Gaming the system

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WCNC reports…

“The lead pastor at North Carolina’s largest mega church is promoting his latest book from the pulpit at his tax-exempt non-profit church.

Pastor Steven Furtick is promoting “Crash the Chatterbox,” in bookstores next week.

Publisher Waterbook Multnomah, a division of Random House, is pre-selling the book with a buy-one-get-one-free offer through Feb. 14.

The timing of the offer gives the book a shot at getting on a New York Times’ Best Sellers List.

Pastor Furtick has repeatedly promoted himself as a “New York Times bestselling author” after a previous book, “Greater,” made it to number four on the Times’ list for advice books the week of Sept. 23, 2012.

Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks retail sales at most but not all retail bookstores, reports “Greater” has sold a total of more than 26,000 copies as of this week.

“It gets you on the list. Not the main (nonfiction) list – there are lots of little lists and for the rest of your life you are a bestselling author,” said James Duncan, an assistant professor of Communications at Anderson University who has blogged critically of Furtick at Pajamapages – recently in a post entitled “How Steven Furtick Plans to Crash the Cashbox.”

“You get as many people as possible to buy your book in the first week and that gets reported to the NY Times, which then reports that you are a bestselling author,” said Duncan.

Nielsen Bookscan numbers do not include some church bookstores and Christian booksellers, but even so authors like Furtick do not have to sell millions or even hundreds of thousands of books to make the bestseller list as an advice book.

“Greater” made the Times’ advice list for only one week, never to reappear but that was enough for Furtick to forever be labeled a “bestselling author.”

“On your brag list, it looks very good – or on your resume,” said Sally Brewster, a veteran independent bookseller at Park Road Books in Charlotte.

Park Road Books reports weekly sales figures to the New York Times along with an undisclosed number of other book stores.

“Almost all the mega churches – their pastors tend to have books,” said Brewster.

The New York Times listed “Greater” with a small “dagger” symbol beside it indicating that some retail bookstores included bulk orders of the inspirational Christian book in their reporting.

“Because they don’t want to weight the list – so they don’t want any manipulation – so they don’t want guarantees, ‘I can buy my way on to the list,’” said Brewster.

But Brewster says some publishers or authors can still position themselves to increase their odds of making the list.

“You can always manipulate – yes,” she said. “Probably won’t be there long. It could pop up maybe one week.”

Pre-sales of “Crash the Chatterbox” with its buy-one-get-one-free offer will be reported along with the first week of sales from book retailers online and in brick-and-mortar stores.

“So you’ve got this explosion of sales and it looks like this is the most amazing book,” said Duncan. “Totally they gamed the system.”

Televangelists are hardly the first authors to figure out how to improve their chances of winning the label of “bestseller.”

“People in publishing know it’s a game,” said Duncan.

But the most popular preachers don’t have to play the buy-one-get-one-free game, according to Brewster.

Elevation Church Chief Financial Officer Chunks Corbett emailed us a statement (read below) saying Furtick is selling the book to the church at his author’s discount for the express purpose of the church earning a tidy profit on book sales – but he declines to say how many copies the church purchased at the discount price.

Corbett said Furtick does not make any profit on sales of the book through the church and that Furtick is not trying to “achieve New York Times bestseller list status – with this or any previous book.”

“While there are book marketing firms that, for a fee, do utilize strategies for landing on this list, we have never employed such firms or strategies,” Corbett wrote. “If we were concerned with NYT bestseller status we would simply urge our own people to go purchase the book at their local bookseller since those sales would count in the NY Times’ system.”

Furtick uses his status as a New York Times bestselling author to promote his books and speaking appearances around the world, for which he is compensated an undisclosed amount. “So it gives him credibility,” Duncan said. “Whether or not you can interpret the Bible correctly doesn’t matter as much as whether the NY Times puts you on their list.”

Furtick told his congregation in September in a televised sermon that money from his books was enough to pay for his new $1.7 million home near Weddington, N.C.

The church has since revised the claim to say advances for book sales paid the down payment for the property but Furtick receives a housing allowance from Elevation Church that is exempt from income taxes, a standard practice among clergy.

But neither Furtick nor Elevation Church will reveal the amount of his salary or housing allowance.

Church statement to NBC Charlotte’s Stuart Watson:

Thank you for your questions about Pastor Steven Furtick’s forthcoming book, “Crash the Chatterbox.” The details around this book are the same as we’ve provided you in the past with regard to his two previous books, but I’ll repeat the basic information here.

First, we don’t have any sales numbers or revenue for the new book since it isn’t officially out yet. Only the publisher would have information about pre-orders by the retail market (bookstores) based on their marketing and order numbers.

Secondly, as we have in the past, Elevation will make the book available to attendees beginning this weekend at a discounted rate. The church buys these books at Pastor Steven’s “author discount” (which is something every author has) and Elevation, not  Pastor Steven, keeps the “profit” on these sales. Pastor Steven not only makes nothing from these sales, he actually forfeits money he would otherwise be entitled to since he could simply have the church buy them the same way a bookstore would buy them, sell them at retail prices and earn his royalty share on every book sold through this channel. In other words, no royalties are paid to an author on “author discounted” copies. Elevation has been the sole beneficiary of all profits on the sale of his two previous books offered to our attendees under this arrangement (again, money Pastor Steven would be entitled to if he chose to handle it that way). And Crash the Chatterbox will be the same.

Third, we make no effort to achieve New York Times bestseller list status—with this or any previous book by Pastor Steven. While there are book marketing firms that, for a fee, do utilize strategies for landing on this list, we have never employed such firms or strategies. If we were concerned with NYT bestseller status, we would simply urge our own people to go purchase the book at their local bookseller since those sales would count in the NY Times’s system. Books purchased in bulk through the author discount are not counted in any bestseller equations

In this case, we are passing up on sales that would be considered “first line of retail sales” in terms of landing on a bestseller list since our own church attendees would logically be the most motivated buyers of Pastor Steven’s books.

Pastor Steven’s desire is simply to write as he feels he has something important to say in book form, and then work and pray the book reaches as many people as possible through whatever channels. He is well aware that some will sell better than others, meaning some will land on various bestseller lists and others will not.

Should you have further questions about any of this I encourage you to speak with the publisher, or with others familiar with the publishing industry such as the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA), the association for Christian retail since 1950.

Thanks Stuart.”



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