Home » Bestsellers » What’s wrong with buying your way onto the bestseller list?

What’s wrong with buying your way onto the bestseller list?

21 March 2014

From MacGregor Literary:

Last week I made a point of saying that I think a guy who buys his way onto the bestseller lists is a weasel, and I had a bunch of people write to ask me why. This is a worthwhile topic for everyone in publishing.

. . . .

Until last week, when it was revealed that Rev. Driscoll had paid a marketing firm, ResultSource, more than $200,000 to get his book onto the New York Time bestseller list. The scheme included hiring people to purchase 6000 copies of the book in bookstores, then ordering another 5000 copies in bulk. They even made sure to use more than 1000 different payment methods, so BookScan couldn’t track all the purchases back to a single source. In other words, they cheated to manipulate the system, got the book onto the list (for that one week), and did it so that Driscoll can refer to himself as “a New York Times bestselling author.”

I was critical of him for doing it, since I don’t think gaming the system is the right thing to do. It’s unfair. It’s lazy. It’s dishonest. And it’s basically nothing more than rampant egotism. But I had several people write to me, or post on Facebook, that this is common practice. A couple people said “everybody is doing it,” and some claimed “publishers are doing that all the time.”

. . . .

Are the bestseller lists rigged? Perhaps, to a small degree — certainly Amazon seems to include an inordinate number of their own titles on the Amazon bestseller lists, and occasionally we’ll all be surprised at how a book with modest sales somehow wound up on a bestseller list because of the strange (and secret) way some of them account for the books. But for the most part, the books showing up on the lists are there because of sales. Honest, straightforward sales. Sometimes we get shocked when a crappy book (say, for example, Fifty Shades of Gray) suddenly starts showing up everywhere — but it showed up because, in spite of the boring story and fourth-grade writing ability, the book SOLD. Like it or not, that book wasn’t snuck onto a list dishonestly.

Link to the rest at MacGregor Literary

PG is inclined to think that, if one or more companies offer to place a book onto the NYT, USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists, those bestseller lists are gamed on a regular basis.

Does any business maintain 1,000 different payment mechanisms and have the ability to hire people to buy copies of a book in 5,000 different stores just for a once-in-a-while bestseller campaign?


70 Comments to “What’s wrong with buying your way onto the bestseller list?”

  1. What’s wrong with it?

    After naming all the obvious reasons I think it comes down to this;

    Wining is a moment, getting better is forever.

  2. “Everybody is doing it” is a cop-out. Submit to that, and anything hinky is possible.

    “Everybody has affairs”

    “Everybody accepts bribes”

    “Everybody cheats on their taxes”

    That’s probably the worst thing that’s happening more often lately. Politicians are copping to more and more unethical behavior and then shrugging, and we accept it.

    I’d rather have the hypocrisy of saying something’s bad and getting caught doing it.

  3. Oh, there’s a whole list o’ bad to cheatin’. But why excoriate Rev. Driscoll and nobody else? (I doubt Driscoll is the only one doing this.)

  4. Well, I guess my question is- Who has that kinda money to throw around and does he or she recoup his or her expenses?

    And if you have that kinda money to throw around, do you really need to be on the NYT bestseller list?

    I can’t get behind the idea for many reasons. Moral. Ethical. Stupid. Annoying. The if everyone is jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge are you gonna jump off the Golden Gate Bridge scenario.
    It’s bothersome. And troubling.

    • Who has that kinda money to throw around and does he or she recoup his or her expenses?

      Corporate publishers, of course. They also have the sort of money to throw around that gets them on the tables up front at Barnes & Noble, and reviews in the New York Times, and print ads in the NYT Review of Books.

      • Yep. I’m pretty sure Rupert Murdoch, Les Moonves, or the Mohn/Bertelsmann family could pay for that out of petty cash.

    • “does he or she recoup his or her expenses?”

      Is there a guarantee?

      If you can raise the money, it’s STILL unethical.

    • The money may not be an issue. The fame of being on NY best seller list is what the writer wanted. Kind of buying fame.

  5. Of course all the lists are rigged, so a greater or lesser degree.

    Given that IT IS KNOWN, KHALEESI, I think it’s totally amazing and inspiring that so many indie authors (and tradpubbed authors) have ended up on the lists through honest sales. That’s an achievement worth being proud of, if you can out-sell even a coordinated and carefully planned sales campaign.

