Rick Christian Weighs In on “Buying a Bestseller” Controversy

February 21, 2015–Colorado Springs. Rick Christian, President of Alive Literary Agency, recently weighed in on the practice of authors and ministries purchasing large quantities of their books at retail in order to hit the New York Times bestseller list. Quoted in this week’s World Magazine article by Warren Cole Smith, Christian calls such practices “outright fraud” and says, “Let’s quit sugar-coating bad practices, quit looking the other way, quit justifying complicit involvement because others are doing it.” He calls for rules of conduct “every agent, publisher, agency, church, and ministry should sign off on.” Full article appears below.

Buying a Bestseller

Is David Jeremiah another gifted pastor who has used what some say is an ethically dubious method to promote books?

No single event brought down Seattle’s Mars Hill Church and its celebrity pastor Mark Driscoll. However, the revelation that Driscoll and the church used nearly $250,000 in church funds to buy one of Driscoll’s books onto The New York Times bestseller list was a key factor.

Gaming The New York Times bestseller list is not illegal, but Justin Taylor at Crossway Books called the practice “dishonoring to the Lord.” Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) , calls it “unethical,” and ECFA adopted a rule against members in good standing engaging in it. Rick Christian, a literary agent who founded Alive (Literary Agency) in 1989, calls such practices “outright fraud” and says, “Let’s quit sugar-coating bad practices, quit looking the other way, quit justifying complicit involvement because others are doing it.” He calls for rules of conduct “every agent, publisher, agency, church, and ministry should sign off on.”

Pastor and author David Jeremiah seems to disagree. According to former employee George Hale, Jeremiah’s ministry, Turning Point, purchased copies of at least three of Jeremiah’s books to push them onto The New York Times bestseller list. WORLD asked Jeremiah about his book marketing practices in an interview last year. He was vague on the specifics but did say: “You can’t just write a book and say I’m not going to have anything to do with marketing. If you don’t care enough about it to try and figure out how to get it in the hands of other people, nobody else is going to either.” In the acknowledgments section of his 2012 book God Loves You, Jeremiah even credits the man who got Driscoll in so much trouble—the president of Result Source, Kevin Small—as the “genius behind the plan.”

Marketing has certainly been successful for Jeremiah and Turning Point. The ministry has doubled in size since 2007, at a time when—because of the Great Recession—many Christian ministries have struggled to maintain their donor bases and break even. In 2012, the ministry took in about $40 million.

Hale, who was chief financial officer of Turning Point Ministries from July 2007 to January 2010, says the growth was the result of many changes in the ministry, but he says it coincided with the beginning of the book-buying plan. Hale said each time Jeremiah released a book, Turning Point radio and television programs promoted it, promising a free copy for a donation. This is standard fare for Christian radio. But, according to Hale, Jeremiah and Turning Point bought at least some of the books not at wholesale prices directly from the publisher, but at full retail prices from bookstores.

Hale says he became aware of the book-buying scheme “shortly after I got to Turning Point in July of 2007. David and his son [David Michael Jeremiah, now Turning Point’s chief operating officer and a member of the board] told me we needed to buy a bunch of books. They asked me to use my personal American Express card. When I asked them how much, they said about a quarter of a million dollars’ worth.” Hale says he told them he would not put that much on his card without prepayment.

On Oct. 4, 2007, Turning Point made two payments of $99,999.99 each to George Hale’s credit card, both via wire transfer. (Hale has provided WORLD with copies of his American Express statement showing the payments.) Hale says after he was sure the money had cleared and American Express had credited his account, he OK’d the ministry’s two online purchases using his American Express card at BarnesAndNoble.com: one for $113,038.40 and another for $141,298.00. (Hale’s American Express statement also shows these purchases.)

On Oct. 29, 2007, Turning Point made another payment to Hale’s American Express account of $50,000. Hale said that even though he cooperated with these transactions, he was uncomfortable with them; but he does say one of the effects was to “cause secular stores to stock and sell the books.”

WORLD placed dozens of calls to David Jeremiah and other members of the Turning Point staff to confirm Hale’s version of events and to give Jeremiah the opportunity to explain his version of events. None of these calls was returned.

Tyndale House Publishers lists David Jeremiah as one of its authors. Todd Starowitz, the director of public relations at Tyndale, refused to answer specific questions, but he did issue this statement: “Tyndale House Publishers does not contract with anyone or any agency who attempts to manipulate best seller lists.”

Jeremiah’s Turning Point Ministries “voluntarily resigned” its membership in the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability on Jan. 31, 2010. ECFA’s Busby said the organization has a policy of not giving reasons for an organization’s resignation, but Hale said the book-buying scheme was the key reason for the resignation from ECFA membership.

Hale added, “I very much admire David Jeremiah and believe him to be one of the best Bible teachers in the world today. … I believe that David is blessed and chosen by God for this purpose.” But he believes Turning Point’s book-buying practice is “deceptive and unethical.”

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Warren Cole Smith is vice president of mission advancement for The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In.

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