All this talk about September 11 caused some people to ask about the books I mentioned in my previous blog post. Both books (Thunder Dog by Mike Hingson and Susy Flory, and Let’s Roll by Lisa Beamer) were big hits, and while I’ve had a long list of books that have hit the various bestseller lists, there’s no question that Let’s Roll was the biggest book I ever represented, and there’s a cool story behind it.
As I mentioned in my last blog post, I was in a plane, flying to New York when the planes hit the Twin Towers on 9/11. It was just a couple of nights later, as I was sitting on the couch and watching President George W. Bush address the nation about the terrorist attacks, that the Prez re-told the story of Todd Beamer’s bravery — how he had said “let’s roll!” to the passengers on Flight 93, and how they had tried to take the plane back from the terrorists, resulting in the crash in the Pennsylvania countryside, and the deaths of everyone on board. After telling the story, Bush motioned to the gallery, where Laura Bush was, and he mentioned that seated next to the First Lady was Todd Beamer’s widow, Lisa. That was the first time most Americans had ever seen her, and I was touched at her poise and grace.
“Good lord,” I said to my family as I sat on the couch, watching, “What a brave woman.” I remember being impressed with her ability to represent the families left behind, so soon after having lost her husband. “She could do a great book.” The truth is, my kids prayed with me about the idea of helping her do a book. Really. And, in my view, that’s how the project was born.
Two weeks later, after commercial flights had begun again, I made my way to Chicago, for one of the meetings that had been cancelled due to the attacks. I stayed at the O’Hare Hilton, so I wouldn’t have to fight traffic into the city, and met with a couple authors to talk books and projects. One of them was Mindy Caliguire, who was on staff at Willow Creek Church and wanted to do a book about “soul care.” We met, talked books and writing, and of course reviewed the events of 9/11, when we had been scheduled to originally meet. I talked about my day, how I’d eventually made it home, and mentioned how impressed I was while watching Lisa Beamer on television. Mindy looked at me and said, “Yeah, she was great… Hey would you like to talk to her? My sister is in a small group with her at church, and I think she’s getting bombarded with media requests.” Um… I think I just stared at her. “Yeah,” I finally got out. “That would be great.”
So Mindy told me what church Lisa went to in New Jersey, and I knew right away how I could help. I called the church, asked to speak to the pastor, and said to him, “Look… I know Lisa is getting inundated with media requests. I’m not trying to squeeze in here. I was in the air on 9/11 and I have some sense personally of what it was like. I could help by arranging to get a media coach, maybe set her up with a media manager so she’s not trying to do it all herself. If I can help, I’m happy to.” He was nice, and had me talk with Lisa’s sister (who admitted they didn’t know what to do with all the requests they were getting) and her mom (who wanted to make sure I wasn’t one of the several slimy people who were simply trying to make a buck off of a disaster). I called a friend, who did some media management, and told her I needed her help, but that this could turn into a huge project for her if she was willing to assist. She agreed, and we all talked on the phone. Now, believe it or not, the whole goal of the conversation was to help Lisa Beamer successfully manage the crush of media requests she was getting. And it was indeed a crush — she had hundreds of TV and radio stations calling, reporters of every stripe, and a bunch of fly-by-night types who said they wanted to help, but really just wanted to figure out how to use her tragedy to make money.
So let me state this clearly: I learned a great lesson doing this book. I quickly figured out that the goal was to help Lisa tell her story — not to get a big paycheck, or to become a star, or to gain some sort of media access. I just realized, in the midst of it, that I was trying to help someone tell her own story, and it was a story that I believed would make a difference, and somehow I realize that was enough. (You can feel free to judge here. LOTS of people made money off of 9/11 stories, and I wasn’t impressed with everyone who eventually found their way into the inner circle around Lisa, to tell the truth. But I can tell you, in all honesty, that I knew I was helping do something important, and it helped shape the way I view agenting. More on this later… )
Lisa and I talked on the phone, and we set up a meeting at her home in Cranberry. By that time I’d learned she was pregnant, with a daughter Todd would never know, so she was dealing with pregnancy issues while handling her grief, and — I don’t know how to put this exactly — becoming the person who best embodied grace after September 11. In recent years Lisa has come under some attack for making money, or for purportedly being a shill for people who lost loved ones on 9/11. I can tell you, from first-hand experience, any criticism of Lisa is totally unmerited. She didn’t want to be the star. She didn’t seek out attention. Lisa had lost her father quite unexpectedly while she was a young woman, so she already knew what it was like to suddenly lose someone important. It just so happened that her husband, who was on a business trip for a software company, had said and done something heroic on an airplane, and when the story was shared with others, Lisa suddenly became the center of attention. In the midst of the biggest American story since Pearl Harbor, Lisa seemed to embody grace under fire, decency in the face of trial, and courage in the face of evil. To this day I have nothing but respect for Lisa and the way she handled herself. She once admitted to me that she realized losing her father had prepared her for losing her husband, and when the media suddenly deluged her with requests for interviews, she was prepared for the moment because she had already dealt with the important questions of “how could something so awful happen?” and “how can you be calm in face of such disaster?” and “why does God allow suffering?” I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that God prepared her for the moment, and Lisa was willing to be obedient and answer the questions asked of her.
