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Buying your way onto the bestseller lists

23 February 2013

From author Soren Kaplan at Leapfrogging:

The other day, I received an unexpected phone call from Jeff Trachtenberg, a reporter at The Wall Street Journal.

. . . .

But it turned out Trachtenberg didn’t want to discuss what was in my book. He was interested in how it had made it onto his paper’s bestseller list. As he accurately noted, Leapfrogging had, well, leapt onto the Journal’s list at #3 the first week it debuted, and then promptly disappeared the following Friday.

. . . .

I was being put on the spot to discuss my role in perhaps one of the most controversial practices in the book publishing industry.

. . . .

Trachtenberg asked me about my experience with a company called ResultSource, the firm I had hired to help me hit the bestseller list from day one. Trachtenberg said he had contacted all of the major New York publishers, but no one would speak to him about the firm or the role of so-called “bestseller campaigns” in helping authors reach the coveted status. No comment. Dead silence.

. . . .

There’s good reason why most industry insiders would prefer that the wider book-buying public didn’t learn about these campaigns. Put bluntly, they allow people with enough money, contacts, and know-how to buy their way onto bestseller lists. And they benefit all the key players of the book world. Publishers profit on them. Authors gain credibility from bestseller status, which can launch consulting or speaking careers and give a big boost to keynote presentation fees. And the marketing firms that run the campaigns don’t do so bad either.

. . . .

In exploring marketing strategies for my book, I had indeed stumbled upon the company that Trachtenberg had asked me about, ResultSource. I learned that this niche marketing firm had apparently cracked the code on how the sales of books are calculated by companies like Nielsen that produce bestseller data – the very data that major trade publications, newspapers, and journals rely on to populate their bestseller lists, just like The Wall Street Journal.

. . . .

I too contracted with ResultSource. The strategy the firm laid out for me was relatively straightforward. I would contact my Fortune 500 clients and others and ask them to preorder copies of my book. If I could obtain bulk orders before Leapfrogging was released, ResultSource would purchase the books on my behalf using their tried-and-true formula. Three thousand books sold would get me on The Wall Street Journal bestseller list. Eleven thousand would secure a spot on the biggest prize of them all, The New York Times list.

. . . .

It took effort, but in the end I was able to secure enough client orders, along with my own purchases to resell at conferences, to make it onto The Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list.

. . . .

What was happening here? Had I just uncovered the underworld of the publishing industry, a secret society that knows how to manufacture knowledge, fame, and careers? Was it really true that the practice had become standard operating procedure? If this was how everyone was doing it, was it gaming the system or simply working within the system that existed?

At first, feelings of excitement and disenfranchisement collided within me. On the one hand, I was elated that a bestseller was realistically within my reach – that this elusive status symbol was something I could actually control. But my excitement was tempered with the recognition that the trust I had placed in the very lists endorsed by reputable publications like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, and others, might not represent the institution I had assumed it was.

. . . .

I played the bestseller game using unwritten rules. And as I reflect upon what I experienced and learned, it’s clear to me that anyone with enough money can potentially buy his or her way onto a bestseller list. Although most authors attempt to pre-sell books to their existing networks, theoretically, as long as one has enough money to purchase 3000 of their own books while using the tactics of a bestseller campaign to do so, they are basically guaranteed bestseller status. When I have told this same story to friends, family, and my close colleagues, most end up with their jaws on the floor.

Out of the millions of books published each year, very few become bestsellers. Most first-time authors are unaware that these campaigns exist and, if they are, most are unable to apply the strategy because the costs and pre-selling requirements are beyond their reach. In the bestseller campaigning process, a book’s quality – good or bad – has surprisingly little to do with it.

Link to the rest at Leapfrogging, which includes a detailed anatomy of a paid bestseller campaign

As PG read this, he was reminded how righteously indignant many publishers and trad-published authors became when they learned about sock puppet reviews some indie authors bought on Amazon.

