Buying your way to bestseller status…yet another way to cheat the system

Crooked BusinessA few of you may have caught this news if you’re like me and regularly follow the blog posts over at The Passive Voice.  It quoted from an article which I’ll be discussing today about using “bestseller campaigns” to give your work a boost on its release day.  You can see the original post by Soren Kaplan here.

It deals with Mr. Kaplan admitting to a reporter at The Wall Street Journal that he used a company called ResultSource to help him achieve best seller status with his business book, Leapfrogging, in the first week of its publication.  I’ll quote below a portion of what he said they did to help him reach #3 on the Journal’s list below:

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.

He admits he manged to get enough people to pre-order the book, along with his own purchases, to ensure the bestseller campaign could be done with ResultSource.  It got him on the list the first week, though he dropped off of it after that.  He says it has been an industry secret for years (naturally not to be discussed), but only people with a lot of money (and friends/clients/etc) can pull it off.  I’ll give this guy credit for at least admitting what he’s done and letting the public know the practice is out there, even if I disagree with him for using it in the first place.  This casts a bad light on many bestseller lists considering they rely heavily on physical book sales to calculate rankings.

How many books have made it to the top using this method?  Perhaps we’ll never know.  I’m sure many books worked their way up through more honest methods, but it should cause discerning readers to question industry practices on the whole.

There have been many discussions within the blogosphere about dishonest indie author practices, but this is a big hit against traditionally published authors (at least those who have the funds and/or backing to do it).  We know there are publishers who use shady practices to get reviews and/or quotes from “respected” sources.  That’s been out there for a while, but now we are discovering even more methods to beat the system…whether the book is worthy of notice or not.  With ResultSource you’d have to have a book that can be pre-ordered to use them, which rules out most indies as suspects, but it’s appalling how many readers have been and will be misled because there are authors who can use this service.

I think it’s important this topic be discussed and for people to know this type of thing is happening.  In the end, readers have to use their own judgement to figure out what books are worth trying and which aren’t.  Whether it’s questionable reviews or best seller lists, nothing is guaranteed to help you find a good book the easy way (other than, perhaps, friend recommendations).  The best thing to do is load the sample and trust your instincts.  You never know what gem you might find..or what book you might have hated if you’d not checked it out first.

Please feel free to add your own thoughts below.

~ by Suzie on February 25, 2013.

43 Responses to “Buying your way to bestseller status…yet another way to cheat the system”

  1. I can understand why you find this distasteful. But is it so different than so many marketing campaigns? Paying a movie or sports star to pretend to love some lousy product? Saturating media with vapid ads?

    At least it’s not as bad people looking for influence buying truckloads of books by a politician. (Which has happened.)

    I guess I rather feel that people who buy a book just because it’s on a best seller list deserve what they get. They need a dose of caveat emptor.

    And buying up your own book to make a list? That’s kinda sad and pathetic, actually …

    • There are a lot of shady marketing campaigns out there. This is true. Celebrities advertising stuff isn’t really much better, but most people see through that ploy easily enough. The problem is (whether it’s smart or not) many people do put a lot of stock in those best seller lists. Buying thousands of copies of your book just isn’t one of those things I could condone. Every author will have a few friends/family buy their book, that’s just natural, but that “shouldn’t” compare to the kind of numbers it actually takes to get on the bestseller lists.

  2. There are lots of different strands here.
    Institutions that run lists need to be open about how books make it onto the list and, if they aspire to be the gold standard of lists, they need to investigate a little!
    Marketing needs to be more transparent. A review that’s been paid for should say so. A review of a book given for free should also say so.
    Consumers should think about the way a book is being marketed to them – what’s behind the lists and reviews. If we, as consumers, are too busy and the marketing is too easy to accept at face value, we shouldn’t feel so cheated when the book is lousy or the truth behind the rating comes out.
    Jeepers, I got out of the grumpy side of bed this morning!

    • Your statement makes me think of the scandals associated with the credit reporting agencies, Mark. If we are going to rely on big names to tell us who is the best, they should be obligated to check their figures. In the real world, though, this doesn’t happen as much as it should. Not to mention the average consumer doesn’t check things all that thoroughly either. Most of the time consumers have to learn things the hard way. Sad but true.

