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How to buy your way onto the bestseller list

First good reviews went on sale. Now a marketing firm is charging thousands to buy copies of books in order to artificially place them on bestseller lists.

By Husna Haq / February 27, 2013

“Bought bestsellers” may have strong debuts but sales generally plunge thereafter.

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The fastest way to get your book on a bestseller list? Buy your way on.

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That’s according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal outlining the dark practice of buying bestselling status. According to the article, at least one marketing firm, ResultSource, charges client-authors thousands of dollars to buy up books en masse ahead of a book’s publication date, creating a sales spike that lands the title on coveted bestseller lists.

Phony? You bet.

The paper outlines the story of Soren Kaplan, a first-time business author who used the service to ensure his book, “Leapfrogging,” would attain star status.

“Mr. Kaplan purchased about 2,500 books through ResultSource, paying about $22 a book, including shipping, for a total of about $55,000,” the Journal reports, adding that he also “paid ResultSource a fee in the range of $20,000 to $30,000.”

Thanks to ResultSource’s efforts, his book sold 3,000 copies in its first week, enough to hit No. 3 on the Journal's hardcover business best-seller list. (It later hit No. 1 on BarnesandNoble.com.) Sales plummeted after that, dropping off to about 1,000 in the six months following.

The “bought bestsellers” are easy to spot, following a pattern of strong debuts and plunging sales thereafter. As the Journal reported, one title debuted on the WSJ’s own bestseller list, only to see a 99 percent drop in sales the following week. Another soared to the top of the list only to have more copies returned than sold – just a week later. Clearly the work of a marketing firm vacuuming up books en masse to ensure bestseller status, even if real people weren’t actually buying all those books.

“To add further insult to injury, ResultSource openly lists on its website a number of high-profile titles that have bought these “launch campaigns,” as though this practice of buying a spot on a bestseller list is not devious,” writes Good E-Reader.

No surprise, the publishing industry isn’t pleased.

The practice, writes the WSJ, causes “discomfort among some in the publishing industry who worry that preorders are being corralled and bulk purchases are being made to appear like single sales to qualify for inclusion in best-seller lists, which normally wouldn't count such sales.”

At this point, we’re wondering what a wad of cash won’t buy in the book biz.

First it was book reviews, with some authors hiring private reviewers for a dime to churn out hundreds of positive reviews of their books on Amazon.com and other sites. That mushroomed into competitions between bulk-reviewers, for who could spit out the most reviews in a day or week. Things got uglier when some authors began paying reviewers-for-hire to write nasty, one-star reviews for competing titles.

And now this, that authors can buy their way onto bestseller lists, too. Welcome to the new frontier of publishing, folks. We’re disgusted by the practice, which misleads readers and gives undeserved distinctions to authors.

We’re not yet sure how honest authors and readers can counter the practice, but Good E-Reader has one idea: “Fortunately, the single most effective source of book discovery according to a large-scale survey by Goodreads is still word of mouth recommendation by ones own circle of friends. With reviews and bestseller lists being transformed into nothing more paid for marketing scams by people looking to make a quick buck, hopefully that word of mouth can travel far enough to make a difference.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor contributor.

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