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Can bestseller lists be bought?

Every author wants a bestselling book -- and those who can pay for the services of ResultSource Inc. just might get one. The company describes itself as "a boutique marketing firm that works with today’s thought leaders to build bestsellers," which it has.  

In 2013, the Wall Street Journal talked with authors of two books who paid thousands of dollars to ResultSource and subsequently landed on the Journal's own bestseller list. "Precisely how [ResultSource] goes about [its business] is unclear," Jeffrey Trachtenberg wrote.

Now, a new report about the sales numbers for "Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together" by evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll and his wife, Grace, reveals some details of how ResultSource gets books on bestseller lists. Driscoll heads Mars Hill Church, a megachurch in Seattle.

The church paid an estimated $210,000 to ResultSource to make "Real Marriage" a bestseller, according to a document obtained by World Magazine, a Christian periodical. Warren Cole Smith writes in World that the magazine obtained an agreement between ResultSource and Driscoll's Mars Hill Church that was signed by representatives of both in October 2011.

According to the article, the contract was for ResultSource "to conduct a bestseller campaign for your book, 'Real Marriage' on the week of January 2, 2012. The bestseller campaign is intended to place 'Real Marriage' on the New York Times bestseller list for the Advice How-to list."

"Real Marriage" topped the New York Times' hardcover advice bestseller list on Jan. 22, 2012. The following week, it was gone.

The spike onto a bestseller list and then disappearance -- as opposed to an up-and-down arc, or a high debut followed by a decline -- can indicate something other than typical consumer book-buying behavior.

The report in World reveals what ResultSource did to get "Real Marriage" on the list. First, it bought a lot of books all at once. "RSI will be purchasing at least 11,000 total orders in one-week," the agreement states.

Then the company went to great lengths to make that purchase of 11,000 books appear to be made by individuals or small groups, according to the article.

The World's report continues, "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 makeup of the 6,000 individual orders include at least 1,000 different addresses with no more than 350 per state.'"

Measures like these are designed to game the systems set in place by BookScan and other book sales talliers to protect the integrity of their bestseller lists. 

"Stringent rules and controls exist to help validate consumer sales, and confirmed bulk sales are always flagged and pulled from BookScan's bestseller-chartmaking process," Jonathan Stolper, general manager of Nielsen BookScan, told the Wall Street Journal in 2012.

After getting thousands of names with geographic diversity, RSI took another step to place "Real Marriage" on bestseller lists, according to the World article. The agreement specifies, "RSI will use its own payment systems (ex. gift cards to ensure flawless reporting). Note: The largest obstacle to the reporting system is the tracking of credit cards. RSI uses over 1,000 different payment types (credit cards, gift cards, etc)."

Seattle's The Stranger has focused on the estimated $210,000 in church funds paid in fees and book purchases that gave "Real Marriage" its one-week bestseller run. "Would churchgoing Christians really consider this to be the best possible use of Mars Hill funds?" the alternative weekly asks.

ResultSource did not return our request for comment on the contents of the World article.

Driscoll's "Real Marriage" has not appeared on the L.A. Times bestseller list.

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