  3. So much of sucess is built on exposure – and money and influence buy exposure. I remember prior to my book release, daydreaming that I had hundreds of friends and a few big dog contacts that could order on day one and push me into the bestseller ranks (at least on Amazon). But I’m the person who has five friends – not a big social reach for a book launch. So I’m plugging away one reader at a time.

    I guess I’m jaded too. After 30 years dealing with nasty corporate politics, I see this as the status quo. I’m shelling out for some advertising and paid blog tours this year, trying to extend my reach a bit. If I had the money and contacts would I do this sort of thing? I’ll be honest and admit I probably would. But I’m pretty down this week, so it may just be frustration talking 🙂

    • Looking at your Amazon reviews Debra, I’d say just keep going. There’s a certain amount of luck in timing and exposure and catching eyes with cover copy, but I think it’ll come for you.

    • Debra, it’s definitely one of those things where it does take some money to get noticed as an author (though it should be done in an honest way). I’ve found blog tours, guest posts, giveaways, and ads have at least helped keep my novel’s sales steady. My stats are nothing to brag about yet, but it is one of those things you have to keep plugging away at and making sure your novel is getting in front of your target readership. Some people have to hear about something multiple times before they’ll consider buying it.

      Your books are awesome and I know I tell people about them often. Hopefully you’ll see your hard work pay off soon.

      • Thanks Suzie!
        I’ve had some steady sales from paid ads, and am hopeful about the blog tour and giveaway I have planned for my new release April 1st. Fingers crossed!

        Your post has been on my mind this morning as I slog away at my corporate job. Thinking of analyzing this as a marketing practice – I’ll link in your post if I do 🙂

  4. Thanks for posting. I didn’t know about this particular practice, but I know there are many things that need to be exposed in the traditional book publishing industry, and I’m glad it’s being done.

  5. By using this shady practice, this guy actually revealed that he had no confidence in his own book’s ability to make good sales numbers. We all want our work to get positive attention and sell well, but isn’t this a truly hollow victory? Where’s the sense of accomplishment? I understand – sadly – that these types of practices are used in all levels of marketing, including politics, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. Once we start saying, “well, this isn’t as bad as….”, we’re making allowances for manipulations, and that’s a slippery slope and not a road I’d want to go down. From there it just gets worse because the types of campaigns that believe manipulation is just another marketing strategy know they can get consumers/voters to believe anything. I, for one, don’t want to be counted among that crowd. And I agree with Diceyblog, it’s good that some light is being shed on things like this and the whole Amazon fake review fiasco. Thanks for posting this Suzie!

    • Yep, that’s the thing, Daisy. Getting on the bestseller list just because you bought out your own books can’t be that much of an ego boost. I’d feel like a fraud for even bragging about making it that high. Guess we all have our own standards, but you’re right that politics can be just as bad.

  6. Thanks for posting this. It brings to light an unfortunate, yet realistic trend: publishing is about promotion, statistics, rankings, and buzz (whether generated honestly or otherwise). It is rarely about the quality of the author or the quality of the work. I spent twenty years knocking on the door of traditional publishing and was told to go to conferences, subscribe to Writer’s Digest, get Facebook fans, sign up for agents’ webinars, and if all else failed, pay an agent to read my first chapter. And if I did manage to get my book published, make sure that everyone I knew ran out on release day to buy my book. Even my mom, who would never read it anyway. Why? Because it’s a numbers game. No one cared what my book was about, if it was in English, or if I could spell. I was told by one agent that if I had a few thousand Twitter followers, they might be interested. Sure enough, it turns out you can buy Twitter followers.

    I think we would like to believe that good authors write good books and are, as if by magic, simply rewarded in the marketplace with no effort on their part, and that there are no shady backroom deals going on. The same way we would like to believe that Abe Lincoln and George Washington never had to buy rum for voters on election day or make campaign promises to tycoons to get elected.

    What needs to change is the discernment of the readers. If you buy a book solely because of its ranking on a list or even the number of tweets you’ve seen, don’t complain that you’ve been duped, or that a fast one has been pulled on you. You’ve done it to yourself. Read the sample chapter on Amazon. Open the cover of the book while standing in the store. Demand better than these shenanigans, and you’ll get it.

