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Why do Christian authors buy their way onto NYT bestseller list?

Metaxas at the Conservative Political Action Committee in 2013 |Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr (http://bit.ly/17jZp4l)

Today, author Eric Metaxas’s Twitter page is full of congratulations about his book, Miracles, hitting the New York Times bestseller list at #12. Metaxas is no stranger to the list; his biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bonhoefferhit number one and was released to critical acclaim.

But earlier this week, an article in Christianity Today quoted Metaxas giving what sounds like his approval of a controversial marketing tactic: buying your way onto the NYT bestseller list. The article is available to subscribers only, but watchdog blogger Warren Throckmorton posted a snippet of Metaxas’s comments:

“Anyone thinking there is something pure about that list does not understand the system and how it works,” [Metaxas] 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.”

I’m not sure what those “other, far less important factors” are, but more and more Christian authors have admitted to having benefitted from the work of Result Source, the company who does the buying. (If their website is any indication, their business is shady at best. It consists only of a “contact us” link.) According to Forbes, the company runs their “bestsellers campaign” by requiring “authors to make bulk purchases of their own books, then breaks those orders up into small increments to make them look like organic retail sales.”

Metaxas at the Conservative Political Action Committee in 2013  |Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr (http://bit.ly/17jZp4l)

Metaxas at the Conservative Political Action Committee in 2013 |Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr (http://bit.ly/17jZp4l)

It’s hard to imagine that Metaxas legitimately got onto the list with Bonhoeffer but is also okay with people buying their way on, although perhaps he did. (Update: He tweeted yesterday “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!”) It’s harder to imagine why Christians, who are meant to be marked by humility and gentleness, feel the need to buy their way onto a list, any list. You don’t have to be an ascetic to realize that there is something inherently dishonest about this practice. Whether the system is pure, our responsibility as Christians remains the same: You do the work, and you don’t lie about how well it does.

Is it so foreign for Christians to imagine that we don’t need to earn success on anyone else’s terms that we do such foolish things? Are we so convinced that the message justifies the means that we will engage in dishonesty to spread the gospel? That, after all, isn’t a story to sell.

When we trust in the means of sharing rather than the goodness of the story, we are selling everything short. When we make excuses because the list isn’t “pure” and because the system can be gamed, we aren’t being true to the story we tell. This all comes because we get too anxious about our platforms and our standing and don’t concern ourselves enough with the truth–the truth about the gospel, the truth about ourselves, and the truth about broken systems. The success of your book is never more valuable than who you are as a person, and if you are a person who engages in deception to boost your sales numbers, you ought to take a long, hard look at yourself.

About the author

Laura Turner

Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. In addition to being a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s “Her.meneutics” blog, she has also written for publications such as Books & Culture and The Bold Italic. She is interested in the intersection of church and culture.

20 Comments

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  • Its also a fairly common ploy for conservative politicos.

    Buy up a lot of copies of books to give out at various functions.

    “Are we so convinced that the message justifies the means that we will engage in dishonesty to spread the gospel? ”

    Various Christians will tell you any anti-social act is justified if you are doing for God. Many people don’t realize, “the ends justify the means” is meant to be said ironically.

  • Unfortunately, I believe that most bestselling authors do this, whether Christian or not. It’s the reason behind getting all those free books at church services or at Christian conferences. It’s why we see give-aways of books on national tv talk shows. It’s why pre-sales on Amazon.com are so important
    . It shows how money can corrupt the best intentions. Not sure how to change the game or fix the system when big publishing houses are involved.

  • I think the statement is better qualified with most bestselling “non-fiction” authors do this. Fiction writers and their agents seldom have the infrastructure for such large scale shilling. Not like religious or political groups.

    Some genres of fiction or non-fiction are popular enough never to require this. At this stage Suzanne Collins can republish a phone book and it will be a NYT bestseller for at least the first week of release. It is highly doubtful Tom Clancy or Stephen Ambrose ever required such tactics to get their books as best sellers. Stephen King has coasted for the last 20 years on his reputation into bestsellerdom with nothing decent worth reading to show for it.

