This Isn’t Cheating, Is It?

Here’s an interesting Wall Street Journal article by Carl Bialik (“The Numbers Guy”) on how authors (and their public-relations firms) try to push a book to No. 1 on Amazon.com or Barnes&Noble.com:

For $10,000 to $15,000, you, too, can be a best-selling author. New York public-relations firm Ruder Finn says it can propel unknown titles to the top of rankings on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble with a mass email called the Best-Seller Blast. Popular authors such as Mark Victor Hansen of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series recommend your book in messages to fans, and offer a deal: Buy the book today and you’ll get downloadable “bonuses” supposedly valued at thousands of dollars — such as recordings of motivational speeches and contact information for important people. Orchestrating even 1,000 book purchases in a single day can drive a title from obscurity to the top of the charts.

This probably strikes some people as clever marketing, and it probably strikes others as something close to cheating. I lean heavily toward the clever marketing side. It was interesting to me that in this post about optimizing my bus commute, a few commenters thought I was a cheat for walking to a better bus stop. To paraphrase an old love song: if cheating like that is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

As for jacking up your Amazon rating: what’s described in the Journal article strikes me as less troubling than what the author David Vise reportedly did back in 2002, buying up thousands of copies of his own book.


CrunchyFrog

I'm less bothered by an author or PR firm would using this tactic than the thought that authors whose websites and blogs I read would be party to it. For me, the recommendation of an author I like is more valuable than any giveaways.

Now I have to second guess every recommendation. You guys have mentioned or recommended several books here. Are you required to tell us if you're receiving any financial benefit for doing so?

Isaac

In the "clever marketing" category, you could build up a fanbase by podcasting your books, then ask all of your fans to buy your book from Amazon at the same time, on the same day, like Scott Sigler's doing: http://scottsigler.net/

furiousball

Man, you could fill a teaspoon with the integrity of this concept.

brettpeven

The line between marketing and cheating is becoming increasingly thin. In this case, I tend to believe that this crosses the line, though just barely. As for walking a block to catch the boss, I don't believe that's cheating but I would believe it's cheating to walk a block (or even a hundred yards as I've seen people do) to catch a cab during rush hour.

Shifting back to the last topic of "herd mentality", by living in NYC and subjecting yourself to paying a premium to live like that (which reads absurd now that I'm not living there anymore) aren't you part of a different side of that same herd mentality coin?

egretman

Man, you could fill a teaspoon with the integrity of this concept.

Mind if I steal that line?

lehong

In my reply to the bus stop entry, I speculated that the cheating label evolved to punish individuals who increase their own utility at the expense of overall group utility. In other words, individuals who increase their piece of the pie while causing the overall pie to shrink.

I would label this cheating for the exact same reason. By skewing reviews, the individual gets a short term boost but the usefullness of the review site decreases. The long term equilibrium is that everyone who publishes a book spends an extra 10k to artifically boost it, or consumers comb through each review looking for signs of artificial ratings. Either way, real ratings go back to roughly how they used to be, and extra costs are imposed on both publishers and consumers.

As a society, this is not a desirable outcome, so the "cheater" (and other) labels have evolved to punish individuals, and to some degree avoid the tragedy of the commons.

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CrunchyFrog

Back to that blog about the scarcity of comments - I meant what lehong said, but my French major brain wasn't nearly as good at saying it, which makes me reluctant to comment.

Jennifer42

"Either way, real ratings go back to roughly how they used to be, and extra costs are imposed on both publishers and consumers."

Yep- there are a handful of notorious authors on Amazon who have tried to game the ratings, but people always seem to see through it.

dyland

It's always been the case that marketing spend has influenced behaviour, everything from which beer you drink to what soap you use. If it didn't then marketers would stop doing it.

I work in Internet Marketing and buying links is seen as cheating by the search engines as it artificially increases the site's rankings. The search engines have ways of punishing sites for buying links - shouldn't Amazon have some similar system. If it sees an email blast about a book, it could discount the sales for that book for the next week. But then you start hitting the issues of what's a bought recommendation, and which one's are legitimate recommendations. Do adverts on TV cause the book sales to be discounted because the encourage people to buy the book?

bluepenguin

I don't think we'd ever get agreement on where the legitimate/cheating line is. I do think it points, however, to a declining value in "word of mouth."