    This fellow’s trick only achieved its singular intent – to get him on the bestseller list. It did not get him fans or readers clamoring for his next book. So what then the prize? Oops. Looks like I woke up on the crabby side of the bed too… 🙂

    • That’s just it, Stacey. I think bringing these things to light will at least help make people more aware and discerning. If we say nothing, readers will keep relying on bad information to find their books. If you can’t tell, I’m not one to keep these things to myself. Even in the military I had no fear of speaking up if I disagreed with something or felt it unfair. It about drove my commanders nuts, but they respected me for it and changed their policies because of it.

  7. From a consumer protection standpoint, I think it’s a terrible practice. People rely (at least partially) on those lists and that label when deciding which book to buy out of the sea of options. It’s not just about the publicity that comes during that week on the top; it’s also about the fact that the label never goes away. It goes on the cover and in the author’s bio, conning people to hear him speak and buy his other books. We should stop paying attention to the label entirely.

    • Very good points, A.M.B. Even if sales do drop off, that label he gained stays with him and it will continue to mislead some people.

      • There are plenty of indie authors I know who deserve the label more – I buy their books in hopes that they get it. We must, as a community, continue to fight for higher standards, if we are advocates for good books and the tortured souls who write them.

        • That’s very true, Stacey. I’ve seen lots of great authors who deserve more recognition than they get. You can only hope that someday their hard work will pay off, but supporting the community is one way to help, as you said.

  8. Hi, Suzie:

    Once again, another thought-provoking post. Unfortunately, I find myself to be of a likely minority opinion. I think we indies are at a disadvantage specifically because we somehow imagine that publishing is different than any other industry. That we somehow imagine there is such a thing as fair in the world of marketing. For an author to be successful, she or he must first be noticed and then turn that notice into a ton of book sales. Big publishers and wealthy/connected authors, like John Locke, absolutely do have an advantage in that they can afford to use “self-purchases” to buy themselves notice via bestseller lists…but in the end they only make money if they can hold an audience.

    I read a part of the original article a day or two ago, and it went on to say that many of these “purchased” bestseller spots go from thousands of copies one week to basically nothing the next. What that means is that many of those rigging the system are losing money doing it. Only those books that earn word-of-mouth sales actually go on to establish themselves in the long-term.

    So, what I fail to understand is the outrage. Celebrities also rig the system with their name-recognition as do the subjects of news and crises stories. What about Aaron Ralston, the man who cut of his arm after being pinned by a boulder while hiking? He has book and movie deals stretching from now to the end of time. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger is another prime example. He crash landed his US Airways Airbus A320-214 plane on the Hudson River, saving all 155 people on board. Though obviously not intentional, he became an instant celebrity with more book offers than most of us could ever dream of.

    What I’m saying is that I think we automatically lose by assuming that any author launching pad is “cheating.” Wouldn’t it be much more constructive if we accepted that getting a large audience to notice us is part of our job? Wouldn’t it be more advantagious for us if we chose to learn from all successful methods of getting that notice? Rather than demonizing those wins, maybe we should share ideas on how we could achieve the same thing with lower budgets and less connections. Of course, it is perfectly acceptable to earn our stripes, as most of us are currently doing, but I don’t begrudge any author who has found a way to leap to the top by an alternative method.

    Maybe we could all use a dose of “how can I replicate that” rather than “that is cheating.” I have no doubt that some of us are good enough that if we found an alternative launching pad, our work would hold an audience thereafter. Of course, I absolutely respect alternative opinions. ‘Hope the comments are helpful, even if only to secure the opposing point-of-view 🙂

    • Tim – I have a background in sales and marketing in the corporate world, and totally get where you are coming from. While I’m not thrilled to know with $33k I can “buy” my way to a week on the WSJ bestsellers list, it’s a legit market practice in the corporate world. I’m not about to go purchase 3,000 copies of my own book to get there, but it’s frustrating when an author has done everything to produce a quality book, only to have it languish unnoticed in the 1 million ranking stat pile.

      Yes, I’m terribly jaded today. Going back to analyze salary increases for 2 business units. Yeah, that will help. . . not.

