Don’t call them celebrities. The pastor-authors whose books power Christian publishing and these days cross over into general market bestsellerdom are known by their messages and platforms. Preachers are communicators, accustomed to the discipline of writing weekly sermons. With innumerable pastors in countless pulpits, is the supply of potential authors for successful books without limit?
The talent, the message, and the passion are almost boundless,” says Harry Helm, associate publisher of marketing for Hachette’s FaithWords imprint, which publishes powerhouse author Joel Osteen and rising star Jud Wilhite. “The question is, who is the audience and how big is it? The only boundary is the number of people willing to receive the message.” That potential keeps publishers investing in pastor-authors whose reach can extend beyond their own congregations.
Distinctive Voices and Platforms
When publishers have so many name pastor-authors and so many being cultivated, how are readers to keep them straight? What causes these preachers to break out from the pack? “There are a number of them, but they have distinctive voices,” says Don Pape, v-p of trade books at David C. Cook. “What makes each of them rise to the top is that distinctive voice and a distinctive message.”
Platform is another component, of course, and while pastors have a built-in platform in their churches, David C. Cook author Tullian Tchividjian might be in his own category. His full name is William Graham Tullian Tchividjian, and he is the only one of Billy Graham’s 19 grandchildren who is a rising pastor-author and also leader of a huge congregation. Tchividjian is based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and is senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, where he succeeded the late founder D. James Kennedy.
Tchividjian now has a multibook contract with Cook; his newest is One Way Love (Oct.; reviewed in this issue). “It’s really his opus, his signature song, if you will,” Pape says. “His message is grace, always grace. You’re not going to have him deviate much from that.”
When it comes to raising a pastor’s profile enough to be noticed by publishers, Pape says, a congregation provides word-of-mouth, and a television and radio ministry further enhances it. “Nowadays, a pastor who blogs on a fairly regular basis or is on Twitter, those are things that get our attention as well.”
Matt Chandler, another David C. Cook author and lead pastor of the Village Church in the Dallas–Fort Worth area, has achieved bestseller status on the lists of the Association of Christian Retailers (CBA) and the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA), and his sermons are among the most downloaded iTunes podcasts, according to the publisher. His newest book is To Live Is Christ, To Die Is Gain (Sept.).
But one thing never changes. “The key is to write a good book,” Pape says.
Finding and Nurturing Talent
Tracy Danz, v-p and publisher of trade books at Zondervan, says publishers don’t have to work at distinguishing pastor-authors from one another. “We don’t think about an author having to be different from others in the field. The reason we acquire them is that they do have a unique voice.”
A preacher’s hometown following remains a big deal, but so is an extensive online audience, Danz says. Zondervan authors Craig Groeschel and Mark Batterson both have an online reach beyond their city, their state, and sometimes their country. Tapping into the zeitgeist is also key: “Another factor is if they are saying things that really resonate with folks,” Danz notes.
Groeschel, who lives in Edmond, Okla., is the founding and senior pastor of the multicampus LifeChurch.tv. It has 16 locations in five states and an online community, and has been described as America’s largest church. “Craig has one of the most exciting and dynamic ideas about how to do church of anybody using technology,” Danz says.
With more than 700,000 units in total sales for seven titles from Zondervan, including Altar Ego (Feb.), Weird (2011), and Soul Detox (2012), Groeschel’s next book Fight (Oct.; reviewed in this issue) is aimed squarely at men. Danz says it is a shorter, smaller-format book ideal for men’s church study groups. “That’s a good example of a pastor whose voice is really shining through because Craig is an archetypal guy and can speak passionately to other men,” Danz says.
Mark Batterson is lead pastor of National Community Church, based in Washington, D.C., and with six other locations. He has sold more than 500,000 books with Zondervan, and his The Circle Maker was on the New York Times list for one week. All In (Oct.) will be his 10th book. “The wonderful thing about Mark Batterson is he really loves to write,” Danz says.
An up-and-coming pastor-author breaks out at times at a big leadership conference like Catalyst and Q, or a denominational conference, Danz says, so publishers attend such events in search of potential authors. “Sometimes [you find them] not at the main stage at the conference, but in some of the smaller rooms.”
Another way to find prospective preacher-writers is by talking to the pastors whose books already are selling well. “If you pay attention, there are people in churches that sometimes have remarkable potential, that the church knows about but not everybody else does yet,” Danz says.
