For the Record, I Don’t Do This
Posted on February 22, 2013 Posted by John Scalzi 32 Comments
Via CC Finlay, how to spend a stupid amount of money to game your way onto a best seller list. Note the books being discussed here are business-related books, which appear to be used by their authors as calling cards to get speaking/consulting gigs, which are their primary bread and butter. So maybe for these guys it makes sense to spend tens of thousand of dollars to gin up a bunch of (likely) fake sales. For fiction writers, for whom the honorariums are harder to come by, and probably are already some shade of completely broke anyway, probably less so.
Mind you, now that the Wall Street Journal is reporting on this particular way to game the list, the jig is up and this avenue will be factored in and discounted for future list reporting. So it’s probably too late for you to use it. On the other hand, think of the tens of thousands of dollars you’ll save!
I’m happy to say that generally speaking I’ve gotten onto the bestseller lists by, you know, selling books to people who want to buy them for reading purposes. It’s slightly more complicated than that, in part because the most significant best seller lists have their own proprietary formula for determining list position that aren’t necessarily directly related to raw sales. But that’s the general gist of it. Thank you for reading my stuff in trackably significant numbers, folks. I really do appreciate it.
Didn’t the L Ron Hubbard acolytes game the system by buying multiple copies of his Battlefield Earth series of books?
I hear one even made a movie out of it. :(
Incidentally, I blame L Ron Hubbard for delaying my appreciation for SF. The high school I went to had a copy of one of his SF books in its library. I was looking for new things to read one fine day and picked it up. About twenty or so pages in I gave up in disgust and silently decided science fiction was hated with good reason. It took another three years before I finally gave another SF title a shot and realized how wrong I’d been.
John Scalzi is always tricking his way into best seller lists by writing good books that people want to read.
That was a good trick, John, in writing such a good book as “Redshirts”, which I deeply enjoyed over the presidents’ day weekend.
You’re a smart guy but “gaming” is not your style. We (sorry, I) buy your stuff because it’s thought provoking and good entertainment. Plus it doesn’t hurt that you have a stand-up style and like like cats too.
I remember one story, possibly apocryphal, from someone who worked for a large book chain saying that they had ordered some L. Ron Hubbard books from Bridge and the books had arrived with the chain’s price stickers already attached.
Seems the tactic of buying up books would be more successful on something like Amazon than the somewhat archaic New York Times Best Sellers list, but do people, other than authors, look to see what’s most popular on Amazon?
I don’t necessarily agree the jig is up and this wont factor anymore. The article clearly states that publishers have been worried about such things for awhile. Like the Oscars, I do not consider best seller listing to mean a damn thing in regards to the quality of the book or whether I will enjoy it.
Esteemed host, I think you nailed the issue that this works for business books where the speaker/consultant fees are the actual revenue source, though I would add “Or for ones with business tie-ins.” Conceivably the few sf writers who market themselves as “futurists” and the even fewer mystery/thriller writers who claim their stuff is “security scenarios” might be able to do better than break even at it. But I doubt most of them have ever tried, because the pirate channels are so much more cost effective (spending $10k out of cash reserve for access to the 10% or so of the buying public that pay any attention to bookseller recommendations, v. foregoing $10k in gross revenue to put a few thousand copies into the social buzz process? Not a hard choice).
OTOH over in the speaker/consultant rackets I have noticed that the claim of having “written a New York TImes bestseller” seems to have moved from a nice additional tagline to a de rigeur qualification. Wonder what’s going to happen to the up and coming biz blatherers if the system gets fixed?
At least the authors were honest about what they were doing, even if it wasn’t as ethical as one might like.
Fortunately, I work in a field where “best seller” is (mostly) a null concept.
Stuff like this has been around forever. I remember reading once that a lot of those conservative political books you see (usually selling for ultra-cheap on amazon later) get the bestseller rating because they get sold at steep discounts to conservative foundations, which then give them out as prizes for new subscribers/donations.
Wait, we’re suppose to buy your books and read them? Damn, my furniture is going to get all wobbly again. ;)
Thanks for writing things we LOVE to read!
It’s really very simple, John. Keep on writing great books and I’ll keep buying them.
This would work great if I had insane amounts of money to spend. Or any at all :/
I actually experienced this when I worked at Waldenbooks, only the Bridge books arrived with a *different* chain’s price stickers. And typically, a “customer” would come in, buy us out of all our L. Ron books, and then make sure to “helpfully” tell us we needed to re-order.
As for many business books being a mechanism to book speaking engagements, yeah. A relative of mine does this. He actually paid to have his book ghost-written.
This is common practice with political books. Pundit A will write a book, and his party comittee will buy it by the truck load, making him “NYT Best Selling Author Pundit A.”
And I liked Hubbard’s Sci-fi. I read BE when I was about 15, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I had no idea Scientology was a thing at that time.
I own a fair number of books that I haven’t read yet. I’m not using them to prop up table legs; I just tend to see books that looks interesting and then don’t get around to reading them before the next interesting book comes along. Most of these books were found at used book stores. When I find an used book in good condition and at a good price I think “hey when am I going to find one of these again?”. I also have some unread books I bought at cons because I saw the author at a con event.
