Thursday, October 11, 2007

What makes a bestseller?

Please scroll down for important corrections on the original post.

NPR had an interesting headline yesterday about what it means to be a bestseller. Although when you pull up the page it displays an article about the reader gender gap, do listen to the radio spot — it's quite interesting.

One of the things the radio spot discusses is the New York Times's recent decision to expand their bestseller lists, basically so more books could achieve that all-important label. It also discusses the rather arbitrary means of deciding which books have achieved bestseller status.

This reminds me of something that was big on WritersWeekly.com a couple of years ago: Amazon.com was running a bestseller program, where authors would sign up, pay Amazon.com (see below for corrections) somewhere in the range of two grand, and they would run a special where — for one weekend — your book would be featured with some freebie giveaway. The idea was to get your book to sell lots and lots of copies in a 24-hour time frame, and therefore "become" a bestseller. No matter if it never achieved the same sales rate — as long as it got there once, authors could claim they had an Amazon.com bestseller.

Obviously, Angela Hoy didn't have much good to say about that. It's a clear-cut case of working the system, and doesn't necessarily say anything about the true rate of sales of the book. Angela also didn't have very nice things to say about taking advantage of writers that way. (Two grand? Good grief!!!)

The current story — the New York Times adding another bestseller list to increase the number of books that make it to bestseller status — reminds me a lot of that. Definitely some working of the system going on here. Another book I read once (the title of which I can't remember now) talked about how even the NYT list is worked: The titles are chosen ahead of time by the paper, which then sends a list out to the booksellers to confirm or deny. Well, of course they always confirm those titles, because those are the ones whose sales they are suddenly paying attention to!

To come full circle, I think NPR's radio spot on what makes a bestseller — while it doesn't discuss the NYT's hand in determining what titles make the list — does accurately represent the mystery of what, exactly, defines a bestseller.


Thanks to fellow freelancer Kathy Kehrli, I was motivated to check the WritersWeekly.com article after I wrote the above post, and discovered that I was wrong on my facts.

1) Amazon.com was not directly involved in this marketing scam. The scam itself is marketed via a teleseminar.

2) However, Amazon.com sets themselves up for this by calculating the bestseller list every hour. I think all of us agree that a book needs to sell consistently well over more than an hour's time in order to be considered a bestseller. Unfortunately, Amazon.com's system allows books to get on the list due to nothing more than an hour's unusually high sales.

3) The scam's time frame is an hour, not a weekend or a day as I had said in the post.

You can see the original WritersWeekly.com article here.

This little incident is a good lesson to me as to why I should check my facts before I post, rather than writing on something based on memory — especially a two-year-old memory.


Kathy@TheFlawlessWord said...

RE: "Amazon.com was running a bestseller program, where authors would sign up, pay Amazon.com somewhere in the range of two grand, and they would run a special where -- for one weekend -- your book would be featured with some freebie giveaway."

I'm not sure about Amazon being involved in this type of scam, but there is a regular teleseminar sponsored by two or three authors to the same effect. I called in once just to see what it was all about and quickly learned it was just an hour-long self-promotion (and a very expensive one at that!). This was precisely what I was thinking of the other night when I told you one of the Muse chats reminded me of "free" teleseminars.

Katharine Swan said...


You're right — I looked up the old article on WritersWeekly.com, and Amazon.com was not directly involved. (And the teleseminar is also mentioned in the WritersWeekly.com article.) However, you could definitely say that the way they calculate their bestseller list makes this type of scam possible.

I was wrong on some of the details. The time period to get everyone to buy your book is in an hour, not a day. This is because Amazon.com determines their bestseller list based on sales every hour.

In other words, Amazon.com leaves themselves open to scams like this by allowing books to make it onto the list based on their sales in a very short time frame.

This is definitely an example of when I should check my facts before listing a post. :o)

Kathy@TheFlawlessWord said...

That's precisely what it is: a scam that manipulates the way Amazon determines its bestseller list. But seriously, wouldn't you feel mighty foolish calling yourself a best-selling author simple because you worked the system and landed at the top for a measly one hour? That's so misleading...and totally unethical in my opinion.

Katharine Swan said...

I know I'd feel foolish and dishonest, but I suppose that teleseminar is hardly targeting people like us. ;o)

It's just too bad there are people who would either fall for that, or know how manipulative it is and do it anyway.


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