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.