Engineered Bestsellers, Rock Star Pastors, and Rosie Ruiz

March 21, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

by Ghostwriter [While this says it's written by Chip MacGregor, it is not. It's written by a professional collaborative writer who is a friend -- Chip just posted it.]

Hi. I’m Ghostwriter and I’m the collaborative author of an engineered bestseller.

The news that Mars Hill Church paid ResultSource about $200,000 to get Mark Driscoll’s book Real Marriage on the New York Times bestseller list shocked a lot of people. For me, that news solved a mystery.

As I already mentioned, I am a collaborative author and occasionally a ghostwriter. Although I am a published author in my own right, I learned long ago that I could earn a much better living helping other people write their books. It’s a good life, and I enjoy my work. Nevertheless, I still hope that someday I’ll see one of my books on a bestseller list—any bestseller list.

This explains my obsession with Amazon rankings and sales figures.

I know, I know…

You have to take Amazon numbers with several hundred grains of salt. I get that. But I still enjoy checking my author page and seeing how many copies of my books have sold in the previous week. Generally, the numbers are unremarkable. Sometimes they are depressing. But a while back those numbers astonished and mystified me.

I’d collaborated on a book with a megachurch pastor and, although it was a contract job for which I received a flat fee and no royalties, I asked for and received cover credit. Because my name was on the cover, I was able to list the book on my Amazon author page and track its sales statistics. Even though I wasn’t going to receive royalties for the book, I was still curious to see how well it was selling.

So I set the book up and waited for the launch date. The first week’s sales stats took my breath away. The book went from zero to 10,000 sales virtually overnight. I must confess that at this point I was kicking myself for not asking for a percentage of the royalties. I figured we had a runaway bestseller on our hands.

Since Amazon posts BookScan sales figures weekly, I spent a week eagerly looking forward to the next report. But when the stats were posted, not only was I disappointed, I was puzzled. In one week, the book’s sales crashed from 10,000 to about 200. The next week it dropped off even further—to about 50.

You read that correctly.

Fifty.

If you do the math, that amounts to about a 99.95% drop off in three weeks.

At first, I thought the church had purchased a bunch of books, maybe to sell in bookstores on their various campuses. But I checked the geographical sales figures, and they were literally all over the map. Ten copies here. Twenty-five copies there. Sixty in another place. Almost every state in the U.S. was represented. I was flummoxed — until I heard about Mars Hill Church’s arrangement with a marketing firm known as ResultSource. Then all the puzzle pieces fell into place.

The pastor I collaborated with had mentioned that he had a “consultant” who helped his previous book get on a major (not the NYT) bestseller list, and that he planned to use them again. In my naïveté, I assumed the consultant was a publicist who helped market the book. Now I believe it was either ResultSource or a similar company.

Like it or not, I am now the collaborative author of an engineered bestseller.

How does that make me feel? It makes me feel an uncomfortable kinship with an infamous long-distance runner named Rosie Ruiz.

Ms. Ruiz won the 1980 Boston Marathon in the women’s category with the fastest time in the history of the race. However, her celebration was short lived when it became clear that she did not run the entire race. She wanted the glory of winning the Boston Marathon, but she wasn’t willing to put in the hard work required to do it legitimately. Even if she had put in the work, she might not have been good enough to win. Rosie wasn’t willing to take that risk. She wanted glory and fame. She wanted a guaranteed win. So she took a shortcut — she cheated.

That’s what’s happening when megachurch pastors, conference speakers, and big organizations hire companies like ResultSource to “help” their books attain bestseller status. Like Rosie Ruiz, they want the glory. They want a guaranteed win. So they take a shortcut. They cheat.

Is this done all the time in the publishing industry? Chip MacGregor says no, and I agree with him. This is not a publishing industry problem. I believe engineered bestsellers are symptomatic of an evangelical Christian culture that worships success and elevates megachurch pastors to rock star status.

Boston Marathon officials disqualified Rosie Ruiz and stripped her of her title. Unfortunately, no one is going to strip these pastors and Christian leaders of their phony “bestselling author” status. However, one can hope that the embarrassment caused by the Mark Driscoll fiasco will make them think twice before paying for another engineered bestseller.

And maybe, just maybe, they will remove the phrase, “bestselling author,” from their bios and websites until they attain that status legitimately — through people actually buying, reading, and sharing their books.

Posted in Books, CBA, Collaborating and Ghosting, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Marketing and Platforms, Religion, The Business of Writing, Trends

  • http://www.johnrobinsonbooks.com John Robinson

    Well put, Ghost. I think you’ve nailed this nasty business very nicely. I wonder if, late at night, these rock star whoevers look up at their ceiling and realize they’ve simply gamed a shaky system, and their vaunted “success” is just moonshine.

    But I doubt it.

  • Ann Tatlock

    Dear Ghostwriter, I don’t blame you for staying anonymous because you’ve written things that others in Christendom don’t want to admit to. How have evangelical Christians ended up exactly like the world in worshiping success? That is at the heart of the problem with the American church (among other things). Whatever happened to worshiping God and humbling ourselves before him by doing whatever he calls us to do, even if it keeps us in a place of worldly insignificance…. and even if it looks like failure? Jesus would be rolling over in his grave if he were in fact in a grave, which he isn’t. Since he rose from the dead for our sakes, I think we’d do well to worship him a little more and ourselves a little less.

  • http://rmabry.com Richard Mabry

    Interesting, revealing, and disturbing. Thanks for sharing this information, even though you did it anonymously.
    The more I learn about the publishing industry, the more of its dirty little secrets I find out. We may have to add publishing to the two “industries” Will Rogers said should be carried out unobserved–sausage-making and legislation.

  • Josh Kelley
  • Donna K. Wallace

    Dear Ghost, I refused to be invisible as a collaborative writer. Now I see your wisdom. Anonymity is sometimes one’s best choice. Hindsight is 20-20. Now we know to be more diligent in researching the Rev. Dr. Big before having our name glued to his/hers. A brand is hard won; a name is only one.

    May we never believe, even for a moment, that ours is any less valuable than Dr. Big’s.