The Little Book That Could

Publisher Brad Cummings breathes life into The Shack.

July 24, 2009  | 4 min read

After celebrating a glorious victory on the field with his teammates, Brazilian soccer star Richarlyson Barbosa Felisbino was caught on live television sitting quietly in the locker-room corner. Reporters closed in to see if he was injured, or reflecting on the hard-won game. As the cameras zeroed in, they discovered he was actually absorbed in a copy of a little-known book titled La Cabana, by American author William Paul Young.

The Shack“The book was Number One in Brazil within four weeks because of one soccer player,” laughs Brad Cummings (’88), cofounder of independent publishing company Windblown Media, which was established to publish Young’s novel after it was rejected by 26 other publishing companies.

In its original English translation the novel is titled The Shack, but The Little Book That Could might be more apt. No one could have predicted The Shack would go on to sit at the top of the New York Times trade paperback bestseller list for 55 weeks. It’s a tragic story about a broken man meeting God in the little cabin in which his daughter was murdered, and with just a $200 marketing budget its success has been based on little more than positive word of mouth, such as the unintentional endorsement of a Brazilian sports star.

Windblown Media was founded on a mutual desire to change the popular perception of who God is. For the last five years, Cummings and his Windblown Media partner Wayne Jacobsen have presented a radio podcast series called The God Journey in which they explore God and faith in ways they hope will open the minds of listeners about the nature of God.

“It’s fun, and largely for folks who think outside the box of organized religion,” explains Cummings. “We talk about having a friendship with God. The podcast gives listeners a chance to find community outside of a traditional church setting.”

Young was a listener from Oregon. The first-time author wrote The Shack as a story to explain his relationship with God to his children, and when he got in touch with the two podcasters, his unpolished novel struck a chord with Cummings and Jacobsen and the version of God they were trying to communicate. In the story, Mackenzie “Mack” Philips receives a mysterious invite to the woods, signed by “Papa.” Papa, it transpires, is God the Father in the human form of a middle-aged African American woman. Also at the shack is Jesus, a Middle Eastern carpenter, as well as Sarayu, the Holy Spirit in the physical form of a young Asian woman.

The Shack takes some liberties with traditional depictions of God. “We’ve been criticized by some quarters who think God is too chummy, too nice,” says Cummings. “They ask, where’s the harsh judgment? But people have had so much of that.”

While at the shack, Mack confronts the anger he feels towards God about the abduction and presumed murder of his youngest child Missy. Why an omniscient God, who is supposed to be loving and merciful, allows bad things to happen to good people is one of the most difficult questions for any person of faith to ask. Cumming’s believes that question is one of the fundamental reasons so many are drawn to The Shack.

“It wrestles with the conundrum of evil, but there is also hope. There are no pat answers to life’s difficulties, but it has struck a deep chord among people hungering for something real.”

The ShackRelating God to ordinary people, or vice versa, has been Cummings’ goal throughout his professional life—now with Windblown Media and The God Journey, and as a former pastor. He met his wife Kelly (’89) when he was a film and television major at Pepperdine, and the two helped found the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Malibu. After 12 years they parted ways with the church, and Cummings began work in a landscape construction company. When Brad decided to take a leap of faith with The Shack and Windblown Media, the Cummings based the operation in the garage of their Newbury Park, California, home.

Cummings and Jacobsen worked with Young for 16 months rewriting the manuscript, which he calls a “great collaborative experience. It will forever be one of the most rewarding seasons spiritually, intellectually, and relationally.” Ready for publication in May 2007, The Shack had an initial print run of just 10,000. In the publishing world, in which a small number of large companies own and produce so much, Cummings likens their success to “a Cinderella story.” The book has now sold over 7 million copies, is in the process of being translated into 30 languages, and looks set to be adapted into a multimillion-dollar Hollywood film.

“We knew nothing about publishing before this,” Cummings says. “Never before has a self-published book become such a big success, which has given us an incredible platform. Wayne and I get interviewed as though we have some elixir in publishing.”

The success of Windblown Media has taken over the Cummings family home, so the couple and their three children have moved into a second property nearby. The company is now partnered with a New York publishing house, and Cummings and Jacobsen are working on new books by new authors, as well as writing projects of their own. Cummings is releasing a series of children’s books later this year.

“If there’s a passion in my heart, it’s that I want people to know God as a person, and to have a relationship with him. We didn’t sugarcoat The Shack, and if anything we tried to remove any agenda. I think the church would have liked us to be far more direct about people’s need for conversion. The preacher in me agrees, but the communicator in me thinks that would turn people off, and we really want to start a dialogue,” he says, reiterating that he is in the business of entertainment as much as spirituality. “If we have a mission statement for Windblown Media,” he adds, “it’s to tell compelling stories that unveil God’s heart to the spiritually curious.”