      • Debra: I like that Suzie has pointed out what is truly a “wrong” thing to do. I don’t so much disagree as believe we indie’s should be proactive in our own marketing rather than reactive to other practices. It is unfortunate that some great authors are languishing while others are succeeding. In my mind, that is all the more reason to use the “right and legal” tools available to us. Sorry to here about the salary analyzing. I also write for corporations and took a break for these posts 🙂

    • Tim, I’ll never condone such practices no matter how common they may be in the business world. Since the beginning of time, men have raped women in war. It has always been that way, but does that make it right? No, it doesn’t. Maybe we can’t stop everyone from doing the wrong thing, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it and say nothing either. That’s just not me.

      • Suzie: I’ve had a couple of back and forths on this very subject over on my blog. You are, of course, correct. What is happening is wrong. I think what we indies need to remember, however, is that complaining about what is going on in the yard next door is not going to get our own lawn mowed. We need to focus on marketing ourselves.

        I also think that the purity argument can be carried altogether too far. Should only great books make the bestseller lists, thereby being noticed by millions of new readers? Sure, that makes sense. The problem is that is not what happens. So, let’s say some authors believe only the most perfect book should be written. They might never start. Others might start but never publish. Unfortunately, what is more likely to happen is that authors become jaded because there are so many people focused on the cheating Big Six and Big Money Authors rather than on finding ways to reach success themselves.

        In short, I don’t agree with buying our way to the bestseller list no more than I agree with buying reviews or pretending we are multiple people to generate social networking buzz…but I am not concerned with those authors who do those things. I am much more inclined to focus on their results and how we might honestly replicate them. I would rather spend my time following authors like yourself, Angela Wallace, Debra Dunbar and others who are finding new ways to advertise and market yourselves. I would rather learn from the whole market rather than demonize the portion of it I don’t agree with. That doesn’t make these practices right, just below my radar 🙂

        • Tim, that’s just it. I can do just fine promoting my book through the proper channels and discuss this topic at length. I won’t keep quiet and ignore the bad things in the world so people can stay in the dark and keep their delusions. When something comes to my attention and bothers me, I’m going to talk about it. Whether people like it or not. if an author is so easily discouraged by hearing about poor business practices, they shouldn’t be in publishing anyway. It’s not for the faint of heart and it takes a lot of work and belief in oneself.

  9. I think what burns my biscuits the most is that these companies didn’t bother to ensure the integrity of their “lists” by checking these things. An unknown, debut author jumps from nowhere to the top of a list 1 week, then vanishes the next? I’m no auditor, but that would have shot the red flag through the roof for me.

    • Apparently it raised red flags with that reporter because that’s why he contacted the author in the first place. It didn’t get him removed from the list, though.

    • And the things is, Debra, in the technology age, statistics that would prove the fraud are so much easier to come by – the biscuit-burner is that the companies, even though they could find these things out, are choosing not to. Good thing we are here to shame them…things like this can bring about the change we seek.

  10. Suzie–you kicked a hornets’ nest with this one …

    There’s a mayoral election going on in Los Angeles at the moment. (Fortunately I live outside the city.) Candidates buy their way onto supposedly objective mailers. And worse, far worse. And it matters more than a week as a fake on a bestseller list.

    I understand the disgust at what this “author” did. But it strikes me as a natural part of the world we live in today. And not all that malign compared to some parts.

    There will always be suckers who will be taken in by shady marketing. If publicizing the issue “saves” a few people, good work. But ultimately the only vaccine against this crap is to try to teach more people to think critically.

    • Well, it all started when I was six years old and climbed up a bunch hay stacks in the barn. I didn’t realize there was a hornets nest hanging from the ceiling and bumped it when I reached the top. Boy did I get the crap stung out of me. Never have been able to stay away from shaking things up ever since.

      Anyway, Urs, not talking about it does less help than at least speaking out. Even the guy who wrote the original article recognized this was a shady practice and something people needed to know about. In order to get people to think more critically, you have to show them why they should.

      • I understand you are trying to do your part. Although I also think you are preaching to the converted. But if you can make the world even a tiny bit more rational, more power to you …

      • Being a bit less grumpy this evening–and there’s nothing quite like a tired, jaded bear–I really didn’t intend my posts to come across as criticizing you. I was just trying to offer a more jaded perspective …

  11. Reblogged this on Writing as Therapy & Therapy for Writers.

  12. I read the main article in the WSJ – amazing the lengths and the money some will spend to game the system. Fake followers, fake likes, fake reviews, and most expensive of all, fake book sales.

    Deena of E-BookBuilders

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