Unreal Sales for Real Marriage

March 17, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment


Real MarriageIt seems as though the New York Times bestseller list just isn’t what it used to be.  In an article for the Los Angeles Times, Carolyn Kellogg writes about the saga of a recent book that became a New York Times bestseller not because lots of people were buying it, but because a company called ResultSource was buying thousands of copies of the book with the express intent of turning it into a bestseller.  Kellogg begins by citing from World magazine, the news outlet that broke the story:

“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 makeup of the 6,000 individual orders include at least 1,000 different addresses with no more than 350 per state.’”

Measures like these are designed to game the systems set in place by BookScan and other book sales talliers to protect the integrity of their bestseller lists …

After getting thousands of names with geographic diversity, RSI took another step to place [the book] on bestseller lists, according to the World article. The agreement specifies, “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).”[1]

Wow.  That sure sounds shady.

Did I mention the book in question is Real Marriage, written by famous mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll?  And did I mention his church, Mars Hill in Seattle, shelled out, according to some reports, over $200,000 to get his book to the top of the New York Times bestseller list?

In many ways, Mark Driscoll and I are kindred spirits.  We share many of the same theological commitments.  When it comes to preaching, we both believe a good sermon must not primarily be about what we are to do, but about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  When it comes to Scriptural authority, both of us hold doggedly to the doctrine of inerrancy, even though some voices are seeking to discredit it these days.  When it comes to salvation, we both believe that, contrary to our society’s pluralistic ethos, salvation is found in no one but Christ.  We share a lot in common.  But for all our theological similarities, what happened with Real Marriage represents a weighty ethical difference.

I know sales number shenanigans are not at all unusual in the publishing world.  Authors do this kind of thing all the time.  Sarah Cunningham of the Huffington Post explains that Real Marriage’s marketing strategy is only a symptom of a systemic disease:

This book launch strategy … wasn’t shocking to anyone who has been involved in the publishing industry … There have always been ways to underwrite the success of authors in any field, religious or not, when the efforts were attached to a deep enough bank account.  Don’t doubt for a second, then, that some of Mark’s … counterparts haven’t done (or tried to do) the same.[2]

According to Cunningham, when it comes to cooking sales numbers, “everybody’s doing it.”  But this go-to teenage quip is a sorry justification for what is a seriously unethical practice.

When I visited ResultSource’s website, I found it curious that although they made all sorts of promises that they can get a book onto the New York Times bestseller list, they didn’t give a clear explanation of how they can get a book onto the New York Times bestseller list.  Here’s a sampling of what their website boasts:

We partner with authors to create and tap an audience – to connect the potential buyers of your book directly with the bookseller to leverage your launch potential.  Our goal is to reach further than just typical launch management – our deep relationships enable us to create opportunities outside of what’s expected, to gain substantial traction within the critical “first 90 days” of your launch – or booksellers will send your book back to the publisher.

RSI can:

Leverage our relationships with individuals in “Seven Channels of Influence” to promote your book.  Research shows that people are influenced by multiple touch-points – and that our buying decisions are driven by as many as seven channels within our culture.

Send email promotions to as many as 300,000 book buyers on our proprietary database of business and self-help book buyers.

Write and design electronic promotions such as banners, excerpts, and Q&As.

Build a powerful merchandising program with key retailers like airport booksellers, Amazon, B&N (Brick-n-Mortar and BN.com), Borders, Books-A-Million and independent outlets.  The key to a winning book launch campaign is to have copies of your book in prominent positions at as many retailers as possible – and then drive sell through.[3]

Now, besides being a little leery of any company that makes selling a book through Borders (NYSE: BGP $0.00 +0.00%) a featured component of their marketing strategy, I am also deeply unsettled by the ambiguity of their claims.  I honestly have no idea what they’re talking about.  What are the “Seven Channels of Influence”?  What, exactly, does it mean to “build a powerful merchandising program with key retailers”?  And why don’t they mention that their primary strategy to drive sales is for this company to buy thousands of copies of a particular book in a way that dupes bestseller lists into believing thousands of people are buying the book?  If a company can’t talk openly and honestly about the services they offer, perhaps they shouldn’t be offering them.

Ultimately, I point out what happened with Real Marriage not to pick on Mark Driscoll, but because this scandal is indicative of a wider, toxic pattern that needs to be addressed.  In this particular instance, I appreciate how the Board of Advisors and Accountability at Mars Hill has responded to this controversy, writing, “While not uncommon or illegal, this unwise strategy is not one we had used before or since, and not one we will use again.”[4]  I am glad to hear that.  I hope others follow suit.

From a theological perspective, Driscoll pinpoints the root of the problem in this whole saga in another one of his books when he writes, “This world’s fundamental problem is that we don’t understand who we truly are – children of God made in His image – and instead define ourselves by any number of things other than Jesus.”[5]

I couldn’t agree more.  If the prestige of being a New York Times bestselling author is so bewitching that a whole company can be created to help authors pay their way onto this list, something is terribly and tragically awry.  We are defining ourselves by all the wrong things.

Regardless of whether or not Mark Driscoll actually is a bestselling author, he is a child of God.  So am I.  And that’s good enough.  Because, in the end, that’s what really matters.


[1] Carolyn Kellogg, “Can bestseller lists be bought?Los Angeles Times (3.6.2014).

[2] Sarah Cunningham, “The Injustice of Silence: Why Our Culture Pulled Mark Driscoll Over For a Broken Headlight,” Huffington Post (3.6.2014).

[3] ResultSource.com, “Book Launch Campaigns.”

[4] “A Note From Our Board of Advisors & Accountability,” Mars Hill Church (3.7.2014).

[5] Mark Driscoll, Who Do You Think You Are? Finding Your True Identity In Christ (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2013), 2.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. biscuitswithjam  |  March 17, 2014 at 6:24 am

    Hmmm — in an age of abundant online and print information and opinion, it can be hard to get your work read and your voice heard. I think that people who want to have their voice heard might get pretty crazy in the competition ….. Christians as well as anyone else. Glad to read this post … it’s a good reminder of how easy it can be to get caught up in competition.

    Reply

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