What's Wrong With Buying Your Way Onto the Bestseller List?

by Jared C. Wilson April 24, 2015

… or buying Twitter followers or gaming the analytics to inflate website stats, etc.

At least 5 things:

1. It's dishonest.

No, it's not illegal. But neither are lots of unethical, dishonest things. The asumption that people make when they see "Bestseller" labeled on a book or 600,000 followers on your Twitter page is that you came by those accomplishments the straightforward way: attracting or impressing enough readers to merit their attention. Many "bestseller lists" are assembled in such a way to prevent certain gamings of the system. It may not be a crime to figure out the workarounds, but it's certainly against the rules, the spirit of the lists, and the expectations of those who respect the lists. Exploiting the loopholes is a patently deceptive practice. Some may ask what the difference is between this practice and paying for an ad. But the difference should be obvious: when people see an ad, they know it was paid for by the writer/publisher/marketer, but when people see a book make a bestseller list, they assume it was paid for by readers. That the net effect may be the same—influence—doesn't justify non-transparent means.

2. It's egocentric and lazy.

Rather than actually write a strong book or assemble a steady body of social media work that people find valuable over time, rather than putting in the actual time and investing the relational capital necessary to build a genuine audience, one opts to leverage one commodity (money) for another (power). And while some may say the system-gaming strategy is simply a way to get "the gospel" into the maximum number of hands, others of us would suggest that the efforts to gin up an insta-hit indicate it's not so much the gospel that needs a bestseller as an antsy writer who needs one.

3. It may eventually harm your reputation and will bug you in the long run.

It may harm your reputation when people find out. That'll stink. Then you'll spend more time defending yourself or owning up to your shadiness than you will enjoying your success and leveraging your influence for Christ's fame.

But maybe nobody ever finds out. Maybe the only ones who know are you and the ones you paid to create your status. Instead, it will start to eat at you. As people congratulate you for your bestselling status or express regard for your widening audience, you'll know inside it's a sham, that you didn't actually earn it but bought it. That's assuming, of course, you have a sensitive conscience. Either way, it's just not worth it in the long run.

4. It's poor stewardship and bad strategy.

Okay, so let's say you are just trying to "promote" the book. Wouldn't it have been more efficient to simply pay the same amount for an advertising blitz in key publications? Let's say you really are just trying to reach people with the gospel. Wouldn't investing the same amount in an actual ministry endeavor (supporting a missionary, funding a church plant, etc.) be money better spent? If you're simply trying to expand the audience of the gospel—or your gospel-teaching material—wouldn't it be more effective to simply purchase thousands of copies of your book and give them away to lost people? Or, alternatively, not to sell your book at all and just give it away for free? (Did Keith Green make any bestseller lists? Has John Piper?) As a ministry maneuver, system-gaming works against its purported aim because it's non-transparent, but it also seems too complicated and inefficient to effectively accomplish what it means to.

5. It disadvantages those actually gifted.

This is a subtle point but I think an important one. Some people take years to gather thousands of blog readers or Twitter followers by consistently putting out quality content over time and earning readers' trust and therefore the widening influence this affords. Then someone comes along and buys twice as many fake followers. You may call this sour grapes on the part of the guy who came by his readers honestly, but I think he'd have a genuine grievance about the buyer's inadvertent cheapening of the earner's effort and influence. When more and more people get quickly and easily what others worked very hard for over time, it lessens the value of everybody's influence. This is why the celebrity culture pervading evangelicalism doesn't advance the gospel so much as it creates a culture of competition and consumerism, and also distrust.

Additionally, authors who buy their way into sales and accolades disadvantage their brothers and sisters who are actually gifted to write. Yes, I know some of the bestselling Christian authors have actually written their own books, but too many have not, and adding the dishonesty of system-gaming to the dishonesty of ghostwriting further hinders the work of real artists who are getting crowded out of the marketplace.

And the disadvantage is a real one, if only because the "horning in" can't run the other way. There are no ghost-preachers, after all. Many talented preachers are not talented writers, and vice versa, but talented writers can't pretend to be talented preachers. But talented preachers can sure pretend to be talented writers. When we let them, we diminish the writer class in evangelicalism. We do a disservice to the Body, actually, because we let the preacher class cannibalize the writer class. They used to coexist harmoniously. But that was before the preacher got envious of the writer. And one of the awful results is that evangelicals don't have very good literary taste. What if we let our gifted preachers preach to us and our gifted writers write to us? And when the twain meet, great, but when they don't—also great.