Some new recruits require nurturing to produce books. “It begins with having a really good editor and with the editor’s relationship with the author. If the author hasn’t written anything yet in book length, it takes a lot of trust,” Danz says. “It’s a matter of finding somebody who wants to write and has a lot more to say than is in a sermon.” To Danz, it’s like the difference between writing a song and putting together an entire album.
Authenticity and the Message
Do publishers want pastor-authors to become celebrities? “I would say that would be a term most of us would push away from,” says Susan Salley, associate publisher for ministry resources at Abingdon Press. Salley says a book’s success derives from authenticity in message and author. “They often shape their books from sermon series that really connected with their audiences.”
Abingdon author Adam Hamilton is senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kans., a 16,000-member congregation just outside Kansas City, Mo., that is the largest United Methodist Church in the United States. In January, Hamilton preached at the National Prayer Service as part of the presidential inauguration festivities.
Love to Stay (Aug.), about making marriage last, is Hamilton’s 16th book, all of them with Abingdon. “He’s an excellent pastor with a gift for helping people on tough topics,” Salley says. His titles have sold more than one million copies. His The Way (2012) was on PW’s hardcover nonfiction bestseller list and won Christian Retailing’s 2013 award for best Bible study/reference. Abingdon finds that when Hamilton preaches on a topic, whether it’s marriage or forgiveness, and it sits well with his congregation, it reaches across the country. That’s true of his blog, too. “If one person is having that question, then people outside of Kansas are having that question as well,” says Tamara Crabtree, executive director of marketing.
Mike Slaughter is publishing two books with Abingdon in 2013, shiny gods (May) and Dare to Dream (Dec.). Slaughter is lead pastor at Ginghamsburg Church in Dayton, Ohio, where his message of stepping outside one’s own problems to make a difference in the world has galvanized his financially distressed blue-collar audience. He emphasizes sacrificial living and “being the hands and feet of God,” Salley says. In a metropolitan area with the most job losses in the recent recession, Slaughter’s congregation has raised some $6 million for Sudan’s Darfur region.
“The core message is that it’s not the Gospel if it’s not good news for the poor,” notes Salley. “I think people really like to see that consistency and that passion.” Last year, more than 5,000 congregations participated in a Bible study based on Slaughter’s A Different Kind of Christmas (2012).
Abingdon looks for preacher-writers who fill a proven need, and whose message resonates with other pastors who are looking for something to share with their own congregations, which helps create momentum for books. “Many come to us already with a large meeting and conference schedule. What we’re able to do is help them with their online presence,” Crabtree says of marketing efforts.
Content Matters Most
If a formula existed for grooming pastor-authors to achieve high public awareness, says Helm at FaithWords, “I wouldn’t need to be doing what I’m doing right now.” Some pastors do become known in popular culture—people who don’t read books know who Joe Osteen is, in part because of his TV ministry. Commenting on developing preacher-writers to achieve a larger awareness by the general culture, Helm says he would “shy away from connecting the word ‘celebrity’ with pastors, as it might be an appropriate description in only a few cases and would create an impression that other pastors are somehow less significant.”
Jud Wilhite, who also publishes with FaithWords, has not achieved anything like Osteen’s level of fame, but Helm says Wilhite’s message “resonates with people who have an affinity for Christian ideas and Christian living whether they grew up in it and left, or grew up and stayed but have issues with it, or are finding it for the first time in their lives.”
Wilhite, in his early 40s, is one of the younger rising pastor-authors, and as senior pastor of Central Christian Church in Las Vegas, Nev., is the youngest megachurch minister in America. In Pursued (FaithWords, Feb.), he writes about his troubled teenage years, when he was involved in carjacking and drug addiction. His next book, due out in February 2014, is The God of Yes.
“We’ve developed a list of best practices here, so to speak, that we’ve learned over the years working with large ministries about some of the things they do to promote their books using their ministries,” Helm says. “Jud, for instance, does not do television ministry but has a very strong online ministry, with webcasts and all that sort of stuff. He also has a very large, active, and involved congregation in Las Vegas.”
