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Rick Warren/Photo by Charles Sykes/AP

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Charity | What do pastor-authors owe to ministries that drive their book sales?

Issue: "Homegrown terror," Dec. 5, 2009

Joel Osteen is fond of telling reporters that he hasn't accepted a salary from the church he pastors-Houston's mammoth Lakewood Church-since 2005. When Pastor Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life made bestseller lists, he said on Larry King Live that he had reimbursed his church for all the salary he had ever taken from Saddleback Church, and that he and his wife Kay were "reverse tithing": keeping 10 percent of their income and giving away 90 percent.

Fans and some in the media cheered these conspicuous displays of generosity. The Orlando Sentinel's Mark Pinsky called Osteen's behavior a "sharp contrast" to Benny Hinn, Paula White, and other famous pastors.

But given the realities of the book publishing industry, these pastors' salaries had likely become incidental parts of their incomes. Osteen's first book, 2005's Your Best Life Now, has sold an estimated 10 million copies-enough to get a $13 million advance from his publisher for his second book, Become a Better You. Osteen's new book, It's Your Time, in stores in time for the Christmas buying season, will likely yield another eight-figure payday. So even without his salary from Lakewood, Osteen has likely earned at least $25 million in book royalties since 2005.

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Rick Warren's book has been certified "triple diamond" by the Evangelical Christian Publisher's Association, signifying more than 30 million copies sold since its publication in 2002. Royalty figures are among the publishing industry's best kept secrets, but industry insiders estimate that Warren gets at least 20 percent of the wholesale price of the book. All of this means that Warren's royalties from The Purpose Driven Life and its spin-offs, some of which have been certified gold and platinum themselves, likely approach $100 million. Even accounting for his well-publicized "reverse tithe," Warren likely pockets well in excess of $1 million a year.

These are huge numbers, but is there anything wrong with that? It depends on whom you ask. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability has a complicated formula that determines whether ministry "insiders" may keep royalties from their books. In most cases, they can-so long as the book is not being used by the ministry for a fund-raising premium.

Nonetheless, a minority of well-known Christian leaders takes a different approach. Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, takes no royalties from his half-dozen or more bestsellers. His philosophy: The ministry-including his nationally syndicated "Breakpoint" radio program-drives book sales. Why should he profit personally from a market that donors to the ministry created? Colson spokeswoman Amy Anderson said: "He turns over all royalties from his books to Prison Fellowship. He has done that with every book he has written."

Randy Alcorn, whose bestsellers include Heaven and The Treasure Principle, not only gives his royalties to Eternal Perspective Ministries (EPM), but EPM in turn gives much of it to ministries over which Alcorn has no control. In 2008, EPM gave almost $600,000 to ministries involved in pro-life and poverty work. Since 1990, EPM has given away about $5.5 million, most of that money being Alcorn's royalty income. Alcorn said he believed this approach is more accountable and transparent to donors and the general public.

Greg Stielstra has led marketing at both Zondervan and Thomas Nelson, two Christian publishing houses. He said that an "author's platform" is essential to selling books. "Increasingly, publishers need an author to have a platform, an existing audience," he said. "Success in book publishing means developing sales velocity in the first 90 days. Authors with preexisting audiences are key to that initial sales velocity. After that, computers see the figures and do automatic re-stocks. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

But does that mean Stielstra believes ministries and not authors should keep the royalties? "That's not a simple question," he said. "If Bret Favre writes a book about his experience with the Green Bay Packers, should the Green Bay Packers get a portion of the royalties? I say no." On the other hand, without the fame generated by radio and television ministries and megachurch audiences, many Christian authors would likely not get the jump-start needed to make the bestseller lists.

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