Sunday, April 1, 2018

Rising Above the "Bestseller" Myth

It's tough being a legitimate publisher, in the current market of publishers and book sites who stretch the truth, manipulate sales rankings and report "success" for their authors, using deceptive promotional jargon. I spent a good part of one day just trying to understand the term "best seller" on Amazon. (Though, as I will point out later, Amazon is not alone in the practice of deceptive book marketing.)

Some time back, I was speaking with an author who was thrilled to tell me of her "bestseller" status on Amazon. As it turned out, her book was indeed a #1 bestseller, in the category of Children's Books>Toddlers>Featuring Toys (or something like that!). Furthermore, according to what I read, the sales rankings for both Kindle and print are "updated hourly," which means that the poor author's #1 status may well have changed an hour after she looked at it. (Details have been changed to protect the innocent.)

Even more confounding is the Free vs. Paid ranking on Kindle. A book might indeed show up with a very high rank on Kindle, but a glance at the labeling with reveal that the book was available for free download, and the ranking was based on this. The book’s ranking may be misconstrued as “bestseller,’ since Amazon lumps both Free and Paid listings under the heading Amazon Best Sellers Rank. Short of that, the publisher may report that a given book reached #1 status on Amazon, but fail to explain the particulars.

In reality, rankings on Amazon are not "historical" so much as "time sensitive." According to Amazon: "For the Kindle Store, Amazon Best Sellers lists are divided into Top 100 Paid and Top 100 Free. … Both lists are updated hourly." Such rankings do not give a true picture of how a book has done throughout its history, but are simply snapshots in time, showing how a book did within the last hour. So, essentially Amazon has taken it upon itself to redefine the age-old definitions of bestseller, recasting the term for its own benefit. It also throws the term around loosely, lumping various categories and modes of distribution under it, so that the unwary public can be duped into thinking they are buying a more popular book than is the case.

Lest you think I scorn the public’s naivete, let me tell you that I, myself, have been used this way. Years ago, when my book, The Priest, first came out, it achieved #7 in a fairly broad Christian category. I was elated, until I looked a little deeper into the stats. As it turned out, this was a blip on the register, due to a book club in a small town in Texas that had just purchased several copies at once. For a fleeting hour (probably), my book had skyrocketed…all due to the algorithm employed by Amazon.

I have been focusing on Amazon, but the tendency for the publishing/book marketing industry to “stretch the truth” is nothing new. It far predates the era of the internet. Many years ago, I was talking with an editor from a prestigious publishing house, who explained to me how book marketing was often manipulated. He said the term “copies in print,” often used as a marketing ploy (i.e. One Million copies in print!) actually referred to the number of books printed (not bound) and stored in a publisher’s warehouse. This was a legitimate way of promoting a book but did not necessarily translate to sales. Later, those unbound copies might actually be destroyed, or, if bound, “remaindered,” and sent out onto the secondary market. As for the term “books sold” (i.e. One Million sold!), he told me that a select group of bookstores were routinely queried for numbers of books sold in a given period. Those bookstores, in cahoots with publishers, would place outlandish orders for books, so that, on paper, it appeared sales for a given book were wonderful. After the book was listed in the newspaper as a bestseller, those orders were often downsized or cancelled. (Wikipedia has this to say about the NYT Bestseller list: It is “compiled according to ‘reports from leading booksellers in 22 cities.’ This methodology of ranking by bookseller sales figures remains to this day although the exact data compilation process is a trade secret and has evolved over time.”)

I know this may seem incredible, but “fact stretching” goes on in many ways, even among authors, themselves. I sat in on a seminar for book promotion, taught by an “expert” on the topic. He told the group, who were all wannabee bestsellers, that one way to catch the eye of a publisher is to have an agent. If you cannot find an agent who will take on your book, find someone who is willing to pose as your agent. He gave an example of an author who used his wife in this way. Her last name was different than his, so publishers were none the wiser (although I am sure most savvy publishers would see through this). Reviews can be garnered this way, too, as you promise whatever to your friends, if they will post great reviews of your book. Authors have even been known to sink boatloads of money into purchasing their own books, to elevate the sales figures, a tactic that is ultimately self-defeating.

So, what exactly is a bestseller? Traditionally, any book that sells over 50,000 has been considered a bestseller. 50,000 is a good minimum for hardback, paperback, fiction, non-fiction, religious, secular. I was told, years ago, that if a book sold 50,000, lightning had struck.

