Rob Bell and HarperOne: Marketing that Works

Remember how I said that, on the one hand, the Calvinistas  have been waiting for enough evidence to throw Rob Bell (the Jason Bourne of Christianity) into the outer darkness (even if Rob doesn’t believe in an outer darkness ;-) )?  And, on the other hand, I predicted that Rob would not take the bait?  Those both seem to be holding true, at least for now.

There’s another player in this story, too.  That’s HarperOne, the publisher of Rob’s new book.  While I don’t know Rob, I do know the people at HarperOne.  They are not underhanded marketers.  I am guessing that the marketing copy they wrote, which has been widely quoted (and which you can read on the Amazon page for the book), was meant to be provocative.  But I don’t think they were so calculating as to think that they were poking a sharp stick in John Piper’s eye.  In fact, their back cover copy on Rob’s book isn’t out-of-step with what they’ve used to promote Brian McLaren’s latest books.

What I’m saying is that I part ways with many other bloggers on this subject — I do not think that HarperOne was attempting to stir up controversy in releasing a provocative paragraph of marketing copy and a promotional video for Rob’s book.  But that copy and video, and a couple leaked chapters of the book were enough to hook Justin Taylor, who blogged about it over the weekend.  Then John Piper decided that he’d promote Rob’s book with a link to Taylor’s blog and a simple three-word tweet:

Piper’s tweet was, as you can see, retweeted scores of time.  That drove traffic to Taylor’s blog, to be sure.  But it also drove interest in the book.  Here’s how the phrase, “rob bell” has trended on Google over the past 30 days:

And the resultant spike in Amazon rank:

I can tell you that it’s very difficult in Amazon’s system for a book to rank when it is not yet shipping.

So, of course, what’s interesting is that all of the consternation from John Piper and Justin Taylor has served, if nothing else, to drive hordes of people to pre-order Rob’s book.  And no one did anything underhanded to achieve this spike in interest.  All they did was produce a book on a topic that lots of people are interested in and float some marketing material in the cloud that hints at what the book’s about. Rob’s theological frenemies took it from there.

  • peter lambert

    The thing that really worries me Tony, is what does the neo reformed crews response say to the rest of the world about unity in the body of Christ. Piper and the other neo reformed morons should really engage their brains before their mouths.

  • Kenton

    Hmm… So what’s really the difference? Calvinistas will call it “stirring up controversy” because it’s they’re willing to die on that hill. HarperOne calls it “marketing” that happened to hook Justin Taylor, but surely they knew it was going cause the blow-up, yes?

    For the record, I’m excited about the splash this book is going to make. Go, Rob, go!

  • cheebs

    Tony, I like this – “All they did was produce a book on a topic that lots of people are interested in and float some marketing material in the cloud that hints at what the book’s about.” This is a topic a lot of people are interested in and have been talking about a lot. Mcknight has blogged about the universalistic bent of the ‘new Christians,’ you are blogging about universalism on occasion. And though I don’t think this book has anything to do with universalism, I think it has a lot to do with heaven and hell and that’s an area the more popular Christian literature has been fearful of engaging in the way that Bell is doing. . Interestingly enough, I was out for beers with a friend of mine and Bell’s younger brother around 2006 and we got on the conversation Rob’s future books. His brother communicated his the ideas for his future books (our conversation was shortly after Velvet Elvis was published) and Rob had always planned on releasing a book on heaven and hell as his fourth or fifth book. He merely wanted to establish himself a little bit first, which he has. I appreciate your posts Tony and think you’re right on–he wont take the neo-reformed bate. He is using his artistic communication skills to bring to the forefront the conversation on heaven and hell that needs to be had in a variety of Christian circles. I say kudos to Rob for making so many of us talk abou this.

  • John

    Reminds me of the non-marketing strategy taken with The Shack. Most all of that was driven virally.

    Keen publishers will tap into this flurry of interest be it positive or negative.

  • JoelR

    I write all kinds of controversial crap and get ignored. Bell, on the other hand, blows up before his freakin’ book is even released! I need a new publicist.

  • Ross Christopher

    What the Bell???

  • Charlie’s Church of Christ

    now all publishers are going to try to figure out how to non-market a book and still get it to go viral….

  • Greg Gorham

    If the book is as good as we’re hoping, we should send John Piper and Justin Taylor thank-you cards for helping spread the word! They’re doing fantastic work!

  • Erik Leafblad

    I think this is exactly right Tony. Marketers are strategic and (generally) intelligent, but as anyone who has tried to get something to viral knows, it can be pretty difficult. Marketing teams, it seems to me, plan to provoke and pique interest, but then pray to the gods of the market that something takes on a life of its own. If we had it down to a science, we’d all be able to do it.

  • Brian E

    If you accuse someone of being a false teacher and get, say some 27,000 others to re-assert the same via facebook, and it turns out you’re wrong, doesn’t that make YOU a false teacher? If so, do you think the Calvinistas will call out their own with the same intensity at which they’ve called out Bell?

    Yeah, me neither…

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  • Andrew

    Good post. U r probably correct. Thnx for graph

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