  6. This!
    Kristine Rusch touched this in the: Unintended Consequences, where she said:

    In traditional publishing, velocity is everything.
    That’s why traditional publishers and traditional tastemakers/list makers went insane when indie published titles started hitting the lists.  A lot of indie writers are adept at letting their fan base know that the next book in a series is out. That book sells to every true fan, and knocks some “worthy” traditional book off the list —because the indie book has a natural fan-built velocity.
    Read more here.

    Bolded the thing that I found the most interesting. The thing is, every time a self-published title appears on bestseller list, there a slot less for a traditional-published titles, and with that the rules of the game are changing. I would say that soon, the gaming of the bestseller lists is going to become even more expensive.

    • What is worse is that traditional publishers promote one author over all the others in their stable. When I discovered that, I got truly angry at my publisher. You enter into a contract with those people, assuming they’ll do their best to help you sell your books. Instead they make sure you only succeed by a miracle.

  7. People who do dodgy stuff always say everyone does it. Not true.

    To win by cheating and kid yourself the win has value is bizarre. These people are even lying to themselves.

    And the guy’s a Reverend! Dear me.

    • Joseph Bradshire

      Apply for a job at Walmart or any of the other big corps that hire minimum wage to maintain the hegemony and you will find that you will need to take this weird test. They don’t tell you what it’s about and the people giving it probably do not know, but many of the questions are asking about if you think most other people steal or screw over their employer in some way.

      They don’t ask if you do. They ask if you think other people do. Which, they think, applies to your own personal morals. It probably does, statistically.

      “True or false. Most people take things home they didn’t buy.”

      I’ve trained people to beat these tests. One of the only things I did as a social worker that actually made a difference.

      • Let’s hope Walmart’s bottom line didn’t suffer from your efforts.

        • I doubt it. I first ran into that questionnaire twenty years ago, and the questions get increasingly tricky. It was obvious what the ‘right’ answer was supposed to be if you wanted a job there. That was also the first time I was told I needed to take a drug test, which at the time was still controversial. Now, every employer I’ve applied to this year has the same demands…along with a full background, and sometimes credit, check. None of which has anything to do with your skills or ability to do the job. And the questionnaire and drug test are too easily gamed to be really useful.

      • I hate those tests. “How many pencils have you stolen from your former employer?” is a question I remember from having to take one of those useless tests when I was younger.

        Last I recall “I’ve never stolen/none” was not an option. What kind of warped environment do these people work in? (I no longer shop at that store and I will never apply for a job with them again.) Stores like that annoy me. They’re part of the reason I shop online a lot more these days, mostly on Amazon.

  8. I don’t think there’s a “little” gaming going on with bestseller lists. I suspect when folks admit “a little” it’s cause there’s likely a systemic gaming that’s so entrenched that it is taken for granted as the norm. It’s only when folks do something NEW to the game that it gets called on.

    I think Driscoll done wrong as a MINISTER, with church funds, but if an individual wants to buy thousands of copies of their own work to get a NYT list “publicity” thing going, I don’t much care. I figure that’s risk they take with THEIR money, and if it works, there you go. Publicity, visibility.

    Is it strictly purely ethical. Nope. But how much of the marketing and business tricks that are used Jesus-stamp-of-approval level?

    I see bestseller lists as a sort of game, anyway. I can’t get too worked up over people trying to find a way to win that game. Unless, like Driscoll, they use church funds and are ministers who should be exemplars of clean living and integrity–without a hint of shenanigans.

    He has to answer to a much higher authority than the NY Times.

  9. I can’t help but wonder how companies even find people to buy the books for these cheating campaigns. Wouldn’t someone object to doing this?

    • They may not be people. It could be a program with credit card numbers. Then who would receive the books? The libraries would. A free book is a free book.

      • Oh, oh! The guys who stole the credit card numbers from Target’s machines could start doing this as a side business! Folks whose numbers were stolen might not even notice the purchase of one book.
        Or for that matter, anybody could buy a mess of stolen credit card numbers and begin doing this… I’m sure there’s a drawback, but doesn’t it sound like a fun plot?

