When it comes to bestseller lists, the average reader will base their decisions on what to buy through them. The New York Times started to include ebooks in print and online editions back in 2011 when the Kindle and Nook first became popular. The dominant force in generating bestseller lists is Nielsen BookScan, who harvests their data from major online booksellers. Many of the top newspapers in the world, such as the Wall Street Journal, use Nielsen’s book data in their own lists. Sadly, Nielsen is furthering faulty sales data from online sellers and is abusing the public trust .
Nielsen BookScan gleans its online sales data from companies such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-a-Million. The offline data comes from a myriad of non-traditional bookselling outlets such as big department stores or supermarkets. Nielsen condenses the information and then publishes it to their affiliate list, such as major newspapers, and then back to the online retailers.
So how exactly is Nielsen providing faulty sales data in their reports? The crux of the issue is authors using services such as ResultSource to inflate their sales figures, effectively buying their way onto the bestseller lists. Since authors do this over a period of a few weeks, it provides falsified data to Nielsen and then they distribute it worldwide.
Mark Driscoll pastors a large church in Seattle and recently paid a marketing firm more than $200,000 to get his book onto the New York Times bestseller list. The scheme included hiring people to purchase 6000 copies of the book in bookstores, then ordering another 5000 copies in bulk. They even made sure to use more than 1000 different payment methods, so Nielsen BookScan couldn’t track all the purchases back to a single source.
Soren Kaplan, a business consultant and speaker, hired ResultSource to promote his book, Leapfrogging. Responding to the WSJ article on his website, Kaplan breaks down the economics of making the list. “With a $27.95 list price, I was told that the cost of each book would total about $23.50 after various retail discounts and including $3.99 for tax, handling and shipping. To ensure a spot on The Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list, I needed to obtain commitments from my clients for a minimum of 3000 books at about $23.50, a total of about $70,500. I would need to multiply these numbers by a factor of about three to hit The New York Times list.”
Amazon bestselling Author Norm Schriever explained on a basic level how all of these companies operate. “The formula is simple – pre-order enough of your own books from the right book stores (albeit at a discount) and you will rank high enough to show up on the list. Then you can re-sell the books to recoup some of your costs. To avoid transparency, the firms break up the orders into purchases from smaller corporate entities with different names. It might cost you $50,000-$80,000 to get on the Wall Street Journal’s list, and triple that to be in the big-daddy NYT list.”
So it should now be obviously quite clear that some authors are buying their way onto the bestseller lists. Book sales are the main component, but Amazon is now employing other factors such as book reviews. Todd Rutherford ran a website called GettingBookReviews.com that reviewed books for $99.99 a pop or arranged 20 reviews for $499 or 50 reviews for $999. He would post them on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other booke websites to help authors get noticed. It certainly helped indie darling John Locke, who ordered 300 reviews and went on to sell over one million ebooks on Amazon. Before this website was shut down, it was generating $28,000 a month from authors looking for a competitive advantage.
So how many books do you need to sell to get on Amazon’s bestseller list? Normally you need to get between 500 and 1,000 sales of your book within the first few days following its release to make it to the top 100. If you’re really ambitious and your aim is to hit the Top 5, you’re going to have to be a lot more aggressive in getting higher sales numbers. It seems that a title in Amazon’s top five averages 1,094 print copies sold across all channels, including other retailers, on a typical day. Amazon controls close to 70% of the US eBook market and 30% of selling physical books.
Authors who are abusing the bestseller lists use the above methodologies. They understand the prerequisites of what constitutes a bestseller from the online merchants and brick and mortar stores. Since Nielsen pulls its data primarily from these two companies, their data is false on a regular basis. Many authors can then add the term “bestselling author” to every book they publish and will automatically garner more attention than someone else without the credentials.
Is it legal to buy your way onto the list? Of course, all it takes is a few hundred thousand. If your goal is to be a professional author, this can be seen as an investment into your future. It might even be a really good idea to start your own real world botnet of people willing to buy other authors’ books. Either way, the very definition of a bestseller list is being bastardized and it’s becoming increasingly harder to trust indie authors who are often the most guilty parties.
Michael Kozlowski is the Editor in Chief of Good e-Reader. He has been writing about audiobooks and e-readers for the past ten years. His articles have been picked up by major and local news sources and websites such as the CBC, CNET, Engadget, Huffington Post and the New York Times.