There’s been a lot of hubbub recently about authors gaming the bestseller lists, spurred by this story in the WSJ last week. While the company mentioned in the article may be new, the phenomenon is not. Business book authors, in particular, have used similar tactics in the past, hiring companies that would have copies of their books purchased from stores that report to the New York Times to get onto their list. Publishers do their own version of this, sending authors out on tour to pump up first week sales in select markets in the hopes of getting on regional and national lists.
The ubiquity of Nielsen BookScan data has made gaming lists harder, since it’s no longer just newspapers calling around to certain stores and asking what’s selling. Sales are much more easily verifiable, so pumping up an underperforming book isn’t as easy. Then again, when you can order copies of your book online, you no longer need buyers in different cities to make yourself look good. All you need is a credit card!
All this talk reminded me of an amazing story I read on The Awl a while back about a radio DJ named Jean Shepherd who orchestrated an amazing media hoax back in the 50s. He enlisted the help of listeners of his late-nite show to try to get an non-existent book onto the bestseller list. There are a lot of twists and turns, and I’ll let you read the story instead of summarizing. It’s worth the time.
And, it just goes to show, nihil sub sole novum.