8 Notable Attempts to Hack the New York Times Bestseller List

From The Literary Hub (2017):

The bestseller list is a surprisingly complicated creature. A good and thorough explanation is here, but basically, to get on any official list of bestsellers, you have to sell at least 5,000 books in a single week—which seems straightforward, except that it’s really hard to count books sold week-to-week, even harder to count books sold by non-traditional outlets, and also not everyone is looking at all the same numbers. Publisher’s Weekly uses BookScan, but BookScan doesn’t track everything. Other bestseller lists rely on reported data from bookstores (online and off), or a combination. The New York Times list is the most prestigious, of course, because it’s the New York Times, but also, at least in part, because it’s the most opaque. “The Times’s best-seller lists are based on a detailed analysis of book sales from a wide range of retailers who provide us with specific and confidential context of their sales each week,” a New York Times spokesperson told Vox. “These standards are applied consistently, across the board in order to provide Times readers our best assessment of what books are the most broadly popular at that time.” Which doesn’t tell us much, and the Times is notoriously hush-hush about which stores they track and how they interpret and arrange their data.

Despite all the confusion, it’s not super hard to buy 5,000 books in a single week—if you already have the money—which could send your book to the top of the charts, depending on the week in question. This isn’t illegal, but it is gaming the system, or even cheating, if you will, and the New York Times list will sometimes include a dagger next to books they suspect might owe their placement to “strategic bulk purchases.” Worse than that demure little dagger is the fact that you’ll likely be found out and raked over the coals, especially if you’re already a public figure. On the other hand, years after people have forgotten that you scammed your way onto the bestseller list, you’ll still be putting “bestselling author” in front of your name.

Not everyone will forget, though. Considering the recent spate of bestseller-list drama, here are eight notable instances of list-hacking in its various forms, from the very cynical to the very silly.

. . . .

In August, a book very few people had ever heard of shot to the top of the Young Adult Hardcover section of the New York Times bestseller list. The book, Handbook for Mortals, was published by GeekNation, a website launched in 2012, and if that sounds odd, it’s because Sarem’s book (and attendant movie franchise deal) was the geek culture site’s first foray into publishing. It all smells a little pre-packaged, honestly, and the fact that Sarem is JC Chasez’s cousin does not make it smell any fresher.

YA author Phil Stamper brought the oddity to the book world’s attention, tweeting, “I find it . . . strange that a mediocre website can decide it wants to be a publisher, and one month later hit #1 on the NYT Bestsellers list” and “A book that’s out of stock on Amazon and is not currently in any physical B&N in the tri-state area . . . A book that no one has heard of except for the two niche blogs that covered the [GeekNation] press release. Sells ~5,000 in the first week? Ok.” Soon, booksellers began writing to Stamper, reporting that they had been getting mysterious bulk orders of Handbook for Mortals—but only after the caller made sure that their sales were reported to the Times bestseller list. More evidence quickly began to stack up, and by the end of the day, the Times had changed the list. “After investigating the inconsistencies in the most recent reporting cycle, we decided that the sales for Handbook for Mortals did not meet our criteria for inclusion,” a Times spokesperson told NPR in a statement.

In an interview with HuffPost, Sarem said, “OK, I get it. I didn’t play by the normal YA rules. I didn’t […] send out galleys two years in advance, and I didn’t go talk to the people that thought I should come talk to them. I did it a different way. Do you only get to be successful in the YA world if you only do it the way that they think it’s supposed to be done?” Later, she complained, “People keep saying that they’re tired of hearing the same story over and over again. Well, start supporting new stories. Start supporting new artists.”

A couple of weeks later, she wrote an op-ed, also at HuffPost, in which she admitted to buying her own book in bulk to sell it at Comic Con events, but said this was “well within the rules” of the bestseller list. This isn’t really borne out by the evidence, though, which shows many orders and no stock to fill them with—that is, nonexistent books purchased by people who didn’t care if they ever received them.

Fun fact: Blues Traveler, whom Sarem used to manage, tweeted that they “fired her for these kinds of stunts. Her sense of denial is staggering.”

Donald Trump loves to brag about how he’s a great businessman, and how he’s a great bestselling writer, and how he’s a great bestselling writer of a great book about being a great businessman. The Art of the Deal is second only to the Bible, right? But recently in the New Republic, Alex Shephard reported that when it comes to the popularity of The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump may not be as great as all that. Shocker! Shephard reports that ex-Trump executive Jack O’Donnell’s 1991 tell-all Trumped! explains exactly how The Art of the Deal became such a big bestseller: the Trump organization bought “tens of thousands of copies on its own.” Shephard reports:

In his book, O’Donnell recounts buying 1,000 copies of The Art of the Deal to sell in the Plaza’s gift shop—only to be told by fellow executive Steve Hyde that it wasn’t nearly enough. “You’ve got to increase your order,” Hyde told him. “Donald will go nuts if you don’t order more books.” How many more? Four thousand copies, O’Donnell was told.

And it wasn’t just the Plaza Hotel that was buying the book in bulk. According to O’Donnell, Trump executives were instructed to buy thousands of copies for their properties. In typical Trump fashion, the boss pitted his top executives against each other: When Trump’s then-wife, Ivana, ordered 4,000 books for the Trump Castle Casino in Atlantic City, O’Donnell was warned that he needed to match her. “Hey, Jack,” a fellow executive cautioned him, “you better buy as many books as Ivana, or Donald will use it against you.”

To be fair, Shephard says, The Art of the Deal would have wound up a bestseller anyway. But only last year, Trump pulled the same thing with his book Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again (which I have never heard of), buying $55,055 worth of copies at Barnes & Noble. Again, not illegal—unless he gets any royalties from the purchases. “It’s fine for a candidate’s book to be purchased by his committee, but it’s impermissible to receive royalties from the publisher,” a representative of nonpartisan nonprofit Campaign Legal Center told The Daily Beast. “That amounts to an illegal conversion of campaign funds to personal use. There’s a well established precedent from the FEC that funds from the campaign account can’t end up in your own pocket.” Of course, that probably didn’t stop him. It’s Donald Trump, after all.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub (2017)

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