  10. In high school accounting class Mrs. Stuker used to tell us, “is it illegal? If it is, you stop right there.”

    Well, is this illegal? No, I didn’t ask about ethics, I asked if it was illegal.

    If not, then what can you do but complain? Good luck with that.

    • That is the wrong question (for accounting today). The right question is “Could a determined federal prosecutor convict you for this?”

  11. A year ago, a reporter with a big newspaper that has a famous bestseller list contacted me about something I put in my blog–that bestseller lists can be gamed, and have been, as long as I’ve been in the business. I gave the reporter a list of names, incidents, and all the citations I could find about the incidents I remembered. The reporter did a great deal of investigative work, calling me for more and more information. And then…the calls stopped. I sent the reporter one more citation that I had found, and the reporter called me. At the company editorial meeting (held monthly) the story got quashed in favor of another story on bestseller lists. That other story, by a different reporter, appeared a day or two later. It was a puff piece. The original reporter was…well…angry isn’t quite the right word.

    Does this mean all bestseller lists are rigged? No. But every one of them can be gamed given money and creativity. Every one of them **has** been gamed at one point or another.

    Honestly, I agree with McGregor Literary article. Most folks on the list are on there legitimately–through that list’s algorithms, anyway–and every time someone games the list it hurts the list. And that makes me sad.

    • As a reader, it doesn’t make me sad. The lists are pretty meaningless to me, and I see them mostly as “Hey, join the bandwagon of what everyone else is reading.”

      I don’t choose what I read or listen to or eat based on “bestselling” status. It’s based on variables, including how much I like sample/blurb/genre or what friends with similar tastes tell me I might enjoy. Shoot, I have a couple bibliophile pals whose recommendations are pretty much “I just Kindle it” moments. I can’t even recall the last time I perused a NYT list or a top 40 music chart.

      I think it may be more meaningful for authors and income, publicity and generating a bit of buzz. For me as a reader–means squat.

    • I wonder how a big newspaper holds only one editorial meeting a month in this day and age. Usually, they are daily. For decades now. Same with weekly rags. Daily editorial. Assignments of $resources for ‘feature’ pages far more ‘not a sure thing’ just as a matter of reality, than $resources for investigative reporting, and far more serious journalism, the latter unlikely to be overturned at editorial for a ‘puff piece.’ Like never.

      Often enough ‘feature’ pieces are turned away for not having solid enough facts by recognizable [to readership] heavy enough hitters. Then there’s also the legal department vetting. Not usually used for feature or lifestyle or publishers’ row pieces.

      But, there are other reasons why an article might be turned away in the odd culture of newspapers, including insulting the boss’s handmaidens, or not being the apple of anyone’s eye, or not drawing down a heavy enough readership as a consistent track record, or being an outsource on spec or or or. Newspapers=Sausage making. We all know the metaphor.

    • That story is sad but not surprising. The news industry really isn’t about integrity. It’s about making money, like pretty much every other business in this country. Just look at the orgy-fest that cable news is having over that missing plane. They’re really getting off on this mystery because it helps the ratings, which makes them a boat load of money. They’re always going to do what’s in their financial interest.

  12. Ultimately, the people to blame are the readers who are fooled by the hype and believe the books must be brilliant when they aren’t.

    • Readers who can be fooled like that will be.

      I actually think people tend to figure it out sooner or later if they really care about the truth. The ones who don’t care will keep doing what they’ve always done. Not much you can do about that as a writer.

  13. Yes, it’s wrong. It’s deceptive. But as to what ‘we’ should do about it, that’s a very different question.
    Beyond exposing it (which we definitely should do), IMHO, ‘we’ should do nothing.

  14. I’m a bad person, I immediately wondered if the reason he’s angry at this and dismissive about Fifty Shades of Gray is because his clients can’t afford to do the same and haven’t hit it big like FSOG. He does mention a few bestsellers on his client list page so I could just be too cynical.

  15. This made me reflect on my book buying habits. Before I started writing again in 2006 and publishing in 2012, how did I use to choose what books to buy?

    I was very much a bookstore browser. I had a list of favorite authors I would always buy, almost always as hardbacks, and I loved exploring new authors and voices who might become fast favorites. My first point of call was always the tables near the front of the shop, where I now know traditional publishers pay a hell of a lot of big bucks to get their books on. I didn’t know that then. I would then go browse the aisles by the genres that I liked. I could happily spend an hour each week doing this.

