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Buying your way to a best-seller: Legit or scam?

My favorite newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, ran a fascinating article recently on how some authors are buying their way to best-seller lists. “Getting to the Top“* by Jeffrey Trachtenberg details how several business book authors contracted with ResultSource to get their books on best-seller lists published by the Journal and The New York Times.

The authors give ResultSource money to buy thousands of books in a very short period of time from retailers that include Amazon.com. The sudden artificially-created volume can land the book on a best-seller list for a week, after which sales typically fall off because there isn’t any real, organic demand for the book.

“My book is a best-seller! Pay me more!”

But the author can say he or she was on a best-seller list. This can supposedly generate income from higher speaking and consulting fees.

Or, as ResultSource explains it on its website, “. . . having a Bestseller (sic) initiates incredible growth—exponentially increasing the demand for your thought leadership, skyrocketing your speaking itinerary and value, giving you a national (even global) spotlight, and solidifying your author brand as the foremost leader in your niche.”

But where is the proof? There’s none in the article and I can’t find it on the ResultSource website. Common sense and experience suggest that higher speaking or consulting fees are likely to be generated by big buzz in general rather than by a one-week guest appearance on a best-seller list. (Not surprisingly, the company also provides speaker marketing services.)

Would you do this?

Still, I can see the appeal, especially for those who write business books and rely on speaking and consulting income. Would I do it myself? Nope. I’d get no satisfaction from telling my mother that I spent my way to a best-seller. Should you? Would you? Only you know the answers.

I was on the receiving end of a similar, but different, campaign for Get Rich Click. The hardcover appeared in my mailbox from Barnes & Noble with a message on the packing slip asking me to talk about it among my social networks. Not long after I received it in the mail, I attended a conference where it was a free give-away in the exhibit hall.

The book was self-published (first clue: the word “copywrite” on the copyright page), so the finances were probably different from those in the WSJ article published by traditional publishers.

Can you afford it?

The cost to work with ResultSource? Tens of thousands of dollars. You pay for the books the company buys on your behalf — and hopefully you can fund that purchase with pre-orders for the book — and you pay the company a fee for its services. One of the authors interviewed for the WSJ article spent $55,000 for books and an additional fee in the range of $20,000 to $30,000.

I think there were three interesting details in the article; each one tells us something about this approach:

  1. ResultSource owner Kevin Small declined to be interviewed for the article.
  2. Amazon has stopped doing business with ResultSource.
  3. Publisher John Wiley & Sons Inc. recommends the service to some of its business book authors. Wiley seems to be exploring more publishing options and models than its big publisher counterparts, so this didn’t surprise me. It offers a hint of some of the newer options that make the publisher appealing to successful entrepreneurs who don’t need an advance to write a book.

I’ve noted that I wouldn’t do this, but I’m wondering about you. If you could afford it, would you hire ResultsSource for a best-seller campaign? What’s your take on this approach?

*Special thanks to Susan Weiner for the article link.


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  1. There is an old, old saying my mother used and it goes something like this…”If you do that, you’ve got more money than you’ve got sense.” Or something along those lines. Someone spending all that money to be on a best seller list to raise prices–if they couldn’t get someone to buy it before, will that many people really buy JUST because it’s on a list? Maybe so–but what a risk to take, and even if a number of people buy it just because it’s on a list, how can you be sure it would be enough to make back all that money for you?

  2. It would seem to be more important to write a good book and save the money that it would take to get a best seller status.

  3. Well Merlin, I agree and disagree….Whoever wrote a book and WOULDN’T want it on the best seller list? Any author that says they don’t want to sell their book may just be a few fries short of a happy meal. Yes, it’s rewarding to write a book, I enjoyed it and my family and close friends love them – but I want to sell a million of them for at least a couple of reasons – I really get a kick out of it when someone tells me they really like my books — and I want and need to make some money off of them too!!

    By the way, Merlin was the name of one of my beloved cats — the other two were Houdini and David Copperfield. Merlin and Houdini got the names because when I brought them home from the shelter, they disappeared on me for hours and then just magically turned up although I thought I’d checked every nook and cranny for them. David got his name because we just couldn’t think of any other magicians!

  4. What seems to be largely missing from much of the discussion of this practice is the ethical considerations. Authors who buy their way to a spot on the best seller list in this way are committing fraud. They’re lying to their readers, the best seller lists, those who may hire them as speakers and consultants… the list goes on. Does an author who presents him or herself as a purveyor of truth really want to engage in these kinds of deceptive practices? What does it do to your brand if everyone discvoers you got on the best seller list only by buying all the copies yourself. It’s much harder to build a platform and then execute a campaign to get readers excited about a new book, but it’s honest.

    1. Randy, the people interviewed for the article are business book authors and those listed as clients on the service’s website are also business book authors … big business doesn’t have the best reputation for ethics and integrity. In general, I don’t think the ultimate consumer — whether it’s a business client or the average reader — knows that you can buy your way onto a best-seller list. So if the author doesn’t share that information, his reputation doesn’t suffer. In addition, I suspect that in business circles, people wouldn’t care and wouldn’t view it as unethical.

      That’s not to say I agree with the practice. I don’t, and I wouldn’t do it for the reasons you’ve mentioned. I’m just saying that it’s quite likely that even if the people who hired them as speakers and consultants knew, they wouldn’t care and might even admire the author for the aggressive tactics.


