It Wasn’t Just Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill: Christianity Today Finds Manipulating Bestseller Lists Is a Common Practice Among Many Christian Authors

Image: Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez
Image: Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez

Is Buying Your Way Onto the Bestseller List Wrong?
A year after Mark Driscoll’s church got caught manipulating the New York Times list, authors and publishers question a practice that extends far beyond Mars Hill.

Few churches have sparked as much commentary and protest as Mars Hill Church, building up to a firestorm in October, when founding pastor Mark Driscoll resigned. But few of the Seattle church’s actions have been so scrutinized as its decision to manipulate The New York Times bestseller list. Yet this is not an uncommon practice even among Christian authors.

On January 22, 2012, Mark and Grace Driscoll’s Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship, and Life Together (Thomas Nelson) was No. 1 under the “hardcover, advice, and misc.” rankings. But the following week, it hadn’t sold enough copies even to make the top 15. The reason: Mars Hill had paid California-based marketing firm ResultSource Inc. $25,000 to orchestrate sales. Only individual book purchases count in the Times ranking. ResultSource made a bulk order (an order of 11,000 books for about $217,300) look like thousands of purchases from individual buyers across the country.

Former Mars Hill pastors told CT that some staff left the church after it decided to use ResultSource (though most who left did so for other reasons related to Driscoll’s leadership). When the contract was made public in March 2014, some staff defended it as “marketing investments” designed to “tell lots of people about Jesus by every means available.” Days later, Driscoll said he would no longer refer to himself as a best-selling author, or to the book as a bestseller. “I now see [ResultSource’s strategy] as manipulating a book sales reporting system, which is wrong,” Driscoll wrote in a letter to the church.

Driscoll’s ResultSource deal became part of the charges brought by former Mars Hill pastors and staff, although other issues dominated. Meanwhile, many Christian publishing insiders wondered how far the revelations would go.

Common Practice
“I suspect ResultSource isn’t going to be effective any more, but they’re simply doing what others have been doing,” says Baker Publishing Group president Dwight Baker. “They are not the ones who invented the whole thing. They are just one of a number of agencies or services that do that kind of thing to move books through retail channels.”

A year before the Driscoll flap, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times chronicled how such methods boost book sales and speaking careers in general markets. And on its own website, ResultSource once bragged about books its campaigns had elevated to the bestseller lists, including David Jeremiah’s Captured by Grace (Thomas Nelson), Robert A. Schuller’s Walking in Your Own Shoes (FaithWords), and John Maxwell’s The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (Thomas Nelson). In 2000, a Thomas Nelson executive told The New York Times that thousands of orders for Amway cofounder Rich DeVos’s Hope From My Heart were placed at a few small bookstores that report sales to the Times list.

“This type of marketing is not one … we would choose to use again,” said Suzanne Swift, spokeswoman for NewSpring Church, which hired ResultSource for a 2012 book by pastor Perry Noble (full statement). “Given that Perry was not going to make any money from the sales of Unleash, we believed virtually any [legal] marketing strategies would be appropriate and would avoid any potential conflicts of interest.”

But for an industry claiming to hold itself to a higher ethical standard, the attention given to the Real Marriage deal stirred considerable controversy. “There are authors, publishers, and organizations that have figured out how to manipulate the bestseller list, and it has become an industry in itself,” says Tessie DeVore, executive vice president of Charisma House Books. “But if we’re going to single one person out, we also need to take a closer look at the entire industry.”

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Ken Walker

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