    Was my buying choice influenced by the bestseller lists then? Most of the time, no. It just happened that my favorite authors were often on the bestseller lists. At times, I would pick a fresh voice from the bestseller list, but after checking out the blurb and a few chapters first.

    Now that I know how bestsellers are “made”, has it influenced the way I buy books? Yes, it has. I will still check out new books the way I always do (blurb + first chapters) but I will be wary of the bestseller status. For me, a good book is a book I want to read, that intrigues me, regardless of its bestseller status.

  16. Thanks AD Starrling for showing us your way. I think that alot of folks try-on, buy books your way.

    I’ve not met many who buy from ‘lists’ but many many who buy from a friend’s recommendation. Often, I buy from browsing the content areas in bookstores [current affairs, bios, history sections, native studies, asian studies, humor, art] and online that interest me, read some of the actual book, or look at the three and four star reviews a bit, but mainly ‘look inside the book’ or stand in aisle reading actual book. If it’s a fit, I’ll buy the print on paper book first, and might buy a kindle copy if I want to drag around tablet. I recommend the book to others who might be interested. Give it as gifts. Give a copy to local small mountain town library. Not even sure what i do is counted by the ‘big’ lists in their totting up of sales. I do glance at nyt list IF its posted in bookstore, otherwise not. I look in some categories of ‘bestsellers’ at AMZ just to see what colleagues and interesting people are doing and publishing, and… what other readers find interesting in the cats I tend to go to most. Seems reasonable and simple enough. Sort of like shopping for vegetables at the market. Hey, Tonio has some great fresh kumquats at his stall, go check it out. lol

  17. A friend of mine has been following this and sending me links. Driscoll is the pastor of a mega church, Mars Hill. Here’s the original contract with RSI, spelling out how the list would be hit:


    Driscoll later had second thoughts after being called out about this (caught) and says now that he won’t use “NYT best seller” on his books. There have also been previous allegations of plagarism and/or problems with citations:


  18. Ugh, this makes me so sad that people do this. It’s cheating, plain and simple. The only ones who should be putting authors on the BS lists are readers – readers who actually buy because they’re interested in reading the book. Anyone who scams the system to get on the BS list is a fraud in my opinion.

    I used to be able to trust that “New York Times Bestselling Author” at the top of a book. Not so much anymore.

  19. I have a relative who is proud that she only reads the books on the New York Times Bestseller list. I can’t even imagine choosing my books that way, even if I believed it were genuine. Those kind of readers are why people game the system, they are what create the runaway effect (sometimes) for bestsellers.

  20. What’s lazy about this blog is the amount of lazy times he uses the term “lazy” or “laziness”. I hope he demands better editing for his clients. Lazy self-editing, in my opinion.
    You could also argue, by the way, that buying your way onto the best seller lists and asking a good friend to write a favourable review on Amazon are exactly the same kind of deception — with the same ambition in mind. It’s only the size and scope of the deception that differs.

  21. Is using BookBub to get on a best-seller list any different from paying people to buy/order physical copies? Countless (e)books hit the USA and NYT best-seller lists after the author or their publisher spends a couple hundred to a thousand dollars to push a discounted title through a targeted newsletter–and many are brand new releases, not even a month old. All for the prestige and profile boost these lists give authors/books.

    • Yes, it’s completely different. The Bookbub email list simply alerts people to books. It’s THEIR choice whether or not to buy them. They’re not buying them because they were given money to buy books to push an author up the charts.

    • Author Author!

      Are you kidding? You think advertising is the same as orchestrating 5,000 sham purchases of your own book?

      Maybe I’m missing something, so you may want to restate your argument.

      • Actually the Bookbub campaigns are intended to move titles up on the Amazon bestseller lists. In other words, it’s the same on a smaller scale.

      • Sham purchases? If money got passed to a vendor to buy a book, how is it a sham? They book got bought and money changed hands. Somehow, they will have to then dispose of the books–give away, resell, mulch. But actual money was used to actually purchase. Hence, it was a sale.