Advertising-Promotion, Bestsellers

50 Comments to “Buying your way onto the bestseller lists”

  1. Whoa Nelly! This one stopped me in my tracks!

  2. Yeah, I saw the original WSJ story, which looks like it’s available to the public: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323864304578316143623600544.html?KEYWORDS=bestseller

    I wasn’t surprised at this point–buying places on bestseller lists is an old tactic–but I’m glad Kaplan was willing to talk about it without being defensive or denying what’s going on.

  3. Two rather shocked comments (or maybe not surprised, given the state of affairs these days): good thing he doesn’t write fiction; and it must now be a truth universally acknowledged that everything, without exception, is for sale. This “but everyone else is working the system, so why shouldn’t I?” paradigm benefits those who already have Enough.

  4. This actually explains a lot. I’ve often wondered how mediocre books regularly manage to hit the bestseller lists…

  5. Yep. This sure does explain a lot. Great catch, PG.

    B.

  6. When’s the idea going digital?

    • Er, it already has.

      So far it has not gone professional, but people have certainly been gaming the amazon bestseller lists.

      It is, however, harder to do for any length of time as digital lists are calculated hourly.

      • That, and the fact that on digital lists, every sale counts towards a book’s chart position (or should count). Bestseller lists for print are compiled from only some bookshops – either because it takes too much time and money to collect sales data from all of them, or because of simple snobbery. If you know which shops they are (and I see from comments further down that that information is readily available), you just have to buy copies of your book from those shops.

        If every sale counts, gaming the list becomes more expensive – which isn’t to say that people won’t still try it.

  7. That’s exactly what I was thinking, PG. So many industry people shocked and appalled by the sock puppetry and using it as another way to deepen the divide between trade and self-published books. (Even though there is documented proof that some trade published authors have also engaged in sock puppetry.)

    And now this.

    Both practices–buying your way onto a bestseller list or fabricating reviews–disgust me. Authors or publishers or editors who engage in this practice have poor ethics.

    It also makes me feel very stupid for ever having bought into the idea that so many defend–that publishers are curating good literature and choose only to publish the best. At least right now, and quite probably for a lot longer than that, the bottom line isn’t about curating the best stories that are happening right now. It’s about making money.

    Which isn’t to say that wanting to make money is a bad thing. It isn’t, especially if you’re running a business. But I have more respect for people who can be honest and upfront about that, and who don’t engage in unethical practices to get there. Not only does it tarnish everything else they do, but it also tarnishes the books that got their bestselling status the honest way.

    • At least right now, and quite probably for a lot longer than that, the bottom line isn’t about curating the best stories that are happening right now. It’s about making money.

      If you haven’t before, read Mark Twain’s autobiography. The middle parts, where he talks about his experience with publishers, will cure you of the idea that it was ever about anything but making money.

      It’s just that for a time, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, posing as curators of culture was the best way for an American publisher to make money, because the country was full of nouveaux riches who were terribly afraid of being thought uncultured, and would gladly spend the price of a hardcover book in order to have the right book on their coffee table.

      The big trade publishers, back in the day, fought as hard against mass-market paperbacks as they have recently been fighting against ebooks — because paperbacks were cheap, and there was no prestige in owning or displaying them, so that people only bought them because they liked reading them. The MMPB did heavy damage to the image of books as status symbols. I am not quite old enough to remember first-hand, but have read often enough in the documents of the period, the school of sneering critics for whom ‘paperback novel’ was in itself a sufficient insult to damn any book.

      (If you want a fine example of this phenomenon at work, look up some of the early reviews of Mickey Spillane’s books. It’s hilarious watching the ‘curators of culture’ work themselves into fits.)

      • Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll definitely be checking it out. (Anything by Twain is almost guaranteed to be excellent reading.) :)

        Wow re:posing as curators. I’m learning more and more about the history of modern publishing (from about the mid 1800s until the present day) in bits and pieces, and the little I’ve gleaned has been very eye opening. I’d always wondered where the idea that it was a good idea (as opposed to a conflict of interest) for publishers to operate in the role of curators. And just, wow. :\

        I’ll never understand the idea that one format is superior to another. I adore my MMPBs, because it isn’t the method of delivery that I care about, it’s the story inside. And I certainly don’t understand the industry’s resistance to change. As a business person, I’d rather sell A LOT of books at a lesser price than only a few at a higher price–balancing cost/benefits, of course. It’s not, in my opinion, a good business practice to price books out of range to the majority of readers–especially in times like now when the economy stinks. That’s why I like the other options to simply putting out hardcovers–MMPB, ebooks, etc.

        • I’ll never understand the idea that one format is superior to another. I adore my MMPBs, because it isn’t the method of delivery that I care about, it’s the story inside.

          You philistine!

          The hardcover format is inherently superior, my dear Danyelle, because hardcovers are works of art and not merely trashy products of commerce. That is to say, hardcovers are expensive. As long as books are expensive, we can keep them in the hands of the right sort of people — our sort of people. The discerning ones, the ones who went to the right schools and know which fork to use. How shocking it is that some people want to make books available to the Lower Orders. And how disgustingly cheap those books must be, if the Lower Orders can like them!

          If you want a good laugh, check out Grumbles From the Grave, by Robert A. Heinlein, and the travails he had with his snob of an editor at Scribner’s. She didn’t want to publish low commercial trash like science fiction, not even in the juvenile line that she ran — but every Heinlein book made a profit, and together they made the difference between profit and loss for her whole division.

          I am thinking in particular of how Scribner’s (at first) rejected Red Planet. Heinlein was justly infuriated by the tone of the rejection, and wrote to his agent:

          I think I know why she bounced the book — I use “bounced” intentionally; I hope that you do not work out some sort of a revision scheme with her because I do not think she will take this book, no matter what is done to it.

          I think she bounced the book from some ill-defined standards of literary snobbishness — it’s not “Scribner’s-type” material!! I think that point sticks out all through her letter to me. I know that such an attitude has been shown by her all through my relationship with her. She has spoken frequently of “cheap” books, “cheap” magazines. “Cheap,” used in reference to a story, is not a defined evaluation; it is merely a sneer — usually a sneer at the format from a snob.

          She asked me to suggest an artist for Rocket Ship Galileo; I suggested Hubert Rogers. She looked into the matter, then wrote me that Mr. Rogers’ name “was too closely associated with a rather cheap magazine” — meaning John Campbell’s Astounding S-F. To prove her point, she sent me tear sheets from the magazine. It so happened that the story she picked to send was one of my “Anson MacDonald” stories.

          I chuckled and said nothing. If she could not spot my style and was impressed only by the fact that the stuff was printed on pulpwood paper, it was not my place to educate her. I wondered if she knew that my reputation had been gained in that same “cheap” magazine and concluded that she probably did not know and might not have been willing to publish my stuff had she known.

          • *look of mock distress*

            *sigh* The truth is out. *wears Philistine badge with pride* :p

            I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry that that kind of snobbery is something I’ve seen demonstrated over and over and over again by the industry. Between the two, I prefer to hang with the rabble. >:)

      • About the only “early review” of Mickey Spillane I’ve read are L. Sprague de Camp’s passing snide remarks about Spillane in his Science-Fiction Handbook. De Camp obviously didn’t like Spillane’s books, & made some valid points why they weren’t good (at least Spillane’s Science Fiction), but when I read de Camp I assumed he based his dislike simply because he didn’t enjoy reading Spillane (the men wrote for different genres) than jealousy at Spillane’s success.

        But then you might be right.

        • Since de Camp was outside the charmed circle of the literati himself, I don’t think that kind of jealousy was his motive. I had the honour of meeting him two or three times, and can possibly take a guess at what his motives may have been.

