Steven Furtick is sticking to his story that his mansion money has come from his books, though his business partner clarified that the house is being built with money from books he has yet to write. Though the continued insistence that the house uses book money reinforces their Walter White problem, don’t you wonder how such a mediocre writer (look at the non-Elevation reviews on Amazon) can parlay a boilerplate inspirational book into such a grand project?
I think I know how he does it, and it’s not because people are reading his books.
Weak Sales Performance
With the help of the Wayback Machine, I reviewed the sales ranks of Furtick’s two books over the first year or so of their release. Here’s the rank and date of his first two books:
Amazon Sales Rank for "Sun Stand Still"
|Sept 24, 2010||62|
|Sept 26, 2010||119|
|Oct 7, 2010||219|
|Oct 18, 2010||535|
|Oct 29, 2010||206|
|Nov 1, 2010||497|
|Nov 24, 2010||1,671|
|Dec 10, 2010||2,393|
|Dec 18, 2010||3,556|
|Dec 20, 2010||6,118|
|Oct 29, 2013||3,804|
After a strong start, sales dropped off quickly. The same pattern is seen in his second book, Greater.
Amazon Sales Rank for "Greater"
|Sept 7, 2012||64|
|Sept 16, 2012||540|
|Sept 22, 2012||374|
|Oct 4, 2012||470|
|Oct 9, 2012||839|
|Oct 14, 2012||1,358|
|Oct 22, 2012||1112|
|Oct 25, 2012||730|
|July 8, 2013||8,423|
|Oct 29, 2013||114,724|
Although Amazon doesn’t report total copies sold, Amazon authors have calculated the relationship between rank and sales made. Using that data, and using the most generous rank for Furtick’s books in each month, we can estimate how many books he has sold per month on Amazon.
For Sun Stand Still:
- Sept, 2010: 1,000 a day (9,000, released on Sept 21)
- Oct: 500 a day (15,000, running total of 24,000)
- Nov: 100 a day (3,000, 27,000)
- Dec: 50 a day (1,500, 28,500)
- July, 2011: 30 a day (for year 11,000, running total of 29,500)
- July, 2012: 25 a day (for year 9,000, for 38,500)
- Oct, 2013: 25 a day (for 2013 so far 7,500, for 46,000 all time through Amazon)
The numbers for Greater are as follows:
- Sept, 2012: 1,000 (26,000, released on Sept 4)
- Oct-Dec: 100 a day (9,000, 35,000)
- July, 2013: 20 a day (6,000 for 2013 so far, 41,000 total)
- Oct, 2013: <1 a day
We can reasonably estimate that Furtick has sold around 87,000 of his books through Amazon, each one contributing about $1.12 to his mansion fund. The New York Times estimates that Amazon has a 25% share of printed books (though much larger for ebooks), so let’s quadruple the 87k and say that Furtick has sold 350,000 books through all retail channels. If anything, that’s dramatically underestimating Amazon’s share of Furtick’s sales because his book is really only going to be available online for most consumers; it’s not going to show up often in traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores. That means that he has almost certainly sold fewer than 350,000 books, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he has.
It’s quite impressive, though it still “only” puts $392,000 into the Furtick house fund. He’s still $1.3 million short, though let’s assume he’ll write two more books that will have the same kinds of sales, giving him $784,000. He’s still not even half way to paying off the house.
Concerning the books he’s planning to write, if you were a publisher looking at his track record, it’s obvious that Greater was a lesser book than the first, being soundly eclipsed by Sun, especially in how quickly sales declined. What new does Pastor Furtick have to say that the readers of his first two books will want to pay $15 to discover? I can’t imagine there are too many publishers lining up to offer Furtick large advances for his next efforts, unless he has a way to guarantee large sales outside of the normal retail channels.
Where does the rest of the book money come from, then?
Juicing the Numbers
In the words of a Forbes magazine article on book marketing, it’s legally laundered, probably through massive church purchases of the book. Before we get to how they do that, let’s examine why the church might use a book to goose their pastor’s income.
We know from NewSpring that megachurches are very concerned about being perceived by the IRS as overpaying their pastors, who lead putatively nonprofit organizations, after all. They consult lawyers and accountants to determine a ceiling that will pass muster with the government. Not only do we know that the pastors want to be paid well, they want to be paid in funds that they can use without running into the Walt White dilemma of having their hands tied on how they can spend their fortune. If the church can help the pastor earn a large proportion of his income through selling books, both sides win–the church gets to construct a massive compensation package where the base salary isn’t appalling, and the preacher gets to spend the money freely because it comes from books rather than the collection plate.
As you’ve noticed above, Greater was fairly unimpressive, especially compared with its older brother. Yet, the later and lesser book managed an appearance on the New York Times bestseller list in 2012, whereas the first book didn’t earn such an honor. The brush with publishing glory was narrow and fleeting, though. The list in question, Advice, How-To, & Miscellaneous (Hardcover), is regularly the home to books by Christian authors. Furtick’s book showed up in the printed list for just one week on Sept 24, 2012, in the fourth position. A LexisNexis search of the NYT shows that it made a brief almost-reappearance on October 7 when its 12th position warranted a web listing only. After that, it disappeared.
For comparison, Francis Chan’s Crazy Love, a genuinely popular and influential book, shows up on the same list 116 times.