Larry King had Lisa on 14 times in the first 12 months after the attacks (I think I’ve got that right). It’s hard to explain, fifteen years later, just how much media attention was focused on Lisa at that moment. And it was at the height of that, in the midst of all the attention, that I flew to Newark with my co-worker Greg Johnson, met with Lisa at her home, and mapped out what I thought could be a great book that would speak to many people. (Two things stand out about that: First, every table and corner in her home was heaped with cards and gifts people had sent; an outpouring of love to this woman of character. Second, I still remember walking into a restaurant with Lisa, and having the place go quiet as everyone there recognized her, pointed at her, and wanted to thank her.) I told her we had a writer who I thought would do a great job — Kenny Abraham, who the agency had worked with earlier that year to help the widow of golfer and US Open winner Payne Stewart tell her story after her husband died in a tragic plane accident. I took a bunch of notes, put Ken and Lisa together, and they created a fabulous proposal. (A funny side note: That proposal is still out there, and is used as an example of “how to create a great nonfiction book proposal” by various people. Some of it was Lisa, some of it was Ken, some of it was me, and some of it was Greg — but it really proved to be an incredible book proposal.)
Two weeks later, I started talking with publishers about the proposal. I was turned down by some (an editor at HarperCollins told me there was nothing new to tell about 9/11; one great CBA house who I’d worked with a bunch of times said they didn’t think it was “a big enough story”). Now, you have to prepare yourself for the bragging part of this blog: I totally believed in this book. I mean, I’m not any sort of hero, but I saw it as being huge, speaking to the culture, and offering life lessons for those facing heartbreak. I was working for Rick Christian at Alive Communications, a guy who to this day I respect and credit much of my success, and one of my co-workers at the agency told me this was just “a good story, but not a BIG story.” I remember telling him he was wrong. I pitched publishers on the book, and told them this was going to be the biggest story of my career. And I was right — Lisa’s book turned into one of the biggest books in CBA history up to that point. Forward-thinking publishers were desperate to land it. I remember my home phone ringing on a Sunday afternoon, with a publisher (who had somehow found my home number) calling me to offer seven figures.
The deal, when we finally got it done, was an easy choice: Lisa Beamer had not only gone to Wheaton College, next door to Tyndale Publishers, but she’d led a small group of junior high girls at church that included the President of Tyndale’s daughter. We agreed to a deal on the phone, and the next day Rick and I showed up at the office in tuxedos to tell everyone about it. (Rick was nice enough to spring for three bottles of Dom Perignon, which we shared with everyone on staff as we celebrated the book deal with Tyndale.) Ken did a great job with the text, Lisa shared her heart in telling her story, and the title hit #1 on every bestseller list in America, becoming the top-selling nonfiction book in the entire country that year.
That project made me, as an agent. I mean, I was already known for having some success, but representing that book really put me on the map, both inside and outside the publishing industry. Colleges and conferences called, wanting me to come talk publishing, and suddenly I had attention as “the guy who can help make big books happen.” Which is funny, because in all honesty, it was that book that helped me to realize that I didn’t want to do “big” books, so much as I wanted to do “books that make a difference.” And it was that book that helped me realize the difference between “doing a book to make money” and “helping an author do a book because they’ve got a great story to be told.”
At the same time, there were some negative lessons in all of this. One of the people I’d brought in ended up trying to take over things and separate Lisa from the others involved. At least three companies have posted Lisa’s book cover on their blog, all claiming to be the brains behind the project. Some of the people around Lisa helped her start a foundation, and while they were friends who were well-meaning, I met with them and, to me, they didn’t really understand the role of a foundation board (they once called me in to a meeting with some guy who wanted to tell everyone the future was in selling t-shirts and cell phones… unfortunately, the foundation is now defunct). Like many big successes, the project ended up damaging some friendships, since success seems to change us more than failure. And yet, I have no regrets over the whole experience. I came up with the idea, pitched the author on it, helped put the whole project together, landed a huge success, and made sure they did a great book. Lisa’s story was big, Ken’s writing was great, and the book made a difference. To me, that’s the best part of the entire experience.
But I want to tell you one thing that will never leave me, and which I think goes to the heart of this book (and, in essence, to the heart of Lisa Beamer’s life)… I got a call from a reporter one day, telling me that Let’s Roll was going to be the #1 book on both the New York Times bestseller list AND the USA Today bestseller list. I called Lisa, to tell her the news, and said to her, “This is rare air. A lot of authors will spend their entire lives trying to get here and never make it. So take a moment to stop and enjoy the success.”
Her response to me? “Yeah, Chip, that’s nice… but you know, I’d really rather just have Todd back.”
Ouch. In the end, Lisa was the one person who gave me the best perspective on all the success. I loved having a successful book. I loved being able to say I represented a #1 New York Times bestseller, which most agents will never get to say. Loved having people know I was the agent for the top-selling book in the country for the entire year. But I was reminded that it was all built on pain, and Lisa would be just as happy to have not had the attention, and to remain in Cranberry, raising her kids, and loving her family, and never having had the attention of the world. It’s why I respect her. It’s why I love her to this day, and won’t brook any arguments about how she profited from tragedy. When faced with pain, she shared her story and helped others see hope. But, given the choice, she’d have happily traded in her publishing acclaim for peace and love and a normal life.
That was the biggest book I ever represented. I’m proud to have been a part of it.