          Spillane was a visceral writer, and de Camp an exceptionally cerebral one. It hardly stands to reason that the one would have had much use for the other. In fact, many of the things in ordinary human life (let alone such extraordinarily noir life as Spillane liked to write about) were beyond the range of de Camp’s sympathies. He was also a man with the courage of his convictions; I think he would have been equally set against Spillane if every reviewer on the Times and every critic in academia had anointed Spillane the King of Modern Literature.

          I once read a piece by Spillane himself, where he more or less gloried in the cruel and cutting things that prim and proper reviewers had to say about his early books. I don’t know if it’s ever been made available online, and I’m afraid I can’t remember where I read it. But I certainly got the impression that it was fashionable among the literary set to treat Spillane as a bête noire, and Spillane definitely revelled in the quality of his enemies.

    • “It also makes me feel very stupid for ever having bought into the idea that so many defend–that publishers are curating good literature and choose only to publish the best.”

      Everytime I am tempted to buy into that old idea myself, I think of one word– snooki, and then it passes.

      http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2010/09/29/snooki-signs-book-deal-to-write-novel-a-shore-thing/

      ‘curaters of good literature’ my a**.

      • Yes. :D

        Interestingly, at least in the trade forums I lurk in, it was the Snooki books that made more and more people admit that, yes, publishers are in the business of making a profit. They are quick to point out that it is the books like Snooki’s that make it possible to publish quieter books, but even admitting that some books of dubious quality are published simply because they’ll make money is something that would have been unheard of 3-5 years ago.

        Unfortunately, a lot of people still miss the fact that you can’t be 100% about curating good literature *and* publishing books that have no literary merit but bring in a lot of money. There is no shame in publishers publishing books that aren’t great but sell a lot, but it is hypocritical to wear the Curator of Good Literature of Excellent Quality and Merit at the same time if that *isn’t* what you’re doing.

        • They are quick to point out that it is the books like Snooki’s that make it possible to publish quieter books,

          You mean, books that get produced in huge print runs, with expensive advertising and marketing campaigns, and then don’t sell? ’Cos that’s what Shore Thing did. Oh, it sold some copies, but not nearly enough to repay either the costs or the advance. Oops.

          • Funny thing, that. Because when that example is brought up, no one finishes the story about the books not selling well.

            *feeling very ill-informed*

      • Indeed!

        • Except Snooki’s book was a massive flop. It just had the ‘appearance” of being a bestseller. In fact, in her first month, I sold more books than her reported total.

          • Oh, wow! I honestly had no idea, and that fact that it’s been mostly agents talking about how the Snooki books helped make it possible to publish more worthy books. . . *mind imploding*

            Snobbery is one thing, but outright dishonesty . . . :(

            *sigh*

            The more I’m learning about how the trade business is run, the more trouble I’m having garnering any respect for it.

  8. I’m just glad that these things don’t happen in things that are really important, like say elections, or the tour de france.

    All kidding aside, this guy has a serious set of balls on him to come out like this. He’s not only shot down the term “bestseller” he’s pretty much guaranteed he’ll never appear on any of them again.

    He should never have to buy his own drinks for the rest of his life if you ask me. I’m buying his book right now.

    • Yes. While I don’t agree with the choice he made (buying his way onto a list), I sure have a lot more respect for him than I do for others who are doing the same thing and opting not to disclose the fact. Admitting to what he did took a tremendous amount of courage.

      It’s unfortunate that he likely won’t ever appear on a list again because he was honest about how he got there. :(

    • I don’t know… if it’s as simple as hiring that company to do a campaign, he could pull it off again. I assume they’d take his money.

      • The difficulty will be finding a publisher that is prepared to buy any more of his books.

        I have been assured many times that there is no blacklist in the industry; but I have been assured by the same people, even more fervently, that it is a tiny industry, that everybody knows everybody, and that if you get a bad reputation with one publisher, it will precede you wherever you go. Which means, in effect, that there is a blacklist, but it is an open secret and nobody is stupid enough to write it down where it might be used as evidence against them.

