A History of Buying Books onto the Bestseller List
January 6, 2020 3:37 PM   Subscribe

When Donald Trump Jr.'s book Triggered debuted atop the New York Times bestseller list, there was a dagger next to the listing, meaning the NYT believes the book benefited from bulk purchases rather than a groundswell of individual buyers. Sarah Nicolas at Book Riot explains further -- and tells us that Donald Sr. "helped pioneer the practice among business people.".
posted by Etrigan (33 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
Back in college, fifteen years ago, I took a class on editing, and the teacher blew our collective minds when he asked us what the minimum number of copies a book had to sell through to consumers was, in order for it to be listed on the NYT bestseller list. "None," he said, "because it only counts the number of copies in print." He noted that "certain religious groups" took advantage of this fact to ensure that "works by their founder" remained on there long-term, too.
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:49 PM on January 6 [4 favorites]


Your college professor was ignorant. That's not how the NYT nor any other bestseller list works.
posted by PhineasGage at 3:55 PM on January 6 [21 favorites]


The Church of Scientology (Bridge Publications) is notorious for this. See Costly Strategy Continues to Turn Out Bestsellers (SLLAT)
Hubbard’s U.S. publisher is Bridge Publications Inc., founded and controlled by Scientologists--something that Bridge does not publicize. Company officials refused to be interviewed about book sales or any facet of the firm’s operations.

But former employees alleged in interviews with The Times that Bridge encouraged and, at times, bankrolled the book-buying scheme.

Mike Gonzales, a non-church member who worked in accounts receivable, said one supervisor gave him hundreds of dollars for weekend forays into bookstores.
posted by zakur at 4:03 PM on January 6 [4 favorites]


DoctorFedora:

It's definitely not how the NYT Bestseller list works (or as PhineasGage notes, pretty much any other list).

And also, there is no precise number of sold books for any book to get on the list, because a) your sales are ranked relative to what else is selling that week, b) NYT uses a proprietary set of "secret sauce" factors to weight its various lists -- including accounting for (and generally discounting) bulk sales, and it tweaks its formulas as it goes on.

All the above explains how two books of mine, which had nearly identical first week sales, had differing NYT list fates: One made the list and the other did not. It's just the nature of the beast.

But yes -- the number of books in print doesn't matter. The number of books sold does (to greater or lesser extent).
posted by jscalzi at 4:04 PM on January 6 [64 favorites]


jscalzi, instead of doing bulk purchases, do publishers try to game the numbers by releasing a book in a week that has historically had lower sales overall so that the release numbers are relatively higher? Akin to movie studios releasing a movie outside the summer/winter peaks to avoid competition and take the No. 1 slot at the box office that week.
posted by the legendary esquilax at 4:48 PM on January 6 [2 favorites]


I'm not John, but yes. January - April is usually for debuts, smaller, quieter books, or lead titles (promoted titles) that they don't predict will sell like gangbusters. May - August is BEACH READ SEASON, WOO! It's for compulsively readable books, and lead titles that can compete with the overall increase in bookbuying volume. September - November is Award Season books. Books whose success more hinges on getting nominated and winning awards than high sales, but also lead titles that can straddle those two worlds. December is a crazy combination of Summer and Fall.
posted by headspace at 4:59 PM on January 6 [11 favorites]


I mean, we can likely all agree to the general level of shittiness of the First Failson of the United States of America, but isn't having your job/organization/committee/political group buy up truckloads of your terrible book to juice its position on various best seller lists the oldest and most common trick in the (heh) book?

Is there something more to this story besides the sublime irony that someone who wrote a book titled "Triggered" needing help in order not bruise the fragile ego of its author?

EDIT: or, perhaps I could RTFMA and answer my own questions, heh.
posted by sideshow at 4:59 PM on January 6


the legendary esquilax:

I mean, maybe? There are slower times in the year for books than others, and publishers know when they are. But my experience of it is that publishers are (generally) less interested in trying to game the NYT list than they are making sure their release schedule has solid lead titles for every month that they can adequately promote and sell. NYT list spots are nice, but just like having the #1 movie in the land doesn't mean a lot if your movie cost $100 million and took in $10 million on a slow late January weekend, getting a NYT slot on relatively few sales in a historically slow week won't mean a lot to the publisher if it gave the author a six figure advance and isn't going to recoup.

