hard at it, but ultimately it was God’s gift to me.”