New Morality in Christian Book Promotion

Baseball is simple. You catch the ball, throw the ball and hit the ball. Publishing is equally simple. You write the book, publish the book and sell the book.

However, in the midst of such simplicity there is complexity. In baseball, it is winning the pennant and ultimately the World Series. To be the winner, each catch, throw and hit counts. Baseball is a game of statistics, and the team with the best numbers is the ultimate winner.

The same goes for publishing. It’s about numbers. They are not gauged by word count or the number of blessings Christian readers receive, but by the number of copies sold. You need to be on the New York Times Bestseller list, or one of the other notable lists, to be in the big leagues.

honesty is the best policyTraditionally, good books gained attention by word-of-mouth. Yes, there might have been some PR buzz to trigger initial sales, but beyond that, a writer with a following (often called a “platform” in publishing) flogged his or her book to the faithful, and they spread the word further. If the book was good, and got traction, it would zoom upward on a bestseller list.

Companies like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal—even Amazon—have no vested interest in seeing any particular book rise on their lists. They just report sales that have taken place.

Nothing Succeeds Like Success

However, it doesn’t take a mathematician to notice that being on a bestseller list spurs sales even further. Thus, the goal seemed to change. It was no longer enough to write a bestseller, but merely to get on a bestseller list, even if it involved artificially manipulating the numbers to make a book appear as if it were a bestseller.

In 2013, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) explained how the alleged scam works. They cited the case of Soren Kaplan who wrote a business book called Leapfrogging. He told them he paid a company called ResultSource a fee of about $25,000 to orchestrate the sales of his book to a specific list in a narrow timeframe to get it on a bestseller list. Kaplan paid another $55,000 to buy 2,500 copies of the book that ResultSource would “place” for him. Kaplan’s reward: His book appeared on the WSJ bestseller list at #3 for a week and then dropped off. After the sales manipulation ended, Kaplan’s book sold only 1,000 copies over a six-month period, the WSJ said. However, Kaplan had a “Wall Street Bestseller” and could use that distinction to promote his consulting services and other books for years.

Nielsen BookScan, the company that does the actual tracking for various publications, takes extreme measures to track real sales, not manipulated sales. Jonathan Stole, general manager of Nielsen BookScan, told the WSJ that “Stringent rules and controls exist to help validate consumer sales, and confirmed bulk sales are always flagged and pulled from BookScan’s best-seller chart-making process.”

It appears ResultSource developed  a way to short-circuit the process and catapult undeserving books to a place of prominence.

Christian Authors Manipulate the System

Sadly, Christian authors have joined the parade of secular authors willing to manipulate book sales to get a bestseller list ranking by using ResultSource services. John Maxwell used their services for his “bestseller,” Developing the Leader Within You, according to the ResultSource website. However, the most sordid abuse of the system may have been by disgraced pastor Mark Driscoll.

In 2012 Thomas Nelson Publishers released, Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together by Mark and Grace Driscoll. Driscoll, and his Mars Hill Church, paid ResultSource $211,000 to get the book on the New York Time bestseller list, according to documents revealed by WorldMag.

WorldMag said, “According to the terms of the contract between ResultSource and Mars Hill, ‘RSI will be purchasing at least 11,000 total orders in one-week.’ The contract called for the ‘author’ to ‘provide a minimum of 6,000 names and addresses for the individual orders and at least 90 names and address [sic] for the remaining 5,000 bulk orders. Please note that it is important that the make up of the 6,000 individual orders include at least 1,000 different addresses with no more than 350 per state.’”

As WorldMag writer Warren Cole Smith noted, the instructions reinforce the idea that Driscoll, Mars Hill Church staff and ResultSource colluded to get a New York Times bestseller ranking that he would not have been otherwise entitled to have.

Driscroll parlayed his faked fame into a book deal with Tyndale House Publishers. In early 2013, Driscoll said, “We’ve reached an agreement with Tyndale House Publishers to publish numerous titles under a new imprint called Resurgence Publishing.” Later, there were rumors that Tyndale House ended its ties with Driscoll both because of his relationship with ResultSource and because of claims of plagiarism leveled at him. However, Tyndale House did not respond to our request for confirmation of this by publication time, so they may be hedging their bet in case Driscoll has a has a mea culpa book he wants to release.

Do the Ends Justify the Means in Christian Book Promotion?

Respected pastor and author David Jeremiah offered one of the saddest observations about ResultSource. Turning Point is a $40 million media organization, and he may not need ResultSource services, but he condones them. In an interview, Marvin Olasky asked Jeremiah what he thought about the legitimacy of manipulated bestseller lists. Jeremiah replied, “The bottom line is you’re selling these books and they’re just not getting noticed. If you want the books to be noticed so that you can reach more people with them, you’ve got to figure out how to do that. I don’t know all of the ramifications of it, but I know that you can’t just write a book and say I’m not going to have anything to do with marketing. If you don’t care enough about it to try and figure out how to get it in the hands of other people, nobody else is going to either.”

Jeremiah may feign that he does not know the ramifications of it, but his right-hand man, Paul Joiner, appears to have a professional relationship with Kevin Small, head of ResultSource. They all seem to think that the ends justify the means. If it’s true, Christian book promotion has been dragged down to an unconscionable worldly standard.

The real question is, do Christian authors have the integrity to avoid the pitfalls of the book promotion world? Can they do the work required to build a genuine following so that all sales are honest sales? Christian authors should be the first to see unethical book selling schemes for what they are, and not try to build their influence by manipulating sales data.

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