        It could very well be that Mr. Kaplan’s name is now prominently not written on this blacklist that doesn’t exist; which, of course, would totally not explain why, purely by coincidence, every major New York publisher will suddenly realize that his books are not good enough to print. Purely on literary merit, you understand. There’s nothing personal about these things.

  9. I just did a little math.

    I’m using my own numbers here so your own results may vary, but I just wanted to put a ballpark figure on what it would cost to do this.

    I can get a book (paperback trade-400 pages) from Lightning Source done for about $6.10 in production cost. This is after the set-up, account fees, and all the other one-time expenses. If it is cover priced at say $16.99 and I give the bookstores a 40% discount the retail price comes to $10.20 giving me a profit of $4.10 per book.

    BUT, if my goal is to scam the system and weasel my way onto the bestseller list I would have to approach in a different way.

    I would change the discount to cancel out the profit and drop the retail price to $6.10, breaking even on each book sold. Then I would purchase the magic number of 3,000 copies to get my book on the list.

    3,000 x $6.10=$18,300.

    So…the Wall Street Journal can be bought for $18,300.

    That’s an expensive whore.

    Your next step would be a cost/benefit analysis. But from what I hear, if step one is get in bed with a whore, haven’t you lost already?

    • You need to up that number a little.

      ResultSource’s method involves purchasing books from particular book stores, which means you can’t use your reduced price: in order to sell into bookstores, you have to offer them a wholesale, typically 40% (and that’s not to mention the trouble of getting it into the bookstore in the first place).

      This might pull the book into the spotlight enough to get people talking about it, and that might create sales if it was the kind of book that had something to talk about (think Fifty Shades) but without that, the cost-benefit looks doubtful, at least to me, unless you have real people willing to make those purchases.

      • Oh, I know. I left out a bunch of stuff. But…

        The list of bookstores the Times and WSJ use to “produce” their list is easy to obtain. It’s all over the internet. One of them is right here in Sarasota not five miles from me.

        If you read it closely, I did give the bookstores 40%.

        Sock puppet purchases are as easy as sock puppet reviews. You can even pre-order from these stores all across the nation without leaving the comfort of your own home. I can order 50 copies of any book I want for the “Get on the List Bookclub” and ship them all to a PO Box. All I need is money.

        Want your book in a particular store? No problem. Just order them from said store before they come out.

        The only thing I don’t know to include would be ResultSources fee.

        None of this is new. The fact that there is a service offering to do it for you is “new” to those who were in the dark. The fact that it’s now out in the public eye is all this article is about.

        And again, just a ballpark figure. If getting on the list results in 100,000 sales (at a regular profit margin), most people would consider it a wise investment.

        Want to hear the best part? You can claim those purchases on your publishing company’s taxes if you use the books you ordered for further promotion. :)

        God bless America.

        • Don’t forget to claim the storage unit, too, where you stick them whilst you hand-sell at conventions and the like!

          • Absolutely Abeth!

            But…(I have another one) it would be even better to keep them in the garage! Then I could deduct the square footage off my mortgage! This scam just keeps getting better and better!

            What a country! :)

            • Only do this if you have enough clement weather in your area that you don’t need the garage for the car — or you can stuff them in the basement, perhaps.

              Pity I don’t have about $20K (or a physical book) to drop on this scheme; there’s at least a couple conventions about an hour away, each year, and I could probably hand-sell books there for quite some time off 3K copies…

              ;)

              • Abeth,

                Was sharing this with a friend today and he said:

                “Hell, just lay them all out like floor tile, the IRS doesn’t say they have to be stacked up in boxes do they? How many square feet of floor can you cover with 3000 books?”

                Laughter, followed by another round. :)

                Heres to the IRS!

