Last week I made a point of saying that I think a guy who buys his way onto the bestseller lists is a weasel, and I had a bunch of people write to ask me why. This is a worthwhile topic for everyone in publishing, so let me offer some background…
Mark Driscoll pastors a large church in Seattle. Last fall he was accused of plagiarizing the words of another author, Peter Jones, in his latest book, and in addition there were other examples given of him plagiarizing, including pages of text recreated word-for-word from a Bible commentary and stuck into one of the church’s publications. The people at Driscoll’s church made the situation worse, first claiming it was okay because one of the obviously plagiarized documents had never been sold, then changing their story when it turns out it had indeed been sold, but saying they hadn’t made much, then blaming it all on un unnamed research assistant (even though it had Mark Driscoll’s name on it), then taking pains to criticize the “haters” instead of owning up to their own ignorance and laziness. The whole thing was a mess. Driscoll clearly plagiarized (whether you want to cut him slack and call it something else), and his publisher examined the book and released a statement that admitted there were “inadequate citations,” but defending him for handling the situation well. In the end, the entire mess faded away. I was a bit surprised, since I’ve seen books get cancelled and editorial careers get ruined over less than this. Still, we all moved on.
Until last week, when it was revealed that Rev. Driscoll had paid a marketing firm, ResultSource, more than $200,000 to get his book onto the New York Time bestseller list. The scheme included hiring people to purchase 6000 copies of the book in bookstores, then ordering another 5000 copies in bulk. They even made sure to use more than 1000 different payment methods, so BookScan couldn’t track all the purchases back to a single source. In other words, they cheated to manipulate the system, got the book onto the list (for that one week), and did it so that Driscoll can refer to himself as “a New York Times bestselling author.”
I was critical of him for doing it, since I don’t think gaming the system is the right thing to do. It’s unfair. It’s lazy. It’s dishonest. And it’s basically nothing more than rampant egotism. But I had several people write to me, or post on Facebook, that this is common practice. A couple people said “everybody is doing it,” and some claimed “publishers are doing that all the time.” My response: Bullshit. Sorry if that offends, but we need to call it what it is. This is NOT standard practice. Everybody is NOT doing it. I used to be an associate publisher with Time-Warner, and this is not something we ever did, nor could I conceive of us doing it. I’ve also worked with every one of the Big Six publishers, as well as dozens of smaller publishers and every CBA publishing house, and I’ve never known one of the respectable legacy publishers to pull this sort of schtick.
Are the bestseller lists rigged? Perhaps, to a small degree — certainly Amazon seems to include an inordinate number of their own titles on the Amazon bestseller lists, and occasionally we’ll all be surprised at how a book with modest sales somehow wound up on a bestseller list because of the strange (and secret) way some of them account for the books. But for the most part, the books showing up on the lists are there because of sales. Honest, straightforward sales. Sometimes we get shocked when a crappy book (say, for example, Fifty Shades of Gray) suddenly starts showing up everywhere — but it showed up because, in spite of the boring story and fourth-grade writing ability, the book SOLD. Like it or not, that book wasn’t snuck onto a list dishonestly. Um… do we really want a PASTOR cheating his way onto the NYT list? And, matched with the fact that his name was on books that he now claims he didn’t actually write, what does that say about the guy?
I find the whole thing incredibly lazy, and was shocked to discover the church itself admitted they didn’t know if church funds had been used to pay the bill. (Really? They spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars to stroke the author’s ego, and they don’t know where the money came from? Let’s just say that stretches the bounds of credulity.) This is the sort of news that is bound to come out, and will hurt you, since it demonstrates your laziness and need for attention. So no, I’m not one of those in the “he’s just spreading the Good News camp.” That’s baloney. If Mark Driscoll just wanted to spread the good news, he could have purchased $200,000 worth of books and given them away. This was done to make himself feel important, and in doing so, he does potential damage to honest authors, who work to write and market their books.
So today Mark Driscoll admits, in an interview in Charisma, the scheme was cooked up and a bad idea… but, of course, he’s not to blame. Nope. He explained that “outside counsel advised us to use ResultSource.” So those pesky outside counselors are to blame, like that pesky unnamed research assistant who plagiarized is to blame. Not Mark. Not the guy with his name all over stuff. Huh-uh. Instead, his board made a statement that they appreciate his “endurance through false accusation.” Um… excuse me, but what exactly was the FALSE part? His book contains the un-cited work of another writer, which his own publisher acknowledged was inappropriate He had clearly plagiarized materials with his name on it. A company was paid a pile of money to pump his book and dishonestly get it onto bestseller lists. Those are all facts. What exactly is the “false” part? Well, except for the part where Mark claims he actually wrote any of this, I mean. I’m fairly certain that part is false.
What’s wrong with buying your way onto the bestseller list? It’s an expensive, short-term ego stroke for the lazy and dishonest, and it excludes real writers from actually making the list. My two cents.
You can find out more information on Mark Driscoll, plagiarism, and buying your way onto a bestseller list by going to World Magazine, Slate, the blaze.com, and the writings of Warren Throckmorton. You could probably also go to Mark Driscoll’s site, but be aware that, even though it has his name on it, he probably didn’t write it, and if there are errors it’s somebody else’s fault.