Can authors buy their way onto bestseller lists? Apparently, the answer is still yes.
According to a recent article in The Guardian, Author loses spot in Top 10 after buying 400 copies of his own book, author Mark Dawson admitted to purchasing 400 copies of his book to get a higher position on the Sunday Times bestseller chart.
After his admission, book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan revised their figures and booted Dawson from the list.
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. This method of gaming the system isn’t new, The Wall Street Journal and Forbes wrote about the controversial practice back in 2013, but I thought new, improved policies had put an end to it.
More than a million books are published each year, and very few become best sellers. The reason writers strive for the coveted status is because it dramatically increases their credibility and establishes them as thought leaders. In addition to the prestige, becoming a “best-selling author” allows them to charge a lot more for speaking fees and consulting contracts.
Thus, the “bestseller campaign” was born. Initiated by marketing firms, these campaigns enabled people with enough money and contacts to buy their way onto bestseller lists. The campaigns required authors to make bulk pre-sale purchases of their own books. Those sales were then counted on the publication dates and the titles were propelled onto the bestseller lists.
Authors would line up these sales by getting their corporate clients to purchase copies in lieu of their speaking fees, or by buying copies themselves to resell at public appearances.
After the Nielsen BookScan, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal list makers caught on, they implemented new rules and stopped counting bulk sales. So, the crafty “bestseller campaign” marketers learned how to break those orders down into small increments to make them look like organic retail sales. Although apparently The New York Times still counts them but puts a dagger symbol next to the title to denote bulk purchases.
The campaigns are very expensive. An author cited in the Forbes article said he paid $70,000 for his bulk books, plus a $20,000 fee to the marketing firm.
One tell-tale sign that a best-selling title isn’t really legit is that it falls right off the list the following week. The Wall Street Journal created a chart showing three examples of this, Prescription for Excellence, Networking is Dead, and Leapfrogging. In each case, the authors freely admitted to hiring a firm to help manipulate the system with bulk presales.
Soren Kaplan, author of Leapfrogging, didn’t think he was gaming the system. “An executive at Harvard Business School Publishing said ‘everyone’ was doing it, especially for non-fiction business books like mine.”
Others assured Kaplan that “‘Guruship’ came from playing the game in a way that reinforced their personal brands as thought leaders. Ponying up the dough for the bestseller campaign was a small investment that would pay off later.”
BESTSELLER LIST INTEGRITY CONTINUES TO ERODE
And last year, The New York Times reported “R.N.C. Spent Nearly $100,000 on Copies of Donald Trump Jr.’s Book.‘Triggered,’ published Nov. 5, topped the best-seller list thanks in part to a big order from the Republican National Committee.”
Some say Amazon has destroyed any remaining legitimacy in the “best-selling author” label. Brent Underwood’s brilliant and hilarious article in Quartz lays out how he became “a best-selling author on Amazon in five minutes with three dollars.”
He writes, “I took a photo of my foot, uploaded it as a book to Amazon, and in a matter of hours had achieved ‘№1 Best Seller’ status, complete with the orange banner and everything… How many copies did I need to sell? Three. Yes, a total of three copies to become a best-selling author. And I bought two of those copies myself!”
Underwood is a partner in the marketing firm Brass Check, where they’ve helped launch 30 legitimate New York Times bestsellers. He didn’t do this exercise to make his foot famous. He did it to illustrate that you should take any person presenting themselves as a “bestselling author” with a grain of salt.
He also wanted to “illustrate that the best marketing tactic you can use for a book is to write a great book that actually sells over the long term.”
“It’s easy to be seduced by best seller lists, sales numbers, speaking fees, and all the ephemera in this industry,” he cautions. “Don’t let all of that make you lose sight of the importance of quality and authority in your work. Anyone can be a one-hit wonder; focus on crafting a book that will sell for decades.”
Too bad no one told Mark Dawson.