So, what is the takeaway from this blog? Ellen, are you just trying to discourage all those writers and readers who have been duped by this system? No…the takeaway is this, just as it has always been: DON’T WRITE FOR THE MARKET! Write to express your own soul, your interests, your heart. Write to encourage others, to educate, to inform. Be willing to promote your product, but don’t put promotion ahead of the quality of the product itself.

One of my favorite editors at Tyndale House Publishers told me, eons ago: “Cream rises to the top.” And, I would add that “the top” is also a matter of definition. If your book touches the heart or changes the life of only one reader, for the better, it has reached the top.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017



There is one person on earth who calls me “Mary” and gets away with it. Joyce (Klapstein) Hall has been that person for 62 years! We met at Bible Standard Institute (aka Bible Standard College, Eugene Bible College, New Hope College) in Eugene, Oregon, when we were eight years old. No, we were not prodigies who went to college at eight years of age! Our fathers were the college administrators, Joyce’s the president and mine the vice president.

I was a few months older than Joyce (aka Jodi, Joybelle), so we were a grade apart, but instant and forever besties.

Our first mutual memories are of running wild through the halls of the tiny college building, jumping down flights of stairs and hiding inside the knee-holes of teacher desks in the classrooms, as our fathers vainly called for us after late events at the school. Not as reverent as we should have been, we rolled on the thick red carpet in the prayer room and laughed ourselves silly.

My parents both worked at the college, mother being the librarian, and since I was an “only child,” with no siblings, I hung out at Joyce’s house after school and on weekends, where there was always something happening. Joyce had two sisters, one older and one younger, so there was a lot of activity, laughter, arguing, competition and craziness in her house. (My house was way too quiet!)

My favorite memories of Joyce’s house are the frequent sleepovers. Joyce and I shared a big bed in the basement bedroom, sitting up late at night to play Candyland and Uncle Wiggly, or just talking and laughing ourselves to sleep.

Her little sister, Sharon, often joined us for those games and seemed always to want to hang around us, the older, more worldly-wise sisters. Sara Alys (aka Sally), Joyce’s older sister, was the sophisticate of the bunch, and very pretty. I always admired Sally, wanting to be like her.

One of our fondest memories is of our “performances” in the front picture window of the house. The floor length curtains served as our stage curtains, and on cue, we would perform such show-stoppers as “Tom Dooley” or other pop tunes, for the family, who were obliged to sit through the caterwauling, as though they enjoyed it. Joyce’s mother or Sally sometimes accompanied us on the piano, as we sang soulful, tear jerking renditions of “Where the Roses Never Fade” or “Precious Memories.” What we never considered was how our performances must have looked to the passersby on Willamette Street, the main street of town that ran right past the window. Our nutty costumes and antics were visible from behind, as well as to the living room’s captive audience.

I remember the evenings when we were left alone in the house, when Joyce’s parents had to be away. Inevitably, some undecipherable noise would spook all of us, and we would tiptoe through the dark house to the kitchen, where we armed ourselves with butcher knives or other implements and waited beside the door for some invisible intruder. Years later, we marveled that we had never hurt ourselves, or some unwitting arrival, with those desperate weapons!

When we were in Junior High, I moved temporarily to Pasadena, CA, where my father took over a sister college. When Joyce and her folks came to visit, we had such a rollicking good time, it is a wonder anybody put up with us. Most memorable of that visit is our riding around in the back of the Klapstein station wagon, feet out the window of the back-facing seat with scarves tied to our toes, as we belted out “Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka-dot Bikini.” No cop siren could have been more intimidating!

Joyce and I spent years together, but eventually, after high school, life separated us to different parts of the country, interests and obligations. We call the intervening years the “lost years,” and it is sad to think how many experiences we were unable to share. When we had children, Joyce named her firstborn the same as I had named mine, “Aaron.” We got together every now and then, and found that, whenever we did, it was as though no time had passed. We just picked up where we had left off, with laughter and sharing.

One such time, my sons and I visited Joyce and her family in Fresno. My Aaron and I continued the performing habit by entertaining them with magic tricks, courtesy of Aaron’s sunglassed, head-scarved pseudo-Arabic alter-ego, “Aarony-Baloney.” The gut-splitting laughter is never to be forgotten!

