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The Mystery of the Book Sales Spike
February 22, 2013 8:43 AM   Subscribe

Last August, a book titled "Leapfrogging" hit The Wall Street Journal's list of best-selling business titles upon its debut. The following week, sales of the book, written by first-time author Soren Kaplan, plunged 99% and it fell off the list. [...] But the short moment of glory doesn't always occur by luck alone. In the cases mentioned above, the authors hired a marketing firm that purchased books ahead of publication date, creating a spike in sales that landed titles on the lists.
posted by Chrysostom (26 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Regnery is fucking infamous for doing this on pretty much every release.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:49 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ecclesiastes 1:9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
posted by Toekneesan at 8:56 AM on February 22, 2013


It's a trade secret how the NYTBR calculates its best-sellers. In fact the Book Review magazine insert, where's its published every Sunday, doesn't even make the list - it's "outsourced" to a different division within the Times, to keep the process as closed and secret as possible. This is to avoid people gaming the system. Not unlike the war that Google wages over SEO. Nielsen BookScan, who makes the WSJ list, was apparently caught by this scam, ResultSource is one step ahead of the game.
posted by stbalbach at 9:01 AM on February 22, 2013


It's not a huge secret. They call bookstores and ask what their bestsellers are. I know this because my store was one of those stores. I couldn't tell anyone at the time, but my store's been closed over a decade so I don't feel like I'm risking anything at this point. I understand now it's a bit more complex, using a bit of Amazon's list, and some BookScan data, but as I understand it, they still call stores and ask. Though they probably occasionally get a disconnected number due to the quantity and rapidity of stores closing these days.
posted by Toekneesan at 9:08 AM on February 22, 2013


Something like this happened with the movie Cowboys and Aliens - it was originally a comic, which wasn't very good. I know because I owned it. I owned it because the person (or people) behind it had a movie deal based on a Cowboys and Aliens pitch, which had not gone anywhere, so he wanted to have a comic with impressive sales numbers that would revive interest in the project (which, for the record, worked - he got the movie made).

He accomplished this by sending a lot of copies of the graphic novel to comic shops around the country, apparently for free. The instructions given to my local shop were to sell copies of the book for a penny, so they'd offer that if you were already buying something else as well (the woman behind the counter was as puzzled as anyone else about this). This allowed him to report (more or less truthfully) that he'd sold however many copies of the book - a million or whatever.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:11 AM on February 22, 2013 [10 favorites]


If you've got enough money to throw around, any system can be rigged in your favor.

A friend of a friend made his reputation as an artist by going around to galleries, asking them to display his work on consigment, then getting proxies to come in with money he'd given them to buy back his own works from the galleries. The result? I was told he now makes a very lucrative living selling his work to big galleries and is no longer his own biggest customer.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:24 AM on February 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


Ecclesiastes 12:12 -- "Of buying many books to get on the bestseller list there is no end."
posted by uosuaq at 9:47 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


It used to be (it might still be) that a few small record shops had their sales multiplied when determining the sales charts (to represent mom and pop shops that didn't scan sales). Some record companies figured out what stores where getting multiplied and would offer a bunch of bonuses if you bought an album from there (say a free cd of un-released tracks, tshirts, whatever).
posted by drezdn at 9:50 AM on February 22, 2013


Well, if it's good enough for the Scientologists...
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:50 AM on February 22, 2013


(Something like this happened when "Battlefield Earth" first came out in hardback.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:51 AM on February 22, 2013


Well, if it's good enough for the Scientologists...

Yeah... there has also been talk of exactly the same thing wrt several political biographies (published right before announcing running for office, usually president) and several instances of just political ideology peddling. I've mainly heard about it from Right wing circles, but is likely it is cross spectrum.
posted by edgeways at 10:03 AM on February 22, 2013


The recent Jean Shepherd, I, Libertine post is probably relevant here.
posted by plastic_animals at 10:10 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Or, you can get the webcomics community behind you, as the authors of "Machine of Death" did, making #1 on the Amazon list its first day, beating out the first day sales of a John Grisham novel and a Glenn Beck propaganda piece. (I expect even bigger things from Ryan North's upcoming "Chooseable Adventure" version of Hamlet, even after its success as a 'Kickstarter pre-sale')
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:26 AM on February 22, 2013


Chocolate Pickle, I think the same thing happened when Hubbard's Invaders Plan novels came out.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:35 AM on February 22, 2013


Sarah Palin (and Romney) did this, too, though Palin tried to hide it under the guise of her PAC buying books as gifts to donors. Romney was just shady by having institutions pay him in books bought instead of money directly to Romney.