In general, Helm says, FaithWords does not ask pastors to do something they don’t already do, such as directing them to get a television show. “We look at what they do with their successful program.” Helm says Wilhite’s ministry didn’t need coaching. “They are well organized and have a very good understanding of how to move their congregation in a lot of ways, including how to support one of Jud’s books.”
Wilhite shepherds a diverse congregation, Helm says, and his faith and clarity are concepts that work well in the environment of Las Vegas. “He has chosen to go to where the people in need are, and they have responded. Las Vegas is in ways a reflection of all of America, stuffed into one place in the desert.” That’s why Wilhite resonates with the people that he does, Helm says. Wilhite’s ministry creates excitement about his books among his congregation and others who follow him; he also works with FaithWords to get the books into the hands of other pastors and other influencers. “We do a lot of mailings of galleys [to these influencers] many months in advance,” Helm says. Another promotional avenue is a church speaking tour, where books are sold. “Instead of asking the people to come to a bookstore to meet an author we take the author to where those people worship,” says Helm. It comes down to energizing two audiences: the pastor’s congregation, in the church or online, and the wider reading public.
But in the end it all comes down to message. Echoing other publishers, Helm says, “The book has to be really good. The book matters.”
Setting the Bar: Bestselling Pastors
While most pastors might regard it as unseemly to be dubbed “celebrities” or “stars,” established authors like Joel Osteen, Max Lucado, Francis Chan, Kyle Idleman, and David Platt have undeniable mass appeal and sell lots of books. Osteen’s books always make the New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestsellers lists. I Declare, which came out last fall and has sold one million copies, releases in paper in August. Break Out! (Oct.) will be his fourth major title for FaithWords. Osteen’s first bestseller, Your Best Life Now, which rode the Times bestsellers list for almost two years, was published in 2003 by Warner Faith before Hachette acquired the imprint and renamed it. “He has reached a level of cultural awareness that few reach,” says Harry Helm, associate publisher of marketing for FaithWords, of Osteen, who is pastor of Houston’s Lakewood Church, which draws about 40,000 attendees every weekend.
Fellow Texan and Thomas Nelson author Max Lucado, pastor for 25 years at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, is the only author to win three Evangelical Christian Publishers Association Book of the Year awards. He has had books on all of the national bestseller lists including PW, USA Today, the New York Times, CBA, and ECPA, and has 85 million books in print. You’ll Get Through This (Sept.) marks his 30th book; 16 of them are million-copy–plus bestsellers. A film version of Lucado’s novella The Christmas Candle (2006) is to release in 2014. The cast includes Les Misérables actress Samantha Barks and singer Susan Boyle, with Max and Denalyn Lucado in cameo roles.
In the David C. Cook stable, Francis Chan, the author of Crazy Love (2009), Forgotten God (2010), and Multiply (2012) is taking a break from book writing, with nothing new slated just now. But his books have been bestsellers on the New York Times, USA Today, CBA, and ECPA lists, with more than 3.7 million copies sold in the past five years. Chan, who was founding pastor of Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, Calif., and founded Eternity Bible College, is now in San Francisco, working with the homeless and destitute, according to Don Pape, Cook’s v-p for trade publishing. Pape says Chan is still promoting Multiply and helping to build a house church network.
Another bestselling pastor, Rob Bell, has left his pastorate to write full-time. His 2005 book with Zondervan, Velvet Elvis, has sold 500,000 copies; his 2011 title with HarperOne, Love Wins, has more than 300,000 copies sold and stayed on the New York Times list for 24 weeks. What We Talk About When We Talk About God (HarperOne, 2013) has sold 65,000 copies. Bell has 1.5 million copies of his books in print.
Kyle Idleman has sold more than one million books for Zondervan, with Not a Fan (2011) and Gods at War (Feb.) both CBA bestsellers. His next book, AHA!, will be published by Cook in March. Idleman is teaching pastor at the fourth-largest U.S. congregation, Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky.
At Tyndale House, David Platt’s Follow Me (Feb.)—his second major book after Radical (Multnomah, 2010), which has sold some one million copies—was on the New York Times bestseller list for five weeks. Print sales for Follow Me so far are in the six-figure range, accompanied by strong e-book sales. PubTrack data in June showed Follow Me was the top new release in Christian publishing that month. Platt, pastor of the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala., is scheduled for another major, as-yet untitled hardcover book with Tyndale House in September 2014.