Debunking the Bestseller
A Lesson in the Status Quo, Risk-Taking, and the Gray Areas of Life and Business
The other day, I received an unexpected phone call from Jeff Trachtenberg, a reporter at The Wall Street Journal. He said he wanted to talk about my bestselling book, Leapfrogging. At first, I was thrilled. Any first-time author would jump at the chance to speak with such a high-profile publication. But it turned out Trachtenberg didn’t want to discuss what was in my book. He was interested in how it had made it onto his paper’s bestseller list. As he accurately noted, Leapfrogging had, well, leapt onto the Journal’s list at #3 the first week it debuted, and then promptly disappeared the following Friday.
Suddenly, I wasn’t so thrilled anymore. I was just about to sit down to dinner with my family and now I was being put on the spot to discuss my role in perhaps one of the most controversial practices in the book publishing industry. I was tempted to make an excuse and plead the 5th. But I wound up talking to Trachtenberg several times over the next few days.
And I’m glad I did.
When No One’s Talking, You’re Living In the Status Quo
Trachtenberg asked me about my experience with a company called ResultSource, the firm I had hired to help me hit the bestseller list from day one. Trachtenberg said he had contacted all of the major New York publishers, but no one would speak to him about the firm or the role of so-called “bestseller campaigns” in helping authors reach the coveted status. No comment. Dead silence.
I can’t say I was eager to be the first person to go on the record about the topic. But then I realized something – Trachtenberg’s surprising phone call was an opportunity to live up to what I urge my readers to do in my book Leapfrogging.
I’ve seen the phenomenon of corporate silence repeatedly in my career. There’s a big, smelly, ten thousand pound elephant in the conference room. Everybody knows it’s there, but no one’s willing to take the risk and point it out. As Trachtenberg was discovering, bestseller campaigns are the unacknowledged pachyderm of the book business.
There’s good reason why most industry insiders would prefer that the wider book-buying public didn’t learn about these campaigns. Put bluntly, they allow people with enough money, contacts, and know-how to buy their way onto bestseller lists. And they benefit all the key players of the book world. Publishers profit on them. Authors gain credibility from bestseller status, which can launch consulting or speaking careers and give a big boost to keynote presentation fees. And the marketing firms that run the campaigns don’t do so bad either.
My book is all about the importance of taking risks to transform these kinds of unspoken and entrenched practices. Not only that, it’s about using what seem like unfortunate surprises – like an unwelcome phone call from a reporter– to find new insights and opportunities. It hit me that if I didn’t find the guts to talk about this issue, then everything I had written was just empty rhetoric. I knew I had no choice.
So, to Trachtenberg’s pleasant surprise, I told him my story.
The Making of a Bestseller
In exploring marketing strategies for my book, I had indeed stumbled upon the company that Trachtenberg had asked me about, ResultSource. I learned that this niche marketing firm had apparently cracked the code on how the sales of books are calculated by companies like Nielsen that produce bestseller data – the very data that major trade publications, newspapers, and journals rely on to populate their bestseller lists, just like The Wall Street Journal. I learned that bestselling authors like Tony Hseih, CEO of Zappos and author of Delivering Happiness, and numerous other bestselling authors had employed its proven methodology.
I too contracted with ResultSource. The strategy the firm laid out for me was relatively straightforward. I would contact my Fortune 500 clients and others and ask them to preorder copies of my book. If I could obtain bulk orders before Leapfrogging was released, ResultSource would purchase the books on my behalf using their tried-and-true formula. Three thousand books sold would get me on The Wall Street Journal bestseller list. Eleven thousand would secure a spot on the biggest prize of them all, The New York Times list.
Prior to publishing my first book, I had run a thriving consulting and leadership development business, working with some of the biggest and most innovative companies in the world. I also speak at many conferences, so my network of contacts is pretty robust. It took effort, but in the end I was able to secure enough client orders, along with my own purchases to resell at conferences, to make it onto The Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list.
Trachtenberg, the reporter for the Journal, asked me if I had “gamed the system” by hiring ResultSource. The answer would most likely be “yes” for anyone outside the publishing industry who views books as simply things to buy, borrow, and read. But for me, having just lived through the entire book publishing and marketing process for the first time, the answer to Trachtenberg’s question is much more complex.
The Awful Truths about Book Publishing
When I first approached my publisher, Berrett-Koehler, they insisted I read an article they give to every prospective author called The 10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing. The number of books being published has exploded to 3 million titles a year, including self-published works. Despite this tsunami of growth, industry sales have been declining every year since 2007. To make matters worse, the average book has less than a 1% chance of being stocked in a bookstore. These are painful realities for the aspiring author who wants to get his or her message out to a mass audience with the intent of changing the world.
