For Sale: NYT Bestseller Status

Moving the needle on your book sales is a chore. It’s hard enough to write a book, but selling it takes things to a whole new level. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could just publish your book and have it appear on the New York Times bestseller list without making any effort at all?

An appearance of your book on the NYT bestseller list is a sentinel event. It is one of the highest bars to hurdle. You’d be up there with the big names in traditional publishing. You’d become a household name. The money and recognition would start pouring in. Steven Spielberg will make your book into a movie, Oprah will want to interview you, and [insert name of latest sex symbol here] will want to have your babies!

After all, an appearance on the prestigious New Your Times bestseller list must mean you’ve sold lots and lots of books. It’s probably one of the books everyone is reading, right?

That’s a nice dream. If you like it, I advise you to read no further.

It turns out you can hire a marketing firm that will buy enough of your books to game the sales rocketing you (albeit temporarily) onto the NYT bestseller list. This article in the Wall Street Journal tells the whole ugly story. In essence, you hire said marketing firm. They order enough of your books to generate a significant sales spike. They then return the books. Of course, the author also pays for the books the marketing firm buys, as well as a a few thousand dollars for the service.

So, by gaming the system, the author can claim NYT bestseller status. Presumably, that still has some cachet, but it’s all fake. No fame and fortune, no Spielberg, no Oprah, no babies with the sex symbol. In the end analysis, you sold a bunch of books to yourself at a huge mark-up to get your name temporarily added to a list published in a newspaper.

This story is similar in a sense to the sock-puppet/bulk purchase reviews controversy. Both these little number-rigging games appear to have been around for a long time, doubtlessly contrived and employed by those revered stalwarts of literary stewardship, the traditional publishing houses. Still, it’s not really news until an indie does it. Because, you know, there must be some explanation for the success of an indie book.

I was recently exchanging e-mails with a “hybrid” publisher (that’s what vanity presses now like to be called). I had declined their request to be featured on IU because I prefer not to send authors in the direction of the vanity model. In response, the representative of this company sent me a response indicating their company had put “dozens” of authors on the NYT bestseller lists.

To be fair, I tried to find some of the bestsellers published by the company in question to see for myself. A considerable amount of digging produced one book published by them. I checked its Amazon page and found it had a grand total of seven reviews. I wonder how a book with only seven reviews made it onto the NYT bestseller list?

Maybe this is just how the game is played. I suppose maybe it always was this dirty. It is discouraging to think the merits of a book have so little to do with its apparent success. I guess Oprah won’t be calling anytime soon.

Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

25 thoughts on “For Sale: NYT Bestseller Status”

  1. What some people won’t do to be famous? I guess I will never be because I certainly don’t have the money to do all that upfront buying, do you? And even if I did have that money, its going to get me out of debt first–$50,000 will about do it. Thanks for cluing us in on this Stephen. Sounds like this may have been going on since the dawn of publishing, someone always finds a way to game any system. Sad, sad, sad.

  2. I think our only weapon is to write good books. There have always been corrupt people on every field. There is nothing we can do to stop them by honest means. Unfortunate, but a sad fact of life.

    1. Sadly I don’t think even that will do it, there are many good books that have been passed by. I think it needs a good book and good advertising.

      1. I’m not sure the advertising does much any more. From what I’ve been reading lately, word of mouth seems to be the only real path to success. Of course finding the right people to make that word of mouth happen is still the big stumbling block.

  3. This is so sad. But mostly I’m sad for the desperate people who see no breach of integrity by employing such methods. Of course gaming any system has been going on since the beginning of time. And it never ends well… since the beginning of time. So there’s that, at least. That special place in hell for them….

      1. Frankly, I think they’re getting what they deserve: two seconds on a “special” list for tons of their time, effort, and most especially cash. I hope it was worth it to them! As far as I’m concerned, hell is paying that bill at the end, and still being a crappy writer! 😉

  4. Incredible. Thanks, Stephen, for this news. It makes me smile because I now know I have 5 times more reviews on Amazon than a NYT Best Seller Author and 6-7 times more on Goodreads. Yuppiee (and I haven’t spent a dime for those 🙂 either )

  5. Oh Lord. The whole publishing industry is becoming a sham. Guess the Pulitzer and Booker Prizes are the only things left to aspire to. Please, please, Stephen, don’t tell me there’s any dirt to dig up there.

  6. This has been a practice in the corporate world for decades. A CEO hires a ghost writer to write a book about him/her (amazing) and about the company (glowing). The corporation then buys enough books to get onto the NYT and Amazon Best Seller List. They reprint the jacket announcing ” NYT and Amazon Best Seller!” The books begin to sell on their on. They give the books they bought away to employees, to vendors, to customers, and use them as PR pieces. The company writes the whole thing off as marketing expense.

    I know a company that sells this whole process plus a PR campaigne for over $50,000 plus the cost of the books..

  7. So True, Bill Stephens..It’s not as though the bestseller for sale thing is anything new….and uhh J.P. the prize game isn’t exactly squeaky clean, either…Just sayin’
    The key lies in the resurrection of the solid midlist. Which is definitely happening through indie efforts. The irony being that most indies believe they can top the charts by giving titles away…Each approach, whether paid for bestseller, or free for all rating is equally unrealistic when it comes to sustaining a viable business model…

    1. At least giving books away is done in the hopes of attracting readership. Buying bestseller status is more like proclaiming a huge readership when none really exists.

  8. In a curious way, I think this can serve to remind us that there is not so much distance (in quality) as some fear between good indie books and the ones gamed up by the publishing houses. I think it shows we do have a fighting chance.

  9. Sigh. Blame it on the “15 minutes of fame” and “I’ve got mine” culture that we live in. Personally, I would rather have a genuine readership that is earned than a fake one purchased. Besides, in my mind, traveling is a much better way to use that kind of dough–I guarantee it’ll inspire you to write more books 🙂 And you get a two-fer!

    Great post, Stephen.

  10. Great article. I had no idea this went on. I think it undermines the readers ability to share their honest thoughts about good books they read through their reviews. There’s nothing quite as rewarding for an author as to see the reviews pouring in and readers asking for more your books. It’s a high I can’t even describe in words and I would be cheating myself out of that feeling if I knew I had paid for it. Watching your sales go from 20 or so a month, to a couple hundred, to several thousand a month is an elation and challenge to complete that next book that every author dreams of. Thanks Stephen!

    1. Perhaps this should be under a separate blog, but I agree with acflory. Paying for advertising may not get you a return on your investment and that’s a gamble most of us can’t afford. Word of mouth…and good reviews is what generates sales, although I believe these two go hand-in-hand. I don’t mind sharing what has worked for me, and I hope continues to work for me and will work for you. With the 1st book in a series published through Smashwords and Amazon, I was getting 20, 30, then 40 sales a month at Amazon, but that came only after the book had been sitting on a cybershelf for about 3 months. I was reading every article I could find on what generated sales for successful Indie authors and how they got their books noticed. First, I created a book trailer and that helped boost my sales. Then something occurred to me. What about using real people’s names in my books? I’ve never seen where anyone had talked about that. Sure, my books are a work of fiction but who’s to say I can’t use real people’s names. No one! Being an Indie author gives me latitude I couldn’t have with traditional publishing. I posted a comment on my Facebook page asking if anyone would want me to use their names in my next book. Within minutes, three people came back saying, “Use mine…and make me young and beautiful. LOL! I know readers like easy to pronounce names; I do myself so I don’t stumble over a character’s name, but one lady’s name I couldn’t even pronounce – a friend of a friend. I thought, why not? She was kind enough to give me permission so I’ll use it. After the 2nd book in the series was published, my sales escalated. The 1st book I priced at $.99 when I published the 2nd at $2.99. These people posted my book cover on their Facebook pages and told everyone they knew that they were in a book. (Because I don’t know them, I matched the characters in my book to represent what I thought the people were like in real life based on their Facebook profiles.) My sales went into the hundreds, then thousands – each month going up and up. I was shocked and nearly fell out of my chair. I thought there had been a mistake and I even contacted Amazon. But there was no mistake – it worked. My books were getting noticed and selling through word of mouth. The reviews started coming in on the first book; most good at 4 & 5 stars, a few not so good, but at least I was getting reviews and I know my books are not for everyone. Because it’s a series, people were buying the first book and then going back for the second. The only drawback is that even though the 2nd book has been purchased and downloaded it may sit in someone’s ereader for months before they read it and write a review…but hey, I’m not complaining. I tried several different ideas to generate sales and this was by far the most effective. People like seeing their names in books and they will tell EVERYONE.

  11. So when I win the lottery I can get someone to ghostwrite my story, buy the books in bulk, and be a best seller. Cool beans. Or I could sit my butt in a chair, write some good stories, have them edited, get cool covers, and put them up for sale and let the world decide if I’m any good. I don’t know the 1st method doesn’t hurt my ego any… It’s a sad, sad world out there.

  12. I am in KDP Select with the 1st book in each of my 2 series, but the second book I am not. I have a couple promo days for the first book and give away a few thousand and my sales spike for the novel for about a week, then the sales pick up for book 2. It’s all about getting the word out there for me, because otherwise nobody would know there was a boring little girl with big dreams living in Nowhere, Arkansas. Would love to hear of a better way if you know of one. I suppose I could commit a crime worthy of National news, then shout to the media once they are tucking my head in the back seat of the cop’s car, “My name is K.S. Haigwood and I write really cool books!” Think that would work? I haven’t ruled it out yet. I could do a few years if I knew I would be rich once I got out. LOL. I’M JOKING! Close your mouth.

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