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.

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“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.”

Nothing Illegal about It

Some see little difference between ResultSource’s coordinated nationwide book orders and publishers’ own efforts to make the bestseller list. Shouldn’t marketers try to figure out the rules that help some books make the Times list?

Eric Metaxas, whose 2010 Bonhoeffer launched him into national prominence, doesn’t fault Mars Hill staff for using ResultSource to get Real Marriage on the list. He says they did nothing wrong.

“Anyone thinking there is something pure about that list does not understand the system and how it works,” he said. “I would even argue that trying to get on that list is a combination of a realistic sense of the market and good stewardship. When you understand … the Times list is a bit of a game … you realize being on that list has less to do with the actual merit of a book than with other, far less important factors.”

(After this article was published online, Metaxas clarified his remarks on Twitter: "I don't think 'buying' one's way onto a bestseller list is ok! I never heard of Resultsource! I only thought Driscoll deserved some grace," he said. "Just wanted to be clear that I think people sometimes enjoy piling on when pastors stumble. So yes, I thought Driscoll deserved some grace. deserved some grace. But of course 'buying' one's way onto a list is not something I approve of.")

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Buying books through a lot of people instead of placing one big order because it’s better for marketing isn’t illegal, said Paul Santhouse, vice president of publishing at Moody Publishers. “Many of our authors employ strategic ‘release’ methods to enhance discoverability, like getting fans to buy from Amazon.com on the same day.” On the other hand, he said, “Creativity is wonderful. But if I have a limited launch budget, I’d rather spend it on developing my readership base than on blipping the chart.”

Publishers do want to hit the chart, though. “Street dates” for most Christian books unlikely to make the list can be flexible; publishers ship to bookstores and other distribution points sometimes weeks before schedule simply because they’re ready. For many leading Christian authors, the street date is much more firm: Retailers agree to wait to sell, and publishers work to combine advance orders with opening-week purchases to make the first-week number as large as possible. (Update: This article originally mentioned Max Lucado as an author whose books have made use of firm street dates, but after publication his publicist said his books have not used official street dates since 2007.)

“I don’t think anybody would find that manipulative or irresponsible,” Baker says. “As far as services that try to load up special sales, that’s a cat-and-mouse game that’s been going on for decades and will never be stopped completely.”

More than Marketing

Most industry insiders who spoke with CT said there’s a difference between trying to get individuals to buy a book on a certain day, and paying a company to make bulk purchases look like individual purchases. The latter is dishonest, they said, and underscores a larger problem: celebrity, and the unruly influence it has in the Christian marketplace.

“If I can plop down $25,000 and get a bestseller, that seems a little self-serving,” said independent publicist Don Otis. “I hope I’m doing something that makes use of the gifts God has given me, but when you manipulate people, it crosses the line.”

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Lee Grady is the former editor of Charisma magazine who now spends much of his time working in developing countries. He sees the issue as emblematic of an evangelical subculture largely unaware of the rest of the world. “In Malawi, where people make $2 a day, it is hard for them to get their brain around a church that buys books so its pastor can seem famous,” he said. “In Nigeria, where everyone self-publishes books, there is no way that I know of to track sales on a national scale.”

There is something ominous about Christian authors who manipulate the system through questionable methods, says author Don Aycock. The Florida pastor cites Paul’s admonition: “‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is constructive” (1 Cor. 10:23).

“Writers want to get their words into the hands of readers; I certainly do,” Aycock said. “But shouldn’t we authors stick to both ethical behavior and faith in the God we keep saying is in control? If we have to buy our way into readers’ attention, maybe it’s time to stop writing.”

Of course, “buying your way into readers’ attention” is another way of saying marketing. And conflating bulk sales to churches and conferences with individual book readers’ purchases is as old as platform publishing.

“It’s no different from the old days, when a guy had a 5,000-member church and we published him because he could sell at least 1,000 copies,” says Tim Dudley, president of Arkansas-based New Leaf Publishing. “Everyone wanted to publish [James] Dobson because he had a radio platform. The platform has changed, but every publisher is looking for someone who has a platform that fits what we feel called to publish. That’s just how you stay in business.”

Industry insiders say that as books’ retail space has plummeted by two-thirds (because bookstores have closed), there is more pressure to find alternative marketing methods. Of the 21 evangelical houses CT contacted, 3 allow authors to oversee special marketing campaigns, while 5 either prohibit it or discourage it. Seven have no policy. Six others either refused to comment or did not respond to at least two requests for information. Those who don’t have a stated policy say market buys are so far from the realm of possibility, they never considered addressing it in their corporate guidelines.