A couple of years ago, we reunited, now as grandparents, with aging bodies and somewhat creased faces. But, we are the same girls we always were. Our laughter still pervades any house we are in, and our husbands get a kick out of our behavior, which is unlike our behavior with anybody else.

We often consider how fortunate we were, to grow up when and where we did, and with the parents we had. We were blessed beyond measure, to be raised in households of faith and love, and we have done our best to pass the favor on to our own children and grandchildren.

Joyce, you are now joining me as a 70-something. I want to tell you how much you mean to me, and how much I hope we will always share the same hearts we have shared all these years.


Saturday, February 4, 2017


“If someone takes your coat,

give him your cloak also.” Matthew 5:40

Jesus was a hard teacher. He said his yoke was easy and his burden light, but he apparently meant that, if we practice his teachings, it will go well with us in the long run. He could not have meant that it is easy to follow his directions all the time, because, frankly, it can be very hard.
Some of his instructions are so contrary to our human nature that, when we hear them or read them, our first inclination is to try to reason around them. “Yes, but…surely he didn’t really mean that, did he?"
The verse above is an example: “If someone takes your coat, give him your cloak also.” There are numerous statements of Our Lord on the same theme: “If someone asks you to go a mile with him, go two;” “If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn to him the other also.” “Do not resist an evil person.” And most difficult of all, “Love your enemies.”
This is the peace-loving Jesus speaking. But, there were times when he was not so peaceful, when he took a scourge and drove out the money-changers, or when he called his enemies whitewashed tombs and a brood of vipers.
How do we reconcile these seeming disparities in the greatest Teacher’s example?
I recently had a difficult time with a business associate. After my working very long and very hard for him, and following through on my commitments, he claimed utter disappointment and demanded certain large concessions. He also wished to back out of another contract with me, for which I had already done work. Rather than have an unhappy client, I conceded to his first demands, but resisted, in my mind, giving him the second piece of work for nothing.
When I shared this with my husband, he said, “Life is hard and lots of times it is unfair. This is not worth fighting over.”
When he said this, Jesus’s words came to my mind: “If someone takes your coat, give him your cloak also.”
As I pondered both my husband’s suggestion and Jesus’s statement, it occurred to me that the determining principle in whether to “fight back” or “give over” is related to our own well-being. There are things worth fighting for and things not worth the struggle. Jesus is telling us that part of being “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” is knowing when a quick concession is better than a fight.
And then, true to form, Jesus takes the lesson a step further. He says not only should we not demand our coat, but we should give our cloak as well.
The cloak was the most important garment worn in those days. It was the big outer garment that served multiple purposes. It covered all the other clothes, keeping them clean from the dusty environment; it kept a person warm in cold weather; it could even be used as a blanket at night, if you were traveling. It was a very important possession.
And Jesus is saying we should give it up, along with the less important thing that is demanded of us!
But why?
Again, Jesus had our own welfare in mind. It is actually best for us to take our hands off our things, our possessions, our needs, our wants, our desires. To be fully content, we must be willing to give all things over, even to our enemies. In so doing, we are reminding ourselves that our sufficiency is not of this world.
Secondly, Jesus had the welfare of our enemy in mind. By reaching out in generosity, in the face of opposition, we leave the entire matter at the feet of the opposer. We show him that we are not victims, that what he wants is less important to us than it is to him. When we do that, the other person is left to consider himself, before God.
What a liberating feeling comes from letting go! What a joy to let someone else carry the demands he has flung our way!
Yes, there are things worth fighting for, and things that are not worth the struggle. I am quite sure there are many more of the latter than the former.
Once we grasp this principle, we are on our way to fitting ourselves beneath the easy burden and the light yoke of Christ.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. - 2 Timothy 2:24-25

Does God care about politics? Well, a better question might be, “Why wouldn’t He care?” He cares about everything concerning us, our daily lives, peace on the earth, justice and truth.

He also cares about nations. In fact, He came up with the idea in the first place. In Acts 17:26 we are told, “From one man He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” This means God did not just create the earth and the inhabitants of it, then step back to see what would happen. He has an ongoing interest and concern for what goes on down here.

We are also told that He “changes times and seasons; He deposes kings and raises up others.” (Daniel 2:21). Yes! He actually has the ultimate decision as to who will rise to the top in political races!

On its face, this might seem to mean that God favors every person who wins a political race, or that He prefers that individual as being superior to the others. I think this is a shallow perspective. He may not like that person at all, but sees fit to allow that person to rise to the top for reasons greater than the narrow political purpose at hand.