The reason the NY Times best seller list means anything is because it reflects some reality of what people really believe. If someone's gaming the system, sooner or later we all stop paying attention to that metric.

GreatObserver

I'm still waiting for you guys to reveal what “clever marketing” you used to keep Freakonomics on the best seller list for sooo long.

Acrobat

Isn't the easiest way to be on the best-seller's list just to write a really good book? Or am I being excessively simplistic here?

(Perhaps "easiest" is the wrong word...would "most effective" work better?)

On the other hand, didn't someone once say "It's only cheating if you get caught..."

MoreCowbell

Is this really any different from the practices of traditional publishing outlets? I always assumed that these backdoor dealings were common knowledge.

When you walk into Barnes and Noble, the prominently displayed books are not there by accident. Publishing outlets engineer agreements with vendors for the display of the books as a method to drum up sales. Sure, theoretically they advocate the "good ones." But this undeniably gives some authors a significant advantage over others.

jmessick

REO Speedwagon has a new CD coming out next month that they've been promoting pretty heavily on their email list. They are also apparently looking for heavy first-day sales by packing a bonus CD and DVD for no extra cost at Walmart. I figured this was a way to debut high on the charts and maybe generate some attention. Not a bad ploy, like the bum-run of iTunes some bloggers and others were promoting for an unsigned artist earlier this week.

tony_M

I have to disagree with this:
"It was interesting to me that in (the) post about optimizing my bus commute, a few commenters thought I was a cheat for walking to a better bus stop."

Actually, not a single commenter thought it was cheating. There were only people speculating that others might consider it cheating, and none of those commenters seemed to imply this was a legitimate viewpoint.

pkimelma

I think you really have to look at what you mean by cheating. Trying to game a system is a kind of cheating I suppose, but the Amazon lists are both very artificial and made easy to game. Unlike a "best seller list" published in a newspaper, they represent a short window.
What this really says is that Amazon needs to do a better job of this. A rolling average (window of 3 days for example) would get rid of the spikes and give you a reasonable sustained number. By also showing trends (what it was 3 days ago), you can gain far more information as a consumer, and it becomes very hard to game.

makfan

In San Francisco, the subway lines converge downtown (the east side of the city). All but one line ends at the eastern most station, while one line continues out of the subway for a few stops. As trains turn back and return outbound in the evening, they quickly fill up. Often, one canot even get on the train after the third station (Powell for those who know SF). Is it cheating to walk one of the earlier stations, as a way of making it more likely to actually be able to board one of the trains? I often do that. I think it is just a way of coping with a poorly design system.

ManipulationNation

I would call it "gaming the system," or manipulation, but not cheating. People with money or organizations with power (like publishers) are able to take advantage of the system. In fact, a lot of systems are set up so that people/organizations with money or power will win. Example 1: In "Price of Admission," Daniel Golden says that about 30% of students at the elite universities are there because of parents with power, are in a position to contribute to the school, attended the school, or are teaching or "administering" at the school. Example 2: People with "connections" have a higher probability of getting jobs than people without connections.

The redeeming virtue of paying up to $15k to get attention for being a bestseller is that it becomes possible for a so-called little guy to beat the system. But that stretches the definition of "little guy."

I can't imagine even 1% of the population thinking that walking further to a bus stop to get a better seat being cheating. That's showing ingenuity and being industrious in my book.

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stuart

This is totally cheating. The best seller chart works on the sampling basis - if you game the sample the whole thing becomes nonsensical.

wprestong

I don't think you can really pin this down as an economic question without taking the prices of the books into account. (If they had advertising in them, you would also have to take that into account.) The feedback that you would get in other markets due to pricing is obscured here. (You can get some idea by looking at the used-copy price of bestsellers on Amazon, but it can also be misleading. Books I'd call great can also be cheap if teachers assign them for classes and then the students dump them afterwards.)