        Being on a bestseller list is like advertising: it puts the book in the spotlight, no matter how briefly. And, as others have established, there are certain types of readers who only buy/read stuff on bestseller lists. So, to advertise to them, you find some way to get on lists.

        It may lack full on integrity, but it’s not illegal.

        • Actually, it is a sham, because the purpose behind the purchase of the books is not for reading them. The deception — the sham — is that 5000 people have bought a book each for the purpose of reading it. Which isn’t true.

        • I think Mir, not sure, but it seems many persons who look at say nyt or usatoday bs list, might think the book is on the list because individual readers bought it one by one, or maybe a couple at a time, as gifts.

          Im not sure the list was meant for ‘bulk sales’ manip. That’s why, I guess nyt a couple decades ago began putting “* bulk sales’ in its list to indicate ‘not a norm.’ I would think they also would adjust their ‘scoring’ of books sold to bell curve bulk sales. But, maybe not

          • No, it’s just a list of what is sold FAST. A book may sell more within the year and never make the NYTBSL, because it sold just under the amount needed week in and week out. But if one book sells a lot suddenly, it gets on the list–even if it never sells much more the rest of the year. Hence, to me, the lists are pretty much useless. And to those who buy from the list cause “it’s the bestseller,” well, if it sold X according to whatever sources are used/gathered to make the list, then it actually sold the most. I can’t get too worked up over this. It used to be that many places only stocked bestselling type books, so guess what would sell more? Yes, the ones pushed to be in drugstores, airport stores, newsstands, etc. Most authors, no matter their merits, don’t have access to that, so the list to me is meaningless as a reader. It’s what a particular group decided to push on me as a reader, not what I went and searched for from everything available. 😀

            If it sold best, it’s on the list. Period. Bulk or individual, so what?

  22. I heard about this form of messing with best-seller lists many years ago. At the time, it was said that certain political personalities in the media were having their books purchased in bulk, then given away or sold at that person’s public appearances. Seemed hinky to me then; seems hinky to me now.

    I’ll admit that I buy books reviewed in the NY Times — not because the Times says they’re good, but because those are the only reviews I read (via a subscription). I sample them, then if I like them, I buy. For the most part, I get some good reads that way.

  23. So, is this the new Author Solutions package? For only 200K get on a best sellers list! Contact one of our representatives now. Limited availability.

  24. Joseph Bradshire

    If I were Bill Gates could out sell the bible. yay.

  25. Absolutely, totally agree with PG’s postscript to the post. It would be nuts to think of setting up 1,000 payment mechanisms just to boost one book to the NYT list.

  26. I’ve yet to find any lucid, consistent explanation for how the NYTBL works. Every explanation starts with, “it’s complicated,” or “no one really knows exactly how, but.”

    My observation is simple (perhaps too simple!). When a James Patterson new release shows up on the list one week, and piles of the book appear in the alcove of Barnes & Noble marked down to $4.99 the next week, I conclude that there is gaming going on.

    Big Pub is no different than Wall Street. They find a “legal” way to rig the system, and then tell you to mind your own business when you ask questions.

  27. To give you an example of how degraded the “Best-seller” status is, look to Joanna Penn.

    The book marketer / thriller writer bragged recently that she can now call herself a “New York Times best-selling author.”

    How? She got together with 11 other thriller authors and offered a 12-pack of their books for .99 cents: “It’s #13 for fiction E-book bestsellers and #19 for combined print and ebook, plus it’s also now ranking #42 on the USA Today list, up from last week. That’s a writing dream achieved!”


    I’d be embarrassed to claim that. It’s disgusting. It’s corrupt. It’s … so, anyone wanna get together for a mystery 12-pack?

    • How is it disgusting or corrupt? They got together to offer a bundle. The bundle sold well enough to “list” it. So, she actually got on the list and can claim NYTB status. I don’t see the issue here. So, when’s that bundle of yours coming out ? 😀

      • I joking about the disgusting and corrupt part, which tells you why I shouldn’t write humor.

        Actually, I’m torn. Part of me does “harrumph” at this. But is she really a “New York Times Bestselling Author”? Maybe 1/12th of a bestseller.