Take a look at what happened to Israel, time and again. When the nation turned from God, He allowed evil leaders to arise. Not all Israelite or Jewish kings were exemplary people. The story of King Saul is one of the most pointed. The people were convinced they should be like other nations and have a human king. To that point they had been ruled by judges, put in place by Divine authority. Now they wanted something more tangible, some man to point to and be proud of, as the representative of their nation.

Saul looked like a good choice. According to the Talmud, he was tall, handsome and had a modest demeanor. He did not swagger, but actually ran from the opportunity to be in charge, making him all the more endearing. Once he was swept to power, however, his personal insecurities drove him to some wicked decisions which have led to problems for the Jews even to this day.

In this case, and in many others, when the nation made demands, God let them have their way, allowing men to take the lead who pushed the envelope of God’s anger, leading the people into idolatry and wickedness.

In effect, by taking His hands off a nation, God allows the chips to fall where they may. Does this mean He is out of control of the situation? No! It means He has decided to control in absentia.

If God raises up and deposes national leaders, He also raises up governmental systems. In the case of the United States of America, the “system” is Democracy. All the more reason to realize that God allows us to make a lot of our own decisions. In the course of our decision-making, in the last few decades, we have effectively dismissed God from the public square. We have made it unacceptable to call on His guidance in public matters.

At this point in our history, we are getting what we asked for. We are getting our choice of leaders who do not call on God in any credible, public manner. They may give lip service, when politically expedient, to a belief in God or a personal faith. But, their manner is almost entirely self-serving, and sometimes actually profane, boastful and quarrelsome.

As Christians, many of us are at a loss to know what to do with the freedom our system grants us: the freedom to have a voice in the selection of our leaders. We see no godly choice before us.

Certainly, God can work miracles in our favor. Any number of things can happen. He could wipe all the godless contenders off the face of the earth, if He so chose. Short of that, what are we to do? We could vote for people who are not even in the running, we could use the write-in option. We could vote for the “lesser of two evils,” or refuse to vote at all.

None of these options is comforting. And, frankly, it is not likely that any such choice will turn the tide.

But, perhaps that is the point. God does not want us to be comfortable. He is allowing our nation to “get what it asked for.”

“But,” you might say, “I did not ask for this! I had nothing to do with it. I actually supported some good people, but they are no longer in the running!”

Such is the quandary of righteous people in a godless culture. And make no mistake, America is essentially godless. By our laws and decisions, America long ago asked God to step back. And so He did.

Timothy described the “servant of God” as being quiet, patient and gentle. Not weak, but strong in the Lord. When there is no clear choice that fits that description, perhaps the choice has already been made…by God.

Regardless of who steps into the Oval Office, it may well be that God has elected to give us what we asked for.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014


"What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee." Ps. 56:3

For three months, my husband Richard and I have been living on pins and needles, awaiting the results of medical tests he has gone through. Today is the day we are to receive the results of those tests.
Last evening, I went for a solitary walk along a path near our house, which leads to the shores of beautiful Flathead Lake in Western Montana. My dog, Foster, and I were treated to the soft smells and soothing touch of the crisp Spring air. Trees hugged our path as we crept through outstretched branches and beneath overhanging bows. A pair of elegant whitetails bounded through the brush, stopping long enough to check us out. I whistled at them and Foster tugged at his leash with a soft "woof," standing on his hind legs and stretching to his full height of over five feet, as he observed them.
Except for the sadness which had bound up my heart for weeks, this was a perfect moment.
A phrase from the Psalms nudged at my heart: "What time I am afraid...what time I am afraid..."
Yes, Lord...what is the rest of it? Of course I knew. "I will trust in thee."
A couple of nights before I had been unable to stop tears and throaty sobs that wracked me in the privacy of my loft. I had crept out of the bedroom I share with my husband and had stolen to the place that had been a refuge many times over the years...the place where I had sensed God's leading in the writing of so many books...the place where God had spoken directly to me many times.
Would he speak to me again?
Tears did not subside until the same phrase came to me. "What time I am afraid..." Even then, however, I was still desperate.
"Lord, I know I am supposed to trust in you," I cried, "but right now I can't!"
Something in that admission brought a measure of relief to my spirit. I felt the warm smile of my Great Companion when I made my confession. He wanted me to know that I did not have TO DO anything...that trust is the antithesis of work. In fact, the work of trust is to give up, to NOT TRY, but to LET.
The walk through the woods was a continuation of the lesson. The presence of Jesus in the realm of his creation was a balm to my troubled heart. "Walk this way," I sensed him saying. "Trust in me. This is my world, and you are my child. Breathe deeply, hear the silence, bask in my love."
The stolen moment did not take all the pain away. But it held out hope. Jesus would provide a well marked path for me, through green bows and perfect light.

