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Book Royalties Allow Some Preachers To Live Like Kings

Book Royalties Allow Some Preachers To Live Like Kings While Telling Donors and the Public They Work For Free

by Warren Cole Smith and Rusty Leonard
(EP News)—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 best-seller lists, he went on “Larry King Live” to tell America that he has reimbursed his church for all the salary he had ever taken from Saddleback Church, and he and his wife Kay are now “reverse tithing:” they keep 10 percent of their income and give away 90 percent.

Fans and some in the media swooned at these conspicuous displays of generosity. The Orlando Sentinel’s Mark Pinsky called Osteen’s behavior a “sharp contrast” to Benny Hinn, Paula White and the others currently being investigated by Sen. Charles Grassley for possible financial improprieties.

But given the realities of the book publishing industry, these pastor’s salaries had likely become incidental parts of their income. Osteen’s first book, 2005’s Your Best Life Now, has sold at 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 8-figure payday. So even without his salary from Lakewood, Osteen has likely earned at least $25 million in book royalties since 2005.

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 approaches $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. The bottom line: 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 take a different approach. Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, takes no royalties from his half-dozen or more best-sellers. His philosophy: the ministry—including his nationally syndicated “Breakpoint” radio program—drive book sales. Why should he profit personally from a market that his donors the ministry created and paid for? A spokesman for Colson 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 best-sellers include Heaven and The Treasure Principle, not only gives the money to Eternal Perspective Ministries, but EPM in turn gives much of it to ministries over which Alcorn has no control or influence. In 2008, EPM gave almost $600,000 to other Christian 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 powerhouses. 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 pre-existing audiences are key to that initial sales velocity. After that, computers see the figures and do automatic re-stocks. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.”

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 notoriety generated by multi-million-dollar radio and television ministries and megachurch audiences, authors such as Benny Hinn, Osteen, Paula White—and even more mainstream ministers such as Tim Keller and Warren—would likely not get the jump-start they needed to make the best-seller lists.


Author: Staff

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  • Careful line to toe here. One side screams Pharisee and legalism. Where does God in the bible say anything other than tithing 10% and being led by the holy spirit on gifts and offerings? The other side of the coin appears as excess or bad stewardship.

    Are we truly going to take a shot at Rick Warren on this one. Really? A reverse tithe is not good enough. Sure there is excess and bad stewardship but Senator Grassley has no business in the middle of it unless he wants to open up his finances to the world. He’s an elder of our government so too speak. I’m an uber conservative.

    When we start thinking down these lines we have to think, what is our motive. Are we comparing ourselves to others? Are we jealous that we didn’t write the book? Do we wish we had more influence?

    I say examine yourself and if you’re above reproach in this area, then counsel away. And by the way how do we know that these pastor writers are not giving away money humbly and quietly to not draw attention to themselves. A preferred way to give my bible tells me.

    I’m a conservative evangelical Christian by the way. I’m not a charismatic by the way in case you were wondering. I don’t agree with much of Joel’s teaching and some of Rick Warren’s decisions. Just eliminated my biases.

  • Vicki Anderson

    I originally posted a rather long reply but lost my connection and it did not go through. Perhaps that was best. What exactly was the purpose of this article? I am always saddened when we (Christians) use our resources (time, talent, money, influence, etc) to speak against other Christians rather than promoting the kingdom of God. Again, what was the purpose?

  • Connie Elmore

    First of all according to Jesus there is a new tithe. He told the rich young ruler to sell all he had. It is all God’s and Jesus also said to give to all that ask of you.

    Also we always have 2 choices in this life, yes,JUST 2. Either the choice is for God or not and that is for every walk in life. We have video games, books, websites, movies, past time activities, sabath activies, and so on, that all only have 2 choices. We can choose a video game that honors God or not. We can choose a website that honors God or not. We can give 2 hours to watch a movie that honors God or not. We can go eat at a resturaunt on Sunday and be served and deny the servers Sundays off or not.
    (I worked for a resturaunt that always got ready for the “church crowd” on Sundays.) We can choose a book that honors God or not. Praise God that He leads those to make Godly movies, books, websites, T-Shirts and so on.

    What the author, movie maker,T-shirt designer does with royalties is between them and God. Jesus said in John 3:17, He came not to condemn the world but that the world through Him may be saved.

    We have a wonderful author at our church, Dr. Cal Hunter. I am absolutely certain that God directed him in his writings. Royalities did not motivate him. His love for our Creator did! I also have written a commentary not at all to be compared to these men or Dr. Hunter’s books. But I can tell you this, I did not start writing with royalties in mind.
    I woke up many times at 4 or 5 in the morning with thoughts of Jesus on my mind that I was compelled to record. Motivations for most all these books were NOT royalties. I was so sad when I saw the negative FRONT PAGE story of the Baptist Messanger.
    Jesus also said something to the fact that if someone is for us , he is not against us.

    The motivation of this article is in question. But of course that is between them those that approved the article and God. ,

    Ironically,I had one of my self pubslished books sent to the Baptist Messenger for review.

    I am shocked that this article was allowed in the Baptist Messenger!

    Think of all the people that were helped by these books!

    Sincerely in the love of Jesus Christ,

    Connie Elmore

  • Kurt Feighner

    This article is about a non-essential in the Christian life. It is not about tithing, but gifts and offerings. My first thought after reading this article was a little anger that we were judging these successful authors.

    I believe God has blessed these authors. I hope they seek God everyday, and He will decided to bless them more or less. I choose to not judge them, but pray for these high profile men to use God gifts, both money and talents for His glory that souls would be added to the Kingdom. We know Satan would love to take out these high profile Christians.

    While they do give a large percentage back, look at the opportunities the remaining money has allowed them to pursue. Pastor Warren is now directing a focus on AIDS in Africa. Money does provide opportunities. Furthermore, we do not know what he does with the other 10%.

    Two passages come to mind. Luke 12:48 (much given, much required), and Matt 25:21(faithful in small things, will be given more).

    As with all non-essentials in the christian life, Rick Warren and Chuck Colson can both be in God’s will while doing completely different things! Maybe Rick can handle all the temptations of wealth, and Chuck can not. God knows them better than they do! What a wonderful God! How boring life on earth if we all did things exactly the same!

    I believe the point of the article was to ask, Are their king lifestyles hurting their witness? Are they a stumbling block to non-christians?

    My thoughts have turned to myself, am I doing enough, am I causing someone else to stumble, am I caught up in the world?

    By grace I’m saved

  • Jeff Reidel

    None of the comments thus far have challenged the facts. At no point does the article state that writing books is sin (what were you thinking Connie Elmore?). The writers do not even question the motives of the authors. It merely lays out the facts that people do make large sums of money in Christian publishing. For people like Joel Osteen, he has publicly denied the gospel and remains to many the very example of a person becoming wealthy with books that are long on positive thinking and short on the gospel.

    Vick Anderson – I can’t speak for the editors, but this piece also ran in WORLD Magazine. Its purpose, at least to me, was to shed light on some practices of the modern Christian publishing industry – which can be quite market driven rather than gospel driven.

    One read of Joel Osteen’s book should show that to you.

  • Dr. James Willingham

    This article is not one that should have been written. The authors of the books do not answer to us; they answer to God. One detects a certain amount of envy and jealousy in the comments.

  • Pedro Gonzales

    What was it Jesus once said about a camel passing through the eye of a needle?

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