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When ‘Bestsellers’ Don’t Sell

Before ResultSource’s tactics made headlines, Santhouse at Moody was reading Michael Korda’s Making the List, a history of bestseller lists. The thinking behind companies like ResultSource is that people use bestseller lists to decide not just what to buy, but also what to talk about—and, if they’re booksellers, what titles to display. But Santhouse believes that short-term bestsellers aren’t worth the effort if the book doesn’t stay on the list. So Moody is focusing on its backlist, betting that it’s better to cultivate readership than to create short-term sizzle.

Dan Rich, chief publishing officer of David C. Cook, has been aware of the “Bestseller Campaign” strategy for years and discourages authors from using it. “I’d like to believe that a title that achieves Times best-selling status did so based on sales to customers who purchased through the regular bookstore or retailer channels where books are sold,” he said. “To stay on the list every week—that is absolutely required.”

That’s becoming harder as bookstores lose their ability to capture customers’ attention and as authors try to connect with wider audiences, says InterVarsity Press publisher Bob Fryling.

“The battle is even tougher in an age of almost necessary self-promotion and competition,” Fryling says. “But as a publishing industry, we need to fight that battle together rather than either ignoring or avoiding it.”

Ken Walker is a freelance writer from Huntington, West Virginia. Additional reporting by Ted Olsen.

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ResultSource Goes Quiet

Business that artificially created bestsellers seems to be defunct.

ResultSource Inc. (RSI) may no longer exist. Its website is now a bare logo and “contact us” link. Founder Kevin Small isn’t answering his phone and didn’t return CT’s calls or emails. Ministry and business leaders whom RSI once listed as clients and beneficiaries of its “Bestseller Campaigns” aren’t eager to talk about the San Diego–based organization, either.

Before RSI downgraded its website, it boasted of making many business and leadership books bestsellers. The list included Ken Blanchard’s One Minute Entrepreneur, Mark Sanborn’s The Fred Factor, and John C. Maxwell’s The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.

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That Maxwell used RSI isn’t a coincidence. In 1996, Maxwell hired Small, a recent Liberty University graduate from Bellingham, Washington, and “tasked [him] with the creation of a platform that would be used to bring Maxwell’s leadership books to market,” according to his (now redacted) biographical sketch at MarriageMentoring.com. (The organization is one of at least two founded by Les and Leslie Parrott that lists Small as board chair.) The site once stated, “As the president of Maxwell’s company, Kevin launched a satellite event training series that would enroll over 1 million students while rolling out an integrated publishing platform that launched 4 New York Times best-selling leadership titles. Maxwell’s annual book sales grew to over 1.2 million books.” For 21 Irrefutable Laws, RSI’s website said it “managed every detail” of Maxwell’s prelaunch book tour “and strategically orchestrated ‘back of room sales,’ which included incentive offers for case quantity purchases of books.”

RSI’s campaigns for explicitly Christian books were not as public. Its website had listed Robert A. Schuller’s Walking in Your Own Shoes and David Jeremiah’s Captured By Grace among the titles it had turned into New York Times bestsellers, but deleted the references in 2009.

According to contracts and proposals obtained by CT (not just the Mars Hill contract now widely circulated), clients who wanted to make The New York Times list had to pay $25,000 to $30,000, as well as buy 11,000 to 12,000 copies of the book at near-retail rates. (Authors can generally buy their books from the publisher at significant discounts.) For hardcover advice or Christian books, that can easily reach $200,000. (The contract with Mars Hill indicates the church paid $217,300 for 11,000 copies of Real Marriage, which is about a 14 percent discount.) Authors content with making the bestseller lists of The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Amazon.com, and Barnes & Noble paid $5,000 less in fees and only had to purchase 6,000 copies of their book.

Other than NewSpring Church, ResultSource authors contacted by CT did not return phone calls and emails. Jeremiah referred calls to agent and lawyer Sealy Yates, whose office represents several other authors who used ResultSource (or represented them at the time their books became bestsellers): Maxwell, Driscoll, the Parrotts, and Sanborn. Yates called at Jeremiah’s request after hours and left a message but did not return subsequent calls.

—Ted Olsen

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