Regarding Cowboys & Aliens, the inflated Newsweek rating was due to the comic being given away at one location, and Newsweek not factoring in the pricepoint or if the item was a promo give-away.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:59 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


> "It's not a huge secret. They call bookstores and ask what their bestsellers are."

Yup. I book I ghostwrote a while back is a "New York Times Bestseller" because the guy I ghostwrote it for did the same thing as the people in the FPP -- hired some marketing firm that knew where to go to buy up the copies at the bookstores that the NYT called, and suchlike. That was maybe eight years ago, and if it was supposed to be a big huge secret ... it wasn't.
posted by kyrademon at 11:09 AM on February 22, 2013


It's not a huge secret. They call bookstores and ask what their bestsellers are. I know this because my store was one of those stores.

The secret is which bookstores they call and how they weight the answers. The common understanding is that they include data from indie booksellers, big national stores and some but not all of the "big box" retailers (Costco, WalMart, etc). Because they're not calling every indie bookstore in the country, they have an algorithm to extrapolate the sales from the stores they do call to rest of the country. In general, publishers feel that indie bestsellers are slightly more heavily weighted than is accurate (books that are selling particularly well at indie stores seem to be ranked higher on the lists than is borne out by actual sales, which the publisher sees from all channels).

The other weird thing is that only certain books get "tracked" -- or at least that's how it used to be. Publishers would have a book that they thought should be on the charts, but wasn't showing up there, so somebody from the publisher would call the Times and ask them to add it to the tracking list.
posted by pocketfullofrye at 11:12 AM on February 22, 2013


For the record, Regnery is also the publisher behind the John Kerry Swift Boat book from 2004. Back then their MO was to play up the book in the (conservative) press but then print not nearly enough copies, so that folk would come into the bookstore and then angrily accuse us of censorship or partisanship or whatever.

Then we ordered a bunch of copies, but no one cared anymore and they didn't sell. So Regnery can suck it.
posted by themanwho at 11:24 AM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


I took part in The Machine of Death gaming Amazon. Of course after I did that I actually read the book. Taking part in annoying Glenn Beck was an unexpected bonus.
posted by ckape at 11:48 AM on February 22, 2013


So, if I understand correctly, a book "security" was put on the Wall Street Journal's best-selling business titles "exchange", after "insiders" artificially inflated demand for the "security". And in short order, the book's demand "bubble" burst, laying bare the true value of the commodity. And said book was a book on success in business.

That's some delicious irony right there!
posted by Brak at 12:47 PM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


a book titled "Leapfrogging" hit The Wall Street Journal's list of best-selling business titles

Ugh, maybe this is why the higher-ups at work keep using that term.
posted by scatter gather at 2:29 PM on February 22, 2013


According to Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, Nixon did this with an anti-liberal media book called The News Twisters, funding bulk purchases of the book by Chuck Colson and E. Howard Hunt from the same slush fund that paid for G. Gordon Liddy's burglaries.
posted by jonp72 at 9:56 AM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


> "It's not a huge secret. They call bookstores and ask what their bestsellers are."

That's like saying the recipe of Coke is no huge secret because the ingredients are on the can.
posted by stbalbach at 11:00 PM on February 26, 2013


Point taken, but I think the mystery of the NYTBR is largely a product of their marketing department. Yep, it's a curated list as it should be. Otherwise To Kill a Mocking Bird and The Great Gatsby would hit it every September. And it was telling that the Times chose my store as one in their sample. I served an academic community. Yeah, Wheel of Time books would be in our report, but so would A Brief History of Time, and even unfortunately The Bell Curve. Actual listings of books as ranked by their US sales would probably be very cyclical and very boring. The Times' list reflects the taste of the Times' readership. It is a listing of books that are of interest to them, ranked in the order of their sales.

There's the interesting case of an Anabaptist crockpot cookbook that ended up on the list, but it happened in such an unusual way. The book became a huge bestseller at warehouse clubs which often sold it with actual crockpots. Soon, word of mouth led to people into bookstores and ordering the book. That's when it finally ended up on the Times list, but it had already sold millions of copies.
posted by Toekneesan at 3:52 AM on February 27, 2013


More on this story on the always excellent Melville House blog.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:54 AM on February 27, 2013


For the record, Regnery is also the publisher behind the John Kerry Swift Boat book from 2004. Back then their MO was to play up the book in the (conservative) press but then print not nearly enough copies, so that folk would come into the bookstore and then angrily accuse us of censorship or partisanship or whatever.

Then we ordered a bunch of copies, but no one cared anymore and they didn't sell. So Regnery can suck it.


Holy cow, when I worked for Bookstore From Ann Arbor That No Longer Exists we got abused non-stop when that nonsense went down.
posted by mintcake! at 9:57 AM on February 27, 2013


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