The Bestseller Illusion

When I was a student at USC (yes, during the Middle Ordovician period) one of my English professors told the class that Erich Siegel’s contract with Paramount called for the studio to buy enough copies of his novel Love Story to make it a bestseller. Is that true? I have no idea. Love Story spent 41 weeks on the NY Times Bestseller list — how much help did it need? But he told the story and I repeat it here to show you people have speculated about ways to game the bestseller lists for a long time.

Actual proof that a book’s ranking was a result of manipulation is hard to come by. That’s what makes Jeffrey Trachtenberg’s Wall Street Journal article about ResultSource, a firm that orchestrates bestseller status for clients, unusual – he got an author to go on record.

He said ResultSource told him it could arrange the purchase of a quantity of books in such a way that they were counted toward national best-seller lists.

While Mr. Kaplan wrote the initial check for the books, he got reimbursed through preorders from his clients, he says.

“They use that check to buy the books,” he says. “I had a big network of clients that I’d been consulting for, and I was able to presell enough books to them to get the funding to have ResultSource buy the books.”

Mr. Kaplan purchased about 2,500 books through ResultSource, paying about $22 a book, including shipping, for a total of about $55,000.

Mr. Kaplan says he also paid ResultSource a fee in the range of $20,000 to $30,000.

How exactly ResultSource stages its purchases to get them tallied by statkeepers isn’t revealed – bulk sales and quantities purchased by the authors are ordinarily excluded by services like Nielsen BookScan.

In the days of Love Story it would have taken the bankroll of a movie studio to buy enough books to create a bestseller. Now the market has shriveled to a point that individual authors can engage in this strategy. The 10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing tells how few copies most books sell —

4.  Average book sales are shockingly small, and falling fast.
Combine the explosion of books published with the declining total sales and you get shrinking sales of each new title.  According to BookScan – which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books (including – only 263 million books were sold in 2011 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined (Publishers Weekly, January 2, 2012).  The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.  And very few titles are big sellers.  Only 62 of 1,000 business books released in 2009 sold more than 5,000 copies, according to an analysis by the Codex Group (New York Times, March 31, 2010).

In that environment, a book that sells 2,500 pre-ordered copies must stand out like a searchlight on a desert night. All the more so if the copies seem to have been ordered by 2,500 different people.

Not that the $85,000 spent in the WSJ example is trivial. Why would anyone spend that much? The appeal on ResultSource’s website suggests its customers are authors who treat paying for bestseller status as an investment in a career speaking about corporate leadership as much as in future book sales.

Imagine: Your Book, a Bestseller
What would a Bestseller do for your brand? Your business? Your future? Publishing a book builds credibility, but having a Bestseller initiates incredible growth—exponentially increasing the demand for your thought leadership, skyrocketing your speaking itinerary and value, giving you a national (even global) spotlight, and solidifying your author brand as the foremost leader in your niche.

Since being quoted in the WSJ article Soren Kaplan has written two posts for his blog about life as the poster boy for this practice, “Debunking the Bestseller” (Part 1 and Part 2). He thinks a very a large number of business book authors are gaming the bestseller lists:

Given what I’ve learned from working with ResultSource, the marketing company who’s literally written the book on bestseller campaigns, I estimate that a minimum of 20-30 percent of all business books on the bestseller list in a given week are “SpikeSellers” – books that achieve enough of a short-term sales boost through orchestrated pre-orders to hit the bestseller list, only to fade away into obscurity.  And my estimate is conservative.  A few years ago, Todd Sattersten of the BizBookLab conducted an analysis of the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list and found that “60% of the titles that appeared on the list one week were gone the next.”

Since Nielsen BookScan compiles its data based on weekly sales numbers, SpikeSellers stack the deck in favor of those authors and marketers who are able to cram significant sales into a single week, usually the first week after the book’s publication date.  While not “illegal” in the sense of the law, they usurp the assumptions held by the general public – that the books on bestseller lists are quality reads that represent what’s trending in society.

Why is this issue so gut-wrenching for so many?  Easy answer:  one more trusted institution in our society has been debunked.

“Trusted institution” may be a bit dramatic. I have about the same amount of faith in the credibility of bestseller lists as I have in toothpaste commercials: it’s not a very high pedestal they’re falling from. He is right, however, that I will never again look at an authors’ one-week-and-done appearance on the NY Times list without wondering how it was accomplished. Unfortunately, that will make it harder to cheer for the writers who do it.

[Thanks to John Mansfield for the story.]

2 thoughts on “The Bestseller Illusion

  1. Mike:

    When Larry and I hit the bestseller lists last October with BOWL OF HEAVEN, we learned that it takes tens of thousands of books sold in a week to get on the fiction list.

    The crucial point is getting those copies into the stores so they can be sold. E-books get around this and are increasingly a way to feel the pulse of the public. That helped us and continues so–sf readers are more likely to be e-readers. So sf gets an advantage in this arena, red in tooth and claw.

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