Despite these frightening facts and figures, I was thrilled when I received Berrett-Koehler’s book contract. They receive over 1500 book proposals a year and only accept and about 30-40. If I could beat these odds, I told myself, surely I could parlay my good luck into getting my book stocked on at least one bookseller’s shelf.
What I hadn’t fully internalized was that I would be almost entirely responsible for the marketing and promotion of my book. Publisher’s produce and distribute books, but that’s about all they do these days. It was my job to create the real market demand. *
Is it “Gaming the System” to “Work the System”?
Before Leapfrogging came out last August, I sought the advice of some industry insiders and seasoned authors to learn the secrets of book marketing. I tapped into my network and was introduced to someone who had just left her role as an executive at Harvard Business School Publishing. She was the first to mention “bestseller campaigns” to me. According to her, “everyone” was doing it, especially for non-fiction business books like mine.
I also spoke to two of my professional heroes, gurus in the field of management and both regular staples on the Thinkers 50 – the who’s who list of the world’s leading business thought leaders. Both of them told me that if they hadn’t used bestseller campaigns for their own books, they wouldn’t have hit the bestseller lists. “Guruship,” they told me, came from playing the game in a way that reinforced their personal brands as thought leaders. Ponying up the dough for the bestseller campaign was a small investment that would pay off later in speaking fees and consulting contracts.
What was happening here? Had I just uncovered the underworld of the publishing industry, a secret society that knows how to manufacture knowledge, fame, and careers? Was it really true that the practice had become standard operating procedure? If this was how everyone was doing it, was it gaming the system or simply working within the system that existed?
At first, feelings of excitement and disenfranchisement collided within me. On the one hand, I was elated that a bestseller was realistically within my reach – that this elusive status symbol was something I could actually control. But my excitement was tempered with the recognition that the trust I had placed in the very lists endorsed by reputable publications like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, and others, might not represent the institution I had assumed it was.
Playing the Game Using Unwritten Rules
I played the bestseller game using unwritten rules. And as I reflect upon what I experienced and learned, it’s clear to me that anyone with enough money can potentially buy his or her way onto a bestseller list. Although most authors attempt to pre-sell books to their existing networks, theoretically, as long as one has enough money to purchase 3000 of their own books while using the tactics of a bestseller campaign to do so, they are basically guaranteed bestseller status. When I have told this same story to friends, family, and my close colleagues, most end up with their jaws on the floor.
Out of the millions of books published each year, very few become bestsellers. Most first-time authors are unaware that these campaigns exist and, if they are, most are unable to apply the strategy because the costs and pre-selling requirements are beyond their reach. In the bestseller campaigning process, a book’s quality – good or bad – has surprisingly little to do with it.
It’s no wonder few people in the industry want to talk about bestseller campaigns. Bestseller lists are revered, longstanding, and – of course – incredibly influential. The fact that it has become standard practice to work the system that determines which titles wind up on these lists is not exactly good PR for an industry that’s already in turmoil.
Take Risks and Find Surprises to Break-Through
In revealing my personal story, I risk several things. If I ever want to write another book, I risk being blacklisted by an industry that benefits each time an author contracts for a bestseller campaign. I risk having my current book, Leapfrogging, dismissed as a sham, even though it’s received fairly wide press and positive reviews. And I risk damaging a few personal relationships with those who may see my words here as an attack on their livelihoods.
Of course this very article may lead to additional visibility for my book and my work. But that isn’t the end goal.
As I describe in Leapfrogging, personal and business breakthroughs don’t necessarily result from big visions, carefully crafted strategies and meticulous plans. It’s the unexpected, itself, that contains the seeds of insight, learning, and growth that leads to breakthroughs.
When I decided to write my book, I didn’t know that I would gain an insider’s view of an industry that was fighting the very type of disruptive innovation and change that I have dedicated my life to understanding and helping others to navigate. And I surely couldn’t have predicted Trachtenberg’s phone call. In opening up to these little surprises, and sharing them with others in the spirit of challenging the status quo, I can only expect that more will come my way.
Click here for Debunking the Bestseller Part 2
* It’s important to note that my editor at Berrett-Koehler actually questioned my choice to participate in a bestseller campaign. As a rule, this publisher feels that the campaigns wind up detracting from authors’ long-term focus on promoting their books. In the end, though, the decision whether to participate in the bestseller campaign was left up to me.