        OTOH, she did a clever thing by joining this book bundle. That’s something that wouldn’t have happened in pre-Internet days. (And, in fact, as I was writing the above, a part of me did say, ‘why not’?) Still …

        • Thing is, when in future Joanna Penn uses the descriptor ‘NYT Bestseller’ you can bet it won’t be with the modifying clause as part-author of a twelve-book box set sold for $0.99 with all twelve of us paying to promote it.

          The intention is to mislead readers.

          • I don’t see how readers are misled. Anybody who just grabs a book cause it says BESTSELLING author and does nothing else–doesn’t read a blurb, doesn’t read a sample, doesn’t check the genre–is kinda a doofus, or just someone who likes taking a wild risk on whether they will like something. Buyer beware always applies.

    • I don’t think she was bragging. I think she was being a little tongue-in-cheek about it. 🙂

  28. Up until Bill Peschel’s comment mentioning Joanna Penn, the only times I have heard of this verifiably occuring were all in nonfiction sales. The authors involved did it because having the “NYT Bestseller” attached to their business or self-help book dramatically upped the number of engagements and the size of the speaking fees they could command. A true narcissist’s game, in other words.

    • Not to mention Clive Cussler giving inflated figures of his sales to the producers of the “Sahara” movie.

      I’ve been noticing this more and more. Back in the late ’90s, a hip-hop producer / businessman had to reveal in court his sales figures from his clothing line, and they fell far short of what he had been claiming. And Rita Hayworth got a big publicity boost when her publicist claimed she spent all her money on clothes. That got her a photo spread in Look magazine (and the publicist had to hit the studio for clothes to fill out her home to make it look that way).

      I shouldn’t be surprised at this, I know, but it seems far more pervasive than I thought.

  29. Captain Renault: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” — Claude Rains in Casablanca.

    Me: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gaming bestseller lists is going on in here!

  30. If someone can game a list of some sort, are they morally or ethically lacking, or is the process or algorithm that generates the list flawed?

  31. So in the past such shenanigans were okay. But now, as some of the practises are being revealed, the NYTBSL is actually being devalued as a brand. Soon, being able to claim you’re on this list will mean nothing. Perhaps the NYT will have something to say about that?

  32. Those who’d like to read the contract that Mars Hill Church signed with RealSource can find it here:


    It’s clear from that contract that RealSource has enough experience doing this that it knows exactly how to mimic actual sales by spreading the around geographically and using different ways of paying for the books. They also expect clients to supply names and address for both individual and bulk purchases.

    This bestseller list buying is apparently a well-established, well-oiled machine. The Wall Street Journal reported on it back in February, but I can’t recall seeing much about it in the publishing trade press–like there ought to be.


  33. I agree with comments that NYTBSL is diluting its brand by allowing it to be gamed so brazenly, whether actively or passively. I believe what Driscoll and RealSource did was morally bankrupt. Buying thousands of copies of your own book to gain a listing is fraud, pure and simple.

    But… there are many ways to “game” a system. Some authors are just better at self promotion than others. I’m not talking about buying ratings, paying for reviews or creating sock puppet accounts. I’m talking about blogging, speaking, podcasting, Youtube trailers and all-around good dealmaking. Example, Joanna Penn.

    What Joanna Penn claims about being on the bestseller list is, in my view, not wrong in any way. She found the right partners, made the right deals and used her impressive platform to gain as much publicity as possible. More power to her. For what It’s worth, I’ve read one of her books (Pentecost) and I can confidently say that she is nowhere near the worst self-published author I’ve read. Yes, lots of sizzle, but the steak isn’t bad at all.

    Read my blog entry about it here. http://www.psgrieve.com/1/post/2014/03/book-marketing-ethics-when-gaming-the-system-is-the-name-of-the-game.html

    P.S. I’m not aiming for humour here, but for the record, I sympathize with Bill Peschel. There should be a sarcasm font 🙂

  34. I’ve always been under the assumption that publishers did this all the time. For example, look at Redshirts by John Scalzi. It hit the middle of the NYT list for one week at the very beginning and fell completely off the next week, despite no other big releases to push it off. Then it had the benefit of a huge Audible.com advertising campaign as well as a Hugo win, but never even got the extended list again.

    When I saw that I just assumed that since Mr. Scalzi is one of Tor’s preferred authors, they needed him to get that “New York Times Bestseller” stamp of approval necessary to push his success outside the traditional genre.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.