At this point I've had books in released in every month except (I think) February, and the sweet spot for what I do seems to be April and October -- good months for touring (which is more likely to be where the overt NYT list gaming happens, tour stops often coincide with bookstore that report to the NYT ) and a good lead into the summer and holiday seasons, respectively. Sometimes we hit the list and sometimes we don't... but the sales in those months are generally solid, and in the long run that's more important (especially since once you hit the list, you get to call yourself an NYT Bestseller for life).
posted by jscalzi at 5:09 PM on January 6 [15 favorites]




Everything about how you can’t really game the lists to be more successful as an author is irrelevant here. The Trumps aren’t trying to turn fame into money, they’re trying to turn money into normativity.
posted by clew at 6:16 PM on January 6 [16 favorites]


Glue them together and make pillars salt.
posted by clavdivs at 6:56 PM on January 6


once you hit the list, you get to call yourself an NYT Bestseller for life

I used to be a paperboy. Even won an award for it, once. I was their best seller that month. I'm also a professional writer. So I suppose that would mean I could technically call myself an NYT Best Selling author. Except for the pesky fact that the paper I was selling wasn't the NYT. And I can't actually remember if the award (certificate? can't remember for sure, but I think there may have been a small cash award) was for being their best seller, or like, paperboy of the month, or... maybe it was for attendance? Sure as Hell wasn't for penmanship.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 7:30 PM on January 6 [7 favorites]


Thanks for the clarification on the bit of trivia I picked up in college, folks! Sounds like I won't be able to pull out that particular factoid anymore.
posted by DoctorFedora at 7:36 PM on January 6 [13 favorites]


Of course, the Amazon listings are trivial to game. For the Ryan North/David Malki! curated anthology Machine of Death, they simply asked everyone to make their purchase on the same day and it worked, they were #1 for that day. A day they picked without knowing was also the release date for a Glenn Beck book (back when Glenn Beck was still a thing).
posted by ckape at 7:50 PM on January 6 [8 favorites]


All pre-orders count as having occurred on the first day of publication. That's why every author is firmly encouraged by their publisher to mount a ferocious pre-order push.
posted by PhineasGage at 9:31 PM on January 6 [5 favorites]


I'm informed by my editor (genre fiction, trade editions, Big 5 publisher) that they don't pay much attention to the NYTimes bestseller list any more, other than as a merit badge to slap on the dust jacket (because the readers have heard of it and "eat shit, a trillion flies can't be wrong" still works as a marketing strategy on some people).

Instead, they pay attention to the USA TODAY bestseller chart. Which uses a different methodology. Instead of breaking down books by category, e.g. hardcover fiction, paperback fiction, and so on, they lump everything together. So the top 50 is dominated by stuff like the Bible, school set texts, the current heavily-marketed cookbooks and business books, and so on ... and the stuff that has gamed the system because some crooked politicians fans have been sent out with orders to buy ten copies each.

But if you can get an honest work of genre fiction into the top 100 at all, then you've got something with bankable sales that's probably going to go into reprint/stay in print for a long time.

(To give you a handle on this: my last few Laundry Files books have spiked into the 90-100 rank at launch, and what this means in real terms is that I can earn a good middle-class income publishing one book a year long-term.)
posted by cstross at 2:16 AM on January 7 [31 favorites]


This is probably the best place for me to confess to this particular small transgression -

Last weekend, I was in Penn Station, in advance of a quick day trip to Rhode Island. I'd gotten to the station earlier than I needed to and was wandering around in the Hudson News, browsing what they had. "Hudson News", for the uninitiated, is a chain of hybrid news-stands-and-stuff shops that you can find in a lot of transit stations on the Eastern Seaboard - they have newspapers and magazines, but also a small selection of local souvenirs, travelers' items like neck pillows and travel toiletry kits, snacks, etc. There's usually a small display of books - usually mass-market paperbacks and business books.

On this day, I sighed when I saw that one of the items this particular Hudson News was offering was Donald Jr.'s "Triggered". They had about five copies neatly tucked into a wall shelf, with the front cover facing out. Then I did a take when I noticed that right next to it, on the same shelf, were five copies of the book A Warning, something I hadn't heard of - it was something by an anonymous member of Trump's staff, and was ostensibly about some of the things Trump was doing that we hadn't heard about. I chuckled at the irony that those two books were next to each other on that shelf.

And then I went to put the copy of A Warning back in its place - but hesitated. And then....

....I put that copy of A Warning back on the shelf in front of the stack of copies of Triggered, hiding them all.

Most likely someone moved it back only a half hour later when someone on the staff was tidying up or something. But for that half hour, the casual shoppers would not have been able to find Triggered, and....I don't feel as guilty about that as I probably should.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:21 AM on January 7 [35 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos: normally I'd SCREAM at you for messing with bookshelves in a shop (it screws up the other authors and makes extra work for the staff), but ... naah, fuck Don Jr and the astroturf buying campaign he rode in on.
posted by cstross at 3:49 AM on January 7 [18 favorites]


This is definitely an old dodge on the wingnut welfare/corporate jackhole circuit - see also buying cases of your personal bootstraps mythology to distribute at conferences and events (then dumping the remains at your local charity and making sure to get a tax receipt).
posted by aspersioncast at 4:44 AM on January 7 [1 favorite]


EmpressCallipygos, so the two books side-by-side are Trigger Warning?
posted by RobotHero at 5:55 AM on January 7 [15 favorites]


I chuckled at the irony that those two books were next to each other on that shelf.

