SEATTLE -- A popular local church – steeped in controversy – is once again under the microscope, following allegations the head pastor may have used church funds to promote his own book.
Pastor Mark Driscoll, leader of Mars Hill Church, reportedly used more than $200,000 to land his book on the New York Times bestseller list. The book, "Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together," appeared on the list for one week in January 2012 and then fell off the list, but Driscoll paid the six-figure sum to a California-based company to climb the charts, according to documents obtained by WORLD Magazine, a publication that covers religion.
“The idea was to make it look like all of these books were spontaneously bought by individuals,” WORLD reporter Warren Cole Smith told KOMO News. “All the major bestseller lists discourage the practice and they put safeguards in place to prevent people buying their way onto the New York Times bestseller list.”
Smith says it appears the money – paid to Carlsbad-based ResultSource – may have totaled close to a quarter-million dollars and may have come directly from church funds. As part of the contract between the church and ResultSource, 11,000 books were purchased from across the country, under the appearance that the sales were made by individuals or small groups.
“The contract called for the 'author' to 'provide a minimum of 6,000 names and addresses for the individual orders and at least 90 names and address [sic] for the remaining 5,000 bulk orders. Please note that it is important that the make up of the 6,000 individual orders include at least 1,000 different addresses with no more than 350 per state,'” the WORLD article states.
“It’s hard to look at this and imagine that it is anything other than a deliberate attempt to subvert the safeguards organizations (like the New York Times) put in place,” Smith said.
ResultSource did not return calls for comment. The church said in a statement late Friday that outside counsel advised the church's marketing team to use the California company for Driscoll's book.
"While not uncommon or illegal, this unwise strategy is not one we had used before or since, and not one we will use again," the statement reads. "The true cost of this endeavor was much less than what has been reported, and to be clear, all of the books purchased through this campaign have been given away or sold through normal channels. All monies from the sale of Pastor Mark’s books at Mars Hill bookstores have always gone to the church and Pastor Mark did not profit from the Real Marriage books sold."
Placement on a bestseller list can have a huge boost to an author’s reputation, said Andrea Dunlop, who works for Seattle-based Girl Friday Productions, a boutique editing, writing, and marketing company that specializes in books and book productions. Dunlop, who used to work for a large New York-based publishing house, said services where an author "buys" placement onto a best-seller list are "a pretty big and well-guarded mystery."
“These bestseller lists are supposed to be a stamp of quality,” Dunlop said. “They should be a mark that this book is really being read and accepted and loved by readers and I think that to game that system is a breach of trust.”
“It’s certainly not something that I think sits well with most people who hear about it,” Dunlop added.
Mars Hill Church boasts more than 19,000 members in 15 locations across five states. In 2012, the church made headlines after encouraging members to shun a former churchgoer who refused to sign a contract outlining his sexual history.
Driscoll's book made one more appearance on the Times bestseller list in February 2012, coming in at number 12.