  • If true, this should be explored further.

    What I would like to see is a follow-up article, perhaps in a venue that allows for greater length, in which the writer works out the numbers for readers, ie how on a practical level, this works.

    In other words, tell the reader how many books of a NYT bestseller typically are sold (range), and then give examples of how many books authors or those working for them actually buy. This way, we could see the percentage of total books they sell that are books they themselves have actually bought.

    I don’t blame Turner for not doing so here, because she needs more space to lay it all out. But I would encourage her to make this into a lengthier article which would include facts, figures, statistics, and examples — and to get that piece published somewhere.

  • As for Metaxas, I can attest to at least one book which he didn’t buy — the one I bought a few days ago at B & N.

    It’s the “Miracles” book. I’ve just begun it and so far, so good.

  • While I think the practice of gaming the NYT list is wrong, is there any evidence that it’s even much of a problem in the Chrstian community? We know Driscoll did it, and apparently David Jeremiah as well, but who else? I’ll take Metaxas at his word that he didn’t do it.

  • I actually go the other way with this. Maybe I’m overly cynical, but I’ve always assumed that all of those lists were made of people who gamed their way on. Look how many authors use Kindle discounts to increase their sales numbers. I don’t have a problem doing it, and I don’t think it’s fundamentally dishonest. That’s just how the system works.

    It’s in that spirit, then, that I took Metaxes’ comments. He’s saying skewering Driscoll (who I don’t particularly like) for violating the purity of the system is crazy when the system isn’t pure to begin with.

  • I don’t think the NYT hides the fact that there is a bit of a game to being on their list. The NYT list isn’t based on straight sales numbers, and they only collect certain sales data anyway. (They don’t, for example, use sales data from Christian book stores, and they famously didn’t include e-books at all for a long time.) When you ask NYT editors straight out, they’re pretty cagey on where those numbers come from.

    The Wall Street Journal’s list (of course) is based on straight sales numbers, which is why a book on one list isn’t necessarily on another.

  • “The success of your book is never more valuable than who you are as a person” – Thanks for putting it all right there in a nutshell, Laura. Buying one’s way onto a bestseller list with a church’s money just doesn’t seem right unless perhaps you’re the shrewd manager from the parable in Luke 16, but I don’t think most believers would like to be identified with him.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    P.S. And speaking of parables, here’s one on a pastor who bought his way to the NYT’s list: The Mega-Pastor and the Best Seller List – a parable.

  • Turner seems to suggest that Metaxas might have done this, but I don’t see her offering any proof. Saying his statement in Christianity Today “sounds like his approval of a controversial marketing tactic: buying your way onto the NYT bestseller list” is speculation on her part. The update seems to undermine her premise regarding Metaxas.

    I agree that it is questionable to buy onto the list; it is also questionable to accuse someone of doing so without offering any evidence.

  • “Why do Christian authors buy their way onto NYT bestseller list?”

    Because it is easier than selling books to get on the NYTBSL.

    Because the appearance of having something to say that’s important, like the appearance of holiness, is almost as valuable as actually having something to say, or actually being holy.

    Because they have no confidence in the god that they think blesses them.

    because they don’t actually believe that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. They’d rather be rich and take their chances, and they don’t own any camels.

  • I just finished reading a second RNS article that has Metaxas in its cross-hairs.

    Hmmm…..Maybe a coincidence…….maybe….

  • That’s a good point, Brian. I’m assuming the best about Turner, that she has already gone through the basic facts and figures and just lacks space to flesh out her argument.

  • I read through this article, and it appears to me that it is based on jumping to conclusions, not research. I don’t know if Metaxas or his publisher or anybody bought his way on to the list. He himself says he never heard of the agency to whom the buying is attributed. This write quotes a statement that is easily subject to numerous interpretations. It might constitute a basis for doing some research to find out the truth, but it does not seem to me to justify the conclusion being promoted.

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