March 7, 2014
Got $200,000? Congratulations, you’re a bestselling author.
by Julia Fleischaker
A church in Seattle is answering some uncomfortable questions after proof surfaced that they had paid an outside firm over $200,000 to ensure the placement of a book by their pastor on various bestseller lists. Carolyn Kellogg at the Los Angeles Times reports that Real Marriage, by evangelical minister Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, “topped the New York Times’ hardcover advice bestseller list on Jan. 22, 2012. The following week, it was gone.”
As Kellogg notes, “The spike onto a bestseller list and then disappearance—as opposed to an up-and-down arc, or a high debut followed by a decline—can indicate something other than typical consumer book-buying behavior.”
World Magazine obtained a document that showed a contract between Mars Hill Church and ResultSource Inc. According to their website, ResultSource offers a Bestseller Campaign, which focuses on actual physical book sales, as opposed to their standard Book Launch Campaign, which focuses on author platforms and media attention. World spells out the agreement between ResultSource and Mars Hill:
Result Source received a fee of $25,000 to coordinate a nationwide network of book buyers who would purchase Real Marriage at locations likely to generate reportable sales for various best-seller lists, including the New York Times list. Mars Hill also paid for the purchase of at least 11,000 books ranging in price from $18.62 to $20.70, depending on whether the books were purchased individually or in bulk. The contract called for 6,000 of the books to be bought by individuals, whose names were supplied by the church. Another 5,000 books were bought in bulk.
Mars Hill would not say whether the funds for the purchase of these books, which would total approximately $123,600 for the individual sales and $93,100 for the bulk sales, came from church funds.
Aside from questions of how the church chooses to spend their funds, the story raises larger questions of whether bestseller lists are for sale, if anyone with a few hundred thousand dollars can bankroll enough book sales themselves to hit the list. Last year, Jeffrey Trachtenberg looked at the issue for the Wall Street Journal, and found that there was already “discomfort among some in the publishing industry who worry that preorders are being corralled and bulk purchases are being made to appear like single sales to qualify for inclusion in best-seller lists, which normally wouldn’t count such sales.”
Nothing about these arrangements is illegal, though of course they go against the spirit of a bestseller list—whatever that may be. At World, Warren Cole Smith details the lengths that ResultSource goes to in order to circumvent safeguards that have been put in place at various bestseller lists:
According to the terms of the contract between Result Source 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.”
The purpose of this instruction appears to be a way to outsmart systems put in place by The New York Times and other list compilers to prevent authors from buying their way onto best-seller lists. Result Source apparently uses other techniques to work around the safeguards of the best-seller lists. According to its agreement with Mars Hill, “RSI will use its own payment systems (ex. gift cards to ensure flawless reporting). Note: The largest obstacle to the reporting system is the tracking of credit cards. RSI uses over 1,000 different payment types (credit cards, gift cards, etc).”
So if you’ve written a book and decide that you’d rather spend a few hundred thousand on hitting a bestseller list than, say, buying a home to live in, or putting some away because, hey, being an author doesn’t pay like it used to, or even using it charitably (but why would a church do that?) you can rest assured that it’s not illegal, and ResultSource is here to help.
Julia Fleischaker is Melville House's director of publicity.