buying your way onto bestseller lists

In a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal, long-time publishing correspondent Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg outed book PR firm ResultSource for engineering appearances on bestseller lists for clients’ books.

The method the ResultSource was using is tried-and-true in the world of business books: They bought their way onto these lists.

In a dramatic example of PR bravado, UCLA Health System paid ResultSource to mail a copy of a book about them to every hospital CEO in the USA. Instead of having approximately 13,000 books printed then shipped via a fulfillment service, UCLA Health System paid ResultSource to purchase these books at retail price in a way that counts toward bestseller sales.

There are so many ways to dislike this marketing plan. Let’s take a look at some of the relevant facts and issues.

  • It takes 3,000 hardcover sales in one week to make The Wall Street Journal‘s business bestseller list, and as much as 5,000/week to make The New York Times business besteller list.
  • Bestseller lists do not count bulk sales. Corporations buying their own books and then giving them away is a common example of bulk sales that no longer count toward bestseller lists. However, if 500 unique employees at a corporation use their own accounts to make 500 individual purchases of a book, those would all count toward bestseller sales.
  • Neither reporter Trachtenberg nor ResultSource principal Kevin Small would detail what one client called their “secret sauce” for how they get the sales to count toward bestseller lists. I’ve been in on a few of these campaigns, though, so I’ll spill a few details.
  • One part of the secret sauce is the way Amazon.com counts bestsellers. I suspect a sale counts if it is a single copy of a title. One way of rigging the sales, then, would be to open hundreds of Amazon accounts for the purpose or ordering a single book on the same day.
  • Another part of the sauce likely is that sales of multiple copies of a book will count toward bestseller sales if they are shipped to unique addresses. This would give a company like ResultSource a back door for engineering bestseller status: load up the mailing list and have the retailer send one book to everyone on the list.
  • As an Amazon Prime member, shipping is free on many books stocked by Amazon. This dramatically reduces the cost of using Amazon.com to do the fulfillment when mailing out free books.

This Strategy is Expensive

If these sales are made to look like retail sales, they are ringing up at 65% of list price (a typical retail discount). For the book, Prescription for Excellence: Leadership Lessons for Creating a World Class Customer Experience from UCLA Health System, Amazon shows a list price of $28 and a discounted price of $18.29 (35% off).

It likely cost the UCLA Health System $182,900 to buy 10,000 copies of this book through Amazon — that’s before taxes and shipping. It would cost them about $25,000 to have that many copies printed. You’re looking at a minimum $100,000 added cost to engineer a one-week appearance on the bestseller list.

Prescription for Excellence sold 13,000 copies the first week and less than 500 copies a week thereafter. In the two years since its publication date, it has sold a total of 28,000 copies (including digital sales). Most likely, more than half the sales of the printed book have been to the UCLA Health System itself.

The UCLA Health System website states they are “owned and operated by the people of California…all 38 million of them.” I’m sure the people of California are thrilled to know the UCLA Health System spent twice as much as it would have cost to print and mail these books just to engineer a 7-day appearance on a bestseller list. Hopefully, the results of their medical studies are not rigged like their appearance on the bestseller lists.

I worked on a campaign to get a book about homelessness into the offices of every U.S. Representative and Senator (535 copies). We considered purchasing the books through Amazon.com and letting them do the fulfillment, but it was one-quarter the cost if we bought them from the publisher and had the publisher’s fulfillment center do the shipping.

It doesn’t seem right to take money earmarked for the homeless (or for health care) and use it for self-aggrandizement. I can understand lobbying with a book. I’ve promoted books on immigration reform, health care reform, financial reform, relations between the U.S. and Israel — you name the issue — and I’ve never seen a client make a huge buy of their own book just to crack the bestseller lists.

Amazon Bestseller Campaign

I have worked with authors who conducted “Amazon Bestseller Campaigns.” I’ve never produced one myself, but I know how they work. You put together a mailing to, say, 50,000 people, offering incentives if they purchase the client’s book on a specific day.

You round up incentives for the mailing with this sort of pitch: “Hey, do you want to be part of a big 50,000-person mailing for your services? I need you to give me something I can give away, such as a free consultation or a white paper or a sample of some kind. And then you have to send the same mailing to your list as everyone else is sending to their lists.”

If you get 10 sponsors, and they each have an average of 5,000 names on their mailing list, you have a 50,000-name list and you’re mailing will include 10 incentives to purchase the book on the specified day. That’s the “Amazon Bestseller Campaign” in a nutshell: bribe people to buy your book on a specific day.

If only the fish were more reliable. There’s no guarantee the fish will take the bait and buy on the magic day. Therefore, it’s wise for the marketer to set aside a portion of the fee to purchase copies for themselves — to make sure that some sales transpire.

That concept has evolved into ResultSource. Soren Kaplan, the author of Leapfrogging, paid ResultSource $22/copy to buy 2,500 copies of his book the week it debuted. He also paid roughly $10/copy in fees, for a total bestseller campaign cost of about $80,000. Sales have been less than 100 copies/week since the book published.

Amazon Bestseller Party

The problem with engineered bestsellers is, the higher they go, the harder they crash. Amazon bestsellers maybe sustained for only a matter of hours before they plummet like a skydiver with a broken parachute.

It’s often easier and less expensive to engineer real sales than fake sales. It does require some creativity, though, which is sadly in short supply. I had a client who once asked me to round-up 20 positive Amazon reviews for his book. I told him my firm doesn’t do that. He persisted that he needed to “do something” and did I know a firm that would generate those reviews for him.

“Here’s what you do,” I said. “You’re having a coming out party for your book, right? Many of your family and friends will be there, and they will expect a free copy of your book. You want to be sure you collect a review for every free copy you give away.”

“How do I do that,” he asked.

“You have an assistant with a laptop or tablet computer open to Amazon.com, and you ask everyone to please take a few moments to share their thoughts about your book on Amazon. If you have booze at the event, you should have no trouble collecting 20 positive reviews.”

Call it an Amazon Bestseller Party!

Almost any stupid marketing stunt you can think of, Orobora can think of three better ones that pass the smell test, won’t backfire on your brand, and have a real chance of making a lasting impression with your target audience.

Despite giving away over 10,000 copies of their Prescription for Excellence, the UCLA Health System book has only five reviews at Amazon in two years. There were probably more than five people in the meeting where this marketing campaign was approved. If they had a meeting and everyone present posted a review, UCLA could have gotten five good reviews in five minutes. For more creative ideas about intelligent ways you can establish thought leadership in your field subscribe to Continuous Improvement: The Newsletter of Orobora.

 

Source: “The Mystery of the Book Sales Spike: How Are Some Authors Landing On Best-Seller Lists? They’re Buying Their Way,” by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 21, 2013.

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