One book by someone who is nothing but a name. One book by someone who is everything but a name.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 5:57 AM on January 7 [4 favorites]


Yeah, don't mess with the shelves. There have been some instances both in shops (anything with New Zealand Prime Minister's face on it) and libraries (anything political that's insufficiently MAGA) where bad actors mess with the shelves to turn things back to front or hide materials. It does mean more work and the people doing the hiding are usually just fixing for an argument I don't want to have.

The only books I actively try to keep from being displayed are ones with swastikas on them, so I spent a chunk of last year putting James Ellroy's This Storm from display areas back back on the shelf so that the first thing patron see when they walk in is not a big red symbol of hate. Luckily, the publisher seems to have realized their error and have pulled the giant swastika from further editions.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:21 AM on January 7 [5 favorites]


When the author or their organization buys significant numbers of books, their sales should be reported in a separate list of Vanity Publishing books.
posted by hypnogogue at 7:49 AM on January 7 [2 favorites]


But that might piss off the politicians and wannabes we need to sustain access journalism!
posted by benzenedream at 10:19 AM on January 7 [3 favorites]


This is probably the best place for me to confess to this particular small transgression

As sins go it’s trivial, not like burning books or stealing them from libraries; it is, however on that wretched spectrum, from “I don’t like that book” to “no one should like that book” to “no one may read that book”. The choice is not yours to make. I wish you hadn’t done this, I like to think that on reflection you would not do it again, but most of all I hope that others here are not inspired to take similar action.

If the book’s mere existence bothers you, take comfort in the fact that every copy sold helps the publisher to publish other less profitable authors you probably would like.
posted by BWA at 2:10 PM on January 7 [1 favorite]


The anti-book-hiding sentiments expressed here are an interesting contrast to the MeFites who argue in favor of punching Nazis, i.e. a somewhat more impactful attack against a (presumably) somewhat worse human being.
posted by PhineasGage at 2:42 PM on January 7 [1 favorite]


I liked Don Jr.'s other book better.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:33 PM on January 7 [1 favorite]


The anti-book-hiding sentiments expressed here are an interesting contrast to the MeFites who argue in favor of punching Nazis, i.e. a somewhat more impactful attack against a (presumably) somewhat worse human being.

Punching Nazis - Always Good
Punching the drivers of public buses that Nazis use - Generally Bad

The issue is whether your efforts directly impact the target and the target only, or if they are just a symbolic effort that actually makes an otherwise uninvolved person's life shittier for a bit.
posted by FatherDagon at 12:20 PM on January 8


The issue is whether your efforts directly impact the target and the target only, or if they are just a symbolic effort that actually makes an otherwise uninvolved person's life shittier for a bit.

Otherwise uninvolved, if you don’t count the “cravenly spreading propaganda for a profit” part. If you’re fine with actually making many people’s lives permanently shittier, I’m fine with you being mildly inconvenienced for choosing to make that your life’s work.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:11 PM on January 8


Otherwise uninvolved, if you don’t count the “cravenly spreading propaganda for a profit” part. If you’re fine with actually making many people’s lives permanently shittier, I’m fine with you being mildly inconvenienced for choosing to make that your life’s work.


I think they're talking about the employees at the book shop,etc that have to keep the shelves to a certain standard.
posted by avalonian at 2:27 PM on January 8


I think they're talking about the employees at the book shop,etc

Not me. I'm talking about free speech and the desirability of discourse over censorship (however petty the form it takes). You don't like his book, don't buy it. You think it's pernicious, make your case in a suitable forum. But never presume to take the final choice away from other people. At best it's rude, at worst, it's - well, fascistic.
posted by BWA at 5:15 PM on January 9


But never presume to take the final choice away from other people. At best it's rude, at worst, it's - well, fascistic.

I think that it's a bit of a stretch to categorize my deliberately misplacing a book due to a temporary lapse in etiquette and a giving-in to a distaste for the author as "fascistic". Rude, I'll cop to; making more work for the staff, sure.

But I find it a bit of a leap to assume that the "choice" had been taken away from anyone who may have deliberately been looking for Trump Jr.'s book, since they simply could have asked the staff "do you have this book", and they would have escorted him to the proper shelf, re-placed my errant book, and retrieved a copy for the customer. It's also very likely that a grand and glorious total of five minutes elapsed before someone moved the book back.

I have to wonder at the impulses behind categorizing my act as "fascistic", to be honest.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:46 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


I don't want to see this book and I'd stomp on it BWA plus ask my country not to let it in the door.
posted by Mrs Potato at 4:23 PM on January 20


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