For a quite different comparison, our friend Perry Noble also makes a brief splash on the Miscellaneous paperback list on October 7 in the number-two slot. It was the only time the book made the list, not even surviving for a last-gasp web listing.
Even though Noble’s NYT placement was better than Furtick’s, his Amazon performance was relatively poor.
Amazon Sales Rank for "Unleash!"
|Oct 3, 2012||629|
|July 8, 2013||58,937|
|Oct 29, 2013||208,048|
What both Greater and Unleash! have in common is a dagger (†) beside their entry, which points inquisitive readers to the following explanation: “A dagger (†) indicates that some bookstores report receiving bulk orders.” As Forbes explains, bulk orders are a way for new authors to buy placement on the NY Times bestseller list by simulating high demand for their books and flooding the market with orders from pseudo customers. When the Times suspects such activity is occurring, it places the dagger on the list to warn its readers that the book’s numbers have probably been juiced.
Manipulating the numbers isn’t cheap, and it can happen in a couple of ways.
- Book marketing companies, notably one called ResultSource, will arrange sales of enough copies–usually in the thousands–for the book to be listed in the Times. Forbes estimates that placing a book on the NY Times list this way can cost a quarter million dollars.
- Sales in lieu of fees. For example, the Wall Street Journal reports on an author who asked clients to buy her books instead of pay her cash for speaking fees.
Both Furtick’s and Noble’s book sales were juiced in the first week after their release, probably from a combination of these methods. ResultSource explains why authors might want to use it for a bestseller campaign:
What would a Bestseller do for your brand? Your business? Your future? Publishing a book builds credibility, but having a Bestseller initiates incredible growth—exponentially increasing the demand for your thought leadership, skyrocketing your speaking itinerary and value, giving you a national (even global) spotlight, and solidifying your author brand as the foremost leader in your niche.
Noble and Furtick will be New York Times bestselling authors for the rest of their lives. Perry Noble’s promotional blurb for an appearance at Saddleback, which would have been written by him or NewSpring, highlighted it, as does his Facebook page, which lists his two claims to fame: pastor and bestselling author. Furtick promotes Greater as a bestseller, too.
We and the editors at the NY Times suspect that the bestseller status of these pastors’ books was achieved by selling to people who didn’t intend to read them. Maybe they’ll tell us how they did this, though in the meantime we have to guess. Are book sales attached to conference and speaking fees? Is Elevation Church sitting on a roomful of Furtick’s books that they purchased to get on the NY Times list?
Some of those books seem have been repackaged with other topical supplements into packs that are sold to churches for $69 or $99. Furtick probably cuts the church a small slice of those sales (this would be the money he claims to give back to the church), then pockets the rest as pure profit, especially since the books have already been paid for by the church when they made the initial bulk purchases. He earns his $3 author’s commission on the initial bulk sale, then collects 20-30 times that much when he sells these packs on Elevation’s website. The church (that’s unfair–his pastor friends, mainly) can funnel big money to Furtick but characterize the transaction as book purchases, not salary. The IRS, the compensation folk and Pastor Steven are all satisfied.
We know that Furtick says his $1.7 million has come from books, both past and future. We also know that, in the words of the WCNC report, “Furtick arranges for the publisher to sell the books by the thousands to Elevation Church at his author’s discount.” The report says that the church then sells the books at a profit, which, according to Chunks Corbett, Furtick’s business partner, “help[s] the church tremendously.” Corbett didn’t say whether the money from the sale stays with the church or goes to Furtick. Corbett would characterize all the money going to Furtick as helping the church. It is Furtick’s church, after all.
Furtick is the one who is on record as saying the money has come from his books, yet there’s no way to reconcile that claim with the evidence we can see from Amazon and the New York Times. There are three possible explanations for Furtick’s statement:
- Furtick has sold a million books outside of Amazon, but in stores and websites that don’t report sales to the Times.
- The church is buying books in bulk to funnel the money to Furtick, and the data provided to the New York Times is based on a fiction. (†)
- He is lying.
You decide which one or two are most likely.
If you watched the WCNC story, did you notice the curious video of Furtick hawking the book on television, promising to donate a backpack of school supplies to local kids for every book sold? Watch the section from 5:38 to 6:30. Steven weakly refutes the charge that it’s a gimmick because, well, giving stuff to needy kids can’t possibly be gimmicky. (Let’s ignore the cruelty of making your help for the needy contingent on someone else’s commercial activity. How many full backpacks did Furtick and Elevation have left over in their warehouse that weren’t distributed? He’s holding a full backpack, so you know they pre-ordered everything in it.)
More relevant to this discussion is how they could afford to do that. As calculated here, the author’s commission on these sales is going to be $3 to $5, depending on what kind of discount they negotiated with the publisher. If these are first-time sales, the backpack eats up the commission, and we know that didn’t happen, because Furtick has been saving the profits from these books for his house; this is not a charity project. If, however, this is the church selling its boxes of bulk orders that got the book on the bestseller list, then everything it collects over shipping costs is pure profit. (The church actually does seem to sell boxes of books directly to people wanting to place large orders. Why does it want such buyers to deal directly with them rather than the publisher unless they’re sitting on a warehouse full of books they’ve already paid for?) If they sell the book for $15, deduct $5 for the backpack, they’re still making bank.
And Steven is building mansions.