The Making of a Bestseller

It's every author's dream come true: seeing his own book appear on the prestigious New York Times bestseller list. It's a sure ticket to fame, talk show appearances, and of course fat royalty checks. But for Christian authors, that dream rarely comes true. Christian books almost never appear on the standard bestseller lists. The problem is not that Christian books don't sell well. In terms of sheer numbers, they often outsell secular books. In recent years, Charles Swindoll has sold seven million books. Christian novelist Frank Peretti has sold five million. Yet their names have never appeared on the New York Timesbestseller list. The reason is simple: The New York Times surveys only secular bookstores. So books sold through Christian bookstores will never show up on its list-no matter how many copies are bought. As a result, we get a very distorted view of what Americans are reading. One of my favorite stories of how bestseller lists can be distorted comes from my days in the Nixon White House. A book came out arguing that the press had been sharply biased against Nixon during the latest campaign. Needless to say, Nixon loved the book. In his view, it was something everyone in America ought to read. But how could he get it into their hands? As usual, the president simply issued an executive order and left the details to someone else. "Colson," he said. "Get that book on the bestseller lists." "Yes sir," I answered. And I ordered my staff to find out how books are awarded that coveted spot. It turned out that, back then, the New York Times list was based on the sales from just a half-dozen bookstores in New York City itself. So I enlisted the help of a couple of wealthy Nixon supporters. "Buy out that book," I told them. They began visiting the targeted stores again and again, asking for the book and buying copies by the armload. The strategy worked. Within a few weeks a book otherwise destined for obscurity began appearing on bestseller lists around the country. It was a hit! Today such a scheme wouldn't work. The Times has vastly increased the number of retail outlets it consults, and it would be difficult to skew the numbers deliberately. Yet the point remains: Bestseller lists are still misleading because they fail to take into account any book sold outside selected markets. The result is that Christian authors are pushed to the margins of American culture, and their works fail to have the impact they could have. Bestseller lists are not merely a reflection of American reading habits; they also act as a recommended reading list to shape those habits. So why not make a point of stopping by your local secular bookstore regularly and asking for a Christian title. Store owners are sensitive to consumer demands, and you can help put a Christian book on the shelf-making it available to folks who would never enter a Christian bookstore. Who knows? Maybe then it wouldn't take a presidential order to boost a title onto the bestseller list. You and I might succeed in getting some of our country's real bestsellers into the New York Times.


Chuck Colson



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