                • You wouldn’t want to damage them, though. So you’d have to go get some tax-deductable “book-container” stuff from Home Depot (or the equivalent), so you’d have walkways or false floors over your books…

                  I think it’s time to break out my Halo-Onna-Stick emoticon. O-:>

    • For certain kinds of books, it would make great financial sense (though bad moral sense). Having a bestseller could establish you as an expert, and then you get to charge crazy speaking fees and sell information packages and whatever else those non-fiction authors do.

  10. Well – that was educational.

    Like a lot of people, I’ve always wondered if there was a way to scam the ‘Best-Sellers’ lists.

    Now I know for sure.

  11. One of my rules for understanding life is this:

    “Any system that offers substantial reward will eventually be subverted.”

    And no, I’m not surprised that dishonest operators scurry around the fringes of large corporations. I am disappointed that the big publishers are on board, though. I could admire them if their purpose was as pure as they say, even if they’re a big foolish.

    • Five words:

      ‘Author Solutions — A Penguin Company.’

      After that, publishers cannot possibly stoop low enough to disappoint me. I already know enough to expect the very worst from them.

  12. Yes PG, that ‘righteous indignation’ about sock puppet reviews must be sticking in their craw right now. Although the above news doesn’t surprise me, at least he was willing to talk about it.

  13. Is it wrong that the first thing I did was try to figure out how much it would cost me to replicate this?
    :-)

  14. I find that page that he links to, “The 10 Awful Truths about Business Book Publishing” particularly interesting. In it the publisher actually admits that the author has to do all their own marketing and there’s a less than 1% chance of getting onto a bookstore shelf. I can see after reading that how he’d feel desperate to do anything to try to make his book successful. (Not that it makes it right.) If only all publishers would admit that they have practically nothing to offer.

  15. Why is this surprising? This is how it works unless you are JK Rowling or Stephen King. This is how it’s been for decades. If you want to hit the list you just stock up your pre-sales and funnel all the bulk sales on a Sunday and then the other half on the following Sunday through reporting agencies, BN.com, Amazon.com, Booksamillion, 1800-CEO, and indie’s like Powell’s, Books and Books, that you know will report to the Times. But you really only need Amazon and BN.com. They have to have the book in stalk and ship the book by that Sunday though. Pick a category with low competition like hard cover business. Make sure that’s priced the same as the other retail prices. The New York Times list isn’t real. It’s just who they “think” will sell well the following week. It’s not who sold well.

    I once sat down in the office of a big 6 publisher executive who showed me a copy of a book that was going to come out the next week. I said, “Oh, why does it say printed on the cover #1 New York Times bestsellers list already?” She said, “Oh, they already know who the bestseller is going to be before the book is released so we printed it on the cover.”

    Don’t act surprise. It’s publishing’s dirty little secret. Don’t like it? Buy a different book.

  16. Bravo to this whistleblower! Applause for his courage! And a great deal of appreciation for the information.

    I’m bookmarking this and will link it in any discussion of sock puppetry I run into.

    Oddly enough, I don’t expect this article to get the kind of media coverage that the sock puppetry did.

  17. Seriously? If I had tens of thousands of dollars to spare I would self-publish and put together a promotional storm on book blogs, mailing lists, and social media. I think it would be cheaper and more effective on the long term.

  18. As a retired doyen of literature, a keeper of the cultural flame, I have neither the gall stones nor taste for chardonnay to enjoy bon-mots and vapid-speak defending my rank on NYT’s Best Seller’s list.

    They may stop and listen, they may titter as I speak, but they’d rather chat about who bought a sleek new beak. How much is that tummy tuck? How much a pre-nup these days? If this is lit-rite-sure they can all go straight to blaze.

    I’d rather pen in vernacular, race down a bloody trail to
    a new who-done-it, a soft-porn thriller of guilt and shame, than hawk 11,000 copies from a turgid, floppy brain.
    Once I was paid to leave New York. Now I’m paid to stop.

    This article has given me more insight than my Tarot cards. Thank you!

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