"What time I am afraid..." I am trusting in thee!

Sunday, April 20, 2014


Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour .... take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the fiery darts of the evil one. (I Peter 5:8b; Ephesians 6:16)

I like cats, warm cuddly domestic pets with their winsome ways. But, having owned a few (or being owned by them), I am under no illusions as to their basic nature. No matter how charming they may be, they bear within their little bodies the hearts of lions. 

Cats are voracious hunters. They are wired for the hunt, and not necessarily because they are hungry. They can take their fill of kibbles and milk from the bowls their human caretakers provide for them, and yet go right outside and scout the neighborhood for living morsels - mice, birds, insects. 

They will spend hours a day lying in wait in tall grass, their pointed ears attuned to the least scurrying sound, their keen eyes trained on the slightest movement. Or they will hunch down behind a bush near a bird feeder, patient, unyielding, ready to pounce.

And once one of these natural hunters captures a helpless victim, another part of its nature reveals itself. This sweet, endearing creature is downright cruel. He toys with his prey, batting it back and forth, snagging it with wicked claws, then pretending to let it go, giving an illusion of freedom, only to retrieve it and play again. Female cats even teach their kittens this horrendous behavior, modeling the cruelty for succeeding generations.

It was for good reason that Peter chose the lion as exemplary of Satan. Our enemy, or "adversary," is likened to a great cat, prowling the neighborhood, seeking a victim. In the oldest book in the Bible, Job, when Satan comes before the throne of God and is asked where he has been, he tells the Deity that he has been "going to and fro on the earth, and walking up and down on it." He was not getting exercise; he was a predator in quest of his next prey.

Do you ever feel like you are a victim of such a predator? Do you ever feel like you are being mercilessly toyed with, that escape sometimes seems possible, but hope is then cut off? If Scripture is to be believed, we are all potential prey to the wiles of a great hunter, our Old Adversary, the Devil.

And his devices are many. They are called "fiery darts," and are similar to the clawing nails of a cat. They take many forms: fear, guilt, hopelessness, poverty, addiction, prevailing sin, worry, doubt, illness. Satan is called the "accuser of the brethren," and one of his fieriest darts is that of guilt and self-doubt.

This is not a comfortable topic to deal with. It is not a happy subject. But we are warned of his devices repeatedly in the Bible. We are not necessarily imagining it when we feel we are at the mercies of a cruel tormentor.

But this story does have a happy ending. In fact, the Bible tells us about our adversary in order to give us our battle plan. Amazingly, that plan is contrary to our natural instincts. Like little mice or trapped birds, our instinct is to flee, to beat ourselves into a frenzy of attempted escape. But that is not the solution, according to Scripture.

We are told, instead, to FACE THE LION! Instead of high tailing it, we are told to "resist" or "stand up against" the Devil, and he will flee from us! (James 4:7). We are told to take up the shield of faith, with which we can extinguish his fiery darts (Ephesians 6:16), all the clawing schemes he uses to destroy us.

The shield is a frontal protection. The warrior bears the shield before himself, not upon his back. It is useless to him if he is running away from his attacker. We are told to flee situations where we might fall prey to Satan's wiles (2 Timothy 2:22) but we are never told to flee the Old Griffin himself. 

Nor are we to face the lion in our own strength. The shield we bear is that of faith, dependence on the One who has already won the battle for us. 

At this Resurrection season, we are reminded that Christ descended into Hades to "lead captivity captive." Not only did he bring the poor souls out of prison, but he devastated the stronghold (captivity) itself! From His perspective, the war is already over. We have only to claim that in faith, and rise out of our victimhood.

Whatever life has thrown your way, whatever challenge arises, do not back down from it. With the shield of faith before you, turn and face the lion. And celebrate when he flees from you!


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Something Like Scales - Book Of Meditations

If you enjoy Ellen's blog, you will enjoy her book of meditations, Something Like Scales - Finding Light in a Dark World. Now available in paperback and on Kindle.

Port hole publication: