Buy Your Way To The Top

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There’s a (not so) dirty little secret that authors don’t like to tell…

You can buy your way to the top. Literally. The Wall Street Journal ran an article yesterday titled, The Mystery of the Book Sales Spike. It’s a story that creeps on to the radar every so often, but it’s a practice that is deployed by a lot of business book authors that you may know and love (and a lot of others that you never hear from). From the article: "It isn’t uncommon for a business book to land on best-seller lists only to quickly drop off. But even a brief appearance adds permanent luster to an author’s reputation, greasing the skids for speaking and consulting engagements… But the short moment of glory doesn’t always occur by luck alone… the authors hired a marketing firm that purchased books ahead of publication date, creating a spike in sales that landed titles on the lists. The marketing firm, San Diego-based ResultSource, charges thousands of dollars for its services in addition to the cost of the books, according to authors interviewed… Precisely how it goes about that is unclear, though, and there is 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."

Should I buy my way to the top for CTRL ALT Delete?

I almost worked with one of these organizations for my first book, Six Pixels of Separation, but I opted not to. I probably should have. Are you surprised by my answer? See, there is a world of difference between someone buying 10,000 books and dumping them into a landfill just to hit a bestseller’s list so they can command better speaking fees or consulting gigs, from the hard working speakers who can genuinely sell a lot of books at the bulk sales level and get no recognition for it. My first book came out in 2009 and ranked #13 on 800 CEO Read‘s The Bestsellers of 2010 list. For my dollar, this is one of the most important lists to watch because 800 CEO Read handles most of the major bulk orders for business books. I worked extremely hard to book, travel and go to corporations all over the world to promote my book. Having these organizations buy my book for every one of their attendees seemed like a more much strategic move than trying to convince individuals – one by one – to take a chance and buy my book. I found myself getting a handful of engagements and selling thousands of copies of my book. The problem is that the charts that the public acknowledges as "credible" (New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, etc…) won’t count them as sold.

It’s not just business books.

Brands buys fans, friends and followers online, all of the time. Some in a very strategic and real way, and some are buying vapor, fake accounts and other stuff that creates an artificial bump in the numbers. We’re marketers. What we do is pay to capture attention. The trick is in figuring out if that attention is authentic, if people care, if they connect to the message, if they tell others about, and if they become loyal to the brand. There are varying levels of intensity and nuances with that last sentence that are dependant on the brands positioning and consumer needs, but those are the overall goals. So, if I sold 15,000 copies of a book to 15,000 individuals who purchased them on Amazon or at Barnes & Noble or if five organizations each bought 3000 copies of the book to give to employees and customers, what is the real difference? If you engage with Facebook in a fan acquisition strategy and include reach within your Facebook marketing dollars, what is the real difference from just posting to corporate page and hoping that your ideas spread on their own?

If it’s ethical. It works.

My understanding from the conversations I have had with businesses like ResultSource is that they help take those bulk sales and ensure that instead of it being counted as one, lump bulk purchase, that each individual gets a physical book that is then reported back to the bestseller’s list. It seems somewhat ironic that the work that they do is considered questionable, when it’s really the mystery and lack of transparency behind the reporting and building of the bestseller’s lists that should be put into question. You see, brands buy fans on Facebook, Twitter and beyond all of the time. But brands can’t keep fans. They have to earn them. The acquisition strategy seems somewhat inconsequential against the actual customer outcome, doesn’t it? So, a handful of business books rocket to the top of the bestsellers’ list and then the following week, they have all but disappeared. Why is this an issue? It’s only an issue for the author who wasn’t able to capitalize on that momentum to truly earn the exposure to new readers that the attention may have garnered. No, I don’t plan on using any of these services for CTRL ALT Delete in May. Personally, I’d love to be on the top of all of these lists, but that’s just because of vanity. Personally, I just want the ideas in the book to spread. That’s where my heart lies, and I know that my professional lifestyles means that the majority of the sales and spreading of the ideas in CTRL ALT Delete won’t count to any list, because a big focus will be on corporate events and bulk purchases.

There’s nothing wrong with buying your way to the top. The challenge is in staying up there.


  1. Every time I see someone hit the best seller list I wondered how much they paid for it.
    I hate that is the way I think, but as an author myself I know how this game is played and I’ve seen SO many people buy their way to the list.
    Work for a big company and it is easy for them to buy a closet full of books because it looks great for them and you. It happens more than most people realize.
    Buying your way into the airport bookstores and on to the front tables at the bookstores is another part of the game.
    Would I love what comes with being able to put NYT Bestseller next to my name? Hell yes! Will I do it by playing this game? Hell no!

  2. So much to say about this. And yes, you nailed it: the way we score books by retail sales doesn’t work any more, with ebooks and direct-from-publisher sales and so on. It’s no wonder that these companies have arisen to make new attention look like old shelf sales.
    Ben and I discussed this approach. We’d love to have “best seller” after our names. And I wish there were a harvesting tool that could somehow wrap up all the positive feedback we get from tweets, event attendees, etc., and attach that as “collective proof” of our book’s value.
    Bottom line: we’re using an antiquated measure as a proxy of a valuable metric, and paying the price.
    And no, we didn’t use them either. Though a surprising number of people we know did.

  3. Great read Mitch, it seems that the publication and music industry have a lot in common. Yet despite the numbers I will never believe that Drake is more popular than the Beatles. I bought Six Pixels in 09 and since have bought many many copies to hand out to clients as the “Bible” for their social inquiries. All the best with the new book and good on you for doing it the right way. If you make it to the top by cheating you’ll never know if it was the content or the money that got you there.

  4. As someone with their first book coming out, this question has been on my radar for the last couple of years.
    On the one hand, as a marketer you can look at the problem like this “What’s the difference in this vs. buying an ad on Google to force my way into your attention space rather than hoping for organic SEO results?”
    That sounds plausible, logical even. But I’ll tell you where the logic breaks down. Obfuscation and intent.
    If my intent is to deceive then yes, there is absolutely something wrong with it. I think you’re being a bit kind by saying that most of these services are there simply to replace bulk sales reporting with individual sales reporting that gets counted toward bestseller status. I know quite a few folks who have used these services and that isn’t how I would describe it at all.
    If I place an ad on Google, you know it’s an ad. It’s an understood relationship between the customer, the middle man, and the seller. There’s a reason that Google attempts to do everything possible to ensure that you can’t game SEO, trust. Without it, their value is useless. This is the same reason that NYT attempts to vary its store reporting structure (much less successfully).
    Now, if I’m a business book author, and that bestseller list is meant to be a proxy for ‘quality’ that allows me to get more gigs, charge more for them, etc. then the only question you have to ask is this: “Would I tell the person I’m charging that all those people didn’t really buy my book due to the quality of it, but rather I bought my way onto the list so that you’d know who I am?”. If you wouldn’t tell them, then I think you’ve got your answer. I don’t think you can deflect all of the responsibility onto the NYT for not making the system unable to be gamed.
    If you cross a line as a magazine publisher by making an ‘advertorial’ so obfuscated that the reader can’t tell the difference between it and journalism have you crossed a line? I think so. Because the *intent* was to deceive, the line between paid and earned media was purposefully hidden beyond a reasonable understanding of the consumer.
    And I think that ‘reasonable understanding’ bit is important. It’s like that business radio channel on an airline flight. Most of us have a sense that the majority of that content is paid media and not true journalistic content. But the curation is also done well enough that it still provides value. It’s a murky, murky world, but “because something works” or “everyone else is doing it and I have to compete” has never been justification for doing it.
    So to your point about “there’s nothing wrong with buying your way to the top”, I think in this case that’s not true. Because by the time someone has paid your higher fees, or booked you for an engagement, or whatever *because* of simply being on a supposedly meaningful list the transaction has already been made. You’ve already sold the snake oil, and even if you deliver an amazing service with more than enough value to justify the cost, you still stood on the shoulders of deception. Some folks won’t care about that, I do however, and I know you do too. If it makes you feel slimy, then you can justify it 8 ways from Sunday but it’s still slimy.

  5. I’d encourage you to work with local booksellers your communities or in the cities where you are doing events. Many are pros at doing offsite events and would love to sell books at conferences, at corporations, and at speaking gigs. Many of these booksellers also have corporate sales programs.
    I remember attending an event in Boston a few years ago that featured no fewer than 5 speakers who had books published by one publisher, and there was not any way for the more than 300 attendees to purchase physical books and have them signed by the author speakers. A local bookseller would have been thrilled to have that business, but there seems to be almost no connection between the two worlds.

  6. Mitch!
    You are someone we respect, and speaking for the crowd here, we’re insanely proud that you didn’t buy your way onto the list.
    The list is corrupt. That’s obvious. So we should abandon it, not split hairs on the ethics. CC, as far as I’m concerned, you ARE a NY Times bestselling author, the Times just doesn’t know it. Every week, the Times prints lists it knows aren’t correct. Pages and pages of stuff that’s blatantly incorrect. It’s sad.
    It’s like paying a bribe to open a store in India. As soon as the people who stand for something stop paying, the society improves. You’ve made a huge mark for yourself, and you did it without cheating.

  7. i gettit – having spent 25 years in the music business its no surprise – but, i’m wondering – that although the FIRST book is a 3 year SLOG – (I took boxes of my first book Tour:Smart out in my van and did 3 to 4 events a day for years!) then surely the follow up will have the benefit of a more compressed sell to all of the fans you have accumulated?
    I remember Seth Godin sayng somewhere that it didn’t get easier for him until he had 12 books….i’m hoping it gets easier with the third – we did a terrific kickstarter campaign t help pay for it and generate advance publicity

  8. You know I agree, CC, in full. When I was told as an author the truth about maybe seeing my book in airport bookstores, I was floored. And when my editor told me the truth about the “bestseller” lists and how they can be had for cash, I was floored again.
    I’ll take steady sales of my book a year after publishing and packaged books along with my speaking gigs. To fork over cash for a “list” to be added by my name? That’s me selling my conscience out. A pretty hefty check to write.

  9. “Bottom line: we’re using an antiquated measure as a proxy of a valuable metric, and paying the price.” -couldn’t have been better summarized. A pity that every supposed measure of influence (based on numbers) can be gamed.

  10. Mitch, what a super insightful post!
    It’s maddening to me that books sold by the hundreds and placed into the hands of willing and excited readers aren’t counted toward any kind of “social cred” simply because the purchase decision was made by a few people inside a company. This is especially frustrating since, like it or not, these various forms of “social cred” increase the platform to impact more people with the message. It’s an ethical snake eating its own tail.
    I applaud you for your choice. At the end of the day, social cred is proven by lives impacted and people mobilized, regardless of what the lists say.

  11. It’s been interesting to see the impact of this WSJ “news” among people that care about business book publishing. Those seeing the curtain pulled back for the first time are saying the book publishing business needs to change. Those that knew this was happening all along are saying the Bestseller lists are the ones that need to change.
    Ebooks, bulk sales, etc. are all individual books & meters of publishing success that are not recognized by these lists (NYT, WSJ, PW). RSI has adapted to the lists, which is why thy’re in business. If the lists adapt to business book publishing, the buy your way advantage disappears.

  12. Apparently, the site did not recognize my markup for the “Applause” tag.
    Mitch, please make sure that future posts are HTML7 compliant.

  13. I didn’t know about these servies when Trust Agents came out. But I did when Impact Equation came out. I was tempted, to be quite honest, but then I just thought, you know… I don’t want the asterisk. I would rather be “clean” and not hit the list.
    I can’t say that everyone who hits the list used that service but I can speculate that if some “weird” book is there, we know how that might have happened.

  14. It seems like the issue of how to ‘game’ the bestseller lists has been a hot topic the last few weeks. This entire discussion makes me a bit sad, and it’s not so much due to the ethical issues involved, but moreso to the implied motivation of the authors writing the books.
    It’s almost like a cottage industry is being created: You write a business book. You market that book and hit the Bestseller lists. Then you charge more for speaking and consulting. You ride the wave for a year or so, then you have to write another book and start all over again.
    It seems the message being (perhaps unintentionally) sent is that you write a book to charge more for speaking and work. I even had a friend tell me ‘yeah we are using publishers, but hey they are using us too’. What about writing a book because you want to change the world in some small way, or start a movement, or at least a conversation?
    Do I want to hit the NYT Bestseller list when my book comes out in a couple of months? You’re damn right I do, and I’ve been doing everything I can to make sure that happens. But it would absolutely break my heart to see my book sell 3,000 copies in the 1st week, then 1,000 the rest of the year. I don’t care about hitting the bestseller lists, I care about creating a book that’s valuable to the people that write it.
    And many of my friends that are authors feel the same way, but I’ve talked to just as many people that have flat out told me their motivation in writing a book is to make more money. I want all of that to be a BYPRODUCT of creating an amazingly useful and valuable book.
    Should we be concerned about possible gaming of bestseller lists? Absolutely, but I think as authors we should be far more concerned about what’s motivating us to write a book to begin with. I think the focus needs to be less on hitting bestseller lists, and more on creating value for our readers.

  15. Great conversation!
    When I wrote my education book, I knew “the lists” weren’t gonna happen. But I also know the book is there for a longer haul, and has more staying power than your average book in terms of shelf life. So when I found out recently from some folks that the book was being used by a school district for every teacher in the District, and was being used by a text book at several universities, I felt more vindicated as having done good work by that metric than anything else. Knowing the book is helping teachers become better teachers and help reach students was the purpose in writing the thing in the first place, so that means more than a list mention.
    That being said, I haven’t met an author yet who doesn’t see their first book as basically a really expensive business card, at least until it starts to return royalties above the advance. Books open the doors to other opportunities beyond writing more books and act as social proof of being an authority, and that’s nothing to sneeze at, either.

  16. exactly Whitney the first book is long and hard and over a thousand give aways and lots of free events – I give e versions of my second book away – and the e mail addresses automatically go into the Salesforce database so we can send out information about events and the next book. I also have shirts that I make myself to give away too – thats a great element to add to the mix. I just bought Daniel Pinks new book – he had an advance purchase deal on Amazon – so that gave him some time to incentivise the big ship out with free add ons and webinars etc. ….rock on.

  17. I think this includes not just business folks but now politicians and for sure political pundits who want to claim they have huge followings. Sad.
    Even if no one found out, how happy can someone personally be with a tainted listing?!

  18. Amen,
    I busted my as twice as hard for the second book, sold more than twice as many as the first pre-launch, and not only did I not hit any of the lists anywhere, I missed the two I hit with the first!!
    Just not worth it trying to hit em… I, like you, really just want the ideas contained inside the book to be consumed and hopefully shift some thoughts.

  19. Call me old fashioned, but if I haven’t earned it, I wouldn’t want it (except for a muti-million dollar lottery, in which case I WANT IT!). I don’t have as many Likes or Followers as some, but I know that I have earned each one I do have. If I ever do write a book (if I ever have TIME to write a book) I would rather have my numbers based on genuine readers, than the flufffed up number that gets me on a presitgious list. There is something to be said for having someone come up to you and say “I read your book! It was awesome!” than someone saying “I saw the name and book on this list. That’s pretty cool”.

  20. I want names…!
    I just worked with Daniel Pink for his book launch, and yes he had/still has great results on bestseller lists.
    What he did amazingly well was: he set up a book launch team (that I was part of), we got an advance copy and we were able to share about his book & review it even before the book came out. That resulted in a great buzz, and thus in sales.
    Mitch, I wish you high rankings on all lists. Your last book was grrreat! And I am expecting another great read!
    P.S. I’d love to help you review your book and share your message to add on to the buzz for CTRL ALT DEL, to promote its launch! Feel free to email me. 🙂

  21. I have to say, Mitch – I agree with you on this one. And I’ve got a personal story that probably sounds the same as many other authors. When Likeonomics came out last year in May – I worked my butt off the same way to get individual sales and bulk as well. And didn’t work with any of these consulting groups.
    All the effort paid off (sort of), and the book was the #7 best selling book the week it came out according to Nelsen Book Scan, and #4 on 800CEORead’s list for May 2012. But it didn’t make any of the lists because many of the bulk orders were filtered out.
    It’s a fundamental problem in the system that doesn’t reward those who sell the most books, but rather those who sell the most books in the right places and in the right ratios. And just in case you are tempted to think it’s just a business book problem, or even a small time author problem … here’s another story from none other than the prolific Deepak Chopra on how he ran into exactly the same problem:

  22. Hey Mitch, It has been happening since humans have walked the earth. In every industry, in every corner of the world. Buying chart positions and dumping mountains of CDs (remember those?!) into the same landfill made many a millionaire in the music industry. And this is not reserved for publishing or entertainment.
    And yet most speaker booking agents won’t take unless you’ve published a book – whether a soul has read it or they’re feeding seagulls.
    Keep up the great work, brother and like Six Pixels, I will be happy to BUY my own copy of CTRL ALT DEL when it comes out.

  23. Do you gentleman feel it should be a partial count towards the list or a full count? I am guessing the argument for non-inclusion is that the end recipient (management pays) did not lay out the cash to purchase? The N.Y. times might ask if these recipients were instead to be given a twenty dollar bill to use as they saw fit in a local book store, how many would leave with your book?
    By the way I do own your learned books, purchased the old fashioned way, one at a time.

  24. I think it’s full attribution. How many books have you bought that you never read? Pawned off to someone else? Gave as a gift? And more. I’m not sure I see the difference between someone buying a book for me or me buying a book for me.

  25. We can agree to disagree about whether the value should be the same for a book purchased by myself or for me Mitch.
    The important question is how do you to make the list as ungameable as possible? I don’t know exactly how a Kindle works, nor the “has it actually been read ” stats it keeps and sends to Amazon, but I would have to think there is a signifigant potential for them to come up with as perfect a best seller-most read list as possible?

  26. It’s definitely concerning to think of books, whether fiction or nonfiction, to rise to the top of Bestseller lists in a way that might be suspect. Most of the big time authors I encounter come up with their own unique platforms, such as Jonathan Fields and his video series, or Guy Kawasaki, who lives near me in Silicon Valley, and aggressively asks for reviews on Amazon. He did this during an “Enchantment” presentation about 2 years ago, but also gave away his book for free at that event. It’s also reassuring to see that book publishers “get it,” to a point. I met representatives from MacMillan at Book Expo America in New York last summer, and they now regularly send me preview galleys for reviews and buzz. So in many ways, it still all comes back to building online buzz and getting support from the fans you have already. That feels organic and right to me.

  27. My co-authored book The Trusted Advisor never hit Best Seller when it came out in 2000. But today, 13 years later, it still routinely ranks about 4,000 to 6,000 on Amazon’s rankings–and that’s for a business book, up against Harry Potter et al. I’ll take long term success any day, because it has continued to feed a healthy speaking career.
    The easiest way to solve the bulk no ranking issue is to run your purchases through a 3rd party, not the publisher. The rates are almost identical, and you tend to get much better service. I routinely use Amazon or 1-800CEO-READ.

  28. There are all sorts of ways to induce book sales. I think that you are doing it the right way versus the bought way like ResultSource. This blog is he continued embodiment of discussion and information sharing for those that are interested in marketing and communication. I want your new book based on your track record. I will buy it and review it on Amazon because I value what you have to say and I want more people to have that experience. As to your speaking etc it is much better for people to see you in person. Simply ask all your followers and readers to do the same and review or comment on the book when it is released. You will get more evangelists that way, that matter.

  29. WOW! Mitch, you really struck a chord with this post!
    Some very, very heavy hitters are weighing on this one…
    CC Chapman comes right out of the gate swinging.
    Ericka “Redhead Writing” chimes in.
    Chris “Trust Agent” Brogan give his two cents.
    Rohit “Likeonomics” Bhargava sounds off.
    And the Godfather himself, Seth Godin, not only issues a statement, but leads with some very lofty praise.
    I sense you need to delve deeper into this clearly hot button issue — I can almost feel an On the Media piece brewing in the wings.
    Once again: excellent work! (keep it up)

  30. I’ve heard of this a while a ago. It’s not surprising. We’re naive to think it doesn’t happen in more of the “Top ___________ lists” Ehem Canada’s 50 Top employers. C’mon, you can buy your way on to most lists.
    You can buy your way to the top and say you have a best seller to sell more of yourself. But if you’re over selling you’re bound to eventually disappoint. I don’t think it’s worth it. Slow, organic growth is much smarter, the 20 mile march version of growing your career will have a better long term outcome for you.
    Great post.

  31. This sadly isn’t uncommon across all media genres, last years video sensations were pre-wheeled marketing campaigns, indeed the music industry has been doing it for years – recent headlines Youtube devaluing many music video stats. It happens on social media too. It’s the way the world turns I guess.
    Is it morally acceptable, that’s down to the individuals conscience surely?

  32. I respect this conversation but really …it’s not new and it should also be applied to the same group that would also pay to get on to the talk ahows (not all do this) or other shows. If its a way to get that initial visibility — the hope is the content has an interesting angle or staying power.

  33. Late to the party but certainly a topic I am vitally interested in.
    The NYT is eventually going to have edit these corrupt titles out of the list. You mess with Google, you get dinged. I can’t believe America’s most important newspaper is going to allow its book list to be gamed. And I mean truly gamed, not authentic corporate sales.
    This is going to sound weird, but I don;t care if I make any lists. I know I have done good work. I am recognized by my peers and my community for that work. Life is too short to whore yourself for a book list. My wife loves me. My kids love me. I have enough to eat. I make a difference. Job well done.

  34. This is insane…This is hypocrisy…Why would an author do that??? This act has really opened up our eyes… Earlier authors were considered as extra ordinary gentlemen with amazing thoughtful process. It is so shocking that authors are now hiring marketing firms to carry out promotional strategies for their books….This act would definitely let other authors down..Such a shame

  35. In a linked issue YouTube have just announced that they are to disavow paid views.
    The music industry have made a mockery of YT and many sectors of the industry are complicit.

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