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How to cheat the bestseller list

Buying your way into the book charts is more widespread than you might think

Whether they admit it or not, virtually every published writer has the same basic ambition, and that is for their books to become bestsellers. Some aim for the highest reaches of the charts and to remain there for weeks, if not months, while others are content with a one-week flurry into the number ten spot. But in either case, the sense of achievement is a palpable one. The fruit of one’s imagination, lived experience, or in-depth research has proved sufficiently appealing to a wide assortment of book-buying strangers that one has managed to sell a large number of copies over a very short amount of time, and one’s reward is to be featured either in the Sunday Times chart, in Britain, or the New York Times version in America.

The benefits of being a bestselling author, even if only for a week, are obvious. It allows one the opportunity to emblazon one’s publicity material with the magic word for time immemorial, which in turn leads to substantial fringe benefits. Successful writers are vastly more likely to be booked for high-profile slots at literary festivals and offered lucrative guest speaker events, and in turn it is that much easier, in a competitive and crowded field, for an author’s agent to play hardball with a publisher when it comes to a larger advance for a subsequent book. And, of course, there are the bragging rights conferred on the writer for time immemorial in consequence. Although there are now numerous technical ways in which one could describe oneself as a ‘bestselling writer’ – my latest book is flirting with the top spot in the field of Constitutional Law in its ebook incarnation on Amazon as I write – most of these are not taken seriously. The charts confer authority; everything else is just hot air. 

Which is why the recent revelations that a recent Sunday Times chart boasted a cuckoo in its eminent nest were so surprising. The writer Mark Dawson published the thriller The Cleaner in late June, and it duly entered the top ten bestsellers in fiction shortly afterwards. It was probably believed, if anyone had bothered to spend time considering its presence, that Dawson, who has assiduously built a brand with various series of crime books revolving around characters such as ‘John Milton’, ‘Beatrix Rose’ and ‘Isabelle Rose’, had built up enough of a following over his career to ensure that he could rely on an enthusiastic and committed band of book-buyers who would send his latest sallying into the charts. That he was someone whose book was put out by an independent publisher, Welbeck, and that he had begun his career as a self-published author made his achievements all the more impressive.

This was very almost the case, but not quite. As Dawson candidly admitted in a recent interview, he had seen that his book’s midweek sales were around 1300 copies, which would give him a chart placing of 13: hugely impressive by most standards, but not quite enough to guarantee him the gold standard of a bestseller. Therefore, after, by his own account, establishing some expressions of interest from US readers, he went to his local bookshop and spent £3600 on buying up a further 400 copies of the book, which consequently guaranteed him the much-coveted place in the chart. And there the matter would probably have rested if he had not decided to share the details of what he had done. On his Self Publishing podcast show and social media, he explained that he had acted out of commercial expediency rather than arrogance or greed.

In Dawson’s defence, it should be noted that he is hardly some kind of cynical profiteer, but instead someone who is prepared to spend a substantial amount of his own money on an action that will promote his book considerably. It was recently estimated that the average surge in sales for a work featured in the bestseller charts was around 13%, rising considerably if it was a literary novel from a previously obscure or unpublished author. Yet there is also a sense that he has not played the game in the way that a writer- a man of letters, if you will – might be expected to. The thriller writer Clare McIntosh, herself a ‘legitimate’ bestselling author, publicly wrote to Dawson on social media to say ‘Mark, I have huge respect for what you’ve achieved as a self-published author, and this chart position is a great result. It does however feel disingenuous not to also share here that you bought 400 copies of this book yourself, effectively gaming the system.’

Although he defended himself robustly, describing the books as effectively sold and ready to be packed and posted by his PA, there have been repercussions. The Nielsen BookScan service, which monitors every sale of every book in Britain and thus supplies the data that is used for compiling the charts, has announced that they have stripped him of his place on the bestseller list, in what amounts to a warning to any other author who would seek to buy their way onto it and then discuss having done so publicly. This should, by rights, be the end of the matter. But in fact, all it has done is to illuminate an embarrassing and tawdry truth: the book charts, apparently the gold standards of literary commercial success, can be rigged, and all it needs is cash. 

One of the reasons why I was less surprised than some others is that I know of at least one writer who bought her way onto the bestseller list with her first book. She was already a woman of means before she began her literary career, and so ensured that she was in a financial position both to buy copies of her debut in some quantity, or to ask others so to do before reimbursing them. Her gamble worked. Not only was her book critically acclaimed – so much so that she would probably have found that she would have been a bestseller without any further intervention – but her presence in the charts became a self-perpetuating symbol of success. She told me that she spent around £20,000 on buying up copies of the book, an amount more than repaid by the advance that she then obtained from her publisher for her future works. 

The practice has been prevalent in America for years. The writer Jacqueline Susann, of Valley of the Dolls fame, was reputed to travel from bookshop to bookshop across the country, where she would either buy as many of her books as she could or sign them, on the understanding that, once a book was signed, it counted as defaced and could not be returned to the publisher. Her rationale was to make as much money as she possibly could in a short time, after having been diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 44, and so she established herself as the first writer to have topped the New York Times bestseller list with three novels consecutively. This established what has become a national sport of sorts, manipulating the American charts, and there have been several controversies and instances of skulduggery in recent years. There is even a marketing company, ResultSource, which guarantees its clients a prestigious number one placing on the bestseller list in exchange for a vast retainer, much of which goes on bulk-buying the author’s book in the week of publication. 

And, of course, there have been accusations of bias, with the conservative book publisher Regnery Publishing announcing that sales of their titles have been manipulated unfairly because of the paper’s liberal prejudice, and that their authors have therefore not been allowed to give themselves the accolade of ‘a New York Times bestselling writer’. The chart-topping sales of Donald Trump Jr’s Triggered last year might have seemed to disprove this, were it not for the fact that the book was bulk-bought by the Republican National Committee, which then offered signed copies to its members in exchange for a donation to party funds. In this, as in much else, Trump was following in his father’s footsteps; the current President was alleged to have ordered his staff to buy thousands of copies of his ghost-written book The Art of the Deal in the late Eighties in order to artificially inflate its sales, which may explain why it is his sole book to have been profitable.

Sharp practice on this level remains a rarity, however, and is generally unknown in Britain, although there are occasional, baffling instances when political autobiographies and the like appear to sell in far greater quantities than the subject’s reputation merits. It would be a rare author who did not cajole his or her friends into buying a few extra copies in publication week to try and steer those crucial sales upwards, but this is hardly the same thing as gaming the system on a large scale. So, especially now that Dawson can only refer to himself as a ‘former Sunday Times bestselling author’, it is a salutary reminder to many writers who would consider this a worthwhile marketing expense, rather than hiring a publicist or consultant, that they would be best off buying extra copies of their books discreetly, if at all, and to trust in the expectation that if a book is good enough it will eventually find itself onto the bestseller list through its own merits, which is more rewarding morally – and financially.

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