The eBook reader has definitely helped with this problem. When I have the ability to buy a book in 10 seconds, there is no need to buy it so that I’ll have it when I want it. In a couple of cases, I did buy in advance of need because the books were on sale. So now the pile of dead tree editions has mostly quit growing now, but the eBook reader also means that I spend less time retiring the pile.
Crazy what people will do to get on a list. Write a good book and have an audience would seem to me a smarter way to go. Can’t imagine the harm having this sort of thing publicized will do to ones credibility.
I worked at Borders in its waning days. One of the tactics company leadership was employing to keep publishers shipping books was to pick a couple of selected titles as “make books”–books Borders would get on the best-seller lists. Every employee was required to carry around a copy of the book and hand-sell it to every customer. Resulted in little old ladies getting pitched to buy “Chuck Norris vs Mr T” and all the Tom Clancy readers getting the hard sell for memoirs of female breast cancer survivors.
But it sold enough of the selected titles that Borders did put those specific books on the best-seller lists.
I’ve noticed the same tactic with a local author who sells Oriental healing methods. If you can prove you bought X number of copies of his latest book (ostensibly to pass out to the needy), you get a consultation, in tiers from basic evaluation of a problem all the way up to personal spiritual intervention of various types. We frequently receive boxes with 2 or 3 dozen copies of his books ‘donated’ by someone who wants his attention.
Political BS tombs are commonly raised though the bulk purchase buy groups friendly to the dingbats writing them – I one case I am aware of the publisher ended up buying a very large number of its books & dumping them.
In the political arena, this is one of many things going on at the Tea Party group FreedomWorks. The current FreedomWorks president wrote a book, using the group’s resources, which was then sold. The group also bought up a bunch of copies of the book themselves to drive up its position on bestseller lists.
This is all pretty standard, except that the president owned all of the rights to the book and was personally profiting from those purchases. Normally the book is used to raise money for the group itself, which is legal. Non-profits doing this for the profit of an individual is a huge no-no.
Several of these comments have smooshed together in my brain to remind me that when Borders was going out of business, I went to my local one to see what was left in the 90% off sale. (My BFF was purchasing some shelves; I took a gander at the security cameras).
What was left was mostly right-wing fulminations in hardback. For every battered, crumpled book of another sort, there were 3 pristine copies of the latest RNC punditry tome. Those stayed to the very end and literally could not be given away in the last hours the store was open, though the last employees standing certainly tried.
There’s another author here on WordPress who’s recently made various best-seller lists the hard way, by writing stuff people like and blogging entertainingly. Search for MediumLarge and enjoy the geekery and cat stuff. (I have no financial or personal interest)
re: BFE. I too read that thing in high school. 1985, I think. Big sticker on it proclaiming “soon to be a major motion picture.” LOL.
Found it years (decades really) later unpacking books in a new home. Started reading it and just laughed out loud. It was so bad. I had to read some to my wife. Lots of laughs.
Thanks John, for not sucking.
Where there are measurements that impact people’s incomes, there will be people willing to game the measurements. So I guess I’m not surprised.
And I guess this is as good a place as any to say thank you to you, John, for writing good stuff both here and in your books. I read a lot of Sci Fi and fantasy in my pre-teen and teen years, but I’d drifted away. I found your blog via a blog roll, and started reading because your name sounded really, really familiar and I was sure I’d eventually figure out why. I got hooked on your blog because it is consistently worth my time, so I figured I’d try a book, and it was worth my time, too. And now I’m reading Sci Fi and fantasy again regularly, and I’m happier for it. So thanks. Seriously.
(And I DID eventually figure out why your name sounded familiar, when you posted an old picture of you from college, and I finally remembered that you were the editor of my college newspaper. A bit of an anti-climax, really, but there you go.)
So if I want to sell tens of thousands of copies of my book, I just buy them myself… Who’d have thought it could be so simple?
But it’s easy to see the why. Writing a good book that people will want to read isn’t quite enough; people need to know about it in the first place. (One reason why John’s Big Ideas posts are so valuable to authors, for example.) The writers using this service are apparently treating the bestseller lists as part of their platform. It’s a really expensive way to go, and the WSJ article suggests that it’s not all that effective; the $75K that one author spent might just as easily have gone toward ordinary advertising rather than stealth marketing.
I’m glad of that. I wouldn’t want to read advice about writing a book that starts out, “First, you need a stake of $50,000 to $100,000…”
My first job at Penguin was ‘special sales,’ which included this sort of thing — a guy orders 20,000 copies of his own book to sell at his seminars, where he gets $100/head because he’s on the NYT bestsellers list. Advice to the young: Don’t go into the profession of a thing you love. It’s disillusioning. :)
I heard about this in business school in 1997. If they haven’t fixed it yet, they won’t ever.
Bestseller lists, especially the NY TIMES Bestseller list, are important for those looking to get well-paying speaking gigs, mainly – well, that and promotional bragging rights (“NY TIMES Bestselling Author!” moves a fair number of books, Tammy’s found).
I like your predictions, hope they come true!
Trackably Significant Numbers is totally the name of my next band.
And you’re welcome, John. You keep pumping out excellent words, I’ll keep contributing to your Australian sales.