      1. Sandra, sadly I think you’re correct. I’ve known and worked with business people who have very high ethical standards and are able to understand the difference between right and wrong. On the other hand, the pervasive ethical standard of many other businesses I’ve seen is “we didn’t break any laws” or sometimes “those charges will never stick.”

        1. The other issue here, Randy, is the definition of “wrong.” Many people, especially marketers, will tell you there’s nothing wrong with what these authors do to get on best-seller lists. “It’s just marketing.”

          Like you, I think these campaigns reveal a lot about a participant’s character. You & I might not like what it reveals, but they probably don’t care about people like us.


      2. I wouldn’t blame this one on “big business” ethics. The majority doing this aren’t corporations. They’re small-time and one-person operations looking to impress the sorts of people who will be dazzled by the idea of a “bestselling author” without necessarily reading the book.

        1. While it’s true that this is being done by individuals, many of the authors are doing this so they get hired as a speaker or consultant by “big business.” Hence the reference to whether or not “big business” cares about how the individuals became best-selling authors. So no, it’s not about big business, but there’s a link there.


  5. Sandra, this is quite an eye opener for me. I really didn’t know a writer could buy his/her way to the top. What a fabulous idea, I must go deeply into debt to do that very thing. NOT! and NEVER! How insane is that! Where has integrity gone? It seems the ego has become a huge appetite that must be satisfied by any means. How sad. I know the competition is daunting, but I’m with Toni – one’s book radiates a brighter glow having arrived by its own merits. imo

    1. Thanks, Lynn. It’s not for me, either, but I know of at least one author I respect who defends the practice as just another marketing approach. I don’t agree because it’s not a transparent process, which makes it misleading. But I’m glad to see through the comments here that others think it’s deceptive, too.


  6. It is unethical, unprofessional and harms the writing profession. That money could be used for a strong marketing and public relations campaign for the book. How foolish we are to buy our way to fame…and for what. Because I am sure this is going to harm the writer’s career and integrity in the future.

    1. Allison, I wouldn’t do it, but I know that some people in business circles don’t see a problem with this. It’s “just marketing.” Personally, I think that lots of publicity in the press will do more for you than an engineered week on a best-seller list.


  7. If I had that kind of money to spend, I can think of better marketing tactics for my book and it wouldn’t involve playing the system or cheating. There are a lot of ways to make an honest splash in the pr pool.

  8. This isn’t new, just the way it’s being done is. There have been stories of authors who’ve bought thousands of copies of their own books to reach bestseller lists in the past. They were just doing it directly.

    I stand on the side of finding it unethical and as a reader, I won’t touch these authors’ books.

    But to answer your question of whether it makes a difference to have that word “bestseller” on your book, I think it does. To frame it in a freelancing context, I’ve written for the New York Times a few times. It’s not being fabulously paying and to be honest, it’s hardly made a dent in my income. But I did it for the name, to be able to say that I’d written for the NYT. And because of that credit, I’ve received thousands of dollars worth of work. Other editors think I’m a catch because I’ve written for NYT (and others). What I’m saying is that if you wanted to hire someone for a speech, a presentation, for more work, who would you choose, all other things being equal? The bestselling author or the author with moderate sales? You assume that the bestselling author has more clout in terms of name as well and a bigger platform. (Which turns out, is not true if they’re buying their way on to the list, but obviously you don’t know that.)

    1. Thanks, Mridu. I like your analogy. When I was doing PR, I’m sure it helped when I told potential clients that I had won 2 national publicity awards.

      I understand why some authors use this approach — they see it as just another marketing expense. But it’s not a good fit for me.


  9. Thanks Sandra, my love. As a best selling author, I am greatly pleased to be here—but does it pay off the mortgage? Hardly. Yes, lots of people like my book [checkout my website], but not enough to pay off the mortgage. So is it worth being a best seller to lose your house? I don’t think so. Yet others may disagree. Their prerogative. But I work with homeless folk who wouldn’t agree.

    Volunteer at the FUMC of Miami Footwashing event March 16 if you’re in the Miami FL area then and find out for yourself.

    I’ll be glad to talk to you there.

    I love you.

    Larry Winebrenner

  10. This method has been used widely by well known people with money for a long time. I first heard about it in the music industry many years ago. Once-famous recording artists whose fame was flagging but with loads of money would buy a newly-released album to reboot their careers. As far as I can recall, it worked. But what mattered is that they already had a recognised name for themselves — a brand people knew even if it was fading. For newbies with no prior brand recognition to rebuild, logic tells me it’s a huge waste of money, just another vanity-publishing trick to get them to part with their money. Ethics aside, therefore, I would strongly recommend against using the method unless you are already a best seller; and, if you are, just keep writing more best sellers to keep your name in the lights. While marketing might be important, writing good quality material as the foundation for everything else is far more important.

  11. I’m not sure how this approach makes sense. If you had 50k to spend on your own books, why not just purchase them yourself rather than paying a company an additional 20k to do that simple action? As far as I’ve noticed, amazon rankings don’t care if v the book was published from the authors IP address.
    Additionally for 50k you could create real interest and demand through marketing deals with high – impact social media influencers who could reach people that would actually want your book, rather than fake selling it.

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